There are three top Primetime Emmy categories for dramatic storytelling — Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding TV Movie. In what may be a first, Carolyn Strauss scored a nomination in all three, as executive producer of HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Drama Series), Chernobyl (Limited Series) and Deadwood: The Movie (TV Movie). Combined, GoT, Chernobyl and Deadwood earned 59 Emmy nominations including a chart-topping 32 for the final season of GoT.
Two of the shows, Game of Thrones and Deadwood, stem from Strauss’ tenure as HBO president of entertainment. In 2006, she bought David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ pitch for a TV series adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire and was one of the project’s biggest supporters at the network until she stepped down in 2008 to segue to an HBO producing deal, with Game of Thrones among her first projects. She served as an executive producer through its final stages of development, its flawed unaired original pilot and its blockbuster eight-season run capped by a record Emmy haul of 47 trophies to date, including two Outstanding Drama Series, shared by her.
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Strauss also shepherded David Milch’s Deadwood series. It was during her tenure as entertainment president that the period drama came to an abrupt end with a sudden cancellation in 2006 after three seasons — in part due to an impasse between HBO and co-producer Paramount. At the time, HBO and Milch agreed to a pair of follow-up movies to wrap up the story, but they never materialized until last year when Deadwood: The Movie finally came together, picking up the story a decade after the end of the series. Milch had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was writing the script for the film, which Strauss executive produced in her fourth collaboration with the NYPD Blue co-creator after overseeing his Deadwood and John From Cincinnati series as an executive and also executive producing his HBO series Luck. (In another continuous collaboration, Strauss executive produced David Simon’s Treme after working on his series The Wire during her executive tenure).
A longtime friend of Benioff and Weiss, Craig Mazin, pitched Strauss a limited series about the 1986 nuclear plant disaster in Chernobyl. Strauss executive produced the project, which had flown largely under the radar and was given the difficult task of opening a new night of programming for HBO on Mondays. It went on to become an unlikely breakout hit, giving Strauss a second global blockbuster besides Game of Thrones.
In an interview with Deadline, Strauss talks about the finale of Game of Thrones that divided fans, an audition for the show she won’t forget, and whether she would like to be involved in the GoT prequels. Strauss also shares a touching moment from the production of the Deadwood movie, reveals whether there could be a sequel and whether she would like to revisit another HBO series she had worked on as an executive. Additionally, she discusses the surprising popularity of Chernobyl, what she learned from working on the limited series, and whether a follow-up is in the cards. Strauss also mentions one of the projects she has in development at HBO, a new comedy with aBridget Everett with whom she previously did a pilot at Amazon.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction when you saw that all three of your projects landed multiple nominations, including best program?
CAROLYN STRAUSS: It’s so thrilling, and I think they all had a different kind of resonance for me. On Game of Thrones because those guys (Benioff and Weiss) have worked so hard and spent so many years away from their families, to be able to go out like that, I was really thrilled for them. Then, there’s a big emotional story to Deadwood, not just the show coming back, but David working under very adverse conditions to conclude the script. And then Chernobyl, which was just an amazing experience. The care and detail that Craig Mazin, the writer, and Johan Renck, the director, put into it, and getting to work with my partner Jane Featherstone.
DEADLINE: With Game of Thrones, when did you know that it had something special and could become a hit? At the time you bought the project as an executive, HBO was not known for fantasy dramas.
STRAUSS: No, it wasn’t, but I’m not a fantasy drama person and I figured if I could like this kind of show, then the chances were that a lot more people could like it because you would get the people who are not fantasy drama people like me, along with all those people who are. So I thought, oh, maybe there’s a chance. I said, I’m going to enjoy this show, but I never said, oh, this is going to be a hit.
DEADLINE: The show got off a bumpy start with the original pilot getting scrapped. Did you have any trepidation after that first pilot that the series may not come together?
STRAUSS: I think the first run of the pilot wasn’t perfect, but I think you could see where the show lived in it. I think that all of us involved with making the pilot learned a lot from that experience and felt confident that we could go back, change it up and be on the road to something really special.
