Interview: Javier Grillo-Marxuach of LOST and The Middleman (Part 2 of 2)

Javier Grillo-Marxuach at the 2008 Comic-Con International. Source: Wikipedia

Javier Grillo-Marxuachis 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…

I read a few of your scripts on your site, and one of the scripts I read was your Department Zero script…

Fun script. Really sad that that didn’t get made. (laughs)

There was one line that I just want to ask you about and call your attention to:“The rest of the uniforms stand behind her, each and every one of them absolutely fuckstruck.”

(Laughing) You know, actually, I can’t claim credit for fuckstruck. The weird thing is that, it just goes to show you that you have to read as much outside of your own genre as you possibly can. That word is a word that I got from a novel by Julian Barnes, who’s one of those British novelists who came up around the same time as Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, and it was novel about relationships called Talking it Over. And a character at one point in the novel says, “Oh, I’m fuckstruck at this woman,” and I thought that is the most awesome word ever, and I just sort of put it in my quiver. And I think I read that book in like, ’93, ’92, I mean, it’s an older book, and it’s funny because a lot of being creative is about your own original ideas, but a lot of it is also about how you remix things that already exist in the culture. And that’s one of those things where you go, “I have this sitting in the cupboard, ah, let’s put a little of that seasoning in,” and then you’re like, “Hey, it tastes pretty good.”

So, Department Zero, it’s a shame that it never got made, but in a weird way, the way that script is written, is very much the peak for me of that writing style that I developed for myself between 1998 and 2008. That decade of writing, which is influenced by comic books, it’s influenced by the writing on LOST, it’s influenced by my writing on Medium, and everything else that I was exposed to then. Moving forward, I don’t know what a lot of my writing is going to look like to be honest with you, because I feel I’m actually on the verge of kind of shifting my style again, so I’m happy that you at least were able to read that script and enjoy it because I think it really, it’s a moment in time for me.

That script, and then the pilots that I wrote in that time that are available on my website, I’m glad that you actually went there and read them. One of the reasons I put all that stuff up there was because people are always asking me, what does a pilot script look like? What does a sales pitch look like? So that’s why I put that up there.

It’s a culmination and now you’re moving on?

I don’t know that I’m moving on. It’s a really useful way of writing a script that makes people happy and excited to read it and all that, but I don’t know what the next thing is gonna be.

Well, let’s talk about Couriers a little bit. Is that your first feature that you’re working on?

I had written all these feature scripts in my grad school education, and then I went into TV and I didn’t write features for a while, and then LOST became so successful that a lot of companies were scrambling to get all the writers on that show, because among people who were such fans of the show, there were a lot feature company executives, so they started calling my agent and saying “Oh, we love the show.” So my first real feature gig was this movie called Pulse, a Kristen Bell remake of a Japanese movie, and I was the rewrite guy on that movie. I came in and did some rewrites for reshoots on it, and I’m very proud that I was able to put in a line about Granny Trannies in there, so yeah, really good. Good work for me. (laughs)

And then from there, I guess a couple things later, I wound up selling the Couriers, which is based on a Brian Wood book, and I actually read that book when it first came out on the shelves in comic book stores, and I thought it was incredible. I looked into what the rights were and all of that, and that’s one of those stories we came close to making a lot of times. It just hasn’t yet found traction, but it’s a really fun script. So I’m hoping that Intrepid Pictures who owns the rights and owns the book, will wind up getting the right combination of director and talent to get it made. But Brian Wood and Rob G put together an amazing book. For me, that screenplay was a very literal translation of that book in terms of the style and the attitude, and it was a lot of fun to write.

And do you think this could mark a shift in your career, more towards features? Or do you still see yourself staying in TV?

You know, I’m working right now on a thing called Dead@17, which is based on another Viper comic book, and that’s been in the works for a while. Just sort of getting that right. You know, I think I’ll probably transition, not freely, but transition between the two as much as I can. But my first gig in TV was in ’95, so it’s been sixteen years, really honing my skills in TV and becoming a showrunner, so I don’t see myself going full time into features or anything like that. I really love television. I spent a lot of time developing that as a skill-set, so I imagine that I will probably continue to make that my main business for a while. I also write comic books. In fact, I have a new book coming out at Comic-Con next month. I like the idea of having a lot of different businesses that I’m lucky enough to be allowed to do.

