Monday, April 18, 2016

SUPERGIRL soared this season to become the strongest "Super" show yet

I'm pretty sure I remember the first Supergirl comic I bought. I was nine and it was an "80-page giant" back issue of ACTION COMICS (Issue 334 to be exact) from 1966, that compiled seven Supergirl stories from the past into one volume. I, of course, was aware of the character through Superman volumes like THE GREATEST SUPERMAN STORIES EVER TOLD and FROM THE 30s to the 80s, but the then-current continuity I was reading had yet to reintroduce Supergirl. She had been killed off some four years earlier in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #7 and for some reason, that made her all the more fascinating to me.

I've talked at length in other posts about how Superman was my favorite comic character. I have a complete collection of all of Superman continuity from 1986 to 2011, and most of that was bought "new" off the shelf starting with the EXILE story in 1989. I like to think I have a pretty complete understanding of the character, and it always bugged me when my peers would scoff at him as being "too perfect" or "boring" or "too unrealistic." (As I've joked before, this was especially hilarious when they'd then exalt the relatibility of a billionaire orphan trained by ninjas who's also the World's Greatest Detective and never encounters a situation he doesn't have six backup plans for.)

Which is not to say it's wrong to prefer Batman, or Daredevil, or Punisher (even though that's one character that *I* find to be a complete snooze), but I feel like there's a certain amount of ignorance behind the usual criticisms of more straight-up good guys like Superman. When you're the age of people who superhero comics were aimed at, it's not cool to be the good guy. Badass action and angst speaks more to the developing teenage mind. The teen years are where you discover cynicism, and unironic good seems sinister, too good to be true.

The darker, more cynical interpretations of characters certainly can lead to great stories. I love the grounded take of the Christopher Nolan Batman films as much as the less-gritty Richard Donner Superman films. The only problem I have with the so-called "grim-dark" approach is when it becomes the only way people think superhero stories can be told. That's true in comics, film and television.

To me, a grim, moody Supergirl would be completely missing the point of the character. It's true that a lot of her squeaky-clean disposition owes a lot to the fact that she was the product of the Silver Age of comics, but it's an approach that really befits a younger character trying to find her place in the world. Marvel is full of tortured, angsty teens, so it's nice to see a super-powered teenager who has fun with her powers. If you were a beautiful blonde who could fly and lift up entire buildings, wouldn't YOU enjoy the heck out of it?

Superman has always been a big-brother type of character, maybe an even more fatherly persona. He has responsibilities to consider, and obligations to the world. But generally, he knows who he is and he takes his job seriously. But like Batman, we can't really relate to him emotionally. Bruce Wayne grew up the instant his parents were murdered. Clark Kent has the weight of the entire world on him. But Kara Zor-El? She's the kid who sees what her destiny is and still feels like she has to try hard to be worthy of it.

In my fantasies of writing the comics, I always thought it would be fun to write for Supergirl (and later, Superboy - the clone version, not "Superman as a boy") because it presents the opportunity to play with a character who's less fully-matured and has more of an open field with which to develop. For similar reasons, I always found the Tim Drake Robin far more compelling than Batman because was more of a normal kid who found his way into Batman's crazy world. The younger characters have much more of the journey ahead of them and that's very appealing from a writer's standpoint.

After Kara's comic book death in CRISIS #7, there were a couple attempts over the years to revive the Supergirl character under other identities. Eventually, a new Kara was reintroduced by Jeph Loeb in 2004, and if I'm being honest, it doesn't feel like much thought was put into Kara's personality itself. A new Supergirl was on the table, but Loeb didn't give much depth to the character, aside from a few unnecessary layers of angst about her "dark side" and the fact she might have been sent by her father to kill Kal-El. Loeb's run didn't last long, and subsequent writers compounded the problem, seeming to think the solution was to give her personality even more of an edge rather than soften her. It took writer Sterling Gates to bring back a pureheart, unselfish Kara, and give her a civilian identity so she had a connection to the world around her.

It's that version of Kara that forms the basis for CBS's SUPERGIRL. Created by Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, SUPERGIRL is quite possibly, the best "Super" series we've seen on TV yet. It understands its lead better than SMALLVILLE ever did, it can be fun without sliding too far into silliness, as LOIS & CLARK sometimes did, and the stories are more ambitious than anything found on SUPERBOY or THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

Some elements of the show work better than others, but most weeks it transcends any flaws simply by having one of the best examples of superhero casting since Christopher Reeve. This role fits Melissa Benoist like a glove. Her alter egos aren't as clearly delineated as Reeve's depiction of Clark and Superman were, but I like how her awkward, gawky side seem to be the "real" Kara and not a put-on, while she takes on a more assured, confidant demeanor when assuming the Supergirl uniform.

When writing about female superheroes, inevitably one ends up touching on the theme of empowerment. One of the slyer points the show seems to make is that even as Supergirl is an empowering role model to young women, getting to BE Supergirl is empowering for Kara. She no longer has to hide her abilities and embracing her potential imbues her with a confidence she still has yet to find in her civilian life.

Wearing a superhero costume is more of an acting challenge than one might assume. Christopher Reeve was known to say that he didn't try to oversell the character's presence, remarking "I just let the costume do the work." Reeve wore the costume as comfortably as if it were a suit and tie at the office. The ease he brought to that sold the idea that Superman could exist. In contrast, Dean Cain often seemed self-conscious in his super-suit. He'd often assume defensive, arms-crossed postures and he really gave off the sense he was in a regrettable Halloween costume. (His Clark Kent was quite good, though.)

