Interview: JAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH from THE MIDDLEMAN

The Middleman

Recently, Daemon’s TV took part in a conference call with JAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH, creator and executive producer of the new ABC Family original series THE MIDDLEMAN.

We actually talked to Javier Grillo-Marxuach back during the writers strike. Back then, he had only finished filming the pilot for The Middleman. You can read that interview here.

In this interview, Javier Grillo-Marxuach talked about how he came up with the idea for The Middleman, what the format of the show will be, and more.

Don’t forget to watch The Middleman Monday, June 16, at 8pm on ABC Family.

For now, enjoy the interview below. (Note: The interview has 2 pages)

Can you explain what the Javi-centric worldview is?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I believe it was something that was written by somebody who wrote on my Wikipedia entry.
No, you know what, honestly, it reads a little more arrogant than I probably originally intended it to sound. When I first wrote this pilot, I was trying to define my own voice as a writer. And I had worked on a number of shows at that point. I mean, I wrote this pilot in ’98, I was on Charmed, I had worked on SeaQuest and The Pretender and a few other series. I was really trying to define myself, and a lot of the dialogues and stability for this thing came out of that effort more than anything else.
There’s a combination of weirdness, but also kind of earnestness to the show. The show is very unabashed and it’s very much what it is and the characters don’t really apologize for being who they are, and they talk the way they talk because that’s the way that I would like reality to be. So it’s really about those two qualities, this sort of earnestness and weirdness, and if I were to throw a third one in it would be optimism, that I think make up what the show is about.
If you asked what the Javi-centric worldview is, it’s pretty much about that. I think, tonally, Middleman is different from a lot of science fiction shows that exist today because it is so lighthearted and it is so optimistic, rather than being as tragic as so many shows are right now.

You’re used to writing and working with other people’s characters. How does it feel to finally be creating your own ideas up there with your own characters?

JGM: I mean, obviously it’s the best thing ever. I’ve had a lot of fun working in other peoples’ universes, you know. I mean I’ve had a really great ride and I’ve worked on a lot of really fantastic TV shows. But to be able to finally see this come to life has been immensely -not just gratifying, because it’s gratifying to write on something like Lost obviously -but it’s like there’s a real sort of validation to it. Especially because the show has been in my head for so long and I wrote the pilot so long ago, and the initial response to it -people always thought it was just too quirky, too weird, too out there, just not televisual and mainstream and broad enough to really work. So to finally see it get on the air and so closely to what I originally wrote is a tremendous validation for me.
TV writers tend to be very over-validated anyway, so for validation to be that size is actually quite a thing. So more than anything else I just feel relieved that it works. I sort of sat on this project for so long that finally seeing it up is just one of those things where I go okay, I kind of marvel at the existence of this thing and I’m really happy that we’re getting a chance to do it so true to the original vision.

“The Middleman” is based on a Viper comic series you created. Can you tell us about some of the adjustments with characters and storylines you had to make to bring it to life?

JGM: What’s interesting is that the Viper comic book series is based on a pilot that I wrote in ’98 or ’99. Really, the comic book followed the idea to make it a TV series. So if you’ve read the comic book and you look at the pilot, you’ll notice that the pilot is tremendously true to the comic book and the comic book was written from the pilot script that I wrote originally. There’s not a lot of difference.

I mean, there are a couple of things we did. Like, for example, when I wrote the pilot back in ’98 and ’99 it was Wendy and her peer group were a little more Gen-X in terms of their attitude. I was still dangerously close to my years of slackerdom and school and all that, so I think the characters had a little bit more of that attitude. One of the notes that came from ABC Family when they bought the pilot was that they really wanted the characters to have more of a millennial sensibility, which makes sense because it’s been ten years since I wrote the thing.

So I think in updating the characters to sort of be more like today’s 21, 22-year-olds, as opposed to the ones from my experience, the biggest change is that the character of Lacy became, you know, she was always a confrontational spoken-word performance artist and she was always going to be somebody who took up causes and all that, but we really focused that into sort of a political agenda that her art is really art that is politically active and engaged and it’s about environmental causes and things like that. And that really came from the network; the network wanted Lacy to be engaged that way, because that’s the truth about this generation that is not necessarily true of mine. So that’s a huge change in terms of the character. And it’s really the only major character adjustment that we made from the comic book.