How did you find your way into comics from television?

I had written The Middleman as a spec pilot. And everybody hated it. My agent hated it, my ex-wife hated it, everybody hated it. And I loved it, and I kind of had this very pig-headed need to see it made, and when it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to sell it in television, I decided to… When I was working on LOST, do you know who Paul Dini is? Paul was one of the writers on the show.

Yes. He’s a major player in the comic book world.

Major player, and in animation. He wrote the Arkham Asylum video games, both of them, I mean, he’s a big deal. He wrote Batman Beyond, Return of the Joker, he wrote Mask of Phantasm.

He’s been doing Batman since the first animated series.

Yeah, absolutely. And frankly, I don’t think anybody has gotten Batman as right, as he and the other writers of that animated show did, especially Mask of Phantasm. And the feature film Mask of Phantasm is a beautiful Batman movie, which, for my money, is every bit as good as The Dark Knight, and better than Batman Begins. So, Paul has his hands in independent comics and in creator-owned comics. He owns a book called Jingle Belle, and he owns a book called Mutant, Texas that he publishes with Oni. So we got to talking and I got inspired by his success with independent books, and he sort of coached me on how to get The Middleman made as a comic book.

Based on his advice, I found Les McClaine, we started working on the pitch, and then we wound up taking it to Viper and getting that done, so it was actually a pretty easy process, I think, aided by the success of LOST. Thanks to LOST becoming a hit, I think people were interested in seeing what I had. I had a really great relationship with Viper and we did three graphic novels for The Middleman, and then it went on to being a TV show, so it was a very lucky break that I met Paul and that I was able to find an artist like Les, and that I found a comic book company that was willing to take the chance on the book.

I have to admit I always liked Natalie Morales, but after seeing the pilot for Middleman, I kind of want to marry her now.

You know, there’s a lot of her in that version of Wendy Watson. Wendy Watson was very different in the comic book. Not in terms of the dialogue, but more in terms of her attitude and all that. When you hire someone to do a job in TV, you begin to write to them and to their strengths and all that. I think of Natalie like… she’s kind of a muse for me anyway, she’s somebody who I really enjoyed working with, and the more I got to know her through the process, the more you naturally write to them, so I think, by the end of it, Wendy Watson and Natalie were kind of inextricable from each other.

Actually, the interesting thing about that just in terms of the writing of it, and in terms of an actor really informing the part… If you look at Brit Morgan as Lacey on that, Lacey was a much less defined character in the comic book. And it wasn’t like Brit came up to us and said, “Hey, have me do this and have me do that.” It was more just from us watching her and getting to know her as a person. The character really evolved out of that. That’s a big part of the writing process, especially in TV. You get to know your actors, you get to know what they can do and what they’re good at, and what they excel at, and how they communicate to the audience. And then you zero right in on those strengths, and you go for it.

I should probably plug my new comic book by the way. This is another interesting story. I sold a pilot to the WB about fourteen years ago called The Confessor. It was about an angel on earth. They didn’t make the script and I wound up selling it to the Sci-Fi channel in 2001. They wound up not making it, and again it’s one of those things where it’s a product that I really loved and always wanted to see done, and then finally this year, Ape Entertainment wound up picking it up as a comic book, so we’re gonna have a special preview issue at Comic-Con, and then in later in the year it’s going to come out in comic book stores.

It’s a different take on superheroes, in that it’s a spiritual take on superheroes based in angel mythology. It’s a black protagonist, and I like to say it’s a black protagonist whose superhero name doesn’t begin with “Black.” Because so many of the black superheroes have names like, “Black Panther,” or “Black Onyx.” No, he’s just a guy, and this is what he is. Anyway, it’s being published by Ape Entertainment, and we have an artist named Steven Gender. I think it’s the second or third book that he’s done, and he’s a fantastic new artist. We’re doing something very different with the inking and the coloring of the book. Visually, it’s a really different looking comic book, and again, it’s one of those things where, comics are great because they’ve enabled me to see through to completion projects that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. It’s gonna be pretty cool.

