Interview by Sandie for Daemon’s TV
JAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH is probably not a name you would recognize without shows like The Pretender, Charmed, Lost, and Medium attached to it. We are here to change this.
Meet Javier Grillo-Marxuach, one of the writers (and sometimes producer) behind some of your favorite shows, including the ones mentioned above and much more. He is also one of the writers that was affected by the strike and it is with that in mind that he was kind enough to take time to speak to us about his career as a writer and how it was affected by the strike.
A fun fact you should know before reading the interview is that in addition to writing for television, Javier Grillo-Marxuach has also written a few comic books, including The Middleman, which was recently picked up as a series by ABC Family. You can visit The Middleman website and The Middleman blog for more information about it.
Can you talk about how you got into writing?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. It’s something that being where I am now is sort of a dream come true, it’s a lifelong ambition. I was born in Puerto Rico, and I think probably around the time that I was seven, I saw Star Wars for the first time and realized I wanted to write for movies and later for TV. And it was from there that later in my life, my parents moved the family to the United States and I wound up spending a lot of my formative years here and going to grad school at the University of Southern California at the School of Cinema and Television and getting a degree in Screenwriting. From there I was recruited by NBC and I became an executive, almost out of grad school. They wanted somebody who had a background in writing that could come and start at the ground level, sort of a Junior Associate in the company. I think they were hoping to groom an Executive who had the ability to talk to writers and to really come at it from the point of view of a creative. I was working Current and Development at NBC and it lasted about two years before this call of writing for television became the dominant force in my life and I left the network end. My first job was on Seaquest 2032 in 1995. I’ve been writing ever since.
How was your experience on Lost?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’m tremendously proud of it. It was two really eventful years in my life. I was not just a producer and a writer on the show, my involvement with it started before the pilot was shot. I was sort of part of a little think-tank of writers that came together to really develop the series and all that. I feel like I was really part of the genesis of the series, and for it to go from that to being the amazingly huge hit that it is now, a force and popular culture [icon] that it is, it’s really gratifying. I won an Emmy as part of my work on the show. How do you underplay that? It was a really wonderful roller coaster. You don’t always get to go on a show and see it kind of rule the world, you know? (laughs) I had been writing professionally for many years already by the time that I began to work on Lost, and I’ve done some really great shows, some shows that people really love, and some shows that were very successful, but Lost is that kind of hit show that goes from being a mere television show to really being a cultural force. You have to love and respect having been a part of something like that.
Currently you are a co-executive producer and writer on Medium, can you talk about the differences between this show compared to the other ones you have worked on?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It’s interesting, I thought when I went to work on Medium that we’d be using a lot of my experience writing on genre, because it is about a psychic detective, but really the show is vastly different from anything I’ve ever written before because it’s so family driven. It was a real challenge because I’ve never written on anything with that kind of familial dynamic to it. Most of the shows that I’ve written on, I was really writing for characters who were not parents and put in situations that were sort of out of this world. If you look at something like Charmed, or Seaquest, or The Chronicle, they were really shows about people in very extraordinary situations. And you can say that about Allison Dubois, but really Medium is so much about her interaction with her family and all that, so it was really and continues to be very much a show that is many times more about Allison and her husband and her family and the kitchen sink rather than the supernatural aspect. It was a learning experience for me, because I’m not a parent, so it was a world that I hadn’t really touched before creatively.
The one thing I did notice about Medium is that, as opposed to shows like CSI where sometimes, if you keep watching it on a regular basis, you can sort of guess who the criminal is or what is going to happen, in Medium I very rarely can figure what is going to happen. How do you come up with storylines like this?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It really was about the alchemy between Glenn Gordon Caron‘s sensibility–which is very specific: he really doesn’t like to put anything on the screen that he hasn’t seen before, and he’s such a student of film, he really pushes for things that are unique and things that are very different– and René Echevarria, who is also the executive producer on the show and a magnificent creative guy who runs the writers of that show. It really is about the alchemy between those two sensibilities and about what Glenn believes to be quality television. I think every show is a direct reflection of its executive producer in some way, especially the person who created it, and I think when you watch Lost, you’re really seeing a sort of guided tour into the mind of Damon Lindelof in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways, Medium is like that in terms of Glenn’s taste and what Glenn thinks is a good mystery and what isn’t and all that. It was a show that was very challenging and very specific, but I think what you see on the screen is ultimately very much a reflection of his belief in what is quality television.
