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Monday, October 25, 2021

‘Impeachment: American Crime Story Showrunner Sarah Burgess On Clinton Sex Scandal Miniseries Debut, “Complicated” Monica Lewinsky & “Fresh Eyes’

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Impeachment: American Crime Story debut episode.

“Make her stay to watch,” a trapped Monica Lewinsky tells FBI agents of Linda Tripp in a January 1998 Ritz-Carlton hotel room after being snared mere hours before an unknowing Bill Clinton was scheduled to sit down before lawyers. “I want that treacherous bitch to see what she’s done to me,” the Beanie Feldstein portrayed Lewinsky adds as Sarah Paulson’s Tripp stares in something resembling shame in the real life scene depicted in the opening minutes of the opening ‘Exile’ episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story tonight on FX.

Executive produced by Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Paulson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Brad Falchuk and Sarah Burgess, with Lewinsky herself serving as a producer too, the latest iteration of the Emmy-winning franchise returned with more of the best of the worst of the 1990s. Based yet again on a Jeffrey Toobin book, the Burgess penned Impeachment goes behind the events of the second unsuccessful impeachment of an American President to focus on the lives and trials of the trio of women at the center of events – former White House intern Lewinsky, former White House staffer trip and the Annaleigh Ashford portrayed Paula Jones.

In fact, as origin stories of sorts are laid out for all three and the 1993 suicide death of Clinton loyalist and Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster sets personal and political paths, the Murphy directed ‘Exiles’ doesn’t even bring the 42nd POTUS into the mix until the very end of the episode. Add to that, the Eddie Falco played Hillary Clinton doesn’t show up at all in Impeachment‘s opener except for a brief West Wing bathroom encounter with Tripp.

I chatted with Burgess about Impeachment’s debut, its inspirations, intents and approach. The former playwright also spoke about what it was like working with Lewinsky while writing some of the worst days of the now Hollywood producer’s life and how the DC hunt of over 20 years ago still brings out very strong emotions.

DEADLINE: I have to ask, besides Beanie’s treacherous line right near the top, Impeachment’s Linda Tripp, as written by you and played by Sarah Paulson, is not the Linda Tripp most of us knew during the cable news feeding frenzy of the Clinton sex scandal. How did you want to tell this well documented story this way?

BURGESS: My first draft was actually just Linda Tripp and Paula Jones.

DEADLINE: Really?

BURGESS: Yes. For a long time, I went into the story with Linda, to tell the story from her point of view. I became very obsessed with the texture of her life. This frustrated bureaucrat, and trying to understand, not to render Linda as likeable or someone you root for, but just you know, to understand her. I think, I was just personally obsessed with trying to understand how somebody and why somebody would eventually do the thing that she famously did.

DEADLINE: The opening moments of ‘Exile’ is literally when Ken Starr’s trap is sprung on Monica Lewinsky and by definition Bill Clinton too and a fresh out of the gym Monica rages at Tripp in the Ritz-Carlton as the FBI agents stand there. Yet, so much of the episode takes place years beforehand in the opening months of the new President’s administration. Why did you decide to spin the bottle like that?

BURGESS: I think in working on it, it became the jarring contrast of this surreal terrifying bizarre moment It’s a famous moment. it’s like a woman coming off an act of leisure, suddenly surrounded by federal agents and prosecutors. I think I got lured into this idea of…for an audience to understand that we’re heading to this kind of bizarre crisis and ruination, this rage and fury were coming. I wanted to show how did we get that place. Putting that question in the air for a beginning, was too hard for me to resist as a writer, and then we go back to the texture of Linda’s life.

DEADLINE: It is very different that Jeffrey Toobin’s 1999 book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, which was optioned for Season 3 of American Crime Story

BURGESS: I didn’t really use Toobin’s book. He doesn’t get into Monica very much at all. I read every other book, obviously, all the grand jury transcripts, the FBI files, Linda Tripp’s tapes, of which Monica does not know she’s being recorded, so you hear the real Monica, being morally complicated when you listen to those tapes, but you hear the real Monica in all sorts of emotional states too.

