Faculty Spotlight | Michelle Amor Gillie sells one-hour drama ”The Honorable” to CBS

Screenwriter and Chicago native Michelle Amor Gillie has always loved her hometown‘s rough-and-tumble politics. Last spring, an Instagram post from a fellow Windy City native led the two to co-create The Honorable, a one-hour drama that recently sold to CBS about the first Black woman mayor of Chicago. Amor Gillie is teaching at LMU SFTV’s Study Abroad program in Budapest this semester. We pinged her across the pond to ask her about her new show and its roots.

What inspired the subject matter of “The Honorable”?

The inspiration comes from growing up on the west side of Chicago in a community called K-town. Its nickname comes from the many street names that begin with the letter “K,” but locals say the “K” stands for kill. K-town is where my grandparents and other African-American families moved in the 1960s, seeking the American dream on tree-lined streets, but it’s also where drugs, violence, and extreme poverty took over by the 1980s.

The show is also inspired by my family, specifically my late grandfather Lanfrey Boyd, who migrated to Chicago from the south in the 1940s. By the 1970s he’d become one of the most successful Black businessmen in Chicago. My family owned a grocery store, a liquor store, several real estate properties. We employed everyone in our family, including my mother. I was eight years old when my grandfather died and we lost everything after his death. We went from the American Dream of building generational wealth to poverty, almost overnight. I used this history, my family’s history, to develop the lead character. 

You say an Instagram post led you to co-create this show with somebody you’d met but had never worked with. How’d that happen?

My co-creator Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris, Survivor’s Remorse), also a Chicago native, posted on Instagram: “No politics on earth are better than Chicago politics.” A friend, Taj Paxton, also an executive, contacted me and suggested I reach out to him. Taj had read one of my scripts the year before and knew I was from Chicago and that I loved politics. This is very important to note because it’s all about contacts and connections in Hollywood.

So I sent Ali an email at 2:00 am basically saying, “Let’s make a show about Chicago politics together.” Ali and I began developing our idea from my personal family story and from the 2018 Chicago mayoral election, which was a political circus.

Anyway, Ali and I began working together in March 2019. We fleshed out the show idea, including the pilot as well as storylines for several Season One episodes. Dr. Phil’s company, Stage 29 Productions, came on as our producing partners around April or May. CBS Studios came on as our studio in July, and the CBS Network bought The Honorable in October. Now we have to write the pilot and the first season.

What was the most challenging part of this process for you? The most fun?

The waiting is the most challenging part. Like I said, we’ve been developing this idea since March and we’ve gone through multiple versions and revisions, although the core idea has never changed. The Honorable is a one-hour drama about the first Black woman mayor of the city of Chicago, who’s also married with two kids. A woman of integrity and a novice to politics, she rises from childhood poverty to the most powerful seat in the most politically corrupt city in the nation. 

Working with Ali LeRoi and our partners in this project has been the best part. Stage 29 Productions, CBS Studios, and CBS are all genuinely invested in turning this show into a hit. It makes me very hopeful to be working with and supported by such an incredible team of people.

How does being a professor influence the way you write and work? How do you juggle your teaching load with your own projects?

I’ve always wanted to be both a professor and a professional screenwriter. When I was in undergraduate film school at Columbia College in Chicago, there were no professors who looked like me. So I made it a personal goal to become what I desired for myself.

I got my M.F.A. from UCLA so I could hone my writing skills and have the ability to teach once I was done. I taught as a graduate student at UCLA, and after I got my degree I taught at AFI, Cal State Northridge, and Chapman University before joining LMU SFTV full-time.

It’s such a joy to teach the next generation of screenwriters, especially LMU students, who are truly some of the brightest and most talented students I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Plus teaching has made me a much better writer. 

But I don’t just teach and write. I also co-chair the WGAW Committee of Black Writers, whose mission is to create career and networking opportunities for Black writers in Hollywood. And I have a husband and two children whom I adore. So I feel like I have four jobs, really.

I balance it all by keeping a schedule. But because writing gives me joy, I’m always writing. I get a lot of writing done during my winter and summer breaks. Those lengthy breaks are some of the best perks about teaching. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers who want to sell their scripts?

It’s worth noting that while I was still in grad school I started developing an idea for a Chicago political drama titled Wendy’s City. But I wasn’t quite ready to tell that story back then. I say this to encourage screenwriters to save all your ideas, because you never know.

Also, keep writing and networking. I moved to L.A. nine years ago and this is my first TV sale. I’ve had numerous meetings, attended too-many-to-count networking events, and have written five pilots, eight features, optioned a book, and taken ghostwriting jobs during this time. I’ve hustled hard!

Finally, make sure you’re telling stories only you can tell. Your personal truths. You can set your story, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but the heart of your story still must come from you and your experiences. I always tell my students, if you remember nothing else, remember this: You are good enough. Your story is good enough.

Okay, Chicago native, tell us: Deep-dish or thin-crust pizza? White Sox or Cubs? Barack or Michelle?

Deep dish at Lou Malnati’s, thin crust at Home Run Inn. White Sox. That last question is tough but I’ll have to go with Michelle. C’mon, we already share a first name!