“This is a story that we have to honor.” Misha Green on Underground
Misha Green discusses making your worst stories better, the importance of strong opinions, and the use of contemporary music in a period show.
Misha Green’s first script landed on the Black List, which led to several writing gigs on shows such as Heroes, Sons of Anarchy, and Helix. Now, with co-creator Joe Pokaski, Green brings us Underground, a thriller about runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, in a country on the brink of Civil War.
The show tells the story of some of America’s first heroes, who were willing to risk their lives along the 600-mile journey to freedom. And with the second season of Underground now available on Hulu, Green believes they have compelling ideas for at least three more seasons, which will take the show well into the Civil War.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Green about making your worst stories better, the importance of strong opinions, and the use of contemporary music in a period show.
Can you share a little about your background?
I grew up in Sacramento, and there’s really nothing exciting to do there. You mine for gold in sixth grade because they have gold in the river, and then its all down hill from there.
But when there’s nothing to do, you start imagining things to do, and imagining other worlds and going to other places.
That kind of storytelling, and my imagination, led me to NYU. There, I realized you can be a screenwriter and write movies, and that’s actually a thing you can do!
There is some real depth to the characters in Underground, both the slaves and slave owners. Where did you begin gathering information?
We started with anything and everything we could find. One of the things was the actual enslaved narratives that are at the Library of Congress. You can hear people who were formerly enslaved telling about their lives in their own words. I think that opened up the world, and turned people into people, who laughed and loved and cried, and also suffered and fought back.
So I think that’s where we really started to find where we wanted to tell this story, which was the story of the Underground Railroad. It’s a story of revolution. It’s a story of American heroes who were the first superheroes. Joe and I both come from genre backgrounds so we realized that this was another story about superheroes that we get to tell.
Then, there’s the continuance where you research and research and research. That never stops.
I’ve read that you and Joe push one another to tell better stories. What exactly does that entail?
We have this method where we set up the scripts, then we swap sides. He rewrites me and I rewrite him, then we swap sides again.
We do the same thing in our writer’s room. We break a story, and if everyone is excited about that, then we break the next story. Then we try to figure out which one is the worst story in there. Then we have to make that a better story.
Once you start doing that over and over again, then the stories get better. It’s a method Joe and I found when we were working on Heroes together, back when we first met.
It works really well, especially when there’s no ego in it. We just think, “What’s the coolest thing, what’s the most exciting thing, what’s the best truth we can tell in this story?”
You have five seasons of Underground planned out, which I read that you’ve described as a “slow burn.” Material-wise, are you finding it easier or more enticing to write historical fiction?
I don’t think anything is “easier.” With historical fiction, you have to always navigate the landmines of truth, of what really happened in that time, even though you can have characters whose truth is different from what happened in that time.
But we often find ourselves thinking, “I can’t believe there was a person who kicked out the bottoms of all the pails on the plantation and then set the fields on fire and ran. No one could put the fire out so they were all focused on that.” That’s something you just can’t make up.
So I do love the fact that there are gems within the real history and within the lives of the real people.
And luckily, with a story like that of the Underground Railroad, it’s a thriller. Excitement is already baked into everything they were doing.
After spending so much time with research and writing the story, what’s it like to actually shoot on location?
It’s a whole different beast. You step onto these plantations and there’s just so much more weight to it all that you don’t realize until you’re there. Or you’re standing there looking up at a huge tree outside the plantation home, and you’re wondering, “How many people have hung from that tree?”
Everyone felt it as soon as we stepped on that soil. This is a story that we have to honor. We have to honor the people who were a part of that story, and that means telling every fact.
During the research phase, was there a favorite character or historical figure that you were really looking forward to writing?
I think your favorite character is the one you’re writing in the moment. The reason we had so many characters in the first season is because we couldn’t just pick one.
If I had to choose, I would say Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), just because we talked about her journey the most. We talked about her arc going from this shy house-servant to someone who goes along this 600-mile journey, gets to the end of it, and says, “I’m going back.” Writing that arc is very exciting.
I’ve also read that you enjoy debates in the writer’s room. Is there a particular debate you can remember, and what were the results?
For me, when people have strong opinions about something, you know you’re on the right track with the story.
We had a lot of strong opinions about the Miss Ernestine character (Amirah Vann).
Last season, she was the head house slaves in the house and this season, she was out in the field. She was in this abusive relationship, and some of the writers felt like Ernestine was stronger than this. But I felt there are parallels to her sleeping with the master and that being an abusive relationship.
She’s really just having cycles. That’s very human, but that was a very contentious thing in the writers’ room, because they have seen her as such as strong character. Which she is, but there’s also this darkness in her that we need to understand and explore.
Again, I think that when those arguments are happening, that’s when I get the most out of it. Because that’s when the audience is going to have the strongest opinions.
That was also the case with Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge), when she was hiding her pregnancy from Noah. There were a lot of strong feelings about that, and it created a strong debate in the room. Who is in the right and how angry is Noah going to be about that?
That’s exciting to me, because these are the same conversations and debates audiences will be having when they watch it.
What are the cinematic influences on Underground?
My favorite genre is horror, so there’s always a level of that coming into play.
Joe and I pick and pull from anything that is exciting and interesting to us. We’ve been talking a lot about the show The Leftovers, and how it takes you individually into each character. Every episode takes you a little deeper with each character. That wasn’t something that we had done in Season One, so we were really interested in doing that now, and going deeper with all of our characters.
The pilot episode has “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West in the background. When did you decide to add contemporary music into the series?
That was in the original script. From the start, we wanted to use contemporary music because we kind of felt that music is this bridge of time. We really wanted to use that to show that this subject matter isn’t historical. That it’s just a painting on a wall. We used the music to pull the painting off the wall and live in it.
Can you share any details about what viewers can expect in Season Three?
We’ve been talking about moving towards the Civil War. In our research, we found something exciting that was new to me, which was that the Underground was an actual spy network for the North. So that’s exciting, and we’re exciting to continue the long-form story about the Civil War and this spy network. That’s pretty much where we’re headed.
What advice do you have for young writers, or even young minority writers, and filmmakers who want to get into the business?
I would say, be bold. Follow the story that you want to tell. I think that when people try to mould their story sensibilities into what they’ve already seen on screen, that’s where things get a little bit lost. We want new stories, we’re all craving it. Keep writing the things that you want to write, because other people will love it too.
Underground Season Two is available now on Hulu.
Featured image: Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in Underground © WGN America