Wednesday, June 16, 2021

How my first episode of SUPERMAN & LOIS came together and reflected an emotional year

 "How would you like to write episode 10?"

That was the way Todd Helbing, my showrunner, told me I was getting to write the next episode of SUPERMAN & LOIS. It was the last week of August and when Todd called me at home, I was in the shower and missed the call. The voicemail he'd left was an ambiguous "Call me back when you can. I'm about to go into a meeting." After cursing myself for missing the call, I returned... and got voicemail. The interval between then and Todd calling me back had given me time to ponder... every other writer had been assigned an ep... was he calling to offer me an episode?

Having correctly forecast what the call was about in no way diminished my excitement. "Yeah, you know... I, uh, think I could squeeze it in. If you don't have anyone else," I seem to recall saying before going on to thanking him profusely. As with many moments in my life, I recall the meta-reaction of "Remember this moment" right alongside the rush of "Holy shit. My name's going to be on a Superman story!"

The day before, we'd batted around some ideas for 110 just to see what might fly. At that point, 109 was going to end with Edge's compound destroyed and some of the media insinuating Superman was responsible. It was in the air that 110 might deal with some of the public turning against Superman and part of that idea would also be ratcheting up the tension between Superman and the military, to the point that they might unveil a new super-operative who also becomes a media rival for Superman.

I was into this idea. I even had a fresh spin on the old chestnut of "the world wonders if it can trust its hero." We didn't need the entire population to turn against Superman, as if they were easily swayed residents of Springfield. All we'd need is 30% or so to embrace that and show how much damage Edge could do by manipulating that small portion of the population.

In my zeal, I spent the weekend sketching out several acts worth of story for these concepts and sent them to Todd. It was more information than Todd was expecting from me, though I wasn't the first first-timer to get so carried away by his enthusiasm that season. Todd politely told me I could pump the breaks a little. He wasn't quite feeling this story, but at this point, it was the start of September and since we wouldn't start shooting the first episode of the series for well over a month, we were massively ahead. 

Todd basically said he didn't know if this was the right story, but we had time, so give it a few days in the room to see where it goes. We fleshed it out and pitched it to Todd a few days later. Alas, our efforts failed to move the needle. Todd told us to move on to something else. At that point, I couldn't really complain, even though I was very into the idea.

An important thing to understand about a writers room is that it's not a democracy. To borrow a phrase I learned from my friend Javi Grillo-Marxauch, "you serve at the pleasure of the showrunner." Todd had given me days to flesh out my idea so I could present him the most polished version of it. That was more than fair. When you're in that situation and the showrunner says "no," it's like the Supreme Court ruling. It's settled law - move on.

We tried a second idea, dubbed in the room "The Frost/Nixon episode." It fared little better than the first pitch.

For the third go-round, we shifted focus. Episode 108 had ended with Morgan Edge using his mole to take possession of Project 7734, the military's cache of anti-Superman weapons. What if this was the episode where Edge used them on Superman? The brainstorming started with the premise that Superman and Lane could be hunting Edge's mole Rosetti after Rosetti took 7734. Rosetti somehow could get the drop on them and use the kryptonite on Superman.

At that point someone had the idea, "What if Superman gets hit with Kryptonite and it transfers to Jordan somehow? Being in proximity to Jordan poisons him with residual Kryptonite radiation. Superman takes Jordan to the cabin to help him recover. It’s a story about a father taking care of his sick son." (This is what it says in the notes, verbatim.)

THAT was when we knew we had gold. In eighty years of Superman history there have been hundreds of stories of him dealing with Kryptonite traps, and hundreds more about him losing his powers. In terms of incident, it's unlikely you're going to come up with something that hasn't been done before. The challenge becomes, what makes "Superman loses his power" into a uniquely SUPERMAN & LOIS story? Answer: have it threaten one of the kids.

The very next idea we had was to make this the ep where the Kent farm comes under siege by Edge's goons. The first version we batted around had Lois, Jon and General Lane defending the farm on their own while Superman stayed with Jordan. As this developed further, Clark and Jordan would be at the farm when the siege happens, with Clark having to don his Superman outfit and take on a couple Subjekts mostly powerless, showing that he's learned a thing or two about fighting depowered in the nearly 20 years he's been Superman.

