It’s been awhile, folks (but I’ve been busy! New fiction podcast! Serial meets Twin Peaks! Check it!), but the interview I have for you today’s a good one – and I promise that we’ve got more on the way. (Who the hell is this “we”? It’s just me over here.)
If you haven’t listened to Children of Tendu, and have literally any interest in writing for television, you should go do that right now. Brainchild of Jose Molina (Agent Carter, Firefly) and today’s guest, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, The Middleman, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Cowboy Bebop, to name just a few), I started listening to the Tendu podcast in 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic got up to full sway. Hearing Jose and Javier rap about their careers and the industry made isolation a lot more bearable.
Funnily enough, I don’t think Tendu came up once in the conversation I have for you today. Whoops.
In addition to writing on some of the most iconic science fiction and fantasy franchises (including the next season of The Witcher, one of my favorite shows right now), Javier is incredibly generous. He has a remarkable collection of his own writing up on his website, from pitch decks to pilot episodes to personal essays on the craft. I really can’t recommend this gold mine any more highly.
Recently, Javier and I nerded out about the Dune franchise, his writing process and revision (something I’m always interested in), collaboration, and why rapport is just so important in a writer’s room. We even talk a little about tabletop roleplaying games (like I did with my last guest, Carlos Cisco).
Stick around near the end for Javier’s surprising must read script recommendations.
This is an even longer interview than the last one, folks. But my chat with Javier ran long and I didn’t want to stop recording. Plus it’s my website, I do what I want here.
So get your popcorn and your spice beer, settle in with your filmbook, and enjoy my conversation with Javier Grillo-Marxuach…
As always, the interview has been edited for clarity and… well, some concision.
Noah Lloyd: I thought we’d start off with something fun. The first time we interacted, it was about Dune. And I just wanted to ask, what’s your history with the Dune franchise? Why is it cool? Why is it something fun to talk about on the internet?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I don’t think I have a relationship with the Dune franchise that people are going to like. I read the book after seeing the David Lynch movie. I remember laughing at it in the theater, really hating it. Then I read the book after seeing the movie and, at the age of sixteen, and it really did not land with me
Thing is, though, as the years went by, a lot of stuff in Dune stuck with me. And I think the David Lynch original is kind of like a great lost movie. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, along with all of the extended cuts, and more than a few fan edits, and I don’t think the movie is there… but somewhere between the intent and execution there’s a much better version of that film than the one that was released, you know?
I just got really interested in Dune as an adaptation challenge. And then the 2000 mini-series came out, and that hit a bunch of my soft targets. Vittorio Storaro shot it, and he used this weird format called Univisium. And then he insisted on doing all the desert stuff with translites, which are like giant translucent photographs that people use for backdrops.
NL: It gives that series such a distinctive look.
JGM: It’s so odd looking. It just looks like a stage play, you know? I’ve watched that one and its director’s cut once or twice. And I saw the Jodorowsky movie and I was like, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” And then the Villeneuve movie came out – it’s so good. And I found myself still really compelled by that world even though my initial response was to not like it.
I decided I would read the entire series chronologically, including the Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson books. And here’s what happened. This is the one that’s gonna get me hate. I started with the Butlerian Jihad trilogy, and then I read the Great Schools trilogy, the Great Houses trilogy. I basically read every book they wrote up until the original, and I was much more entertained by them than by the original. They read a lot like Star Wars books, you know? I mean, I get it, they approach Dune as if it were the TV version of Game of Thrones, and a lot of purists like their Dune high minded and literary, but they move really fast and they’re really cool pulpy stories about space wizards fighting space kings over space drugs. I just finished Dune Messiah –
NL: So you’re you’re still chugging along?
JGM: Oh yeah. I stopped for a little bit after Dune. And after reading Messiah now I’m waiting. Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert’s trilogies just keep getting closer and closer. They have one that’s 10,000 years before Dune. Then there’s one that’s like 1,000 years before Dune, and then there’s one that’s like 500 years, and then there’s one that’s 20 years, and now they’re like two months away.
NL: It’s like an asymptote getting infinitely closer.
JGM: Yeah. So this novel that covers events between Dune and Dune Messiah comes out in two or three months. I’m gonna wait for that to come out [before continuing the original series].