Benoist lands on the Reeve end of the spectrum. I've seen behind-the-scenes shots and footage and it's amazing how even when she's just walking around like any other actor between takes, you still look at her and go "Wow! That's Supergirl!" The next episode you see, study the scenes where she's in costume, but not flying or using any of her powers. She gives off a presence that's almost regal. I've quite enjoyed her predecessors in this role - Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort - but after just one season, Benoist's interpretation is definitive.

Part of this Supergirl's appeal is her innocence. She has a bright, sunny demeanor that can't help but make you smile. She genuinely enjoys not only using her powers, but in doing good with them. A recent story had her fall under the influence of Red Kryptonite, gradually turning more evil. When she was cured, her first question was a horrified, "Did I hurt anybody?" It's a small point, but it underlines where her heart is.

This is the Kara I first met in that back issue. This is the Kara who I knew from Silver Age archives. This is the brave young woman who dove into battle to save Superman, aware it the cost could be her life and then bravely faced her death. (In fact, her death in CRISIS remains one of the few such incidents that remains genuinely moving even after multiple reads.) I missed this Kara during much of my time buying comics and I was elated to recognize her here.

I'm aware other reviewers have mixed feelings about other aspects of the show. I still think most of the CatCo aspect is pretty solid. Calista Flockhart has gotten opportunities to make Cat Grant more than just a boss from hell, and she tends to get the best one-liners. The show seems to be gradually filling in new shades to her personality without losing the sting that made her a standout from the start. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take her in Season Two. (The show hasn't been officially renewed... yet.)

James Olsen is a charming presence, though I haven't quite felt the romantic chemistry between him and Kara that the show obviously wants us to feel. Part of that might be the sense that the show rushed to create a love triangle with him, Kara and Winn. (Or a love rectangle if you add Lucy Lane to that mix). I'm not rooting against a James/Kara pairing, but I'm not quite aching for it yet either.

I was more ambivalent about Winn from the start and with a full season behind us, I feel like Winn tends to be better served as a character when he's the focus of an ep. The Toyman story worked because it gave him more to play beyond being supportive of Kara and mooning over her. It was a smart decision to have him act on his feelings for Kara and to play with the awkwardness that comes with that. In season two I feel like he needs to get the same sort of growth that SMALLVILLE gave to Chloe over time.

In my review earlier this season, I noted I was not sure about the DEO aspect of the show. It felt plain wrong to me to give Supergirl a boss and make her just part of a team. I also didn't much care for Hank Henshaw as a character. This is where patience was rewarded, as before long, Henshaw got a lot more interesting when he was revealed as Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz and Supergirl was left taking orders from the DEO a lot less than I feared at first. In short order, this aspect of the show went from my least favorite to a source of some of the stronger relationships in the series - particularly Kara's relationship with her adopted sister Alex. The core relationship of the show is not Kara and whoever her romantic interest is, but rather Kara and the girl she was raised with. The Danvers sisters give the show its heart and already this season, it's been used to good effect when Alex was forced to kill Kara's aunt to save J'onn's life.

Interestingly the one character we haven't really seen yet is Superman himself. He's been a largely off-screen presence and there are a number of reasons why that makes sense. Since SUPERGIRL isn't a direct continuation of any previous adaptation, there's no "stunt casting" to be done with this Superman. There's no way they were going to use Brandon Routh or Henry Cavill, for instance. That means that the production would be tasked with casting someone appropriately iconic for a role that pops up only briefly. I can see why the creators would want to give SUPERGIRL a season to find its legs before actively using the granddaddy of all superheroes.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if we do see a Superman next season and that his on-screen introduction is part of a larger arc. That's the kind of event where writers want to make sure they're telling a story worthy of that character. It's also likely that with a longer arc, it would be easier to snag an actor who'd be a "get" for the show.

I'm aware some people aren't fans of the way the show name-drops Superman at all. I've seen the argument that doing so somehow undermines Kara as a character. The line of thought is that it's her show, so everyone shouldn't be asking "Where's Poochie?" - I mean, "Where's Superman?" - all the time. I disagree with that pretty aggressively. The Superman name-dropping isn't done to prop up Kara. If we're dealing with a world where Superman exists, the new kid on the block would inevitably be compared to him.

From a character standpoint, it makes sense that Supergirl would be in Superman's shadow and I like that as an obstacle for her to overcome. It's like being the younger sibling when the eldest child is almost perfect in every way. The need for Kara to step out of that shadow and live up to that immense legacy is one element that makes her an interesting character. It's also a great way to present an emotional challenge to a character who's physically impervious. Consider this - by showing that people in-universe compare her to her cousin, the writing team has managed to make Kara an underdog of sorts. How do you not like that?

I love that we have a very positive, uplifting superhero on TV, regardless of gender. That this also means that young girls now have a hero to look up to is even better. It's my hope that there are also a lot of young boys watching this and realizing that female superheroes can be interesting too. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably be forced to cite THE FLASH as the superior show, but SUPERGIRL is right on its heels and is even more all-ages appropriate. In an era where there's an R-rated cut of a film staring Batman and Superman, I feel that's important.

I really don't want to make this about directly comparing SUPERGIRL with the Zack Snyder films, but I feel in a lot of ways, Kara is more representative of the Superman I grew up reading than Henry Cavill is - and I say this as someone who really liked MAN OF STEEL. People complain about how WB/DC has separate continuities for their film and TV properties, but I don't want the darkness of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN to invade Supergirl's world. I'm grateful that keeping the properties separate has given Berlanti Productions the freedom to carve out their version of this world. At this point, I'm more eager for season 2 of SUPERGIRL than I am for JUSTICE LEAGUE.

