GreenEggsNSamm and I recently had a chance to chat with Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a veteran television writer and comic book creator. Javier has worked on shows such as Lost and Medium. He also created and wrote one of our favorite shows, The Middleman. We got a chance to speak with Javier about his favorite Middleman moments, his advice to aspiring television writers and his exciting new projects!
WhiteRabite: Javier, thanks for taking time to chat with us today.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Ready to type extemporaneously! Thank you for wanting to chat!
WhiteRabite: We’re very excited to get the chance!
GreenEggsNSamm: I have to say, our Middlegroup just finished the last episode of “The Middleman.” It was bittersweet…though now we want to watch it again for the Wilhelm Screams.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: We collected all of them in a special feature on the bonus disc – just in case you don’t want to hunt! Also, did you guys read the thirteenth episode comic?
WhiteRabite: They wouldn’t let me play it. It was cheating.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: All your questions will be answered and all your answers will be questioned. So did you like the show? And how many poor souls did you torture with it?
WhiteRabite: It was great. We’ve all ready enjoyed the ride.
GreenEggsNSamm: We have it! We’ve been holding onto it until we got to the last episode. Now it feels like we should read it together like circle time at the library. There are four of us, several cats and two dogs that have all gotten the experience.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: We always were very popular with felines. If only they had Nielsen boxes!
WhiteRabite: Plus erroneous husbands.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Erroneous? Please tell me none of you wed in error! That would be tragic!
WhiteRabite: They weren’t watching the show with us, so they were in error indeed. Except now that we’re done, they want to see it.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: The nice thing about it being on DVD is that people can discover it at their own pace…it’s one of the things I love about our current media landscape. So now that you have seen it in all of its glory… Any questions?
GreenEggsNSamm: Who got to keep the MiddleMobile?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: It was, sadly, a rental – a Ford Fairlane from ’68, I believe…so was the MiddleMobile 2…but I did get to drive that for a week when my car was in the shop. They took the jet engine out for my protection though. Originally, I wanted it to be a convertible Cadillac like in the comic book…but i fell in love with the Fairlane. We also looked at a new Cadillac two door and a few others…
GreenEggsNSamm: The Fairlane was perfect, and drool worthy.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: The thing about TV and movies is it’s all so tentative…once the show gets canceled, all the toys go back.
GreenEggsNSamm: Did you get to keep anything from the show?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Did I ever! The guns, the baby H.E.Y.D.A.R, many of the costumes – the zombie fish puppet! I use baby H.E.Y.D.A.R as a lamp in my office!
WhiteRabite: Was there anything you didn’t get to keep, but wished you could have? Besides the cars, of course.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Besides the show itself? I wish I could live in Wendy and Lacey’s unusually spacious yet weirdly affordable loft. But frankly – again – thanks to the magic of DVD, there’s little about the show I can’t revisit when I am feeling especially Norma Desmond-ish. For a show as short lived as ours, we were very well documented…but if I could have kept ANYTHING? I think the writing staff. We still hang out but without a show it just isn’t the same!
GreenEggsNSamm: We were talking about how much fun those writers meetings must have been.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: We really and truly had a blast – it’s unusual for a group of writers to get into the groove of a show as rapidly as the MiddleStaff, and we had an awesome time. doesn’t mean there weren’t disagreements, but the reason the show worked out so well is that it was as collaborative and nurturing an environment as I have ever known in television. Also, we were all pretty nerdy.
And we had a stupid stick.
It’s a stick that when you hold it, it shields you from mockery. So people felt safe to pitch out of the box ideas.
WhiteRabite: That’s a pretty powerful tool.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: It is indispensable in any creative environment.
WhiteRabite: You’ve worked as a writer on a lot of different shows. Is it hard having to adjust to a different group dynamic from series to series?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Not anymore – I have been doing it for so long, you get used to it as a condition of your employment…new show, new dynamic. At this point I have worked on some ten different series, every one of them with different modus operandi – some of them had great writers rooms, some of them had no room at all…
WhiteRabite: You guys had a writers hall?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: You get used to it: more than anything you have to set your ego aside and know that you are there to execute someone else’s vision: the less attached you are to the primacy of your own voice, the more you are able to adapt. Yes. 80 percent of the work of a TV writer is to sit in a conference room with the rest of the staff and generate story together. Only 20 percent is spent physically writing. The collaboration is what makes it possible to produce the volume required of a TV show with anything resembling consistency and quality. On a show like “Lost” for example, it is crucial that everyone work together toward the creation of a unified whole.
