Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a man of many talents. Working as a television writer since the mid-90s, his star began to rise after working on the revolutionary TV show LOST and from there, he moved on to creating and executive producing his own show, ABC Family’s sci-fi comedy The Middleman. Before bringing The Middleman to TV, Javier also made a name for himself in the comic book world with the same title, and his latest comic book Ramiel: Wrath of God, which dabbles in angel mythology, will be available later this year.
Recently, Javier released a treasure trove of sample scripts spanning the course of his career in television, which you can visit here. Pitch scripts, outlines, old pilots, and several other items are available for free for young writers to peruse and study as they learn the ins and outs of the trade. In addition, Javier agreed to sit down with Tiny Protagonist to talk a bit about his career, his philosophies, and the learning bumps he encountered along the way…
Let’s start with the basics and the question that’s always burning on everyone’s minds: How did you first get through the door?
Everybody has a different way in. There’s no magic bullet for how to get your foot through the door. For me, I probably had a more traditional and yet less traditional route than most writers. I went to grad school, and I always knew that I wanted to write. By always, I mean from age seven. I always had a very strong, clear vision that this is the path I wanted to take, mostly because I saw Star Wars when I was seven and I sort of pointed to the screen and said, “That’s what I wanna do.”
I became such a huge Star Wars geek as a kid, and I found out that George Lucas went to USC film school, so I decided that that’s what I was gonna do with my life. I wound up not going there for undergraduate because my parents thought that I was too young to live in south central LA, so I went to Carnegie Mellon. Most of what I did during my high school years and my college years was writing plays, and producing plays. As you know, film and video were not nearly as inexpensive or accessible as they are now, so the best way to get stuff done quickly and see it done was to do it on the stage.
So I spent most of my high school and college years doing that, and then finally I went to USC film school. And that’s where the story gets interesting because, I didn’t wind up selling my thesis script. In fact, my thesis script was unproduceable and unbuyable, because it was like a two hundred million dollar action film that would have starred a Puerto Rican guy in his fifties, so… (laughs)
So I was working at Kinko’s, making copies and having had no luck with my big launching pad out of USC, which was usually your thesis script, and I’d gotten a letter from the USC Minority Opportunities office. They had an NBC recruiter coming into the school because they wanted to hire people to be network executives who had a writing background, and if it was someone who was a minority, all the better. So I thought, “well I’m a feature writer. I don’t do this. This is ridiculous, I’m not a TV executive, blah, blah, blah…” And then I saw what the starting salary was and I realized that I could buy a laser disc player for that kind of money, so…
Ah, yes. The holy laser disc player…
Yeah, I know. I really wanted it because Criterion was just starting up at the time, and they had just put out a laser disc of Akira, the Katsuhiro Otomo animated Japanese movie, and I really wanted it very badly, so I fought like hell for that job, and there were about two hundred applicants. I got the job, and when my first paycheck came in, I went to Dave’s Laser on Ventura Boulevard and I bought a laser disc player, and I bought the Criterion Collection of Akira.
Nice. So how would you describe your learning curve, from writing plays in high school and college, to getting to that thesis, to getting to the point where you could pitch yourself professionally?
The thing is, professionally, and in life, you’re always starting at zero anyway. When you start writing plays in high school, and then you produce a couple of them, then you start your own little theater company, and then you’re a senior in high school, and then you’re like, “Hey-hey, I’m a senior in high school, whoa!” and then you get to college and you’re a puke again. And then you work your way back up, and you get to know people, and you start a little theater company, and you do a bunch of plays, and then senior year in college you’re like, “Hey, I’m awesome,” and then you get out into the world and you’re a puke again. You get to grad school, and you’re a puke again.
The thing that my career trajectory has taught me is that you can never put too much stock in your impression of your own mastery. You always have to keep an eye out for everything you still have to learn, because most of the time you still have everything to learn. And you’re always being built up and cut down and I think that the trick to staying fresh, staying current, staying relevant, and always doing good work, is to never get too cocky about, “Oh, I’ve had such a learning curve look at everything I know.”
I find that, what experience gives you is craft, which means that when inspiration fails you, you can still build a pretty workable set of bookcases, even if they’re not the prettiest bookcases. And an ability to cope, mostly to cope with the psychological rigors of the job. Which, working in TV, there are a lot of frustrations, there’s a lot of collaboration, there’s a lot of diplomacy you have to learn how to do. So for me, inspiration is inspiration, if you have it you learn how to tap it, you learn how to collect it, you learn how to nuture it. You’re gonna have it most of your life. But experience is more about learning how to cope, learning how to write every day, learning how to deal in a collaborative environment. One of the things that happened after I got the job at NBC, I was an executive for two years, and I wasn’t writing, but I learned how it is that TV shows are written, and what it is that people do. And for me that was how I learned that I wanted to write in TV.
And the thing I like most about TV is that, it’s about craft as much as it is about inspiration. You have to produce a script. Not you personally, but the team has to produce a script every eight days, or the beast shuts down, and the worst thing that can happen in TV is that the beast shuts down. Because the beast works at about two hundred thousand dollars a day, when you count in all the union salaries and everything, and it does not shut down. It eats a script every eight business days, whether you like it or not.
