Transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another installment in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from actor and writer Danny Strong. He's written such films as "The Butler," HBO's "Recount," "Game Change," and the popular FOX TV series "Empire," which he co-created.

Strong is about to direct a feature film called "Rebel in the Rye" starring Kevin Spacey, which he also wrote.

DANNY STRONG: I think there's a common saying that to write what you know.

And I think that that is good advice for an amateur writer. But a professional writer should write what they're passionate about.

When I was a full-time actor, my entire existence was based on waiting for my agent to call. I wrote a script for me to star in as an actor, which is a very common thing in Hollywood, and it was going to turn me into the Sylvester Stallone of my time. I was convinced that this was my "Rocky."

And I gave it to a few producer friends. And they read it, and they all said the same thing: "We really love this. Can we try and get this movie made without you attached?"

I thought, no, this is my "Rocky."

By the way, that film has still never been made, so probably not the best decision.

And I had written several scripts over several years. And these scripts were all really high-concept comedies like "Liar Liar" or "Bruce Almighty," because those were the movies that were really big hits at that time. Nobody would buy them, let alone make the movie.

And after five years of that, I started to get pretty despondent. I realized that I was writing movies that I would never go see. And I decided literally in that moment that I wasn't going to write another script unless it was a movie that I would actually want to go see.

And I went to go see this play called "Stuff Happens" about the buildup to the Iraq War. Seeing the audience respond to this play, I thought to myself, this is why I went into the arts in the first place. And within 30 seconds of me making that decision, the idea of the Florida recount popped into my head.

And, lo and behold, four months later, I find myself at HBO in the lobby ready to go pitch the president of HBO Films. And I'm sitting with my producer, Len Amato, and I said to him, "I can't believe that I actually made it here, that I'm actually in the lobby of HBO about to pitch this project."

And he looked at me and he said, "It's a better story if you sell it."

Every script I have written, "Recount," and "Game Change," and "The Butler," and "Empire," all of those projects had nothing to do with my life. So, I have no insider knowledge. I have no professional background.

They all have the same thing in common, which is, I'm really interested and passionate about the subject matter.

My name is Danny Strong and that was by Brief But Spectacular take on writing what you don't know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos on our Web site. That's at pbs.org/newshour/brief.