After viewing the extras for the DVD release of the recently cancelled ABC Family series, The Middleman, I came to a conclusion that was confirmed by a quick peek at imdb. Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach [pictured, above, with series star Natalie Morales] is a fanboy! I had the opportunity to interview Javi [as he prefers to be called] about all things Middleman. Alas, we had to stop before I could ask him about such things as the inspiration for the series’ episode titles [one of the extras revelas that it's an homage to the titles of the Robert Ludlum novels he read as a kid], the decision to use chirons [those text scrolls that identify time and place and such] and the plethora of extras on the set. We did get through the process the series went from unsold pilot, to cult hit comic and, finally, to the small screen – as well as toss in a plug or his upcoming new series, Day One.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Hi, how’s it going?
Excellent. I hear you’re already back at work on something genre.
Javi: Yes, I am. [laughs] Not quite back at work; we’re going to start work on Day One in August. The show doesn’t actually come out until mid-season. It’s actually going to be out after the Winter Olympics. So, we start work mid-August.
Have you seen the trailer?
I saw the leaked trailer. It looked interesting.
Javi: Pretty awesome, huh? Meteors, monoliths, people co-operating. Sounds good, right? [laughs]
In preparation for this interview, I did a quick check on imdb and discovered that you have worked on the following: SeaQuest DSV, Dark Skies, The Pretender, Three, Charmed, The Chronicle, The Dead Zone, Jake 2.0, Lost and Medium. You know what that list says, don’t you?
What? Geek! [laughs]
I was going to go with fanboy.
Absolutely, unabashedly and without reservation! [big laughs]
Most of those are shows that I wish had lasted longer.
So do I, because then I’d have gotten the chance to work on them longer. And a lot of them were fun to do, too. The chronicle and Jake 2.0 I miss terribly.
So I can understand why…
Why The Middleman is the way it is? Yeah.
I’m going to Comic-Con with this show, but it’s my eleventh time going to comic-Con. I started going as a fan and the same as if I was still going as a fan except I do panels. I do all the same stuff; I look at comics and check out the cosplay and hang out with my fellow nerds. It’s both a lifestyle and an avocation for me.
I understand that The Middleman took a kind of circuitous route to get to ABC Family. Could you talk me through creating the comic and the adventures along the way?
What happened was… I was working on Three, actually, when I first came up with the idea and I fleshed it out when I was working on Charmed. It was really a kind of response to the freak of the week monster hunter shows that were on at the time.
I had my own ideas about how these characters should talk; what sort a show I would do if I were given the keys to the kingdom. So I wrote the pilot and everybody who read it said, yeah, it’ll never get made. Never mind. [laughs] Go write a Law & Order. People told me that the language was too large and that they’d never allow me to have the monkeys with the guns and stuff like that.
It kind of sat on my hard drive or a couple of years and, when I met Paul Dini – who worked with me on Lost and is just a wonderful guy who’s had a lot of independent comics of his own and is familiar with the process – he was kind enough to sort become my coach and he told me how he’d worked in independent comics. He became the godfather for The Middleman.
I found Les McLaine on the internet. I’ seen some of his work before, at Comic-Con, and really liked it. We just sort of moved on from there. I approached a few publishers but Viper was the first and most energetic and they really wanted the book. They let me do the book – the comic book is really the exact same script as the pilot – and exactly the same script as the pilot we put out on ABC Family.
It’s probably the most faithful translation of a script to comic book and back to a script and back to a pilot. There’s about ten percent difference between what I wrote in 1988 and what got on the screen. Not to mention that, because of the writers’ strike, I couldn’t re-write the script while we were in production, so we had to shoot exactly what I wrote, anyway! [laughs]
It was stunning because the project was around for so long and changed so little. Usually, when you work on something for a long, long time, by the time it’s done it’s usually a hundred and eighty degrees from what you originally did. We had the good fortune of it being a three-sixty! [laughs]
How did ABC Family come into the picture?
I was working on Lost and there were opportunities for me develop with networks, and all that, and I had actually worked with Kate Juergens, the senior VP of ABC Family. It literally came up because… she’s a friend and I gave her the comic book and they got very interested.
After a while, I went to my agent and said, ‘look, I’ve done every show that you’ve wanted me to do. O worked on Lost and got an Emmy for that, and I’ve worked on all these things and I think it’s time I tried to sell something that’s completely mine.’ I had The Middleman and that’s what I wanted to do. It was kind of a perfect storm of ABC Family being interested and my wanting to get out there and sell my own show.
It all came together about the time I was on my second season of Medium, and off we went.
The thing, too, about ABC Family is that they read the script and the comic book and they wanted what they read. That was actually the most important part of the entire process. The didn’t say, ‘does it have to have a monkey? Do they have to be Middlemen? Can they work for the FBI? [laughs]
They read it and they wanted what they saw and frankly, to me, that was the most important thing – to work with creative partners that really, really wanted that vision that they saw on the page. That’s why we were able to put it on the screen the way we did.
There was one major change, that being “Dubbie.”
[big laugh] Absolutely!
Dubbie went from being a scantily clad, redheaded white chick to being Natalie Morales.
[laugh] She was going to be a scantily clad Natalie Morales – and we tried to clad her scantily through most of the series… [laughter] To ABC Family’s credit, you know, I’m Latino – II was born in Puerto Rico; my parents were Puerto Rican, but I wrote the character as white because I thought that was what the market would bear. To ABC Family’s credit, they’re the ones who said let’s make her Latina.