NL: My own opinion is that God Emperor of Dune – after the original – is my favorite of the series, so I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you get there. You may hate it!
JGM: I’ve come around to enjoying the originals a lot more than I did as a kid, and, frankly, I am so dug into this world at this point that I have to know how it all ends!
NL: I think that actually gives us a good segue into another question. You’ve got a lot of credits on what folks would call “genre” shows, like Dark Crystal, Cowboy Bebop, etc. And you’re talking about how the adventurousness of Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson’s work is what excited you about it. What is it that attracts you to the sci fi/ fantasy mode?
JGM: Well, just because I didn’t like Dune when I was sixteen doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate sci fi for the more heavy, philosophical aspects. My favorite writer is Philip K. Dick. There’s no lack of me wanting to enjoy the literary pleasures of sci fi, or that I wouldn’t have loved to have made some. I love that I got to work on Lost, which was on the high-minded side. But look, I grew up on sci fi. My conversion experience as a writer was that I saw Star Wars when I was seven years old in Puerto Rico, and I loved it.
And that’s what got me on this path. Like a lot of Gen X guys, we owe this vocation to George Lucas. I lived on this island that was a colony of the United States, and I think fantasies of escape were resonant in a lot of ways. And I wasn’t an athletic kid, I wasn’t a sports kid. I was a brainy nerdy kid. And science fiction was just perfect.
I would spend weekends at the basement of the Dawn Treader bookstore in Ann Arbor looking for old Star Trek paperbacks. That was the kind of kid I was. It’s just what I like. And I love writing science fiction and fantasy. And look, I’ve written a couple of cop shows, a couple of procedurals, stuff like that. It’s just not the thing I’m good at. I tend to have a much more associative mind, and one that thinks conceptually in a different way, and that’s a really good fit for sci fi and fantasy.
NL: Let’s talk about the writing process a little bit. Can you start with some broad brushstrokes? What does it look like when you sit down to write? And there might be a couple of answers, whether we’re talking about a pilot or an episode, that kind of thing.
JGM: I think a lot of writers create a character, and they work out of that character. But coming out of network television, which tends to be teaser, then four, five, or six acts, and you’re always writing propulsively, toward a climax (which I think is something that American TV has done really well – it’s one of the things that I think is best about how we make television), really got me in the habit of thinking about what’s the beginning, middle, and end of the story first. That’s where it begins.
If I have a good idea of the character’s arc, and here’s how the plot develops that arc, then I’m ready to start writing, because then the only question that I need to ask is, “What happens next?” If I’m not working on a TV show, where you’re in a room and you have to put the story up on cards so that your showrunner can approve it, if I’m writing a spec feature or spec pilot or something, then I just start. If I know the beginning, I’ll sketch it out on a note card, and then I’ll just start writing. And the only question I need to answer then is, “What happens next? What has to happen next?”
That’s usually what guides that first draft, and then I rewrite. I’m obviously not writing the great American novel the first time out, but the rewrites tend to stay to the structure. By and large, my structures tend to stay pretty similar, because that’s the first thing I think about. And from there I start filling it out and finding the characters.
Once you know what the scenes have to do, then you have to talk about how the scenes are going to do it. And that’s really where the character work comes in, you know? So I like to just have the structure, have the bones of it, and then go in and find the interesting little nooks and crannies of characters when I already know that this is what I need for the for the story to do.
And that’s the writing I do for myself. Obviously if I’m working on a TV show, I’m going to do a story break. I’m going to put it on a board that the showrunner is going to look at it, there’s going to be judgment, all of that stuff. And there will be judgment
NL: So when you’re asked to do a beat sheet or to card out, that kind of thing – since your preferred writing style is a little looser – do you find those outlines helpful? Or do you find that you push against them as you’re working?
JGM: No, they’re really helpful, because you’re figuring out the same stuff. You’re just doing it in a different way. I love breaking story communally. It’s great working with a bunch of other writers, smart people in a room who make your ideas better. I love writing on cards. So already, that’s like, great for me.
I just find being creative fun, you know? And I find that if you get too stuck on one process, you’re just digging yourself into a hole. I like the idea that sometimes you work with a bunch of writers to find it in the outline, sometimes you find it on the page, sometimes you find it on the board. Usually you find your structure on the board, and you find a lot of the character stuff on the board.
