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Learning About Your Characters Through Action: A Conversation with ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Creator Raamla Mohamed

Raamla Mohamed, the creator, writer, and EP behind 'Reasonable Doubt,' speaks with Script about stating the theme through a pivotal piece of dialogue from lead character Jax Stewart, laying the groundwork for character development and writing grounded dialogue, and her career from working and also learning the ropes while on 'Scandal,' and so much more.

In Reasonable Doubt, you’ll judge Jax Stewart for her questionable ethics and wild interpretations of the law … until you’re the one in trouble. Then you’ll see her for what she is: the most brilliant and fearless defense attorney in Los Angeles who bucks the justice system at every chance she gets.

Make plans to settle in and get cozy while watching Reasonable Doubt on Hulu with a bowl of popcorn and your libation of choice, because you're in for an emotional rollercoaster that inverts between tears of joy and tales of grief. The pilot episode may be soon added to TV writing 101 classes on how to hook your audience right off the bat, laying the groundwork for compelling mystery, thrills, and character development. 

I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Raamla Mohamed, the creator, writer, and EP behind Reasonable Doubt. We talk about stating the theme through a pivotal piece of dialogue from lead character Jax Stewart, laying the groundwork for character development and writing grounded dialogue, and her career from working and also learning the ropes while on Scandal, and so much more. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Jax Stewart in Reasonable Doubt - “Can’t Knock The Hustle” - Episode 101-Photo by Ser Baffo/Hulu.

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Jax Stewart in Reasonable Doubt - “Can’t Knock The Hustle” - Episode 101-Photo by Ser Baffo/Hulu.

Sadie Dean: That opening scene in the pilot is such a great way to hook an audience and pique our interest for the first season. What cemented it for me was this line from Jax, “Hurt people, hurt people.” It resonated but also hit it on the head of where she is and what the show is going to be about.

Raamla Mohamed: You know it's funny Sadie, you're the only person that’s picked up on that, because that to me is the theme of the show. And she says it like a casual joke, right? She's still hurting, and you see other characters on the show doing the same thing.

Sadie: Exactly. And the way you approach that through her character development along with her surrounding circle and how we see her let certain people into her bubble and what part of her she allows them to be part of – it’s all so interesting. I really look forward to seeing where she ends up five seasons from now. So, how did this story idea come to fruition?

Raamla: Well, actually, Kerry Washington and Larry Wilmore had met with Shawn Holley, who is this badass defense attorney. She represented Kim Kardashian, she was on the OJ trial originally. And they just liked her kind of vibe, what she does. What's interesting about Shawn is that kind of like Jax, she can compartmentalize how she feels about the person, and legally the crime that they did. And even like the opening scene, where the guy is saying all this stuff that happened, and she’s like, ‘I don't hear a crime that came from that story,’ Shawn told me about something similar and I just thought, ‘Wow, that's so interesting that she was able to obviously hear this is not a good situation,’ but she was able to listen and go, ‘Yeah, but I'm waiting for the crime,’ and so I personally found that fascinating.

They asked me to come in and meet with them. And one of the first things that I said after reading up on Shawn and thinking about the idea of doing the show about a Black lawyer, and how to make it different was one thing I really hadn't seen is a Black lawyer at the office versus at home - they call it like code-switching a little bit - and we don't really see this professional person really take their hair down, and how they are with their friends and their partner, kids, and family; so those are kind of the initial elements that I wanted in the show.

Raamla Mohamed. Picture by Calvin Leonard.

Raamla Mohamed. Picture by Calvin Leonard.

We started developing the show. First, it was for ABC network. And then after ABC network passed, Jonnie Davis, at ABC Studios, was like, ‘We should redo it for streaming.’ And then I was like, OK, now that it's going to be on streaming, I really wanted to make her more complicated and messier. And similar to the shows that I like to see, like Don Draper [laughs] I've always wanted to see the Black female Don Draper - I love Mad Men - but even like a Felicity or these shows that have been really inspiring to me. So, I just kind of went from there. I [often] say, her job is Shawn Holley and the way she thinks legally is Shawn Holley, but all the mess is me. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] I love that. And you've brought up something that's so interesting that I think my readers will find worth diving into, which is pitching to a network like ABC and then pitching and changing to fit streaming. Obviously, you get to add some more of that messiness you mentioned, but is there a huge difference in the writing and pitch between network and streaming?

