Head of Netflix’s #1 new show on faith and Hollywood
Jordan Raynor sits down with Sheryl Anderson, Showrunner of Netflix’s #1 new show, Sweet Magnolias, to talk about Netflix’s reaction to the Christian characters Sheryl wrote into this megahit show, how we can model Jesus’s “gospel subtext” as we tell great stories through our work, and how to give and take great “notes” of feedback.
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey everybody, welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work, for the glory of our great God and the good of others. Every week, I’m bringing you a conversation with somebody who is following Jesus Christ and also pursuing world class mastery of their craft. We’re talking about their path to mastery, their daily habits, and how their faith influences their work.
Guys, I’m releasing this bonus episode because we had to get it out as quickly as possible. Today, you’re going to hear from Sheryl Anderson, she’s the showrunner for — at the time that we recorded this episode — the number one show on Netflix in all of the US. The show is called Sweet Magnolias, you’ve probably seen it right there on your Netflix home screen. Sheryl is a masterful screen writer who spent decades honing her craft. She's written for shows like Charmed, the mega hit in the late 1990.
She wrote for Flash Gordon, she sold pilot scripts to Disney and NBC and lifetime. Man, I was so excited for this conversation, you guys know how much I love TV as I talk about in the episode, I think being a showrunner, running the show is like one of the greatest jobs, if not the greatest job in the world
Sheryl and I sat down, we talked about how Netflix reacted to her having Christian characters in a show that isn’t overtly Christian but is definitely playing on some gospel-centric themes. And what their reaction was to that content. We talked about how we as artists, as entrepreneurs, whatever our craft is, how we can model gospel subtext. Jesus’ gospel subtext as we tell great stories through our work and we talked about how to give and take great notes of feedback as we seek to master our crafts.
You guys are going to love this episode with my friend Sheryl Anderson.
[0:02:11.9] JR: Sheryl, I’ve been so excited about this conversation, thanks for doing this.
[0:02:15.6] SA: Thanks for inviting me Jordan and I really appreciate it.
[0:02:19.8] JR: We met on May 1st, you were like “yeah, I’ve got the show coming out with Netflix in 18 days, on May 19th.” I look it up, I thought, “This looks cute, it’s like very much catering to the Hallmark crowdN not my typical show but cool, this is awesome, it should do well within that niche on Netflix,” and then, I turn on my TV and Kara, my wife and I are flipping through Netflix one night and your show is the number one show in the United States on Netflix. What? I was just totally beside myself, were you as shocked as I was? Probably not, right? You probably knew this thing was going to hit well.
[0:03:03.3] SA: No, I actually might have been more shocked because I genuinely thought that we would be a slow build, word-of-mouth kind of show, and the fact that we came out of the gate so strong and that we spent Memorial Day weekend at number one. I’m still, after a second week in the top five, I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it and the fact that we never could have predicted, when we were making the show, the turbulent and terrible times that would be happening when the show dropped. It’s a mystery beyond my comprehension and it’s a blessing to be able to offer people a show that is based in faith and hope and community at a time when you know — just with the virus, people were longing for that and I’m delighted that it’s reaching people, including all the people who have said, “I don’t normally watch a show like this plot.”
[0:04:25.7] JR: Well, I don’t either, right? We started watching, we haven’t finished it yet but it is different, right? This isn’t my genre but I can appreciate it for being really good television.T his is just very well written. It’s very well acted, right? You guys produced a really great show. Well, I am curious, I’m sure you’ve done a lot of analysis over the last two weeks, why do you think the show is working? It’s not like it’s dealing with any of the issues that the country is currently addressing, the pandemic, race, whatever. Why is this just — I don’t know, a welcome beacon outside of those things? Why do you think the show continues to do so well right now?
[0:05:03.6] SA: I do think that there is an element of escapism to it — a critic called this comfort food and I actually take that as a compliment because I do think that one of the purposes of entertainment should be to give people a chance to catch their breath. But certainly in the second week, with the focus on the injustice and inequality, I think that the message of community is really important and we’ve gotten some flack about it being an unreal texture — and I understand that reaction — but we saw the show as an opportunity to model how community could be. We did not set out to be a show that was wrestling with big questions. We set out to be a show genuinely about the power of female friendship.
