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Writing Stories You Want to See On Screen with ‘Queens’ Creator and Writer Zahir McGhee

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'Queens' creator and writer Zahir McGhee about the origin story for his new hit TV show, his writing journey and shares his daily thoughts and hopes on the future of television.
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Queens follows four women in their 40s who reunite for a chance to recapture their fame and regain the swagger they had in the '90s when they were legends in the hip-hop world. "Queens" stars Eve as Brianna aka Professor Sex, Naturi Naughton as Jill aka Da Thrill, Nadine Velazquez as Valeria aka Butter Pecan, Taylor Selé as Eric Jones, Pepi Sonuga as Lil Muffin and Brandy as Naomi aka Xplicit Lyrics.

Packed with 90s hip hop nostalgia, Queens creator Zahir McGhee adds an extra layer of zest grounding reality with the music scene fantasy world all the while intersecting four distinct character storylines. And to top it all off, the music and lyrics interweaved with character dialogue is wax poetic. I had the utmost pleasure speaking with Zahir about his origin story for his hit show Queens and his writing journey. We also have a brief "therapy is in session" discussion as he shares his daily thoughts and hopes on the future of television. 

QUEENS, ABC.

QUEENS, ABC.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: This show, I am hooked.

Zahir McGhee: It's super fun. And the ladies are obviously incredible. And their chemistry is incredible. And the music we've been able to produce over the first couple of episodes is amazing. And I can say it because I'm knee-deep in post, it just gets a lot better. And that's hard to say because I'm really in love with the first two episodes, but three, four, and five are incredibly special.

Sadie: And those earworms you guys are creating with those lyrics and songs.

Zahir: I gotta say, obviously, Swizz Beatz and Grady Spivey, Ruby Amanfu among a few who's Grammy-nominated, and just to talk to them and give them these one-page briefs and then like 3.5 hours later, there's the song where you're like, ‘Oh, my God, how did you do this?’ My ego as a writer and a creative person has taken a hit working with these musical geniuses.

Sadie: Well, you know what they say, surround yourself by people who are better than you.

Zahir: Oh, there's no doubt that they're better than me.

Sadie: I think you're on equal footing with them. What inspired you to create these characters in this world for the series?

Zahir: It's been a long road here. The long-form answer is it starts with my love of hip hop and particularly a concert I went to in 1997, where I saw Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine.

Sadie: What a lineup!

Zahir; What a lineup, right? Rage was huge, but Wu-Tang was coming from this very New York hip hop world to being introduced to all these people. This was their big tour. And I went to that show, and I was 17 and just had great seats and it was this magical night that I'll never forget. And they broke up, they left the tour for all the reasons that we saw on the Wu-Tang documentary. But they've gotten back together and obviously, they’ve become even more cultish heroes now in 2021. I went to a show with a friend in 2007 and I was like, ‘Well, I'm gonna relive how it felt when I was 17.’ I think he came over with like, some 40s, and we're pretending to be young, and I brought out my Tim's and my Wu Wear hoodie. And you get there and you're like, ‘Wow, I feel like I'm 17 again.’ ODB had just passed away, and they wanted to do his song, so they brought out the Young Dirty Bastard, and I'm expecting to see like a 10-year-old or something. I don't know why. And then out walks a man who looks like he must be 21. And then it dawned on me in that moment, I was like, ‘Wow, they're fathers, they're grandfathers,’ like you don't think of Ghostface or ODB as being a father or a grandfather. And that really got me thinking, which is inherent in this show, which is hip hop is such a new genre, right? Like, we don't have Mick Jagger or Stevie Nicks, we don't have those people yet. And so, Jay-Z gave us an album of a rapper at 50, where he talks about infidelity in marriage and Blue Ivy and Basquiat and these things that are very adult that we don't think of as hip hop. And I was obsessed with that idea. And the pitch was, I would quote lyrics from famous female MCs and be like, ‘Can you guess who said that?’ And so, we would quote like a sort of raunchy’ish Lil’ Kim lyric, and then I would be like, ‘Guess the rapper.’ And I would then say, ‘Now imagine you had to tell that to your daughter.’ That’s what I wanted the show to be like. Hip hop is such a young genre and the female MCs have just not gotten their due. And obviously, I was inspired by what has happened this year. Megan had such an incredible year, and was on SNL, grandmothers are singing WAP, right? And at the same time, we don't talk about the fact that Megan Thee Stallion got shot by her boyfriend in the same week that she had two number one singles.