Raamla: Yeah, there was a difference. I think obviously, writing the show for ABC network, you know, ABC network as a brand, so I'm writing toward their brand. But one thing I will say is, once I knew it was going to be streaming, I wasn't writing for a particular platform, it wasn't like I was writing for Hulu or Netflix. So, I just kind of had more freedom just to be like, ‘I'm just gonna write the show that I want, and then we'll see who will want it.’ [laughs] And, kind of happenstance, Onyx Collective was just getting started, and Tara Duncan was looking for kind of this bold, dynamic show. I had already developed the pilot, she read the script, and was like, ‘Oh, this is perfect for us.’ So, that was kind of a better seat to be in, right, because I'd already been able to freely develop the show the way that I wanted.

Sadie: Which is so important to be able to have that creative freedom for something that you want to see and that you want to make. I’m sure that’s so creatively liberating.

Raamla: Yeah, exactly. And obviously, you know how it is with the development process, you have notes, you have all these things that are changing, but at least the foundation of what I wanted was there, so it was easier to kind of know what my vision was and not lose that.

Sadie: Equally important. Jumping back into the character that is Jax, just as a character, she's very much a woman of our time, and what she's doing, what she's juggling and everything we mentioned before – it’s really enjoyable to watch and hear her tell it as it is. Also, just going to put it out there, I’d pay top dollar to watch her do some stand-up comedy.

Raamla: [laughs]

Sadie: She's got some great zingers in there.  Her life experiences are just ripe for comedy.

Raamla: [laughs] Yeah, Larry Wilmore, obviously who is a genius comedian, we've talked about like, ‘Should we just do the comedy version of this show? Reasonable Doubt as a comedy.’ [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Yeah, it’s one of her new releases; she goes jogging in the morning and at night she’s doing her tight five at a local comedy club. But with that said, we have all of these different characters from different walks of life, she has a great friend group but what also stands out is the dialogue. I'm curious, how do you approach writing dialogue and having these very unique and dynamic voices that also enrich character development?

Raamla: Well, one thing that was the main goal for me was that the show is very grounded, like that was kind of the theme of everything, right? So grounded even like with costumes, for instance, we see a repeat of stuff that she's wearing, and also the lighting that we see, the source lighting that's used; so that kind of translates even with the dialogue. I wanted the dialogue to sound the way people talk. And also, feel like this is what this character would say, or this is how this character would respond.

So, what that requires is really knowing the characters, right? Not only just Jax's, but also knowing her friends, not just their professions, or who they are. A lot of times what I do for character development is a very simple exercise - I'll say, ‘OK, what kind of person is this? Is this a person who, when they go to the grocery store, and they're done with their cart, do they leave it in a random parking space? Or do they lock the car and put it where the carts go? Or do they stress out about where to put it and then just end up putting it between two parking spots and hope it works out?’ [laughs] Because that tells me a lot about a character. I kind of go through those things, versus like, sometimes people say, ‘Oh, we have to know everything about them. Did they have a dog growing up?’ And that might be OK, that might be helpful, but for me, you learn character through action. How people act and what people do, is this a person who always lets someone in front of them, or speeds up when they see someone put their blinker on? If I have those kinds of basic dynamics, it'll tell me, on top of just who they are, but that'll tell me who they are at their core character. And so that's kind of my defining principles. Once I'm able to figure that out, then I can write the dialogue.

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And also, I really try to think about each person's perspective, like in the pilot, you have Rich, and when Brayden comes in and meets Jax - what are the triggers and traumas that the character is bringing into the scene? And to me, in every scene with these characters, I've said to even the actors, a lot of times when people talk to each other, they're talking through triggers and traumas. You're not actually having a real conversation. Something happened in the past, whether it's yesterday, or three years ago, when someone has said something that makes you feel uncomfortable or a certain way, and then they say something, and then you respond based on how you feel. I definitely think about that when I'm writing the dialogue.