I wanted to layer in the questions of faith and reconciliation and reinvention that I think everybody deals with at some point in their lives. And the fact that these three women are at a point in their lives and in their relationship where those are all vital questions for them. It allowed us to deal with particular and personal questions that also resonate on a larger scale.
[0:06:53.3] JR: Yeah, we’re going to talk much more about Sweet Magnolias. Before we go any further, can you give the 30-second elevator pitch for the show, for people who might not know?
[0:07:03.1] SA: Sweet Magnolias is a story about three women in a small South Carolina town who have been friends since the cradle. Now, in their late 30s, they’re each at a crossroads and examining what they want going forward in terms of friendship and business and family and romance. It’s very much —
[0:07:34.4] JR: That’s pretty good. That’s a pretty tight description, you’ve done this a couple of times.
[0:07:37.7] SA: Once or twice. It is absolutely a character-driven drama. Again, we’ve had no idea what would be happening when we premiered, it’s not a show about issues, it’s a show about emotion and relationships.
[0:07:51.6] JR: Yeah, that’s good. By the way, I want to ask you a selfish question. I love the entertainment industry and so I’m just always interested in what these players are doing but you know, Netflix, Amazon, we’re moving to this model where these big tech companies are gobbling up huge audiences and the whole game is, how do you segment that audience into a million different slices and provide them exactly what they’re looking for, right?
I’m curious, what’s going to be the best strategy for bringing winning shows to market in that environment moving forward, is it niching down and saying “Okay, we’re going to play to this particular crowd and that’s all we’re writing for because we know that Amazon needs that content or Netflix needs that content?” Or is it going to be this really like broad interest stuff? Are you going to see both? How are you thinking about that?
[0:08:39.1] SA: I think it will always be a combination of both because there’s a danger in being overly focused that if you miss a narrow target, who else are you going to get? I know this sounds a little starry-eyed — my approach has always been, you just have to tell a great story. With wonderful characters, dealing with interesting questions, whether it’s a fluffy romcom-y kind of show like ours or whether it’s a darker, deeper issue-driven show. I think one of the fascinating things about the streaming services is — well, let me just speak to Netflix because I really only watch Netflix right now. There’s always something on the platform, no matter what mood you’re in. Whatever you think you might have the time or the interest for, whether you hop on to see a movie or getting roiled into a whole series like ours.
I think — and I’m certain that Hulu and Amazon are doing the same. I think they’re looking at both the micro and the macro because to continue to build subscribers, they have to be looking at all the different audiences out there. Taste isn’t monolithic so the audience isn’t monolithic. How can you offer a varied menu so that, no matter what people are hungry for, they can find something on your platform.
[0:10:32.0] JR: It’s such a fun space to be observing as a consumer and is just as fun as an entrepreneur, business strategist. I’ve seen Disney+ get into the game. This is just fun right now. I’m having a lot of fun as a consumer watching it all play out.
All right, so we typically don't spend a ton of time asking guests to talk about their backstory but I am going to ask you to share a bit of yours because — I think I mentioned this on our call a few weeks back — I think you have the greatest job on Earth. I love TV and if I wasn’t writing books and producing podcasts, I’ve always said, I want to be a showrunner. I think it is the greatest job in Hollywood. I think a lot of our listeners are really curious, I think a lot of people see Hollywood as a black box, they just don’t understand it, they don’t understand how it works. Can you spend a few minutes talking through number one, what does a showrunner do? And then number two, what’s your story? What was the trajectory of your career that led you to being a showrunner for this phenomenally successful Netflix series?
[0:11:37.5] SA: First of all, the showrunner is usually the head writer of a television series. So, I was in charge of the writer’s room, is how we refer to it. Which is the writing staff, the people who come up with all the ideas for the episodes who then individually write the episodes. We come together as a group, we do notes, people do other drafts, but ‘I am the final pencil,’ is one of the phrases. I am responsible for making sure that every draft not only pleases the producers but that it’s ready to go to set. And then, when we’re in production, I’m also responsible for keeping an eye on everything. I’m involved in casting and editing and location scouting and — what am I forgetting? I oversee all the department heads along with our executive producer, Dan Paulson.
