Our roving interviewer was invited to participate in a Q&A press conference with Emmy winning producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the creator of the new ABC Family original SF television series “The Middleman,” due for the cable network’s summer season.
“The Middleman,” is based on the graphic novel created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine. It follows the life of a struggling artist after he is recruited by a secret agency to fight against evil forces in the world.
Javier has been one of the major talents behind such television hits like “Lost,” “Medium,” “Charmed” and “Jake 2.0.”
We hope you enjoy this informative session with Mr. Grillo-Marxuach.
C. Fehskens: Hello, everyone. This is Chrissy Fehskens from New Media Strategies. I wanted to welcome you to the Javier Grillo-Marxuach Q&A session and start things off by thanking Javier for being with us today.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Thank you. It’s already quite an accomplishment for just today that you got my name right, so that’s fantastic. Thank you.
C. Fehskens: I tried on that one.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: No, thank you so much.
C. Fehskens: As all of our participants know, Javier is the series creator and executive producer of the new ABC Family original series The Middleman, which will premiere on Monday, June 16th at 8:00/9:00 Central.
That’s it for me. I’m going to turn the call back over to our moderator, Mitch, to get things started, and then we’ll be ready to begin.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: So will there be like a gladiatorial blood sport to determine who gets to ask the final question?
C. Fehskens: Yes.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Okay, cool. Excellent. I like it that way.
Moderator: Our first question comes from Reg Seeton. Go ahead, please.
R. Seeton: First off, I was just wondering, can you explain what the Javi-centric world view is?
J. 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 world view 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.
Moderator: The next question is from Jamie Ruby. Go ahead, please.
J. Ruby: Hi. I know 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?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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 like 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.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Linda Craddock. Go ahead, please.
L. Craddock (SoSF): The Middleman is based on a Viper comic series you created.
J. Grillo-Marxuach Yes, indeed.
L. Craddock (SoSF): Tell us about some of the adjustments with characters and storylines you had to make to bring it to life.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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 slacker-dom 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 couldnâ€™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 McClain and I put in the comic book and that is the pilot that I wrote ten years ago.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Kendra White. Go ahead please.
K. White: Hi. So my question is, 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?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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 an American — well, not an American, 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.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Misa Fary. Go ahead, please.
M. Fary: Hi, Javi. So, 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?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Clay Robeson. Go ahead, please.
C. Robeson: Good morning. 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?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Rae Hanson. Go ahead, please.
R. Hanson: Hello. Thanks for talking to us. Since everybody ahead of me has stolen my thunder, I guess my question is I’ve been reading your blog for several years!
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Thanks.
R. Hanson: You’re welcome.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: I wish I updated it more often.
R. Hanson: That’s okay. I liked it when you went to The Middleman blog and it’s been kind of fun to follow along as you’ve progressed here.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Good. Thank you. And like I said, I wish I had more time to update, but it’s just been — I mean it’s funny, I look back at my blog entries from like when I started on LOST, and it’s not that — I mean it was before I started taking on a lot of comic book work and all that, and I looked at one of them that I wrote and I was like, “My God, when did I find the time?” And then I went to my wife and said, “When did I find the time?” and she said, “Who are you?” and I said, “Oh, okay.”
R. Hanson: It’s those Red Bulls. So my question is right now we’ve been actually getting quite a few updates, and for the people out there who don’t know, there are pictures and everything of the set as it has progressed. Will you continue to do that as the show goes on?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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 I’ve got my — and it’s like, “Oh my God, I get to put the helmet on!” And we did.
R. Hanson: …that’s awesome.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Yes, it’s pretty cool. 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 globs — they all have globs. No, they all 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. So I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
R. Hanson: I am.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: 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 donâ€™t have this kind of fun on Law & Order, you know; I can tell you that right now.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Nadine Rajabi. Go ahead please.
N. Rajabi: Hey, Javier, how are you? 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?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: No, what happened was my agent read it — this was in the late â€˜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.
N. Rajabi: And the timing was right too, as far as like how it came around with sci-fi being up again I think too.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Yes. I honestly think that it’s that and I truly think that it’s kind of the right show for this time. 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 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.”
N. Rajabi: Are you afraid of comic book fans, because they get so critical when things to go to TV?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Have you seen the reviews for any of my other comic book work? (Laughs) No. You know what, look, I’ve been doing work with Marvel for several years, I’ve been doing their Annihilation events. Some people have really liked the stuff I’ve done, some people have not. And I think that those were fairly successful books, I think they did pretty well for the company and all that. But you know, whenever you’re putting something out there to this broad an audience, somebody is bound to not like it. You know what; all I can do is try to make it the best I can, you know.
N. Rajabi: You can’t please everyone.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: What you don’t want to do is not please anyone. So it’s sort of that I can only make the best show that I know how to make and then hopefully we can take it from there.