So it boils down to, what are the requirements of that job? If it’s a job, the requirements are a board and outline, revisions on the outline, and then drafts. I’m at a point where I’ve done a lot of different versions of how to write.
[For instance,] I used to really dislike when somebody would bring a big computer monitor into the room, and somebody would type and everybody would pitch stuff. I used to think that was just hell on earth. And then I did it with Will Matthews and Jeff Addiss on The Dark Crystal, and it was wonderful. And we did it on a bunch of other projects that we tried to work on together. And it was great. So even that, which I didn’t used to like very much, is now a way that I’m perfectly comfortable writing.
If you’re working in a TV show, you’ve got other people involved. If you’re working by yourself, it’s just you on the page. So that also has some to do with it.
NL: So, because you mentioned the computer coming in, and I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this on podcasts and on Twitter, what do you think the future is of the hybrid Zoom room?
JGM: Well, I hope it has none. I hate Zoom.
I mean, no, I don’t hate Zoom, Zoom is a great tool for a lot of things.
NL: I was about to apologize profusely for this Zoom call.
JGM: It’s made pandemic life possible. But I gotta tell you, it’s not great for creativity. I don’t think you can make a television show with people that you don’t go to the bathroom with and eat with. I think you need to establish a rapport, a sense of community, for writers rooms to work. You need to be able to know what the other people are about. And I think that’s possible over Zoom, but it’s just not the same.
There’s something about the hang of the writers room that makes the writers room a great place. I feel like, when the hang goes well, and people are getting along – or even if they have a little tension – but they’re talking about their stuff, they feel comfortable bringing in their stuff, then that’s a really great thing. Zoom is a different set of skills.
Maybe it’ll get to where people are on Zoom, and whatever. But I just think you need to you need to share space. A more defined space. You know what I’m saying?
NL: Yeah, I do. At least in my mind, it sounds kind of like therapy. When I suddenly had to see my therapist on Zoom, it was immediately less effective.
JGM: Yep. Not a lot of fun, was it?
I think that there are relationships that you’re trying to foster, but a lot of what happens in the writers room is humongously digressive. And you have to be able to have this conversation where you go off on some tangent for five minutes, and the tangent is blocking another person’s idea, and they just have to [jump in and] say those things.
I think that Zoom tends to be very much, “Get to the point because we’re all on a screen and let’s do this.” So that’s part of it for me. When I’m on Zoom, I always feel like results have to be made, and I feel responsible for that. So I don’t know.
I think that there will be hybrid rooms. I think that there will be a new tolerance for computer screens in rooms that will result in people from other cities being able to pitch in, which I think is great. But I think there is a core element of the way that we do television in which that community is essential. And I think it’d be a real shame to lose it. I think it’d be a real loss, honestly.
NL: So speaking of rapport in a writers room – how much of a writers room is just like playing D&D?
JGM: I suggest that anybody who wants to be good in a writers room should learn how to play Dungeons and Dragons. And I know that for a lot of people, that seems like a fate worse than death. Or find a roleplaying game that you find interesting, they have them in every genre.
When you’re playing roleplaying games, you’re doing collaborative storytelling, it’s just that there’s a game element to it, or there’s a quest element to it, or whatever. Roleplaying games force you to collaborate. I just think it loosens up that sense of opening your mouth in a room and telling a story. It creates muscles for creative storytelling and for creative collaboration that I think not all writers come into the world with.
One of the things about working in TV is, you know, a lot of writers, that’s just not how their minds work. They’re not used to collaborating, they’re not used to sitting in a room and bouncing the ideas around with five other people and admitting that, maybe, “I’ve had an idea that’s not as great,” that kind of thing.
So just getting you to a place where you have a facility for sitting in a room with a bunch of people around a table and creating story. That alone is a priceless education you can get from playing role playing games.
NL: I know that you’ve written in a variety of media, have you ever tried writing for roleplaying games?
JGM: No. I have a friend named Keith Baker who creates games, and I created a monster for one of his games, and that was a lot of fun. I deeply respect what it takes to make that work, and I don’t have it. As a storyteller, I like knowing the end result. I prefer to play roleplaying games rather than dungeon mastering.
