Shonda Rhimes is the creator, writer and executive producer of hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice, two of the most successful medical franchises around the world.
She is also executive producer of Off The Map, a new medical drama set in the jungle, that launches on ABC next year, which is described as Grey’s Anatomy-meets-Lost.
Rhimes, who was born and raised in Illinois, started her career writing the HBO TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge before becoming a screenwriter on movies including Britney Spears’ teenage feature Crossroads and the sequel to The Princess Diaries.
Grey’s Anatomy, which is produced by ABC Studios and distributed by Disney Media Distribution, launched on ABC in midseason in 2005 and has since gone on to become a huge international hit. Private Practice then launched in 2007.
Peter White speak to Rhimes about all three shows and her career in television, her views on the business, both in the US and around the world, and asks her about forthcoming projects.
Can you tell us a bit more about Off The Map? How did it come about?
Off The Map is the first show that I’m working on that I didn’t write; it’s written by Jenna Bans and she came up with the idea about doctors in the jungle. The show being set in the jungle is amazing, the jungle becomes one of the main characters. We’re currently shooting in Hawaii.
How do you find working on a show that you didn’t create?
I love it. I liken it to the difference of being a mother and being a grandmother. I get to hold the show and spend time with it but I can also give it back.
How do you balance three shows on network television at the same time?
Balancing these shows gets more and more simple. It no longer seems surprising that I have 46 episodes of television on the air this year. Keeping it fresh is the big deal for me. Jenna is extremely talented and for Off The Map I’m only really giving advice.
Going back to Grey’s Anatomy, where do you see the show going? Have you got it all planned out?
I think the idea that I have Grey’s Anatomy arced out came about in season one and I certainly did then and had season two planned. Now, 130 episodes later, I don’t know, although I know where I’m going for this season and probably for next season.
Could you conceive of an end date for Grey’s Anatomy similar to Lost?
Damon [Lindelof] had a show about smoke monsters and numbers that didn’t make sense to anyone else. He was the person with all the secrets and that was a show that needed a solution. Grey’s is a hospital show and could continue in perpetuity.
Last year a number of medical drama pilots were picked up including Trauma and Mercy, but were subsequently cancelled. What did you think of that?
A lot of people pitch medical shows and I think that’s really good. For me I never thought I’d make three medical shows. When Jenna said she had a medical show I groaned until I realised how excited she was.
What about the cable TV model? Could you see yourself doing a show on cable?
I think cable is interesting and exciting. It’s a very different model to network television. There’s a wonderful luxury about doing 13 episodes and then having the time off that I find intriguing.
Are you aware of the international success of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice?
At first, no. But now with Twitter and getting notes from fans all over the world I see that. When I travel it’s interesting to discover that people know what Grey’s Anatomy is. It’s exciting that the show has an audience around the world.
Are you conscious of this international market when you write the shows?
I’m not. I don’t put together a show in relation to the audience, I just put something together that I love. But it is interesting that a story that was created in California can resonate around the world for a girl in Dubai, for instance.
You are very active online and on Twitter, in particular. Do you find it a useful tool?
Audiences around the world are using it and it’s great to hear an international reaction versus just the American press and to get to tell people what’s going on. It’s a great way to find what they’re thinking. [However], it can be a double-edged sword sometimes.
What’s next for you? Have you got other projects that you’re working on?
I have some ideas and there are things I’m working on, but when I’ll do them, I don’t know.
Do you think you could move back into movies?
I am doing Bitch is the New Black [a memoir by Helena Andrews that Rhimes acquired the rights to] as a feature. I started on HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and then I moved to features and wrote a lot for teenage girls with things like Crossroads. I think TV is currently much more creative than the movie world, which seems to be full of rehashes of romcoms and action movies. Movies are very safe right now. But that’s cyclical and TV feels really bold right now, but I also think there’s something beautiful about the finite qualities of features.