Frankly, I worried that she would turn out to be a stereotype, but again, ABC Family believe in my vision and Wendy is very much a reflection of me as a person. They trusted me and believed that the character – if she stayed the way she was written – but she stayed the way she was written, as Wendy Watson… We were able to create a character that was unique on television: a Latina character who was shaped by American pop culture.
I know that character exists in reality because that’s me – only more attractive. [laughs]
There were a lot of things about the show that caught my attention right off the bat. References to all kinds of genre movies and TV shows are threaded throughout. And you don’t ease into the show – in the pilot you have a tentacle monster and a gorilla gangster. So the pilot – I’m hooked. I’m there. Then you layer in things like the Avengers reference in Wendy’s life – the pilot father going missing.
It shouldn’t have worked.
I’m as shocked as the next guy. [laughter]
But it does work – and you believe every second of it. You believe it when she comes out of the training room after one with Sensei Ping, saying, “That was awesome!”
It’s a combination of the cast and their chemistry, the writing and the really straightforward way it’s shot.
I glad you mentioned that, because Jeremiah Chechik, who shot our pilot, directed the Avengers movie. When I first met with him, he said we should shoot this like a comic book. It should be strong frames with a lot of movement in them, and all that. The composition… Jeremiah is a wonderful photographer; he’s a wonderful director. He has an amazing sense of visual style – and he didn’t want the visual style to get in the way of the characters. He wanted to put the camera in interesting places; design very specific coverage, and shoot a very classical show and that what he did.
On addition to that… the show has a lot of pop culture references, but it’s not a show about pop culture references. It’s a show about Wendy and her life and her friends, and how they have this supportive, cohesive unit – and how she finds a father-figure in The Middleman.
The thing we found, writing the show, over and over again, is that we always went back to that home base of Wendy’s life, Wendy’s problems, Wendy’s successes and her relationships with other people – we would always wind up with a fun story that many could relate to. Ultimately, you can’t make a show about pop culture references but you can make a show about a character – and that’s what we did.
We had a very solid base to go back to with Wendy and The Middleman and their relationship, and Wendy and Lacey and their relationship.
There was one pop culture reference…
Just One? [laughs]
… that had me on the floor, and that was the giant yellow teddy bear…
[Javi falls over laughing]
…because I think I’m one of the dozen people in North America that actually got the Avengers movie.
When I first met Jeremiah, we had dinner and I spent, easily, the first ten or fifteen minutes telling him how genius the teddy bear scene in that movie was – and he was shocked. I don’t think… I mean, that movie had a complicated history and I don’t think he’d seen it in a very long time. So he was sitting there, shaking his head like, WHAT?!!? [laughs]
What happened was, if you read the original comic, Lacey was supposed to be wearing an iguana costume but we couldn’t find an iguana costume. Our costume designer went out and found a lot of large animal costumes and, lo and behold! One of them was the yellow teddy costume from The Avengers.
I said, ‘Ohmigawd!” and I called Jeremiah down and said, “Look what we found!”
It he literally looked like he had a heart attack! I don’t think he’d seen that costume since the nineties. It was that perfect storm of Jeremiah directing a Middleman scene that referenced The Avengers.
It probably wouldn’t have worked if Lacey wasn’t such a fully realized character.
The funny thing is that we never said what she was doing in the teddy bear costume – and people come up to me and ask me, “What’s the bear costume about?” I always say, “I don’t know. You tell me, because I don’t know.” [-laughs]
Some people say she’s a furry, but I honestly don’t know what she’s doing in the costume.
I think it’s the place she goes to when she’s depressed.
It’s her happy place, right?
The only regret I have is that they didn’t let me keep the bear costume. It went back into the Warners vault somewhere.
Now, with the DVD release, you have a tie-in graphic novel of the missing thirteenth episode [pictured below].
I talked with Jessie at Viper and they were going to send me the graphic novel but it didn’t arrive in time for the interview, but I’ve seen some panels online. So tell me, what’s the basic idea behind the thirteenth episode?
Well, we were laying in a bunch of stuff. The Middleman had an unrequited love in his past that he was pining over, which was preventing him from being with Lacey; that Manservant Neville – Mark Sheppard’s character, the inventor of the U-Master has something devious up his sleeve; we had set up that The Middleman and Lacey had this forbidden romance… that they still felt very strongly for each other… There were a lot of unanswered questions.
We had written that thirteenth episode before the show went out of production, so we were already working on how to end the season – and how to answer all the questions and really give the fans a conclusion to the season that was satisfying. We never thought about going for a cliffhanger or anything like that. We wanted to tell a whole story. It really is the final chapter in the saga of The Middleman.
There are questions left hanging, like who’s Wendy’s dad, and all of that, and what is The Middleman’s name? Everybody wants to know that – and we were going to tell you. There were all of these questions just hanging out there and we wanted to answer them and we were ready to and ABC Family, thankfully, supported us in putting out this graphic novel so we’re pitting it out along with the DVD and closing out the story in a good way.
So it was always set up to be a character arc to the season and a conclusion to the season.
I know I’m looking forward to getting it and finding out the answers to those hanging questions.
Well, thank you. Good. [laughs]
Les McLaine, who did the original comics, did the layouts for it and Armando Zanker is doing the finished art. It’s a great confluence of what the comic book world, in terms of what The Middleman has been – Viper Comics, ABC Family… it’s going to be a really satisfying finale for the series =. And it’s got stormtroopers riding kangaroos, so you can’t go wrong. [laughs]
[Shout!Factory person] Okay, guys, we’ve run out of time.
Sheldon, I don’t want to go without thanking you for the nice things you said about the show online, and putting us in your top ten list. I really appreciate that.
You remembered! [laughter]
Well thank you for talking with me today and good luck on the new show.