(This interview first ran at our sister site, Awards Radar. It is the fifth industry interview conducted by The ‘Verse! Squad. Please take the time to subscribe and listen to these interviews and much more on The ‘Verse!.)
Rebecca Sonnenshine has proven time and again that genre television is no longer a boys’ club. To quote the series, you may even say, “Girls get it done!” As the executive producer and writer of Amazon Prime Videos’s The Boys, Sonnenshine, who recently garnered herself an Emmy nomination for her work on the Season 2 finale episode ‘What I Know.’
Before making her way over to Amazon, Sonnenshine was a writer and producer for hit shows such as The Vampire Diaries, The Crossing, and Outcast to name a few. She shed light on how her background in experimental filming and more led us to the electric series that is The Boys.
“I always wanted to be a filmmaker. So I got myself into film school and just made a lot of films that I wasn’t supposed to. ‘I’m taking this class,’ but really, it was just so I could check out the equipment. And I made a lot of weird films… I did a very experimental film with my friend that was all about this woman who dreamt she was eating her own head. So I mean, that one was what I did, as I was really obsessed with, like in-camera special effects.”
After experimenting with equipment and different styles of film, Sonnenshine took a twist of her own and started working in development.
“I definitely kind of went into a much more conventional narrative route. I worked in development for a long time and would read scripts and coverage, then I would freelance for all these different production companies. So I read like, not a million literally, but hundreds and hundreds of scripts. And at some point, I thought, ‘Oh, I could, I think I could do better.’ So I started writing. And then that’s kind of what the path I took, I did not become a famous experimental filmmaker,” she joked. “And then I started writing and just wrote like, a million terrible scripts, and then some weren’t so bad. And then I won a Nicholl Fellowship and that kind of launched me into the world.”
The Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting is an international screenwriting competition established to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters. In 1999 Sonnenshine’s screenplay for Mermaid Dreams snagged her the title as a Nicholl Fellow.
“It kind of got me out in the world. And I did a lot. I worked in indie films for a long time. And I also was producing indie films, and then eventually, I moved into television, because I thought, you know, I was a fast writer. So I figured, I love TV, probably too much. I watch a lot of TV and so I thought I would try my hands on it.”
Sonnenshine described how she was pretty lucky after television producer Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) took a chance and hired her with no prior television experience. After that, her television career took off, and now we have the beauty that is The Boys.
“It kind of fell in my lap. But it was a little bit of a weird situation. I just finished another show called The Crossing, which is a sci-fi show, it was on ABC and did not make it past the first season. But it was really fun! But I just freed up and they were looking for someone to come in…And I just suddenly happened to be free. So it wasn’t a grand plan. It kind of happened really fast. And I kind of all of a sudden found myself on the show. ”
Although like many of us, Sonnenshine had never heard of the comic, she thought the idea was great and described how Eric Kripke’s original script hit on all the things she liked about genre-bending.
“It’s taking something and combining it with, definitely political satire and satire of celebrity and corporate America. And I just thought, ‘Oh, this is fun and interesting!’”
Now serving as both a writer and executive producer on The Boys, Sonnenshine explained how the roles virtually complement one another, and although she didn’t become an experimental filmmaker, those skills still come in handy today.
“Being a producer makes you a better writer, and the more you write, the more you can really distill things as a producer. All TV writers are producers and that’s just part of the job. It’s what makes it different from feature films. And it’s filmmaking. You know, it’s what I went to film school for. In the end, you know, I didn’t become a director, but producing is so much about making those same kinds of decisions. And the really fun thing about a show like The Boys or any mythology show that kind of is very, it’s got serialized elements, is that you’re making this big thing like each episode is a piece of a hole, and each season is a piece of a bigger story. And so being a good producer, it helps you keep everything in your head and everything in your hand…but when you put them all together, it also forms this much bigger piece, you know, like Legos or something.”
And it’s the Death Star of Legos that fans of The Boys were gifted this season with each piece representing a different character and story arc bound to take viewers on a wild roller coaster ride.
“You know, I’m just a piece of the process where we did have these lists from the very beginning of the season, like where we wanted Huey to end up. We wanted him to end up stepping out on his own. So how do we get him there? And we wanted Starlight to regain her faith. And we wanted Butcher to lose everything, you know after getting it back, it’s taken away from him. And we wanted Homelander in the same position, sort of as Butcher. He found out he had this son, he spent all season trying to bond with this son in some way, and you kind of get there in the last episode, they actually have a genuine moment…and then it’s all taken away. We wanted The Deep to get really close to redemption, or not redemption… We wanted to get a train back on track…We want Kimiko to, you know, kind of find her independence from Frenchie, and then sort of make her way back to him. So there was a lot of character arc gain..”
With such huge character arcs this year, Sonnenshine said planning for Season 2 began almost immediately after Season 1. Despite some big choices and more somber moments for our main characters, there was still room to have some fun in the writer’s room.
