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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Showrunner Michelle Ashford talks Masters Of Sex

Illustration for article titled Showrunner Michelle Ashford talks Masters Of Sex

Michelle Ashford has been writing for television since the late ’80s, when she got her first credits on Hollywood Beat and Cagney And Lacey, before contributing several scripts to 21 Jump Street. Since then, she’s pursued an eclectic mix of some of the best dramas of their time—including Boomtown—and HBO’s historically based miniseries, including John Adams and The Pacific (for which she received an Emmy nomination). All of that made her an almost perfect choice to shepherd Thomas Maier’s biography of the famous sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters Of Sex, to the small screen as a Showtime drama series. In its first season, the show charted new territory for cable dramas, trying to build an unlikely combination of medical procedural, literal science fiction (i.e., fiction about the process of doing science), and small-scale character study of the people both in and around Masters and Johnson’s study. As that first season continued, it grew into something of surprising depth and intimacy, and it became less a series about sex and research and more about repression and the cost of being honest with oneself. Ashford recently talked with The A.V. Club about the process of making that first season, her thoughts on her two main characters, and what the future of the show looks like.


The A.V. Club: When you approach the making an ongoing TV show where you have to invent storylines about real people who actually existed, do you have boundaries for what you can and can’t do?

Michelle Ashford: I do. Some of it is just instinct, but I did want it to be as accurate as humanly possible. I didn’t ever want to deviate from facts on the research. Especially the conclusions that they drew and the kind of work that they were doing, I really was insistent that all of that was real. You get an idea of, “Oh my God, this is what they were actually doing.” That’s all true. 

All the milestones in their lives needed to be accurate, and a lot of dates needed to be accurate. For example, the first book that they published, Human Sexual Response, came out in 1966, and I would never fudge that date. The major facts of their lives—even some of the minor facts of their lives, lots of very specific details that actually happened—are all in there.

Where I felt okay taking some license was shifting the timelines of when things happened, as long as I get the facts the same. For example, when Masters and Johnson met, Bill Masters already had two kids. The reason for shifting all that infertility up into the same timeframe as when they met is because our series really had to start with Masters and Johnson. But I thought it was really interesting to see what was going on in the Masters’ marriage, with the wife so compelled to make a family, and why that was important. And so you’re seeing these two things concurrently. 

The other place where there’s some license taken—and some of this is for legal reasons, but also artistic ones—is the people that populate the world around Masters, Johnson, and Libby. There are some characters that were in their world that we simply can’t take and represent because we’d be in legal trouble. So some of them are combined for that reason. But a lot of them are just about taking the temperature of the people that were around and combining them in interesting ways. For example, there were two mentor-type figures for Masters when he was an OB-GYN, and one of them did turn out to be closeted, so we’ve sort of taken bits and pieces of some of those guys and combined them. I took liberties with that as well.

AVC: The season finale blows the show’s world up in a lot of ways but, at the same time, any of us can go to the Wikipedia page of these two people, so we know they’re going to eventually end up working on this study again. How constrained do you feel by that as a storyteller?

MA: It’s a really curious thing. I got very excited about the notion of doing it, because in the last 10 years, I’ve written a lot of non-fiction and come to really love it. I always got so much more excited about real stories than fictional ones. I didn’t know anything about them until I read Tom Maier’s book, and so I thought, “Wow, what a wild story, and I’ll bet you nobody knows this story.” Then after five seconds I thought, “Oh, wait a minute, five-second Google, and everyone is going to know your story. How do you build suspense?” So pretty early on I decided, “Well, okay, it won’t be the ‘what.’ The ‘what’ is not going to be ‘what is going to happen next.’ That’s not going to be the thing that compels people to stick with this show. It has to be how. How did it happen?”

So as you saw from the ending of season one, I thought, “Okay, well, hopefully that will be compelling.” They flamed out in a spectacular way. How did they proceed from there? How did they manage to pull their act together and go forward with this study? The “how” question has to be interesting, not the “what.”