I’ll tell you what, it honestly boils down to this. I love reading long-form journalism. It’s really a golden age for that, and especially long-form personal essays mixed with journalism, right? Doesn’t mean I’m writing them for a living. It’s just because I enjoy the form as it is, and I don’t feel a need to l go in and put my spin on it. I think people are doing great work on that. And I’m not sure what I could deliver there.
And some shit you just gotta leave for your hobbies, you know? You know, I write these long personal essays. So it’s like, I gotta leave something for not writing.
NL: Let’s talk about your essays, especially “What I Do on the Page.” In that essay you do what I would call a close reading – which I mean in the technical, lit studies sense – of your own work. For instance, you talk about something as simple as the word “teaser.”
"TEASER" is my way of saying "no, this is not going to be an emo slow burn like in those boring "prestige" dramas - shit's gonna go down, and then get twisted, and then cliff-hanged because I am going to need you to stay after the commercials and thus need to keep the action at a decent clip." Does the reader really get all that from the word "TEASER"? Probably not... but there are worse things than attempting to teach your audience what to expect and make them comfortable from jump-street.
I love how intentional this is, something as seemingly simple as a section subhead. And maybe this is a way that we can start to talk about revision a little bit: when do you start thinking about your scripts at this word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level?
JGM: Once I have the first draft, I do what I call the “every line is special” draft, usually close to the final draft. It’s just to make sure that everything said in the script is spoken in a language that is, if not novel, at least memorable. You know, your characters speak a certain way because you want people to differentiate the characters on the page.
But I think it’s really easy to get sloppy with form in scripts, and especially with prose. I’ve read so much bad prose in scripts, and I don’t mean grammatically bad, just lazy, like,
"This is happening. And that is happening. And this other thing is happening, and here’s some dialogue."
I think that you need to have an experience reading scripts.
A script is like a metaphor for a movie. You want people who have read the script to have the closest possible experience to seeing a movie that can only exist in their heads, and that then only exists in your head. So you need to be very specific and very intent, like you said, intentional, about exactly what every word is doing.
There’s nothing better to teach you why you need to be intentional, and why you need to be so focused on your language, than going to a production meeting. These are not stupid people. These are people who know how to do logistically, deeply complicated work in a very short amount of time. If somebody works in network TV, they are at the top of their game.
But you’d be shocked at how frequently there are simple misunderstandings about something you’ve written, or what you meant by this or that. They tend to be very literal, they tend to look at what’s on the page. It’s a work order. They’re trying to figure out what it is that you actually want.
You have to strike a balance between making sure that the reader understands exactly what’s going to be on the screen and still do it with some style. But nothing will cure you of sloppy screenwriting than going in a room where 30 people have read your script, and there’s one paragraph that every person has a different interpretation of. Once you do that a good 20 times, you start figuring out, “Okay, I gotta work on the prose.”
NL: So that “every line is special” draft comes somewhere near the end for you.
JGM: That’s not even a draft, it’s really a pass. At that point, the script’s ready, and I’ve already done a lot of this work.
NL: So what are some of the other brass tacks, the other steps you take, when you’re revising? Things you look for in a second draft, for instance.
JGM: Look, when I’m done with the first draft, I’m just happy that it works. If it works. I’m just happy if I have a script I can rewrite. But I usually just rewrite the same way that I write. I go back to the beginning and I start again.
The way that I structure my days, I find it a lot easier to compose in the afternoon and to edit in the morning. So I will wake up in the morning and I’ll just start from page one again, or wherever I left off, and start rewriting that. And then the second half of the day, I’ll write, I’ll compose, you know, so the rewrites start being baked in a little bit in that first draft process. So hopefully that helps me get a slightly more polished first draft.
But then you just gotta look at it and, you know, do a fearless moral inventory, as our friends in recovery say, of what works and what doesn’t. I don’t like getting feedback on first drafts. I’ll just do as many drafts as I have to until I feel it’s finished.
I feel like it’s finished If I feel like I went on a real journey, that the character is not the same from the beginning to the end of the thing. That’s my real metric for, “Is the script finished or not?” And once I feel that, then maybe I look at it a couple more times in terms of, “Okay, is there anything that I haven’t done to make sure that the journey lands?” Once I get there, then I do the “every line is special” draft.
