Monday, September 17, 2012

Making "Heroes": An interview with Oliver Grigsby about writing TV and Comics

This fabulous interview is brought to you by our guest-writer Pamela Auditore

"Being a young writer in the entertainment industry is like being a kid at thanksgiving dinner. You're asked to provide entertainment but you have to sit at the kids table until you prove that you're mature enough and good enough to sit with the adults... Also there's pie!"
--Jim Martin "Heroes" writer /podcaster

With "Heroes" returning to G4 on Tuesdays, 8/7C Starting Sept. 25 (four Episodes in a row), I thought fans would appreciate a peak inside the process of making this ground breaking show from inside the Writers Room.

Among "Heroes" achievements, was launching relatively unknown and young actors like Milo
Vengtimillia, Santiago Cabrera, Tawny Cypress, Hayden Pentierre, Masi Oaka, Leonard Roberts, Noah
Gray-Cabey, Zachary Quinto, Sendhil Rhamaurthy, Ali Larter, Dana Davis, Dania Ramirez as well as
allowing veterans like Adrian Pasdar, Christine Rose and Jack Coleman to shine.

Allowing up and coming talent to shine also held true behind the camera, affording Oliver Grigsby his
big break. Going from gopher, to PA to writer's assistant, to Writer on "Heroes", you would think is the
usual route in Hollywood. Sadly, often it is not. Luckily, for Oliver, his talent was recognized and he was given the opportunity to write 12 of "Heroes" online Graphic Novels then was given his shot at writing two episodes in Season 3 "Shades of Grey" and Pass/Fail" in Season 4 "Additionally, he wrote "Slow Burn"-- a side story to the main action of Season 4 featured between commercial breaks and on the web which featured more of the Carnival story line as well as a plug for the show's sponsor, Sprint.

Continuing on his Hollywood journey, Oliver was recently a Script Coordinator on USA Network's on
"In Plain Sight."

This interview took place at Comic-Con 2010 in San Diego.

Beats - are the events that take place in a given Episode in a script. They will also contain the character
arcs, and story themes.

Breaking Story - means giving a time frame and turning "beats" into Scenes and Acts in a script.

PA: So how were you able to go from Writer's Assistant to writer on "Heroes"?

Oliver: I was fortunate on Heroes, that it was such a big undertaking, they (the Writers) rely heavily on
their Writer's Assistants, to really track everything they talk about in the Writer's Room. Including :Breaking Story as they come up with all the ideas. On that show it was the responsibility of the Writer's Assistant to basically write a rough outline for each episode. They would take the notes, it took about a full week to come up with the full story for the next episode. The typical Writer's Room is almost like a stream of consciousness and the assistant will sort of mold or highlight some of the important ideas, or the big things they've landed on. Then its the job of the Writer for that episode to do an outline and turn it into something that's more of a prose piece. That step was something more of the Writer's Assistants did because basically they were the person who was always in the room, keeping track and giving uniformity to each episode and each outline.   

It was important because the events taking place in each Heroes episode was so intertwined and
connected, unlike a show like "Law and Order" which you can watch out of order and at any time--a
procedural show. Because "Heroes" is so serialized they really relied on the consistency of the Writers
Assistants who saw and heard everything that was discussed.

Basically, I was writing out each beat, each scene in the prose format is where I was able to demonstrate my writing talents. Then the Writer would take it from there and give it more pizzazz, more information and that was what would be given to NBC for approval and notes. So the better job I did, the less work the Writer's would have to do before getting down to writing the script. The happier and more impressed they were which was key in getting me a shot at writing freelance scripts.

PA: So your first script episode was "Shades of Grey" How did you come up with the idea? Spit-balling?

Oliver: Yes, Season Three, Episode 19. Yeah, it was incredible. I had spent all season in that Writer's
Room just listening. There were so many times where I would have an idea, but its really not my place to jump in. My job was just to write everything down. So that was a big jump, to suddenly be sitting there and be talking to these people I know well and having my own input on the episode and getting feedback and breaking it over a course of a week or so. That is my favorite part of the writing process. That collective exchanging of ideas.

On a show like "Heroes" you have an overarching idea and along the way we know there are certain
beats we want to hit. So you basically star with those key elements. In "Shades of Grey" we know when Danko is unequivocally going to see Nathan use his ability. He's going to see him fly and things are going to go south from there. So we knew that was a tent pole we had to hit. And you know what has lead up to that point. I love it. Its so much fun. Coming up with how we get from A to B and what happens in between, the obstacles that come up, the near misses until that event finally happens. And sometimes there's a little more freedom. You know in the next episode Sylar is going to kill his Dad and then you have the lead up, how does he get there? How does he find him? Or does he? You throw out any ideas you have, any thing goes, until you hit on the best one.

PA: As a writer going from a TV Script to a web-comic how do you have to adjust your thinking and what technical considerations do you have to make?

Oliver: I had never written comics before, so it was definitely a learning process. I learned a lot from Aron Coliette and Harrison Wilcox. Aron, having written several comics and Harrison having been an avid reader. I used to always go to him (Harrison) and ask : I want to have a big fight sequence. Could you give me something to read? Do I do panels with fists punching? He would give me all sorts of different ideas and things to go to. You definitely have to adjust.