Aside from the comic book world, are you also thinking about taking a stab at directing at some point and doing more of that? I saw your music video for Admiral Radley a while back…

Well, the music video was a first step into that. I directed a short film about eleven years ago, and it was a short film that I wrote, and I feel that everybody involved did a good job except for the director. It was called Cops on Edge: Episode 89.

I was about to ask you about that…

Yeah, you can’t see it. I don’t have it out there. You know, it was fun and I enjoyed it, but I really didn’t do a good job directing it. I had a really good team of actors, and, like I said, everybody but the director. Even the writer (points to himself) did a good job. Everyone except for the director.

So I really stepped away from it for a while. I think one of the things you learn producing TV is that you are in the editing room, and you really learn about what you need to tell your story. So, when it came time to do the music video, I came out of it with the point of view that, “OK, I’ve been in the editing room now for ten years. I know what I need when I have a story to tell. Let’s give it a shot again.” And that’s why I made the music video, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think it’s a really sweet, little short film.

Actually, I was supposed to direct the series finale of The Middleman, but instead I wound up asking the network to cancel the show before we did the series finale, because the show coming to an end had to do with budget issues as well as audience issues, and I just felt that we weren’t going to have enough money for me as a first-time director to really convey what I wanted to do. So again, comics… we put out a comic book of the script which I had already written with Hans Beimler, and I think the comic book is a much better visual expression than I anything I could have done with the time and the money that I had. So I think sometime in the next few years, I’ll probably direct another episode of something, or I’ll probably make another short film this year. The nice thing about having some success as a writer is that I don’t need to rush into directing or something to try to make a living. So I really I want to take my time and be good at it before I do something that a lot of people are gonna see, and so I don’t run the risk of embarrassing myself too thoroughly.

And in the music video, I really am trying to develop an aesthetic, because the other thing is I don’t want to direct in a way that’s just going in, shooting everything with three cameras, and finding it in the editing room. For example, I think Steven Spielberg is an amazing director because as much as any other director out there, he’s a very intuitively visual director, and he’s a master of mise-en-scène in a way that a lot of modern directors aren’t. People forget that he comes out of a tradition of directing where your master shots weren’t just static masters that were just designed to be punched into with coverage. If you look at, even a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is an action film, the shot design is really based on having very solidly choreographed masters.

One of the best scenes in that movie is the scene where Marcus Brody comes to Indiana Jones’s house to tell him that the government’s going to get the ark.  If you watch that scene, that scene’s all one take, which for a four-page dialogue scene in a modern Hollywood movie is unheard of. But the camera choreography is so brilliantly put together with the blocking of the scene that you don’t notice. There’s only one cutaway, and that’s on an insert of Indiana Jones’s gun when he throws it in the suitcase.

Even in one of his movies that’s not as well regarded, if you look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the opening shot that introduces Indiana Jones goes from the trunk of the car, around to the hat, to the shadow, to him putting the hat on. It’s one take. And if you look at that versus the work of pretty much any of the directors who’ve made any of the big summer movies this year, those movies are all designed to be found in the editing room. They’re not designed to be a single, ongoing experience. So, I don’t feel that I want to get behind a camera and do something that I really want a lot of people to see until I really figure out how it is that that happens. (Laughs) It’s a lofty goal, but I’m hoping I can be enough of a study to get there.

Your IMDb profile lists your earliest credit as Seaquest 2032. Was that your first experience in the writer’s room?

It’s funny, Seaquest didn’t really have a writers’ room. The executive producer hired a lot of very high level guys who were all co-executive producer-level guys, and let them all run rampant and break their own stories and all that, but I had the really good fortune that Naren Shankar, who is now one of the executive producers on Grimm, and was one of the co-show runners on CSI for about eight years. He had just gotten off of Star Trek: The Next Generation and we shared an office suite. I was in one of the offices, he was in the other. And the really cool thing was, he was brought up in television by Michael Piller, who was one of the great room runners of television. He’s the guy who really groomed new talent. If you look at the Star Trek: The Next Generation writers’ room, Ron Moore of Battlestar Gallactica, Brannon Braga who does Terra Nova and all these other shows, René Echevarria… A lot of really well-known executive producers came out of the Next Generation writers’ room.

