Sharon Horgan: Supporting Female Talent

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen April 1, 2020
Sharon Horgan

Sharon Horgan is a busy woman. She is a mother, a producer, a writer, and an actress and she is the head of her own production company Merman, which she started with Celia Mountford. In the past 15 years, she has written 6 noteworthy TV series Pulling, Dead Boss, Catastrophe, Divorce, Motherland and Women on the Verge of which she starred in 4. She also wrote an episode of Modern Love called “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive” about a married couple in crisis. As an actress, she has appeared in the series Psychobitch, BoJack Horseman Disenchantment and the films Game Night and Military Wives and she will soon be seen in the film adaptation of the hit musical Everybody is Talking About Jamie. She recently produced the Irish film Herself written by Clare Dunne and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which premiered at Sundance this year. And Sharon Horgan is on a mission to support female talent.

 

Do you think that women are better at telling women’s stories?

Yes, definitely. Saying that I have written with two men very intensively, Rob Delaney and Dennis Kelly, and obviously many more in the writer’s room. The reason why these two work so well is that they have equally very interesting insight into the female characters, which I hope I also had with the male characters. When it comes to what would be considered women’s stories, I think that women tell them better and I am very glad that there is a decent amount of female writers around now who can cover it. For years it was really strange that female characters were told from a male perspective because that also limited the stories in some way.

 

Are women better at writing women because we are not afraid to write flawed women?

I think that is absolutely it. Obviously, there is access to our own sort of well of thoughts – bad and good and dark and light. I do think women are much more willing to be very honest about their feelings and failures. That is why nowadays there is much greater flux of writing about what it really means to be a mother for instance. It is actually mainly in comedy because you can dig into things and get away with things in drama that comedy was not allowed to do for a long time. Back in the day, the majority of comedy was written by men.

 

How did that affect the writing of female characters?

Women were often being based on a version of their mothers and the male writers would find it hard to write a woman who would admit that they find it very difficult to be a mother sometimes or often don't really necessarily like it or who are judging themselves too harshly. I think that this is why there are some really interesting stories about motherhood at the moment because we can finally sort of say that we can be terrible mothers or you can make big mistakes and it does not mean that you are bad, it just means that you are human. I think we are just much more willing to dive into all that. It is completely different now but there is way more access to writers who are willing to put themselves on the line and stand by particular storytelling, but it used to be that you had to find off along the way: ‘Am I allowed to say this?’, ‘Am I allowed to paint a mother or a woman in this light?’ I think that I am lucky with my career that I have been allowed to say what I wanted to say. That was a stroke of good luck and I did not realize that there was any other way of doing it. I just thought: ‘Of course, you are allowed – you can talk about anything,’ you know?!

 

It seems, however, that female stories actually sell now. Why do you think that is? And do you think we will see more female scriptwriters now that this is the case?

Yes. It all has to do with commerce at the end of the day. Things will not change finitely until there are more females at the top, who are making the decisions because you are commissioning your image or choose someone who directs that vision in your image. The reason why I think there are more female stories being told is that the system as a whole is changing. It is happening kind of slowly where women are now in positions of power commissioning for streaming services or networks going ‘this is what I want to see’ and so that passes down. The reason why they are selling is that they are really great stories and that they are told really well and everyone can see the benefit of not telling the same story over and over. There are so many male superhero stories to keep us entertained. So there are only benefits from this because the landscape changes and you find that there are new things to talk about and new ways to do it.

 

You had your big breakthrough with Pulling in 2006 – a series about three female roommates. You were in your mid-30s. Why do you think you started success at this particular stage in your life with this particular show?

