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Friday, February 15, 2019

A conversation about the creative process and 11 Laws of Showrunning with Javier Grillo-Marxuach

There are a few resources I consider indispensable for aspiring writers. One of them is Jeffrey Lieber's Showrunner Rules, which offers a window into just how massive the job of running a TV show is. Another is the podcast Children of Tendu, created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina, who put together possibly the most detailed, piece-by-piece breakdown of what it means to be on a writing staff, what the day-to-day work is like, how to be the kind of staff writer your showrunner wants, what to do and what not to do.

Well, Javi has a new book out today, called Shoot That One. (It's a sequel to his earlier collection of essays, Shoot This One.) The essays included in this volume all relate in one way or another to the creative process. Javi's voice will be familiar to any regular listener of Children of Tendu. It's impossible to read this book and not hear him in your head as you move through an examination of the creative process on Lost, ruminations on how his opinion the first STAR TREK film went from being that of a bore to a more profound experience, processing complete apathy to THE LAST JEDI, and "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning."

There's a lot of compelling advice and observations worth unpacking in this tome and so rather than write a review, I decided to have a conversation with Javi about some of the themes across his book and some of the questions that his essay's provoke.

I feel like one theme of the book - either intentional or unintentional - is how you demystify the creative process. "The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxuach" is ultimately an explanation of how "Did you guys have everything planned or were you making it up as you were going along?" is a question where both answers can be a little bit true, even at the same time. I'm curious about your own awakening to that paradox as a writer. Was this something you picked up on after being staffed on your first shows? Was there a light bulb moment for you or was it a gradual awakening?

One of the great things about being a huge George Lucas fan of my vintage is that you got to see his perception of the Star Wars universe evolve almost from interview to interview. The story of how he came up with the story, how many trilogies he really had planned, and his overall intentions really changed a LOT from year to year and interview to interview. The creation myths along many of the franchises we grew up with were a lot less hermetically sealed in the early days of tentpole/blockbuster filmmaking - not to mention less legendary - and I remember from an early age suspecting that the machinery behind the shiny stuff on screen may not have been as smooth as advertised.

You also had things like David Gerrold writing a book like “The World of Star Trek,” which was a really no holds barred account of that show warts and all... all of which is a long way of saying, I always suspected the Wizard of Oz was a guy straining at machines behind a curtain... but it didn’t really land on me until I started working in TV professionally and really got to see how the sausage is made. A lot of the fun of making TV is coming into it, hearing the showrunner’s ideas for the long term and then filling them out: more than anything else, the job is to make it look like those ideas were monolithic in the first place. I often hear - when something clicks on the board in the writers room - someone say “it’s like we planned it!” my answer is always: “yes! we’re planning it right now!” It is in that contradiction that you find the real magic.

In sort of a glancing blow, your essay indicates several short-lived shows may have met that fate because they were winging it from day one, so I understand that extreme is possible. I'm sort of curious about what you would think about working on a staff where the showrunner did claim to have plotted out several seasons of story in advance, had a complete master plan and didn't deviate from it. Can such a beast truly exist?

I once took a meeting on a show that promised a huge, longitudinal alien mythology... I went into the meeting and asked “where are you going with this?” And they replied “you worked on Lost, you tell us.” I politely demurred, but what my inside voice was screaming was “FUCK YOU PAY ME!”

Look, there’s always going to be people who claim they had it all figured out in the first place: it’s part of the hagiographical retconning of the “genius/visionary showrunner” narrative. When an artist produces a hit in a mass medium, a huge machinery moves in to make sure that the artist is perceived as a genius whose ideas all sprang unbidden like Athena from Zeus’s brow.