If you watch the show this season, this is about the point where you're saying, "Uh, Adam? You're confused. This is the plot of episode 109." You're not wrong, but that story didn't originate in 109. As for how it ended up there, I'll get there in a minute.

We spent a little over a week refining this pitch. Todd was in and out of the room and for much of this, when he'd pop in, it fell to Co-EP Mike Narducci to summarize our progress. Todd would give his notes and we'd incorporate them as we developed the story further.

That same afternoon, we hit on the major emotional runner. Lois's father was running this "Kill Superman" project for the military behind his family's back. Lois and General Lane have had a strained relationship most of Lois's life, but especially in the twenty years since she became a reporter. When something her dad did threatens Jordan's life and he doesn't even have a cure, that's when she's hit her redline. Twenty years of putting up with her father's bullshit finally gets to her and she tells him that their relationship can't come back from this - not when his mistrust has made her son deathly ill.

At the time we were breaking this, I was in the middle of a conflict with my own father, so all of that went into how I was writing Lois's POV. I was pretty assertive about no matter how pissed and emotional Lois is, that shouldn't be a reason to dismiss the points she makes. Her emotion is justified by the circumstances, not something that should be used to minimize how it pushes her to react.

There's an easy out here where you could say, "Well, Lois is just too mad to think about this objectively." It was important to me to not dismiss her argument just because she was emotional. She earned that emotion. It's based in history and experience. To say she should take emotion out of that would be ridiculous.

At one point, we were going to see a little more of General Lane's perspective, just to understand what led him here. Here's a teaching moment for all you aspiring staff writers - I wrote to Todd just to let him know I was concerned that telling too much of the story from Lane's side might leave the impression that we were putting our thumb on the scale for him. I didn't want the takeaway to be that the episode was on Lane's side and Lois just needed to come around to the "right" answer.

Todd could have said to me "Look, this is the episode you've been sent off to write, just do it." Instead, he did something really smart and said that if I felt this passionate about Lois's perspective, then there was no way that the episode could undercut her because the way I'd write her was guaranteed to make the case for how justified her feelings were. That was going to withstand anything that came out of scenes from her father's perspective.

In a way, he made me realize I was inadvertently arguing that the only way I could make Lois's case is if it went unchallenged. Todd was right - I should be more focused on depicting Lois's stance so powerfully that it can withstand ANY challenge.

Eventually came the moment when I had to pitch the episode board to Todd. I did a conscious imitation of my friend Javi, who tends to infuse his episode pitches with some humor, high energy, and engaging with the room. Some people go more sedate, merely reciting the action scene by scene. I try to keep the emotion up during scenes. If you're talking about a scene where Lois tells her father she never wants to see him again, bring some of that intensity to the description.

Anyway, the pitch went over big and at that point I got sent off to Story Area. Once that got through the network/studio approval levels, I was sent off to write the outline. When you're writing on a show, the way it works is you write your Story Area or Outline, then turn it into the showrunner. From there, they rewrite it and turn it into the studio and network. Your showrunner's rewrites might alter the outline drastically before it's turned in, so you want to always be tracking what's changed and why.

My recollection is that more than 50% of my outline changed, though the story didn't substantially get altered. Once that was approved, I was sent off to script.

Our outlines are about 20 pages long... which is pretty long. My job is to take those twenty pages and turn them into a 50-53 page script. The trick to this is that outlines of scenes can sometimes go as deep as "Lois says X and then Clark says Y." It might look easy - surely all you have to do is rewrite everything in Final Draft form? That's the wrong angle to take. The goal is to preserve the thrust and intent of the scene, but bring in your own voice and scene work. Make the scene your own while still accomplishing everything the outline shows.

Easy, right?

This process took a little longer than normal because I was sent to Story Area before we'd even started shooting the first episode and then I was writing the outline during production of our first couple episodes, while Todd's attention was focused on launching the show. What this means is that my outline didn't actually get turned in until about two and a half months after my story break was approved.

I was sent to script just after the New Year. About two weeks later, I had a draft ready to turn in.

Right about then was when all of the earlier episodes were being rewritten for production. Keep in mind, the first nine scripts or so were all written before we saw a complete episode, before we had a real understanding of what production during COVID was like and how much of a typical script was needed to be cut in order to fit into our timeslot.

