Navigating Hollywood, Episode 4: Sheryl J. Anderson, Creator of Sweet Magnolias, Transcript
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Allen Wolf: Thank you for joining us for the Navigating Hollywood podcast. I’m Allen wolf and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. Today, we’re joined by Sheryl Anderson, the Creator and Executive Producer for the Netflix show, Sweet Magnolias. We’ll get to hear about her journey to make this breakout hit and what inspired her along the way. Welcome, Sheryl.
Sheryl Anderson: Thank you so much, Allen. It’s great to be here.
Allen Wolf: Huge congratulations on Sweet Magnolias. I mean, amazing. Hats off. Creating your own TV show seems like a very big deal.
Sheryl Anderson: It is in that it is a big job, but also in that it is a big Joy. So I am delighted that it got the reception did the first season and very excited about starting season 2.
Allen Wolf: Fantastic. Well, can you take us back a bit? How did you first develop as a storyteller?
Sheryl Anderson: I was raised as a storyteller. My father was a career naval officer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom when we were growing up, but certainly in those days being a naval officer’s wife was a job of its own, and yet the two of them were fabulous storytellers. In the car driving places, with friends, even with big groups, just both had a real talent for telling stories, and they also encouraged my brother and me to read from the cradle up, took us to the theater, took us to movies. So I grew up with lots of stories.
Allen Wolf: Wow, that’s amazing. And did it just come out naturally in their conversations? Did they say, “oh, did you hear the story about this?” or was it just the way they related to life? What did that look like?
Sheryl Anderson: My father told great jokes, my mother swore she couldn’t tell jokes because she’d panic right before the punchline and worried she wasn’t saying it right. But they both enjoyed telling stories, but they were just great conversationalists and ours was the house where people would come and hang out, either just to visit. But my parents were also wonderfully nurturing people. So people would come to our house when they needed to talk through things. So I think it was a combination of just excellent communicators, but also people who loved story. My brother and I often talk about how we’d be waiting in line somewhere or would be in a restaurant waiting for the meal to be served, and my mother would say, “Look at the people over there at that table. What do you suppose they’re talking about? What do you suppose they’re here for tonight?” And on one level, I think it was just to keep us from getting bored and acting up, but I think she spent a lot of time looking at the world and going hmmm, I wonder… And that’s how I look at the world now as a writer, and I raised my kids the same way. I’m like, what do you think they’re thinking about? What do you think they’re talking about? What’s the back story that made that person do that thing.
Allen Wolf: So they just developed the language of story very early in your life.
Sheryl Anderson: Absolutely and it’s a blessing, and it’s interesting because my brother is a lawyer and he and I had a conversation one night about why I went one way and he went the other. And he pointed out that we both chose professions where persuasive of emotional language is used to achieve a particular end. I see a commonality across my work thematically that I write about communities and second chances.
Allen Wolf: Tell us a little bit about your journey that brought you to Sweet Magnolias and where you are today.
Sheryl Anderson: When Dan Paulson, the Executive Producer, first approached me about the show, I told him, “Well you want to do a show about southern women with one member of this ensemble who’s in the throes of divorce. I am a southern woman who is newly divorced. I believe I can speak to that.”
Allen Wolf: Would you say in some ways Sweet Magnolias was expensive art therapy?
Sheryl Anderson: You know I like to think of it as there is a wealth of material that we all have in our own lives and we shouldn’t be afraid to tap into it because I think the moments that might be deepest and hardest for us to summon up and turn into art are often the ones that resonate most with the audience. I think the overriding theme of season one is you are never alone. We have a lot of characters who say that to each other and certainly the way that our three ladies that the men in the show, that everybody in the show stands up for each other is fundamental to Serenity and to the people who live there, but I think it’s important for us as writers to reach out to the audience and say, “You’re not alone. I’ve felt this way. I’ve experienced this. I survived. You will too.”
Allen Wolf: So does that mean that as we’re watching this story we’re experiencing some of your story as well?
Sheryl Anderson: Well, I think anytime that writers truly write from the heart you’re getting bits and pieces of their story. But certainly, it was very important to me to portray the complexity of divorce, particularly after you’ve been married for a long time, and the blessing of friends supporting you through your darkest times as well as celebrating with you and your brightest times. The catharsis of writing, of using my experience to give depth and texture to a character’s journey, it was therapeutic. It was cathartic and occasionally quite satisfying.
Allen Wolf: And what ways was it quite satisfying?