So one day, we were sitting there trying to break our own stories, and Naren came into my office and said “Let me show you how to break a story the Star Trek way.” And so we sat in his office and we sort of went through the way that they would break a story on Star Trek, which was room-based, collaborative, very much get it down on the whiteboard before you put in on paper, make sure every beat works…

So even though my first gig wasn’t in a writers’ room, I was lucky enough that I had a mentor who had a really solid writers’ room background, and he taught me how to do it. And from that experience, I went into all the other writers’ rooms knowing that that’s how I wanted to do it, and how I thought stories should be broken. When it came time to do my own show, many years later, it really was about that. It was about working it out on the whiteboard, making sure every scene worked, making sure every beat worked, and making sure that every individual writer had authorship over their own story, so that there was always someone in the writers’ room who was invested in the tale that’s being created on the whiteboard. It’s a very important thing to learn, and those lessons, even though I was never a Star Trek writer, you can see the influence of what that writers’ room was like, and it’s very much how I was brought up as a writer.

Is there any lasting advice that you would give to people who want to get into writing for television?

Yes. And it’s simple. Because there’s no one way to get into TV or films, you know everybody has a different story, and because there’s no magic bullet, the only thing you can control is how much you write. And I find that people always say, “Well, I have this one great script that’s gonna sell for a million dollars,” and I always very rudely say, “Bullshit.” There is no one script. There is only craft, and that is the ability to generate ideas, develop ideas, bring them through to completion, and move on to the next one.

Most TV writers have to get six spec scripts under their belt before they’re good enough to be in a writers’ room. Most feature writers have to get a significant number of screenplays done before they make their big sale, in order to have a lasting career.

The one thing you can control is how you develop your craft. When I got into USC, what they were looking for wasn’t good grades or extracurricular activities. They were looking for, “Can you start a project and finish a project, and can you do it over and over again?”

That’s a lesson I took into everything I do. In TV, you sit in a writers’ room, and 95% of your story ideas and scene ideas and dialogue ideas die on the vine, and the only thing that allows you to survive in television is that, you can take that punch on the chin like a man and come up with the next one. Your philosophy has to be, “Crunch all you want, I’ll make more.” So that’s the only thing you can control is just to keep writing, keep working, keep producing, keep developing, keep finishing stuff, and moving on. And to not be so in love with any one thing that it eclipses your ability to continue to move forward.

You mentioned six spec scripts. One of the things I’ve been hearing a lot lately is that, more and more often, showrunners are looking for writers with their own pilots than actual specs of current shows that are already on TV. Is that true?

Let me put it to you this way. As long as I’m working in television, there will be a guy who wants to read a solid spec of an existing show. So at least there’ll be one for as long as I’m around. Pilots are like the brain surgery of television. You’re supposed to create them after you really develop a mastery of the television form. A pilot is an argument for the existence of a television show, and it’s an argument  for your mastery of the form in such a way that you can present a set of story ideas and develop them over a sustained period of time.

Should you write spec pilots? Of course, you should. I think that it’s great practice and you may actually create something that impresses people and makes them want to hire you, but you want to make sure you go into a writer’s room, and you know how to do five acts and a teaser really well. And you’re better off having had some practical experience of doing that on your own before you’re doing it for money, so that you give yourself the best chance of success in executing someone else’s form. So my advice is do both. Learn how to do both, because when you’re a staff writer, they’re not going to be asking you to write pilots, they’re going to be asking you to write episodes of television and you’d better have some idea how to execute that.

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One response to “Interview: Javier Grillo-Marxuach of LOST and The Middleman (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Interview: Javier Grillo-Marxuach of LOST and The Middleman (Part 1 of 2) « The Tiny Protagonist·

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