Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford explains why, more than a half century after Masters and Johnson began their groundbreaking research on human sexuality, the subject is still a complete mystery.
Written by Denis Faye
(November 1, 2013)
Michelle Ashford has a thing for bad boys.
More specifically, the creator of Showtime’s new critically acclaimed series Masters of Sex, based on the lives and times of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, has a thing for watching bad boys like Walter “Heisenberg” White and Tony Soprano do their worst on Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, respectively.
“The Sopranos completely changed my life,” says the writer-producer, whose resumé includes The Pacific and John Adams, “I was toiling away in network television and thinking, ‘My God, there has to be a better way to do this!’ I would just get so frustrated with what it had to be and what it couldn't be – then The Sopranos came on and I was like, ‘Oh, that's what you can do!’ I don't think I've worked in network television since.”
Showrunning a series about the world’s most famous sex researchers has offered her plenty of the “can do” moments. Ashford spoke recently with Writers Guild of America West Web site about how her writer’s room approaches this controversial subject, how to develop the inner workings of characters who were, until recently, still alive, and how, even over 50 years after Masters’ and Johnson’s pivotal research, some male screenwriters still don’t understand female anatomy as well as they should.
Photo: © 2013 SHOWTIME
Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in Masters of Sex.
When you were creating Masters of Sex, were you sitting there saying, "This show has to push boundaries"?
Not at all. In fact, I don't even think that's the appeal of cable television, personally. I understand that, on the very surface, it seems to be the appeal, but for me, I have no interest in that at all. What really interests me is the ability to tell incredibly complicated stories where characters do not have to be likeable, where things do not have to be resolved, where stories can be incredibly messy, motivations for characters can be incredibly messy. It can be this weird tangle of story and character that you actually have to pay attention to and invest some sort of intellectual energy in to figure it out. That is the thing that you can do on cable that I knew was right.
The fact that you can just make things very, very complicated and rich and layered as a storyteller – and I don't mean that in a pretentious way, but it is sort of what we're doing – that was the appeal of cable.
I've done a lot of pilots for HBO, and no one ever gives me notes like, “This person needs to be more likeable.” It does feel very liberating in that sense. Then the burden is on you to make sure that you're really creating the most interesting character you can possibly create. I love that.
So then all the controversial stuff just happens organically.
Exactly. For example if you're doing Breaking Bad, by just the very nature of the story you're telling, you're going to end up in some very wild situations. In the case with Masters of Sex, the fact that they were sex researchers, there's no way that we can't get into that. Yet, the idea that I could show a lot of nudity and sex, not only was that not the appeal, but it actually worried me because I have seen cable shows where the idea was to really show graphic sex, and I'm not interested in that.
One of the things that's been very daunting about how to show sex on screen is there's been years and years of watching sex scenes in movies and in television and a lot of clichés and tropes have seeped into these presentations, so that sex scenes that you see that are supposed to be sexy are, to me, incredibly boring. So the challenge with this show was, if you're going to be seeing a lot of sex, how are you seeing it? One of the rules on our show is you can never show sex to be sexy – that can never happen. The other rule is that some kind of story has to be pulling through the sex. The sex has to be actually about part of the story. So it's not like you're watching the story then it stops. Now we're watching two people having sex. Now we pick up the story again. And then it has to be either funny or weird or disturbing or poignant, but it can't be sex to be sexy. That was one of the really complicated things about our show.
But that strategy made the sex sexier.
Well, yes. That's a very interesting thing that we discovered, that when you do show it in a way that is not familiar then it becomes interesting again. We found when we saw people all wired up, having sex in an exam room, then all of a sudden, that's sort of sexy – and yet it wasn't. It's because you're showing this bizarre version of sex, so it feels fresh and that's what actually makes it sort of sexy.
How about the sexual politics? I’m thinking of the scene where Johnson – a sexually liberated woman – rejects a buttoned-down, 50s man she’s been sleeping with, so he hits her. It’s a very polarizing scene, depending on your view of sex and relationships. Did you intend different demographics to have an entirely different experience watching this show?
Yes, yes I did – exactly that. A lot of women I talked to, even just in the reading of the script when we were going through the casting process, said, "Well, he's done. He's an animal, he's a brute, it's all over for him." And I said, "No it's not." And then some men would say the same thing you're saying, "Well, she's torturing him." It stirred up a lot of dust that scene, which was the intent.
And it was very important to me that she hit him back – which is, first of all, what I would do. It's terrible no matter how you slice it, but the fact of what's really underneath – it doesn't matter whose side you're on – is that sex is dangerous. You can't approach sex as something that you can put under a microscope and not think that you're going to be dragging tons of human emotion into it. What I always found really interesting about this story is the idea that they were going to basically deconstruct sex scientifically, as if you could ever separate sex from emotion.
And the fact that that character of Virginia Johnson, which was true by the way, was a very contemporary and out-of-time sort of girl, that she actually has this weird ability to not drag any emotional baggage into the sex act, is so shocking to a man of that generation. I would say people would wrestle with that even now – although the whole hookup culture sort of changed things maybe.