The short version of this is everything’s my responsibility, so everything’s my fault but I was very lucky early in my time in Hollywood to work for Grant Tinker. Grant had this wonderful approach which was to hire the best people and then get out of their way. The fact that I had an incredible team across the board and could say, I’ll be back in an hour, “I have my phone if you need me,” and to know that quality work was going to be done in my absence was magnificent.
[0:13:42.1] JR: Yeah, you’re basically between you and the EP, the executive producer, you’re kind of co-sharing CEO responsibilities of the show, like a business, is that right? Is that a fair comparison?
[0:13:53.5] SA: I think that’s a very fair comparison.
[0:13:56.0] JR: How did you get into this, like? You don’t just go to Hollywood and run a show, right? You do it in a writer’s room. What was your story? What’s the trajectory of your career look like?
[0:14:07.3] SA: I actually studied playwriting, the College of William & Mary in Virginia and thought that I would go to New York to be a playwright — but then several friends of mine came out to LA and started working their way into TV and film. And talking to them, I was intrigued by the possibilities. I came out here instead and I actually was very lucky because it took me a while to get an industry job. My first industry job was working for Grant Tinker. That was my graduate school. Grant and my immediate boss, Rob Kaplin and all the other incredible people that Grant had at the company. I learned so much from them and I was in the development office so I spent my entire day reading scripts, again, my grad school. I started off freelancing in half-hour and I worked in half-hour for a while. I freelanced a couple of shows and then got ‘on-staff’ which means you’re working full-time as full-time as anything is —when you never know if you’re going to wake up the next morning and somebody’s going to say well, this show’s been canceled.
[0:15:35.7] JR: Right, yeah, full-time’s not a thing. By the way, for Grant Tinkerer, if memory serves correctly, he was CEO of NBC for a time, probably not when you were working for him but didn’t he end up running NBC?
[0:15:48.9] SA: Well, he was president of the network, yes. Absolutely.
[0:15:53.2] JR: What a great experience.
[0:15:54.6] SA: I worked for him at the production company he had and afterwards. Which was called GTG Entertainment. He was remarkable. I still, all these years later, go back to things that Grant and Rob taught me. They were wonderfully supportive because I knew then, I wanted to be a TV writer and they were both like, “What can we teach you?” And it’s wonderful to be in a supportive environment when you’re looking pretty astronomical odds about being able to move forward.
[0:16:30.6] JR: The odds are horrible. The odds in television are so bad. There’s a lot of wisdom here. I talk about this in my book, Master of One, of the value and the common thread of world-class people and apprenticeships. Early on, humbly submitting themselves to world-class masters of their press, and that’s exactly what you did, right? What was your first really big break? What was the first show that you were writing on?
[0:16:58.3] SA: My first significant show was Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. I was very fortunate to write multiple episodes for them across multiple seasons and that was really how I got in the door. I worked in half-hour for a number of years but I felt a pull to tell more complicated stories with different kinds of characters so I segued over to hour television and Charmed, the original Charmed I now have to —
[0:17:40.7] JR: Original Charmed, there’s new Charmed. By the way, I had no idea there was a new Charmed until we were doing research for this episode, I was like, “Who remade Charmed?” The old Charmed, the first Charmed, that was a big deal, it was a big show.
[0:17:52.4] SA: it was. It was huge fun and that was my start in hour. It was also the point where I recognized, this is my place, this is my sweet spot. I like the freedom of hour, and being able to tell all kinds of different stories.
[0:18:14.6] JR: You’ve had a ton of practice of your craft. I would describe you as a master of your craft. Before this most recent unbelievable win but clearly your master of your craft. I’m curious, what do world-class writers in television do that they’re less masterful counterparts don’t, right? I understand nonfiction or writing full-length books but that’s a pretty different thing. What’s the delta between good and great in your profession?