NL: Do you get stuck? Or are you a writer who feels like they can write through story problems?
JGM: Oh, you get stuck. Everybody gets stuck, I think. I know that writer’s block exists, but I don’t feel like I’ve had that kind of dramatic writer’s block that people get. Yeah, of course you get stuck. I mean, that’s the whole thing.
There was a time in my life when I smoked quite a bit. And why? Because every time I got stuck, I went out, smoked a cigarette, recited the dialogue in my head, trying to figure it out. And nine times out of ten, that break did it for me. But I don’t want to die prematurely. So that’s a thing. So I had to stop doing that. And now I’m very good at just walking away from the computer.
But getting stuck is like… some people need to pull out a piece of paper and start revamping on the page, and for me walking away is the way to do it. When I get stuck, that’s when I know I have to get on my feet and take a walk or do something. It’s usually for me the sign that I need a break.
And also, there are questions that you sometimes need to ask about your script. Sometimes you get stuck and it’s a story problem, and you have to go back to the beginning or to some other part of it. Sometimes getting stuck means you need to take time to think through the big picture and the gross anatomy of the script.
NL: Any advice for writers who are coming up? Pre-pandemic, there was a very set line of advice. What do you think about folks who are trying to get into it now?
JGM: I think that the business is changing. Now, here’s the thing, if you’re not a white man, there never was a good time to get into business anyway. Up until very recently. Those jobs are more available, but you’re also talking about an industry where jobs are fewer, shows are shorter, competition is greater because the talent pool has expanded, because there is a lot more diversity now. Diverse writers have problems with how they get hired and why. And a lot of white writers complain that they can’t get a job because all the writers are diverse. There’s varying degrees of truth to any of it.
But I think I will tell you the same thing that I would have told somebody 10 years ago. There’s the move to LA, write a bunch of specs, all that.You’re gonna have to do that anyway. But I also think that activity creates energy, and I feel like you need to fire on every cylinder. You need to do every piece of creative work you can. Especially now, there’s a lot more need for writers to be more pan generic, and more… kind of promiscuous in how they work.
I’m doing an animated project for the first time in my career. Well, we’re making the deal. Hopefully it’ll make. But previously, I hadn’t really considered animated projects, because they weren’t in my wheelhouse until something like Invincible. And there was one called Invasion like 20 years ago. But it’s not like we had a glut of science fiction animated shows running around. So that’s something I’m gonna do.
I’ve worked in comics. You know why? Because I like comics. I think you can do it as a career. But for me, it was just that I love comics. And then those comics led to other opportunities. I haven’t worked in video games, and I’m not sure if I understand the flow as well as I should. But right now, the working writer is going to have to learn to do a lot more things in order to stay a working writer. We’re gonna have to be more versatile.
It used to be, you were either a comedy writer or a drama writer. And if you’re a comedy writer, you’re doing three-camera sitcoms. And if you’re a drama writer, you’re probably doing a procedural. Doctor, lawyer, cop, right? That’s not the world we live in anymore. The flip side of it is that you don’t have as much of a stigma anymore, or as much of a division. It used to be if you worked in animation, you were never getting out of animation. And now you have a lot of crossover people. There’s much more “adult” animation.
So, right now, I think the trick is to get as good as you can, in every discipline you can, and take work in any way that it is offered. So that you have credits where you’ve worked professionally, you’ve worked for pay, you’ve done things on deadlines and stuff like that. Just structurally, being a working writer, in whatever medium, is an education and a step up. That’s great.
When I was working on Lost, my god. I’m working on this Emmy award-winning top show on television, and I did the Comic Con panel the second season. So there I am in front of like 3,000 people at Comic Con with Carlton and Damon yucking it up. Guess what, an hour later I was sitting behind a little tiny table in the independent press area signing like two autographs of my comic book to the two people who liked it. And I was just happy doing each. Because it’s creative work that is being finished. And it’s art that’s going out into the world. And I think ultimately, the more art you make, the more likely you are to get paid for making art. That’s what I really mean.
NL: That’s a great slogan. Tangential: have you ever thought about writing a podcast or audio drama, that kind of thing?
JGM: Not yet, but I’m not close to it. The opportunity hasn’t shown up yet. There has been the possibility of doing one that I would pay for. [Laughter.]
