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. 

Meet 2016 Short Screenplay Finalist Nikki Tran


Here is an interview published on BlueCat Screenplay Competition's website. Even though I didn't get the cake in the end, this is still fantastic exposure, you can also read here.


Saigon, 1978. A young girl learns the meaning of sacrifice during an impromptu escape out of Vietnam.

“When We Run” is a story born from experiences in my family’s history as well as current global events concerning refugees and the mass exodus of peoples fleeing war and oppression. I wrote “When We Run” as an attempt to understand the fear and hardship my parents and relatives had to face, along with other refugees both past and present.

The screenplay is set a few years after South Vietnam has surrendered to the Northern Vietnamese government, relief that the war was over quickly dissipated when people realised they had fallen to a totalitarian regime and severe oppression was forced upon its own citizens. Many Vietnamese took to the sea to escape it, but many also smuggled themselves on foot from the South to the Northern jungles to reach the Chinese border. Some Vietnamese families were large, which made it harder to leave. The protagonist’s family in the script is loosely based on my mother’s. She was the eldest of six children and consequently had to separate from the rest when it came time to leave. Everyone was heavily monitored and poverty kept many families from being able to afford food let alone have enough left over to purchase a boat, supplies, provisions, or bribe their way out. “When We Run” is the story of the night a girl is forced to leave everyone behind.

Growing up as first generation Australian in a free and first world nation, it’s easy to become desensitised to the news and tune out altogether. We have never seen that level of fear, poverty and devastation on our own shores…how could we begin to empathise with millions of people in a situation where they’ve had to drop everything in their lives and flee? It wasn’t until I began researching for the script that I realised how ignorant I have been to my own heritage and family history. So, I wanted to humanise this subject for an audience on screen.

I live in an area of Melbourne’s inner-west that has grown and changed significantly due to many waves of migration since the 50s. I am taking part in a local writers’ program that encourages creative writers in finding ways to bring diversity to the narratives we tell to a wider Australian audience. I studied filmmaking and specialised in producing at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts but have always found myself penning screenplays because I love juggling elements of character, dialogue, action and the film narrative form into a concoction of something I would want to watch myself. Producing, on the other hand, gives me the perspective to see how an audience might connect with the work, understand the practicalities and as well as the joys (and stress!) in actually bringing those words to life.

With the ubiquity of the internet and online content, I want to create scripted drama that’s relevant to global audiences too. Film and television is at its best when art, imagination and social observation intersect in a way that entertains but also reveals truth about ourselves and the world around us, so I’m working on expanding “When We Run” into a feature length screenplay that will hopefully do just that.