[0:18:41.2] SA: It is practice, it is constantly seeking to be better. I teach and the most common mistake I see in young writers is that they don’t want to rewrite. They think they’ve gotten it right the first time and it’s just not possible. Even if you write a gorgeous first draft, you need to learn how to take notes and incorporate other people’s input because you don't make television in a vacuum. Television is completely collaborative. There are writers who are happy with what they’re doing and just want to keep doing that. I think that writers who are invested in every script being better than the last one they wrote gain mastery more quickly than people who were just like, “well, that worked, let me do that again.” I have to say, I don’t think I’ve mastered the craft yet.
[0:19:57.6] JR: I don’t think true masters ever believed that they’ve arrived, Mastery is not a destination, right? It’s a perpetual, it’s a mindset.
[0:20:08.7] SA: Well, it’s also a goal that blessedly eludes us because every time you think, “Oh, that was great!” At least for me, there’s always that little voice that goes “Yeah, you know what? What if that scene had gone this way?”
[0:20:28.3] JR: You're right. I heard Aron Sorkin, who you know is my all-time favorite writer of really, anything, any medium. I heard Sorkin say once that he never turned in a script that he didn’t immediately want to take back and rewrite. I feel that way about books. As soon as I send the book to my editor, I’m like, “There are eight things that I would change about that.” I think that’s the mark of people on the path to mastery. By the way, I think your comment here about taking notes — being willing and humble enough to take notes and feedback, we hear that in almost every single conversation on this podcast, right? I think we all want immediate gratification. Especially the younger we are, right? But to be willing to say, I know when I turn this thing and it’s not going to be at its best and be okay with that and being receptive to feedback is really critical.
I heard an editor, a guy who spent like 40 years in publishing, editing books. His advice to writers — basically listen to anytime somebody gives you a note, right? You don’t need to listen necessarily to their proposed solution but you got to understand that there is a problem. If somebody’s telling you there’s a problem here, it is a problem, it’s up to you as the writer or creator, entrepreneur, whatever you are. To figure out what the solution is but you got to accept that there’s a problem, would you agree with that?
[0:21:56.2] SA: Absolutely. I have so many students who say, “But you just don’t get it.” And I have to say, “well why don’t I get it?”
[0:22:07.2] JR: Right, that’s the point.
[0:22:08.4] SA: Because you didn’t communicate it properly. If I’m misunderstanding, maybe that’s a little bit on me but it’s pretty much on you and I — one of the things I love most about working for Netflix is that I’m working for executives who are so clear when they give notes and so collaborative. “Here’s where we bumped, we were thinking maybe this but what’s your response?”
I love that so much because, over the years, I have worked with other executives that I’m very fond of but I’ve also worked with executives and frankly, with other writers who are more of the “I don’t know, it doesn’t work, fix it,” school. That’s not helpful.
[0:23:07.7] JR: Give us an example of a great note? Can you think back to something, maybe on Sweet Magnolias, man, this was like a really good note, really helpful note?
[0:23:18.6] SA: I will say that there is a character in Sweet Magnolias who very easily could have been the villain of the piece. From the very beginning, the executives at Netflix said, please humanize him and initially, I thought, why? Because he’s a bad man. I mean, I knew I didn’t want him to be a mustache twirler but one of our first conversations was about, how can we humanize him? And I thought, yes, because that’s so much more interesting that he can’t easily be dismissed as this terrible person.
And it helped actually shape our worldview in the writer’s room of Serenity — and a piece of that world view became, no one in Serenity is beyond redemption. It takes some of them a little longer to get there but no one is beyond redemption. And in looking at all of our characters that way, not just this one character, it opened us up to ways to make everybody multifaceted and multilayered, not just our core cast and that’s something you always want. You always want fully-dimensional people, no matter where they fit into your ensemble. But, it was a beautiful note upfront about how to treat everybody in the right way. It’s kind of fabulous to see the audience struggling with that now.