AVC: How much have you worked with Thomas Maier? He tweets about the show a lot. 

MA: [Laughs.] Yes, he does. We talk a lot. He’s sent me a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the book, pages and notes and whatnot. But the truth is, everything he knew, more or less, he put in that book. We do use the book a lot, and he’s been fantastically supportive. But it’s not like he sits in the room with us, breaking story. Every once in a while I will run stuff by him and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” But for the most part, he’s just been a fantastic cheerleader. He did a really thorough job of researching, so we’re lucky—a lot of this is laid out. 

AVC: Were you able to talk with the real Virginia Johnson?

MA: When Tom wrote his book—Masters died in 2001—Johnson was in assisted living in St. Louis, so once I got going on this, I was very excited about the thought of meeting her. It turns out she didn’t really reciprocate the enthusiasm. When she sat down to talk to Tom about this material, she had never spoken about this, and no one had ever revealed how their relationship started, what it was all about, how long it went on, none of that. So she just bared her soul to Tom, and I think, being a woman at that point in her 80s, she just thought, “That’s it. I don’t want to do this anymore.” When she found out this was a TV series, I think she just envisioned massive intrusion into her personal life. She just said, “I really don’t want to have anything to do with it.” So I didn’t meet her when I was doing all the research and all the writing of the pilot. And then of course we made the pilot, and then Lizzy Caplan became as obsessed as I was about wanting to meet her. Lizzy really made every effort, I think, and wrote her notes. But she just didn’t come around, and then she died in July. We were really sad about that. Sad for her and her family, but it was like, wow, now the door is really closed.

AVC: One of the things about this season is that it sort of places Virginia on a pedestal, all of these people looking at her and either being impressed by her or taken aback by her. How did you decide to make that choice with that character?

MA: A lot of it comes from reading that book and saying, “Okay, what was the essential truth here? What was really going on?” and one of the things that was very clear that was true about Virginia Johnson is that she was really unusual. She just gave off this impression of being incredibly comfortable with this material, which is one of the reasons Masters gravitated to her so strongly. In terms of the study, she was just unbelievably comfortable with talking about sex and, of course, we knew she was incredibly comfortable sexually herself and had many lovers. She just seemed to have none of the period-appropriate hang-ups that women were struggling with. She was really confident and comfortable—and it was very unusual for the 1950s, but it would be even slightly remarkable now. So she did have a quality that made her different, and when she went out to recruit, she was able to convince women in the ’50s to go into these labs and get naked and have sex. It was really curious. I think it became very clear one of the ways she did that is really inspired them in terms of, “This is for the greater good. What we’re doing here is really significant and important. It’s about changing the world.” So these women felt like pioneers and political activists, in addition to all the more complicated reasons people went in this study. I think she definitely had a magnetism.

It’s funny because someone said at one point, “Oh my God, what is it, the magic vagina or something?” I really don’t want that to be the impression. In fact, she’s going to get kicked around fairly badly as the years progress. It’s not a golden halo that is never punctured. The thing about men looking at her this way—it has a lot to do with what men project onto women, not necessarily what the woman herself is about. I think one of the things we want to show is that a lot of this notion of her being so together is not true of the woman, actually. She did have this wonderfully warm and confident exterior, but it was way more complicated than that, and when people do put stuff onto her, it’s really more about them and not her. So that’s one of the things we’re going to explore. 

AVC: What were you hoping to say about Bill Masters in this first season?