N. Rajabi: Hopefully. Any more comic books coming out besides that might go to TV crossovers?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: No, I’m pretty swamped. It’s one of those things where running the show has been life-consuming. I thought being on LOST was pretty much the epitome a show eating your life, but being the guy who’s the executive producer of the show has been an education in time management for me.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Meredith Woerner. Go ahead, please.
M. Woerner: Hi. Thank you so much for your time.
M. Woerner: It was very entertaining, so thank you. I’d love to know more about the secondary characters, like the hippie and the boyfriend. How did you go about casting them? I know you said 75% to 90% is like the comic book, but are you changing them at all?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: You know, they grow and they evolve. First of all, Ben is really a guest character in the first episode. I think that we had kind of exhausted the Ben story. And I almost feel like we did too good a job of making him unlikable, because I really like Steve Swann, who played the character; he’s a wonderful guy and a really cool actor, and it’s just one of those things where when I finally saw that piece on its feet, where he’s breaking up with her on the camera, I thought, “Oh my God, that’s really harsh,” and I don’t know how the character comes back from that, you know. I mean there’s something about how it played in the comic book that I could kind of bring him back and all that.
And Ben is referred to later on in the series. That storyline actually pays off in another way. So, we cast Ben as a guest star in the pilot because we just didn’t know whether the audience really wanted to see Wendy holding a torch for that guy. I mean, he breaks up with her for a class project.
So Ben is sort of out of the picture, after I think he’s mentioned and there’s a story that’s sort of driven by him in the first quarter of the season, but then there are characters like Lacy and Noser, who’s the hippie. Who as somebody in a sci-fi blog might find interesting, his name is actually an homage to a Philip K Dick novel. I don’t know if I should tell you which or if I should just let somebody Google it.
Noser is a character who, in the comic book, all he does is sit there and shout song lyrics at Wendy, right? What we found out is that, first of all, there are legalities involved with using other peoples’ intellectual property in terms of the lyrics. When you go to broadcast, that becomes less of a viable option week after week to have the character sort of constantly be doing that.
Also, you know, it becomes a shtick and, when it does that, it’s time to move on. So we’ve been trying to grow that character. I think that Noser’s role is as a kind of oasis of calm in this world of kind of hyper-kinetic people who all talk in a very heightened way, and Noser is the one guy who is sort of in the middle of this, is very chill, and he’s almost becoming like our kind of Zen touchstone in a way. As the show evolves, I think that character has evolved.
I think, with Lacy, I spoke at some length about how Lacy changed because of the kind of political millennial optimism and activism â€¦ as opposed to what my prevailing idea of youth was. So there’s a lot of that. I think Lacy has evolved quite a bit.
Also, Lacy has this kind of flirtation with the Middleman that you can see in the pilot, and we found out we should really grow that. I mean let’s turn that into something that it’s not just a joke. Let’s see where that takes us. So the characters aren’t necessarily going to have a relationship in terms of there’s going to be this series-spanning romance, but we figured as a takeoff point let’s develop that, let’s see where it takes us.
I think a lot happens when you make a TV series as opposed to a comic book, which is very controlled. Les McClain and I did three graphic novels in three years, so it’s not a massive output. And I think because in TV you’re doing 13 hours, 22 hours, it’s like being on a train. You just grab on and then it goes and then the characters begin to define themselves. Because there are five other writers who work on the show with me and we come up with this stuff together; they bring their own stuff and then the characters, ideally, if youâ€™re doing it right, the characters begin to take on a life of their own and begin to define themselves through the selections and the choices that you make for them.
Moderator: And our next question comes from Jamie Ruby. Go ahead please.
J. Ruby: Hi again. So what was your inspiration for the story?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: For the pilot story?
J. Ruby: For the whole thing. For The Middleman in general.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: When I wrote this, there were a lot of shows on the air, again, from X-Files to Buffy to Charmed, which I had worked on. The God’s honest original inspiration for it was I wanted to do a show where I didn’t have to explain how people got their cases every week, because it had become so Draconian to explain how a chef, a woman who worked in an auction house, and a sort of free spirit — these are the Halliwell sisters on Charmed — were constantly running into these demons. I really wanted a show where you didn’t know who the people worked for; it didn’t matter, they would get a call and they would just go investigate something without having to explain how it happened. It honestly kind of took off from that.
Out of that came the idea of this guy who doesn’t know who he works for, but his job is to solve exotic problems. And originally the concept that I’d hatched for the series was that it was all just… pulp. I mean it was just balls out, weird, nothing was explained. He fought gorillas, he fought monsters, he did this, he did that. And Wendy was originally supposed to be the robot assistant. And what happened was the more I developed it and I took it out and I pitched it to a couple of people, the note that I got back was that, “Well there’s no real point of view here. You’re sort of throwing the audience into this weird universe where monkeys roam the world with guns and it just makes no damn sense, because the guy isn”t relatable.”
