(Featured image courtesy of HBO)
Beyond the writers and directors, there’s often just a couple people at a network who are behind all of your favorite shows. Kathleen McCaffrey, Senior Vice President of Programming at HBO, is one of those people. Having worked on Euphoria, I Know This Much Is True, The Deuce, and Gentleman Jack (among many others), she’s been involved in many of the most prominent projects to come out of the network in the past few years.
TV Wasteland sat down with McCaffrey to discuss what her job entails, the process of working on the enormous teen series Euphoria, and how HBO sets itself apart from other networks or services.
At HBO, a typical day for McCaffrey looks like… nothing. “No one day is typical, I think, when you have a job that is driven by production.” Right now, McCaffrey is the point executive on I Know This Much Is True, Perry Mason, and Lovecraft Country. The workload of your day depends on what you have in production, and “right now, things are pretty insane” for her because of that upcoming slate. “I sort of oversee everything that’s going on. We’re kind of like the den mothers of every show, with our hands in every part of the process, which is kind of unique actually, to HBO, where our team is sort of across everything.” It can be overwhelming, but she noted how gratifying it is to see new premieres on Sunday nights and see how many people enjoy those shows.
One of the most significant projects McCaffrey has worked on was the insanely popular series Euphoria. The Zendaya starrer was unique for HBO, as they had never really done a big show for and about teenagers before. What a lot of people don’t know is that the series is actually a loose adaptation of an Israeli miniseries. “Francesca Orsi, who is now the head of drama, and I, and Casey Bloys, who’s the president of programming, heard a pitch from a writer who came in with the format. There’s an agent named Adam Berkowitz, and one of his specialties is Israeli formats, so he had a lot of contacts there.” This writer brought in a format for an adaptation that would focus on the eighties’ New York City club scene. HBO was looking to do something more for a younger audience, and after a junior executive remembered reading the script for Assassination Nation, Sam Levinson was brought into the conversation. “Sam was able to come up with his own thing, which is of course always a dream when you’re finding someone to adapt something. We could have always aired the actual format, but we wanted our own spin on it, and Sam really delivered. He made it his own.” This jump obviously paid off, as Euphoria has been hailed for its darkly realistic portrayal of teenage life.
While they wanted a big name to lead the show and draw in audiences (eventually found in the beloved Spider-Man star Zendaya), the team then “hit the streets with a very grassroots kind of casting process. We really wanted to find people who felt like real teenagers.” Eventually, names like Jacob Elordi, Alexa Demie, Hunter Schafer, Barbie Ferreira, and Sydney Sweeney filled out the cast. It turned out that many cast members hadn’t had much acting experience before, but it turned out to be a gift to watch everyone learn and adapt from each other on set. “It was a very familial set, and everyone felt very safe doing something they had never done before.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Euphoria, beyond its depictions of underage drinking and sex, are the visuals. It’s a stunning show, utilizing long takes, creative cinematography, and saturated color palettes that are rare in teen-focused content. “I admire his brain,” McCaffrey said about Levinson. “He must be exhausted… Sam is an ideas man; he would sleep and wake up with this bonkers idea, like a rotating room, and we’d be like ‘Oh my god, this is so crazy.’” However, one of Levinson’s talents was getting things done in an economic way. Some of his ideas of rotating rooms and elaborate sets sounded off-the-wall, and McCaffrey was admittedly a little nervous at first, but he never pitched anything he couldn’t reasonably support and create without breaking the bank. “There was a lot of rehearsal and a lot of: ‘Trust me, you’ll see.’ And we do.”
When asked about if she expected that it would be such a massive hit, McCaffrey related that she actually kind of did. “You never can predict what’s going to hit, but you know when you have something special. This was all the right ingredients, and even if it’s not exactly the cake you were intending to make, if it speaks to you, that’s the kind of thing that will shock you.” As an executive, it’s easy for her to recognize a show she loves, and more often than not, there’s going to be someone out there who loves it in the same way.
One of the things HBO is known for is giving showrunners a lot of latitude. It’s the reason their slate is known for such diverse and unique content. Watchmen, Veep, The Comeback, and The Sopranos could all probably never come from one mind, and that’s part of their goal. “Part of the reason we give showrunners a lot of latitude is because we have really long relationships with them, and we then trust each other and it becomes really like a family.” McCaffrey recalled working with David Simon and working really hard to establish a rapport with him. “Once I did, then we got into a groove, and now we have a shorthand.” That intimate connection is essential for trust and collaboration. It became the same way with Levinson, so now when he has an idea for a four-minute tracking shot traveling all the way through a carnival, there’s a mutual understanding. All that simply comes from talking to each other as human beings and really building on that interpersonal connection. “You care about each other, and then you are creatively beneficial to each other.”