I actually have had the privilege of having worked for a lot of people that I consider to be sort of unique voices esthetically. Graham Yost on Boomtown, Silvio Horta, who is the creator of Ugly Betty, whom I worked with twice, on The Chronicle and Jake 2.0, Glenn is just a titan, and Damon and J.J. [Abrams], these are people who are pretty visionary people and it’s been a real privilege to work with a lot of guys at that level.
How has the strike affected you in your professional and personal life?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It had a pretty vast effect on me professionally because just as the strike winds were gathering, my pilot The Middleman was greenlit by ABC Family. I was in Canada, several months into prep on my pilot, when the strike hit. First, there was this very powerful movement among the show runner community for people to strike completely, for not only not to write, but to also not produce. I was in a situation where I had to make a very difficult decision of whether to do as a lot of people out of respect were doing, or continue to produce my pilot. Ultimately I chose to produce my pilot for a variety of professional and personal reasons, but it was a very difficult decision and a very difficult place to be, between having to decide what would best serve the strike and what would best serve the crew of my pilot, some of my own creative goals, and some of my contractual obligations. It was a really difficult place to be and now that I’m back in Los Angeles, with the pilot that has been produced, I’m in a situation where I have always stood in solidarity with the Guild and with what the strike is about. It’s something that I believe in deeply, and at the same time I have a pilot that has been picked up as a series sitting on the shelf. I recognize that the one nice thing about that is one of the reasons why I was able to make the decision to produce the pilot is that it isn’t something that the studios or the networks can monetize, this is just a pilot, this is just a proof of concept, it’s not a series where they have episodes that they could air or anything like that. But it’s a difficult thing. I have something that I want to go and continue to create, and put out there and show to the world because I’m very proud of it, and I can’t. And the reason I can’t is because there are business practices on the part of the studios that are deeply unfair and that have to be fought against. In an ideal world, we would by nature be sort of understood to have a great stake in the process and in the business of television and be given a fair deal because it’s what we deserve and instead, the business is such that we have to fight for it. It’s a really sad thing because, as the strike is proving, without a healthy dose of respect for your creative people, you wind up with no television at all.
What are you doing now during the strike? Are you working on different projects? Are you writing a new comic book?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’m always writing and I’m always creating. It doesn’t matter if I’m on strike or not because I’m a writer and that’s what I do, regardless of the venue. The sad part is that I can’t talk about it and I can’t put anything out there because I’m on strike.
Can you talk a little bit about your comic book The Middleman? What’s the story and how did you come up with it?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: The Middleman was a pilot that I wrote on spec almost ten years ago. I wrote it because it was something that I thought was funny and wanted to see on television. Ultimately I couldn’t get any traction with it. It was something where people sort of read it and didn’t quite see the vision of it. A few years after I wrote it, I went to work on Lost and I worked with a guy called Paul Dini, and Paul really encouraged me to pursue it as a comic book, which I did. I wound up working with Les McClaine at Viper Comics and also I have been publishing three volumes of it, three graphic novels of this character and of this world. The way that I think it’s interesting vis-a-vis the strike is that by going out and being very entrepreneurial with the project, with the property, I was ultimately able to get a deal to put it on television. I feel like that’s something that we as writers are going to have to embrace much more whole-heartedly in the post-strike era, because collective bargaining is going to get us some of the things we want, but I think we need to also individually take control of our destiny, and take control of our intellectual property, and find ways of generating intellectual property, before we actually sell our stuff to the corporations. I think it’s going to be a way that writers like myself are going to have better contracts and contracts that are more reflective of our own creative agendas and our own needs. For me, The Middleman was something that I did because I wanted to see this out there and I had to find the work around the fact that it didn’t sell at first as a television pilot. I really look at it as something that is indicative of a way that writers, especially now that we’ve been engaged in this struggle against the corporations for intellectual property rights and so on, are going to be able to own what we make and sell it closer to our own terms rather than on the terms of the corporations.