GreenEggsNSamm: Is it hard to go from working on a show like Lost to working on a show like “SVU” where the genre and feel is completely different?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Actually, I did my episode of “SVU” as a freelancer while working on “The Chronicle” which was a madcap monster-of-the-week comedy for the Sci-Fi Channel…and it can be a little jarring to go from the world of gay porn, rape and child abuse to vampire Elvis impersonators…but the job of a TV writer is to be something of a chameleon. Those of us who survive can usually do more than one type of writing/genre! The real job of a TV writer is to learn to write like the creator of the show on which you are staffed while still bringing some of your own creativity to the table. Every TV show is essentially a therapist’s couch for its creator…or whoever is running it at the time…
WhiteRabite: For “The Middleman,” you were both the creator and one of the writers.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: The job of a writer/producer on the show’s staff is to figure out what’s important to the head writer, and to try to create novel ways of addressing those concerns…on the middleman, that show was all about my belief that being chosen to fight evil doesn’t need to wreck a person’s life – that good is, for lack of a better word, good.
Indeed – my friends say that watching “The Middleman” is like having me come to your house and chat with you for an hour. Which is a great compliment to the writing staff: they caught on very quickly and sometimes wrote my voice better that I can!
WhiteRabite: Was there anything that the writing staff added to the show that you loved?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Tons of stuff! For example the Middleman/Lacey romance was something I fought tooth and nail! But they convinced me to go with it and the show was better for it.
GreenEggsNSamm: It was an interesting element, and it worked out better that it wasn’t something that ran for the entire series, but was cut short by The Middleman. It created nice tension that felt very natural.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Well, it has a definitive conclusion in the thirteenth episode. I didn’t need to stretch that along too much – that kind of thing gets tiresome. Will they/won’t they – phooey…they either do or they don’t and then the show needs to move along.
WhiteRabite: The sexual tension that won’t die can be a pretty painful plot device.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: And look – the staff was there every day, we generated the entire fabric of the show together, so it’s not like the entire thing is mine…it’s a collaborative effort that someone in my position guides so that it remains consistent thematically and tonally.
WhiteRabite: You’ve worked on shows that have varied from being very commercially popular to unfortunately never finding the right audience. How do you determine success as a writer on a personal level?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Unless you are the show runner, most of the time you are not the final word on your own script – so I gauge my success on several things: have I brought enough ideas to the table to always keep the creative ball rolling? Did I write scripts that the show runner didn’t have to rewrite? Did I make their life easy? Did I write a draft of the script of which I can be personally proud? Did I help the other people on the writing staff do great work – did I teach the ones with less experience than me? Those are all criteria for success – sometime you do more than others.
The way TV writing works is that the higher you go, the more responsibility you get in terms of overseeing production and so forth in addition to writing scripts…until eventually, you get to run your own show. So I perceive part of my job as a veteran to help train the lower level writers to become producers on their own right. Helping the rest of the staff and providing ideas for everyone is a big part of the job.
GreenEggsNSamm: When you eventually get your own show, how do you balance the need for commercial success versus the integrity of the show?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: The secret of TV is that any show is bigger than any one person – it’s everyone’s job to help everyone else to be successful. Ok, about integrity… I work primarily for American broadcast networks. I don’t go in and try to sell them something they don’t want…or something I think will be at odds with their own aesthetic sensibility. A show like “Mad Men” succeeds because it’s on a network that is willing to put on that kind of show – that’s how it preserves its integrity. You sell “Mad Men” to ABC, CBS or NBC they are going to want to make the show broader because they are broadcasters! A show like Galactica, or “Babylon 5,” for example…those shows hit sweet spots: they had enough viewers to survive on basic cable or first run syndication while being producible on their respective budgets. So they survived a long time each.
Now, that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to change your show – but I have little respect for writer/producers who sell the wrong show to the wrong network and then complain about it. They cashed the checks and knew they were taking a gamble!
“The Middleman” is an interesting example – I sold “The Middleman” to ABC Family because I trusted them to let me make the show I wrote. I know damn well that the middleman wouldn’t have survived a second and a half on a major network. “The Middleman” could only be made by an upstart with a desire to do some wacky stuff to get noticed. So we made the show for a third of the budget of, say, your average episode of “Lost.” At the time “The Middleman” sold, I was co-executive producer of “Medium,” and my salary as show runner of “The Middleman” was significantly less…and I was OK with that, because we understood one another: to get the freedom, I had to work with less cash.
GreenEggsNSamm: Given that the show would have likely been entirely different on another channel, the decision to go with ABC Family worked out well.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Absolutely! ABC Family was marvelous in their support of the show – so the show had integrity: we did it on budget, on time and we didn’t complain about any of it. Because – at the end of the day – writing and producing television is a PRIVILEGE. We are all lucky to do what we do…and you have to balance your artistic ambitions with the commercial realities of the medium: if you want complete artistic control, you should write novels or stage plays and know you will be working on a smaller canvas, and learn how to make that medium work for you.
TV is for the masses…if you come in pretending you don’t know that – or not knowing how to be an artist within those constraints – you don’t belong here.
WhiteRabite: You obviously have a lot of passion for your profession.
