Writing, "Nashville" Style

Todd Ellis Kessler, A80, talks about what it’s like to write for the hit TV drama

Todd Ellis Kessler

Todd Ellis Kessler, A80, a veteran Hollywood television writer, is now writing for the hit ABC drama Nashville. Not since Robert Altman’s classic 1970s film of the same name has a visual narrative so closely captured the zeitgeist of Music City. And like its cinematic predecessor, it also features original music.

Previously, Kessler was a producer and writer for a number of other series, including The Practice, Crossing Jordan, The Unit and The Good Wife.

Communications and Media Studies director Julie Dobrow recently interviewed Kessler about his new venture.

Julie Dobrow: You’ve been involved with a lot of other television projects. What makes Nashville special?

Todd Ellis Kessler: Unlike most series, the personality of the location is almost as important as our main characters. Being a Yankee, I had little experience in the South, so capturing the spirit of the city and the music industry, which informs so much about the area, was a new challenge. It’s gratifying that most people in Nashville love the series and feel that it is authentic. Considering that we write the show from Los Angeles, this is a supreme compliment.

What are some of the challenges/opportunities of writing for a show where songs play such a central role?

Nashville is a special opportunity because each episode incorporates original music as an added device for storytelling. We try to find the right song with the right tone to match both the story and the emotions of our main characters. I certainly never had a chance to try that with lawyers and doctors.

You co-wrote the episode in which Juliette blows her Good Morning America interview. How did this idea come about, and how did you get Robin Roberts on board for it?

Our main characters are famous country singers, so we needed to put them in the same media circus as any real celebrity. Everything that celebrities do today is tracked and commented on by Twitter, Facebook and the 24/7 news cycle, and we wanted to dramatize that aspect and how it affects their personal lives. Having the support of our network, ABC, helped us reach out to Good Morning America and The Katie Couric Show. It also helped that Katie Couric personally loves Nashville.

You also co-wrote the episode in which we see many different sides of Rayna—her hurt about Teddy and Peggy, her need to “take a vacation from her life” with Liam, her love for Deacon, which she’s still trying to keep under wraps. What do you have to do to keep writing your lead characters, Rayna and Juliette, as nuanced, complex women who are so much more than their onstage presences?

Each episode is the product of lengthy conversations among the entire writing staff. Collectively, we play psychologist as we analyze their motivation in each scene, just as all writers do. We also bring our own personal horror stories and those of everyone we know to the discussion. Nothing is sacred in the writers’ room, and every biographical detail is fuel for material. We just change the names to protect the innocent.

Connie Britton’s influence on Rayna’s character has received a fair amount of media play. To what extent do the writers work with the actors on issues of character development?

We get feedback from all the actors—particularly Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere—who bring their own point of view on how the characters would handle each situation. Sometimes the conversations are confrontational, but inevitably they are constructive. Connie has strong opinions, but then so does her character Rayna Jaymes. Sometimes they even feel like one and the same. But constant collaboration between writers and actors makes for good, complicated situations and complex results.

Are you a country music fan? Were you before this show?

I never ever listened to country music before joining the series, but now it’s one of the presets on my car radio. I always write with music because it’s like a soundtrack that keeps me in the right zone for the scenes, so I can proudly claim that I know the difference between songs by Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney or Hunter Hayes...I just can’t sing them!

This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the Communications and Media Studies newsletter. To subscribe to it, contact Julie Dobrow, who can be reached at julie.dobrow@tufts.edu.  

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