So it’s about not just being inspired, but it’s about what do you do when inspiration fails. It’s about everybody pulling together, it’s about nine people sitting in a room, and if half of them don’t have inspiration, then the one who does, it’s about developing the idea of the one who does to the point where it becomes an episode.
Your style of writing is definitely action-oriented, you use a lot of colloquial language in your scene description, and you’re very familiar with your reader in the way you tell the story. How did you develop that style?
Well, I’m very familiar with the reader, but it also depends on what script I’m writing. I don’t do that all the time. That was a very deliberate style choice that I made, pretty much starting with The Middleman script, because I wanted to establish that script as having a very unique and individual voice. That script was sort of where I found my voice, but the thing about that style is it can be very deceptive, because people think that you don’t have to work at it. Probably the two people from whom I learned the most about the physical craft of screenwriting, like what your prose should look like and all that, are probably Damon Lindeloff from LOST, and then after him, Glenn Gordon Caron on Medium.
Damon writes very conversational, very profane – he uses a lot of four-letter words in his prose – and you feel like you’re sitting there with a really good friend who’s telling you the coolest story he’s ever heard. That’s how he writes. Glenn, because he’s both a TV writer – he created Moonlighting and all that – and a director, wanted us to write those scripts… we didn’t use slug lines. He felt very strongly that the script was told from the point of view of the Patricia Arquette character. We had to describe everything she saw.
So for me, it’s sort of taking Damon’s Shane Black-like sensibility and melding it with that you-are-there kind of feel that Glenn brings to his scripts, and a lot of my later developments as a screenwriter came from working with those two people, and seeing how they wrote. And again, that goes to show – I’d only been working TV for thirteen years when I got on LOST and I knew quite a bit about it, but the ability to recognize somebody who’s really good at doing x,y, and z, and what can I learn about it, and how can I connect it to my style, was a big lesson I took from that. And that really melded well with some of the things I was trying to do with The Middleman script, which was eight years before I got on LOST. So there’s that.
Also, the thing about, the way that I’ve written some of those scripts, like the Middleman script or Couriers, which is a feature I wrote a couple years ago, it’s a very specific style of writing too. For example, I believe that every word on a script has to propel you, has to propel the visual narrative, so for example, I never use the passive voice in a script, because that’s extra words. Every word has to move forward, and passive, like “Javi is standing on the floor,” you can change, “is standing,” to “Javi stands there.” Every time I use a word, it’s an active verb, because, and this is really abstract, but every frame of a film propels into the next frame, and to create action I feel that words have to be the same in the script. I feel like that really affects the reader’s experience of the prose.
The other thing I do, people always say, “Bob begins to drink.” But I say, you don’t begin to do anything, you’re either drinking or you’re not, and if you’re not doing it, you’re doing something else. So what’s the verb that best conveys the actual action you’re doing? In addition to the script being very conversational and having this colloquial theme and colloquial voice and all that, there’s also the need to be very considerate of the reader’s experience of it, and not making them read more than they have to.
The other thing is, through the years, I’ve learned that most readers are going to skip the prose and go straight to the dialogue. So I also look very closely at how to create prose that looks graphically interesting on the page, so that you’re actually guiding the reader’s eye through the prose and into the dialogue.
Some people call that the comic book writing style. Is that something you think originated in the comic book world?
For me, I don’t know if it originated in the comic book world. I’m not the first to come up with that idea, but it was certainly something that I generated for myself. For me, the idea of creating a graphic narrative flow with words on the page, by using sluglines, CUT TO’s, paragraph stops, and making sure that every paragraph describes a single visual unit of information that flows into the next one – it’s not an innovation that I came up with, but I used it spontaneously on my own, from my own experience of writing and finding other scripts that I liked and all that. A lot of it does come from really liking comic books and knowing what a good layout person does to make your eyes drift through the page. So that was a big influence for me too. The way that I try to arrange things, with CUT TO’s and FADE IN’s and slug lines and things like that on the page, is very much based on reading comic books that I like and working with comic book artists and seeing how they lay things out on the page, and what works and what doesn’t.
Because one of the things that I do, when I have to cut between two scenes, whether I use a CUT TO, or a SMASH CUT TO, or some other things to get you into the next scene, really depends on what kind of a pace I’m trying to establish for that section of the script. Because CUT TO’s are usually superfluous, they’re really the most superfluous bit, unless you specifically want make them a punch line into the next scene. Like a Gilligan cut. You know what a Gilligan cut is? It’s how on Gilligan’s Island, the captain always goes, “I’m not wearing the chicken suit!” and then bam – he’s wearing the chicken suit. A Gilligan cut is very much a SMASH CUT TO. So if I have two scenes that are sort of languid scenes of characters, you probably don’t put a CUT TO. But if you’re doing a Gilligan cut, then you put a SMASH CUT, and instead of using a slug line, you turn your slug line into the captain wearing the chicken suit, and you describe the setting later. So you do things like that really to try to get the reader involved with the prose so they don’t just go from dialogue to dialogue.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 [EDIT: it is now up] of our interview with Javier, where we talk about more about his other projects, how he resurrected The Middleman from a failed pilot to a comic book to a TV series, and his best tips for young writers looking to stake their claim in Hollywood. Also, don’t forget to check out Javi’s project page on his website for great examples of pitch outlines, pilot scripts, and more!