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. 

Melbourne Writers Festival '15 - Rob Thomas: Veronica Mars


As part of the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars, spoke about the show's pilot and how the series came to be. 

He started at the very beginning. The show actually began as a concept for a novel - a teen detective in Texas by the name of Keith Mars, who has since aged and transformed into a beloved character on the show, Veronica Mars' father. Thomas spoke of how early on, he'd pitch and frame the show in just two words, "teen noir". Short and sweet. The challenge he believed was to actually create a world where a teenage detective solving real-world crimes was plausible and believable. Despite, or rather, because the show was heavily dipped in the film noir genre with its Raymond Chandler-esque voice over, mystery driven plot, stories of the underclass and injustice in affluent California surburbia - it did set itself apart and seemed more 'believable' compared to others aimed at a similar age bracket in the mid 2000s (the OC, Gossip Girl).

Thomas spoke about the relationship with studio and network during the casting process and the rigorous test screenings before the show went to air. A good portion of the 90 minutes he spent talking reiterated the eternal struggle of creating a pilot and long-running series that maintains great story, whilst also pleasing the network's expectations of what will please the audience as well as actually pleasing the audience. 

Veronica Mars was a show that unfortunately fell victim to the pressures of this balancing act and was cancelled after three seasons. Thomas revealed that he often wonders whether it would have been better for the show's story engine if he had started the second season and each subsequent season afterwards with a clean slate - same protagonist and central characters, but introduce fresh faces pivotal to the season arc storyline, then delete the rest. Similar to what The Leftovers are doing this second season. I'm willing to bet it's something he's been contemplating for years after the cancellation...what if. I see his point. The supporting cast are all pivotal to the Lily Kane murder storyline, the story engine of season one. But after that mystery's solved, how much more crime and high stakes drama can these same supporting characters be personally involved in before it becomes stupid?

Getting rid of characters and introducing new ones is definitely a valid creative solution, and one which happened in season three - but it was too little too late. Thomas' hands were tied and the audience had grown to like characters. This was self-evident during the talk, right after he brought up his 'what if' scenario and an audience member quickly interjected on behalf of fans, "No!". Viewers get to know and love the characters not only as individuals, but their attachments and relationships as well. Thomas plucked Veronica, a few supporting characters and put them in college for season three, it was sort of familiar but it was strange - it wasn't the same (the Veronica Mars movie is even stranger, but that was inevitable). 

It's a Catch 22. For the longevity of a show and story engine it would have been wise to introduce new characters and settings with every season and retired irrelevant characters, but for audience emotional engagement and retention of viewership it's a lot to ask to invest in new characters and relationships from scratch. 

I'm still unclear what/who was to blame for the show's cancellation - maybe the network became impatient with the show's performance, maybe it was the dip in writing quality (so many plot holes), maybe the viewers were generally too stubborn to let go and tolerate change for the sake of good story...could have been a mixture of all three. Or maybe the show was just ahead of its time? Viewers are more open to narrative unpredictability and self-contained mini-series-like story structure (Game of ThronesTrue Detective, Top of the Lake) nowadays. Thomas had run out of time by the time he concluded show-and-tell with clips from the pilot so there was no Q & A, but it would be have been a great question to ask his opinion for.