The best part of writing for a web-comic is there is no budget. You can come up with an idea for
your heroes where Nathan is in a helicopter! And then he gets hit with a missile! And then the helicopter goes spinning out of control and he dives out of it and flies away! You're never going to be able to produce that for an hour of television, but you can in a comic--absolutely! So that's where I would often where I'd start with my ideas for the comics. What can't I do on television, would be really fun to see. The benefits of writing for a comic that people have seen parts of it on TV is that can visualize how Nathan would fly and fill in those gaps. On the comics page you are just picking those key moments, those key frames. If you imagine it as a movie and you can only pick ONE frame. Which would it be? Is it where the helicopter goes out of control and smoke is billowing from the engine and one of the blades has come off? Is Nathan half out of the helicopter or is he all the way out? You have to make those decisions. Which would be the most fun for people to see.

PA: What about "Heroes" as a film or TV movie something that would be done as an "Event"?

Oliver: The cool thing about "Heroes" there were really not any iconic, essential sets,maybe one or two, unlike "Everyone Loves Raymond" you need that household. We never had a Police Precinct or the Morgue or a particular place you were going to every week. Even if our sets our completely gone forever that doesn't preclude a movie from happening or a TV movie because we're not reliant on the Bennet Household. We can pick-up the Bennets in a new apartment in New York and you would say, "Yeah. They moved. That's what they do. They're on the run again." So yeah, I think you're right, that could absolutely happen. These are characters you could pick up every once in a while, every few years or something.   

PA: You could take them into the future. Even a far flung one.

Oliver: Absolutely. The benefit of an ensemble cast, while it would be great to have all the characters
back the reality is its often difficult to get popular actors, if you couldn't get Claire (Hayden Pantierre) or Sylar (Zachary Quinto), obviously you'd want them, but you could still do a movie with Peter and Nathan and Bennet or whoever.

PA: The first season was about people with extra-ordinary powers overcoming their petty run-of-the-mill problems to save the world. To an audience who thinks "Wouldn't it be great to fly" towards the end, the series felt like you were being told. "You think it would be great for people to have super powers? Look at what can happen!" A cautionary tale, but a downer. You also had a large standing cast who you knew, with some exceptions, wouldn't be killed off. But also shows like "Lost" and "Dexter" had "hooks" within scripts made people eager to see what happened next.

Oliver: I think "Heroes" had a difficult concept to continue. For "Lost" it was very easy to keep that primary problem of being stuck on an island and you had that core problem, until Jack needed to get back to the Island. The difficult thing about "Heroes" was first season. It was great in its simplicity of "I have this new thing interfering with my life (powers/abilities)--sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse --how do I keep some sense of normalcy?" And then getting the Greater Call (to save the world). The problem is it works for one season very well but when you start another season, when Claire is going back to High School let's say. Its difficult to keep that "I'm trying to keep my normal life" because you've already answered the Call once. So if you hear it again, as an audience member your saying, "Forget school you need to go save the world--again!" And if she's being reluctant, saying "No, I don't want to." You're wondering why not but if she does answer the Call and she rushes off then you're kind of losing that normal person aspect. So that was a really difficult juggling act that we had to do and the show had to evolve with the problems it had for its characters. I really think we hit the right thing at the end of the last season for setting up for great problems for next season which would really have engaged people. You know this debate you said it yourself, super powers sound great on the surface but look what could happen Central Park imploded! I think it would have started a great debate in the world at large. Super heroes are great, look at what they could do, save the world while other people saying "No, they're too dangerous! Look what happened."

PA: You could see someone who can bend metal with their mind being a threat to some ironworker's job.

Oliver: Yes! Exactly! And certainly in this economic climate that really would have resonated. So I guess its unfortunate and we should have gotten to that sooner. I think really, that next season would've started people talking about the show again.

PA: A comics store owner told me that "Heroes" had the effect of bringing comics into the mainstream and as a consequence, more people into their stores. Do you see more comics coming to television?

Oliver: Possibly. "Walking Dead" is going to be a new series this fall. I read the pilot script and its
excellent! And I think you're going to see a lot more of that. To a certain extent it makes sense to make an Iron Man movie or a Spider-Man Movie, very big budget films. There are a lot of comics that are much more suited for television for an ongoing story. "Walking Dead" is perfect for an ongoing story, not just a one off movie. Yeah, I think absolutely you're going to see more.

PA: Do you have a favorite character or comic you'd like to see come to television?

Oliver: There's an Image Comics book called "Chew." I think that would make an AWESOME TV series. TV and TV networks love cop shows and if its done right and its done different its great. But its a tired medium. We've seen every cop show but "Chew" would give a really different angle on that. That's something I'd love to see.

PA: Well, I think I've taken enough of your time, thank you.

Oliver: Thank you.

Its worth noting that "Heroes", when it was canceled, averaged a 6.5 million audience with the final
episode at 4.4 million. Compare that now with "Grimm" which captures the same youthful demographic at 4.7 million and you're left scratching your head. The only answer, if networks operate rationally, would be the cost per episode could not be justified when contrasted with its first season highs of an average of 14 million viewers. Still, NBC has as yet to produce a genre drama that has anywhere near "Heroes" initial ratings or averaged ratings. It also remains incredibly popular in the rest of the world.