Talking to Moira Walley-Beckett about the 'punishing, challenging' world of Flesh and Bone

The Emmy award-winning Breaking Bad writer breaks out with her new ballet miniseries

One of the challenging things about Starz’s ballet drama Flesh And Bone is that by the end of the pilot, viewers may think they already know everything important about the characters. There’s Claire, the naïve, vulnerable Pittsburgh ballerina who’s just landed a spot at a New York ballet company. Her Afghanistan-veteran brother Bryan is clearly predatory and sexually abusive. The dance company’s director, Paul, is a hateful martinet. Daphne, another dancer in the company, is a spoiled rich girl. And so forth and so on, as the characters fall into familiar roles. The problem is that the first appearances are all deceptive. All these characters, and their relationships with each other, are more complicated than they appear. And finding out what’s really going on with them is much of the pleasure of this intense, beautifully shot, but often emotionally ugly drama.

Flesh And Bone creator Moira Walley-Beckett is most well known as a writer and producer on Breaking Bad, but she had two careers before that, as a ballet dancer and as an actor with small roles on shows from 21 Jump Street to MacGyver to ER. With Flesh And Bone, she’s moved into spearheading her own series from conceptualization to scripting the pilot and two of the other seven episodes. Though Starz has opted to keep the series contained to a single limited-run season (and is making it all available on their on-demand service) Walley-Beckett already has more projects in the works, including a series pickup still yet to be announced. "Now that I have the opportunity to write for myself, my projects are all pretty personal," she said.

But she was already coming off a highly personal project with Flesh and Bone, which naturally meant reliving a lot of the less pleasant aspects of life as a dancer. I spoke with Walley-Beckett as she looked back at the show’s development, her fascination with sex and power, and working with her breakout star, ballerina Sarah Hay.

Tasha Robinson: How long has this story has been an idea for you? How long you were developing it?

Moira Walley-Beckett: Because I come from the dance world, and I've been helping to write about it for a long time, I think the idea's been gestating forever. But I specifically conceived of this show during the penultimate season of Breaking Bad. Lawrence Bender and Kevin Brown approached me to ask if I'd be interested in writing a show about ballet, which was just remarkable and kismet. I thought, "Yes I do." And they said, "Well, if you were going to write a show about ballet, what would it be?" And I was like, "I don't know yet, let me go and think about it." So I came up with the idea in a seedy motel in Albuquerque by the side of the highway when I was there shooting an episode of Breaking Bad called "Gliding Over All." And it was very clear to me that it had been gestating and percolating for so long, because when I sat down with my pen and paper, which is how I like to work with new ideas, and just let my thoughts flow, the muse showed up, and I saw the whole arc of the season. I knew who the people were, I knew major plot points that were going to happen, and I just started writing as fast as I could.

Were your producers already looking for a show about ballet? Had you talked to them about your history? Why did they bring this particular pitch to you?

Well, they have a history in ballet. Lawrence Bender danced in New York as a young man, and Kevin Brown's family is a dance family and worked on the movie The Turning Point. Who else were they going to get, who's a writer with a background in ballet? So they came to me, and the rest is history.

Given that you had such a complete vision going in, what surprised you the most during the show's development like in the writers' room?

Mostly some surprising characters. I hadn't originally conceived of the contemporary choreographer who we bring in as a foil to Paul, played by Ben Daniels. Toni Cannava, played by Marina Benedict, I hadn't conceived of her. It's a powerful part of the story. The other thing is, there's a depth of discussion that goes on when you have a brain trust. And a writers' room is such an incredible tool when you create a show, because sometimes miracles happen. They happen all day. You get somebody else who's incredibly thoughtful and talented and invested in the project, and they come up with beautiful additions and new ideas I never would have thought of. That's the nature of television. It's a collaborative art form.

Were these people you'd worked with in the past? What were you looking for from that writers' room?

There were people who I'd worked with in the past. I had approached several of my Breaking Bad collaborators, but everybody was busy when my show got green-lit, and I was like, "Oh, crap!" So I took submissions from agencies all over town, and I started reading. I'm always drawn to playwrights. That's the kind of writing that speaks to me—it's generally very depth-full in terms of character and dialogue, and so all the writers I hired are playwrights and television and feature writers. Including Adam Rapp, who is just magnificent, and Jami O'Brien. It was a great room; it was such an inspired room. I got really purposefully lucky, I guess. I just can't praise them enough.

