September 3, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Joshua Griffith '16

By Jason Ng

This month we are joined by Joshua Allen Griffith ‘16 who has most recently been a part of the writing team behind the Emmy nominated limited series, Mrs. America on FX. A graduate of the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen and Television, Joshua talks about his journey through SCA to writing the series finale of the critically acclaimed series. Joshua was originally brought onMrs. America by executive producer/showrunner Dahvi Waller as a researcher before ultimately transitioning into the role of staff writer on the show. Mrs. America has received ten Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series.

Tell us a little bit about yourself from your journey to USC, through the School of Cinematic Arts, to now becoming a writer on the critically acclaimed mini-series, Mrs. America.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but the idea of working in the entertainment industry never occurred to me growing up. San Pedro, my hometown, is a pretty working-class part of the city and Hollywood felt very foreign to us as kids. I was always more of a book reader and at some point, pretty early on, I got it in my head that I wanted to write fiction. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I saw a screenplay for the first time. I got a job at Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine and they had me reading submissions for their screenplay contest. That’s how I got acquainted with the form and started trying it out for myself. There was this amazing little film production co-op in San Francisco called Scary Cow where I was lucky enough to write and direct my first short film. At that time, I was working nights as a police dispatcher and writing during the day and saving money. Then I applied to the MFA program at USC and somehow, I got in. I don’t want to make it sound simpler than it was, because everyone’s path has plenty of detours and disappointments, but basically, I put all my energy into learning the craft and came out of USC determined to find a job on a television show and eventually I did.

How did your USC studies and interests lead you to writing on Mrs. America?

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the pilots and features I was writing at USC all had something in common. They all involved a fair amount of research. I just thought I was telling personal stories with as much specificity as I could manage, but Georgia Jeffries—who taught two of my classes at USC and sat on my thesis committee—recognized that much of that specificity came from research. I’m glad she did because I was too thick to realize it myself, and research would soon become my meal ticket. During our first-semester spec seminar, Georgia invited Janet Leahy to speak to our class. Mad Men was the reason I started writing television, so getting to meet Janet was an absolute privilege. A couple months after graduation, Janet was running a show at Amazon and needed a researcher. She asked Georgia for a recommendation and that’s how I got my first job in television. Dahvi Waller was a consulting producer on that Amazon series—she had written one of my very favorite hours of television and I’m sure I told her that more than once—and while we were in that room, she was also developing a pilot for FX about Phyllis Schlafly and the Equal Rights Amendment. I started as her researcher on Mrs. America and Dahvi eventually promoted me to staff writer.

How has being a writer changed from a classroom setting to a professional writers’ room of a show?

The biggest difference is speed. Or maybe that’s just how it feels when you’re suddenly surrounded by professionals. You hear athletes describe the jump from college to professional in that way—they say, all of a sudden, the game just gets faster. That’s true of writers’ rooms, too. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the rooms I’ve worked in. I’ve been surrounded by the smartest, funniest, most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met—it’s an absolutely humbling experience. Not only do they have better ideas, but they arrive at them faster. My best strategy for keeping up isn’t particularly insightful. I just put in extra work before and after hours and come into the room with ideas teed up and ready to go. Having those in my back pocket takes some of the pressure off.

Having co-written the series finale, what was it like to have the responsibility of writing the final episode?

It was an absolute dream. Dahvi has been an incredible mentor to me, and that gave me the confidence to execute our outline, while also taking a couple little swings of my own. That said, I had never written the finale of anything before, let alone a series with an ensemble as big and complex as ours. But Dahvi took the time to give me notes and let me to do revisions to my writer’s draft before she took the reins and did her passes. Honestly, when I think back on it, it’s sort of a blur. I put more pressure on myself than I ever had before, but I also did my best to have fun with it. I did a lot of additional reading to immerse myself in those final years of the 1970s—not historical stuff, but popular stuff like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Fear of Flying, Joan Didion’s The White Album, and Erma Bombeck essays. It was such an amazing opportunity. I’m very proud of how it turned out.