Zahir McGhee

Zahir McGhee

And I’m so obsessed with Eve and Brandy and the women of hip hop. And there's a great book called The Motherlode that came out a couple of months ago that's about the 100 greatest female MCs. And I just felt like the way the world looks at women, post 40 is interesting. And I think the way the world looks at women in hip hop post 40 is particularly interesting. Like, Jay-Z is going to get the opportunity to grow old in hip hop. I don't know who that woman is that's going to be given the opportunity to grow old in hip hop. Shonda would always say, ‘Create the world that you want to see, not the one you live in.’ So yeah, that's the world I want to see.

Sadie: I got chills from that story.

Zahir: That's the power of music.

Sadie: It really is. It's something about being a female, but also being a woman of color, and having that voice and that legacy. And there've been so many female groups from the 80s through the early aughts, and they’ve just been pushed aside – yet they were so great. And it does beg that question of ‘what happened?’

Zahir: Yeah, or they're not considered. We don't want to hear what they have to say. What is really special about what's happening in the current day hip hop is that we think that they have more control, that somehow Cardi and Megan are saying things that they want to say, and Eve and I have talked about this quite a bit - like you kind of have to be attached to a crew, right? The Rough Ryders have Eve, Jay-Z has Foxy, and Lil’ Kim was attached to a crew. She was saying the same sort of sexually empowering new feminist things that we think of with these women today. But was she writing that or was it Biggie writing that? And those sorts of things were incredibly interesting. We really got to know hip hop girl groups at the inception of hip hop and the late 80s and early 90s, but they kind of went away, right? In some ways, it's obviously different than En Vogue, SWV, or TLC, not completely dissimilar, because these groups have a lot in common, but are kind of creating a fantasy world. In the pitch, I would say like, ‘Imagine if Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Missy Elliott, we're in a group together.’ Because we deserve that.

Sadie: Please give that to us. [laughs] So, when casting and getting names like Eve and Brandy, did you go back through their individual characters to further develop those voices with them?

Zahir: I would say not so much in the pilot. But I can say in writing episode two, you just sort of got their vernacular in a way. And I think it was really important. First of all, the casting process was insane because I had a production commitment for the show. And I was an idiot - I thought that meant they had to make it. [laughs] So I'm just literally calling agents being like, ‘I'm making a TV show at ABC. And I want Eve in my show.’ And I knew from the beginning that I wanted two out of the four people, at the very least, to have had actual experience from that era, because I knew we'd be doing a lot of music every week. So, I just called and I said to Eve, ‘I don't really care what you do, if you want to be the manager, if you want to be the janitor, if you want to be whatever, I just want you to be in this TV show’. And she said, ‘Well, let me read it.’ And I sent it to her, and she read it and I was hoping she would want to be Brianna and connect with Brianna. And she did. And so, I just let that happen. And then we talked a lot about what were the connections that she had with this. And then with Brandy, I thought Naomi was the right choice for her. And she really gravitated towards that because of her history in the music business. And obviously, she's incredibly close with her daughter and being a single mom and trying to figure that out and all that stuff. And so it sort of all happened in that way.

[Creating a Feeling and Time with 'The Souvenir Part II' Writer-Director Joanna Hogg]

And we do steer clear of anytime I write something that feels that it's particularly in the world, I run that by them or ask them, ‘Do you have a problem with anything that we're saying here?’ And it has never been a problem. But I always want to listen to them in terms of like, is this realistic to a woman of color? Because I know that I'm not and let's make it as real and authentic without stepping on anything in your life that you don't want us to. Eve has publicly talked about one thing she liked about this role was to be an alter ego rapper. But now their voices are so impacted in the show and I find myself writing things for Naomi that Brandy said to me, not like in terms of story, but just vernacular and things like that. And then you know, as with any great TV show, when you have the talent like we have on our show, you kind of just let them run with stuff. And they're writers of the characters as well now.