The reality is ALWAYS, if not much different, at least a lot messier. A lot of J. Michael Straczinsky’s fans defend his contention that he had all of Babylon 5 plotted out in advance - but when you watch the show, you can see the seams and on-the-go fixes on screen in the form of cast changes and story detours and other such patches. I think it’s absolutely possible to have it all figured out, but too rigid an adherence to a plan often impoverishes the final product: no human has ideas so bulletproof that they can’t be improved upon, especially in the case of a longitudinal narrative. Put succinctly, I defer to a maxim commonly used in the boxing world: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

If I'm the showrunner and I come in on the first day of the writers room with a 150-page document (either literally or metaphorically, in my head) and communicate to my staff - "Consider this your WAZE route to syndication," am I doing my duty as a showrunner, or have I committed a different kind of sin?

I dunno, I’m not the UN Security Council of showrunning! Every show has different needs, but what a showrunner should strive to do, in my accounting is to be honest and communicative - and to always explain what the show is in concrete ways that can result in action and execution from the staff. I dunno if giving your staff a 150 page document about the show is the RIGHT way to do it, but I would at least commend you for trying to explain yourself and your show!

Again and again, the essays seem to return to the notion of the relationship between the art and the audience, and how it's an evolving thing over time. In various essays you use your reactions to THE LAST JEDI, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE versus the new STAR TREKS to chart this. Do you think some of the strong negative reactions to some of these is the result of those people not being able to evolve? Or is It that your work has given you a better appreciation for the creative process in general? Do you see a road back from binary reactions of "This was the greatest thing ever!" and "This sucks and if you like it, YOU suck!"

I am sure that working in the mines day in and day out has had a lot to do with my belief that eventually, becoming “jaded” to at least the idea that each now thing, or reinvention of a thing, has to be either THE BEST THING EVER or THE WORST THING EVER is a good step in your personal growth. Mostly though, I think that it is unfair to ask a piece of popular culture, even one as multivariant and endemic as Star Wars of Star Trek to continue to furnish you with emotions you had in childhood when your exposure to narrative storytelling was much less evolved and your capacity to experience things as being truly new was much greater. No work of art can survive that expectation. If you love Star Wars, you can now curate your preferred version from thousands of different interpretations of that world by different artists - but to keep demeaning that it make you feel the way you did when you were seven, that’s just silly.

The reason Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and all those things have survived and become so meaningful is that they have within them iconic and totemic ideas, characters, and objects - as fans, we need to be able to commune with these totemic ideas while making peace with the truth that we all age out of things, even the things we love. It doesn’t mean they don’t love us back, it means that we - as humans - have a lot more bandwidth for change in our trip through the universe than does tightly controlled, corporate-owned material that depends primarily on a demographic target for its existence.

5. I think your essay, "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" is a piece that's very much in conversation with Jeff Lieber's "Showrunner's Rules." I feel like a lot of Jeff's focus boils down to demonstrating that showrunning is like having 300 or so small jobs, while ALSO bringing in a lot of writing tips. And your essay seems to take that and run in the direction of "This is how you can mismanage ALL those responsibilities and cripple the writing at the same time." I think the difference is, Jeff seems to be speaking to people yet to attain that rank, while your tone is that of trying to correct a bad apple. I'm nodding along with your piece, but at the same time, I wondered, has your more adversarial tone led you to butt heads with anyone who feels they fit the profile?

The version of the piece in the book was my first draft. I wrote it during a time in my career when - after more than twenty years - the universe kept saying “hold my beer” whenever I thought I had seen it all in terms of toxic upper management. I was warned by a number of friends and agents to not publish it - it’s a mean and strident rant that most likely preaches to the converted. The most publicly available version of the essay - the “nice” version - was a cut I made to whittle it all down to the management lessons and actionable advice for writers. That version will always be available for free on my website - this version is more for those who are curious about just how pissed off I really was when I wrote this.

I’m putting something incendiary out there - it was written with the intent to be rude, confrontational, and offensive because the “nice” way doesn’t always get through to people... the irony of it is that most of the people who could use the lesson in the present day are going to read it (even in the “nice” version) and think “what a schmuck, he doesn’t understand how hard I have it.” So, really, it’s for the up and comers.