DEADLINE: Were you prepared for Game of Thrones to end? Did you lobby for another season, or were you content with the way the story was wrapped?
STRAUSS: I think David and Dan all along had a very clear idea of how they wanted to land the plane. I know some people were unhappy with it, but a lot of people were (happy). Personally I thought they did a superb job.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction when you first read the final script and the ending?
STRAUSS: My reaction was really mixed because obviously you don’t want the show to end and it was ending, but I was really pleased with how they ended it. I thought they did a great job.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised by some of the fan reaction? While at HBO, you went through a similar backlash after The Sopranos finale. And were the 32 Emmy nominations a validation after that?
STRAUSS: I think certainly after some of the stuff that I read in the press it was really nice to feel that support from the Academy. Everybody on every show works really hard. This show is a really, really difficult show to produce and for the whole team I think it meant so much to be recognized with the nominations we got.
DEADLINE: David and Dan have moved on with a big Netflix deal. Are you staying in touch with them? Are you still talking about Game of Thrones?
STRAUSS: I’m definitely talking to them, not as much about Game of Thrones, but I’m definitely talking to them. We became very friendly over the course of it, so yes, I aim to be in touch with them for a long time to come.
DEADLINE: You’re not involved in the GoT prequels. Are you OK being done with that universe or would you like to go back?
STRAUSS: No, I think, for me, if I’m not doing it with Dan and David and the crew that did the series, it’s not the same thing for me. I don’t want to do it again with a different group, I like the team. I like the team that’s there, but we all have different things we want to do.
DEADLINE: Game Of Thrones already has won a record 47 Emmy Awards. Are you hoping for more records for the show’s final Emmys?
STRAUSS: To me the show has certainly gone far beyond any dreams I ever had for it. So, whatever else happens is the icing on the cake, and it was certainly thrilling to see all the actor nominations this time around.
DEADLINE: When you were putting together the cast most of the actors were unknown. Was there any audition that still stands out for you?
STRAUSS: I think one audition that really stands out for me is Tormund Giantsbane, Kristofer. We were watching it on tape, and he had this enormous carrot and he just chomped on that carrot with a ferocity I’ve never seen before. So that one, this red-haired guy chomping on a carrot for me is one I won’t forget any time soon.
DEADLINE: You were part of the HBO team that canceled Deadwood. How difficult was that decision, and was the show something you’d been trying to revive since?
STRAUSS: There was a lot going on at the time, there were a lot of business complications with the deal of the show. Those were some of the worst phone calls I made as an executive, about Deadwood being canceled; it was really horrible. But getting to be part of the group that was able to finish the story, maybe not exactly the way David had intended, but being able to work with him to see it through at least, was incredibly meaningful.
DEADLINE: Originally Deadwood was supposed to end with two movies. Was the 2019 film a condensed from the original plan or was this a brand-new script that David wrote?
STRAUSS: There were lots of different plans out there, the script went through many iterations, but this was the ultimate version of it. I think there are so many different kinds of pressures on the network right now, and it was so difficult to get everybody together to do this one. I find it hard to imagine being able to do that more than once.
DEADLINE: Does that mean that a Deadwood sequel movie is out of the question?
STRAUSS: Well, obviously the bar’s high, it was an enormous amount of effort for David to be able to get that script done, and he did it so well, so that was one hurdle to jump. And then getting the deals together to get all the actors back was another huge hurdle to jump. The chances of that, being able to make that happen twice, I think, never say never, but seemingly a pretty distant possibility.
DEADLINE: Who was the main driver in getting the movie finally getting made? Was it the fans and their undying support? Was it David? Was it HBO?
STRAUSS: I think it was David. It was David getting ready, getting the script, working on the script and getting to the place where we could make it. And the rest of us, getting it done
DEADLINE: Was there anybody from the cast that you wanted but couldn’t get?