Once Todd and the other upper level writers saw a couple finished episodes, they began adjusting the subsequent scripts for production. In the process, some plot points got affected. Most notably is the fact that we had kept the Cushings mostly out of the genre side of the show early on, reasoning they needed to stay grounded. 

The B-story of my episode took place just after Edge hired Lana. Lois tries to warn her away from the job, Lana doesn't listen. She goes to Edge's corporate offices and is given a physical, during which she realizes something strange is going on. She tries to escape, gets caught and becomes the latest person to be possessed by a Kryptonian.

If you've watched this season, you know that the rewrites moved up Lana's awareness quite a bit. We now have her in episode 106 agreeing to be Lois's eyes and ears inside Edge's company after she takes the job. (As soon as that rewrite came out, I thought, "Well there goes a third of my episode.")

The A-stories of the season were mostly unaffected up through episode 108. Lana's family had been siloed enough off from the A-stories that the ripple effect of that change fortunately was not a massive seismic shift right away. Still, with each episode, a few things got reshaped SLIGHTLY differently and the ripple effect grew.

The original version of 108 built to Rosetti revealing himself as a mole, kidnapping John Henry Irons out of the DOD and delivering him to Edge. Edge was going to interrogate him and then try to turn him into one of his Subjekts. Superman, Lois and Lane would track Edge's Subjekts to their location, fight, and rescue John Henry, who would be left in a coma for a few episodes, following his near transformation. After that, they'd discover while Superman and team were occupied against Edge, other Subjekts raided the DOD for 7734 weapons.

It was a cool idea, but it was big. To make 108 more producible, it was rewritten so that the action sequence would be contained within the DOD. So how do we accomplish that? How about Rosetti exposes Superman to some anti-Superman measures that weaken his powers? And then Superman has to save John Henry at great risk to himself, even knowing that John Henry might turn on him.

Honestly, I think the rewrite plays out more powerfully that our original notion. But in moving the kryptonite weapon from 110 to 108, it pretty much ensured that 110 could no longer exist in the form I wrote.

As you've seen, 108 sets up Superman to lose his powers and then pass the virus to Jordan in 109. Several elements of my story moved up from 110 to 109, though many aspects of the story were altered, meaning it couldn't be a simple cut-and-paste from my draft into the new 109.

And so we arrive at 110, with everything that once was in there now absorbed into earlier episodes or eliminated entirely. That meant an entirely new story had to be crafted. One notion we had originally earmarked for later episodes was that Edge would possess Lana with Lara, his and Superman's mother. She was the scientist who developed the resurrection process, and though he tries to manipulate her into supporting him, she eventually would turn on him.

I think the notion of this being the episode where Superman frees all of Edge's Subjekts came first. We were pretty sure no one would see that coming with this many episodes to go, the assumption being they'd be built up for a massive battle in the finale. From there it was a short hop to realizing the way to accomplish this would be to resurrect Lara via Lana.

Most of the break was me, Mike Narducci and Kristi Korzec going act by act and figuring out the story, with Todd popping in and out to either approve or to redirect us. We broke the first three acts, then Mike, Kristi and I each went off to write an act individually, regrouped, broke the NEXT three acts, and then did pages for those acts, stitching it all together for Todd's approval.

This process once had a very politically incorrect name, but we now call it a "Voltron."

There's a certain irony about the process of this episode. When we broke the first version of 110, I was in the middle of a fight with my father and channeled a lot of that into Lois's conflict with General Lane. As many of you may know, after that story was approved by studio and network, my father died of COVID. When this new version of 110 was being developed, it now was a story about a son who resurrects a dead parent for one more day with them.

Is it coincidence that my story emotionally resonated with what was going on in my life, or was I deliberately working out my issues via the script? The answer... is yes.

Mike and Kristi were very accommodating in letting me write the acts that leaned on the emotion of Clark getting to know his dead mother. I thought about Dad a lot as I wrote those scenes. Sadly, two of my favorite moments didn't survive into the episode you saw.

In our first draft, we'd contrived a reason for Lara to need some Kryptonian components from Clark's pod. It justified getting her to see the farm where he grew up and also facilitated an emotional moment when she sees the pod that she designed to take Clark from Krypton to Earth. It was a really nice scene, but it had to go in the rewrite when taking that detour just drained too much urgency from the stakes of the episode.

