The View from the Middle: Javier Grillo-Marxauch

The View from the Middle Grillo-Marxauch
Early Possible DVD Cover, courtesy

Javier Grillo-Marxuach started The Middleman as a spec script for a TV series more than a decade ago.  A few years ago, it became a comic series from Viper…which led to it finally becoming a TV series on ABC Family last year.  And now, it’s a comic again, albeit a comic adapting the TV series.  Confused yet?

Okay, to clarify: The Middleman: The Doomsday Aramgeddon Apocalypse is a new graphic novel that adapts the unfilmed 13th episode of the TV series, which arrives on DVD next week. It’s a comic based on a TV show that was originally based on a comic based on a spec script for a TV show. Dig it?

When we last left things, O2STK operative Wendy Watson, aka Dub-Dub, aka Dubby (Natalie Morales), had just escaped an evil parallel universe while her boyfriend Tyler Ford (Brendan Hines) had gotten a very Middleman-like job with seeming philanthropist Manservant Neville.  Considering that Neville was played by go-to bad guy actor and friend of Newsarama Mark Sheppard, this was in all likelihood not a good thing.

Now, Wendy and her boss the Middleman (Matt Keeslar) must face their greatest challenge ever.  Will Wendy’s relationship end in tragedy?  Will the world end?  Who is the mysterious woman who prevents the Middleman from giving his heart to Lacey (Brit Morgan), the fellow young, photogenic artist with whom Wendy shares an illegal sublet?

For Middleman fans, you’re about to have a very good week.  Not only is there the new graphic novel, but the complete series is coming out on a DVD full of scripts, commentaries and special fetures…and the cast will reunite with for a special reading of the last episode at San Diego Comic-Con.

With all this Middle-fun approaching, we joined forces with Javier Grilo-Marxuach for a special two-part interview full of behind-the-scenes trivia, what readers/viewers can expect, and the many cool other projects he’s working on.  Strap in, Middlefans!

Newsarama: Javi, how much adapting did you have to do for the graphic novel?  Did you rewrite it for the graphic novel format, or did the artist interpret it straight from the script?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It’s funny, because when Les McClaine and I started doing The Middleman, he was working off TV-formatted scripts. So what we did was, because Les is busy working on Johnny Crossbones and other projects, we went to Armando M. Zanker, who had worked for Viper previously, while Les agreed to do layouts.

So in terms of getting the optimal workflow out of it, Les is someone is used to doing comic book layouts from my scripts, and Armando has a really great take on the characters.  It’s a TV script that was originally written by myself and Hans Beimler, and the artistic team was able to translate it very handily.  It was a very good fusion, as it were.

NRAMA: And there’s going to be a table read at San Diego…and one on the DVD.

Grillo-Marxuach: Yeah, we were lucky that we got to tape all of our table reads.  So the one that ‘s going to be on the DVD is the 12th episode, which we actually put in for a number of reasons.  First is that it’s a hysterical table read, and the other is because it has a different ending from what we showed on television!  So you’ll see it flowed in a different way from what aired, and how it flows into the graphic novel.  You’ll see how the season would have gone in a different direction if we’d had a 13th show.

NRAMA: If someone records the table read, you could always do one of those old book-and-record things with the graphic novel…

Grillo-Marxuach:  (laughs) We’ve got the table read at the show, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s gonna be pretty spectacular.

NRAMA: Well, it’s good you’re giving them something to do.  Last time I saw Matt Keeslar, he was chasing Eliza Dushku with a hunting bow…

Grillo-Marxuach: (laughs) You know, it’s funny – we did an episode of The Middleman that was a rip on ”The Most Dangerous Game,” and I find it funny that mere months after the show ended, Matt found himself hunting the most dangerous game on Dollhouse.  What can you do?

NRAMA:  It’s got to be an interesting experience seeing the long, strange trip of The Middleman from your original TV script, to comics, to TV again, to a comic based on the TV show.

The Middleman: The Doomsday Aramgeddon Apocalypse GN Cover

Grillo-Marxuach: Yeeeeeeah.  It’ll be really mind-bending for someone who’s followed only one of the three continuities, you know?  (laughs) We’ll see how people take to it.  For me, it’s interesting, because people sometimes email me to ask if the TV continuity will tie together with the comic continuity, and I just don’t think you can do that, you know?  They’re kind of different animals, and the graphic novel really wraps up the TV continuity.

NRAMA: Well, I hope it has a happier ending than the comic book continuity, which kind of made water come out of my eyes…

Grillo-Marxuach: We don’t know for a fact that the Middleman actually died in the comic!  He was shot by a dart, but darts are notoriously filled with all sorts of different things.  So if I decide to revisit the comic book continuity, there might be some surprises as to what actually happened to the Middleman.

