Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Low Res Interview: Drew Z. Greenberg (Part 1)

So you guys, we all had so much fun with the Buffy episodes last week, I kind of didn't want it to end. At the same time, I've been fortunate enough to keep correspondence with actual Buffy writer and all-around excellent guy Drew Z. Greenberg. I asked Drew to chat about the Buffy days, as well as the second-season debut of his current show, SyFy's Warehouse 13, and Drew was gracious enough to oblige. [I'm breaking this up into 3(ish) parts, so keep checking back throughout the next couple days.]

Drew joined the Buffy writing staff in 2001. In addition to Buffy, he's written for Firefly, Smallville, The O.C., and Dexter. Warehouse 13 kicks off its second season this Tuesday, July 6th, at 9PM on SyFy.

Joe Reid: Hey Drew! Thanks again for doing this.I guess to start off: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7.13, "The Killer in Me," written by you, Buffy and Spike venture into the abandoned labs of The Initiative in order to remove Spike's chip. HOWEVER, in episode 4.21 ("Primeval"), it was clearly stated that The Initiative was filled in with concrete, never to be spoken of again. Care to justify this EGREGIOUS breach of continuity? Was it worth ripping apart the entire fabric of the Buffy universe? Explain yourself!

Of course, if your sense of shame is just too great, we could maybe instead begin with how you came to find yourself on the writing staff of Buffy? Were you a fan of the show beforehand? What does a guy have to do to score such a sweet gig?

Drew Z. Greenberg: I think my sense of shame is exactly the right size. But that's neither here nor there, is it?

So... my humble beginnings on Buffy, eh? I was a fan of the show, yes. In fact, I wasn't just a fan -- I was a huge fan. (Or, well, I thought I was a huge fan. I would later meet a lot of people who were far, far better fans than I was -- as evidenced by the fact that several of them had chosen to pay money to meet me. I would never have wanted to meet me.) But Buffy was certainly my favorite show on the air -- when I bought my first TiVo, it was the first Season Pass I programmed in. (I don't know what further proof of my love you would need.) I admired Buffy's attitude, I identified with Willow's shy sweetness, I lived for Xander's quippiness. I cheered when Joyce put Snyder in his place, I longed for Buffy to get Angel back his soul, I swooned when Willow and Tara danced. I told all my friends how good this show was; I was always trying to get them to watch it with me. Most of all, I loved the writing.

How did I land the gig? I'd graduated from law school, moved to L.A. to give this writing thing a try, and wrote a couple of specs which got some positive responses. One pilot in particular got me a lot of attention. When it got me a meeting with Mutant Enemy execs, it didn't matter to me that everyone told me over and over there were no jobs on the Buffy writing staff: just by getting to visit and talk to people who were involved in making Buffy, I felt like I'd won a prize. And when those execs arranged for me to meet Joss and Marti, I still didn't completely get what was going on -- I was just thrilled to meet these people who wrote my favorite show and were such heroes to me. Marti had read my pilot, and that was exciting. Joss had read my spec Buffy -- and that was terrifying. And when I found out they wanted to hire me, I got goose bumps the size of actual geese. And nearly as noisy.

I don't know if I'm ready yet to talk about The Great Concrete Question, though I think you were kidding. Let's see how honest I feel over the course of these questions. Or how drunk I get. Either/or.

Click below for more on "Smashed," Amy the rat, and The Gay...

JR: Yeah, it's safe to say I'm not actually fired up about The Great Concrete Question. Though I'm not turning down you getting drunk. So you wrote six Buffy episodes all told -- "Smashed," "Older and Far Away," "Entropy," "Him," "The Killer in Me," and "Empty Places." "Smashed" being the first. It's safe to say that episode was incredibly pivotal (Buffy and Spike DO IT; Amy gets de-ratted); did you know going in what a turning point that would be? And can you maybe talk about the process of writing for such a serialized show? What story points come from the showrunner, from the room, and from you personally?

DZG: Me getting drunk is not a complicated process. It involves the following tools: one-half glass of wine. Aaaaaaaand... that's it. (Thanks, genetics!)