[0:25:05.5] JR: Yeah, you know, complex characters work because they’re true. Right, it is the combination of hey, we are made in God’s image but sin has entered the world and we’re all constantly battling between good and evil. Lecrae actually talks a lot about this, the rap artist Lecrae talks about like, how he doesn’t like characters in his songs that are exclusively villains or exclusively heroes, right? We are all part villain, part hero. I love that.
[0:25:35.8] SA: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Are you going to leave him there or are you going to help lift him up?
[0:25:44.1] JR: Amen. Telling stories of redemption through the art because if there's no sin, if there’s no hint of villain, there’s no redemption, right? That’s just not a true story, we’re pointing towards the true myth that Tolkien and Lewis talked about of Christianity, which I want to come back to in a minute but first — we do like to talk a little bit about routines, daily habits, routines. So I am really curious, when you are actively working on the show and let’s say maybe when you are actively in the writer’s room, let’s go back to that time period. You guys are writing the script, what does your day look like? From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, what does a day in the life of Sheryl Anderson, showrunner, look like?
[0:26:24.4] SA: When we are in the writer’s room; get up, check the phone, brew the coffee.
[0:26:29.9] JR: What time are you getting up?
[0:26:31.0] SA: Pre-COVID when I had a commute, 6:00. To get up to be able to check on my emails, respond to the ones that have to be answered right away, grab some breakfast, commute. I live in Los Angeles so I have a short commute — it is an hour. And then, our writer’s room was, I try to keep it 9:30 to six because I have writers with younger children. I mean, I like to get home to my kids for dinner too but my kids are older but I have writers with younger children. And I wanted them to be able to be home for dinner and it’s also, I have found that, I think like any activity but particularly focused, creative activity, there is a law of diminishing returns. At some point, you just have to stop. So we’d work from 9:30 to six, it takes a little longer than an hour to get home but that time in the car is great for me in terms of processing the day as a whole. Come home, have dinner, and frankly work another couple of hours either on my own script or doing notes or revisions on somebody else’s script. Looking at notes from Netflix and then as we got closer and closer to production starting to look at production-oriented questions as well. With the hope of being back in bed by 11:30.
[0:28:25.7] JR: Yeah, so I am really curious, when you are in your drive home, are you listening to anything? Are you sitting in silence and just letting the day kind of connect in your head?
[0:28:37.1] SA: It depends on the day.
[0:28:43.9] JR: Yeah that’s a good answer.
[0:28:44.9] SA: There are days where silence is the only proper response and there is the day that show tunes at the top of my lungs out the open window and into traffic is the only proper response.
[0:29:00.2] JR: I love it. All right, so we share, I didn’t know this, we share this love of screaming show tunes. What’s your go to?
[0:29:08.0] SA: Absolutely. Again, it depends on my mood but Hamilton, Les Mis, and anything by Sondheim.
[0:29:19.0] JR: Yeah, Les Mis and Hamilton are about as good of answers as you can hear on the podcast. Those are really good answers. All right Sheryl, so you know the scope of this podcast, really trying to understand how the gospel influences our work, whatever our work is whether you’re a showrunner or an entrepreneur or a sales executive or whatever. And what I like about you is you’re in Hollywood, you’re not making films and shows for Christian subculture.
I wrote about this in Master of One, art that is made by the church and exclusively for the church is, not shockingly, seen by nobody outside of the church, right? And you are not doing that and as you and I talked about briefly before, your faith still very much informs your work and your approach to your work. Can you explain how?
[0:30:06.4] SA: Absolutely. That is a two-part answer I think in terms of, first of all, my personal drive I have felt since I was a teenager certainly. I mean I have always been a storyteller but it was really as a teenager, what? Post-confirmation. I’m Lutheran, Evangelical-Lutheran Church of America. I was very fortunate to grow up in an atmosphere where pursuit of the arts was encouraged and that the value of storytelling was very much encouraged and my parents were amazing.