There’s been a rising trend lately where TikTok and Instagram influencers have started to be signed to big talent agencies, notably Charli and Dixie D’Amelio who recently signed with UTA in January. While part of Hollywood is resistant to the new type of talent, McCaffrey admitted that while she is a dedicated planner, “there’s no point in having a plan. Great ideas come from anywhere.” She cited Issa Rae as an example. Webisodes had their moment, and Insecure got picked up to series after Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl turned out to be a hit. “We as executives can’t be closed off to anything. I really believe that ideas can come in any form and can evolve into something.” There’s always some new form of exciting, new content out there, and it’s the job of the executive to recognize what could have the potential to touch people through story.
Of course, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shifted HBO’s (and every other network’s) priorities quite a bit. Many things will have to be shifted or turned around, but the network does have a plan for 2021. “We’re looking into trying to do at least more COVID-friendly productions until we figure out how to get our bigger projects up and running again. What can we shoot now that has very minimal crew, very minimal actors, no sex, no parties, nothing where anything can be spread?” There are countless new guidelines coming out for how set life should be handled. For example, makeup artists will have to throw out their brushes after using them once, or at craft services, people will only be able to take individually-wrapped snacks. They’re currently looking at bringing back some shows with low production value that will require as few people on set as possible, as shows like Westworld will likely have much longer hiatuses than originally anticipated.
One of the biggest things about the business is competition. Big Little Lies was a huge package that became a very hot property, spurring nearly everyone to get their hands on trying to pick it up for themselves. The people at HBO do like to be competitive, but they try not to make it dictate every decision. “Mostly we really like to still take it old school and develop our own things and keep our eyes on our own paper. As long as TV’s doing well, we’re all doing well.” One of the reasons HBO has produced decades of fresh, exciting content is that they’ve stayed ahead of the curve and done things that no one else would even think to do.
HBO has signed a lot of overall deals in the past year, especially through their new streaming service HBO Max, ranging from Nathan Fielder (creator and star of Nathan for You) to Jesse Armstrong (Emmy-winning creator of Succession). When asked about what creator she was most excited to work with in the future, McCaffrey said Derek Cianfrance. Cianfrance’s first show for HBO, the Mark Ruffalo-starring miniseries I Know This Much Is True, just ended its run, but he’ll be developing more projects for HBO in the future. “The process of working on I Know This Much Is True was such a wonderful, human process. He has a giant heart… It’s very rare to find someone who is not only a brilliant artist but also a wonderful human.”
However, she also did note that she’s excited to work with nearly every person that she talks to on the phone. She emphasized that the caliber of talent running through HBO is so high, and she feels so lucky to be able to work with them every day. Being an executive at such a high level is undoubtedly a tough job, but it sounds like if you make the most of it and look at it from the most creative perspective possible (as McCaffrey does), it can be one of the most productive and rewarding jobs in the business.
If you could switch jobs with any other executive or creator for a day, who would it be?
Andy Cohen. All I want to be in life is Andy Cohen. He used to be in my job! He was a development executive at Bravo and gave himself a show, and now I think he’s so cool.
What type of show do you want the industry to be done with?
I think we really have to look at cop shows. I also love SVU, but I feel like that procedural, with the cops as the hero thing needs to be revisited.
Who’s a new creative talent that you think is going to be the next big thing?
A playwright named Chris Gabo. I think he’s a real voice, and I think it’ll be great to have his voice and perspective on our network.
What’s a subject that you’d like to start seeing written about in TV shows?
Maybe I haven’t studied enough shows to know this, but I really always thought that a real show looking at sisters hasn’t been done well, to my knowledge. There’s something about a relationship between two sisters that’s so complicated. I’ve been trying to find that story for a while.
What’s a major change you’d like to see the industry make?
More women in seats of power. More people of color in seats of power. We need all different perspectives coming to the business. It used to be the white dudes were in power because they got there first, but it won’t be that way forever. When I started, it was all dudes, and I don’t think there were any female showrunners on HBO. And now there are many, and now the next phase needs to be people of color. We just have to continue to open the doors. It’s taking a long time, but I do feel inspired by how encouraged everyone is to make change happen.
(Some of these answers were edited for length and/or clarity.)