I did know what a turning point "Smashed" would be, and, yeah, it made me kind of giddy/nervous/excited/humbled/awestruck/hurl-ish. Two stories I'd been watching play out for a few years at home were about to hit new levels, and it would be in a script I wrote. So... mild freak-out time. As a room, we were going down a bunch of roads, trying out various plans to get us there: I remember we spent a long time playing with the notion of the Buffy/Spike sex-having at the halfway point in the episode. And then one night -- and I've talked about this before, maybe on the DVD commentary -- this kind of magical thing happened. At that point in the season, it was rare to have the entire staff all together in one room, because we had so many scripts already in various stages of development, people often had to be out working on their own episodes. But this one night, I remember it so well, everything lined up, we happened to have the whole staff there, and Joss sort of had this inspired moment where he saw the structure of the episode and started laying down the beats (story-wise, not rapping-wise), and the only thing missing was an actual "CLICK" noise when it fell into place. And once I saw how the story would go, I got up and did a very, very ugly dance in front of the entire staff because I was so happy. My hope is that they've all erased that moment from their memories.

And serialized shows will vary from show to show, showrunner to showrunner. Joss had such a clear vision in his head, he would often bring the structure of the season to us and say, "Okay, here's what we're doing." It's all the signposts we need to hit along the way to get to the end of the season. I've worked on other shows where it's up to the staff to design many or all of those signposts. Either way, it's always a good idea to know where you're heading at the end of your season before you start, so that you avoid, as best you can, anyway, veering off into tangent country with story threads that don't ultimately get you anywhere.

JR: Using another example, in "The Killer in Me," you bring back Adam Busch (Warren), you bring back Amy, you have Willow re-create the lead-up to Tara's death. Obviously, the endpoint of the episode (Willow comes to terms with moving on from Tara) could have been accomplished any number of ways. Is it safe to say the "how" of it all was all you? Related: Do you just have a giant soft spot for Amy?

DZG: The how of the Willow/Warren story was all Joss -- that was his pitch. We'd been looking for a way to bring back Adam Busch, 'cause we missed him, and we'd been looking for a Willow/Kennedy story. (At one point -- I kid you not -- I think we had a Willow/Kennedy Ocean's Eleven story on the table. There was heistiness involved. I'm not saying it was on the table very long, just that the idea came up.) So, once again, it was this moment of everything falling into place, of Joss saying, we can do this and this and this and this -- and it turned into one of the best writing experiences I've ever had. I loved putting that show together, I loved the dynamic of Willow truly grieving for Tara in a way only she could, I loved Willow facing who she really was as an actual gay person, and I loved Kennedy's attitude about what it means to be gay, because it was a chance for me to kind of articulate what it means for me to be gay -- it's not always all drama and torture, it's often fun and cool and sweet and exciting and it's made me a better human being. I loved having the opportunity to express that sentiment through a character on TV, 'cause how often do we get to do that?

I do have a soft spot for Amy -- I love tough, angry women, and, let's face it, when she came out of the rat cage, she was one angry woman. But it was just lovely happenstance that I got to write a couple Amy episodes. I consider myself lucky in that regard.

JR: It's a good point about depicting gay relationships -- gay dating; gay casual drinking of umbrella drinks -- on TV. Do you think TV has gotten better at that over the last seven years? Not to hijack the discussion, but it seems like TV has gotten really good at diverse, realistic depictions of gay teens (Ugly Betty; United States of Tara), but gay adults seem to have fallen into the Grand Parenting Canyon. Or am I not watching the right things?

And speaking of Gay Buffy, that was a show that seemed to have a big gay fanbase even before Willow came out. How did you react to the dust-up after Tara's death, some of which claimed that it (and Willow's subsequent veiny rampage) fell into negative lesbian story cliches?

