Michelle Ashford attended Santa Clara University with her mind set on studying the theories of economics—that is, until an elective class allowed her to put another interest into practice: filmmaking. After creating a documentary on hospice care, Ashford pursued a path that ultimately found her writing for television.
“It was so much more interesting to me than economics,” Ashford says of her work on the documentary. “There was something that spoke so deeply to me, especially because I got to spend time with a woman who was dying of breast cancer and she opened her home to me. That just deeply resonated.”
The documentary helped nudge Ashford toward entertainment, leading her to a career with top credits, an Emmy nomination and, currently, her creator/executive producer role on Showtime’s hit Masters of Sex.
At first, however, Ashford only had a “vague notion” of how her degree might manifest. After working as a page for KTLA Los Angeles, she cycled through production assistant, receptionist and secretary jobs. “I’ve basically gotten turkey sandwiches for every human being imaginable,” she says.
It wasn’t until she became a writer’s room assistant that she found her footing in the business. “I realized in television, the people who were doing the most interesting stuff were the writers. TV writers seemed to be the bosses, which I thought was interesting. I just didn’t have any idea if I could write.”
She found out quickly enough in her first writing job, on 21 Jump Street. Ashford compares the experience of working in the legendary producer Stephen J. Cannell’s Hollywood Boulevard complex to TV school.
“They let you do everything,” she recalls. “You could wander onto someone else’s show, and you could go to casting. It was a fantastic education. I was blessed to have done that. What it really does is prepare you for being a showrunner; at Cannell, you could do everything.”
Ashford says she learned a lot from Cannell, and quickly came to the realization that she didn’t want to be a staff writer. She began to write pilots.
“When I was working on 21 Jump Street, I’d be there all hours, and it was working on weekends. You don’t have any free time. You are a little beholden to how the showrunner runs that show,” Ashford says. “I decided pretty early on that if I was going to work that hard, I wanted it to be for my own show.”
‘Masters’ of Their Domain
Ashford worked on several series and ultimately found her own show in Masters of Sex. The first season averaged 4.8 million weekly viewers, better than Homeland’s record-breaking freshman season on Showtime by 13%.
Ashford and longtime friend Sarah Timberman had planned on working together when Timberman approached Ashford with the book that served as the basis for Masters of Sex.
“Michelle was the first person I thought of. She had done such a gorgeous job writing for everything from The Pacific to John Adams,” says Timberman, Masters of Sex executive producer. “She has a rare brilliance in bringing historical material to life in a way that makes it feel vivid and have a visceral impact.”
Though Ashford had a vague notion of who pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson were, the biography was a “revelation.” Ashford quickly envisioned six years of storytelling. “I was stunned at how significant they had been historically in many ways,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about all the twists and turns of their careers.”
With a blind commitment to write a pilot already in the bag from Sony Pictures Television, Ashford and Timberman began shopping the material. A chance encounter with Showtime Networks president David Nevins proved to be key.
“[We] had known David for many years,” Ashford says. “Sarah actually ran into him in an airport, handed him the book and he said, ‘I see this completely. I want to do it.’”
A Lesson From Cannell
While working the showrunning reins at Masters of Sex, Ashford has been guided to a degree by lessons she learned from her late former boss, Cannell.
“I think he was a really decent man, and I think he was fair. I think he tried to be good for the people who worked for him,” Ashford says. “So much of your work life—if you’re working in television—colors how you feel about your life in general. As a showrunner, you have a certain obligation to make [your workers’] experience as rich and satisfying and pleasant as humanly possible.”
While season two of Masters of Sex, premiering July 13, keeps Ashford mighty busy, she does keep her eyes one other series.
[HBO’s Girls] “is a show very much the product of a single vision,”Ashford says. “I’m very interested when a show gets on that’s such a particular sensibility. I’m always curious to see what someone will do with that.”