The only problem is that as of today, only one of those projects is a certainty. Hopefully, CBS will make season 2 official soon.

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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part III - Making THE JUNGLE BOOK

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

Let’s jump ahead to THE JUNGLE BOOK. So how did you get the assignment in the first place?

THE JUNGLE BOOK came about as the result of my work on a movie with Disney called CAPTAIN NEMO, which I was doing back in the day when McG was still involved.

This was pre-Fincher, then?

Yes. And I’d worked with an executive named Brigham Taylor and a producer named Sean Bailey, who’s now the head of production at Disney. So the whole team from CAPTAIN NEMO is still at the studio and Alan Horn came to the studio post-LIFE OF PI and said, “I think that the effects were up to par enough that you could do a JUNGLE BOOK movie now. Why don’t we star figuring out how to do it?” Alan really loved the stories and thought it would be a good Disney live-action movie.

So Brigham called me because we’d worked together – and this is really instructive for other screenwriters if you think about what the process is. The idea was “We don’t know what this is yet. We don’t have a movie. Why don’t we bring a writer in to work together and figure it out.” That was largely what we did with CAPTAIN NEMO. So when it gets back to that conversation about how you want to be that person who’s a positive part of the process, probably part of the reason I got the job was, we were just partners trying to figure out a story. Until we have a movie, we’re just talking in the blue sky.

And at that point, they want someone who they can stand to sit in a room with for eight hours a day.

And that’s what I did. They threw me in an office for about seven months. I was there putting scenes on the wall. This was before a director was involved. This happens a lot . The experience of being a screenwriter before there’s a director, you’re not writing the movie in its most brilliant form. You’re like the advance recon guy. They drop him into the jungle a couple months ahead of the army and you’re just in there to be like. “I know which roads we should take. I know we might get some ambushes.” You’re there to know the material very well and to start to paint an answer to the question “Could this be a movie?”

We began to carve out a scriptment, and then a script. Jon [Favreau] came in and as is the process with every director, said, “This is all great. I like this and I like this. I want to do my version of this story and I have a vision for what this is.”So the next question is, does that vision line up with what you can offer as a writer?”

So I had some meetings with Jon and eventually we were ready to give this a try. He was good enough to give me a crack at writing the next draft. He liked that draft. It felt like his movie now. The studio wanted to make that draft, so at that point, he just kept me on for the entire part of the process to be constantly aware of what was going on and to be making the changes. Once you decide to start making a movie, that’s when the real work starts. So that’s kinda how it began.

I remember that a re-release of THE JUNGLE BOOK was one of the first films I saw in the theater as a child. Was that animated version the blueprint for yours, or did you back to the Kipling novel?

It’s a lot of both. It’s an adaptation of two pieces of material – one, the original Kipling stories, and two, the 1967 Walt Disney film. Because if you’re going to do a movie at the Walt Disney company, you’re going to do a remake of the 1967 Walt Disney film. I say that now, but in hindsight that’s not always the case. When I was just a writer alone, I was exploring a thousand different versions of what that could be. It’s really Jon [Favreau] who came into this and said, “I understand what this movie is. I know what it meant to me as a kid and I want to update and evolve that story in a way that feels responsible.”

So it very quickly became a lot more similar to the 1967 film. But we were able – because of the Kipling book – to endow the film with a lot more mythos. Kipling wrote it all to fit atop a very similar coming of age structure, which is why it was a marriage of the two.

Probably the first question you come to when you do it in live action is “How are the animals going to talk?”

Yeah, how’s it gonna work?

Was there a point where you were worried about that? You’ve got photorealistic animals speaking with the voice of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken.

The biggest fear and challenge of the project – and it did affect the script – was would the effects be able to render emotion? Would the effects be able to convincingly portray talking wolves and a talking bear in a way that didn’t make us laugh, or didn’t make us nothing because we’d feel like we were looking at a dead face.

Until you start to see things – and you’re very far down the pipe when you start to see things – it was always a question. It was like "we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we have to play this movie almost entirely off our live action actor’s face, where all the emotions come from him." And so in the script you had to be very careful about that. Then when the effects started to come in, Jon saw it was incredible what MPC, the effects company is doing. Then we loosened up a little.

And also, we wanted to do things like the animals behaving like animals, so a wolf does not cry. These things you have to be very careful about. That was the biggest challenge.

And you’re not even shooting in real environments. It’s all rendered. You have an actor in a blue-screen room. And you’re shooting for months, waiting for the first finished shots to come back. Is that how it is?

Here the thing that no one talks about with what Jon brought to this process and I think that’s why he deserves all the credit for making the movie as good as it is. And I’m really proud of the work. I’m impressed by what he’s made. When he first came into the process he said to me, “Look, I appreciate this script. What I’d like to do, if you’re okay with it, is we’ll just do this as trial-and-error at the beginning. I want to make this movie going back to the process Walt Disney used going back to the old animated films.”

Is it similar to the Pixar process of doing like a pencil test version of the film and refining it?

It’s exactly that. It’s all iteration. That’s all they do. What that means is we’d start with a script that is a story from beginning to end that everyone likes, then hire a story department to work with the script department – which is one person. That’s me. To make it better one scene at a time. The story department is made up of animators, most of whom come from the Walt Disney school of building story where it’s just one image, flipbook, another image, and they draw these animatics, which we look at on a wall, or now with computers they can render it and we all watch it together.

