Interview date: 07/08/2009
Run date: 07/28/2009
Javier Grillo-Marxuach has been around the block quite a few times in his career as a TV writer and producer, but as you can see from his resume, they’ve been really, really solid blocks. Having done stints on shows like “Lost,” “Medium,” and “Charmed,” it’s no wonder that he’s carved himself a nice niche in the world of sci-fi TV, but it’s nothing less than a crying shame that his own creation, “The Middleman,” only survived for a single season on ABC Family. Grillo-Marxuach is quite pleased, however, that the network cared enough to team up with Shout! Factory to release a feature-laden “Complete Series” DVD set for the show, and Bullz-Eye spoken with him about the origins and casting of the series, the differences between the show and the comic book that inspired it, and the chances of seeing the Middleman and Wendy continue their adventures at some point in the future.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Javier, how’s it going?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Hi, Will, how are you?
BE: I’m good.
JGM: So is it true that you never miss?
BE: I don’t know, maybe. Why, what have you heard?
JGM: I don’t know, it’s Bullz-Eye.com, so…
BE: Oh, yes, we’re absolutely on target every time.
JGM: It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that joke, right?
BE: Would it make you feel better if I told you it was?
JGM: (Laughs) I’m sorry we’re running late. As you’ll find out, I cram a lot of words into a sentence, so these things tend to…well, anyway, I apologize for the delay.
BE: That’s alright. I’ve been watching your Javi-Casts on the “Middleman” DVD, so I already knew about the word count.
JGM: Oh, good, so you know the drill. (Laughs)
BE: Absolutely. Well I don’t want to freak you out, but based on “The Middleman,” it’s very possible that you and I are pop culture soulmates.
JGM: Oh, that’s good. A couple of people have told me that. I’m really happy to have finally found my group. (Laughs)
BE: You definitely have. I have to admit that I missed “The Middleman” the first go-round, but I devoured the DVD set in two days, and it’s awesome.
JGM: Oh, God bless you, thank you. And, hey, at least you’re getting into it now. That’s great!
BE: So is it overstating things to say that “The Middleman” as we know it might not have happened without a push from Paul Dini?
JGM: That is absolutely true. Paul is the godfather of “The Middleman.” He is the dean. When he came to work on “Lost,” well, it was awesome, first of all, because it was like visiting royalty, you know? A couple of the “Alias” writers came in with a large-format book that he did with Alex Ross, and they kind of bowed before him and had him sign it. And then I got to know Paul, who’s just been an incredible influence on me personally. I mean, he had “Jingle Belle” and “Mutant, Texas” and a bunch of his indie books. I was sort of going, “You know, I’ve got this property that I’ve had for a couple of years and I don’t know what to do with it,” and I was seeing how Paul was just doing so well in sort of expressing his own creator voice through independent comic books, and he was kind enough to give me some pointers and to really coach me on how to proceed in putting a pitch together and really try to sell this thing. Without him, there would be no “Middleman” comic book and certainly no “Middleman” TV show. I mean, he really was instrumental in helping me figure out how to push this property to the next level and really get it sold. I do not have enough kind words to say about Paul Dini…who, by the way, is shooting his own pilot right now for Cartoon Network, I believe.
JGM: He’s part of that new live-action push that Cartoon Network is doing. He wrote a brilliant script called “Prepped” that is getting shot right now. So there you go.
BE: Which is ironic because, now that I think about it, that’s actually probably the place that “Middleman” would have fit in better than maybe ABC Family.
JGM: Well, you know, ABC Family…people ask me, “Well, was it the wrong network?” And I’m, like, “No, they were absolutely the right network, because they let me do it.” They got it, and they supported it. You know, it would have been very easy for any group of people to pick up the show and say, “Gosh, we really like the idea of this girl fighting monsters, but can you make her sexier and kind of make the dialogue a little bit more accessible and make the sensibility of the show a little bit more accessible?” And to ABC Family’s credit, they never asked me to do that. You know, they bought not just into the part of the show that fit with their demographic perception of themselves, which is the young, 20-something girl making her way in the world, but they also really, really bought into the sensibility of the show. So, frankly, were they right network in terms of the type of audience that they were able to bring to the show? Who knows? But they were certainly the right network in terms of being supportive of the show and supportive of me as a creator.