NRAMA: Ohhhhhhhhhh!  You might make some people happy with that…

Grillo-Marxuach: The comic book continuity is wide open.  But for my money, the graphic novel sort of closes the TV continuity out.  It’s not the end, but it’s an end.  I would never say never and not come back, but it’s a very satisfying finale.  And the Les McClaine continuity could come back, or we could do more of the show, but it’s wide open in every conceivable way.

NRAMA:   You could have “The Middleman of Two Worlds.”  Or “Mediums.”  Media?

Grillo-Marxuach: Indeed.  And that’s why I love doing this book, because it does exist across all kinds of media. The final comic book is kind of a really interesting experience, because Aramando is a fantastic artist, but he’s also bringing his own spin to the characters.  It’s sort of an animated Middleman.  It’ll be very interesting to see how the fans receive it as an end to the TV series.

NRAMA: Did you add some beats to the script to give it more of a sense of closure?

Grillo-Marxuach: Not really – I didn’t want it to be a series finale, but more of a proper season finale, something that reestablishes the values of the show without telling you it’s over.  It ties up all the loose ends of the season – Middleman’s relationship with Lacey is explored, and we see how that would have ended at the end of the season.  The story of Mark Sheppard’s character, Manservant Neville, was headed somewhere, and we see how he was not the best…man around, and was in fact pretty awful. 

There’s all sorts of things that pay off from the course of the series – we finally found out who the Middleman’s mysterious other woman was.  We planned all these things that you’re going to see paid off in the graphic novel.

NRAMA: Speaking of Mark Sheppard, he talked about how you paid him for the 13th episode, even though that was never shot. 

Grillo-Marxuach: Hey, we hired Mark to appear in three episodes, and we were sad we  couldn’t do all three.  As you know, The Middleman owes a great deal to popular culture.  A lot of the things that really inspired me in terms of Mark Sheppard’s character and where that was going was inspired by David Warner in Time Bandits.

So I told Mark that, and to look at it as sort of a spiritual touchstone in the 13th episode, and you know, you tell an English actor that and they get very excited!  David Warner is a legend!  So I think he was very disappointed that he didn’t get to do that – rule the universe in priestly robes. (laughs)  At least now he’ll get to do everything we promised him…

NRAMA: Well, he DID get to take over the world in Episode 12…

Grillo-Marxuach: But remember, Parallel Universe Manservant Neville was actually a good guy!  So in our world, he might be a benign environmentalists, but the original end of Episode 12 was Wendy coming to the realization that because something wasn’t amiss with Parallel Universe Manservant Neville, there was something wrong with the one in our world.  And that would have led to Episode 13.

NRAMA: It’d be fun to revisit that universe…if only to see Lacey in the Middleman outfit again.

Grillo-Marxuach: (big laugh) You and me both!

NRAMA: But that was one of the most fun episodes, and I understand you folded some of the money for Episode 13 in there to give it such an elaborate look…

Grillo-Marxuach: The deal with the network was we’d get an extra day of shooting on Episode 12, and a little bit of Episode’ 13’s budget…and on top of that, they put aside some money to finance the comic book.

The reality of that was we were coming to the end of our season, and we would have been able to film that 13th episode in six days, but it wouldn’t have been what we wanted it to be.  And with the parallel universe episode, like you said, with that episode, we could really make it visually daring. 

One of the things that was cool about that episode involved our director of photography, John Newby.  I had forbid him to do any handheld photography because I didn’t want another show with that gritty, Bourne Identity look – I wanted it to be very classic and flowing in its camera work.

So when we went to the parallel universe, I went to the DP and told them, “Take the cameras off the sticks and dollies and go crazy.”  The director, Guy Bee, I told him, “You’re the only one in the series who can do hand-held, so go nuts!”  

In the 13th episode, there are some very big set piece where the Middleman and Wendy are being chased by armored kangaroos who shoot missiles out of their mouths…there are a lot of things we couldn’t do with the budget we had.  So frankly, so now that the handcuffs of budget are off, I can take that script and make it as big and as special as it needed to be.

In my honest opinion, I think the fans of the show are going to get the best of our worlds, because we had a fancier episode of the 12th episode, and a big graphic novel of the 13th…

Final DVD Cover Art, courtesy

NRAMA: …still dazed by “armored kangaroos…”

Grillo-Marxuach: There’s armored kangaroos, there’s buzzards made of fur, there’s anthropomorphic ducks, there’s combat androids…(laughs)..there’s a lot of stuff.  And there’s a lot of returning characters I think fans will be happy to see…

 I don’t want to give too much away, but the Gatekeeper of the Underworld is back, and a lot of people dug him.  There’s a lot of things that will surprise a lot of people and tie many things up.