DEADLINE: Was that approach in part because unlike previous attempts to tell this story, you had Monica Lewinsky herself there as a producer and hence a resource?

BURGESS: I wrote the first three scripts before I even met Monica Lewinsky, so I was grounded in an approach to the character before I started getting feedback from Monica, to partly answer your question.

DEADLINE: Okay, but this is a 10-episode season, and unlike say a Linda Tripp (who died in 2020), or a Bill or Hillary Clinton, Monica was there to share her story, her POV and the finer details …

BURGESS: Right, unlike every other person …

Monica Lewinsky American Crime Story

DEADLINE: Certainly someone who has an investment in how this particular and defining portion of her life will be portrayed. She’s a professional, but that active impute has characterizations of a sort. So I would assume, for a writer, that there is, I hate the cliché, but you know the one I’m going to use, which is there’s a needle and it needs to be threaded.

BURGESS: I don’t mind that cliché.

Let’s be honest. I was always going to …Monica is a complicated person, like all of us. To render her anything less than that complexity would be to do her a disservice. Of course, what happens to her eventually, it’s so brutal. I think any, I think most writers, at least in my generation, would probably feel a great weight in characterizing her, over and above every other character, to be honest. Because this person’s life is blown apart.

DEADLINE: On live TV and in document after document and Starr’s lurid report …

BURGESS: Yes. One thing that is weird, I will say, is every detail of Monica’s life at this period was picked apart by federal prosecutors and the FBI, most of all, writing the Starr report. So it was so heavily covered that it is a little bit unlike if I were to say write about you, because all these little details came out in the Starr report and obviously uncovered by the media, so heavily.

I mean that is obviously connected to this question of the depiction of the sexual encounters in my show versus not doing that. The sex in the Starr Report was the most graphic descriptions of these very private moments, were front and center in 1998 for this person, so, that affected a little bit how much you can write and how much input she gives because she’s been in such an unusual position where all this stuff was aired.

DEADLINE: Which demands narrative choices to make sense of it all, even for those of us who lived through it and those who were younger or not even born when it all went down.

BURGESS: Exactly. For me it was about being able to tell the story, and making a very specific choice about bringing the relationship of Monica and Linda.

It was very significant that I wrote the first three scripts before I met Monica. I think that did set me off on a certain path and helped me to not feel constrained. Then I really got into it with her on every page of every script. She gave me a lot of notes. I didn’t take all of them and she and I ended up in a good place at the end of it, because she, as you said, engaged with it as a professional.

DEADLINE: The cultural rebirth of Monica Lewinsky and a cleared perspective on what this twentysomething was going through, was put through has mirrored to some extent the reevaluation of Bill Clinton not just in Red State circles but Blue States as well. He is a benign pariah at best. That’s all aftermath to your story, but mention Monica, the Clintons, Ken Starr or Linda Tripp to anyone and you still get a very harsh reaction. So, how to do get your story in a zone where the narrative isn’t overwhelmed?

BURGESS: I’ve been fascinated by the reaction, because some people are so deep in the weeds, and know all of it. I know people who don’t even know who Linda Tripp is, you know. I mean, I went to a dental hygienist in LA just a few weeks ago, and she went on and on about what a horrible person Linda Tripp is.

So, it is fascinating.

I feel like I’m living in the 11th episode right now, see the complicated reactions, the intense reactions, the sort of anger, the content, the fascination. I’m very heartened to see the way it’s landing now.

DEADLINE: How so?

BURGESS: Well, it feels not that far from 1998 in some ways. I think, for me, my version of fresh eyes, that I didn’t have strong association with either Linda Tripp or Monica Lewinsky for that matter, that lured me into the story was trying to orient the audience in this challenging character, Linda Tripp. It was a character that …well, you really love every character you write. I found her pain and loneliness. My goal was to understand how she would get to the place she got into, and that developed into great affection for that character. I can’t know how that’s going to land with the audience.