My father was a career Naval officer and my mother was primarily — I mean the census would call her a ‘stay at home mom’ but as the wife of a career Naval officer, always volunteering, always helping wherever needed, and wherever we lived both incredibly active in the church. So, I was fortunate to grow up in church communities that encouraged my desire to be an artist and raised with the notion that Jesus taught in parables, why shouldn’t we? So as a storyteller, I felt that and still feel, God gave me this gift. What better way to use it than in His service? So when I came to Hollywood, I was interested in telling stories where the gospel is subtext. I’ve had people point out to me that a lot of my work is about giving people a second chance, about redemption, about family whether biological or chosen and that makes complete sense to be because those things were important to me.
But I do find that I am consistently drawn to stories about people who try to do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. And people who are eager to offer grace to each other and so when I write, even though people aren’t necessarily speaking explicitly to the gospel — though I am so delighted that I had the opportunity to have our characters go to church and have a pastor be a vital member of the community in Sweet Magnolias. Even in other settings to be able to talk about the great themes that, the fruits of the Spirit, as themes for my work is what excites me most.
[0:33:32.2] JR: You know I love that and I think your approach is very much aligned with what I wrote about in Master of One is being winsome to the world, right? We are not winsome when we lead with a particular agenda or message. We are winsome when we lead by being just masters of our crafts, being great at what we do. Being true to our art form is appealing to all, Christian and non-Christian. By the way, I love the way you put this. The gospel of subtext. Oh by the way, it was also the subtext of Jesus’s own parables, right? Jesus never made the connections directly to the full group. He would take the disciples off to the side and explained it to them but he rarely connected the dots. So all right, here is the follow up question for you, you’re content leaving it there. You’re content not preaching in your scripts, just revealing the fruits of the Spirit, revealing stories of redemption and forgiveness and grace and love and joy. Why is that enough for you?
[0:34:32.9] SA: Let him who has ears hear — because I think that’s the best kind of storytelling. I think that when we put a billboard upfront, it’s not the best art and it’s not the best Evangelism either because you are limiting your audience. If people feel you’re preaching to them, you are going to lose a lot of your audience and the – again, as He said, you know there is a reason that Jesus told parables so that people will get drawn into the story and then at the end go, “Oh, which was the better neighbor?” “Oh, I get it!” And I think that there are people who are hungry to hear what Christians have to say, who need to hear it in a less on-the-nose fashion.
[0:35:48.3] JR: I want to try to make an analogy here that I have been thinking about to get your reaction to it. So yeah, I think great art that is true to its form can make people yearn for the characteristics of the Kingdom without beating them over the head and then trying to introduce them to the King, right? So for example, here is the analogy I have been thinking through lately. I love to travel, right now I miss it terribly. My wife and I were actually talking about coming to southern California soon and we are talking specifically about San Diego. We’re like, “Oh we want to go to San Diego” we talk about why we are talking about how clean their downtown is and how amazing the restaurants are and beautiful beaches and the world-class zoo and really friendly people and never in our conversation did we talk about the mayor of San Diego.
He didn’t come up one time, believe it or not. We don’t travel because we are interested in the character of the policies and the person who rules the city. We are attracted by what that person’s policies produce, right? And I think art can accomplish that. I think art can give people tastes of the Kingdom, taste of the fruits of the Kingdom or truth and justice and joy and forgiveness and I think that can make them long to learn more about the king whose policies have produced all of these good things. Does that resonate for you? Does that make sense?
[0:37:10.9] SA: That is fascinating. I have never thought about it that way but I think that is a beautiful analogy. In the first episode of Sweet Magnolias, Pastor June says from the pulpit, “The Kingdom doesn’t have to advance with bulldozers or brass bands. The Kingdom can advance gently.” And I do think as you’re saying, there is value in showing people, here’s harmony. Here is reconciliation, here is faith and then have people go, “But where does that all come from?” Rather than telling people, “Here’s what you need in your life.”
[0:37:59.6] JR: Or your soul needs saving.
[0:38:01.7] SA: Right.