Because they come from this Disney school, they won’t just take what’s in the script. [They add their own ideas and actions] and we’ll test it. Jon has this theory that ten people can read a script and have ten different opinions as to whether that script is any good or will make a good movie. When ten people watch the same scene from a script on a television in front of them, everyone agrees it’s either good or bad. You cannot argue with something you’re watching in front of you.

And yet, we still argued. Jon would bring me in and he built himself a team of rivals, what he called The Lincoln Cabinet Theory. You’d have a bunch of people fighting for different ideas in a scene and he was the ultimate arbiter of which idea was going to win. So we’d do that for every scene and it became a marriage of all of these points of view. That is the Disney process.

So Jon did that to the point where – I’m gonna get my dates all wrong – a year and a half, maybe two years ago, we had a finished version of the movie in flipbook for that we all watched with no actors yet, and we could watch it and ask, “Does this feel good?” Then began what was called the pre-vis process, but really it was the motion capture. Neel [Sethi] was cast to play the role of Mowgli, the other voice actors had been cast, and we were on a soundstage in Playa Vista that was a motion capture stage. That was like a 40, 50 day shoot where the entirety of it was motion capture. Neel himself was in a motion capture suit so Mowgli himself was motion capture.

We’d do that and watch scenes every day where the motion capture process is so amazing where you don’t have to fix your camera in any way. You can choose where your camera is after the fact. [Cinematographer] Bill Pope would have an idea where he wanted the camera, but he could still change his mind later in the process. So that allowed us to see the movie again another time before a single frame of actual live action footage had been shot.

In some ways, that was when the writer was most important to the process because Jon would [call me] in my office, which was about a mile away from where the stages were and say, “Can you come over and watch this scene that we just shot?” And he’d [show me what he felt wasn’t working. I’d suggest something else] and he say, "Why don’t you go write it and we’ll try it tomorrow." Then we’d just shoot the same scene again the very next day. It was an incredible way to see your mistakes in front of you and correct for them in real time.

Another thing I should say about Jon is he is such a generous guy and I have never worked on a movie like this before. He was so willing to allow me as a writer to make these mistakes and to teach me through these mistakes. It was the first time ever that I’ve had a teacher in this process, someone who was able to carry me through what I guess is basic storytelling. It was really fun and amazing and all of that was before they did the 100-day live action shoot downtown when everything really started to happen.

It’s a pretty intense process. I don’t thing any movie has really been made that way. Even AVATAR, which used the simul-cam and all these things, they didn’t have the time that Disney was willing to give Jon to get the movie right.

Cool! Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that. As you said, it’s a very different way of making a film.

People ask, “What are scenes you wrote that ended up on the cutting room floor” and it’s like, there is no cutting room floor for this movie.

It’s like a theater workshop is what it sounds like. You’re working it out and then by the time you’re shooting it for real, everyone knows what their part is.

Yes. And figuring it out and just getting better and better and better. So when they’re doing the live action component, all Jon is focused on is the visual aesthetic of the film, the incredible sets that the art department designed, just the area around Mowgli, like within 30 feet of him. And that’s the first time Neel’s performance is captured. It’s about finding life in that performance and to be able to focus on just that and not focus on “Is this scene boring? Does this scene make any sense? Do we need this scene?”

In that sense it’s the most-efficient and least-efficient process of all time. It’s least-efficient in the way that we shot it multiple times, but it’s the most-efficient in that once you’re doing the most expensive part of the shoot, you’re doing exactly what you need. Jon conceived of all of that. He was like, “We’re taking all the best parts from animation and all the best parts from live-action and mixing them together.” It’s fun.
Part IV - Showrunning COUNTERPART for Starz

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX

Part 1 - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER

My talk with THE JUNGLE BOOK screenwriter Justin Marks continues.

Well you’ve talked about STREET FIGHTER in so many other interviews that I don’t want to linger on that production, but that’s your most recent produced feature credit until THE JUNGLE BOOK. And it’s my understanding you were supporting yourself entirely on your writing in between those two, is that right?


So explain to my audience what a working writer does when they’re not making movies in that interregnum.

Basically, for every ten jobs you get, one of them gets produced. I know that batting average is different for some people. I would say you average two or three, maybe four jobs a year. Those can be anything from a quick rewrite or a weekly or a polish to a pilot that you sell, a blind script deal or a straight two-step assignment. You’re always working on something, and then every writer should be doing a spec once a year.

So you’re always just generating new material, and I think that’s the hardest thing to see from the outside. And I wish I could say there’s something extraordinary about working four or five jobs a year – every writer does it. Some do even more.

When you’re working on these assignments, it’s probably easy to know when you’re done because they tell you you’re done. When you’re working on a spec, when do you know to give up on a spec?

Yeah, I’ve given up on some things. It’s a conversation you have with your reps and at a certain point we may stop, or we may float it out to a couple producers who we trust and ask, “What do you think? Think we can get anywhere with this?” And if they say no, you’ve gotta be willing to let it go.

It sounds like bullshit but it’s true – you don’t write to make money. You write because it’s a compulsion, that’s what makes you happy. And the ones you get money on, well that just helps you get even more happy.You write because you have to, so those scripts you abandon, maybe you just take them as a tax write-off on time that you’re making money on other things.

And when you’re coming up with ideas, are you working with your management team, like “Hey I’ve got three ideas, which one do you think I should write?”

It’s not even like that with me. It’s like “Hey, I’ve had this idea for a while.” Maybe I’ll share the first ten pages with them, and if they think there’s something there, we do it. If not, we don’t. Most of the time, once you’ve started to create a career as a writer, no matter what level you’re at, specs become something you do to expand on your “brand.” I’m using air-quotes when I say “brand” because it sounds so awful.