I was also mindful in the writing of it, that Monica had emerged and had become a public voice in the past few years. So, it’s not, hopefully not new information that Monica Lewinsky is a human being. With that, I think engaging with Linda as a complicated human being that the show is not begging you to like. That was one of the main tasks I did alongside having Beanie seen as this very young person who is earnestly walking into a situation that is deeply unfair to her.

DEADLINE: You have previously described your basic approach as telling the stories of the girls in the office, the Monicas, the Tripps, the Paula Jones. So, looking at ‘Exiles’ now, in terms of yourself, when you look at that episode, do you think, we got that?

BURGESS: I feel you get a sense more as you go deeper in this relationship between Monica and Linda.

They only meet at the very end, both in different exiles at the Pentagon, as you know. I think Linda Tripp and Kathleen Wiley’s friendship in the West Wing, which turns South, as it did, it’s all based on things that really happened, gives you a sense of Linda in the workplace. How she navigates that and how her sometimes sort of challenging behavior and how her pain acts on her female friends and not the patriarchy that is, I think, sort of renders her invisible. I think Monica and Linda will develop, what starts as a assort of normal office friendship. Neither of them wants to be in his office. I think it begins at the end of one, but it will deepen as they spend more time together in the next couple of episodes.

DEADLINE: A major pivot point for your story is the death, the suicide of Vince Foster, which was at the time one of the most chronicled and controversial part of the first year of the Clinton presidency. It’s a very delicate balance to tell that story, even more so within the context of this story. I know some have criticized you guys for sensationalizing it, others have said that, in fact, the way it impacts the story is still to be discovered. What were some of the choices you made there and why did you make them the way you did?

BURGESS: When I heard that Linda Tripp worked as a secretary in his office, and that was the beginning of the term…first of all, that event reignited the obsession with Whitewater, really ignited the highest fixation on it, this intense fixation on it.

Yet, it was also about Linda. It was about what she experienced, and I think, lost that day. It felt like a seismic event when I read about the story from Linda Tripp’s perspective, as it would be for any of us. So that is behind the choice to start from the story there. It is eventually what led to Linda being jettison from the White House and it is something that she talked about for years after.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the inhabitants of the White House during that time. The Clintons are sort of the ghost in the machine for many., many episodes. Bill Clinton only shows up, insofar as he shows up as a voice and a glimpse at the end of Exiles. On the press tour for Impeachment, your fellow EP Brad Simpson and others have said that, going deeper into the series, Eddie Falco’s Hillary Clinton doesn’t really start appearing until some of the final episodes. Why did you decide to tease them out?

BURGESS: Because this is a story about women who did not have power. Linda, Monica, and Paula.

One reason I adore Clive Owen and he was brave to take this role, he’s kind of in a girlfriend role, right. He’s there as an object of fixation for Monica, and Monica is oriented to what is more classically a male role, the person who is going through all of this pain and drama around this beloved object, this beloved person, who she can’t see very much of.

Right there’s something almost mysterious, because you can’t see him that often and she can’t access him. He is kind of like the princess in the castle. That is an intentional choice, and I know it’s sort of a challenging choice.

Not that we don’t also get into his psychology, but I very specifically wanted to start the story in the point of view of these women who don’t have power. Their actions, specifically Linda’s actions, and Paula’s affect Ken Starr, affects Hillary Clinton, those characters become activated.

DEADLINE: A non-fictional domino effect?

BURGESS: Yes. Hillary Clinton, through all of my research, was simply not a force involved in the relationship of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. However she will become very involved as the story breaks. Then as Clinton has to, eventually as we know, come clean to the American People, Hillary Clinton’s life changes profoundly in that case, and we will tell that story. But for this episode, for the start, I will strongly defend the choice to tell the story of this frustrated bureaucrat, this girl from Roanoke Arkansas, and a White House intern, who arrived in DC young and has her whole life ahead and have that blown up. That was always, always, always, what I intended to do.

Raising these powerless women as equal, dramaturgically and above the president and his wife, in the early part of the story, that is very much an intentional choice.

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