“I mean, we all love to write for The Deep because he’s so earnest. We’re watching him try to redeem himself and do stupid things, and exploring why people do the things they do. It’s not like excusing it, it’s just sort of taking a deep dive into this really, you know, this psyche that’s extremely damaged. So it was really fun to write that whole storyline this year. But it is also pretty awesome to write for Homelander because he is, you know, Anthony’s, such a great actor. He’s just very inventive. You know, I don’t know if I’ve worked with anyone who’s so inventive and they’ll take a line and turn it into something so much more than what it is on the page, you know, which is, you know, exciting. It’s exciting! So you want to see what will happen when you write stuff for him.”
Besides writing for Anthony Starr’s character Homelander, fans were treated to a new love interest for the villainous superhero that Sonnenshine literally poured blood, sweat, and tears into writing for.
“I love the idea of one of the things that we were able to do is give Stormfront (Aya Cash) this daughter who grew older than her. And I just thought that was kind of heartbreaking if you can imagine, like, what that would feel like, you know. So I’m just the sucker who likes to write out these big emotional scenes because I feel like if you’re not crying while you’re writing at least one scene in a script, then you’re not doing it, right. Because how do you care about things unless you’re fully immersed in their emotional trauma.”
It is through the emotional traumas of our heroes and superheroes that Sonnenshine explains that as fans we may find the most reliability.
“Well, it helps that our heroes are also extremely flawed…everybody sort of found themselves a little morally compromised this year. But you know, that’s life. You gotta keep going and keep reminding yourself, who you are and what you stand for. And if you drift off the path that doesn’t mean you should just keep drifting, you know, they’re trying to right themselves. And so that’s kind of another thing that makes it fun, is that the heroes also do not great things.”
Some of these “not great things” that our heroes find themselves doing are not too far off from real-world events that we see every day in the news.
“In some ways, it’s very draining because to stay up on politics, like I get every newsletter, The Atlantic, you know, listen to The Daily every day, read all the papers, Mother Jones, you know, Politico, because you want to just be on the cutting edge of like all the malfeasance basically, that’s happening, as well as kind of being like keeping an ear out for corporate, which got kind of intertwined with the government over the last few years, like this idea that corporations are going to come in and cure us or save us.”
The Season 2 finale episode titled ‘What I Know,’ which again has been nominated for an Emmy, opens with a satirical take on a very specific type of media that is sweeping its way across the nation.
“The beginning of the season finale starts with this supervillain attack video, which is based on these active shooter videos that people produce to tell kids what to do. And you know, we did a few things that were satirizing things like that this year and maybe in another show, that doesn’t take things too seriously…if you’re trying to be funny, it’s not funny. But in satire, and what we do, is you’re trying to make things grounded and truthful. And it is absurd. That’s the thing. It’s absurd, just on its own. You don’t need to make it funny. You just follow what’s out there.”
In addition to the satirical opening of the season finale, The Boys also featured a humorous take on the idea of marketing women’s empowerment with the Season 2 mantra of “Girls Get It Done!”
“We were like, let’s do a junket for Episode 2. What could be this question that you keep being asked over and over again, that is not a good question? It’s so surface and it doesn’t mean anything. ‘What’s it feel like to be a girl superhero?’ and having ‘Girls Get It Done!’; it just felt like the ultimate co-opting of a marketing scheme. Corporations, jump on these bandwagons and go, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do that! Let’s stand for something, stand for girls!’ So, it was fun to sort of make fun of that, because I feel like we all feel like that, and we see these things and they’re like, ‘Isn’t it awesome that we’re doing something with girls!?’ And you’re like, ‘I don’t know. Wait? What if you just did something? But what if you just had great female characters and not have to go wink wink isn’t this awesome!?’”
Well, girls certainly “Got It Done” in the Season 2 finale when Stormfront (Cash), one of the season’s main villains played by Aya Cash, receives the smackdown of a lifetime from the other female “sups,” as the show would refer to, Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), and Starlight (Erin Moriarty).
“It was very satisfying, then to get to a place where these girls were just very visceral and dirty, like a down and dirty fight…It’s just like a gross, playground-like stomp down. There’s scratching, biting, kicking. And it’s brutal.” remarked Sonnenshine.
The Boys cuts straight to the heart of many real-world problems from religion, to politics, to hate speech, and more, but at the end of the day, Sonnenshine reiterates that it challenges viewers in a way that completely changes their view on a genre that is beloved around the world.
“This is a show that subverts the genre so some people are coming into it, as, you know, it’s a superhero show. And we’re a superhero story. And it’s awesome, you know, superhero stories are wholesome and good guys. Everybody loves a good Superman movie but this one is just different. It’s just taking that kind of expectation and getting out that superheroes, they’re bad, they can be bad. What would really happen if people had these powers? And so that challenges their belief and what a superhero is…I just think it challenges people, they were expecting something, and they got something else.”
With expectations subverted and fans already begging for Season 3, Sonnenshine and her team on The Boys have certainly created a formula for television worth the five Emmy nominations this year alone.
“I just want to give a shout out to the other writers who are so amazing. Craig Rosenberg, and Allie Monaghan and Slim, and Michael and Logan and obviously, Eric Kripke, he’s a genius. I learned to be a better writer from being on the show. I feel like that’s like a gift that you don’t always get. And I’m just really lucky to be working with such talented people and a talented cast and crew.”
Stream the first two seasons of The Boys now on Amazon Prime Video.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the entire interview conducted for The ‘Verse! Podcast at the top of the article!