'Russian Doll' creator Leslye Headland on show's success and all-female writer's room

PHOTO: Writer/Director Leslye Headland attends SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations with "Russian Doll," June 3, 2019, in Los Angeles.Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images, FILE
Writer/Director Leslye Headland attends SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations with "Russian Doll," June 3, 2019, in Los Angeles.

When Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Natasha Lyonne were creating “Russian Doll,” Headland says she knew they were making something “incredibly good.” But it still came as a surprise when the show turned out to be a huge hit with viewers.

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Day One! Take Five!

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“The response to this show is shocking to me...I felt like it was incredibly personal both for me and for Natasha, and I think for Amy as well in some ways... So I thought, people that are weirdos like me will like it ...but for people, especially critics and popular culture to recognize a piece of art, as the thing it's trying to be, in real time, is just really unusual.” Headland tells ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis on an episode of “No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis”.

The Netflix series, now nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, follows Lyonne’s character, Nadia, who is trapped in a bizarre time loop, continuously dying and reliving her 36th birthday. Headland, who is also the director, writer and showrunner, says that creating the show was more like making a four and a half hour independent film than creating an episodic narrative. She says that having an all-female writers room became integral to create the existential crisis that Lyonne’s character was experiencing, dying day after day.

“What I really loved about having an all-female writers room was... we could kind of go straight to the heavier issues that Nadia, Natasha's character, on the show might be dealing with...it was really about utilizing those women [in the writer’s room] and utilizing their life experiences to help infuse the show and make it feel realistic and authentic and at the same time very fantastical and fun.”

Headland has made it her mission to help elevate women in Hollywood, where they are still hugely underrepresented.

Among the top-grossing films of 2018, women make up just 4% of directors and 15% of writers, according to a study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The picture is somewhat better in independent films, where women comprise 33% of directors and 32% of writers.

Headland started her career at Miramax and spent a year as an assistant to Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged treatment toward actresses and women in the industry helped spark the #Metoo Movement. She says that she was never physically assaulted on the job nor did she ever witness any incidents but that she did endure verbal attacks and wasn't surprised when allegations surfaced about Weinstein.

Following her time at Miramax, she went on to write a series of plays "The Seven Deadly Plays", with one called "Assistance" that draws parallels from her experience working for Weinstein, including her decision to leave the company, something many people advised against.

"You have to understand too, people didn't quit that job... Everyone said this is how you get into this industry...There's a line in the play...it's some version of, 'my job is to be smaller than this man...and I know that I am bigger than this.' There was something inside me that said, I am bigger than what I am doing right now, so to do that, I have to leave. "

The first six of "The Seven Deadly Plays" debuted between 2007-2010 at IAMA Theater Company in Los Angeles and the success eventually led her to work as a writer for a number television shows. During that time, she says she often was the only woman in the writers' room -- an experience that, she said, made her feel defensive.

“I think it might be internalized misogyny," she said. "It might be trauma. It just might be feeling like I've worked so hard to get here, I can't let my guard down in any way because if I do I will be taken advantage of.”

But throughout her career, that feeling has changed and she makes a conscious effort to leave the door open for other women. It's advice she gives to others as well.

“When women start working as my assistant I always tell them right at the beginning, you're going to work for me for two years and then... I'm kicking you out of the nest...You have to go out there and figure out what your voice is and what you were meant to do and then send the elevator back down, once you get to where I am, make sure you start helping women, the way that I've hopefully, fingers crossed, helped you,” she said.

Hear more from Leslye Headland on episode #128 of the "No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis" podcast.