A lot goes into making a television show. From the actors to the gaffers to the editors, every show is a ship, and every ship needs a captain. That captain is often called a showrunner, and one of genre television’s most successful is Sera Gamble.
Sera’s Hollywood career began in reality television but quickly moved to genre when she became a writer and script editor for Supernatural. Since then, she has gone on to not only become showrunner of Supernatural, but also of SyFy’s The Magicians and is now executive producing Lifetime’s new drama, You, based on the book series by Caroline Kepnes.
In this three part series, Nerds and Beyond sits down with Sera to discuss her career, her latest project, You, and what to expect on season 4 of The Magicians. Make sure to follow @nerdsandbeyond on Twitter to catch each installment.
In part one, we discuss how Sera got to be a showrunner, what the job entails, her time on Supernatural, and the power of fandom. Check it out below!
Nerds and Beyond: What exactly does it mean to be a showrunner?
Sera Gamble: Often times, showrunners start as staff writers, and then as we gain more and more responsibility, we’re producing the shows that we’re writing. A showrunner’s job is kind of in the name – they run the show. It’s everything from writing the scripts all the way to what the cut looks like before it airs. These are stories that are being told over a long period of time so you really need to have someone in charge that understands the story that you’re telling and who can keep an eye on all of the component parts.
N&B: How did you get involved in the television industry?
SG: Uh, I went on reality TV. (laughs) I was a actor and a screenwriter and was writing with a partner named Raelle Tucker who is also a showrunner now. We were just trying to get our foot in the door and were advised by people who were a little bit further on in the industry that we should at least start to put our scripts in competitions. We had a couple of scripts and we put them in a couple competitions. One of the competitions was Project Greenlight, which was in its second season on HBO at the time. We lost, but happily, because we got an agent out of the experience. She said to us, “as you are developing features, which take a long time, why don’t you think about writing some television specs so that we can see if we can staff you and you can have gainful employment.” She also had the suspicion we were well suited to that world. So really it was a practical decision in that moment, but as soon as I started working in TV I realized that this is a good home for me and my personality is well suited to the pace of TV and the collaboration, so it worked out.
N&B: What is the hardest decision you have had to make as showrunner and how do you handle making those decisions?
SG: The most important decision that you start with is always casting. Who plays the role makes all the difference in the world. I mean, think of any of your favorite shows and then imagine other people in those roles. So you hope all of the people involved in casting have equally fantastic instincts about the characters and the story.
Making the kind of TV shows I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of in the last few years, these are not the kind of shows that are so massive and have such rarified budgets that they’re practically feature films. We’re making television in the trenches. Our budgets are modest and our timelines are tight. I love creating in a space like that. I love collaborating in a space like that where our resources are precious and we have to tell the absolute best story we can and there’s no room for bloat anywhere. But that does mean that everyday we have to “kill our darlings.” If there’s something we love, but it’s expensive and it’s not absolutely necessary, it will die a very quick death. (laughs)
I want to stress – it’s really good for the stories. It’s really good everyday to have to sit down and ask yourself, “Why are we telling this story? Why are we doing this scene? Why does it have to be here? Why do all of these people need to be in the scene?” For The Magicians, it’s often, “Do we really need this magical creature and how much do we need to see of it?” and for You it was a lot of, “We are shooting in NYC, that is a complicated beautiful difficult place to shoot. We really have to maximize scope when we have it.” That’s really what it feels like to produce a show.
N&B: One of the shows you were a showrunner for was Supernatural. What was it like stepping into that role on the show?
SG: It was such a huge opportunity. Making that step up into from being an executive producer who is essentially the #2 on a TV show to the #1 spot is a hard transition to make. For really good reasons, studios don’t just let anyone run a show. They really have to know that you’re not going to crash the giant ship, because they are spending tens of millions of dollars in a very short period of time. They really need to know that you understand the job and that, in not so many words, you’re not going to f*ck it up.
When the opportunity was presented to me by Eric Kripke, who was leaving the show, to step into his role, (as much as anyone can step into a role previously inhabited by the creator) I knew in that moment he was giving me an opportunity to really change the course of my career. If I said yes, I knew if I could pull it off I would have credibility to say, “This is a show I want to create and I’m prepared to run it myself.” I took it really, really seriously from the beginning. This is a show that has survived so many years because it has a really intense, really dedicated fandom. And we have always taken that really seriously. I wanted to do right by the people who had been watching the show and who kind of saved it from cancellation every year for the first four seasons. I wanted to try to continue in the footsteps of Eric in that I wanted to honor his vision for the show and what his priorities were in storytelling, which were something I had internalized by working alongside him everyday for four or five years.
N&B: Do you have a favorite episode from the seasons you were showrunner of?
SG: There were a lot that were such a pleasure. Ben Edlund wrote that incredibly meta episode “The French Mistake” where the boys are blasted into a place where Jared and Jensen are actors playing Sam and Dean, and that one was a delight from start to finish. In terms of getting to write some of the story myself, I had a particularly strong attachment to the episode where Bobby singer gets shot. That was one that really meant a lot to me. I really enjoyed working with Jim Beaver and I knew this was a part of the story that was meaningful and that we didn’t want to just toss it off. It was an opportunity to do something really fun and different with the storytelling. And everybody’s performances in that episode were tremendous, so that’s one I was really proud of.
N&B: That was the first episode I really cried at the first time watching the show.
SG: Can I be honest? I love making people cry. (laughs) I mean, not in real life, only with scripts. But I love watching TV, and feeling moved and kind of misting up. If I’m sitting next to someone I have to fake like I’m not about to cry (laughs) And I love doing it to other people to.
N&B: Do you have any favorite moments from the set when you were showrunning?
SG: It was a while ago, but I mean my favorite moments on any set are when you can really feel it when everyone is on the same page. Supernatural had early on set a bar where you don’t always want to go for the most straight forward way of telling especially an emotional story. So when you’re standing on a set and you have written something that is maybe a little bit complicated or unusual, and you watch the scene up on its feet, and watch everyone be on the same page, and felt the set get a little bit quiet because everyone is now paying attention, and they feel that something real is happening between the characters in that moment, that’s incredibly fulfilling. It’s a moment in the making of TV that feels a little bit like live theater to me. I hope that that feeling translates for viewers when they watch it at home, that there’s some kind of mystical feeling and you’re feeling a moment happen in real time.
N&B: You have worked on multiple science fiction/fantasy shows, which have brought you right up close with the world of fandom. What impact has fandom had on you and what impact do you think fandom has on people in general?
SG: There’s something about following the storyline of fantasy and science fiction storytelling that makes avid viewers want to talk to one another, and a community can form if you’re lucky and fortunate. We’re in a much more connected age than we were when I was a little kid and I was watching Star Trek reruns or Twin Peaks. Among my friends in real life, we would talk about episodes after we had watched them. There’s not much difference between me and the people in the audience at these conventions because I get very passionate about stories that I love and characters that I relate to. I’ve been doing Comic Con since the early days of Supernatural, and I love it. I feel like it’s my tribe. And Comic Con is good because it’s like the direct transmission. It’s that moment in the year where we’re all in the same place at the same time. For me, there’s no better feeling than to be in a room full of people who are unabashedly just embracing what they love.
N&B: Finally, what would your lightsaber color be?
SG: I want a magenta lightsaber because I want people to be really on the fence as to whether I’m evil, or just doing bad things for good reasons like Professor Snape. That’s kind of my vibe.
Stay tuned on Sunday, September 9 for Part Two of “Storytelling with Sera Gamble,” an in depth look at the new Lifetime series, You, premiering later that day on Lifetime at 10/9c.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.