"My working method is obsessive and instinctive."

What was your own ballet experience like? Are we seeing things here that come directly from your life?

We are. And many other dancers — friends, and dancers I interviewed. There are some broad-spectrum things in the ballet world that are common experiences for everybody, and then on my show, I heightened some areas, or pointed to some areas specifically, for dramatic purposes. It's a very competitive world, and a very cultured world. And it's a collegial community, but it's also a strange environment where your friends are your competition, and their failures are your potential for success. I always liked to joke when I eventually got out of dance, I've been in recovery for years. It's a very punishing environment, it's a challenging environment, it's a complicated place to be.

Speaking of the punishing environment, Paul is a brute and a bully, and he falls into a tradition of stories about coaches, directors, and managers who believe abusing people will improve their skills somehow. Have you actually encountered that, or is it more of a heightened version of something people in the arts feel?

It's the latter, though it's not necessarily heightened, which is really sad. It's not an across-the-board situation. It's not a prerequisite that to be the artistic director of a ballet company, you have to be a grenade with a loose pin and no boundaries, and no way of being controlled. But it does exist. There are companies, within the religion of ballet, run by someone who is at once king, priest, lover, father, and brother, who wields their power and infantilizes the dancers because that's how they know how to be, and that's how they think they can get the work done. And there are plenty of other companies that are extremely healthy environments, and nurturing in another way. Which is again why Toni Cannava is there, to shine a light on both ways of being. She comes in with a very different perspective on how to elicit great work from the artists, by nurturing and asking for authenticity, and for them to commit their true self and invest emotionally, which is the polar opposite of Paul, and the way he commands his troupe.

Flesh and Bone

Sarah Hay and Ben Daniels star in Flesh and Bone (Starz)

Most of the show is about power, and very particularly, how people use power to force other people to obey. What interests you about those dynamics?

It's not only how people use power to control other people. It's also about discovering, for Claire at least, the power of loss. And trying to understand her power as a woman, especially coming from the deficit she comes from, a home life in which she had none. So it was fascinating to me to have her enter into this world, feeling a complete lack of understanding of her power as a woman and a person, and exploring her journey through this environment of the company, the city, a strip club, to understand who she is and what she has.

So many American shows are about this power obsession, especially on HBO — at heart, so many shows are about powerful people, usually men, and how they wield power to degrade other people. Breaking Bad fits the same mold — it's so entirely about a man who feels powerless, and lets his lust for control destroy everything he cares about. Do you have any theory about why power is such an obsession for American TV?

I certainly think we're in a culture and a time where a lot of people feel powerless, and a lot of people are struggling with their identity, with their plans for the future, personally and globally. So the themes of power and how we walk through the world are entirely and specifically topical right now. I'm less interested in Paul as a person who merely wields his power. I'm much more interested in why he does so, and what shaped him. Yes, we see other shows where this is a familiar character, but I didn't want to simply let that character stand alone. I wanted to dig in and understand what shaped him, why he is the way he is, his own personal issues with power and feeling powerless. He has a huge journey in Flesh And Bone, and we have a huge journey as we watch it, in discovering what formed him, and what are his desperate needs, what are the black holes in him that he's trying to fill and never can. I think these are shocking themes, but I guess now they're relatable themes, because of how we're feeling as a nation.

You mentioned the sequence where Claire starts to explore her power through the strip club. That scene where she's watching Daphne strip is remarkable, because you bring the female gaze into a straight woman watching another woman get naked in front of a crowd of men. That seems like such a delicate balance to achieve. How did you script that scene to shape it so it isn't just another strip-club tits-for-titillation moment?

Yeah, which I'm so not interested in. It's such a huge, eye-opening moment for Claire — gosh, it's so complicated to answer. But it's realized exactly how I envisioned it within the scripting stage. And better, because David Michôd shot it remarkably. For Claire, it's a fresh-eyes experience. She's been so powerless in her life, so powerless as a sexual being. I wanted that moment of admiration and possibility and inspiration. Whether or not we agree with what she's doing, or have an opinion about strip clubs, I don't care. What I'm interested in is that moment for Claire. It's an aspirational discovery, an aspirational moment, because Daphne is completely inhabited, completely powerful, and making a choice. For Claire, before this moment, this was inconceivable. That something like this would be possible, and possible for her. Which leads us into the scene that follows.

