Friday, April 15, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part IV - showrunning COUNTERPART for Starz

Part I - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER
Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX


My talk with screenwriter Justin Marks concludes. THE JUNGLE BOOK opens in theaters everywhere today. You can find Justin on Twitter at @Justin_Marks_.

I wanted to save a little bit of time to talk about COUNTERPART, the Starz TV series you’re still in the midst of making. I believe this was your second pilot sold, but your first series. Am I right about that?

Yeah, STARZ bought it. We’re doing two seasons for them. J.K. Simmons is playing the lead role. He’s actually playing two roles, two versions of himself. Morten Tyldum, from THE IMITATION GAME, is directing the first two episodes. It’s an original, something I was specing as a feature and I had a meeting at MRC one day and had just been working on this idea. They asked what I was working on, so I told them and they said, “That should be a TV show. We’ll buy that. Let’s develop it together as a script and we’ll see if we can find interest in it.” We brought it out to the marketplace and got J.K. Simmons and Morten attached to it right after the Oscars last year. Starz bought it and they’ve been incredibly supportive throughout the process. We [the writing staff] have been in a room for about a year, writing the entire first season. Then we’re gonna shoot later this year.

So you got to be the showrunner without having to climb any of the usual rungs in TV.

Well, I have a lot of help from really good people. Amy Berg, another executive producer on the show, is really great at that. She’s really experienced and at the same time she’s really open-minded to doing a different process. This show is ten episodes being written before we shoot a single one of them. In our minds we’re writing a 10-hour movie with ten very solid chapters to it. It’s been a learning process for all of us as we go through it.

From what I remember of your tweets that first week in the writers room, you took to having other writers involved sort of like a duck taking to water.

Yeah! And you know what’s funny is a lot of that, I think, is because of THE JUNGLE BOOK experience and what Jon was pushing. He said, “You can’t be a screenwriter who just wants what you want, and you’re gonna do what you write and we’re all just gonna have to react to that because we’re just going to rewrite you,” you know, the director, the art department, the story department. He said, “We’re all going to be a team and you’re just one part of the team responsible for putting the words on the page in a way that makes us actually feel something.”

That process of learning to trust the process, which is the old Disney mantra, “Trust the process,” Let it suck. Let’s just throw something on the wall and let the room give their opinions on it. That’s what we applied to the TV show, and I guess that’s what every TV show does which is why television is so good because you have a lot of brains working on something together. I always used to have such anxiety on features when it was crunch time and you had to get the scene right. I sleep eight hours every night now knowing that I have so many writers with me who are all bent on “If we didn’t get the idea today, we’ll get it tomorrow.”

How did you choose those writers? You’ve never been on a show before so how did you know what to look for to make a strong room with diversely-skilled people?

First and foremost, I think you have to look for people whose writing you love. You love their ideas and the way they write scenes and surprise you and make choices you wouldn’t have made. And then you’ll have this meeting, and I think the important thing there was to find people who were open-minded enough to do a different process.

With the exception of Amy, I think we have a far less-experienced group of writers like me, who has no experience [in TV] and I think it has really benefited us in a lot of ways. We’re also able to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning, or I’m able to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning because we have the time we’ve been given to do the show right. The results have been incredible because of that and I think that was largely what we did.

We have a very female-driven room. I’m one of two men in the room and I really like it. It’s really just a great energy and a great atmosphere to work with the group we have.

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