[0:38:02.5] JR: By the way, I heard somebody say this recently and I looked it up myself and confirmed it and was blown away by this, Jesus used the word save or saved or some variation of that word less than 10 times in all four gospels. By contrast, He talked about the Kingdom 150 plus times, right? We have this over emphasis — now listen, don’t get me wrong, sharing the gospel explicitly is important. We are all called to do it. Every Christian is a full-time missionary as I have said before but it is not the only thing that matters. Making people crave the Kingdom matters and it is good in it of itself and great art like Sweet Magnolias can accomplish that.
By the way I am really curious, you guys have this pastor character that I saw in episode one. Did Netflix push back on that or were they just like, “No, we know who this is for and it works,” and yeah that is just fascinating to me.
[0:38:58.7] SA: Yeah, they were very receptive and the church is in the original novels as a backdrop and as a community meeting place and I spoke to Miss Woods, the novelist and to Dan and Netflix about making it more central and making the pastor a central, well she is not a central character but she is a recurring character — and they were all very receptive and I, in terms of being artful about it, I didn’t want her in the series so that I could shine a spotlight on the gospel. I wanted her in the series because her relationship with the three central characters says a lot about who they are, as women of faith. At some point in the first season, each one of them seeks her out individually as well as going to church and being involved in church and I also wanted to make sure that she was an ELCA pastor not just because I am proud to be in the ELCA but that was part of it. But also so that I was comfortable representing the doctrine and not trying to assume what somebody from another denomination would say because I have respect for other faith traditions but I am particularly fond of my own.
[0:40:43.8] JR: Well and you know it.
[0:40:44.6] SA: I do. That is exactly it. There was no second guessing. I am like, “I know what her message would be,” and particularly the grace first piece of my denomination was particularly appealing in the stories we’re telling because a lot of what is going on in these women’s lives — they need to be reminded to accept grace themselves and not worry about how much — not be solely worried about how much they are offering others.
[0:41:22.9] JR: You mentioned Charmed a few minutes ago and for those who don’t recall, when was this, in the late 90s? Something like that right?
[0:41:33.7] SA: Yes late 90s.
[0:41:37.0] JR: Late 90s hugely sticks us as old.
[0:41:39.6] SA: I always have to think about how old my kids are.
[0:41:43.7] JR: There you go yeah. I love that. So, a hugely successful show about these three sister witches. Did some of your Christian acquaintances freak out when they heard you were writing a show about witches?
[0:41:53.5] SA: Oh completely. I mean I had people come up to me at church and say, “Excuse me? You’re doing what?” and I said, “I am writing for a TV show that is about the power of sisterhood concerning three young women who have been gifted talents by a higher power and charged to use them to protect the innocent and serve the greater good.”
[0:42:24.3] JR: Yeah, if you can get them over that. Sure, you have made it big in your career especially with this hugely successful show. I got to imagine though, there is a miss or two in your story. There had to have been a script where you’re like, “Oh this is going to kill it” and it just flopped, whatever. I’ve had these. I am curious, what’s been in your opinion your biggest professional failure?
[0:42:49.3] SA: There are so many to choose from.
[0:42:51.1] JR: I know how you feel.
[0:42:52.6] SA: I have written a number of pilots that never saw the light of day and I think that’s my biggest frustration that I wrote something that people got really, really excited about. I mean, excited enough to pay me, which is the definition of excitement in Hollywood, I suppose. And then, for various reasons, either a change up in executives or a change up in branding or just because they fell in love with something else, those projects didn’t go anywhere.
And I think that is more — and I am sadder about those things than about the occasional episode where it didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted, or even the people I’ve worked with over the years who were detrimental or destructive in my life because there have been plenty of those. I think it’s those moments of promise and excitement that then fizzle out that are the most frustrating.
[0:44:12.6] JR: How does your faith serve as an equal resource in those times of success and failure, right? How does it provide you with a perspective to look at those things, both of those things with hope?
[0:44:25.1] SA: I’ve had so many people over the years ask me, “How can you be a Christian in Hollywood?” and my response was always, “I didn’t know how you stay in Hollywood without being a Christian” — because nothing is for certain and everything can change tomorrow. And I am not saying that I understood this when I first came to town as both a less mature artist and a less mature Christian but my faith serves me because it is my constant.