The other thing and this is a hard thing, I think for people to understand, but this is what we talked about in the writer’s room, even when I was just rewriting scripts, because what I tried to do is not just rewrite, but also inform the writer of how I like things. Like, if I feel like they’re writing too much dialogue, ‘Hey, just so you know, guys, when I trim or make rewrites a lot of times, I'm cutting four sentences to one sentence or something. Because you got four sentences that are saying the same thing.’ [laughs] And that helps the writers learn, it helps for a better writer’s room, then by the end, I get scripts that look more like the show that I'm trying to do. That's what I think about when I'm thinking about dialogue.

And the final thing was that people are hypocritical. A lot of times when you get notes, or people are thinking about scripts, they have a character, and it's like, ‘the character feels this way.’ And every time they're very consistent. For me, people aren't consistent. Like, it's like the Shanelle scene, she's like, ‘Oh, my husband's cheating on me.’ And then she's like, ‘Girl, let me give you some advice about relationships.’ [laughs] And Jax is like, ‘Wait, what?’ [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Right, of all people to tell me.

Raamla: Yeah, I'm like, that's how people are. People are hypocritical. People will say, ‘I'll never do that.’ And then they'll do something else. So, I wanted to make sure that I understood the character, but also part of understanding them is understanding what their hypocrisies are, what their flaws are, and what they can't see. And Jax, she's coming into that scene, like, ‘Clearly I'm here, because I'm the Black lawyer.’ So she's like, ‘Alright since I'm the Black lawyer, I'm gonna try to bond with this guy.’ And he's not interested because he feels triggered because he doesn't feel taken seriously, because clearly, they brought in the Black lawyer. And he's pushing back on her. Versus me just thinking of him as an asshole…which he is. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] He is.

Raamla: But I also have to understand why is he behaving this way. People just aren't assholes to be an asshole, there's a deeper reason. And he's flexing that and because we see we've seen her in this kind of all-male environment, now she's like, ‘Oh, this is just another misogynist dude, trying to pull me down or trying to embarrass me in front of my colleague.’ So as long as I know what the dynamics are, then it just becomes like tennis to me - a back and forth.

Sadie: It's such a great way to tackle it, too. And just I love that shopping cart analogy. Putting together your writer’s room, what were you looking for in voices to round out your vision?

Raamla: At some point, I realized that I wanted a Black writer's room, because the show, there were so many black characters, and I felt like, I really wanted to, almost nullify the Blackness in the room, so that we didn't have to explain it to one side of the room that doesn't understand that, it could just be a shorthand. And we can really just bring our personal experiences into the show. And then the Blackness just obviously was there because we're all Black, and it will kind of trickle in. Jason Wilborn, who was one of my co-EPs, he's a dad, he brought in the story about his daughter starting her period, and so that's just a human story, or the moms in the room talking about the guilt of being a mom or juggling different things.

I was interested in, obviously, their writing, and reading samples. What I was looking for in samples, mostly was to really feel like I couldn't put it down, like it was flowing, the dialogue, there was a voice in there, confidence in the writing, and a command of storytelling, even if it's not perfect. I think, for the most part, people decide if someone's a good writer in like the first five to 10 pages. And then after that, you're kind of like, ‘This might not have paid off,’ but I'm not thinking they're a terrible writer, they have kind of have commanded the page and gotten me into your style and who you are, then I'm kind of going to go along for the ride.

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And then the next step is just having a meeting with someone and it's subjective, just like TV's subjective, right? Like, I might watch a show, and I'm like, ‘That shows amazing,’ and you're like, ‘That show is trash.’ [laughs] It's the same thing with writers, right? I remember this writer on Scandal, he told me that you can be a genius in one room and a moron in the other. And so he said, ‘I just tried to go to the rooms where I'm a genius.’ [laughs] It just shows, it's subjective as to how you're going to connect with people like dating, I guess, right? Like, am I gonna connect with showrunners and material? I know there are shows that I just wouldn't be able to write - I don't get the logic, or I might not get the showrunners dialogue style or whatever. So, I try to even just remind writers of that, if I go speak or talk to writers, don't feel like if you don't get a job, or if someone doesn't like your work that you're not a good writer. Just learn from it and try to just be the best writer you can be and at some point, you'll click with the person who you're supposed to click with.