As an example, I speced an early 20th Century espionage script for Ron Howard and we worked on it together. I did all the research because it was something I loved and because I knew no one was gonna pay me to write that.

Because at that point, you’re “the HE-MAN guy,” you’re “the STREET FIGHTER guy.”

Exactly. So I decided to do this on it’s own just to see if I can write a movie like that and see if I enjoy it and in that case I did. We never sold it, but I took all that research and I put it into my TV show. You always win, but you do that to prove to people you can do something different.

With SUPERMAX, I want to say it was roughly around the time of BATMAN BEGINS when it became known?

It was soon after BATMAN BEGINS, like within a year that I set up HE-MAN and SUPERMAX at Warners, and they were within a month of each other. It happened very fast, and that was with David Goyer producing that.

And how did you get hooked up with him?

I met David because his wife at the time was an executive on STREET FIGHTER. Jessika Borsiczky, she’s now a writer in her own right and works on HOUSE OF LIES. She introduced me to David just for coffee because I’d mentioned – not knowing that they were about to get married – how David has always been such an influence on me. Then she brought us out to meet at the Chateau Marmont and just over the course of a coffee I pitched this idea that I had for years, sort of a Count of Monte Cristo prison-break story in the world of supervillains.

That was how we first got started together and we’ve worked together a couple times since as well.

And did that become Green Arrow because he’s the most Batman-like character who isn’t Batman?

No, actually when that was conceived, David was adamant that we should pitch it as any hero, probably someone who didn’t have superpowers.

And that cuts it down pretty fast in this universe.

So we pitched it to DC. I gave the whole story from beginning to end. After I finished the pitch, it was Greg Novak at DC who said, “Why don’t you put Green Arrow into that?” Then we brought it to Warner Bros with Green Arrow and they bought it as a Green Arrow movie.

And I think at the time, this is before even SMALLVILLE was using that character. It was like “Green Arrow? Who’s pulling Green Arrow for a movie? They’ve spent almost ten years trying to do Batman and Superman again!”

And I think to this day that might be still one of the biggest problems with it. I want to see it, but maybe the perception is, “Who wants to see a sequel to the Green Arrow story when we haven’t even seen the first one?” That may be what always slowed it down.

Part IV - Showrunning COUNTERPART for Starz

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part I - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER

Despite being a working screenwriter for over 10 years, this Friday brings the release of only the second produced feature film from Justin Marks, THE JUNGLE BOOK. The writer's only previous credit was the critically-despised 2009 film STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI. If one were to assess a screenwriter based only on their credits, that might appear to be an unusual career trajectory, but IMDb pages never tell anywhere close to the complete story when it comes to screenwriting.

A few years ago, Justin chronicled some of his career and a few of the two-dozen scripts he's written in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter called "My Life as a Screenwriter You've Never Heard Of." Fans of geek properties might find his name familiar, as he was the writer behind the never-produced VOLTRON, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, and Green Arrow spec SUPERMAX.

I recently sat down with Justin to discuss how he got his start, how one maintains a career as a writer between produced projects, and of course, the unusual process behind writing THE JUNGLE BOOK.

I wanted to reach back and touch on how you first broke in and first got repped.

I moved out here from New York and I’d been interning a lot, so I made some contacts through an internship and my first summer after graduating college I got an assistant job through those contacts and worked for a producer for three and a half years, Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern, who at that time had done Being John Malkovich. When I was working with them it was on the movie Saved!

I was just answering phones at that time and going home and writing every night, getting my scripts together. I was collaborating with a directing friend who has also carved out a career in his own right, Brad Fuhrman. But it was through my boss, Sandy, who introduced me to my first agent at William Morris. Sandy had read a script after I’d worked for him for about two years, which is about right.

Yeah! You didn’t ask on the first week, “Hey, read my script.”

I knew I had a lot of craft to work on and I had a job that was paying me while I could work on it, and I could be exposed to the process of filmmaking from production to post-production to releasing a movie and looking for new material so I had the perfect job.

Sandy read one of my scripts and passed it to a young agent who he’d been working with on some other clients. This agent read it and liked it, so I went in for a meeting with him and we just hit off. I think one of the things that agent said to me was, “It’s not about that script, or even the next script you write or the next three scripts you write. What’s important is we work on not just your craft and getting scripts that the marketplace is going to like, but these meetings and how you self-identify as a writer – what you like, what you don’t like, how you’re going to differentiate yourself from other writers.” He’d say, “you’re building a version of yourself that you want the industry to see, so you need to make conscious choices about who you are and what you’re going to sell about your life experience and point of view.

They’re not hiring a writer, they’re hiring a best friend, someone who’s going to go in and solve the problem for them or just listen to their problems about the script. They have to trust you. This is where the old “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be crazy” thing comes in. Yes, it’s about the work, but it’s about the process too, and the trust you’re building with your collaborators. That’s studio screenwriting. That’s just the job.

To go back for a second, you said it was a newly-minted agent. Did you have any hesitation about his lack of experience?

No, not for a second. You just hit it off with someone. In fact at that time I had a young manager who’s still my manager today, Adam Kohlbrenner, who when I started with him, had just left his assistant job to strike out on his own. Especially at that young age, I felt that if someone was a very successful agent, they wouldn’t pay attention to me because to be honest, I had a lot to learn. This manager had gotten some interest from other agents who’d been working for several years, and [they were trying to sell me on them]. And I said I’d rather go with the other guy. He represent the kind of writer I want to be and that’s what I think is most important. More than the big agent, it should be the person you like.

