Interview: Javier Grillo-Marxuach

“this is what it looks like when i suspect there’s kids on my lawn.” — Javier Grillo-Marxuach, in a post to his Tumblr blog.

Hi, Medium! Happy to be here. To inaugurate the move of my blog to this website, I’m going to re-post my interview with Javier Grillo-Marxuach.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach — television writer, comicbook writer, television producer, and (recently!) a new father — was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Read on to find out what it’s like to have your show cancelled, what he’s learned about television writing from podcasting, and what’s different about being a television writer today than when he started.

This conversation has been lightly edited for typos and flow.

Tell me how you got started in the entertainment industry and how you landed your first writing job. SeaQuest, right?

I knew I wanted to be a writer or director for a very long time — like since I was seven years-old and saw Star Wars. Over time, I figured out that George Lucas had gone to the University of Southern California’s film school, and I set my sights there. In the meantime, I wrote and produced and directed as many short plays and super-8 videos as I could… I got a degree in creative writing, and then, finally landed at USC. After graduating from the masters degree screenwriting program — and I was working at Kinko’s and trying to write the Great American Screenplay at the time — I received a letter from USC telling me that NBC was recruiting on campus for an executive training program. At the time I didn’t really have a love of television, but I wanted to get out of Kinko’s, so I pursued it very aggressively, and over the course of two years, that became my passion — and really, my second education.

At the time, SeaQuest was the biggest budgeted and most lavish sci-fi show on TV, so I leaped at the opportunity to become involved with it. Later on, the producers, having grown weary of all my little notes and suggestions, decided to offer me a staff writing position on the show, and that was the end of my career as a network executive!

Did your work on SeaQuest — as well as Charmed and other writing jobs in-between — prepare you for your work on Lost?

I am not sure that, at the time, I perceived Lost as some sort of pinnacle toward which all my other work was preparing me… although it certainly felt very special — but you never know which one is going to take off like that. Anyway, I always gravitated to genre work — i was, as a kid, and continue to be a huge sci-fi geek, so it was always what I wanted to do, and it’s the majority of the stuff I watched and read through most of my life: in a way, it was all the reading and viewing I did that prepared me for Lost, and for all the other work I have done.

Do you think Lost is what you’re most famous for?

I don’t know what I am most famous for…I guess you could argue it’s Lost, although you could also say that Charmed is as well known, if maybe not as splashy…mostly because it was on TNT about eight times a day for most of the early aughts!

What made you leave Lost?

I wrote about this at great length in an essay that I published on my blog a while back — the answer is long and complicated…maybe it’s better if people find out that answer here.

Holy moly what an amazing writeup! So, about three years after Lost, you helmed your own show, Middleman, based on a comicbook series you had been writing in collaboration with, if I’m not mistaken, artist Les McClaine. The show lasted twelve episodes and was (unjustly!) cancelled. You put a lot of yourself in that show — as I’m sure many show-runners do for their series. What does it feel like to have your television show cancelled? Is there an emotional journey you go through? Not many people are in the position to deal with something like that.

I think you have it right — having your television show cancelled pretty much sucks. In the case of The Middleman, I had experienced so much rejection over that project for such a long time — I wrote in in ’98 and was pretty much told by every one that it was too quirky and weird — that I kind of knew that we were living on borrowed time every step of the way. By the time the axe finally came down, the network was actually kind enough to leave the fate of the show (whether to very quickly write and produce a series finale on a very short time and budget, or stop the series at twelve episodes) to me, and I ultimately decided to not compromise the quality of the show… so having some element of control over that decision was a big help. It’s sadder when you leave a project you love for any number of reasons and it keeps going without you: the experience of leaving Lost, for example, was far more bittersweet.

It’s been two years since you started a podcast called the Children of Tendu with your friend and fellow TV writer, Jose Molina, to provide general insight of the industry in which you work, as well as advice, tips, and anecdotes for aspiring writers. Since then, you have made a number of episodes, most being an hour long, discussing a range of topics with a number of guests; it seems you and Jose have given so much through this podcast. Is there anything you’ve learned from making Children of Tendu that you’ve been able to use in your career as a television writer? Has anything changed in how you’ve approached your job from the experience you’ve gained making Children of Tendu?