Sadie: I love that advice. Going back to your vision, I’d like to talk about the other part of your creative team: your directors like Kerry Washington and Pete Chatmon and your DPs like Robert Arnold, what was important for you for them to carry through in terms of the feel and texture and even the rhythm of your show and just how to elevate your characters and their storylines?

Raamla: I basically kind of begged Kerry to direct it mostly because I really felt like she's so great with performances and actors. And for me, that's really so much of it because I really believe the script is a foundation and every level, the acting, the directing, editing is kind of adding on to that. So, it was important to me that we got really good performances. And so finally, she did say yes, but what was great too, is that we talked a lot about the vision, Kira Kelly was the DP on the pilot, and I sent different comps, and, Kerry sent some, and we just went back and forth about style, and where Lewis is in the frame and all this stuff. And then, it was really important to me to have a producing director, because I had a great one Tom Verica on Scandal, and it's kind of nice, just for the actors and the writers to have a constant presence on stage, someone they know, ‘OK, this is who's at the home team at home.’ And Pete is just so great. I actually went to college with his wife, Kelly, and so I called her, ‘Do you think he's interested in being a producing director?’ And she's like, ‘Yeah, that's what he wants to do.’ And so I met with him and Kerry, and ABC loved him, obviously. And it was just perfect, because he has directed a lot, he talks to everyone on a crew. And what was important, what we talked about is also making sure to bring in directors who hadn't done a lot - not necessarily for this season, but just in the future, like just trying to give a shot to people, particularly women and people of color. And so, that was important.

McKinley Freeman as Lewis Stewart in Reasonable Doubt - “Can’t Knock The Hustle” - Episode 101-Photo by Ser Baffo/Hulu.

McKinley Freeman as Lewis Stewart in Reasonable Doubt - “Can’t Knock The Hustle” - Episode 101-Photo by Ser Baffo/Hulu.

And then Rob, he actually was our B-camera operator on the pilot. And there was an opportunity because Kira was only doing the pilot. And he talked to a few of us and said he wanted to be promoted. He had a plan of what he would do. He had a vision. And a lot of times I feel like, particularly with women or people of color, sometimes it's like, ‘Oh, well, you know, they have to have done the job before to do the job.’ And I kind of was like, ‘No, I'm not into that.’ [laughs] I mean, only because I was like, ‘Just because he hasn't done the job - I know he went to AFI, I saw his reel and stuff - he could do it.’ And I was like, ‘Listen, he'll learn by proxy.’ And we hired Michael Negrin, who was a more experienced DP to be an alternate DP. And it was like, ‘Look, there'll be a balance.’ And he did incredible work. I was just happy we could kind of keep him in the mix.

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Sadie: Such a talented crew. And Pete - I love his work, his vision, what he comes up with. And knowing how prepared he comes to set, I was just like, ‘Do you even sleep?’

Raamla: [laughs] Yeah, and it's so true, there'll be times where he'd be like, ‘I want to do this and do that.’ And I'll be like, ‘Oh, I don't know. OK.’ And then I see it. And then I walk back on set, and I'd be like, ‘You know what Pete, I didn't see the vision.’ [laughs] I was like, ‘My bad. I didn't see the vision, but I see it.’ [laughs]

Sadie: You’re surrounding yourself with really great and talented people. And I love that you're elevating other people along the way, that wouldn’t necessarily get a chance otherwise. What piqued your interest in becoming a TV writer?