But I have two kids, private school, you know, and a father in law who’s very sick and a number of other things. So, for me, some of those DIY projects are a little bit, weirdly, more out of reach now than they were earlier in my career. I can’t go out and put five figures of my own money into a short film right now because the jobs in the business are different.
The way writers get paid is different. It’s harder to make the kind of money that a writer in my situation was making five years ago. It’s a very different landscape out there. One of the things that’ll be really interesting is that the writers that are coming up now are going to have a very different idea of how much writers get paid, what writers get paid, who pays them, and how many times they get paid. I think that the Writer’s Guild has a very rough negotiation coming up, because I think that the streaming model is not compatible with the broadcast model, which our minimum basic agreement was created for. So we’re looking at a rough couple of years for the entire infrastructure. What it means to be a television writer is going to change completely.
NL: What do you think will happen in the next renegotiation?
JGM: It’s going to be a real white knuckle or two. I’m very interested to see what happens, but I don’t make predictions. You know, when the WGA did their agency campaign, I swear I thought that everybody would meet. They’d all insult each other, they’d all skulk away. They wouldn’t talk for a couple months. They’d come back, they’d meet, the deadlines would pass. They’d insult each other a little bit more. They’d get a couple of extensions under the deadline.
And finally they would all hammer out a deal at the very last minute that no one liked because that’s how it usually works. And instead, we fired all of our agents for a year, which was bizarre.
I hope that the streamers can see how their model has disrupted our business practice and understand that there is value to what writers do that deserves compensation, and not just the lowest possible compensation that they can get away with. I think that this would be a really good time for people in the industry to work collaboratively to actually figure out what’s fair under the current system.
They’re not going to do that. It’s going to be a fight.
The most famous thing in the Writers Guild is the DVD thing. When DVDs came out, the Producers Association basically said, “Look, this technology, we spent billions of dollars developing it. We don’t know if people are going to like these DVD things. So how about the royalty is a cigarette and a cup of coffee for every million DVDs sold?” And the writers took the cigarette money.
So 20 years later, you can imagine how much that formula sucked. Then I was working on Lost when the iPod came out. And the second generation of the iPod was the video iPod.
And the first two shows to go on the iTunes music store were Lost and Desperate Housewives. And I remember going into Lost the day the iTunes music store launched, and seeing our show there and going, “How are we getting royalties on this?”
And everybody went like this. [Shrugs.] Nobody knew. The studios made the argument, “Well, we’re going to do it like the DVD thing, because we spent a lot of money developing this.” And the next thing you know, we were on strike, and we were able to make a necessary inroad without getting something like that DVD deal.
So that’s how it’s going to be. It’ll be a contentious negotiation.
NL: One more question before our lightning round. In “What I Do on the Page,” you mentioned a couple of must read scripts – specifically Shane Black’s scripts. Could you name three or four scripts that you think are must reads for folks who want to work in TV and/or features today?
JGM: It’s interesting. You try to make a script the most polished version of it that you can. But the truth of the matter is that editing is a rewrite. I would suggest that you find the scripts for movies you love and compare the script to the final product. I think this is maybe a better exercise because, you know, the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, great as it is, is not the movie. It was written with the producer and the director already involved, so there are a lot of things that feel short handed. There are a lot of things that were edited out on the set. It’s the same thing with the Shane Black script. His scripts are bananas. They’re wonderful reads.
You know what to tell people to read? There’s a novelist that I love who’s on the Twitter, a guy named Don Winslow. And Don wrote a trilogy of books called The Cartel Trilogy. And then he wrote another book called The Force, which is about New York cops. I like crime drama. I like reading and watching crime drama, but it’s not my wheelhouse entirely.
If you want to learn about screenwriting, look at how Don writes a novel. He is a master of writing. Very short, very effective paragraphs that are very imagistic. His work is really specific. He does everything in very economical, visual ways. I think you might actually learn more about screenwriting from reading somebody doing a really good job of writing visually and writing for impact in another medium than you might from actually reading a script.