NRAMA: Not to make this the world’s longest tangent on armored kangaroos, but did you ever read an obscure Marvel book called Brute Force?  They had an armored kangaroo, and a dolphin with an Uzi, and an octopus on tank treads with six laser guns…

Grillo-Marxuach: I hadn’t…but I need to read it now.  Weirdly, we were going to have a rabid dolphin in the 13th script, but that seemed too similar to the shark from the third miniseries.  So we did an octopus in a space suit with ray guns instead.  I gotta find Brute Force.

I loves those weird Marvel books.  I was a huge fan of Damage Control.  The idea that there were all these guys in the background going around fixing everything after superhero battles…that was a much bigger influence on The Middleman than capes and tights, you know?  The idea of something going on behind the scenes was also a reason I was such a big fan of Powers when that first came out—what cops do in a world full of superheroes.

NRAMA: And hey, now they’re trying to do Powers at FX…

Grillo-Marxuach: And I hope they go for it!  The world always needs more great comic book material on TV.  I hope they get it right.

NRAMA: That transitions us to – what are you working on next?

Grillo-Marxuach: I just closed a deal to go on Jesse Alexander's show Day One, which will be airing on NBC starting March 2010.  It's a character-driven adventure drama about how the residents of a California apartment complex deal with a global event that shuts down the planet's infrastructure.

 I'll be writing and co-executive producing alongside Jeph Loeb and Erik Oleson. I truly think that with this team in place – Jesse alone was one of the guiding forces behind Alias and Heroes and was involved in the early development of Lost - and with the amazing concept that Jesse has created, this show is going to be something truly awesome.

NRAMA: Very cool.

Grillo-Marxuach: Yeah, after The Middleman, I worked in television development, and I worked on a pilot based on the original Lost in Space, which did not go, and I was very sad about that, because we worked very hard on that script.  But it just wasn’t the kind of thing CBS usually puts on the air – it wasn’t where they needed to be creatively. 

It was something I think would have been tremendously appealing to anyone who liked the original.  I worked with the producers and rights-holders, and my idea was, “let’s take everything that worked about the original Lost in Space, and keep it, and bring it up to date, rather than looking to reboot or reinvent.” 

It was about taking the core values of the show and doing them in a modern way.  It was a very loving look at the optimism and space age values of the original show, and to be frank with you, it was very crushing that it didn’t go forward, because I’m very proud of the script.

In addition to that, I did an adaptation of Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality,” On a Pale Horse, for ABC.  Again, a script I’m very proud of, but ABC has a lot of SF/fantasy shows coming out, and I don’t think it was quite a fit for them creatively as well.  They’d just done Pushing Daisies, and this was a very similar property.  Hopefully, something will come up with it down the line.

Something that’s been ongoing for me is I adapted the Brian Wood/Rob G book The Couriers as a feature, and I’ve been working with producers and directors to finalize that, and get it set up somewhere. 

You’ll notice this is a regular thing with me – when I get involved with an adaptation, I try to make it as faithful to the original as possible.  I don’t think comic fans want to see some sort of cynical reinvention of the stuff they love.  While I think there’s room for updating, I’m a true believer in doing adaptations that are true to the original.  So if you like The Couriers as a comic book – if this adaptation gets made, it’s going to be very exciting for anyone who loves Brian Wood’s work or Rob G’s work.

NRAMA: It sounds like you’ve been through a lot in terms of developing new shows...

Grillo-Marxuach: It’s very easy to be critical of the process by which shows are developed, and something I don’t think a lot of people realize, is that most television networks are not getting into it to fail – they are putting money into these pilots, and their goal is to make the best possible version of these properties. 

Ultimately, they have to make business decisions and all that, but something people also don’t realizes is that the margin of success on a pilot is very narrow.   You can have the best script, the best director, and sometimes something as simple as the wrong casting can make the pilot unusable.  So it’s a crap shoot, you know?

With The Middleman, it’s been…something like 12 years since I wrote the original script.  And it took a long time to come together, but when it did, it was with the right director, and the right actors, and I was ready to produce a show.  So sometimes things do come together.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 with Javier Grillo-Marxuach Tomorrow

The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse will be out during the San Diego Comic-Con. The series arrives on DVD July 28, and the Comic-Con reading  takes place on Thurs., July 23 from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in room 6A.

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