A lot of people assume that writers are just being unreasonable because they are “paid so much,” but it seems that writers have different occupations, they can’t just write, they need to have different projects.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: The idea that writers are being unreasonable demonstrates a lack of perspective because we are creating something that is exploitable over many different areas of media. A television show isn’t like a car where you stamp out a car 5 million times to sell 5 million cars. Every individual episode of a television show is an individual work of art and I truly believe that. Just like every individual film is the same way, and more so in the case of film, every film is basically a start up company that has to create one product and that one product becomes what it sells over and over again. I think that it’s very easy to think that this is a labor struggle, that it’s commensurate with any other number of labor struggles, but I think this is really about the intellectual rights to each individual work of art. And the money the Studios are making on these things, especially now with new media, is so vast, and you only have to look at the compensation of the CEOs of the companies to get an idea. If they think writers are overpaid, they should look at what the CEOs of media conglomerate make. And look at that as whether or not that’s proportionate to the work that is actually done. In the context of that, and in the context of the actual amount of money that the Studios are making exploiting these sort of individual works of art that we provide them with, I don’t think that the demands are unreasonable.
Also, the idea that writers are all overpaid is not an accurate one. First of all, writers have a much shorter lifespan in their field than most people do. There is no such thing as job security in writing, and a lot of what writers live on are those residuals, and those residuals were hard fought for for exactly that reason. A lot of people don’t have long careers in film and television. It is a tremendously difficult place to break into and it’s a tremendously difficult business to survive in. It’s a business where creating that one individual piece of art that the Studio can then exploit infinitely is a tremendously time and soul consuming thing. So a lot of writers, they may be starting out, they may be at the end of their career, what they have to show for it is this catalog of scripts that have been produced, and the residuals money becomes a way that you can continue to live based on all the work that you have done.
Have you been surprised by the support the strike has gotten?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Yes. I think this is a different world than it was in the eighties, the last time that the Guild was on strike. The great thing about having worked on a show like Lost and on other shows that were sort of fan-based shows in the infancy and now sort of early growth of the web, is that fans have become much more cognizant of the role of the writer. On a show like Lost, people know who wrote what episode, on shows like Buffy, people know who wrote what episode, and they even know what the voices of the individual writers are like and what their ideas are like, and people have become fans of writers in a way that they have never been before. I think that people can see the value of what we bring to table. People no longer think of us as these faceless rounds that out generic pieces of television. And again, for me as a writer being able to have a blog and connect with fans, and be better known by the fans, and have my contribution understood by the fans is a huge deal. So honestly the support is surprising and it’s fantastic, but I think it reflects the era we live in now. It’s an era where fans have greater access to the people behind the scenes of a show and where they’re able to really personalize the creative people behind a show. I think the strike has been really well-run in terms of reaching out to the fans and reaching out to people who love television and films, and really telling them, “This is why we’re fighting,” and I think people ultimately understand that.
What are your plans once the strike gets resolved?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Well, The Middleman has been picked up by ABC Family, so I’m basically sitting on my hands just waiting for the strike to end so that I can produce my show. And when it does, I’ll be very grateful to the Guild because I’ll know that I’ll be doing it under better conditions than I sold it.
Should we expect The Middleman to premiere during the Fall (’08)?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: All of the scheduling and premiere dates are sort of up to ABC Family because they’re contingent on the strike ending. So it really will depend on when the strike ends and when the deal is made. I have great hope in that our negotiating committee will be able to do that and I hope that the companies will step up and really give us a deal that respects what we do.
Out of everything you have worked on, which one was your favorite and why?
(Laughs) There’s no favorite. I think that there are things that you do like Lost that take over your life and become such a force above and beyond the series that you can only love them for the experience that you had. There’s a show that I did in the early 2000’s, it’s called The Chronicle, which was just a little show on the Sci-Fi channel that we did 22 episodes. That was just a fantastically rewarding experience, but didn’t have the success of say something like Lost. There’s a show like Boomtown that I worked on after The Chronicle, which was run by Graham Yost, and it was a spectacularly complicated experiment in non-linear story telling that was very critically acclaimed. Ultimately it didn’t find an audience, but that I am tremendously proud of because it was really trying to push the boundaries of how your present story on television. So you know, every show is different and it’s not that I hold every show equally but to pick a favorite is kind of unfair because there’s so many different shows that you do that give you different experiences and where you learn different things.