BE: I just want to clarify that I’m actually a big fan of ABC family. I just felt like maybe their audience was not necessarily the best audience to embrace the show.
JGM: Yeah, but they were trying something, and you can never fault a commercial endeavor for putting their weight behind a project that maybe is just a little bit off center. And the other amazing thing is that, you know, with the ratings we were pulling, they could have pulled the plug at Episode 6 and been completely justified as a business. I mean, the conversation I had with Paul Lee, the president of ABC Family, as the show premièred and was struggling to find its audience, he said, “Look, we’re going to do it, and the worst case scenario is we’re swinging for the DVD set and we’ll be ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ you know?” The fact that they went out and got Shout! Factory involved and the fact that they went out and supported and financed the comic book that actually ends the series…because, you know, that’s all them. They own “The Middleman.” So what happens to “The Middleman” is as much about how they feel about the show as anything, and I can’t imagine a network being more supportive and going above and beyond the call to insure the future of a show. And by the way, “Greek” is awesome, and the new series, “10 Things I Hate About You,” is awesome. They are doing great TV over there.
BE: Definitely. I was a big fan “Kyle XY”.
JGM: “Kyle” is a great show, too, by the way.
BE: “The Middleman” was very much a viewer-friendly series, particularly based on the Q&As you did on your webcasts…or, rather, Javi-Casts.
JGM: Oh, yeah. You know, being a fan myself…this year is my 11th year going to Comic-Con, and I really did start going as a fan…one of the things working on “Lost” taught me is that the fans will put up websites, they will do all the stuff for the show, and you’ve got to be nice to the fans. I mean, they’re your fans, for God’s sake.
BE: So you pay tribute to “Ghostbusters,” you threw in some nice “Doctor Who” references, and “Star Wars,” too, but how many seasons would the show have needed to continue for the “Space 1999” references to kick in?
JGM: Oh, like, two more episodes. Are you kidding? I mean, look, there’s a lot of homage to Gerry Anderson in the show as it is. We did name a character Joe 90, you know. There would have totally been a “Space 1999” episode. Like, we’re not even talking seasons. We’re talking, like, episode 15.
BE: Hey, man, I grew up with an Eagle as one of my toys. I would have been right behind you.
JGM: You know, that was one of my prized possessions. I had the Mattel Eagle toy, too, the one that was about two feet long. You could detach the capsule and the thrusters and put them together to make a small Eagle type ship. Great toy, wasn’t it?
BE: Yes, it was. Mind you, I had Han Solo piloting it a lot, but even so.
JGM: Oh, awesome. Wow. Well I think the original Millennium Falcon…I mean, I saw in the “Star Wars” sketch book, and the original Millennium Falcon actually looked a lot like the Eagle. It was sort of a big square thing with a round pod in the front and thrusters in the back. So I think you were probably barking up the right tree there.
BE: See? There you go. So how did Natalie Morales come to be chosen to play Wendy Watson? Not that it really matters, I realize, but she doesn’t really look like the character is designed in the comic.