GreenEggsNSamm: What is your advice for any aspiring writers out there who want to get into TV writing?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Absolutely – another thing I was going to add to that is this…
…on Middleman, we treated the network as a partner…as a creative entity working with us to make the show a hit. Writers often look at the networks and studios as adversaries – my feeling is this: they gave is eighteen million dollars to make the series…why shouldn’t they have an opinion, and why not treat them like what they are? People profoundly invested in our success!
Advice for prospective TV writers…love television.
Make sure it’s what you want to do because it’s a form to be mastered, just like the novel or the villanelle. Write a lot of scripts before you show your material to others – TV is about inspiration but also craft, it’s about writing both visually and having a stone sense of story and character, it’s about writing economically, making sure that every scene leads to the next in a natural, flowing way – mastering the form isn’t just about talent but craft and it demands practice.
Move to Los Angeles. It’s here and pretty much nowhere else if you are looking to work in American TV.
Learn to take criticism and learn how to tell your story a million ways from Sunday – there is more than one way to get your characters where they are going and the collaborative environment of TV is as much about the single flash of inspiration as it is about learning how to come up with every iteration of an idea until the perfect tone shows up.
Surrender your ego. The show is bigger than you are.
And on a seemingly contradictory note, cultivate your own voice…
WhiteRabite: You’ve written for comics as well as for television. Did you find writing for the two media to be very different?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Do stuff on the side to stay fresh. Middleman started as a spec script, then became a comic: I also write plays and direct short films.
Well, the Middleman comics were drawn from TV scripts, as is my upcoming graphic novel “Ramiel: Wrath of God” but the work I did for Marvel and Dynamite was written in the standard comic book format and yes – it was very different!
WhiteRabite: What were some of the biggest changes you had to adjust to?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: You have to direct every frame – it’s not a motion narrative but a sequential one, every detail counts, so you have to think visually. The way I settled it for myself was “I am going to end every page with a question that forces the reader to turn the page for the answer” – once I figured that out it all became a lot clearer to me.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Very much so! It’s based on a pilot I have been working on for over ten years – something I wrote before The Middleman! It’s a lot more epic – has a tone more like Thor – and indeed, it is about an angel who chooses to become human, and in doing so becomes a superhero.
GreenEggsNSamm: With superhero powers or superhero angel powers?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: It’s going to be published by APE – we will have a preview of the first issue at the San Diego Comic Con and the book will solicit in July in previews.
Oh, he is fully angelic! I originally titled the script “The Confessor” because his thing is to make the wicked confess and atone for their sins, but then I read “Astro City” and realized that Kurt Busiek had beat me to the name… and since I worship Mr. Busiek’s work I changed the title in short order!
It’s an attempt to do a superhero whose core values are atonement, forgiveness and the search for meaning.
And ass kicking. A lot of ass kicking.
GreenEggsNSamm: Ass kicking is always good. You said angels are the new vampires…there’s no sparkling right?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Less sparkling, more ass kicking.
But mostly ass kicking.
For a while, I thought about calling it “The Ass-Kicker,” but my better angels prevailed.
GreenEggsNSamm: Very awesome. We can’t wait to see it! Are you going to be at any other conventions this year? We saw you at C2E2 and you’ll be premiering Ramiel at Comic Con, can fans see you anywhere else?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: I am definitely going to Geek Girl Con – it’s a new show that’s going to take place in the Pacific Northwest and is dedicated to positive portrayals of women in geeky media – I guess Wendy and Lacey passing the Bechdel Test makes me a good guest!
But I just took a job on a new TV series and that will probably cut down on my conventioneering for the year!
GreenEggsNSamm: We love Geek Girl Con! It’s great to see a con dedicated to the positive portrayal of women in geeky media. We know fans have been asking if you or any of the Middleman cast would be at Dragon*Con this year.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: Dunno – you know, we were taken to c2e2 by an autograph company!
WhiteRabite: Is that usual?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: No, it was kind of awesome and unexpected! Nothing like that has ever happened to me before – and it was a blast seeing the entire Middlecast again! I know I’d love to go to Dragon*Con again – but it’s a hard west to east trip if I can only go for Saturday/Sunday!
GreenEggsNSamm: That is true. The party is sure to be epic there this year for the 25th Anniversary! Congratulations on the new series! Can you give us any info on that?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: I just accepted a position as consulting producer on the new Charlie’s Angels!
WhiteRabite: That’s very exciting! SpaceGypsies is going to have to add that to our “Watch List”
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: It’s gonna be fun – it’s being rebooted my Millar and Gough of “Smallville”fame!
GreenEggsNSamm: We’re definitely going to have to watch that then!
WhiteRabite: Oof, and I hate to be the one to have to wrap this up. Are there any parting words you’d like to leave with us before you have to go?
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: In the immortal words of the first doctor…
“There must be no tears, no anxieties no regrets…just go forward in all of your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”
That or…you know…try to be nice to other people, read a good book now and then and stay away from fatty foods.
Thank you so much – take care!