Raamla: It's interesting, because when I was in college, I was an English and film studies major, and I kind of just thought I'd be like the film scholar or something. I don't know what I thought. [laughs] And then after college, I got a job working in off-Broadway theater, and just saw all these plays, and it's kind of like, ‘I think I want to write.’ And then I applied to USC film school. I went there for writing and it just felt natural. I've had a lot of jobs, and my mom was a reporter, and she hated her job. And I was like, ‘I don't want to hate my job.’ [laughs]

And then I became an assistant through Shondaland. And I remember my first couple days on Grey's Anatomy, I went into the writer’s room with menus for their lunch order and they were like, ‘OK, give us a few minutes.’ I just listened in and I was like, ‘Do they just sit on these couches and talk about story and then someone comes in and gives them lunch?’ I was like, ‘I need this in my life.’ [laughs] ‘This is perfect for me.’ Shonda was someone who elevated assistants, a lot of the people who worked for her were assistants somewhere and on the shows in Shondaland. So I just kind of moved up and became a writer on Scandal. At this point, I'm not qualified to do anything else, so I really hope it works out. [laughs] 

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I've always liked TV and movies growing up - I was an only child - I just watched TV. And you know, you couldn't tape anything back then, you had to be there live to tape it. [laughs] I was just into watching things. It's kind of perfect, because I also didn't know that there was a place where your knowledge of TV would actually be helpful. My mom kind of made me feel like all this TV is not gonna pay off. What's the point? [laughs] But I'm like, 'I showed you.' [laughs]

Sadie: Yeah, you did. [laughs] I also appreciated, with both of us being LA natives, the part of LA we’re seeing in this show and how it’s another character too. Any advice for writers on how to tap into their voice and get it on the page?

Raamla: Before I answer that question, because you said the LA thing and we're talking about character development, too, I also thought about what part of LA the characters were from and where they lived. Because like Daniel, it was important I wrote the character as Korean, versus just like, “Asian” and I was like, 'No, Korean and Black, there's a history there, there's something there that I could use in the show.’ And so I wanted him to be from Koreatown, but living in Echo Park now. Just when you said the LA thing being from LA, right, what kind of LA and also that Jax grew up in Leimert Park, and now she lives in Baldwin Hills, it’s close, but it's obviously the upward mobility between generations.

Sadie: Right? Exactly.

Raamla: And the advice, I will say it's nice there are so many more shows, there's so many more opportunities, just for everyone, right? I mean, you know, for people of color as well, but I think really, the thing that helped me the most was watching a lot of pilots, even when I was developing this pilot, I'm always watching TV to learn what grabs my attention. Not just as a fan, but to strengthen my own writing. Even when it comes to the way I think of a shot or music or whatever it is, the way people use things. And so watching pilots, reading scripts, I tell people, ‘Read a lot of scripts, see how people write.’ You'll learn a lot from like, ‘Oh, I have too much action,’ or ‘My action lines aren't interesting enough,’ or whatever it is. And get a taste of what you like.

I was in the Disney writing program, so I do believe in applying to programs, applying to competitions. I was in a writer’s group with some of my assistant friends. Just kind of attacking it from all angles, really, because at the end of the day, it's helpful to have, obviously the connections and network if you can, but at the end of the day, it really comes to when someone goes, ‘Do you have something for me to read?’ That you have something for them to read. Because I made that mistake early in my career. I was an assistant and I was just working. And I was like, ‘No, I'm just an assistant.’ And I wasn't writing. And there was an opportunity. Someone was like, ‘Hey, I want to read your stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ I didn't have anything. It's hard. I used to write every weekend, and I had a full-time job. But you know, if you really want it, you just have to put in the work. And that's what I've seen from people who I graduated USC with, the people who were successful, were the people who stayed here in LA, and did the work and finally got the opportunity.

Sadie: Yeah, it is a lot of work. It's not an overnight thing, right?

reasonabledoubt_8100x12000-pre

Raamla: No. I became a writer at 30. And I was still the youngest or second youngest writer in the writer’s room in Scandal. There's this myth that if you don't do it till 22… [laughs]

Sadie: You're doomed! [laughs]

Raamla: [laughs] Yeah, we had writers like Matt Byrne and Paul Davies, people who had full careers, they became a writer. And it made them more valuable because they had experience. I don't believe it's ever too late. It's just about if you're willing to put the work in.

Reasonable Doubt premieres Tuesday, September 27, 2022, only on Hulu. 


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