JGM: Well, it’s actually the concept of a couple of things. ABC Family wanted a Latino lead in the show. They thought that, because I’m Latino, it would be a great match. It’s funny because when Kate Juergens, who is the senior VP of ABC Family, called me with that suggestion, I was, like, “Absolutely not.” She was, like, “Wait a minute, but you’re Latino. Don’t you want to put Latinos on TV?” “Well, I do, but I don’t want to make this character into a stereotype. I don’t want there to be necessarily be salsa music playing whenever she gets on the screen and stuff like that.” She was, like, “Okay, we understand that,” and I said, “You know, I’m happy to cast anyone you want in the role in terms of any ethnicity, but I don’t want to have to change the dialogue.” Wendy is really a lot like me, anyway, in terms of being geeky and all of this stuff. It was one of those things where I said, “Look, I’m Puerto Rican and this character really represents my sensibility and how I have grown up. If I can do that, then I will happily cast a Latina in the role.” They said, “Absolutely.” So she really is kind of Latino like me, you know? It just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be completely defined by their race. I think as the series went on and we explored that, you know, Wendy obviously was…we gave her a family that lived in Miami and all of that, but we really were selective about not making that the defining thing in her life so that we wouldn’t wind up with a character who spontaneously breaks into Spanish when she is angry and was playing the beat that Ricky Ricardo played in the 50’s and 60’s. So once we settled on that, that it would be a portrayal of a Latino person who has a similar background to mine and who really represents a different kind of view of that, then we set about casting. Amy Britt and Anya Colloff, who cast the show and who also cast “Buffy” and “Angel” and “Firefly” for Joss Whedon, are really wonderful casting people. They started bringing in a lot of Latina actors, and Natalie was one of them. She came in and nailed it. We had a couple of actresses that we were looking at for this role, and she’s somebody who the more that she read for us and the more that she auditioned, the more she sort of grew into this part and she sort of blossomed as Wendy. And after awhile, we just knew we had her. It was her. It was her first serious lead, too. I mean, I think she had done a guest shot on “CSI: Miami,” and that was about it, so she was just one of these great discoveries. We’re incredibly lucky to have found her. Or perhaps she found us. I don’t know. One of those two things, anyway.
BE: When it came to auditioning for the person to play The Middleman, was there a particular catch phrase that you absolutely had to hear them say just right?
JGM: Um, no, because you know what? I kind of knew it would be Matt. You know, this project has been around since like the late 90’s – I first wrote the pilot in ’98 – so I had a long time to be, like, “Well, who could be The Middleman?” I think, ultimately, I saw “The Last Days of Disco” on cable, and Matt gives this speech about “Lady and the Tramp” in that movie. I just went, “Well, I found him. That’s him.” When ABC Family and I started to meet about casting the show, they were, like, “Well, who do you see as The Middleman?” And I think that they were thinking I would say, “Well, Brad Pitt would sort of be our model for what we’re looking for.” Usually, you come in and you go, “I see him as a combination of Buster Crabbe and Charlton Heston,” and then the casting people take that as the model and they try to find you that. But I came in and said, “Well, he’s Matt Keeslar.” And they were, like, “Really?” I kept saying “yeah” and I kept saying, “Matt Keeslar, Matt Keeslar.” And then finally said, “So why don’t you just go and make Matt Keeslar an offer?” So I met with Matt and he liked the material, he wanted to do it, and, God bless him, he came on board. He was a real get for us. To have a guy who is not only physically such a match for the character, but who’s also amazingly trained…Matt is a Juilliard trained actor. He brought this incredible intensity and focus and work ethic to the role that really set the tone for everybody. So he wasn’t just a series lead, he was like…in his bearing and his demeanor and the way he approached the role, he really was a leader for us in a bunch of other ways. So it was the perfect confluence of the guy, the training, the role, you know, all of that. Look, when you hire an actor, it’s not just hoping that they can say “Mutual of Omaha!” and make it convincing. They also have to be able to say “Easy Bake Oven!” and “My Little Pony!” (Laughs) So it really was trying to find a guy who could make all of that sing and make it convincing. Like I said, ever since I had seen “Last Days of Disco,” I knew it would be Matt. What’s interesting, though, is that Matt was a big get for us, so we didn’t know if he was going to be the guy or not, if he was going to want to do it or whatever. So we did have some auditions for it. And one of the people who read for it was Brendan Hines, who wound up playing Tyler in the show, Wendy’s boyfriend. And, you know, Brendan was a little young for the part, but he really showed us a tremendous amount of chemistry and a tremendous amount of sparks. So I’m not surprised that he’s the lead on “Lie to Me” right now, because he’s a wonderful actor and we were really lucky to have him as well, you know? But if he was The Middleman, I think you would have seen a much more David Addison kind of Middleman, which would’ve been a very different take on the character.