Pretty much, I would say, 75% to 85% of what’s in the comic book is in the pilot, and the other things that changed are things that we did for budget or for other reasons. For example, the apes in the comic book were originally chimps, and we found out that first of all ABC will not use chimps in any of their programming for ethical reasons. They actually have a relationship with Jane Goodall and it was very important that we portray the apes with dignity and that we show certain things about the apes and send a certain message about that, so that was important to do to begin with. And for ethical reasons we really couldn’t use trained chimps to do this, and CGI chimps were cost-prohibitive, so we wound up changing that to a gorilla and it’s one gorilla as opposed to 20, and the Jim Henson Creature Shop did the gorilla.

There’s a lot of smaller changes like that that are sort of budget changes, things that we did to fit the comic book into the scope of the pilot that we had to make and the money we had to make the pilot. Actually, the other big change was that originally the gangster gorilla was hiding out in a home, a kind of Tony Montana home. We couldn’t fit that in the shooting day and I was trying to figure out what to do, and that’s when we came up with the idea of the strip club, and it was about 500 million times funnier than it was in the comic book, so we totally had to do that. That’s what led to the ape being in a tracksuit.

But honestly, this isn’t one of those comic book adaptations where you watch it and there’s nothing there except for like the name of the character and maybe some piece of the costume. This is straight up the Middleman that Les McClaine and I put in the comic book and that is the pilot that I wrote ten years ago.

With you being so invested in these characters for quite some time, were you pretty particular with what you were looking for in the casting?

JGM: The writing was particular for me. And this is not to toot my horn as a writer or whatever, it’s just simply that as all of you are finding out the hard way, and especially those of you who might be transcribing, I cram a lot of words in a sentence and I say a lot. And the characters, in this specifically because I wasn’t writing somebody else’s characters, are very much that way. They all have a very specific cadence and there’s a very specific sensibility to the dialogue. So the scenes themselves kind of chewed up a lot of people in the audition process.

With Wendy, the part played by Natalie Morales: Wendy Watson originally was white -and ABC Family, the idea to make her Latina came from them. I don’t know, for whatever reason, that wasn’t part of my original conception of it. And, obviously, being Puerto Rican and thinking that it’s a pretty swell thing to have Latinos in television in heroic and featured positions, I embraced that and went along with it.

So the casting search was immediately determined by certain things like can we find somebody who can actually get through this dialogue without wanting to kill me and find somebody who is also going to portray the warmth and character of Wendy and, at the same time, give us a certain number of things and as well be Latina. So, already the parameters sort of drew themselves around the project.

In the case of Matt Kesslar, there really wasn’t a tremendously protracted audition process because, since I conceived of this thing, my wife and I have sort of played the game of who could be the Middleman. The Middleman is one of those characters who is so specific in how he speaks and how he carries himself and what he does. I remember I had seen this movie “The Last Days of Disco,” my wife and I had seen it together and then we catch it on cable every once in awhile. It’s one of those movies that every time it was on, we would watch the whole thing. And Matt in that film gives a monologue about Lady & the Tramp and his character gets very wound up in this speech. It was one of those things where I remember seeing that and going, “You know, that’s him.” And when the pilot got bought up by ABC Family we kept talking about, “Who do you think would be a good prototype for the Middleman,” and I kept going “Matt Kesslar. Matt Kesslar. Matt Kesslar,” and finally somebody said, “Why don’t you just make Matt Keeslar an offer and see if he’ll do it?”

Honestly, in the case of the Middleman, I always thought that Matt was pretty much our guy. In the case of Wendy, it was a pretty long audition process in terms of finding this actress who was perfect for the role. We’re pretty lucky that Natalie came across our doorstep.

To be frank with you, when you’ve had characters in your mind for as long as I’ve had these characters in my mind, it’s almost a relief when you find actors. When you start auditioning people, you start hearing the words up on their feet and you start kind of getting it and you start realizing, “Yes, people can actually do this, it’s good; human beings who actually match these characters.” So there’s a profound relief to taking something to audition and finding out that there are two people out there who can play these roles.

You said this was initially conceived for television before you took it down the comics road. So what has changed? Why is now the right time to bring “The Middleman” to the television landscape?

