Screen Australia In Conversation with Javier Grillo-Marxauch and Joanna Werner

Although the television industry in the US appears vastly different from Australia's, there's much to admire and consider in terms of the role of a writer and that of a producer. There's a clearer separation at home. By and large, a writer writes and a producer sets up the project and sees it through from concept, development, funding, production, etc etc. Television in the States, however, is where those roles and their respective responsibilities bleed into each other, with the role of the 'showrunner' as the perfect example of this marriage between business, logistics and creative.

This was the topic of discussion at ACMI last night, Joanna Werner hosted an hour and a half of conversation with Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a showrunner and producer with a prolific career in television (Lost, Charmed, The 100,  just to name a few). The conversation was delightful and informative, made better by the Javier's fast-talking humour, a true entertainer.

Attendees in the room were no doubt producers and writers interested in an industry we hear much of but know little of its inner workings. American television's large domestic market and phenomenal global reach give its studios and networks the power to afford developing talent and story through writer's rooms and lengthy development time before production begins. Shonda Rhimes, showrunner of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal calls it "laying track", the more time writers have to plan and develop, the more structurally sound the story engine will be when production begins to roll. This emphasis on the quality of story is something that Australian producers have been emulating more and more, with companies such as Matchbox Pictures and Playmaker Media embracing the Showrunner model with fervour. The philosophy is that good storytelling starts with quality of writing. Get it right, and the audience will come. Of course, the size of our domestic market is a mere 24 million-ish people, and local producers are constantly competing for viewers with the rest of the English-speaking world also producing quality content. Hopefully these efforts create a snowballing effect and bring global audiences to our content too. Australians, after all, have always had a soft-spot for local content, Aussie drama regularly rates highly. 

But how do writers work in Hollywood? US television writer rooms seem to have established a universal hierarchy, generally speaking. As a writer, Javier says that getting an agent is key. Then, as an entry level job, one might work as a writer's assistant (YES WRITERS HAVE ASSISTANTS), then move on to staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer,, co-executive producer and then finally executive producer a.k.a showrunner. Writers may or may not all follow a linear path during their careers, but we can clearly see that US television grooms its writers to be producers capable of handling both the magic on paper, and the magic on set and to screen. 

A writer's role, as they gain more experience and seniority, will involve attending script, location, casting meetings, as well as visiting set while their episode is in production so they can contribute to discussions informing the tone and backstory of the series. As directors are often guests and freelancers directing episodes here and there, writers and producers become the crutch to sustain the continuity of story.

The showrunner oversees the entire operation and has the final call on most decisions...well, the network actually has the final final call, but the onus is on the showrunner to deliver the show as promised. Naturally, having spent many years juggling both the network expectations and the strive to create original and imaginative content, Javier has a very level-headed attitude navigating these relationships, especially when speaking of network executives, whom cop their fair share of vilification and abuse from creatives. The bottom line is that the film and television industry is as much business as it is art. A network upholds their brand by commissioning shows on good faith that the creator/showrunner is there to help sustain it. Javier describes the network as "a bank that you ask to loan money to build a house on land that they own". When a network commissions/licenses the show, the IP no longer resides with its creator, so although a showrunner is given the reins to "tell their soul" and realise their vision, if a series fails to meet expectations, a showrunner can ultimately be replaced. A harsh reality.

His advice when faced with conflict is be less possessive and more open and collaborative in all working relationships, and to know your "three hills to die on". Three elements of your show that are essential for the concept to succeed. Fight to keep them. Everything else should be malleable and flexible to change and input. He goes on to quote The Godfather, "the secret to success is to say yes as often as you can" in order to earn the trust and power to say 'no' when it's most warranted. Sage advice!

Some other tidbits during the conversation:

On Lost - Lost was sold on an outline. JJ's outline. Writers were brought on board (three weeks before production began might I add) to flesh out and develop the series based on a draft script of the pilot. Amazing. And almost unbelievable. 

On the upcoming reboot of Xena (which Javier is involved with) and the eternal damnation of remakes/reboots/sequels - Like most disillusioned media consumers, he also laments the fact that a lot of new content today is actually recycled old content. But Javier reasons that these obvious money-milking endeavours of established franchises provide networks and studios the opportunity to re-invest revenue in new, original and niche content.

On his favourite time of the day to write - "There's is no time of the day to write. You write when you have to, you write when there's a deadline, you write, you write, you write some more, and the you die". I believe it was something to that effect.