Having said that, I do think the agent or person you like should at least be at a reputable place. Which is to say, don’t go with that agent who isn’t even in L.A.

So you’re repped, you’re writing specs, I think VOLTRON is the first one—

Which is about a year and a half after I started my relationship with my agent.

That was it! That was where I was going with that! Now, was that a spec or an assignment?

In the time that I was working with my agent and manager, I generated a spec called STRAW MEN that was sort of a calling card script. It was DOG DAY AFTERNOON in a deli. It got me meetings and Craig and Adam would send me out to meet execs. I met one who worked for the Mark Gordon Company and they’d recently gotten the rights to Voltron. This was a time before TRANSFORMERS, when no one really knew what these properties may or may not be.

So this is about 2005?

Yeah, 2005. And remember, at this time I was still an assistant so I was still working my day job and after two and a half years, my boss was – it’s kind of like that Ben Affleck thing in GOOD WILL HUNTING, “I look forward to the day when I call into the office and you don’t pick up anymore.” My boss was so great about letting me go on those meetings. Provided work still got done at the office, I could leave once a day for a general.

I met this exec in a general who said “We’re looking for a take for VOLTRON.” We worked together for months. I came in with something he liked, we reworked it, brought it in to his boss, who said “Sure, go with it.” We had a pitch that we took out to every studio in town and ever studio passed on it, whether it was because my pitch was terrible, or no one really knew what to do with it… it’s probably a combination of the two.

Also, now we’re at the point where everybody who grew up on VOLTRON is at the executive level, but in 2005 you have to figure those people were lower on the totem pole.

Exactly. You had to educate people about VOLTRON. So what Mark and this exec did was find independent financing, this guy who would pay me guild minimum to write the script. That was enough to get me out of my day job and write for a living and go to more meetings than I ever went to, and be ready for it. A year later, after a few rewrites we took it out as a spec and New Regency bought, and by that point it had kinda started my career. I knew enough people that I could start going in on other pitches and building on it.

Did this brand you as sort of the toy-adaptation franchises guy, because MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE was soon after this?

These weren’t franchises at the time, they were just toys that no one what to do with. They still are. Look at HE-MAN. We’re talking about movies that never got made. And also I liked this stuff like anyone our age who grew up on it. It seemed like they wanted young people to write it because the older, more experienced writers weren’t taking those jobs. So I was just getting the leftovers of the leftovers of the leftovers and doing whatever I could to keep making a living as a writer so I could keep writing other specs and doing other, more serious things on the side.

And were your other specs different from HE-MAN or VOLTRON?

Oh my god, yeah! One I wrote was called BORDERLINE, which is now called COME SUNDOWN, which is one I’m still working on with a great director named Elgin James. It’s set in New Hampshire and it’s just about a family taken hostage in a car by fugitives trying to get across the Canadian border. It’s a battle of wills between this doctor and this criminal who find they actually share more in common than they ever knew. I wanted to do a story where basically the villain is the character you cried for at the end of the movie.

So I would do that stuff on that time and I think that would continue to boost what I was doing for money which was getting a job to write HE-MAN for Warner Bros and doing that kind of thing.

And then STREET FIGHTER came along.

STREET FIGHTER was in the middle of that. STREET FIGHTER was a job I got after VOLTRON. I wrote it for Hyde Park. It was something that Capcom was really keen on making and I think they financed half of it. So they had a lot to say about the story so I think they just wanted a writer who’d maybe say “yes” to everything. I was a 25 year-old kid - you say “yes” to everything. Today I look back on that as a mistake, but honestly—

“What else could you have done?”

And I don’t have any regrets. It kept me going. It gave me another year’s pay that would keep me looking for the next job, so in spite of the creative regrets that one might have with it, I still look back on that one fondly.

And just to underline this, how long from when you got repped to your first produced movie in STREET FIGHTER?

I got repped when I was maybe 24 or 25 and I visited the set on when I was just shy of my 28th birthday so..

So probably around four years from repped to produced? That’s actually a pretty good rate in this town!

Yeah, very fast!

And probably many specs in between there too.

A lot of them. Every year, doing a spec. And it’s fast to the point of being too good to be true, as STREET FIGHTER is evidence. The kind of first movie a guy would write within a couple years of being repped is gonna be something like that. You take the good with the bad.

We'll continue my chat with Justin tomorrow, with a discussion of assignment work and SUPERMAX.

Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX
Part IV - Showrunning COUNTERPART for Starz

Monday, April 4, 2016

The People vs. O.J. Simpson is peak television and we will be poorer for its absence

I can't believe it's been more than 20 years.

I remember the shock as the murders were reported. "His ex-wife's dead? They don't think he was involved, do they?" I remember returning from a Friday evening screening of CITY SLICKERS 2: THE LEGEND OF CURLY'S GOLD and being mesmerized at the hours-long slow-speed chase unfolding on an LA freeway.

The speculation about if a sealed envelope held a murder weapon, the "gavel-to-gavel" coverage that was so insatiable that even the E! network carried the trial live each day, Jay Leno being interviewed by Extra about how "It was 'bald detective theater' for a while there" until Kato's testimony was made for entertaining viewing, Marcia Clark making fun of F. Lee Bailey's hand size, the case nearly reducing Judge Ito to tears, the glove demonstration, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit,"watching the verdict live in school.

I remember it all.

