Writer Interview – Javier Grillo-Marxuach

We had the honour of talking with Javi on his art journey, career as a writer and producer, and of course, the recently released and much awaited The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

Images of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance are screenshots of the official Netflix trailer.

 

Hi Javi, how are you? What have you been up to lately?

The biggest development in my life right now is the birth of my son Cosmo Zeppelin, which was just a few days ago. I am also eagerly awaiting the release of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – on which I had the honor of being a writer/producer – on August 30th.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Puerto Rico, my name is pronounced “HA-VEE-AIR GREE-JOE MARX-WATCH,” I have been a writer and producer in television since 1995, and – through a series of collisions of hard work and strange luck – I have written and produced on a lot of TV shows including the original Charmed, Medium, Lost, The 100, Blood & Treasure, and the upcoming live-action reimagining of Cowboy Bebop. I feel that I have led a charmed life. I also write comic books, essays, and host a podcast called “Children of Tendu” which is intended as a class in TV writing and the TV business.

What was your first exposure to art and creativity, and how did that impact you?

First exposure is a hard answer – I was a creative kid and compulsive doodler who was never away from paper and pencil. The real watershed event for me was seeing Star Wars at the age of seven. It’s hard to think of a time when Star Wars was something new and exciting that communicated a message about the ongoing potential of an established medium, but to me, it was akin to the Big Bang, and it set the course of my life for decades to come.

Photo Credit “Scott Pitts at Scottie Images”

Photo Credit “Scott Pitts at Scottie Images”

You are mainly known as a writer and producer, were those your passions from the start or did you explore other types of roles and art?

It all starts with the desire to be seen. From an early age I drew comics, wrote stories, and put up little plays, and – as a preteen and teenager – made super-8 films. Once I settled on wanting to be a narrative writer, I doubled down on theater, especially in my college years: film stock was very expensive back then and so was video, so the theater gave me an opportunity to become a better writer and collaborator from very early in my development.

What is it about stories and storytelling that you like so much?

Stories are the most common coin of human communication. Every sentence is a story. To me telling stories – and the hunger to have a story to tell – are no different from breathing. It isn’t really a choice for me.

What are some of your favorite artists and works on any medium and why?

Mark Rothko because he gives me space to think. Anselm Kiefer because he incites balance between pessimism and the divine. Poster art – from present day gig posters to Polish movie posters, wartime propaganda, and Latin American silk screened political posters – because a good poster is an object lesson in communicating complex ideas simply; and that translates to my work. The kind of filmed entertainment that used to be called “middlebrow” – exemplified by writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling in the past and those, like Peter Morgan, who carry on that tradition in the present. My favorite writers are Julian Barnes, who has made a career out of exploring unreliable memory, and Philip K. Dick, who takes those concerns into the realm of speculative fiction and the nature of reality. I mostly listen to Philip Glass and synth pop from my teenage years.

Take us through your career. What have the ups and downs, key learnings, things that made you a better artist?

It’s been a long career, so I am not sure listing the highs and lows is of much use. What I have learned is this, through the ups and downs, the best thing someone can give an artist – and that artists can pass on to their own students – is a safe place to fail. Failure is such an object of fear, and yet it is the soil from which you reap success, to be mentored in how to use failure – and how to see success not as proof of some innate genius, but the result of hard work and process – is the greatest gift I have received and that others can give.

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Can you tell a bit about some of the best advice you received during your career so far, either from colleagues or elsewhere?

You’re not a genius. Geniuses are far, far rarer than our promiscuous use of the term would indicate. Most of us are competent professionals who – through hard work, dedication, and applying ourselves to the cause of keeping our minds elastic and fed – have met luck at the crossroads. Success is all about being ready – or ready enough – to make the most of an opportunity. Anyone writing at the level of broadcast television is breathing rarefied air, there’s no need to compound the innate arrogance that it takes to become a writer and believe that what we have to say matters with delusions of genius.

Can you take us through your writing workflow? For example, do you start with the characters, plot, world?

I wish it were that structured. I write when I have an idea. I write furiously, and then rewrite methodically. Sometimes weeks will go by that I don’t write – but during those weeks I read voraciously and eventually realize that I was “background processing” some idea. Some writers advocate waking up at a certain time, writing for a certain amount of time, then walking away… or some version of a regimented work flow. That is not applicable to all of us – I need the energy of an idea so incandescent that I can’t get it out of my mind to get me on the chair… and then craft takes over.

Do you work on personal projects in your free time? How does that benefit you in terms of personal development?

I never stop. I don’t have hobbies. When I am not writing for money I am writing essays, spec screenplays, spec pilots, and comic books. I have written and staged plays, written and directed short films, and created graphic novels out of the sheer need to do personal work when the professional work was not fulfilling. Writing is a compulsion – and it’s a good thing that practice makes perfect, because I have little recourse but to practice all the time. I am still so far from perfect that the light from perfect takes centuries to get to me, but I can’t imagine myself not continuing to try, even when the paying work goes away.

How would you describe your style? How can people see something and say “hey, that is definitely done by Javi”?