MA: Again, you really have to comb through that material carefully and think, “What essentially was going on with him?” The fact that he came from a massively abusive childhood where he was basically forced out on his own when he was 15 and just suffered terribly. The thought that he just pulled himself up by his bootstraps in such a remarkable way, became hyper-masculine, and he did things like parachuting, and he was a boxer. He was a very curious man. But one of the things—and Michael Sheen and I talked about this a lot—the man is like a series of Russian nesting dolls, and all these layers of armor were so essential for him to function. He was dealing with such deficits in many ways that he just became this sort of man of steel, and that was how he was able to proceed. But there’s such deep wounds inside, and what has happened—and I believe this to be true of them but I believe this to be true in life—is that sometimes you run across someone who taps something so deeply subconsciously that an unraveling occurs, breaking through all this armor, and I think that’s what happened with Virginia Johnson. I think he had been compelled toward this work before he met her, so you have to look at why. I think it really holds together that he was so desperate for some sense of intimacy and connection, and when he looked at sex, he thought the key must be in there somewhere because it is so physically intimate and connected. I think it was about a deep, deep need and longing in the man that he was compelled toward this work in the first place, and then when he met her it was just like, “Oh my God, this is the woman that I actually might be able to be more of my essential self with.” I think that’s why the draw toward her is so powerful, aside from the obvious fact that she’s attractive. But I’m sure there’s many, many attractive women in Bill Masters’ life over the years, but I don’t get the impression that he was a cheater at all. Something about this woman was different, and I think it has to do with the chord she struck in him. And he, I think, felt that maybe she was an answer somehow to this incredible longing that really was going on with him.

AVC: What do you see as Libby’s place within the show? She sometimes seems as if she’s off on her own little island.

MA: It’s true. In fact, we were just working on the second season, and again we thought, “Yup. There’s Libby on her island.” And I think one of the reasons it comes out that way is, that when you read Tom’s book—and this is sort of bothering me about the character of Libby, and I will say in that woman’s defense, she was already dead by the time he wrote that book, and I have no idea what that woman’s real voice was like, what her opinion of the whole thing was. We really don’t know, and her children aren’t speaking about it, and who could blame them? So you have to conjecture a lot, but I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten a sense of who that woman was except through Tom’s pages. And there was a passivity about that character that was a little worrying to me because I thought she sounds a little bit like—this sounds very pejorative, but she seemed a little bit like a doormat. And I thought, “I’m not so interested in spending a lot of time writing about a doormat,” but I wanted to start with her in that spot that you had that sense of, “Here is a woman who’d really been raised to be traditional.” But then when we cast Caitlin FitzGerald she said, “Well, I really like this part but I’m just not so sure about Libby, she seems sort of like a doormat.” She said, “I’m not interested in playing that.” And I said, “Luckily I’m not interested in writing it.” 

So what’s sort of come about is, “What would be the most interesting way for a woman to make peace with this bizarre situation she finds herself in?” Because what is very true about Libby and Masters and Johnson is they did, for about 10 years, proceed almost like a three-way marriage. Virginia went everywhere with them, the women would babysit each other’s children, they were friends, there was all this connection and family-like environment around the three of them, which is really weird. So I thought, you can either make her clueless, with her head in the sand, which makes her look slightly dopey, or you can take that character and let her evolve into a woman who makes a conscious choice about why she’s living this life. We decided to go that second route.

AVC: Throughout the season you took so many different directions with stories. There’s so many different moving parts within the show, and you choose to emphasize some at different times. What’s the process of breaking an episode of this show like when there isn’t a reliable template you can look at elsewhere on TV?

MA: I think sometimes we just throw everything up on the wall and say, “Okay, what now?” When I wrote that pilot, I thought, “If this gets picked up, I know what the end of the first season is.” So when it did, I thought, “I know exactly where this is going.” We have 11 episodes, because the pilot’s one, so between the pilot and the end we have 12 episodes to get to that end point. You literally sit in a room with all these boards and all these cards and you just go, “Okay, who do we need to service now? Where should they go?” And so much of this is discovered as you just go through this process of just sitting there talking about these characters and these stories. A lot of it just emerged.

I had a few ideas. I knew that the head of that hospital and Masters’ mentor was going to be gay. I knew that before we started. And there were a couple other things that I was very sure about. I knew that Libby would have a baby by the end of the year because I knew I wanted to see the terrible, terrible struggle that having a baby had been for her and for Masters. So I knew those things, but then a lot of these things just kind of came along.

