Dee Johnson: How I Made It - From ER to Mars, the showrunner opens up about her career - Exclusive

The Emmy-nominated TV producer has worked on Nashville, ER and The Good Wife - but innovative drama-documentary hybrid Mars is her boldest show yet.

Dee Johnson has had something of a career change.

Having spent more than 15 years working on TV dramas including Nashville, ER and The Good Wife, the producer has switched her focus to space - namely the new series of National Geographic docudrama, Mars.

Speaking exclusively to BT TV ahead of the new series, Dee revealed why she employed more women on the show, why she's fangirling over Killing Eve and why her proudest career moment to date came on the set of ER...

Mars returns on Sunday, November 11 at 8pm on National Geographic (BT channel number 317/373 HD), one of the extra entertainment channels available to BT TV customers.

‘I have the most unlikely story about getting into TV’

Dee Johnson

Everyone has their own way of getting in to the industry, but there’s certainly nothing about my upbringing that says I would end up here.

The short version is that I grew up in a military family so we moved around a lot, and television was sort of a mainstay. It was a way of staying connected and I loved it.

I never knew you could make a living out of it… all those names on the TV… it wasn’t my world, not even remotely my world at all. I just thought ‘those lucky people’.

I always wrote, but I just didn’t know that that was a possibility. I should ask my friends at the time what made me think that I could do it.

There was a show that I loved called Cagney & Lacey, and I thought "I think I can write this".

I started writing it completely removed, and then I decided with someone else - in a way that if one of my own children said this I’d be mortified - "Let’s move to LA and write for television".

It just seems so stupid now, so that’s what we did. We started by just working, I was a PA, but I was writing, writing, writing, and meeting people, and getting notes, and learning the craft.

Then eventually it paid off. If my kids were to say "Let’s move to Paris and become artists" I’d be mortified.

‘My proudest career moment is a pro-LGBT storyline on ER’

ER

On ER there was a character storyline with Dr Weaver (played by Laura Innes, above), where she came out as gay and had a child with somebody and it was mirroring my life. You steal from your life all the time.

They were going through something that I was going through as my wife and I were embarking on having kids, and at that time there were not a lot of protections in place and there was a lot of fear for us, because there was a lot of hostility from her side of the family, and she was the one doing the heavy lifting and giving birth.

I had no biological standing. My fear was "Gosh, what happens if something happens to you? I have no standing", so I just basically wrote to that.

I was supervising this episode, I didn’t write it, but there was an episode where Dr Weaver’s partner died, and she came into the ER and she wanted to  work and the other doctors were saying "No, Kerry, don’t", and I insisted on this one line where she says "She’s my wife".

This is way back, before same-sex rights. I got a lot of pushback from unnamed folks who didn’t really want that to be said, because it wasn’t legal or whatever, but in reality, that’s what that situation was and that was my situation.

Ultimately it did get said, and it did get broadcast, so for me that was my proudest moment.

The beautiful thing about it is in those days we were still getting a big share of the audience, we were getting like 20% share, which is millions and millions of living rooms.

The fact I was able to do that and reach people in some small way - that this is a relationship that needed to be recognised - was good.

No-one ever interviewed me about it. To be fair, those were the pre-social media days… now, they might be all "Don’t force your agenda on me". But luckily, social media didn’t exist then so I was oblivious and I just felt proud of it.

[Read more: Why same sex couples on Strictly has got people talking]

‘Social media has made it harder to do my job’

Dee Johnson 2

It’s almost like expected for you to have a social media presence. I don’t have anything clever to say on a daily basis.

The hard thing is 95% of my job is being criticised anyway, I don’t really need to see a bazillion people from wherever saying "this sucks".

That doesn’t help. It’s hard enough to do my job. Sometimes it’s fun, but overall it’s just kind of a necessary thing.

Whereas before you might get the reviews through ratings, now it’s more instantaneous.

‘Women sometimes have to work twice as hard to get half as far’

Hana

The one thing I was very intrigued by in Mars was Hana’s character (played by Jihae, above), because this was a representation that I hadn’t seen, and one that I could really relate to.

I really wanted to explore what it was to be a female leader.

I’ve climbed every rung of the ladder, twice, and I know it sounds like a cliche but sometimes for women you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

I was intrigued by the prospect of researching that for her, and having her leadership questioned.

Again I’m generalising, but there’s an automatic respect that men get just for being men, and women have to do some things slightly differently.

I just thought, let me dig in here and see how she can come out the other side of it.

There was also a conscious decision to look at our Big Thinkers [for series 2 of Mars] and have more of a diverse landscape by bringing in more female experts.

Season 1 was largely older science guys, so there was definitely a commitment to having more diverse points of view. That was a happy by-product.

That wasn’t just from me, that was the network too. I think it was a matter of "there are other voices out there, let’s get them in here and hear them speak".

When I watch the show now that I’ve had a little bit of distance from it, I’m going "wow".

[Read more: Why Killing Eve is a must-watch]

‘I wish I’d worked on Killing Eve!’

Killing Eve

First off, the actresses are fantastic, but what I loved about it is you rarely see a show about two women and it captures a really unique relationship.

The other thing that I love about it is that it wasn’t all these fancy bells and whistles, it wasn’t a high-concept sci-fi... it was ultimately a relationship show, but with very, very high stakes and a lot of tension, and kinda gory. I was surprised by how gory it was!

But I thought it was spectacular, I loved it. I watched it on BBC America, we waited [each week] for new episodes. I thought it was fantastic.  

You watch a show like that and you’re like "Ah, why can’t I do that show?".

There's one thing I haven’t done yet which I would like to do: a period piece. I haven’t done that yet, and I’m a huge fan of The Crown.

If you need me over here in the UK, let me know!

Mars returns Sunday, November 11 at 8pm on National Geographic (BT channel number 317/373 HD). Series 1 of Mars is available to stream on Netflix now.

Discovery’s channels are part of the 60+ premium channels available on BT TV including Animal Planet and TLC.

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Images: National Geographic / Rex Features / BBC America

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