The other moment I really missed was a concluding beat with Lois and Clark visiting the graves of Jonathan and Martha Kent. Clark had a moment where he said he hoped somehow they knew what happened today and how proud Lara was of the man they'd helped him become. Clark said that they deserved to be here today for that moment, to know they'd done their jobs right. It was me talking to my Dad through Clark's words. Maybe a little too on the nose, I grant you. Alas, the more we started understanding the handoff between 110 and 111, the more clear it became that there's no way Clark would have time for a cemetery visit in the coda.

Even though I wasn't able to pay tribute to Dad through Clark, he was there in spirit.

Dad bought me my first Superman comic book. He let me drag him to local comic conventions three times a year when I was growing up. He was so exposed to the comic world through me that when an episode of LAW & ORDER used the name of Superman artist John Byrne for a victim, Dad immediately recognized the person writing it (who turned out to be ARROW co-creator Marc Guggenheim) was probably a comic book fan. 

It is a mark of how terribly unfair life is that Dad could not be here this week to see the credit "Written by Adam Mallinger" on a Superman story. But he will always be a part of this episode as far as I'm concerned.

Thank you Todd Helbing for this episode. Thank you Greg Berlanti for championing me for the Writers Assistant position. Thank you to the entire writing staff for your incredible support through the writing of this episode, especially Mike and Kristi for including me in the rewrites, and Max for taking notes so that I wouldn't have to. Thank you to the cast who gave such great performances, to the crew who really made this episode look great, and to Harry Jierjian, who directed the hell out of it.

I think a lot about that phone call from Todd in late August, and how very grateful I am that he gave me 110 instead of, say, 114, which would have been assigned well after Dad died. He didn't get to see it, but he at least knew I was getting it. It's not everything I would have wanted this moment to be, but it's enough.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Inside that big Steel reveal on SUPERMAN & LOIS

Most of you know I've spent the last year-plus as the writers' assistant on season 1 of SUPERMAN & LOIS. Last week, our seventh episode "Man of Steel," was built around a reveal that I've spent over a year terrified would leak early - that the man addressed by his armor as "Captain Luthor" was actually John Henry Irons from another Earth.

Superman fans will recognize John Henry Irons as the hero who becomes Steel, first introduced as a replacement Superman back in the REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN story in 1993. Thus far, the character's only live action appearance has been in the 1997 Shaquille O'Neal movie STEEL, but he's long been a fan favorite in the comics. His arrival on the show was a big deal. Just check out some of these reaction videos (conveniently queued up to the moment just before the big reveals.):

I was extra giddy to see these reactions and to watch our fans on Twitter completely lose their minds for the twist during the East Coast feed. The reason for that is... revealing "Luthor" as Steel was MY pitch.

A little SUPERMAN & LOIS behind the scenes. When we first met as a room in late February 2020, I walked in with a list of about 15 characters I hoped we could use. I've spoken many times before about being a Superman fan and even more specifically, a fan of the REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN, so it's probably not a surprise that I came in hoping to introduce elements from the Post-Crisis comics I devoured as a kid.

When I saw the deck of characters already approved for us to pull from, three of my biggest hopes were on there. I remember staff writer Jai Jamison got VERY excited when he saw Steel was on the list of people we could use, if so inclined. I remember thinking, "If I don't get a good Steel pitch in soon, this guy's gonna get there first!"

Early on, the room was tasked with figuring out the backstory and motivations of the character known in the pilot as The Stranger. His dialogue suggested a knowledge of the multiverse and likely some kind of connection to CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. His armor also addressed him as Captain Luthor, but beyond that, nothing was set in stone. We brainstormed a number of pitches and motivations, but nothing really seemed to stick. I tossed out the idea that, "What if he's a Luthor from a world where Superman is evil and Luthor is the only hero?"

If you're a comic book fan, you'll recognize that as a premise that originated in storylines from the mid-60s, where the JLA explored Earth-3, a world where all their counterparts were evil. This shift to making "Captain Luthor" less of a villain and more of an antagonist or an anti-hero seemed to open up a lot of doors and the staff latched onto this idea.

I do not remember if I also pitched the fact that that Earth's version of Luthor was married to Lois Lane. I have a vague sense that once we started discussing alt-universal possibilities, someone else came up with that independently. With this backstory being developed, we set out to do some broad sketches of the first several episodes and start to fill in how we'd use all of the characters.

