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How This Award-Winning Screenwriter Navigates Egos On Set

Stefani Robinson isn’t a fan of “drama and secrets.”

Stefani Robinson likes to get weird. The six-time Emmy-nominated screenwriter has made a name for herself telling stories that range from the lightly surreal (the funhouse mirror of Atlanta) to the proudly bizarre (off-the-wall vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows). The spec pilot that got her her big break? A show about the ghost of a girl who’d passed away in college, whose best friend was the ghost of Paul Revere. “My whole thing is, if you're writing TV or movies and you have the opportunity to create whatever world that you want, why not just go for it?” Robinson tells Bustle. “I just find my real life exhausting. There's an element of escapism for me when I'm writing.”

Robinson switched gears for her first produced feature script, Chevalier — a film about Joseph Bologne, a Black virtuoso violinist and composer who won favor (for a time) in Marie Antoinette’s court. “The early drafts of Chevalier there were ghosts and supernatural forces and things like that that unfortunately got written out,” she admits. But regardless, the spectacle of a period piece was enough to draw her in: “At least on its face, [it] feels different than the world that we're inhabiting now.”

While she’s doing press for Chevalier, she’s also gearing up to shoot her next pilot: A revival of the British cult comedy Peep Show. “It’s very hard, but it's really rewarding and I'm working with some really great people,” she says. “That’s all I’ll tease.” And after that? “Oh, God, I would love to do an action adventure,” Robinson says. “I love the '90s Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, Pirates of the Caribbean.” Fingers crossed she gets her chance to go full gunslinger.

Below, Robinson talks about the people she most admires in her industry, her strategy for on-set conflict resolution, and more.

What was it about Joseph's story in particular that you wanted to tell?

I feel like I should say something more poignant or eloquent, but I mean, I learned about Joseph when I was 15 years old and I was like, “This dude is f*cking sick,” and that was it. He was like this hot guy who was incredibly intelligent and incredibly skilled at his instrument. He was a skilled athlete, he was a romantic, he knew different languages. He was truly one of these historical figures that just didn't quite feel real, and I think the fact that he was Black on top of that obviously drew me in because he is a role model in that way.

When I was a teenager — frankly, I feel like a lot of young Black kids almost think that Black people didn't exist back in the 1700s or before, and if we did, it was in the capacity of existing as slaves or servants or inhabiting those roles. I don't think I was ever taught in my public school in Georgia that there were people like Joseph who existed and actually were celebrated and held a lot of influence and power. So from then on, he was just one of those people that was always just stuck in my mind.

You come more from TV, where the writers are traditionally in charge. What was it like working in the movie space, where traditionally the directors usually have the final say?

It was hard. I'm a creative collaborator as well, and that transition — it wasn't hard in that, “Oh, I had no say,” or anything like that. I was incredibly supported, and Stephen Williams, who is the director, also comes from TV, so it was incredibly collaborative in that way. I think we both sort of entered in this process like, “Yeah, we're just going to do this the way that we normally do this,” which is constant communication, trust, collaboration. Because in TV, the writers do have a lot of say, but I've been lucky enough to work really closely with directors like Yana Gorskaya on What We Do In The Shadows; we talk constantly when we're working. And Hiro Murai obviously on Atlanta. They're so entrenched in the process and the conversation that it doesn't even really feel like there is a split.

So to wander into a system where it was almost expected that there should be that split, I think that Stephen and I had to consciously push up against that. As delicately as I could put it — again, I still feel like I was incredibly supported during the entire process — I think there were more than a few times where I did have to advocate for myself.

As you've been trying to figure out how to stand up for yourself in the most effective way, have you changed your approach?

For me, it’s just [about] taking the emphasis off of the other person, actually. I think that was my problem in the first place. I was so concerned about how I was going to be received by someone else, I thought, “Am I going to make them mad? Are they going to misunderstand me?”

[I started] taking the emphasis off the other person and placing it more on yourself and saying, "No, what do I need actually? How would I like to be heard? What do I need to say? What is my perspective?” That doesn't mean you go in guns blazing like, “I'm inflexible and I'm screaming. You're just going to listen to me.” I think it's a lot of kindness, too, in, "Hey, this is just how I feel and I'm being kind about it, but I'm being firm about it, and you're allowed to be mad at me and have a reaction, and that's okay and I'll survive. I'm not going to burst into flames.”

You can be firm and you can be kind. I think collaboration is just true kindness and listening. And that's the other thing, too — listening to other people and where they're coming from as well. It goes both ways.

As you've stepped into more senior roles in your career, what are you learning about yourself and your leadership style?

I'm learning I don't like drama and secrets, and I would much rather someone tell me the truth about something that's going on than try to hide it or smooth it over. I’ve worked in work environments where people have had agendas and they've had secret conversations with other people to try to manipulate a situation, where I think the healthier thing to do would've just been upfront and honest about how they were feeling and how they wanted things to work, and then we could have found a happy medium.

I think also just having fun and realizing it's not that serious. That's sort of what I've taken from someone like Donald Glover, for instance. He's an incredibly hard worker, he's very smart, and he cares a lot about what he's doing from the work perspective, but at the same time, I think that he very much approaches work like, “Hey, we can whistle while we work. If we're not having fun and we're not enjoying what we're doing, why are we doing this?”

Speaking of working with Donald Glover, I know you've worked with a lot of successful people. Are there particular people you look up to in the industry whose careers you want to emulate?

I’m inspired by people who just are themselves. That, to me, is just the most mind-blowing, exciting, delicious thing for me, and I think Donald is obviously one of those people. Early on in our relationship it was like, “Wow. This guy just does not give a f*ck a little bit.” And that's exciting. The first day on Atlanta, he said, “We might get canceled, but that's okay because we're going to make a show that we want to make.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.