by Fin Wheeler
At a recent live-streamed Q and A, the man behind the current Xena reboot project and Lost alum Javier Grillo-Marxuach spoke about his path to show running, writers rooms, past projects and what he’d tell his 22-year-old self if he could go back in time.
Javier’s Path to the Writers Room
Javier’s family didn’t move to America until he was ten, but watching Star Wars as a seven year old was his hallelujah moment. He was determined to make movies and create fantastic new worlds.
As an undergraduate, buying and shooting film was too expensive, so he signed up to write, direct and act in Scotch and Soda, the universities theater troupe for students who weren’t theater majors. While there he wrote more than twenty pieces, a few of which were full length plays. He also wrote a weekly pop culture column for the university paper.
Straight after graduating he went to grad school. Because Javier’s hero George Lucas had gone to USC, that was where he headed too. While Javier had no scripting (TV) or screenwriting (film) experience, the feature length plays he’d written as an undergrad displayed his abilities with long-form writing-for-performance, and his weekly columns showed he could discuss story. He was accepted into the Master of Screenwriting program.
His first job out of grad school was as a cashier at Kinko’s. Part of being a writer is plodding through a series of not-great jobs, and experiencing life from other viewpoints. Less than a year into the job, The Office of Minority Opportunities at USC let him know that NBC was looking for an entry level executive. They weren’t looking for the usual Suit. Instead, they were after someone with writing experience and credentials; someone the writers would be able to relate to. Javier applied, and after a rigorous process lasting several months, he was finally offered the job.
During the months of the hiring process, several of the more senior execs left or were fired, so when Javier finally began working at NBC, two key positions above him were vacant. As a result, he was given much more responsibility. He made some mistakes, but he also enjoyed an amazing learning curve.
By the age of 24 he was overseeing three shows. He wasn’t show running three shows — he was the network exec. Show runners for each show reported to him. He gave notes to them and made sure that the shows being delivered to the network were the shows that they’d been promised.
Javier was on track to move even higher up the network executive ranks. But in his heart Javier was and is a writer.
On a jaunt to Florida where he was overseeing a second unit shoot, Javier got chatting in the bar at night to the show runner. They got to talking about writing and the seemingly doomed show they were both working on.
The show runner ended up making a promise to Javier: if the show got picked up for its third season, he would let Javier write one of the episodes.
As fate would have it, the show that was slated to replace it imploded. The third season of SeaQuest was made, Javier wrote an episode, and got his first ‘written by’ credit. He was now on the writer/show runner track. He worked hard and made his way up from staff writer, through the ranks to show runner.
Javier on Writing for Television
Javier Grillo-Marxuach and his fellow show running friend Jose Molina have a free podcast, Children of Tendu. Each hourly episode they explain show running and creating a show step by step. They also talk about how they each worked their way up the rungs of television writing to show running.
Javier on Lost
At the Q and A, there was massive interest in Javier’s work on Lost.
The project was originally conceived by the network. They’d decided they wanted a scripted drama that was Survivor meets Castaway.
The first script they had commissioned wasn’t at all what they wanted, so they turned to JJ Abrams who pitched an outline called Lost. The network loved it. While JJ went away and wrote the script for the pilot, the producers got busy shipping the massive set elements to Hawaii. The clock was most definitely ticking.
The television show Javier had been working on had just been cancelled. He’d just stopped working when his agent called to tell him about a new JJ Abrams show. Did he want to write on that?
Javier was one of a handful of writers brought in to form the writers room for Lost. For the four months before production began, the writers nutted out the back stories of the characters and worked on that first season. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the last month, only weeks before the cameras started rolling, that they hit upon the idea of using flashbacks, allowing the writers to get away from the island and delve deep into the back stories of all the characters.
Javier on Giving and Taking Notes
Javier’s tips on taking notes focused more on the writer’s philosophy. He suggests that it’s helpful to remember that the writer is effectively given a loan from the network to build a house on land owned by the network. The second a writer sells their concept (for a lot of money) to a network, the writer needs to accept that they no longer have total control or ownership. It’s a very healthy and pragmatic way to consider the exec/writer dynamic.
He also pointed out that the network knows, in great detail, what their audience likes and dislikes. Ideally the network notes about these details would be succinct and useful. Javier said he likes to receive three actionable notes. Solid insights that can make the script better, rather than distracting details about dialogue (which would probably change by the next draft anyway).
Javier on Collaboration
He observed that writers who are collaborative are much easier to work with and ultimately more successful and effective.
When he was in high school and as an undergraduate, Javier used to hang out with his friends playing role-play games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. He credits this hobby for developing his collaborative storytelling skills.
For those of us who aren’t sci-fi inclined, there are always independent theater productions and improv, which help hone the writer‘s collaborative techniques. The takeaway is that while aspects of writing are indeed quite independent and isolated, there are also times (pitching, taking notes, or working in a writers room) that it’s essential that the writer listen and work well with others.
Javier on What He Wishes He Knew Sooner
The final question from producer Joanna Werner, who facilitated the Q and A, focused on what Javier wished he could go back and tell his younger self. Javier said he wished he could advise his younger self to be less insecure and less arrogant.
Three notes he’d give aspiring writers would be:
- Don’t be too precious
- Know when to let go
- Be collaborative (Don’t try to control someone else’s input and be open to the idea that other peoples contributions can improve your work.)
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.