But honestly, I would also just say, “What’s your favorite movie?” Read that script, right? See how it matches, see what they did. And if you’re disappointed with what’s on the page and how it doesn’t match what’s on screen, figure out how you would have written it so that it is what wound up on screen. At the end of the day, we’re all sort of in the cat skinning business. You have to find different ways of saying something, conveying something, getting from point A to point C, all of that stuff.
The other lesson that I think writers need to learn – and it does feed into what we’re talking about – is to be flexible. You shouldn’t just go read an Aaron Sorkin script and say, “Aaron Sorkin is the best writer ever, I’m going to write like him.” I mean, he’s a great writer, obviously, but he’s he’s doing him, and you have to read a lot of a lot of different things and figure out from them who you’re going to be.
NL: Yeah, I love that. That’s not not at all the answer that I was anticipating, which is perfect.
Okay, lightning round questions.
JGM: Sure. Yeah, let’s do it.
NL: Favorite cocktail, mocktail, or other beverage.
JGM: Rye Manhattan on the rocks.
NL: Just call it.
JGM: You know, a classic. I don’t dislike things that are flamboyant. I’ll drink a piña colada, I’ll drink a cosmo. I’ve had a drink that came in a large ceramic head and had smoke coming out of it, I’ll do all that. But you know, just bourbon.
NL: Alien or Aliens?
JGM: I got to tell you, Alien is a great movie, but Aliens to me is the more fun. I’ll take fun over the other thing. Alien is a scary movie and all that. But you know what?
NL: I don’t.
JGM: There’s lots more gunplay in Aliens. I dig that.
JGM: It’s marines, man. How do you not love space marines? It’s the best thing ever. Here they go. Why is everybody like Avatar two’s not going to work? But I’m like, “Oh, yeah. The only other two sequels this guy ever did were T2 and Aliens.”
NL: And didn’t Avatar make $3 billion or something like that?
JGM: Was the highest grossing film of all time until until Avengers: Endgame or whoever came out. I mean, he’s fine. He’s going to be okay.
NL: That’s what I was going to say. I think they’ll do all right.
Okay. Someone tells you that you have to memorize a novel word for word. What book will you pick?
JGM: That’s a good question. What book would I pick? Well, I’ve already memorized The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so it’s kind of already happened.
God, if I had to memorize a novel…
Here’s the thing. So I went to see this play called Gatz, and the lead reads the entirety of The Great Gatsby, but the actor who played that part memorized the book. The play was eight hours long and it was him reciting The Great Gatsby. I think memorizing any novel is probably a great feat of athleticism, and as long as it’s a reasonably legitimate book you’re probably okay.
You don’t want to go around going, “Hey, I memorized Atlas Shrugged,” because I’d be like, “Fuck off.” First of all, I don’t want to hear anything from Atlas Shrugged. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, I’m good. And two, what’s wrong with you?
NL: How much time did you spend?
JGM: How much time do you have? And this is from somebody who was extolling the pulpy pleasures of the Dune prequels, you know?
But no, I think… gosh, what would I say? What is your answer to that question?
NL: Honestly, it might be Dune. I have kind of a personal attachment to it.
JGM: I mean, I did memorize the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, so I have that.
NL: Yeah, you’ve got about 30 words down.
JGM: It’s literally what I say to myself at the end of the day, every day as I fall asleep. I am not kidding. I recite it like ten, twenty times as I fall asleep every day. So there you go.
NL: Can I ask why? [he asked naively]
JGM: Have you read the news? I don’t think we’re going to find a way out of it.
NL: Actually, I’ll tell you the other one, because Dune is a bit of a cheat for me. I think the other one would be the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season.
JGM: That’s a good book. I think for me it would probably be like 1984. That is the book I’ve probably reread the most times and that I like the most, you know, but I don’t feel I need to memorize it. But if you were looking for that kind of, you know, core piece of material, that would probably be it.
NL: Yeah, the impulse of the question is, someone tells you you’re going to have to internalize this thing. What is it that you’re looking for?
JGM: Yeah. Then you know what? I’m just going to go back to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think that’s the only sort of accurate document of what it means to be a human being. You’re basically pitted against irrational autocracies and bureaucracies your entire life. And it’s just about trying to make sense of the absurdity of living. Which I didn’t used to believe until three years ago.
NL: It’s amazing how something which, in a surface reading, might look comedic and light, and maybe even frivolous, and then it winds up commenting on present day circumstances.