Once we’d decided the provost, we thought, “Well, if he’s gay, who’s he married to? That’s interesting.” So all of a sudden we thought oh, maybe the wife is this, maybe the wife is that, and then we said, “Well, who would that wife be?” and we thought, “What if it’s Allison Janney?” and then we got very excited. [Laughs.] Once we had her in mind, we were like wild dogs. She felt so besieged because we were just like, “You have to do this part, you have to do this part,” and she’s like, “Well, first of all, I’m not getting naked.” Once she was on board, and she got into the material and hung out with everybody, we had a really happy group. Then by the last episode, she’s like, “When do I get to get naked? Don’t I get to get naked?” So it turned out to be fantastic, but that was just the kind of weird thing of realizing that character needed a wife and then as we were talking about what that would be like we thought, “We’ve never seen Allison Janney play somebody like this, someone so constrained and kind of clueless,” so that’s how that one happened.

AVC: Were there other shows or movies or books that you looked at outside of the Tom Maier book to understand either the time period or how you were going to tell this story?

MA: One of the first things I thought of after I read Tom’s book—and I tried to remain pretty faithful to it, although I think sometimes I’m much darker than that, but I forever have been the hugest fan of the movie Shampoo, and I thought, “I think that’s what the tone of it should be.” It’s a brilliant movie, and I loved the Warren Beatty character just surrounded by women but sort of not getting them, and I said, “Wow, Bill Masters was a little bit like that, though not quite as ebullient a character as that one was.” But certainly there’s a guy in women’s medicine surrounded by a wife and now this secretary and all his patients who really doesn’t get women, and that seemed both funny and interesting. So my first inspiration for a tone was Shampoo.

AVC: You built this really rich ensemble of characters. Were there any that you were surprised by that were intended to be smaller figures and ended up taking on lives of their own?

MA: Definitely the Allison Janney character. The Beau Bridges character, that ended up being much bigger than we thought it was going to be. We brought in the character of Jane, who was a secretary, who ends up really hanging with us for the duration and becomes the central familiar face in that workplace and then ends up working with Virginia and Masters on her own. So Jane turned out to be more than we thought. Dr. Haas ends up with his fiancée, Vivian Scully. We didn’t even know she existed until about an episode before she appeared. We had a lot of surprises with people who just sort of emerged, and we thought, “Oh, we love them.” That has a lot to do with casting, and then once you see the actor embody that person, you think, “Oh, we just want to see this over and over again.” So that happened a lot, actually. 

AVC: You’ve talked about the Scullys quite a bit, but is there a chance that they’ll be back in season two, even though those actors have moved on to other things?

MA: It’s funny, we had Betty the hooker for three episodes last year, and then she had to go do Kinky Boots, and we were bemoaning the loss of Betty because we found her to have a really fun energy. She was a character that we had no intention of bringing back after the pilot, and then once we cast it we thought, “Oh, she’s so much fun.” Then she had to leave. But she’s back now for the entire second season. She’ll be in every episode, and with Allison and Beau. Here’s another thing I discovered only after the end of the first season, which is anybody that’s leaving, I’m really compelled to bring them back in some way. We’ll answer the questions like, “What happened to the Scullys?” but I think there’s a little bit of a pause in that story. Both of them will come back, but they’ll come back in a way that I think will be surprising. Because the thing is, we have to move through time. So even in this second season, we’re going to move through more time than we did in the first. That actually, in an odd way, allows for characters to come back having reinvented themselves in ways that will be, I hope, really interesting. 

AVC: How much time would you hope to cover if the series ran five, six, seven years?

MA: Well, that is sort of the marching order from Sony in terms of a business model, like, “You better start thinking about six years here,” which is, of course, a little daunting. If we go that far it will go to the end of Masters and Johnson’s career and life together. And that’s almost 30 years, which is really a long journey for a series. I think Breaking Bad was maybe at the most two years, and Mad Men seems to be going from 1960 to maybe 1970, so that’s 10 years, but 30 is like… And also you have the problem of there is no series on Earth—nor do I think probably ever will be—that is centered around two 70-year-olds. So that becomes sort of an odd challenge. 