Sheryl Anderson: Those moments in life where you don’t quite have the right words to be able to revisit it years later through a character and say just the right thing. It’s very satisfying.
Allen Wolf: Well. I remember a point in the show where one of the main characters, Maddie, actually says to her ex-husband that marriage is a sacrifice and giving and a two-way street and then she asked her husband, who has made a series of really bad decisions, “Did you finally get what you wanted?” Was that one of those moments?
Sheryl Anderson: Absolutely. Absolutely one of those moments. I pitched that moment because it resonated with me and because it was more compactly and persuasively stated than I was ever able to state it in my life.
Allen Wolf: Is it difficult watching those scenes? Like, does it take you back to what you went through or does it feel more healing and helpful to help you move on?
Sheryl Anderson: I’ve got a great therapist. I have a terrific church, and I have exceptional children. So I am now in a position where I can watch those scenes and say, well there was a purpose for some of this. That I am now able, along with my incredible writer’s room, to share these moments that seem insurmountable but also through our characters we’re able to say they’re not insurmountable. You will persevere and the love of good friends and family and the strength of community will help you.
Allen Wolf: With your other writers on the show, is that one of your roles, to draw out from them their own experiences, help them to get in touch with the good stories from their lives, the bad stories, and then help that to kind of weave into the story?
Sheryl Anderson: I always say, in my writer’s room I want everybody to feel safe heard, and respected and part of feeling safe. I will admit, I want people to feel comfortable enough to put their hearts on the table because I think that’s where great storytelling comes from. and it’s not necessarily the particulars of what somebody went through but it’s the emotion, it’s the themes, it’s the moments of great symbolic resonance. I do encourage people to share. We had a running joke in the room that we wanted to make the audience laugh out loud once an episode, cry once an episode, and then whatever they wanted to do in between was fine. But the running joke became that we wanted to do that to each other every day in the room and we laughed a lot together and we cried a lot together.
Allen Wolf: I assume for the characters and the journey that they’re going through, they’re all going to be making mistakes and they’ll actually say things that maybe later they’ll regret or do things that they regret. Is that a challenging thing to do, just have your characters do or say things that you know, they’re going to later regret.
Sheryl Anderson: I don’t think it’s particularly challenging. I think it’s fascinating. Conflict is the essence of drama, and we all make mistakes. Characters who do the right thing every time, all the time, are dull because they’re predictable. They’re always going to do the right thing. As human beings, we fall, we fail, we flail, and those are the kinds of characters that I want to write because I want people to be able to watch our show and say I’ve been there and I did have that community though. We certainly saw on social media after the show premiered. A lot of people were saying, “I was there and I didn’t have that community and I wish I had. “ But if we can encourage people to go out and find that community to build that community then, wow. What a blessing.
Allen Wolf: I remember there was a scene where one of the main characters said, “Follow your feelings and wherever it may take you,” And I remember thinking, okay what’s going to happen here? And then some things did happen.
Sheryl Anderson: One hopes mistakes lead to wisdom and one hopes it also leads to other people offering new grace. That’s how we grow. That’s how we learn. That’s how we become more fully-formed people. So I don’t think we should shy away from characters who make mistakes.
Allen Wolf: You’re the showrunner for Sweet Magnolias, and that’s not a term that’s credited anywhere. You’re credited as the creator, the executive producer. Can you describe what that word means in the television world?
Sheryl Anderson: Primarily, the showrunner in the writer’s room is the head writer, the final yes, the final no. When I was coming up, we talked about being the last pencil. Every script goes through my hands one last time before it goes to Netflix. And then on the production side, I have a marvelous Executive Producer, great Co-Eps. We get together and hire the department heads. In the first season, there were a lot of questions about what should this look like? What should the tone be? What should the palate be? What should the texture be? So my glib answer is always: everything’s my responsibility, so everything’s my fault.
But again, behind the scenes, I’m a huge believer in community. My first boss in television taught me, hire the best people and then get out of their way. And so I’ve been very fortunate in both seasons to have terrific teams, from the writer’s room, all the way through to production, and of course our glorious cast. And just as we say in Serenity, you are never alone. On the show, you are never alone. Somebody’s got your back. Somebody’s going to have an answer to your question. Somebody’s going to step in to help you figure out a problem. Show running is a lot of problem-solving. And fortunately, it’s the kind of puzzles that my brain likes. I have a friend whose team called her the “showmother” and I love that description. Because I really do think a big part of my job is taking care of everybody.