The O.J. Simpson murder trial is a circus that is on the verge of being 22 years old. Even if you're graduating college, you're not old enough to remember this as it happened. That's astonishing to me. Something so far shouldn't feel so fresh. Even trial soundbites that haven't passed into popular culture are still crystal clear in my memory, right down to the angles from the locked down in-court camera.

Which is not to say I haven't revisited the trial since it ended in 1995. Quite the opposite. Here's how much of a fascination the case was to me - when Kim Kardashian's sex tape put her on the map, my association with her was not "Who?" or "Paris Hilton's friend?" It was, "Is she related to Bob Kardashian, O.J.'s close friend?"

To the best of my memory, I've read at least eight, probably more, books about the trial: Christopher Darden's book, Robert Shapiro's book, a book written by a booted juror, Vincent Bugliosi's Outrage: The Five Reasons O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder, Mark Fuhrman's book, Lawrence Schiller's incomparable American Tragedy, O.J.'s self-serving account If I Did It, and Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of his Life. The latter forms the basis for what is possibly the best show currently on television: American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson.

Between my memory and my own reading, I'm pretty well-equipped to call bullshit on the miniseries, or at least the elements that occurred in public view. For all the younger viewers whose first real exposure to the case is ACS, let me assure you - this is how it happened. There are occasional concessions to dramatic license but this is remarkably faithful to the trial narrative, with the added benefit of taking us inside the heads of the people who lived it. It's an effect not unlike that of reading all of those books, an individual who seems harsh and unlikable when you're following one thread of the narrative gains new dimensions and empathy when we see what they're dealing with behind the scenes.

I don't know if it's possible to oversell the degree of difficulty that series creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are playing at here. Hell, I don't even know if it's possible to put into words how Herculean a task they've set for themselves here. This is a miniseries where every major character is fleshed out - with a pretty deep bench on each side of the trial. This isn't the case where they picked one specific protagonist and attempted to filter everything through that perspective. This is not "Marcia Clark's story of the trial" or "Johnnie Cochran's story," or "Bob Shapiro's story" or "Chris Darden's" or "Bob Kardashian's." It's ALL of theirs. At any point, each one of those players can be called from the bench to headline an episode as if it was their show all along - and for those moments, they are the lead character.

True ensemble writing like that is rare. Most network shows today are built around a single complex protagonists, maybe a close second lead, and a lot of supporting characters. (think THE BLACKLIST or BLIND SPOT. On cable, imagine BREAKING BAD, BETTER CALL SAUL and that ilk) In the instances where there is an ensemble cast, if you don't have someone who's first among equals (Mariska Hargitay on L&O: SVU), you're likely to have a show that feels full of supporting players taking turns in the spotlght.

My general point is that with 90% of TV writing, there tends to be one star that all the other players orbit. The gravity from that star tends to pull in the lion's share of story space and screen time. They're the focus. TPVOJS doesn't disperse its story that way. One week, the coaches might throw Marcia Clark in to start the game. The next week it's "Cochran! You're up!" And even as I'm laying this out, I still feel like I'm making it sound easy. Consider for a moment how few series are capable of that. Now imagine trying to write it. Have you ever written a script with more than a half-dozen fleshed out agendas? Pretty easy to crash that plane, isn't it?

I can't forget the performers who've done an exceptional job of channeling their real-life counterparts. I remember well all the criticisms that Marcia Clark faced while the trial was ongoing. Some were fair - I think she and Darden made some serious mistakes. Other attacks were less warrented. As silly as it probably seems to younger viewers, yes, her hair really was that big of a deal. More than a few writers covering the trial made a point of referring to Clark as harsh. There's a focus group scene in an early ep where participants say that they think Clark is "a bitch." I don't know if that specific event happened that particular way, but it absolutely encapsulates the media portrayal of Clark and the conversation that surrounded her.

Watching the series gave me a bit more empathy for Clark than I had before. We're allowed to see a more vulnerable side of her than the trial presented and the result is a little more understanding for the strain of trying this case while the media and even the judge seem to be handing every advantage to the defendant. Maybe because of the larger contexts that surrounded this trial there really was no way to win. That doesn't totally excuse some prosecution blunders for me, but it does make them understandable. Sarah Paulson does incredible work in really making the audience feel for Clark.

(Their big mistake always seemed to be hanging Fuhrman out to dry, because once they did, it compromised so much of their case. I get that Clark was concerned that defending him could make the prosecution look like apologists for an allegedly racist cop, but I'd rather go down swinging rather than hand the defense an easy "See? Even the prosecutors think the guy who found most of their evidence is toxic!" narrative. Vincent Bugliosi's book definitely has the benefit of being the Monday Morning Quarterback, but he makes a lot of compelling arguments about where the prosecution let the defense control this case.)

No conversation about the acting on this show would be complete without discussing Courtney B. Vance, whose performance as Johnnie Cochran is uncanny. Coming at it from the perspective that O.J.'s guilt isn't really in question, I found a lot of Cochran's theatrics disingenuous and offensive. He and F. Lee Bailey were the two slickest snakes in a complete pack of them and one reason I never read either of their books is that I had zero interest in hearing them justify their slimy gameplay.

Vance finds a humanity in Johnnie Cochran that I wasn't sure was there. He looks like him, he sounds like him and he immediately becomes the strongest presence in the room. You totally understand how this guy could command a courtroom and how he makes his story sound like the better story, especially contrasted with Clark's energy. Maybe it's the fact that watching this as a TV drama makes it easier to process the case purely in terms of winning or losing rather than being about punishing the guilty, but you find yourself respecting the lengths he goes to to do his job, which is getting his client off.