I expect to make no converts out of the already powerful and well-placed. I believe that once you have been canonized, you pretty much calcify - this may not be true for all; many retain their ability to evolve, but a lot of writers, once validated, really see no way to change what works for them. This is especially true in a field where the pressure and stakes are so high that the default becomes “whatever it takes for me to be the genius I have been told I am.” The essay is and was always intended for people who are not at the showrunning ranks, people like you who nod while they read it: it is intended to say “you know that shit your boss is putting you through? You’re right to think it’s not cool - and when you are the boss, don’t do it, or this is the tone that everyone will want to take with you, but won’t for being afraid of losing their livelihood.”

The question the essay truly poses is “when you get to the top, do you want people to talk this way behind your back or not?”

I have had no run-ins with anyone who “matches the profile,” though I have had second-hand accounts of some people with whom I have worked responding to it very negatively. My answer to anyone who gets butthurt because they “match the profile” is “tough shit, Sparky.” If someone I worked with responds negatively, maybe they need to know just how negatively their management style affects the lives of others. No matter where i go, I give a hundred and ten percent and fight for the right to break my back for my showrunner... but the one thing I didn’t do is sign some invisible contract that says I have to enable a showrunner’s bullshit self-image years or decades after I stopped working for them (or was fired by them) because their ego can’t handle being seen as fallible.

Besides, I don’t name names, I just call out the behavior. The sad truth is that most of these “creative visionaries” not only think they are unique in their genius, they also think they are unique in their failings. “No one understands my pain” is the rallying cry of narcissists across the land. I think it hurts a lot of people to find out I am not talking about them individually, but rather that they have the exact same shortcomings that a lot of other people have had in their position - that they are not very special snowflakes even in their bad side.

I read Lieber’s showrunner rules on twitter and respect what he is doing. I think we are after similar game with different methodologies - he’s going for the micro, I’m going for the macro. I think our work is complimentary. I also know that I have put enough material out there that is detailed, positive, encouraging, and educational that allowing fury to have the hour for one piece of writing is not going to change that.

There's a lot in "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" that calls out toxic workplaces, and despite being written years ago, much of it resonates with what we now know about the situations on BULL, NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, ONE TREE HILL and many others. It's a pretty clear demonstration these issues didn't spring up overnight, but were more pervasive than most wanted to admit. Did you feel a reckoning coming when writing that piece or were you cynical about that cycle of abuse being broken?

I don’t believe in “reckonings” as much as I believe in slow, painful, and unsatisfactory evolution fraught with compromise. But I believe steadfastly in that evolution and I have a lot of faith that our arc as an industry will bend toward something better. The one thing that will happen both to those of us who are actively trying to be better and those who are comfortable in their assholery is that we will all eventually retire, die, or fade in whatever ability made us hireable. The challenge is, can those of us on the good side make more people share our beliefs than the others can create more like themselves by perpetuating the cycles of abuse?

The #metoo movement has been amazing, and a collateral benefit of the effort to call out sexism and misogyny in TV workplaces has been to shine a light overall on a culture that very frequently tolerates many different kinds abuse in deference to the bottom line. This climate has also made it less dangerous for people like me to maybe have more pointed and public opinions about certain things with a little less fear of retribution... but who knows? Check with me again in a few months... if I’m still working, then it all worked out.

Your stated mission with Children of Tendu, and the implied mission of many of your essays, is to raise the caliber of the up-and-coming writer class. You've been doing Tendu for about four years now - have you seen any impact of that sort?

I hope so. Tendu has been incredibly fulfilling, as have been me and Jose’s efforts to continue its mission by teaching our “Living in the Middle” seminars at the Writers Guild, and by trying to be better in our own creative lives. A lot of up and coming writers have contacted us to say that the podcast has helped them, so hopefully, this is our little contribution to a change coming from a lot of different directions. A lot of the work I expect to do in the next few years will be to help first time showrunners as a co-showrunner or as a “strong number two,” if some of those come out of the ranks of Tenduvians, and they practice what we preached, then I will be a very happy and fulfilled camper indeed.

Thanks to Javi for his time and don't forget to pick up SHOOT THAT ONE today!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Bitter. I just bought SHOOT THAT ONE and am devouring it. Highly recommended!