Allen Wolf: Well, I remember in episode 2 the sous-chef talks about his job and he says, it takes a lot of self-sacrifice, constant stress, long hours, brutal on the body, forget about the relationships, And I thought, is he talking about being a sous chef or being a showrunner?
Sheryl Anderson: Subtext. That scene actually did come out of a lengthy conversation about working in television and good bosses and bad bosses.
Allen Wolf: Wow. So you really were communicating what it’s like to work in television in that moment.
Sheryl Anderson: Yes.
Allen Wolf: That’s great.
Sheryl Anderson: So thank you for that Insight.
Allen Wolf: Well, you know, they say also that writers write versions of themselves as the protagonist of the story. Are there aspects of yourself that you see in the three main women?
Sheryl Anderson: I would love to be any one of those three ladies. They are mosaics. Miss Woods created the template and then, in bringing these ladies to life for television, the writer’s room puts all the little stones in the mosaic. I love Helen’s fierceness and her willingness to stride into the heart of a problem and see what she can do to fix it. I love Maddie’s nurturing and her delicate sense of humor. And I love Dana Sue’s willingness to stand up for herself. Especially as a woman in a male-dominated world and her slightly more raucous sense of humor.
Allen Wolf: And you talk about being female and a male-dominated world. Does that describe the television world as well?
Sheryl Anderson: Yes.
Allen Wolf: Hmm. And what does that look like for you being a woman leading a show? How were you able to approach this differently?
Sheryl Anderson: I just know that it was very important for me as a woman showrunner on a show about three female friends and the community that they build around themselves, that the community that they lead, as it were, to lead in the same way. To lead with joy. To build consensus and sustain it and to encourage everyone to bring their best to the table. I want to encourage. I want to inspire. I always tell everybody my motto is we work too hard not to have a good time. I want people to have joy and what they’re doing to understand that I recognize how hard they’re working everything that they’re giving up everything that they’re putting forth. And that those contributions, those expressions of their talent, are deeply appreciated. You don’t make TV by yourself. You make TV in community and so it’s probably the most important thing I do is to encourage community and the fact that we’re all giving our all to create the best show possible.
Allen Wolf: And what does your writer’s room look like?
Sheryl Anderson: For both seasons there were five of us. Four women and one man and it was very important to me to have a diversity of age, race, socioeconomic background, geographical background, life experience because all those different voices singing in harmony are much more interesting than a couple of very similar voices singing only the melody line.
Allen Wolf: Does that mean there’s a democratic process of even getting things into the story? Are there times where some of you disagree on something the rest of you agree? What does that look like?
Sheryl Anderson: I like to use the analogy of a dinner party, where everybody’s sitting around the table and sharing stories, you laughing together, you crying together. And in the writers room, we have the goal of taking those great stories and picking out the elements that are going to feed our characters best. It is democratic in that. Yes. I’m the boss. But I’m happy to have somebody come up with a better pitch than I have. I want the best ideas on the board. I want the best jokes, the most poignant moments, and I want people to challenge me. We had a moment in season one where I said, “Well, of course, this is the reaction.” And I said that as a military kid who grew up primarily in the suburbs of large cities. And two writers who grew up in small towns, like Serenity, said, “No, that would not be the reaction.” And I said, okay tell me, explain to me, and we changed the storyline accordingly.
Allen Wolf: Well, it sounds very collaborative.
Sheryl Anderson: Absolutely. You have to be, I believe you have to be collaborative to tell great multi-layered stories because if it’s just one person’s voice, what is everybody else doing there? And again, I’d rather have the harmony than just the melody line.
Allen Wolf: Something I appreciate about the show is that you really feel like you’re there, you’re part of their community, you’re one of these women’s friends, and I think it’s even interesting how that’s reflected in the way that it’s shot. I remember an early scene when they’re standing around outside of church, talking, and you could have filmed them in a tight circle, but instead, you opened it up and the viewer is the fourth person of that circle and even when they’re at their margarita nights, I feel like I’m at the party. Was all of that deliberate?
Sheryl Anderson: Absolutely, Norman Buckley, our director and producer, and I had a lot of conversations, obviously before we started, but we had a particular conversation about margarita night, where I said the camera is the fourth guest at margarita night. Because I want everybody to feel that they are the fourth person who pulled up a chair and joined the conversation, poured their own margarita, and got to talk and laugh with the ladies.
Allen Wolf: Now when the show was coming out, what were your expectations?