JGM: I think I’ve changed. And I don’t mean that to sound as horrifically narcissistic as it does, but when I first wrote this pilot I was, I think, executive story editor on a show. And, to sell a pilot and to run a show and to do it well and to sort of stick true to one individual vision and all that, you need to have a certain amount of experience and you need to have a certain amount of seasoning in the world. Because even in a place as wonderful and nurturing as ABC Family has been to me, it’s still a pretty dense thicket to see a show through. What I’ve been through since has been just a tremendous amount of formative experiences that have sort of educated me in how to run a show. So there’s that. I think it was the right time for me to come in and actually be able to be the show runner on this thing without having to give up things that I wouldn’t have wanted to.
The other thing is that I don’t think that there are still shows out there that are similar to this. Obviously you’ve got “Smallville” and you’ve got “Doctor Who” on the SciFi Channel and things like that. But I think that where this show and sort of the sensibility of ABC Family have dovetailed very well is I think ABC Family is trying very hard to create themselves as a network that has smart, very individual shows that represent a certain point of view. And I think there was a very good confluence of this show and that point of view.
I think this is a lighthearted show, I think it’s an optimistic show, I think it’s a show that is sort of unabashed about itself and it doesn’t make apologies for being -you know, a show that isn’t tragic, isn’t dark, isn’t reflecting that kind of a reality. And I think that ABC Family was sort of the right network at the right time for it as well.

Also, when you’re looking at a show that’s this -you know, in addition to being a sci-fi show, it’s a sci-fi show where everybody talks funny, in this sort of patter kind of banter thing; it’s a show that’s very self-consciously weird. We have a kind of tentacled butt monster in the first show and we’ve got gangster apes and we’ve got fish zombies and fashion models who are succubi. It’s not your traditional monster-of-the-week show.

I think that, in addition to all those things, ABC Family was also just the people who were willing to take a chance on the show and say, “We understand that you have a very individual perception of what this show needs to be, and we’ll go with it.” I couldn’t believe that, even after the comic book -and the comic book had a fair amount of attention -I’m being allowed to do the things I’m doing on the show. And I remember doing the pilot I would call the executives at ABC Family and say, “Guys, there is an ape in the show,” and they’d be like, ‘Yes, we know,” and I’m like, “It’s not a metaphorical ape; it’s an actual ape with a machine gun and in a tracksuit, who runs a mafia,” and they’re like, “Yes, we know.”

So I think it’s really that perfect storm of a network looking to define itself by having shows that are specific and shows that are quirky and shows that really kind of are brand defining. I think it was finally being in a place in my career where I could really say, “This is the show. This is how I would run it. This is how we would do this.” And then it’s sort of the stars aligning in the right place.

But I’ll tell you a story. I was working on “Medium” when we sold the pilot and my agents, I had prevailed on my agents to send this out, that it’s really what I wanted to do and it was the right time. There were a couple of networks who had looked at it -and ABC Family had expressed a strong interest and we were sort of in that last moment before making the deal. And I walked out of the writer’s offices for “Medium” and I looked up in the sky and a plane was writing the words “Kyle XY” above me. I thought, “You know what; it’s fate.” And that’s kind of what closed it.

People have heard that there’s going to be a robot character in the show. Should they be expecting Vicki from “Small Wonder” or Six from “Battlestar Galactica”?

JGM: I’m proud to say neither. No, you know what, I think that Tricia Helfer has proven herself in that Narcisco Rodriguez gown. I don’t think we need to try to go up against that. I think she pretty much owns that. And it’s strictly because of my wife that I know the name of the person who designed that red dress.
But no, we have this character, Ida, who is played by Mary Pat Gleason, who is spectacular and a tremendously sort or prolific actor. She’s one of those people that the moment you see her you recognize from any number of things that she’s been in and this sort of range of roles. Yes, I don’t think she’s like any other robot on TV right now, I can tell you that. And if you’ve read the comic book you know that she is sort of Wendy’s foil and a tremendously sort of salty character who really makes our lives very difficult. So this isn’t C3PO and it sure as hell isn’t Grace Park.

We’ve been getting quite a few updates on “The Middleman” blog, there are pictures and everything of the set as it has progressed. Will you continue to do that as the show goes on?