At the time, Middleman wasn’t the character he is today. So the Wendy character is sort of a composite of a lot of different people that I know, and mostly the version of myself that always has the snappy comeback to whatever’s said to him, as a woman. And the Middleman sort of evolved around what character would that character need to push back against.
I was trying so hard to write a show that was anti-television, that when I first conceived of this, I kind of willed myself to forget the fact that you have to have a great relationship at the center of every show. Whether it’s Buffy and the Scooby Gang or Buffy and Giles or Mulder and Scully or Dave and Maddie or whoever it is, it’s like you need to have characters who have a fundamental conflict. And that’s kind of how the show reformed itself around Wendy and the Middleman, except rather than making that fundamental conflict the theme of the show, that’s Scully’s a non-believer and Mulder’s a believer or something like that, or making it around a romantic conflict, I thought, “Well, what if you got stuck working in a job with somebody who is the archetypal father who knows best, only he really is?” He is completely ethical, completely Dirk Squarejaw, and he lives it and he walks it like he talks it, and it works for him, and you can’t glib your way around it.
Out of that is where the relationship in the show grew. Because the one thing I wanted to keep from my original concept was that the evil in this world is sort of random and not necessarily metaphorical. I think that a sort of trope that exists around these shows is that the monsters are sort of metaphors for the things that are going on in the psyches of the characters. That’s something that we did a lot of on Charmed, for example, is that the terror of the week often reflected an issue that was going on with the sisters or something like that. And I think, with this show, part of where I was trying to sort of — not reinvent it, because again, that’s another just awfully pompous thing to say — but just sort of rethink it was to say, “Okay, can we build it around the relationship and have the cases be not tangential, but sort of absurd and funny and have the comedy come from where the horror normally comes from?” So yes, that’s kind of it.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Sandie Sahakians. Go ahead, please.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Hey, Sandie.
S. Sahakians: Hi, Javier. What I do want to know is how are you going to structure the show? Because, I mean I read the comic book and it seems that there’s sort of an ending at the end of the third volume.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: You mean the part where the Middleman dies?
S. Sahakians: Right.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Yes, well, needless to say, we’re not doing that.
S. Sahakians: Yes, I kind of figured that.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: In my wildest dreams, this becomes like the American Doctor Who and it runs for 40 years and there’s a new Middleman and all that stuff. But honestly, I have a spectacular cast here. Matt Keeslar is worth his weight in gold, and so is Natalie, and Mary Pat and Brett and Jake. So there’s really no reason to sort of look at this as having an endpoint for me.
It’s interesting, after working on LOST for so long and it being so plan-centric, “What are we going to do? When are we going to reveal this? Let’s put it up on the whiteboard,” and all that. When I went to work for Glenn Gordon Caron, his attitude was kind of the exact opposite; his attitude was, “Let’s be improvisational. Let’s see what grows out of the show and work it.” So my attitude with Middleman in terms of what happens is really about that. I have a ton of stories that I know I want to tell with these characters, my staff has a ton of great stories that they’ve pitched that they want to do. So now we’ve got all that and we just sort of develop the characters organically out of it.
On LOST, we were so — not constrained by the mythology — but we were so bound to it and we were servicing it at all times and we did always say, “We know where we’re going,” and we made sort of designs and plans for all that. One of the things I really liked about how Ron Moore approached Galactica is that he’s very out about saying, “No, we’re making this up and you have to trust us.”
I think with Middleman, especially because the show isn’t serialized and it doesn’t have like a far-ranging mythology, I’m very comfortable saying, “We have these characters. You have to trust us that we love the characters – hopefully you love them too – and that we will sort of allow them to evolve in this world that we’ve created.” That’s really the plan. I know how the season ends, obviously, and I have an idea of what sort of some of the heartrending decisions that he’ll have to make and all that.
But again, because the show is a growing and evolving thing, we’re kind of going to hang on for the ride and see where it takes us. I think that you, as an audience, will have to trust us that we have your best interests and that of the show at heart and that we will service what needs to be serviced and make a good show every week.
And, by the way, the third episode that will air is basically the second comic book, with the Mexican wrestlers, with the Middlejet, with the pyramid, with Sensei Ping. I mean, it’s all there.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Linda Craddock. Go ahead, please.
L. Craddock (SoSF): Hi, Javier. How many episodes are slated to air for season one, if you will?
J. Grillo-Marxuach: We’re shooting the 6 out of 13 episodes right now, and then the gods of the ratings will decide whether there are more than that. But that is how many we have scheduled for air, and we’re going to air through the summer.
