In part one of a two part interview, we spoke with writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, Medium) about adapting his once TV pilot script into the Viper comic book series The Middleman and then back again into ABC Family's new television series debuting June 16th.
We continue the conversation tracing the origins of the series in the following part two…
Newsarama: Now Javi, how did this project come to ABC Family? Because they’ve done the fallen angel show and the guy with no bellybutton, but it might not be the first place you’d think to take a show like this…
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: (laughs) Is that the actual title of the show? “The Guy with No Bellybutton?”
Seriously, Kyle XY actually has a lot to do with it. They’re a network that has stepped up in a major way to promote their shows and launch their shows. In the last few years, they’ve become known for like Greek and Kyle XY, quality shows that are targeting the millennial audience, which I think is exactly the audience that will get The Middleman.
Here’s a story I can tell you about why ABC Family: The pilot had gone out, a couple of networks were reading it, ABC Family was reading it, and I was working on Medium at the time. I was walking outside of the soundstage where we shoot Medium, and I looked up at the sky, and a plane was writing the words “Kyle XY” in the sky as part of their ad campaign. And I said, “Well, it’s fate.”
The fact is that they are willing to take chances on programming that is a little off-center, is a little weird and a little different, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. So I think that ABC Family is the totally right place at the right time, because “a new kind of family” for them doesn’t necessarily mean a demographic or kind of audience that they’re trying to get, it also means they’re trying to brand themselves as a network known for shows that are really unique.
NRAMA: So you’re doing 13 episodes, correct?
JG-M: Yep! Last time I checked, anyway. (laughs)
NRAMA: Did the writers’ strike affect the series’ development?
JG-M: The nice thing about having a script that had been around for a long time, and had been a comic book, was that having lived with it for so long I knew what worked, and I’d refined it a lot in my head. We were greenlit just before the strike, and went into the production during the strike – and during that time the script was locked, there was no work done on the script. But by the time the strike was done, we had a pilot, and ABC Family was able to jump in and order the show.
Obviously, the misfortunes of the strike are many – the effect on the industry is tremendous. We had the odd luck to go into production during the strike, and get picked up after the strike. Nobody benefited from the strike, but the timing of it was just something so that when the strike was done, we were able to go into production. It was a situation where The Middleman happened to exist on the fringes of when the strike was happening.
NRAMA: Who else is working with you on the show?
JG-M: We have a very talented staff. There’s Hans Beimler, who is a co-executive producer on the show, and co-created The Dresden Files and worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and worked with me on another show called The Chronicle, which we did on the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s actually one of my favorite shows I worked on…
NRAMA: Hey, it had Curtis Armstrong!
JG-M: It did! And Rena Sofer and Jon Polito and Chad Willett…it had a pretty good cast! And it was a pretty fun show and I look back at it pretty fondly as a good companion to The Middleman.
We have a writer named Jordan Rosenberg, whom Lost fans will recognize because he was one of the writers on The Lost Experience, which I worked on as well. He’s somebody I first met doing the online component for Lost, which was a pretty hard-core geek-out mythologypalooza. And Jordan was one of the people who along with me who brought that to life, so to have him on this show is pretty amazing.
Rounding out the staff is Andy Reaser, who was a writer on Charmed for several years, and Sarah Watson, who was on Standoff and is also a spectacular writer. So believe me, our nerd quota is very well-taken-care of on our show. You won’t feel like you’re in the hands of non-genre fans on The Middleman. We know our nerd-lore, and respect it duly (laughs).
NRAMA: Who directed the pilot?
JG-M: Jeremiah Chechik. He’s directed some of my favorite films – he did Christmas Vacation and Benny and Joon and The Avengers, which – The Middleman really owes a lot to The Avengers, the Steed and Mrs. Peel version –
NRAMA: There’s that black-and-white sequence in the pilot.
JG-M: Yeah, exactly. It’s in the vein of those 1960s shows and that spy genre and stuff.
NRAMA: Are you still going to be working in comics with all your responsibilities on the show?
JG-M: You know, I hope so! The last thing I did was create the Wraith character for the Annihilation crossover at Marvel, and before that I did the Super-Skrull miniseries, and I also did a Classic Battlestar Galactica miniseries for Dynamite, which was a spectacular amount of fun to do.
Here’s the thing – I don’t want to get involved in a comics project when I can’t deliver the material. So I have to be pretty judicious, because TV is pretty labor-intensive. And on top of that, I’ve been working on adapting the Brian Wood/Rob G comic The Couriers as a feature film.
NRAMA: Ooh, that’d be fun to see as a film.
JG-M: Oh yeah, that is such a cool book. I mean, what else would you expect from a book by Brian Wood and Rob G? Great guys, and such a kick-ass book. So I’ve been busy doing a lot of things, and I’d love to do more comics work, but I don’t want to do it if I can’t give it 110 percent.