Sadie: You’re writing these great female characters, and obviously, you're not a woman, you don't have that voice and perspective. Have you had any creative challenges or maybe learning things about your own voice and point of view while writing these characters?

Zahir: Well, my history is one of writing mostly women in television. I came into a world luckily, where there were tons of women of color, front and center. Women were not secondary characters, they were the leads of their stories, they made their own decisions, they were the smartest people in the room. And so that's not anything that's new to me, not to mention, my obsession with television began with the first character I saw on scripted TV that I felt like I most identify with, which was Claire Danes, in My So-Called Life. That felt like me. So, I don't think I've run into any challenges. And also, in my room, we have 11 writers, nine of them are women. I'm the same age as the characters in the show, so writing about second chances or what my next chapter is, or feeling trapped in the life you're in, that's a universal thing that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with gender. I think that the stories lend themselves to that.

I can't say that we've run up against any challenges, but I encourage my writers and the ladies on the show, and there are things that I don't get involved in. Like, I'm not going to tell them what their hair should be. If someone says they're uncomfortable with a wardrobe thing, all you have to do is tell me that and that's it because it's ultimately not something that I understand having to put yourself out there as a woman in whatever outfit and dance around. And the most important thing would be for them to be comfortable so that they can deliver the performance that makes them feel great. So certainly, listening to them and listening to my writers as I would in any case if I was writing about anything. You want to have different points of view. But I think a lot of what they go through is universal to everyone. I think this is a show that people can really connect with on a lot of different levels.

Sadie: In terms of putting your writers’ room together, what were you looking for in a writer's voice to round out the room?

Zahir: I have been wanting to do a little bit of an experiment for a long time with populating a room with a lot of comedy writers, as a drama writer. And so that was one thing I was looking for, because the show, by design, vacillates in tone quite a bit. They take some very serious things incredibly funny, and they take some funny things incredibly seriously. And that's sort of the fun of the show. So definitely people who had a flair for character, but also things that were real emotionally, but also funny, is what I was looking for. And I wanted to have as many women as I possibly could in the room. I just think that that's probably where I feel most comfortable anyway, but we wanted to have a diversity of opinion. And I wanted people who I thought could nail the tone of the show and then also having generational conversations, right? Like, how do you have a mother in the room? And how do you have someone who is a 27-year-old black woman from Chicago? And how do they compare with a 45-year-old white woman from New York? And just having those differences of opinion. But ultimately, the writers’ room is this sneaky thing where really all you're looking for is can I get six or seven of the best writers in Hollywood? Because then generally, it's going to work out. But I think we did a good job representing the world at large in our writers room and representing what we're seeing on screen in our show.

[Intimate Connections to Character and Location with ‘Bergman Island’ Writer-Director Mia Hansen-Løve]

Sadie: You've had like the master class of all master classes in TV writing, but what initially inspired you to become a storyteller?

Zahir: It's really my dad, he was a huge movie guy, and he didn't really want to go see bad movies or kids movies. So, at a very young age, my brother is five years older, all three of us are going to the movies, what are we going to watch? So as the youngest in that situation, I benefited greatly from the fact that they didn't want to go see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even though I love that movie. I saw White Men Can't Jump in theaters when I was 11. I saw Pulp Fiction, like being 12 years old and going back to your Catholic elementary school and being like, ‘What did you do this weekend? Oh, I went to see Pulp Fiction with my dad,’ that just gives you a lot of credibility. And obviously, those movies were good. And also the early 90s, were sort of the inception of the box where you could order movies at home. And the first one we ordered was New Jack City. And then there was this great run of movies like New Jack City, House Party, Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood. And for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, wait, there's people who grew up in places like I do, who make these movies.’ And so that was sort of always in the back of my mind, like, I could do it. John Singleton was like a hero to me. That's why I went to USC because he made a movie about where he was from. And now he's making it in Hollywood. So, I would say that's where the love came from.