I think you're right, I think TV has come a long way in its depiction of gay teens and gay parents. Since I'm actually on the Warehouse 13 set in Toronto as I type this, I'll add Degrassi: The Next Generation to your list of shows with realistic, fully-realized gay teens. And, of course, Modern Family does a great job showing flawed, funny, loving, realistic gay parents. But you're right, too, in that grown-up gay people who date, who have romantic or sexual relationships -- in other words, who are real people -- are still lacking. (A notable exception, at least as of this writing: Kevin and Scotty on Brothers and Sisters. Like the other characters on the show, they fight, they have families, they have domestic issues, they're sometimes vain or selfish or stubborn and they also, like everyone else on the show, actually have sex -- they're fully-realized characters.) The theory, of course, is that audiences are fine with gay people on TV, as long as those gay people are clowns or eunuchs. The minute that same gay character actually dates or makes out with or lusts after or -- gasp -- has sex with someone: [insert sound of audience fainting from shock/horror]. Is the theory correct? Are modern audiences really that squeamish? I dunno. I like to think not. But right now, there's very little opportunity to test the theory.

I was seriously appalled by the so-called dust-up after Tara's death. I still am, actually. A lot of people tossed around this phrase you're using -- "Dead Lesbian Cliche." But this confuses me. Historically, the media presented same-sex attraction as something shameful -- it was evil or pathetic or sick. And that shame was a burden borne not just by the characters experiencing the same-sex attraction, but also those in their lives -- associates, loved ones and the objects of their attraction. The best solution for all concerned was to eradicate the shame, and this usually meant killing the lesbian or having her commit suicide. Either way, she died so everyone else in the story could get back to their normal lives without the burden of her inconvenient sexuality infringing any more on them. Tara was the exact opposite of those hateful characterizations. She wasn't a problem to be solved, and neither was her sexual orientation, which was always a part of her character. Willow's friends accepted and respected Tara for all that she was, practically from jump: she was the moral center of this group of friends. She was light, she was kindness. We didn't want you to be made uncomfortable by Tara and wish her to go away -- we wanted you to love Tara and want her around more. Which many of you did. And then we pulled her away -- not so you could breathe a sigh of relief that she was gone, as has been the custom with the dead lesbians, but so you would feel the ache of her absence. We wanted you to miss her, to wish she would come back. This is not how the dead lesbian cliche works -- it is the direct opposite of it. Joss bravely inverted the traditional story arc for a lesbian death, and people criticized him for it. To be perfectly candid, I resent that. The knee-jerk reaction -- ACK! DEAD LESBIAN MUST EQUAL DEAD LESBIAN CLICHE!!! -- trades in oversimplification, and, respectfully, I think we can do better than that.

Check back here for the second part of the Drew Greenberg interview!


cindycee said...

i think the tara/willow relationship was handled brilliantly, it was one of the most beautiful relationships in the show, they equalled my favourite relationship along with buffy/angel. personally, im not gay, but i identified with their love story, they were soul mates. i was never uncomfortable with any of their kissing/sex scenes, i thought they were beautiful.

JA said...

Wowza Joe, congrats! This is awesome! (Now that you got your foot in the door you must interview every Buffy writer; I demand it.)

DZG's description of what made the Willow/Tara thing so different from what was thrown at it is just beautiful, and so on point.

rosengje said...

Great interview. Drew Goddard was always my favorite of the later additions to the Buffy writing staff (I believe his first episode was my favorite episode of Season 7, "Selfless," and his commentary on it is hilarious), but it is fascinating to get another perspective. Even though the show almost always speaks for itself, I cannot get enough of the behind-the-scenes information.

patty m. said...

Apropos of nothing related to the interview (though, great catch, Joe!) -- I just want to say how much I'm enjoying your recaps of So You Think You Can Dance on I loved reading them here, and I wish you recapped every week rather than sharing the duties, but your insights about one of my favorite summer shows is worth the extra bookmark.

Anonymous said...

I know he had nothing to do with it but how did he feel about the resolution of Andrew in Angel, I was so disappointed it stuck out like a sore thumb to me, now if the two supermodels had been male showing Andrew had accepted himself it would have been better, it still makes me cringe.

Anonymous said...

It's rather cute how Greenberg glosses over the other half of the fan outrage about Tara's death, i.e., Willow going stock Psycho Lesbian and only being saved by a man saying "I love you", which, let's be honest, didn't exactly turn traditional treatments of gay women in media on their heads.