When it is work that I do for myself, all my characters tend to speak in a very mannered way that I describe as “hypertext” (not in the computer sense, but as an opposite to “subtext”). Most of them talk like neurotic, over educated Puerto Ricans who love wordplay and learned English not as part of their nature, but rather as a foreign object to be explored and understood – which, is, of course, what I am. To be good characters, they all have to have rich, vibrant, and specific inner lives that express themselves through action, but the way I style dialogue is an expression of the sheer joy I take from using the English language as a playground. I get nauseated whenever I hear people pontificating about “naturalism” and “writing the way people talk” – all writing, and all dialogue, is artifice, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something, like an online seminar.

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Can you share some insights on one of your works and break it down for us?

I created my TV show, The Middleman, as a response to the prevailing cultural trope in genre storytelling in the late 90s and early aughts – things like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the majority of comic books at the time – that heroism equals endless sacrifice, the loss of loved ones, and abject misery. That project evolved into my own personal manifesto about how doing the right thing is not a tragedy but a boon. There’s a lot more to The Middleman, like zombie fish, and vampire ventriloquist dummies, and ghost sorority girls, and a cursed tuba, but it all came out of a reaction to a prevailing cultural wind.

Artists can be inspired by many different things. Where do you get inspired and how do you process those into your own ideas, concepts, and designs?

I collect images from art, design, photography, and architecture blogs and keep a running inspiration board – I also read nonfiction voraciously. I don’t have a structure for how to process these things… your mind is an attic, you clutter it with as much stuff as you can and hope that all these disparate elements learn how to dance.

What was it like entering the world of comics? I can imagine that the writer-illustrator combo enabled you to have much more impact on the end-result than let’s say a tv show or full feature that requires a larger team?

It was nice doing The Middleman because it was just me and the artist and our shared imagination. When you get into the world of commercial comics, you have to deal with corporations, intellectual property, editorial decisions, and decades of canon: that’s a lot less fun and it’s one of the reasons I stopped doing mainstream comics and mostly self-publish nowadays – I have to deal with all that at my day job!

Almost always, an artist is part of a team. In your view, what are the factors that separates a regular artist from a great one in terms of working together?

Kindness. It’s that simple. You approach collaboration with a spirit of generosity and openness and magic happens. You approach it as a competition – and try to keep score – and you choke it to death.

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What is the craziest project you have ever done so far?

The Dark Crystal is so huge a lark and so improbable in concept and execution that I daily wonder whether it is real or not.

Of course we love to talk a bit about the new The Dark Crystal. What were the challenges that you met in writing the story and producing the series, knowing the first one is a much beloved piece of art among the community?

The Dark Crystal is a dynastic, longitudinal project that builds on a canon created 37 years ago and which has been continued in comics, YA novels, and other media. This project was designed by Brian Froud – who designed the original – in conjunction with his wife Wendy and his son Toby, both of whom are accomplished artist on their own right. It was produced by Lisa Henson, who has been a prominent studio and production executive for decades and who runs The Jim Henson Company – and who, more than anyone else, is keenly aware that of all the things her father did, this was the one on which he worked hardest, and his proudest favorite. There were a number of puppeteers and artisans working on the series who also worked on the original. As writers and producers working along with Louis Letterier – who really was our showrunner and who directed all ten episodes – our job was to take all these influences and render this iteration of the story in one contiguous voice. It was a massive collaborative effort, and the love we all put into it is in ample displays onscreen.

Can you share a bit on how TDC was made? Any new techniques and methods the team explored in terms of pipeline?

The most interesting thing about The Dark Crystal in apropos of that question is the melding of a very artisanal discipline – puppetry – with not just the computer generated imagery and other filmmaking technology of the present day, but also the visual language that has evolved over the thirty-seven years since the original film was made. Louis Letterier, who directed every episode and whose vision is clear in every frame of this project, brought a visual dynamism to this that has never been seen in a project like this – the visual style of this project is as dynamic as the puppetry, design, and VFX. thematically, The Dark Crystal is very much about the melding of old and new, and what you see on screen is seamless in that respect.

If there is one character, full feature, or short that you wish you have made, what would it be and why?

The thing I love about the art I love is the profound sense that there is no way I could have produced it – I love encountering the other, and that is anathema to the idea of wishing I had made some piece of art that I love. Most of the things that I see that I think I could have made are disappointing for that exact same reason.

How do you think animation will be in the year 2025 and what kind of purpose will it serve?

I dunno, I don’t work in animation. The Dark Crystal is the first show I have done that is not “live action” in the sense of having humans before the screen, but every character in the show is performed by a person – or people – operating a puppet. it is that unpredictable, analog sensibility that makes it great.

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What are your personal goals for the next two to five years?

Getting my own show on the air – something I created and that speaks to my values in a more personal way… and beyond that, doing good work, and being a good mentor to those coming up behind me.

After a week of hard work, where is the one place you go to relax and just enjoy free time?

My son was only born two weeks ago and my daughter is pushing four – wherever they go, there I am!

Thanks Javi!