As a comics fan, and as someone who goes to the rack at a number of stores in Los Angeles on a weekly basis, I don’t like it when I have a comic that hasn’t been fully realized. So, currently, there is nothing on the comics front, and hopefully, once Middleman’s found its groove, I’ll be able to go back and do something at Marvel or independently. But for now, there’s nothing on my plate.
NRAMA: But you do have the collection coming out…
JG-M: We do indeed! We put all the trades together for this collection. I think it’s about time – we’ve existed as floppies, we’ve existed as individual graphic novels, and now that the series is coming out, we need to build some awareness.
Viper Comics did a great job with the series, did a great job promoting it, and as I’ve said, Les McClaine’s art is spectacular – you can really see his influence on the show, because he had such a strong hand in developing the look of the characters and their world. So I think it’s time for people to have a volume where they can read The Middleman in its entirety and see what it’s all about.
NRAMA: What are some stories coming up in the Middleman TV series, and what’s it like to let other writers into this world you’ve had in your head for so long?
JG-M: It’s actually really cool, because we have such a cool, cohesive staff, and they’ve really been able to come in and bring their own stuff into the show and augment the stuff I have.
The stories are going to be Middleman stories! People who read The Middleman know he’s the kind of superhero who fights genetically-engineered gangster apes, who gets involved with a federation of masked luchadores who want to kill his master…
And one of the things that attracted me to ABC Family was that they really bought into the off-center aspects of the series. So our second episode has to do with a reanimated Chinese soldier and a fashion house that’s staffed entirely with succubi…our third episode is about a group of aliens who look like plastic surgery victims…our fourth episode is going to be an adaptation of our second comic book, which means Mexican wrestlers all the way…our fifth episode is about fish-eating zombies (laughs)….our sixth episode is about intergalactic criminals disguised as a boy band…we’re not pulling any punches in terms of the story material!
This isn’t going to be one of those things where you tune in to find it much watered-down from the comic book.
NRAMA: Not sure if you want this spoiled, but you have a very cool guest star in the pilot…
JG-M: Spoil away, my friend!
NRAMA: Okay, well, as our readers will see – you have Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24 as the guest. What was it like working with her, and do you have any other cool guests coming up?
JG-M: We are working on having some pretty awesome guest stars in the future, which, sadly, I cannot talk about. Mary Lynn was an absolute delight – we were all awestruck by her, because to a person, all of us knew her from 24 and her work as Chloe O’Brien, so we were all, “Oh my God! She’s here! That’s great!”
The funny thing is we were shooting in Vancouver, and our travel agent had to call Mary Lynn to set up the travel arrangements on Thanksgiving Day. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on a different day (laughs), so we called her on the American Thanksgiving Day, and we could hear Thanksgiving stuff going on in the background.
I was miserable because I’d bothered someone on Thanksgiving Day, but she was very gracious and fantastic – she came in and did a wonderful job as this crazy primatologist who breeds apes to become gangsters, and it was great to have a big-star guest-villain to help launch the show. That’s as close to a dream scenario as it gets…
NRAMA: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
JG-M: We have to talk about Matt Keeslar’s performance as the Middleman in the pilot. I kind of thought that part was un-castable, that we’d never find an actor who was good enough to portray that guy as a character and that guy as a human being, but still have that great, square-jawed American hero quality. And Matt Keeslar was able to take a character who might have easily turned into an impersonation of Robert Stack and turn him into a real human being.
NRAMA: And this is an 8 p.m. show?
NRAMA: That’s a little unusual, as there were a few…edgy jokes in the pilot…
JG-M: Well, 8 p.m. isn’t the same 8 p.m. you and I knew growing up! (laughs) Seriously, ABC Family understands that their shows need to appeal to everyone, and that includes adults. It’s not a kid’s show – it’s a show that appeals to people who are smart, who like snappy banter, who like pop-cultural references. I think if you’re a comic fan, this show will appeal to you.
If you’re a fan of a certain type of banter-sensibility, ranging from Howard Hawks to Gilmore Girls, you’ll like this show. I think getting to write a show smartly like that is having the leave to maybe do things that are a little bit edgy…I mean, it’s not The Shield, they’re not throwing grenades at each other, but what makes the show appealing is the speed of its dialogue.
NRAMA: Any last words for our readers?
JG-M: If you like the comic, you’ll like the show. If you like comics, you’ll like the show. And if you don’t like comic books…why are you reading Newsarama?
The Middleman premieres on ABC Family on June 16 at 8 p.m. EST. For more information on its making, visit the official web site, Javier Grilo-Marxuach’s LiveJournal, The Middleblog or the fan site Middlefan.