Speaking of Johnson, you can make, say, Tony Soprano into the biggest jerk in the world because he’s a work of fiction. But these were real people. You have to be more careful, right?
So right. It's very true. First of all, I couldn't have done this without Tom Maier's book [Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love]. He wrote this exhaustive biography about them that came out about five years ago, and he had spent many, many, many hours with Virginia Johnson. It is filled with testimony from people they worked with and tons of stuff from her. And you get a very clear picture – as clear as you can get without actually living through something with someone.
There are some comments in reviews saying, "Oh, he's a cold, removed doctor and she's the warm, vivacious non-doctor," as if that's a cliché that we've seen a million times. The truth is that was exactly what they were like and that is exactly why he hired her. He was a brilliant doctor but he was really not socially adept. When he wanted to study sex and he was trying to get subjects, he was just lame. He just didn't know how to do it. That's why he brings in this woman who didn't even finish college and has no credentials at all; She was so warm and she could make it feel appealing. She could make it seem not only appealing but slightly heroic, that you would be involved in a study like this.
So yes, we have to be careful about how we portray them, yet we actually have a fair amount of information in terms of what were they really like.
I found it ironic that that he, as cold as he is, yearns for a human connection and she seems content. Was that real, too?
It really was, yes. But you can take all the information now that we have based on all these interviews and all the work that Tom Masters did, and you still have to make a couple of leaps. Why was he so determined to work in the area of sex? He's a very ambitious man, and he's incredibly successful as a doctor. But when you look at his history, his childhood, which was nightmarish, you understand what kind of a man he had to become, which was incredibly emotionally closed off to even function. He had a very, very brutal childhood. So when you know that about him you have to think okay, what is the deepest reason for why he'd be compelled in this direction? Then you can see that intimacy would have been a real challenge for a man like this. You have to extrapolate a little bit, to say, "Maybe he's so compelled towards sex because he doesn't know how to be close to people."
Maybe he feels if he could understand sex, he could understand intimacy. And that's a little bit of a leap that we've taken, that this is one of the deepest reasons that he went into this work. Based on everything we know about him, I don't think that's a big leap.
Has anyone given you feedback who actually knew them?
No, not yet, but we're just at the beginning. We have had a few people contact us and say, "I was in their study." It'll be interesting to see what our just being out there in the world digs up.
Given you’re tied to what really happened, how have you arced out the show across multiple seasons?
Well, [Johnson] just died in July, actually, which was very sad for us. She was in assisted living in St. Louis, and the book goes all the way to that. So when I read the book, I immediately saw very clear four seasons here because their work and their lives change so radically a number of times. I mean they made a few really weird turns that sent their lives in a very different direction, and they present themselves in these odd chunks.
But we're also in a business where there are all these requirements. If you have a show that's going to last, they want it longer than four seasons. So that's actually one of the things I'm wrestling with right now. If we go longer than that, if we have to plan for, let's say, six seasons, how do you divide up the material? I realized we're going to have to slow down in a couple of spots. That's the thing I'm actually wrestling with right now.
There are a few scenes in the pilot where, when they were recruiting staff and subjects, they had to make sure people were comfortable with sex. Did you have to do that when you were staffing your writer’s room?
No one was going to take me to court! I had written the pilot, but it took a long time to get picked up, so the pilot's been out there for a while. A number of people had read it, and if they were interested in the subject, they read the book. So, very strangely, when I started to meet with writers when we actually got an official pickup, a lot of them had already read the book.
I was both shocked and incredibly touched that people would go to all that trouble and the work, but it's because they found the subject pretty fascinating. A lot of people had my experience. Either you're really young and you have no idea who Masters and Johnson are or you have this vague sort of cloudy feelings of Weren't they famous and they did something to do with sex? So people were naturally interested, so I found writers very receptive to it, and I was thrilled.
Political correctness has to go out the door in the writers' room, I assume.
Nobody had to sign a confidentiality agreement, although looking back it probably would have been a good idea because you can imagine the discussions that went on in there. First of all, we had to wade into all this science and all the discoveries of what Masters and Johnson were actually doing in this first phase of their work when they were collecting data, and it gets unbelievably graphic. And then people tell stories about their own lives and their own experiences. I mean, wow. Sometimes you hear these weird stories in writers' room, and then an assistant or something will say, "Well, I'm going to file a lawsuit because this is slightly offensive." Every day could have been a lawsuit!
The other thing that was fascinating is we would get into discussions, and we would realize people were still confused about sexual realities – like anatomical realities.
You would think now, that everybody would know everything about sex, but they don't. But if you take now and compare it to 1957, holy crap. This work was so radical in terms of explaining to people how their bodies worked. It was just fantastic that they did it. It really needed to be done.
How embarrassing to be the writer who didn't know where some thingamajig was.
Yes. Well, this particular writer blamed it on his wife, that his wife misinformed him. That was not particularly chivalrous to pass the ball. This stuff is hysterical, but it's also really interesting and always will be. This is really the point of the show – sex is a mystery, just a complete mystery.