It took me a long time to get going. It took me a long time to have the confidence to put myself out there and to think that I could do it. That is the way it is for a lot of people. It is not like curious me. It is a little bit of a female trait. I did not even think that there was a chance that I could have my own show or anything like that. It was sort of little bits of good luck falling into it at the end of the day. At that time, there were not a lot of female writer-performers unfortunately for the TV landscape but that is also how I got my break because there were not 15 other shows talking about that thing at that time, so we kind of slipped in there. It definitely took me a while to get going, but once it got going I turned my motor on to the maximum and have not really stopped. There is something to be said about entering the industry at that comparably later age, the mid-30s. You definitely have a stronger sense of who you are and you have a stronger sense of what kind of stories you want to tell. I am not sure it would have been as good as Pulling if I had not landed at that particular time.

 

You examine relationships in a lot of your scripts and they are pretty flawed, to say the least. What is it about relationships and particularly screwed up ones that are so interesting?

They are the stories I want to listen to at dinner parties. They are the sort of thing that makes me pop my ear in the direction of the story. I don’t really get a huge amount of pleasure out of everyone telling me how great their lives are or what a perfect situation they are in. It is not that interesting – only in a sort of anomaly kind of sense. But it is also harder to dramatize and make that funny. Messed up relationships are just very giving if you get your characters right and the situations are truthful and pretty stark – then the world is your oyster. With Pulling, it was much more about friendship but there was obviously a relationship at the heart of it. Catastrophe was definitely about relationships but it is about trying to hold on to what they love about each other and how that works whilst bringing up a very young family. Divorce is clearly about the complete breakdown of a relationship. I just find them endlessly fascinating. Every facet of the human condition is in there and there are always two brilliant sides to the story. There is your perspective and then the perspective of your suffering partner. It is great. It is just a great way of putting things sparky kind of material, and you just have to be careful that it does not always turn into a fight. I don’t think I ever stop finding them fascinating. I mean the bad ones. And it is not just about the conflict. Sharon and Rob in Catastrophe had an amazing relationship, it was just terrible things happen to them. Terrible things happen every day and we just have to weather it.  

 

You wrote Catastrophe with Rob Delaney. What made you decide to end the show after the fourth season?

We wanted to stop while it was still really good. Rob thought that he had said all he really had to say about having children of that age and I think I relished the idea of getting out while we were on top. It was about getting the last season as perfect as we could and especially that finale episode, so it did not just go out with a wimp. We gave it a big old bang of the drum.

 

You have a production company – Merman – that you run with Celia Mountford. Is it important for you to support women and tell women’s stories?

Yes, that was one of the main reasons for setting it up. There was a gap in the market and it is so much harder for younger females to get their foot in the door whether it be as a director of TV or as a creator of TV and we felt we had enough experience behind us to vouch for people with less experience and get their things moving and off the ground. It was an angle for the company and something we felt very strongly about. It has paid off really well and we predominantly attract female voices but we also attract voices across the board now, because we have been able to tell those stories well and we are very ballsy. We make sure that the writers get their visions across on screen the way they want it. We fight the corner of the writers as much as we possibly can. We try to put our money where our mouth is in terms of working with female directors. They would be our first go-to place. Of course, we work with male directors as well but in terms of the initial phase of suggesting people who would be right for projects, we feel it is a good idea to start with a female and take it from there.

 

You are a producer on Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, which premiered at Sundance. What attracts you to the producer role?

I was very lucky that I was able to be a more creative producer than a not involved kind of producer. The script, which was written by Clare Dunn arrived at my script years ago. We had literally just set up Merman, and the reason why I wanted to produce it is because I thought it was exactly the kind of thing we should be making and it was exactly that kind of talent we should be working with: New young female writers, new voices, who were telling female stories. I thought it was a really powerful and beautiful work that was important and timely. We brought Element Pictures on board, who are such incredible producers themselves and who have huge amounts of experience, especially in Irish film. Phyllida was on board already because of her relationship with Clare and it has been a really interesting journey to be behind the scenes in this film. It has been a lot more in-depth than I have experienced previously in terms of selling the film and distribution and that kind of thing. It has been wonderful and I would like to do a lot more of it. It is a real buzz seeing Clare on the stage getting a standing ovation everywhere it played and seeing her in the exact place she should be. It is incredibly fulfilling to have had any hand in that at all. It is very satisfying.