Here's a small example: at one point in the trial Cochran smears all the police detectives and accuses them of taking part in an elaborate, racially driven conspiracy to frame O.J. Simpson. It's an absurd and outrageous accusation for many reason - many of which Clark outlines better in a barroom debate than she does in court. Shapiro is incensed at Cochran for making the cops out to be bad guys. You can attribute that to him having relationships with some in the police department, or you could take it as an example of contrasting attitudes that blacks and whites have towards the police.

And so, as in real life, Shapiro wears a Fraternal Order of Police lapel pin to court for at least one day, possibly more. It didn't go unnoticed by the media back then, and the episode shows us that that Cochran didn't let it slide either. Here's the funny thing - when this happened in real life, I remember respecting the hell out of Shapiro for doing it. The defense seemed to be living down to every sleazy stereotype of defense attorneys by putting forth this ridiculous conspiracy theory.

But in the world of the show? I had a brief moment of "Shapiro, what the hell are you doing?! You've completely stabbed your team in the back!" That's how good the writing is - it gets you caught up in both agendas, to the point where you start thinking about it like the defense - just in terms of winning at all costs. Then, when the focus shifts back to the prosecution, you find yourself pulled into their plight.

Central to that plight in the last couple of episodes is Chris Darden. As the lone black face on the prosecution team, Darden had to deal with the unfairness of being branded a race traitor by helping bring the case against O.J. Simpson. Cochran never missed a chance to fan those flames either. As a trial watcher, I didn't have much respect for Darden. His highest-profile moments were strategic blunders and he was easily baited by Cochran into either losing his cool or making tactically foolish moves.

Sterling K. Brown's performance has turned Darden into the one of the most quietly sympathetic people in the courtroom. You find yourself trying to will him to not fall into the latest defense trap, or for Marcia to heed his words when he's bringing her an unwanted truth. Brown's handed some really excellent writing and he runs it into the endzone every time. The previous few weeks have seen him become a volcano of frustration on the verge of erupting, and the explosion finally comes when Cochran pushes him too far in open court. It's a bit like seeing a bullied kid snap and try to bludgeon his attacker's face - you don't know whether to cheer or be horrified.

The other memorable moment in that episode comes when he takes Clark to task for not listening to his misgivings about Fuhrman. He doesn't pull any punches, saying "You wanted a black face, but the truth is you never wanted a black voice." The nine episodes that led up to that moment have given Darden so much depth, and so much justification for that perspective that those few words hit like a body blow.

Another quiet storm has been David Schwimmer's Robert Kardashian. Kardashian was a close friend of Simpson's. In fact, if the show is to be believed, his kids called O.J. "Uncle Juice." Kardashian early on finds it impossible to entertain the idea that O.J. could have killed Nicole. He's the best friend we all hope to have if we're accused of murder. He's utterly certain that O.J. is innocent... But Kardashian also has the misfortune of being part of the defense team and the front row seat to the strategy meetings soon expose an uncomfortable truth. The defense might have plenty of elaborate stories to undermine the evidence, but what they lack is any real evidence of another killer.

At one point he wonders, when are they going to figure out who really did it? His naivete would be pathetic if it wasn't so heartbreaking. He believed in O.J. and each day he's in there he's got a front row seat to how there is no other credible explanation that fits the facts. One beautifully suspenseful moment underlines where his faith is shaken. Realizing a bag O.J. gave him to keep could conceivably hold the murder weapon or bloody clothes, Kardashian decides he has to know the truth. He calls up O.J.'s friend Al Cowlings to bear witness as he opens the bag. He does so and finds.... nothing.

Cowlings gives a laugh of relief, one that gives us the sense that he feared they MIGHT find incriminating evidence and is now convinced O.J. didn't do it. Kardashian looks sick, though. For him, it's not about what he did or didn't find - it's the admission to himself that the emotions he felt mean he's no longer sure that "Uncle Juice is a good man." I didn't know Schwimmer had it in him.

I'm rather at a loss for how to adequately describe John Travolta's interpretation of Robert Shapiro. The guy he's playing on-screen doesn't really look like or feel like the Robert Shapiro we saw in interviews and trial coverage. While virtually the entire rest of the cast has tried to channel their real-life counterparts, Travolta is some sort of bizarro, pompous avatar of the man who formed the Dream Team. I don't even know how to explain it, but it works. There are the occasional moments where the show indulges in a sort of campier tone (don't get me started on Connie Britton), and in the hands of less capable creators, these would be discordant notes. Perhaps it's because he's up against characters who were already flamboyant and larger-than-life in reality, but Travolta's voice blends perfectly into the chorus. The few moments when he sticks out like a sore thumb then work because of the oddity, ala Peter Brady's cracking singing voice, not in spite of them.

Maybe the next most gonzo casting is Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey. I was fully prepared for Lane to make Bailey a caricature, but I neglected to realize how much of a pompous echo of his glory days that Bailey already was during the trial. Lane modulates his performance, but his stage theatrics fit the role of this former courtroom showman, well, like a glove.

There's no other way to put it than to say that THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON is a master class in writing compelling television. I'm finding I have to stop myself from rambling further and describing even more of my favorite scenes. Virtually every scene on this show is built from the stuff that all writers should strive to write. I'd kill to write scenes that are so dense with human drama and conflict. If I had the time, I could probably do four weeks worth of posts just on this show. I can't imagine we'll see a better written, better acted, better directed series on television this season, and certainly not one at this degree of difficulty.