Sheryl Anderson: I hoped people would like it certainly when we finished filming. We had no idea what was going to happen to the world when we were dropping. I hoped that people would find a little escapism, and a little comfort, a little relaxation, a way to step away from the omnipresent cares of the world. And that certainly seems to have happened.
Allen Wolf: Well, it debuted during the pandemic when all of us were very isolated from each other. So I wonder if just seeing the story of people who are very connected and building community really helps people to want to be invested in the story and see what happens with these characters.
Sheryl Anderson: I think the presentation of community was huge as we saw on social media. People were saying, I miss my friends or I wish I had friends like these three women and it wasn’t just the three women. It was the relationship with the teenagers, the relationship with the men in our cast. I do think that that longing for community made Serenity all the more attractive. We had a saying in the writer’s room from the very beginning of season one. We want everyone to see themselves in Serenity. So I was also hopeful that the warmth, the welcoming, the inclusivity of Serenity would also be comforting to people given everything everybody was dealing with last year. It was a horrible year. And if we could be a bright spot and a little bit of comfort then what a blessing for us.
Allen Wolf: When did you realize the show was a hit?
Sheryl Anderson: So I was in LA when we dropped. Some of our actors were on the east coast and I remember waking up and seeing a text from one of our actors, that was the number-one on Netflix graphic. And I actually woke my kids up and said, am I reading this correctly? Because I don’t want to go on social media and look like an idiot. But how could we possibly be number one already? Or actually, how could we, I never imagined we’d be a number one show. We rise and fall. It’s almost a year later and people are still discovering the show, still talking about the show. I am so grateful to the hundreds of people who created this show, who gave it their all and gave it their best, and to all the millions of people who opened their hearts to Serenity.
Allen Wolf: Have there been times of reflection when you thought about all you’ve had to go through in your life to get here to this point?
Sheryl Anderson: I do my best to always look forward but there are moments where I look back and I see turning points that I understand better. Now, I see moments that I have progressed enough that I can go back and harvest them for good stories. When you talk about what I’ve gone through, I think of the lessons learned but most of all I think of what a blessing it has been to be on this journey with my incredible children and my invaluable friends.
Allen Wolf: Well, this interview is sponsored by Navigating Hollywood which equips and encourages people in entertainment to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. Navigating Hollywood offers pre-marriage and marriage courses that are complimentary when you sign up at NavigatingHollywood.org and use the invitation code, “podcast.” Pretty easy to remember: podcast. We also offer Alpha Hollywood where media professionals can talk about life’s big faith questions in an honest and open environment. Check it out at NavigatingHollywood.org, and remember to use the invitation code, “podcast.” Now Sheryl, you had mentioned your faith journey. Can you share some of what your faith Journey has looked like?
Sheryl Anderson: I was born into a family of faith. I am a lifelong Lutheran
Allen Wolf: And what does it mean when you say I am a Lutheran.
Sheryl Anderson: We believe we are saved by grace alone, which is an unconditional gift of love. We can’t earn His grace, but what we can do by believing in Him, believing in the grace that he sent through Jesus Christ, we are upholding our end of the deal. God loves us. No matter what, God offers us grace no matter what, but if you truly believe you’re going to do your best to live according to that faith and to the two simple commandments Jesus gave us, love God, love each other.
As I said, I was a military kid. Everywhere we went, we found a church where my parents became part of the leadership, my brother and I were always in youth group and volunteering, and then as we got older, teaching Vacation Bible School, teaching Sunday school. I have raised my children the same way. Church is incredibly important to us. I grew up in a faith community that’s very supportive of the arts. And when I went to college as a theater major, my father said go and enjoy it fully and without reservation because who knows this may be the last chance you get to dedicate yourself 100% to your passion. And I found myself in college with a lot of people who were theater-business or theater-pre-law or theater and something, else because their parents were more concerned about that. But my parents were incredibly supportive and when I said, I think I need to move to Los Angeles and see what happens, my mother said we will miss you every day, but we will pray for you every day, and I believe this is what God means for you to do. Between my parents and my brother, any moment where I felt a little shaky about what I was doing, I knew I could pick up the phone and talk to them about it. And I have belonged to wonderful faith communities across the years in Los Angeles that have also helped.
Allen Wolf: Faith sounds like it was part of an early experience for you. Later in your life, did you go through different chapters of it becoming more real or even moments where you didn’t want to have anything to do with God, what did that part look like?