JGM: There’s a really interesting thing about that, which is, when Douglas Adams wrote the last book in The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy – which I think is Mostly Harmless – it’s a dark book. And he himself admits in interviews that he was in a really dark period in his life, and he was thinking about writing another Hitchhiker’s novel because he thought it ended on a really down note.
And you realize how much he needed the comedy and the silliness, and to not be trying to say something profound.
There are a lot of comedies now that “go dark.” Dark in the third season! I find that gesture to actually be kind of a betrayal, because it’s really easy to go dark, you know? It’s really hard to go dark and stay funny.
NL: I think that actually comes back around to when we were talking about the appeal of science fiction, that the the appeal of comedy might just be that it’s necessary for life.
JGM: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think comedy helps us understand a lot of very difficult things, because it tends to take the pomposity out. If you look at religions and governments, you know, they almost have a shield of pomposity that keeps you from seeing the stupidity.
NL: Okay, next question. Most underrated or sadly forgotten TV show.
JGM: Other than The Middleman.
NL: The Middleman can totally be your answer.
JGM: On The Middleman, I like to think of us as having curated obscurity.
Most obscure TV show…
It’s so weird because I created one of those. I mean, it’s kind of hard to get out of that, because I literally created a show that has a cult following that’s only in the thousands.
NL: I think that’s a great answer.
JGM: Yeah. I don’t have to have a favorite because I made one. [Laughter.]
NL: Last question. Tell us about one thing we haven’t talked about yet today that lives rent-free in your brain.
JGM: I think writers need to be more collaborative and less competitive.
I think that the world is in a really sorry state because we live in a capitalistic economy. And you need to assume scarcity for capitalism to work. People have to compete for resources, compete for goods. It’s a misunderstanding of Darwin, this idea that that evolution is a competition, when in fact evolution is the victory of cooperation. Things have to cooperate to create more of themselves.
We are at a point now where to create more of us, it’s an intellectual and not a sexual task. If you’re a pteranodon and you want the pteranodon race to survive, then you need to make a lot of pteranodons. That’s a pretty simple physical operation. Whereas for humanity to survive, we actually need to overcome differences and learn to tolerate one another. Which is not necessarily not giving a shit about what someone’s doing, but finding [what they do] hard to take and still letting them do it, because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s collaboration.
The more diversity the world has, the more likely we are to evolve, because evolution thrives on diversity. You have 5,000 mutations of a thing and maybe one of them works, and that one kind of thing keeps being. But it doesn’t mean that the one that works kills the other 4,999. They all need to exist in order for one of them, or however many of them, to continue.
I talk a lot about toxic upper management in show biz, and in television especially, and I’ve experienced a great deal of it. The most shocking part for me was when I started seeing people my age being really horrible to other people.
I figured the guys who were the showrunners I worked with early on were guys who came out of the eighties extremely, you know, sexist, extremely misogynistic, very white, male driven, vindictive as fuck, and you throw in cocaine… you know.
So I assumed those guys were going to be difficult and unpleasant and downright mean. But when people of my tribe started being abusive, the first time that it was somebody who was my age or younger, I remember being shocked. Because I thought, “Dude, we’re of the same generation. We should be helping each other.”
So what lives rent-free in my mind is, how do we end generational trauma? How do we end cycles of abuse? How do we become better collaborators with each other? And how do you let go of the idea that if somebody gets something, you lose something?
That’s kind of it. And I think it works. I think when writers work with each other rather than against each other, they get better writing out.
NL: I love that. That’s great. And that’s such a such a good thing for us to wrap up on.
JGM: Did I tell you my joke – it’s not my joke. Somebody told me this joke about Dune. It might have been you. I don’t think it was you.
“Ultimately the moral of Dune is that you can’t trust a bunch of white guys with a planet full of cocaine.”
NL: [He heard the truth in it. Much laughter.] That’s good. That’s really good.
JGM: You wouldn’t have to say “white.” You could just say you can’t trust a bunch of guys.
NL: No no, “white guys” is the perfect setup, it leads you down one direction and then, “cocaine!”
JGM: That’s not unlike my early career. But anyway.
NL: Thank you, Javier. This was great. It was a pleasure getting to chat with you.