BE: By the way, just for the record, I would send you $20 right now for a make a Middleman movie fund if I thought it would do any good.
JGM: (Laughs) Nice!
BE: Would it?
JGM: You know what? ABC Family is going to be looking at the sales of the DVD, and I think a lot of people are. And if the DVD sells well, we could potentially be able to do that without having to con our fans out of money. (Laughs) So I think the best thing that a fan of the show can do right now is, if you are able, get the DVD, get the comic book, continue to enjoy the show, and let other people know that you love the show. The great thing about being in the age of DVD is that…well, for example, look at “24.” You know, they weren’t the huge hit that they are now when they first premiered, but then they put out the first set of DVDs and people found it, caught up to it, and it became this massive juggernaut. So really, DVDs are now like books: they’re out there, they exist, and people can find them anytime. I think if our fans who want to see more “Middleman” just keep telling other people about the show, eventually they will get critical mass, you know? If the will of the audience is there, we will gladly return to the show. I think everybody who worked on the show truly loves it and would love to work on it again.
BE: For “The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability,” how long should we expect to wait before there is a reprint which includes “The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse?
JGM: Well, you know, I don’t think that the twain shall meet, because “Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse” is in the TV continuity and “Collected Series” is in the comic continuity. I mean, if you read the comic book, you know the whole F.A.T.B.O.Y. mythology, Wendy’s dad, you know who F.A.T.B.O.Y. is. He really is completely different because Kanimang Kang is actually…spoilers ahead!...is actually a dead Middleboy and all that. Sherman Neville is actually a henchman in the comic book who always wears a gorilla suit. There’s a funny story behind that. It’s actually because I had watched Mark Shepherd’s work on “Firefly” and, for some reason, I thought he was wearing a fur coat in that. And he wasn’t wearing a fur coat, but for some reason I pictured the character with a bowler hat and a fur coat. So I said, “Well, then, I am going to do Joss Whedon one better, I’m going to have him in a gorilla suit.” It’s a weird competitiveness of some sort. Honestly, you can’t say never about these things because we are reprinting the “Collected Series,” and there will be a second printing of that coming out. But I think the TV “Middleman” has to kind of exist in its own world and the comic book in its own world. And then eventually, depending on what demand there is, we may kind of bring it all together at some point.
BE: Okay, I know we’re hitting the fifteen-minute mark here, but I just wanted to ask you about “News from the Edge.”
JGM: Right! Well, the series, “The Chronicle,” was actually based on the “News from the Edge” novels. What a delightful…did you ever watch the show?
BE: I did not, but ever since I found out about it, I’ve wanted to see it.
JGM: It makes me so sad that it’s not out on DVD…and, frankly, that’s a really great thing about ABC Family being so invested in “The Middleman,” that they believe in DVD. But “The Chronicle” is a show we made for Sci-Fi in 2000. Silvio Horta, who created “Ugly Betty” and “Jake 2.0,” created it based on the novels. I had already written “The Middleman” by the time I got to work on “The Chronicle,” but in a weird way, “The Chronicle” was sort of like a dry run for “The Middleman” for me, personally. I mean, the last episode I wrote on that show is probably one of my favorite hours of TV I’ve ever written. It was about vampire Elvis impersonators. We did it in real time, so it was like an episode of “24.” If you’re interested in kind of the pre-history of “The Middleman,” at least in terms of my work, “The Chronicle” is not a bad place to look to start seeing how I began to kind of test out some of the stuff within someone else’s show.
BE: Well, I know we’re up against the wall here, but I just wanted to say that I’m a big fan of your other writing, too. “Lost,” obviously, but I’m a huge “Medium” fan.
JGM: Yeah, that was a really fun two years. I really had a blast working on that show.
BE: And my wife is a “Charmed” fan, so pretty much our entire house enjoys your work.
JGM: How wonderful. Thank you. That’s awesome.
BE: Well, I will keep my fingers crossed that the set does sell enough to warrant a movie, because I’m ready for it.JGM: Great! Thank you so much!