And then, it's incredibly impractical to do. My parents never really took it that seriously. We didn't come from a whole lot, but they were intent on sending us to college and taking care of that. And the payback for that was not going to Hollywood, that was to do something incredibly sound. So, it sort of stuck in the back of my head. And then I went to two of the most expensive graduate schools in America. And USC was really the breeding ground for me. It gave me two years to write at a hefty price tag. I ran into professors that were just sort of like, ‘You can do it.’ It wasn't, ‘You're incredible,’ but it was just little things along the way like, ‘You have the talent and the disposition to be successful in this business.’ And then the next person will say something like, ‘Your writing isn't as far off from professionals as you think,’ and just these little lines that sort of happen and they keep you going, you know?

strategiesforsuccessfultvwritingcareer-500x500_360x

I had a pretty miraculous run out of USC, Shonda gave me my diploma at USC. A year to the day of graduation, I was in her office interviewing for a job on Private Practice. I don't know where I got the gall, but I said to her, ‘You're probably not gonna remember this, but you gave me my diploma.’ And she's like, ‘Oh yeah? Cool.’ And I'm like, ‘So now I need your help paying for it.’ Which at the time, I thought was like a genius thing to say. And she just said, ‘Sit down.’ And then she's like, ‘OK, go.’ Then I blacked out for what feels like four and a half days. And I've told her everything from the age of three months to twenty-two. [laughs] Obviously, the experience of working on Scandal was like a one of a kind of thing. And not only was I addicted to what that show was saying, and the writers that I met there, which are collectively the greatest group of writers I've ever worked with, they're just incredible. Chris Van Dusen, who created Bridgerton, and Raamla Mohammed who just had a show picked up with Hulu and Kerry Washington, Jenna Bans, and Pete Nowalk, like all in the same place. It was just insanity. Allan Heinberg, who is doing The Sandman and did Wonder Woman, and it's just ridiculous, right? It’s just completely insane what was going on in that room. And I was addicted to what that show had to say, the storytelling, what it did for TV, being on a hit broadcast show. The fact that Scandal brought a Black female lead to television for the first time in thirty-something years - that felt really special.

Sadie: That full circle there with Shonda, that’s amazing.

Zahir: Yeah, it’s crazy. I'm always leery of telling that story, but she's part of the story for real.

Sadie: She is a story! Do you think there's a positive trajectory and momentum for diverse content and creators in the future of television?

Zahir: This is such an interesting question. I've been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of weeks. I'm just going to talk, this is going to be therapy a little bit right now.

Sadie: I’m here for it, let’s do it.

Zahir: I have a ittle bit of anxiety, obviously, about this, because I'm in the very early stages of launching a show that had a huge cast and is good. And also, is incredibly done with a well-financed marketing campaign. And what does that look like today? And I will say this, lots of conversations whether I was going to stay or go to streaming when I signed my next deal at ABC. And my thinking really was, if I could put people of color on broadcast, I'm actually forcing people to watch something they wouldn't normally watch, and I think if you go to see Snowfall, as great as that show is, you're going to see it because you know exactly what it is. So, I just wanted to try to see what it would be like on broadcast. There's absolutely, I think right now, a desire to get different voices and different faces on screen. Were they successful? I can't say that I know the answer yet. And I don't mean success in terms of the quality of the show or the audience that is a fan of them. But what I think, it's a larger question as to what the overall television landscape is. But as we continue to get more outlets and fervor for more content, I can only hope and would imagine that the diversity of voice and diversity of opinion, and what people look like on screen will continue to change in an incredibly real and positive way. And we're only better for it. And certainly, if we can take the pressure off of feeling like, I'm not just failing for me and can I be the person to push the door open? You would hope that we have the freedom to make people of color have the freedom to make good things and bad things. And I don't mean bad things, but like it can be not received I mean, I love Wes Anderson, but he makes bad movies sometimes, right? And no one says we're getting rid of him. Beck can make an album every 10 years and we're like, ‘We love this one. We hate this one. We love this one. We hate this one.’ That's the sort of place where we're hoping to get where we can just make as much quality art that is real and resonates as best as it can and not have it be like, ‘Well, now's the time where we're going to try and monetize this’ or ‘Now's the time where this makes sense for us to do this initiative.’