For about six weeks or so, the Stranger really was Alex Luthor, a good Luthor on an Earth with an evil Superman. The more we filled out how we were gonna use this guy, and how he was going to interact with Lois, the more it became clear that while he presented as an antagonist, he had a very empathetic, honorable storyline, and that his trajectory was more akin to an eventual ally than a recurring foe.

Then it hit me. On April 10, 2020, I sent our Co-EP Brent Fletcher my pitch, wanting to test the waters with him before going to our showrunner Todd Helbing with an idea that could upend what we'd been talking about. I proposed we reveal Alex Luthor was actually Steel. Brent got back to me almost immediately. He loved it. He told me either he'd tee me up to pitch it to Todd, or if he saw an opening, he'd pitch it to Todd himself and credit me. 

The latter scenario ended up being how it played out. A couple days later, Todd came into the writers' Zoom room and said, "I think it's fucking awesome. We're gonna do it!"

At this point in the season, we were still breaking the third episode and the script for the second episode had yet to be written. With a big reveal like this, it's not uncommon for the creators to be asked, "When did you know? When did you decide?" So just to be clear about this: every script after the pilot was written with the knowledge that the Stranger was actually another world's John Henry Irons.

My understanding is that Todd Helbing eventually let our Stranger actor, Wolé Parks, in on the secret in June 2020. We didn't start filming until October 2020, so Wolé had plenty of time to prepare. I'm not aware of if any of the main cast knew before they received the script to 107, so I can't speak to their reactions.

So when I say we had to keep this secret a long time, I mean we had to keep this secret a LONG time.

Amazingly, aside from the occasional odd guess here and there, it remained a completely hidden twist until last week. Writing TV for the online age comes with a lot of hazards. Between Twitter, Reddit and other places for fans to congregate, writers now have to outsmart an entire collective. It often feels like if one person figures out a secret, the entire group mind now knows it. I'm delighted we were able to blindside a ton of the audience.

Another great joy of this was that once we settled on the Steel reveal, Jai Jamison lobbied hard to get the big John Henry Irons episode. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Jai recalled, "I just got so excited. Todd will tell you, I spent so much time thinking about John Henry's Earth and background. I came in one day and was like, 'and then all this happened and then this happened, and then this.' And we're not going to see any of it, but…"

Todd interjected, "It's funny because Jai came in one day [after] emailing me [with] just a machine gun of ideas. And I was like, 'Dude, don't take this the wrong way, just pump the brakes a second. We got to slow down just a second. I haven't had this many ideas thrown…' No, but it was awesome, because you want the staff, everybody, to be that enthusiastic about it. So it was fantastic."

I have deeply enjoyed working with the staff this season and that interview, as well as every other interview surrounding it, demonstrates the caliber of people I'm working with. Just look at this exchange in full:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with you, Todd. How early in the development process did you know the Stranger would actually be John Henry Irons?

TODD HELBING: It was a little bit of a problem. We knew from day one that we just didn't want to do a classic villain. We wanted to do something cool with Luthor. And then it was pretty early on where it was pitched by our writers' assistant, Adam Mallinger, that we should make him Steel. I mean, that was really early on. And I can't remember when I called you, Wolé. That was in like June or something, right?

WOLÉ PARKS: Yeah, it was like June or July. Or something like that.

HELBING: But it was just one of those pitches where you're like, "Oh my God, this just takes it to a different level! And then we can do Nat, and we can just expand this family." And it was just one thing after the other. And then the story got so much richer and deeper.

In all my years of reading about TV, I can't think of too many instances where a showrunner went out of his way to credit an idea to a writers' assistant - BY NAME - in a national publication. To say I was incredibly touched that Todd did so doesn't begin to convey my gratitude.

Jai also dropped my name in virtually every interview he did about his episode. Those are the kind of stand-up people I've been working with and hope to continue to work with for a very long time. I didn't expect them to go the extra mile and it was even more rewarding as a result.

There are some rooms where the writers assistants aren't even allowed to contribute, so to be in a room where I was encouraged to speak up, heard when I pitched a good idea, and then singled out as the person who had the initial pitch is incredibly rare. It was a highlight of this year, and probably will remain a highlight of my career.

The entire staff had their hands in the Steel storyline and in each episode. It was a delight to work with them and a real thrill to make a contribution to screen Superman canon.