And then with ABC Family and other cable networks, they sort of schedule a block of episodes at a time and then they come back and so forth. I think weâ€™ll be coming on just as Greek is finishing its run and then theyâ€™ll put on the next show and all that. So really once the summer is done I guess, or as weâ€™re sort of some relevant bit into our run, they will decide if we appeased the ratings deity well enough and I guess they’ll decide what our future is.
Moderator: And our last question comes from Misa Fary. Go ahead, please.
M. Fary: Hi. Okay, so you’ve said it’s light-hearted, it’s optimistic, and with a tentacled butt monster, a mafia ape…
J. Grillo-Marxuach: You know, ABC Family standards and practices will kill me for saying it’s a butt monster, because it was in the comic book, and in the TV show we kind of tweaked that a little bit to better — what’s the word I’m looking for — to better exemplify the family in ABC Family. So it’s more like a multi-limbed fleshy beast.
M. Fary: And then I also see luchadores on the Middleblog, which I love that.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: You bet.
M. Fary: And it’s obviously got a very fun kind of atmosphere to it. But how are you keeping The Middleman in that realm of lighthearted fun without it falling into something that’s more akin to groan-worthy camp? Because it’s a very fine line to walk, I think.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Yes. No, it is. Here’s the thing, first of all there’s the actors. They are fully committed to making these characters real. And the discussion that I’ve had with Matt Keeslar continuously through this process is that Middleman is not a freak of nature, Middleman is not an alien who somehow behaves this way, and Middleman is not a guy doing an impersonation of Robert Stack in The Untouchables. The Middleman is a guy who is a former Navy SEAL, who decided at some point in his life that this is how he was going to live, and that he was going to drink milk, not use profanity, live a straight-edged life. And lo and behold, the perfect job with no gray areas presented himself at his doorstep, and now he can kind of live freely this way and wear an Eisenhower jacket and be this persona that he wants to be.
Does that imply a dark side to the character? Maybe. But it maybe also implies that you can choose to be good and succeed at it. And that in a way is kind of the message that I’m trying to send with this show, is that the path to heroism is not necessarily laden with limitless angst.
There’s a show that I worked on called The Chronicle that I did actually like the year after I wrote The Middleman pilot. And that was a show that was created by Silvio Horta, who is the creator of Ugly Betty on ABC now, and just a fantastically big-hearted guy. And one of the things that has informed the writing of The Middleman from that show and from Silvio’s just own worldview, is that you can put the characters in very absurd situations, but — if the characters are following a set of recognizable human choices — the elasticity of how absurd the situation can be is actually pretty wide, because they remain your point of view in it.
I don’t think it’s that different from something that’s very hardcore horror or something. Every show, for example the X-Files, which is a show that went as far into horror and darkness as we’re going into lightheartedness and absurdity, what kept you grounded there was that Mulder and Scully were believable characters who followed a consistent theme of internal logic in their own character through the material, right? So we’re sort of taking the philosophy that if Wendy and the Middleman remain likeable characters who make consistent choices, you may not believe what they’re going through obviously, because it’s all so weird, but at the same time you will believe in them as characters, you’ll believe their responses, and the show won’t devolve into camp.
It’s when the show starts winking at itself and becoming very self-referential and the thing that The Middleman isn’t. As I said, it’s Robert Stack, it’s the way Adam West played Batman, you know; that’s not what we’re doing here, and I think that if we ever sort of go into that the show will die as a result of it. And the instruction that I’ve given everybody involved with the show is that it needs to all be played straight. And it’s not just the acting; it’s the writing, it’s the production design, it’s everything.
The moment it becomes cartoony or just too self-referential, the show dies. We need to design, direct, act, write the show like people are actually living through these things and let the audience come to it through the characters. And I think — I hope that’s what’s keeping us from becoming — did you say “horrific camp”? “hideous camp”?
M. Fary: Groan-worthy camp.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Groan-worthy camp.
M. Fary: You can pretty much put any adjective you want to in front of that.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Look, let me tell you something, I mean Wendy is going to fight a flying zombie fish in one of these episodes, you know. Will it work? We like to think it will. There will be vampire ventriloquist dummies in this show, you know. Will it work? We sure hope so. You know, we’ve got 100 Mexican wrestlers, we’ve got succubus fashion models, we have aliens who look like plastic surgery victims — so you can send me an email in six episodes and let me know if it’s groan-worthy camp. I will defer to your judgment on that.
M. Fary: All right. Thanks, Javier. I’m really looking forward to seeing that.
J. Grillo-Marxuach: Thank you so much.
C. Fehskens: Hey, everyone, this is Chrissy again. I just wanted to wrap things up by thanking Javier for doing this today. I really appreciate it. So just, again, wanted to thank all of our participants. Please remember to tune into the series premiere on Monday, June 16th on ABC Family. Thanks again, everyone.