I'm even of two minds about Queens a little bit. I had a show last year, Harlem's Kitchen that didn't go because of the pandemic, that was a completely different kind of show about black people. And this year, in the light of everything that happened with George Floyd and all that stuff, you know, companies and networks really went full bore on it. But then you look at the landscape, and you're like, ‘Oh, was this the year that we were going to do this, and is next year to be something different? And if we don't do well, if The Wonder Years doesn't do well, or Queens doesn't do well, am I out? Did I ruin it for everyone?’ And so, like I said, this is just therapy.

[Entertaining and Engaging an Audience with TV Writer and Former Showrunner of CBS' 'S.W.A.T.' Aaron Rahsaan Thomas]

Sadie: I think there has to be room to allow for failure. It's OK to fail, pick up the pieces and just do better next time.

Zahir: It’s also everything is so niche, right? And it's just crazy to think about. More people are watching Succession. The audience is so niche. And the question is, what is the next collective hit? It's an interesting thing that I think about all the time. No one thought Scandal would do what it did. No one thought Empire could do what it did, right? It's always dead. No one thought This Is Us could do what it did.

Sadie: It's just connecting with people, making universal stories, and characters too.

Zahir: For sure. And I think that's the best you can do is try and make something that feels authentic and real. I'm always out here, just trying to make the show that I want to watch. And Queens is a show that I want to watch.

Sadie: It's a show I want to watch too, Zahir.

Zahir: [laughs]

Sadie: And these four women, they have so much potential. I'm just like sitting here rooting for them. And as you know, like any artist, any creatives, you're always in your way. Especially with Naomi's character, so much potential, and she's just in her way. I see her as like the next Linda Perry on the show.

Zahir: Oh my god! Yeah, Brandy, and I talked about this quite a bit. That character is just so interesting to me, because it just oozes this talent, but has this sort of self-destructive quality. And the one thing that I think is super interesting about the show, which is obviously, we play a little bit of a rivalry for various reasons, between her and Valeria, and it's said astutely a couple of times in the show, but it's just so true - they're actually the same. They need each other in an incredibly weird way. Because Naomi is going to sabotage herself over here, and she has all the time in the world. And she can't see the forest for the trees, because she's so caught up in being, ‘I'm the best.’ And Valeria is like, ‘I have all the other stuff. This is just a stepping stone, and I don't care who I hurt on the way,’ and in reality, really couldn't go anywhere without one another.

[L-R] Naturi Naughton, Pepi Sonuga, Eve, Brandy Norwood, Nadine Velazquez on QUEENS, ABC.

[L-R] Naturi Naughton, Pepi Sonuga, Eve, Brandy Norwood, Nadine Velazquez on QUEENS, ABC.

I think that what we're seeing is these women growing together, and some of those bad traits fall away when they're with one another. And then we're going to see them exacerbated sometimes when they are with one another, right? There's a really interesting thing happening where we have a basis for what the dynamic is of the group before and seeing that evolve and change present-day and seeing what the new alliances are. And I don't mean like Survivor or Scandal. I mean, what are the friendships? And what I love in episode two is that scene between Eric and Brianna, where we learned that she went to graduate school, and they've obviously had some connection, and she says, ‘I love you, my dude,’ and I'm like, ‘Oh, that's the stuff that I really love about the show,’ which is continuing to draw on their history. But yeah, the characters are all self-destructive, in a way. Jill is obviously incredibly self-destructive.

Naomi, she's just that person in your life where you're like, I love to hang out with her, but I can only hang out with it for an hour. [laughs] Because it's too intense. And you don't know if you're going to say the right thing. There's one line that never made it into the show, which is something like, ‘Why is it that we always have to apologize to you?’ You know those people?

Sadie: Oh, yeah.

Zahir: You've always wronged them, no matter what they've done to you and you can only move forward if you apologize. It happens in the pilot, she makes Valeria apologize twice. And then she says the thing about Jill, goes nuts on Jill in the hotel and then says that and then Jill has to apologize to her. And we haven't capitalized that on that yet, but Naomi is a fascinating character and Brandy sort of embodies her in a lot of the really positive ways. But Brandy as a human is just this like incredibly compassionate artist and it's incredible to be around.

Queens is now airing on ABC and streaming on Hulu.


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