And when things are going well, my faith reminds me to be thankful but humble and when things are going poorly, my faith reminds me that this is not the definition of my life.
[0:45:22.0] JR: Amen, it is a recognition that everything is grace, right? The good stuff, the bad stuff, it is all grace. None of it is deserved. All right Sheryl, three questions we love to wrap up every conversation with. Number one, I am really curious which books you tend to recommend or gift most frequently to others?
[0:45:40.4] SA: It’s funny, I appreciate the advance warning that this is one of the questions because I went back and forth and back and forth and I think the commonality, there is a technical book called The Hollywood Standard by a dear friend of mine and a fabulous man of faith, Chris Riley. And it is a guide to proper technique and formatting and writing a script and the reason I like it so much, other than the fact that I absolutely adore Chris and he is brilliant at what he does, is because it’s a reminder to people that you need to be excellent across the board to grow as an artists. It is not just your idea or your facility with dialogue. If you are going to hand me a script and ask me to read it, it needs to be properly formatted and proofread and you have to be as professional about the technical as you do about the artistry.
[0:46:52.7] JR: That’s good.
[0:46:54.3] SA: And the other book is Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman.
[0:46:59.8] JR: I’ve had this on my list for years.
[0:47:02.4] SA: It is brilliant. I mean, everything he wrote is brilliant.
[0:47:06.2] JR: All right, so real quick, to bring everybody up to speed who William Goldman is. In 30 seconds sell me on why I should put this at the top of my list even though I am not in your world.
[0:47:16.0] SA: William Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, Magic, The Princess Bride — that should be convincing enough but Adventures in the Screen Trade is a wry and whise memoir of his years in Hollywood and it is where everybody in Hollywood gets the phrase ‘nobody here knows anything.’
[0:47:46.9] JR: Interesting, I didn’t know that. It’s a great book. By the way, do you listen to The Rewatchables podcast with Bill Simons?
[0:47:55.4] SA: I don’t but it sounds intriguing.
[0:47:58.4] JR: You should check out the podcast, it’s great. Bill is a master of this craft. He is in episode with Sorkin, talking about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because that is Sorkin’s all-time favorite and it is dynamite. Hearing them talk through that script is really good. All right Sheryl, who do you most — I am very eager to hear your response to this and it could be more than one person if you want but who do you really want to hear talk about these same questions maybe on this podcast about how the Christian faith impacts the work that they do in the world?
[0:48:32.0] SA: My friend, Mary Beth Spruce, who is the new head of television at Sony’s Affirm division. She is an incredible woman of faith and she has been doing amazing work for years but I am really excited to see what she’s going to do at Affirm.
[0:48:55.6] JR: I love it. That’s great and a last question, a single piece of advice to leave this audience with, you are talking to people, some are writers, some are entrepreneurs, some are marketers, across a bunch of different vocations but what they share is a commitment to the ministry of excellence as a means of glorifying God and loving others in their work. What advice do you want to leave them with?
[0:49:16.6] SA: In both the good times and the bad times, remember why you’re doing this and for whom you are doing this.
[0:49:23.6] JR: That’s good. Sheryl, I want to commend you for the exceptional redemptive work that you do in Hollywood. Thank you for working so hard to master your craft for the good of viewers, for studios, for Netflix, for your industry as a whole and thank you for being salt, right? Creating this winsome art that I think is planting desire in people’s souls for the light of the world and thank you most of all for joining us today.
Hey, everybody listening, make sure you go watch Sweet Magnolias right now on Netflix and if you want to keep up with Sheryl, very easy to find her on Twitter @sheryljanderson. Sheryl, thanks again for doing this.
[0:50:04.5] SA: Thank you so much Jordan, bless you and your work.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:50:08.7] JR: Wow, I hope you guys loved that episode as much as I did. Hopefully you are enjoying two episodes, two new episodes of the Call to Mastery this week. Hey, if you are enjoying the show, do me a quick favor, take 30 seconds and go leave a review of the podcast. Thank you guys so much for tuning into the Call to Mastery. See you next time.