STRAUSS: it is a testament to the love that those actors have for David and the show. Molly Parker was traveling back and forth from another shoot. We each moved schedules so that she could come work on weekends. People made incredible sacrifices to make this happen.
DEADLINE: Was there a particularly emotional moment that stood out to you during the production of the Deadwood movie?
STRAUSS: When everybody first got together was at the table read for the movie. Having everybody in that room and watching as actors read their parts, there were actors who were just crying as they were going around the room and reading their parts, not even because the moment they were at was sad, but just because they were so moved to be back in the room, and back with David. I think it was incredibly meaningful to be able to be there and experience that.
DEADLINE: Is there any other show that you had developed or canceled (or both) as an executive that you would like to bring back in some shape or form?
STRAUSS: I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to work on some really fantastic shows, and I think most of them ended in the best way possible. I feel like if David Simon comes up with a great idea for The Wire Part Two, I would go for it. They are making a prequel movie for The Sopranos. I think it all rests on the shoulders of the guys who create this stuff; they’re the ones who do this so well.
DEADLINE: But you would be open to come on board if invited to any of those, right?
STRAUSS: Oh my god yes. I’ve had a great, great, great experience with almost every showrunner I have worked with.
DEADLINE: You hadn’t produced limited series until Chernobyl. What was it about that story that spoke to you? Do you have any personal connection to the disaster?
STRAUSS: I don’t. What happened was that I knew Craig Mazin through the Game of Thrones guys. He came to me and he pitched this story, and in his telling over a lunch or a meeting, it was so incredibly compelling that I was immediately drawn into it. And then I watched that happen again, and again, and again, and again because he then pitched it to HBO like that, and then he’d pitched it to our English partner Jane Featherstone like that, and there was a passion, and a detail, and a compassion with which he told the story. I was oh, I know Chernobyl, but I didn’t know Chernobyl at all. I was around when it happened, but then listening to the story and all the layers that he unpeeled as he told it, it just was so compelling, and I had to jump on that train.
DEADLINE: Working on Chernobyl, was there anything about the story that surprised you, that you had no clue about?
STRAUSS: I really had no clue about any of it really. I knew it was the reactor exploding, but how close the world came to exponential calamity, which was stopped by the sacrifice of so many people; I had no clue that we all came to something much more perilous.
DEADLINE: How difficult was it to achieve that level of authenticity? Obviously, he couldn’t film at the exact location of the disaster in the Ukraine.
STRAUSS: Craig is a ferocious researcher, and luckily enough, we found in our British producing partners, Sister Pictures and Jane Featherstone, somebody who shared that passion. In addition to our director, we went about hiring all the department heads who would do the same, from our production designer, Luke Hull, to our costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux, just phenomenal work into every department — every prop, every costume, all the make-up. It was amazing.
DEADLINE: You produced Game of Thrones, so you know first-hand what a global phenomenon is, but were you surprised that Chernobyl, about a 1980s Soviet nuclear disaster, became a big global hit?
STRAUSS: Totally. I knew it was really good, I’ve been around TV enough to know when something’s good. But we were on Monday night, I honestly didn’t think anybody was really going to watch it. I was like, OK, we’re doing it for the reviews. It went beyond that, and people really watched it. I was shocked that people really watched it, continue to.
DEADLINE: Are you now encouraged by that to do a follow-up?
STRAUSS: The Bhopal disaster? I think probably not. At the end of the day, as a producer in television, you’re only as good as the storyteller. So, if there is somebody who’s got the kind of level of passion and detail and compassion that Craig Mazin has, with someone to interpret it on-screen the way Johan Renck did, I’m all in. But until I’m presented with that, I’ll let Chernobyl stand at that.
DEADLINE: You just worked on three big projects at the same time. Are you taking a break? What are you doing next?
STRAUSS: Right now, I am going to be doing a pilot with Bridget Everett, who’s an incredibly talented actress, singer, comedian, and
that it’s on a much different scale. It’s teeny, teeny, tiny compared to some of these things. Other than that, just working on what I got in the hamper.