What are some of the themes in the show that you think are especially important today, and are reflective of society now?

I can’t say it’s a theme that reflects today’s society—sadly, it’s quite the opposite—but the theme of bipartisanship was particularly interesting to me. I was surprised to learn that, initially, the Equal Rights Amendment was a fairly uncontroversial issue supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Richard Nixon endorsed it immediately. And take, for instance, the character of Jill Ruckelshaus. She was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus and a prominent Republican feminist. In today’s political climate, the idea of a Republican feminist or conservative support for women’s issues seem so alien. The bipartisanship of the women’s movement was, at least in part, eroded by the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly, but I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there was a time in which Republican feminism wasn’t a contradiction in terms.

What was some of the research that was involved in bringing the seventies setting in Mrs. America to life?

Mountains of research went into this show, from pre-production to post. I can speak to the research we did in the writers’ room, which was a very significant chunk of that effort. We used every type of source we could get our hands on—books, oral histories, hundreds (maybe thousands) of newspaper clippings, magazine articles, documentaries, raw video footage, in-person interviews, archival research, everything. I took a trip to the archives at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, and we had a proxy do research at the Ford Library in Ann Arbor. It’s one thing to be historically accurate—we all cared deeply about getting it right—but it’s another thing to reach the level of immersion at which you feel comfortable being creative within the context of another historical era. During the first couple weeks of the room, I hung nine poster boards in the hallway of our office, one for each year of the show, and we all filled them with pop culture—historical events, movies, music, famous deaths. I don’t know how much of that stuff made it into the show, but when you walked down that hallway, it felt like you were surrounded by the seventies.

How did you and others that are working on the show balance dramatizing historical events, while also sticking true to history?

Our showrunner, Dahvi Waller, had an excellent sense for striking that balance. She worked on great period dramas like Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire, and she put all of that experience into creating Mrs. America. Obviously, it’s impossible to know what we don’t know. So much political life and family life happen behind closed doors. But we were aided by the fact that almost all of our major characters happen to be prolific writers. In a sense, they told us who they were, where they were, and what they wanted. It was a labor-intensive process, but it was possible to understand them as characters and dramatize their behavior, while also remaining true to history. But, in addition to character, we were also beholden to an almost decade-long timeline of historical events and elections and ratification votes at state legislatures. All of those events have to be squared with the structure of the story, but that’s the job. And some masochistic people like myself happen to find it fun.

Why do you think it’s so important for movies and television shows to reflect past, present, and future societal issues?

Because it’s entertaining! The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment and the rise of the Moral Majority had profound effects on American culture in the 1970s and we’re still surrounded by those effects. I understand that shows like Mrs. America can be politically important and educational—I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned during the years I spent working on it—but as a television writer, I think first and foremost of entertainment. Societal issues are personal issues. That makes for great drama.

How have you adjusted to the recent COVID-19 lockdown?

I am incredibly lucky. I can work from home. Not only that, but I’m accustomed to it. When the lockdown began, I already had a solid routine that allowed me to keep writing and stay creative — or at least try. I’ve been fortunate enough to take meetings virtually and continue working. I’m currently in a virtual writers’ room working on a new FX series, which has been a lot of fun. It isn’t the same as sitting around a table and writing on the white board and making actual eye contact, but writers are adaptable. We can be dangerous from anywhere.

What are you currently working on, and are there any projects that you wish to share with our readers?

I just finished outlining a pilot set in 1960s Las Vegas, when Howard Hughes bought the Desert Inn and declared war on organized labor. Who doesn’t love a good labor conflict? Just me, probably, but I’m excited to write it. It’ll be my first attempt at a true ensemble piece. I’m also working on a short story—the first in a collection about my father’s childhood and hometown of La Ceiba, Honduras. I’m constantly complaining about having so little time to write. If I don’t come out of this quarantine with some decent writing to show for it, it’ll be my own damn fault.