Sheryl Anderson: I have never had a moment where I didn’t want to have anything to do with God. I understand that I am where I am because of Him. I have had moments where I wanted nothing to do with church bureaucracy. Faith has been my mainstay. On Christ the solid rock I stand. I like to think that I have matured as a Christian, as I have matured as an artist and certainly I have striven to get to the point where one cannot be separated from the other when I was a teenager. I had a poster in my room that my parents gave me that said your talents are a gift from God. What you do with them is your gift to Him.
Allen Wolf: In Hollywood, the perception is that it’s not very friendly toward faith. What has been your experience in that regard?
Sheryl Anderson: That’s a very long conversation. I am not shy about identifying myself as a Lutheran when I’m in a new room, but I always bring it up in terms of story. I say, “As a Lutheran, grace is central to me. Is this a moment of grace for this character?” And that’s a conversation you can have with any group. It’s certainly a different conversation, depending on the makeup of the group. But again, it’s just it’s part of who I am. It’s part of my worldview, my take is formed by my faith. And so here’s my take. Your take and your faith may be different but we’re all working to serve the character.
Allen Wolf: In episode 9 Maddie’s son is going through a rough time, and he hides in the local church where the pastor suggests that he takes time to talk to Jesus. Was that something that came out of your own experience?
Sheryl Anderson: It was a moment where we wanted to show a different aspect of community. He’s searching for answers that he’s not getting anywhere else and when no one else has the answer who has the answer? He instinctively goes to church. Pastor June encourages him but also understands he needs to sort some things out for himself. It’s not an instructive moment for her to tell him you need to do a, b, and c. It’s an instructive moment for her to say, “You need to lean on Jesus right now because she says I’ll be right outside if you need me.” But sometimes we just have to sit with the Lord for a while.
Allen Wolf: Was there a time when you’re filming that you felt like something happened that was an answer to something you’d been praying for?
Sheryl Anderson: This whole show is an answer to something I’ve been praying for. I had wanted to create a show where I could share my faith in a natural and organic process. I wanted to be able to send people to church every Sunday just like we go every Sunday. It’s part of the fabric of our Lives. I wanted to write characters who were cut from similar cloth and the fact that Dan was open to that, that Netflix was open to that, that Miss Woods had laid the groundwork for that in the books, was such a beautiful thing.
And Dan, who is Jewish, and I had a conversation one night about the blessings that had been apparent in the show. We were about halfway through, we had certainly had our times of trials, but we had had manifold blessings. And early on, it was actually our casting director who said to me in a conversation, not about casting, “Let your bullets be blessings.” Meaning, don’t look at things as hardship. Don’t look at down moments as being lost but look at them as moments where you can learn and pivot and embrace the blessing that’s always there. So Dan and I were talking about that and we were talking about some of the other bumps in the road that we had managed to smooth out. And we came to the decision that the hand of Providence was on the show. And now whenever there’s a little moment of concern or doubt Dan just looks at me and says, “Hand of Providence.” and I respond, “Hand of Providence.”
Allen Wolf: if someone’s listening who has been working at their craft as a writer, maybe they’re trying to make it in television or as a storyteller, and they’re at a point where they’re feeling discouraged, what thoughts would you have for them?
Sheryl Anderson: You are not alone. Seek out community, whether it’s other artists, people that you respect, friends, whoever has your best interests at heart and is going to help lift you up when you’re sad, build you up when you’re challenged, and celebrate you when you succeed. This is a difficult business, and it is not a journey you should take alone. I think art is better in community, life is better in community. So reach out, don’t think you have to fix everything by yourself.
Allen Wolf: As you look down the road, even beyond Sweet Magnolias, what do you hope for, for your life?
Sheryl Anderson: I hope for more joy, more opportunities to build beautiful creative communities, and that my children will always be happy and safe.
Allen Wolf: Thank you so much for sharing your life journey. Thank you so much for sharing the journey of making Sweet Magnolias. I’ve one last question. “Who is in the car?”
Sheryl Anderson: I love you, Allen, but I can’t tell you.
Allen Wolf: If that doesn’t make sense to you. It’s because you haven’t watched Sweet Magnolias. You can catch it now on Netflix. Sheryl, thank you so much for being with us today.
Sheryl Anderson: Thank you, Allen.
Allen Wolf: For those of you listening, please take a moment to follow us and leave a review so you can help others discover our podcast. You can check out more about what Navigating Hollywood has to offer at NavigatingHollywood.org you can also find transcripts from the show and helpful links there as well. Thank you for joining us and thank you again to Sheryl. I look forward to being with you next time.