There's so much sex in the series, but that scene may be the only sexual moment on the show that isn't coercive, transactional, or self-destructive. Why did you bring that perspective to so much of the sex on the show?

It's something that fascinates me. My own journey as a young woman and then as a mature woman, walking through the world, these are issues we're forced to deal with and are bombarded with. A lot of times, sexual encounters do feel like a transaction. So I'm really interested in exploring sex with that in mind. I think the goal for everybody is to be loved and to become real. Within the enterprise of meeting and conquering, really, at the heart of it, don't we all just want to be loved until our fur rubs off, and our whiskers fall out, and we become shabby because we are loved? So that's what I'm reaching for. I'm not a sensationalist. I'm not interested in that. There are no moments in the show where I was like, "Oh, that would be salacious and awesome." I'm putting these people in these circumstances because I'm curious, and I wanted to examine them and shine a spotlight on these ways of being.

Even outside of the sexual relationships, the show is so relentlessly grim. I think Pasha's friendship with Mia may be the only relationship in the series that might actually be mutually supportive. There's so little rooting interest for fans, places to say "I hope these two work out."

I hope that the rooting interest is for Claire. I hope we are rooting for her out of the gate, especially as we start to understand her origin story, and everything she has to contend with. And I hope that we're rooting for Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), whose destiny is inevitable because of the number of years she's been dancing. That 58 percent of the way through her life, everything she's ever wanted will inevitably be taken from her, because it's a physical art form. I hope we'll be rooting for Daphne because she's being crushed between a rock and a hard place. It's not a romantic show. Although there are some star-crossed lovers in a very dark way, it's not a romantic show. It's a show where I hope we're rooting for individual characters instead.

Sarah Hay in Flesh and Bone

Sarah Hay in Flesh and Bone (Starz)

A lot of why we root for Claire comes from Sarah Hay's performance. She was a dancer before the show, but not an actor. How did you develop the confidence that she could carry the series as the lead?

Because her abundance of innate ability was apparent. I looked for a very, very long time to find my Claire, and I knew what I needed, what I wanted. Sarah had an innate understanding of the character. She understood what I was going to be asking from her, and she was fearless about it. She understands the complications and the secrets Claire keeps. And most importantly, I suppose, when we were working together before I cast her, she had that ineffable thing great actors have, which is the ability to make a rehearsed piece of dialogue seem like thoughts occurring. That's the hallmark of a great thespian. There's rehearsal and memorization, but an actor is great when it seems like the thoughts and emotion are occurring in the moment. That's what Sarah brought, and that's when I knew I had found her.

The story of how you ended up on Breaking Bad is an amazing leap of faith. Casting Sarah feels like a similarly dramatic leap, where you have the confidence to commit to a decision even though you can't know where it's going or whether the next step is there for you. Is that always part of your working method?

My working method is obsessive and instinctive. I think those are the two ways I could define it. And so I just trust what I'm enamored of. I trust what I can't stop thinking about. And that's my engine.

Has it always worked? Are there leaps of faith that you took that failed as dramatically as getting onto Breaking Bad or casting Sarah succeeded?

I don't really look at things as success or failure, in the same way I never read reviews of my work. Because it is what it is. I made it, I love it, I'm proud of it, and any other way, that way madness lies. So everything is a leap of faith, when you get right down to it.

Starz is planning to show Flesh And Bone week to week, but they're also planning to put all the episodes online at once, so people can watch at their own rate. Do you think this is a series people should binge-watch?

I wouldn't be able to do it! But I think some people are going to want to. If people can get past the first four in a row, I think they would need to take a break. I think it would be too much to take in, too much to deal with. At least that's what I hope! I hope you have to stop to catch your breath. It's interesting, I love appointment television, but it's becoming a thing of the past. I have always really loved waiting for Sunday nights, but I also really enjoy binging shows when I have an opportunity. It's like eating something delicious, and you just don't want to have that last spoonful.