SOUTH LOOP — For years, Maureen “Mo” Ryan was a television critic for outlets like the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and Variety, where she covered popular series including “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Lost” at great length.
But as she extensively wrote about the entertainment industry, Ryan found that over the last decade (in the #MeToo era) she became more focused on investigating issues involving abuse, misconduct and lack of inclusion in Hollywood — while trying to consider ways to improve the inequitable industry.
Those subject matters have culminated in Ryan’s book, “Burn It Down: Power, Complicity and a Call for Change in Hollywood” (Harper Collins), which came out in June and is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.
Ryan, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, spent two years on the volume, conducting an estimated 150 interviews with various people in the TV industry, including creators and actors like Evan Rachel Wood, Damen Lindelof, Orlando Jones and Harold Perrineau.
She’ll discuss “Burn It Down” at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Printers Row Lit Fest on the 730 Plymouth Court stage.
Ryan told Block Club Chicago her writing career took an unexpected turn in recent years as she uncovered stories of abuse and misconduct in what she described as “this incredible, disillusioning process.”
“I actually think that something broke inside me when I heard someone in 2021, for a story I was doing, describe a different abusive person who had a lot of power in the industry with the exact same words that they had been using four years ago,” Ryan said. “So as both someone who’s covered the industry and someone who’s covered its misconduct, I want to stand on top of a mountain and shout, ‘It’s not fixed!’”
Although Ryan’s book does discuss #MeToo, she sheds light on the mistreatment of Hollywood’s less powerful players across the board — writers and actors who are striking with SAG and WGA this summer, fighting for better treatment, as well as tradespeople and crew members.
The system is stacked against them, Ryan said: “Ultimately, it’s all about making money and extracting the most work and creativity [the higher-ups] can from people for the least amount of money. The horror stories that I have heard, even for people who have been established for years, were just getting more horrible, frankly … A lot of senior people were really surprised to learn in 2019, their assistants were making the same amount that those senior people made when they were assistants 16 years earlier, 18 years earlier.”
Some of Ryan’s chapters cover overall issues, like the myth of meritocracy in the industry: that talented people are just destined to rise to the top, no matter how many other factors (racism, sexism, lower income levels) are stacked against them.
“Like the dream of Hollywood, the idea that it’s an egalitarian place where you walk on a set, people can offer ideas, it can be a creative ferment … that does and can happen for sure, no doubt,” Ryan said.
But, she said, for the vast majority of people working in a studio or in production, “speaking out about even the littlest things can get you blackballed, can get you fired. However much trouble you were having paying your bills before, when you’re out on the street and have no job, it’s going to be that much harder.”
Other chapters in “Burn It Down” dive into particularly problematic series, including NBC’s long-running “Saturday Night Live.” That chapter features an anonymous source who describes going to cast parties as a teenager and being sexually assaulted by an “SNL” cast member in front of other cast members.
Ryan’s chapter on the hit ABC series “Lost,” which air from 2004-2010, recently ran as an excerpt in Vanity Fair (where Ryan is a contributing editor) and featured horrifying anecdotes from cast and crew members like Perrineau. Ryan lists various beyond-offensive transgressions that happened on the set of “Lost”; for example, according to her sources, “The only Asian-American writer was called ‘Korean,’ as in, ‘Korean, take the board,” she said.
The chapter on the CBS series “Sleepy Hollow,” which ran from 2013-2017, unfurls one shocking, devastating moment after another, as Ryan relays how a well-loved series with a strong Black female lead, played by actor Nicole Beharie, managed to self-destruct in only a few seasons.
Cast member Orlando Jones sheds light in the book on what went wrong on the series, focusing on the reported mistreatment of Beharie.
“For a hot minute there, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ was one of the most fun shows on TV with one of the few Black women to lead a TV show in an American, one-hour, scripted space ever,” Ryan said. “Within three seasons, she’s gone. And all of you who wanted to take credit for having an inclusive cast and a great show and a hit show: Where are you, when that’s all going down?”
Ryan said the “Sleepy Hollow” situation is indicative of the toxic culture of Hollywood itself.
“The things that happened at ‘Sleepy Hollow’ were silently endorsed by many, many people with power and autonomy, and connections and all the rest,” she said. “So I do think it matters, what individuals do in terms of how they reckon with their behavior and their pasts. That’s their work. That’s also something that should be weighed in on by the people who experienced the harm.”
Which is what “Burn It Down” manages to do. But it doesn’t just point out all the many flaws in the current Hollywood system. One of the most heartening parts of the book is that Ryan attempts to show how the structure itself can be fixed, whether it’s toxic bosses learning to come to term with themselves or studios taking on the simplest human resources parameters of myriad other industries.
“Because you know what it’s not? It’s not rocket science,” Ryan told Block Club. “You know how to make Tom Cruise dangle off a mountain, you can figure this out.”
As Ryan’s book (and the actors’ and writers’ strikes) point out, there is massive room for improvement in the industry: seeing more people of color and queer people in positions of power, for example.
With all she’s learned about the industry in her impressively thorough investigation, Ryan remains hopeful.
“I never wanted to write a book that was just a take-down,” she said. “Like if I had ended that book with the ‘Saturday Night Live’ chapter, it would be like, it’s hopeless. But I’m not hopeless because I always knew that there were sterling, brave, incredible, intelligent, creative people in the industry.”
Ryan said too much time has been spent discussing perpetrators like producers Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin (who gets his own chapter in her book, “Scott Rudin and the Myth of Necessary Monsters”) and not enough about people like Perrineau and Beharie who’ve managed to survive these toxic conditions in Hollywood and produce thoughtful, creative work.
“That was one reason that Harold and Melinda Hsu Taylor [a ‘Lost’ writer and producer, now showrunner for series like ‘Nancy Drew’], and Orlando Jones, they’re quoted throughout the book, because you know what? They are so interesting. They are not summed up by the worst things that happen to them. They are so much more than that,” she said.
Ryan will discuss “Burn It Down” Sunday at the Printers Row Lit Fest at the 730 Plymouth Court stage with Mikki Kendall, author of “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot.”
All Lit Fest events are free; tickets are not required. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
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