Producer Spotlight: ShondaLand's Pete Nowalk Dishes on How to Get Away With Murder
Rare is the episode of ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder (which returns Thursday, Jan. 26, 10/9c, ABC) that doesn’t deliver at least one jaw-dropping shock—the kind that sends social media into a frenzy and leaves fans breathlessly, sometimes furiously, waiting for the next installment. What makes creator and executive producer Pete Nowalk, a Shonda Rhimes protégé, live so dangerously?
The murder of Alfred Enoch’s popular Wes character last November triggered a Twitter firestorm. How do you handle such uproar? Not too well! [Laughs] I knew people would be upset but didn’t anticipate the level of anger—a lot aimed personally at me—to the point where I had to stay off social media for a while. The good thing is, people care.
When will we learn who did the deed? We have six episodes left this season, and each turns over a card in the “Who killed Wes?” mystery. There’s a lot more Wes story left to tell in flashbacks—that’s the only thing that made killing him off easier. And there’s a lot of mourning. Some characters act out, some grow internal and sad, some don’t know how to feel. Then there’s Annalise [Viola Davis], who is in jail for the murder. There is nothing typical about Annalise, including her grief process.
There’s huge Oscar buzz around Davis’s work in Fences. Are you worried about hanging on to her? Viola is so talented we all have to keep upping our game in order to keep up with her. We don’t want people saying, “Oh, poor Viola is stuck on a TV series!” We want this experience to be enticing for her, and that’s the hardest part of my job.
You push envelopes we didn’t know existed. Do you ever wish the show was on cable? Only sometimes. I wish we could use certain curse words. [Laughs] It’s almost unnatural to say “Damn it!” as often as we do. But I’m that rare TV producer who prefers to be at a network. Having to write in and out of commercials makes me a better storyteller. We need not just one cliffhanger per hour, but several.
What advice would you give aspiring writer-producers? It comes from Mark Wilding, now the executive producer of Scandal, who was supervising me back when I was a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. One night at midnight he could see I was feeling down about a script and really doubting myself. He said, “Ninety percent of this job is perseverance. It’s not about talent or brilliance. You have to keep going.” And I still rely on that wisdom every day. It’s great advice for writers and great advice for life.