But because the show seems to have settled in and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for at least a little while, I did start thinking about this, and I thought, “Oh, there might be a really, really interesting way to go the whole distance with their lives and their careers but structurally towards the end start playing with it in a way that is just a surprise.” If we go that far, I don’t think the last season would be a chronological, “Okay, here they are. They’re old now. Let’s just see how this all plays out.” I don’t think it would go down that way.

AVC: We see quite a bit of female nudity, but very little in the way of male nudity. Is that a thing that’s forced on you by the network or studio, or is that a conscious choice?

MA: No, not at all. The great thing about where we are in terms of on the dial, we never get notes like that. We can do pretty much anything we want. It’s interesting. I think it has a lot to do with just gut reaction on my part to things that make me uncomfortable, or don’t make me uncomfortable, like that’s the only barometer I can go on. I think I have to say it’s just a gut thing when I see something, and I go, “I don’t want to look at that.” I mean, I know it does seem like we have a lot of female nudity, and we do, but so much of it got left on the floor, if you can believe that. 

In terms of male nudity, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a victim of the same kind of conditioning of “Why do we never really see male nudity in movies or television?” I can’t explain it. But you know what? Here’s what I don’t want to do: I don’t want someone to say to me, “Well, when are you going to full-frontal male nudity?” It’s really not a box I’m inclined to check off just to be able to check off a box. [Laughs.] But I actually appreciate being reminded of it, because it makes me think, “Well, when we do come around to those kinds of things, let’s look at it, and see why are we portraying it that way.” Although, to be honest with you, I’m not sure if Showtime would be okay with full male frontal nudity. I’ve never really asked that. 

AVC: When you look back at season one are there moments and episodes you’re particularly proud of and think were really well realized, and then are there maybe some that didn’t quite work as well as you’d liked?

MA: I think that’s always true. I can’t get too specific about stuff I feel didn’t go right, because I wouldn’t want any actor to think that was their problem. But I did think the story of the Scullys was really great. I just loved it, because I felt so terribly for both of them, and I thought, “Wow, I created it, and I’m actually really compelled by what’s happening to them.” So I thought that must be a good sign. I think the evolution of that work and how it went from this incredibly strained and confusing and weird proposition in the pilot to the two of them ending up working together in that way and how Virginia blossomed into that work in a way that that proposition no longer even felt like a proposition or felt threatening. I thought that was interesting.

I feel like I’m interested in a lot of it. Sometimes stories start, and we kind of ask, “Ooh, what happened to that story?” So I hope we didn’t do too much of it. I hope we serviced the story of Masters backstory. Maybe we sort of dipped in and out of that in a way that left everyone more confused than clarified. It’s hard to say. 

AVC: What are you looking at for season two?

MA: Well, the hospital, which was true to life—Masters did make his presentation at Washington University, and it did go very, very badly. It took longer than it did in our show, but he did eventually have to leave, and he went and had to open his own practice. The weird thing about our show is every year is going to change pretty radically. Their lives and their careers really went through major transitions, and so the show is going to have this weird quality of feeling different every season. It won’t be like with Mad Men where you’re always coming back to the ad agency. This takes these very odd turns, so the hospital is done, and what you need to see is that they went out on their own. So that is what season two is about. How they get there and what form it takes, hopefully, will be interesting. They’re just embarking now on the second phase of their career. And, of course, their lives together.

But there will be a very different cast of characters. A few characters will stay the same and come along, but there’s going to be a whole different world that opens up as a result of their moving. The world has a little bit more to do with the outside world coming in. Very slowly, the outside world is more and more going to seep in because, in fact, they ended up on the cover of Time magazine. They became very public figures and very much a part of what was going on culturally, and so one of our huge challenges is, “How do we tell that story and not feel like it’s some kind of commentary on the bigger world? How do we make it intimate and personal to them?” But it is true that the real world started to intrude in a big way.