Well, doing a podcast where you pontificate about how people SHOULD behave in a profession certainly makes it necessary for you to “walk the talk” a lot more rigorously: the last thing you want is for someone who listens to your podcast to catch you doing something opposite to the spirit or methodology you espouse! As for what I have learned, well, first of all, while Jose and I have been good friends a long time, we had never really sat down and discussed out experiences at such a fine level of detail, the act of unpacking all that stuff and putting it out there with a friend has been amazing. Also, the podcast has reached a lot of people who have then reached back to us with their own anecdotes and experiences. In that way, I now get a lot more feedback and information in what is usually a very closed off and parochial business, and that’s been a huge learning experience.

And as far as change goes, what’s different — if there is anything different — about being a television writer today than when you started writing for SeaQuest?

There are a LOT more shows nowadays than back where there were only three to five networks! Also, genre TV used to be something of a ghetto: my agents through most of the nineties steered me away from genre work (though I always wound up there anyway). Honestly, back then, you wanted to get a job on a ten o’clock cop, doctor, or lawyer show: that’s how fortunes were made. Once generation X came of age and began to write material closer to its own Star Wars-influenced sensibility, and cable got into the drama business in earnest, and shows like The X-Files and Buffy sort of blazed a path of genre in primetime, leading to shows like Lost — and once streaming and all the other new media got in the game — there has been this explosion in the volume of programming that has allowed a lot of different types of shows to exist.

Are there any challenges from the SeaQuest days that are no longer around? Have new ones sprouted up?

Well, the orders are shorter. Back then, even a fair-to-middling show would get 22 episodes a season, now most shows get less. The staffs are smaller, and the showrunners are less experienced, but honestly, what I do, go into a writers room, create with other writers, then write scripts…that’s all pretty much the same!

It was announced a little while ago that you would be executive-producing and writing for the remake/reboot of Xena: Warrior Princess (congrats, by the way!). How did this opportunity come about?

I heard they wanted to reboot it, I asked my agents to pursue it aggressively, and then I aggressively convinced Xena creator Rob Tapert and the brass and NBC that my take on the material was the way to go. There were several things that were foregone conclusions: they wanted to reboot the material, not continue from the old series, and they were looking for an approach. I’m just glad they liked what I brought to the table — Xena is a classic show that means the world to a lot of people, and I want to get it right.

According to IMDB, this will be your fourth executive producer credit for a TV series after Medium, Middleman, and Helix. As you get closer to the time when the production of Xena will be ramping up, what experiences from Middleman and Helix do you think you’ll be dwelling on, if any?

Funny you should mention that — I just wrote another essay about everything I have learned about showrunning over my twenty plus years in television: it’s a long answer to your question, but one I hope people will read. It all boils down to this, though: you have to surrender your ego to be a good leader. That seems like a contradictory position, but it’s not. As a shworunner, your job is to communicate a vision — and more often than not, the ego is a barrier to that communication. Here’s a link to the essay.

Nice! Thank you! And finally: there are very few female protagonists in television and movies. In this cultural context, how do you think you’ll approach Xena’s character? What about gender equity in terms of the amount of female characters you have and their prominence?

We live in a racist and sexist society in which exclusion is a way of life. It’s kind of that simple. We all have a responsibility to do whatever is possible within our sphere of influence to change that. For me that begins on the page, casting, and — if I’m lucky enough to be in that position — hiring decisions as far as other writers and directors go. I am doing, and will continue to do, the best I can, and I hope others will do the same.

You are so amazing, sir. One more thing! In a post on Tumblr, you announced that your wife had recently given birth to your daughter, Indra. How’s little Indra doing?

Little Indra was named after the Hindu god of thunder and storms…which is not unlike the effect of a newborn in your life! She truly is a magical creature of wonders.

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