Writing for television, explains Javier Grillo-Marxuach, isn't simply putting words in the characters' mouths. The 1991 graduate of Carnegie Mellon, with a B.A. in creative writing and literary and cultural studies, has spent the past 11 years as a television writer and producer, for such critically acclaimed and cult-hit shows as Boomtown, Charmed, The Chronicle and that new one about plane-crash survivors stuck on a mysterious island. He's currently a co-executive producer for Medium. On Sat., Oct. 21, Grillo-Marxuach will show clips from episodes he's worked on and discuss the craft of writing for television.
We all watch TV without thinking about how it gets made.
People don't realize that everything that winds up on a TV screen has to be put there, initially, by a writer. Not just the story or the dialogue, but everything. People are usually stunned when they hear a page from a script read to them, and see the level of detail and forethought that has to go into an episode of television. Writers really are the producers of television, and they are the ones that keep the continuity and keep the creative flame of television alive.
So it's not just sitting by the pool with a laptop, like we might see on TV?
Television is a highly collaborative medium, which is another thing that surprises most people. Eighty percent of your work is being in a conference room with other writers, hearing out story ideas, figuring out how stories play out. Maybe only 20 to 25 percent of your work is sitting down at the computer and writing the episode.
On a show like Lost, the interconnectiveness of those 22 hours of television is so intricate, that you can't really have people writing their own episode. Everybody has to work together to create a very dynamic whole -- and then work together to bring the most out of every episode. And at the same time, as a writer, you have to preserve the sense of authorship and your investment in the material.
So, do you have a dream project?
The great thing about television is often [that] the things that become the best projects are not the ones that you have nurtured in the back of your head for 20 years -- my dream project about people with exposed brains who solve crimes [laughs]. Like with Lost: The show was greenlit very late in the development season. It was all done very quickly. They hired a staff of writers to help them develop the series -- and I was part of that original staff -- so a lot of the mythology came together while they were making the pilot. It was the really charged and wonderful process of bringing in a bunch of different people to work on something, that resulted in what ended up being so great about that series.
How do you write when you realize tens of millions of Lost fans are parsing out every word?
With Lost there was a lot of that. It wasn't as big a deal for me because I'm a very fan-savvy writer. I've worked on cult shows before, and I know my way around fandom -- I'm pretty fearless about putting myself out there for the fan community. A show is still made by a conglomeration of people, and there's going to be a communication lapse somewhere. People catch it and assume it's some huge important part of the mythology, or catch it and go, "Well, this is clearly a mistake."
What advice do you have for prospective television writers? Do you still have to move to L.A.?
The industry is here: It is one of the most geographically specific professions I can think of. And also, you have to come to understand that writing for television is a skill set and a craft, and not something you can do as a sideline between writing your novel or doing some other thing that you think is more worthy. Because it is a popular medium, a lot of people are eager to dismiss the amount of sheer craftsmanship that you have to learn to be able to do it successfully. You have to love it as much as you respect it.
Do you have a favorite show, or maybe a show you wish you could write for?
All writers admire shows that are cleverly written. You can't look at a show like The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica, and not say, "I wish I were writing that show." For my money right now, Battlestar Galactica is the best show on television. It is a spectacularly well-conceived and -executed show that is incredibly sophisticated about religion and politics -- and you wouldn't expect that from Battlestar Galactica. But it is everything that is good about The West Wing, The Sopranos and Star Trek all put together in one.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 21. Adamson Wing, Baker Hall, CMU campus, Oakland. Free. 412-268-6446 or 412-362-8849