JGM: Yes. Actually there’s a gentleman working on the crew named Ralph King, who is our digital image technician, who is one of the people in the camera department. We were shooting this with these HD cameras, so the camera department includes the sort of digital technical area. We have this black tent where Ralph and the director of photography sit and look at it in these beautiful HD monitors. And he also takes pictures on occasion, so I’ve been posting a lot of -I mean many of the photos you see on that are just like Greg Edgar, our prop guy, will bring in something for me to look at and it’s like, “Oh my God, I get to put the helmet on!” And we did. So we’ve got those kinds of photos. Ralph on occasion will bust out his SLR camera and take some beautiful pictures of stuff on the sets. I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t put them up. I think that there’s a lot of really great blogs, like Jane Espenson and John Rogers and Lisa Klink and Lee Goldberg all have have blogs where they write about sort of the process of writing in TV and all that. So I feel that mine should be the same thing, sort of really talk about the process.

I don’t feel a great burden to sort of write about what it’s like in the writer’s room and things like that, but I think the things that would be cool to the fans are the things that are frankly cool to me, because I was a fan long before I was a writer. So I think just the fun that we’re having in here in terms of looking at the helmets and playing with the fish puppets and doing all of these things is just sort of something that I’m trying to translate through that blog. Actually, the best day was when they had the Harrier jet here. They had like half a jet in the stage and we were climbing in it and doing all that. Yes, it was good. I’m sure that there are other shows where people have a ton of fun and all that, but I’m sure that they don’t have this kind of fun on “Law & Order,” you know; I can tell you that right now.

Because it was based on a pilot, did you find it hard to shop the pilot and then all of a sudden it became a comic book? Or were you simultaneously shopping the two of them together?

JGM: No, what happened was my agent read it -this was in the late ‘90s and Buffy was a maturing show at the time and there were a lot of these kinds of shows out there. And I think that his feeling about where my career needed to go was, I kind of went off to do things like “Boomtown” and “Lost.” But I also did “The Chronicle” and “Jake 2.0,” so it’s not like I ever lost touch with my sci-fi roots.

It’s weird, until in the pre-sort of Joss Whedon era sci-fi, even if you’re on one of the really top-flight sci-fi shows, on “Star Trek” and things like that, the genre was still getting a little bit of a bum rap and it was hard to define yourself as a writer -sci-fi was something that you went and did after you had done some “serious” 10:00 cop show type of things, and then you could go to genre and you could say, “But I can do the heavy drama stuff,” and people would take you seriously.

Coming out of that school, and again, the “X-Files” had been around for a few years and kind of was reaching its own peak and all that, but it was one of those things where what my agents really wanted for me was to do a show like “Boomtown” and all that and really kind of get that kind of traction in my career. So I took the pilot and sort of put it aside and I could never quite get it out of my mind. Like I said, my wife and I were constantly like, “He could be the Middleman. She could be Wendy.” And we sort of went through that for a long time. Then, in 2004, I went to work on “Lost” and I was working with Paul Dini, whom I have widely credited as the godfather of “The Middleman.” And Paul has this comic book called “Jingle Bell” and he’s got this other one called “Mutant Texas,” and he’s sort of a guy who, in addition to his work with DC and his work in animation and his work in primetime, really has kind of fostered his own identity as a comic book writer and as a comic book creator. Of course, I was a huge comic book fan already, but something about talking to Paul and realizing here’s a guy who’s doing it sort of inspired me to say, “Here I have a property that, in a comic book, without the constraints of budget, would be spectacular. So why not go in that direction and try to fulfill this creative need that I have to see this thing made?”

And I think it came really at the right time in my career, because even though I was working on a lot of successful shows and I worked on a lot of shows that -I mean you can’t complain about working on “Lost” obviously; it was a fantastic, famous show. It’s the reason I have an Emmy. But, at the same time, after you’ve done it for a while you want to write your own thing, and the comic book really gave me a window to do that.

I think that if I had sold the show four years ago I don’t know that the pilot would be as successful, at least in my eyes, creatively as it is. I think that a lot of science fiction shows and a lot of fantasy shows, and I say this with tremendous admiration for them, but the big theme in a lot of these kinds of shows has been the tragedy of heroism, you know.

I think if you look at “Buffy” and “Angel” and “(Battlestar) Galactica,” they’re very dark shows that really sort of follow the very dark ramifications of kind of sacrificing your own welfare in order to be a hero. And especially if you look at sort of the end of “Angel;” you know, Angel was sort of a perennially tortured character who ultimately, with his minions, they go off into this sort of ongoing fight against evil, that’s what they have.

With “The Middleman,” the point of view is a little bit lighter. In a way, I think it’s a reflection of the demographic that it’s pitched at. There’s a third kind of let’s accentuate the positive in the show and see what happens.