Greg Berlanti is a nerd.
You wouldn’t have necessarily known that if you just went by his TV body of work, which includes “Everwood,” “Jack & Bobby,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Eli Stone,” among others. In the last year or so, though, Berlanti’s geek bonafides have been hard to miss. He’s a producer and (along with frequent collaborator and sometime comic book scribe Marc Guggenheim) screenwriter on the upcoming “Green Lantern” movie with Ryan Reynolds. He’s working on a screenplay for a film about another DC Comics icon, the Flash. And he and Jon Harmon Feldman have co-created one of this season’s more-hyped new series, “No Ordinary Family,” starring Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz as the father and mother of a family that gets super powers during a South American vacation gone awry.
I sat with Berlanti a few days ago to nerd it up about how comics have influenced his writing even on more mainstream projects like “Dirty Sexy Money,” on what he reads, why he chose which powers each member of the family would have, etc. I should warn those of you who don’t necessarily know what the Crisis on Infinite Earths was that there’s some hardcore nerditry after the jump, but Berlanti has some interesting things to say about the storytelling process, and the show itself requires no advance knowledge of superhero lore.
I saw an interview you did at Comic-Con where you said that growing up reading Crisis and Secret Wars informed your storytelling sensibilities. I’m wondering: what is the throughline from Crisis to “Brothers & Sisters”?
I don’t know so much about “Brothers & Sisters,” but it was about the mythology, and the idea of repercussions in everyone’s life and how you can tell a bit of a story over here and a bit of a story over there, and the audience can put the two things together. It’s probably more informative of something like this or even something like “Jack & Bobby,” that had a different kind of mythology structure. How I meant it there is that it’s obviously informing what a lot of people want to do now that they’re grown up. They want to play with the toys that they played with as a kid.
Well, it seems like with you and Guggenheim and Lindelof and others, there’s a lot of screenwriters right now who grew up on comics.
Definitely. And, again, everybody read them in a different way and at a different place. For me, it was at the Port Chester flea market. There were two kinds of comic book store owners. There were the ones who were total geeks and read everything, and there were the ones who never read a freaking comic book in their life. My guy smoked cigars and was, like, “If you touch that it’s 50 cents!” You would have to barter with him, how you could stay if you only had so much money. But it was an exciting time. For different people, it informs things in different ways. For me, it was the sense that all these worlds are connected. I liked that.
So what were your favorite titles growing up? Or who was a character you liked? Obviously, Green Lantern.
Yeah, GL was definitely up there. There were only a couple of Marvel characters I read. I read Iron Man. I have a lot of those. And this was the time they tried X-Factor out. I was never an X-Men person, but I was like, “Let me check out X-Factor.” I was more of a DC guy in general. Batman, obviously, and “The Dark Knight Returns” had just come out a few years prior to that, and I have friends who still, to this day, read it once or twice a year. I remember certain things, like reading about Tony Stark’s alcoholism and thinking, “Oh my god, this is the coolest thing ever!” Even in finding the old issues when Speedy in Green Arrow was hooked on smack – that they weren’t afraid to deal with those issues built in, too. And that was something in television I’ve tried to do a little bit: “What’s on the news now? What’s important? And how can we make that a part of character’s lives?” That was appealing to me. I would say I focused on Tony Stark and Hal (Jordan).
That’s interesting, because they were always sort of viewed as counterparts in those two universes.
It’s true. I would say they were the same “tier.” One was obviously more aerospace and one was more technology-based. But there was a real similarity, and they were both flawed characters, which I thought was really cool.
So what, if anything, are you reading now?
Gosh, you know, I’m catching up on a lot of Flash stuff, because I’m working on that with a couple of people. I’m going through a lot of issues in between.
Where are you right now, roughly?
I’m reading Geoff Johns’ version, because I think he’s fantastic. And I love going back to the Crisis era, with Marv Wolfman, and Flash going up against the Anti-Monitor, because it was such a great moment in super-heroes. You’re the only person all day I’ll be talking this distinctly about it. But I just thought his sacrifice, I remember crying and getting upset as a kid and that really registering with me.
(NOTE: The next couple of questions and answers feature some mild spoilers for the series pilot, though nothing that hasn’t been featured heavily in the promotional campaign. If you want to remain totally unspoiled, skip ahead to Berlanti discussing “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica.”)
Archetypally, Chiklis has the strong guy powers again, Julie can run fast – how did you decide who got what power?
We went through each of the characters. There’s a little bit of a mythology hint, in that the powers aren’t just random. They speak to the deficiencies of the characters, or what the characters want. So… a mom who wishes she could be everyplace at once suddenly has the ability to speed back and forth. And a guy who feels like he’s lost his strength feels strong.
It feels like a fun place to start. They get what they think they want, but it’s not always what they need. There can be some real transformative things that happen along the way.
So these may not necessarily be the powers that they have for the life of the series?
No. I think it’s more that the powers may not be as cool. With great strength comes great responsibility. They each come with their own burden.
Well, you’re doing something different from “Heroes,” but one of the things that I think people started to complain about with that show after a while was that it made it seem like having super powers was something that sucks. “Why do I want this? All that it brings is a serial killer that wants to chop my head off…” But at least in the pilot for this, with Chiklis and with Julie, there’s a sense that, “This is great!” There’s a fun to it.
There’s definitely a lot of wonder and wonderment in the show. I always say that the first year of this series should feel like the first 45 minutes of a great comic book movie. Those are always my favorite time, because it’s the person first discovering it, and they don’t have it all right yet, and how will they integrate it into their life? And it seems to me like there’s a wealth of stories from that point to tell over the first year.
Getting back to the power distribution for a second, what you said makes sense, but somebody wrote something interesting on the site when I mentioned this show, which was, “I really wish they had switched it up. It’s always the dad who’s super strong, and the girls have passive powers. Couldn’t they have shaken it up?”
The only thing I would say to that is that it’s usually the dad on most family shows that’s the provider. For us, we wanted to do a family show where the mom is dealing with that. And it felt true that we don’t see a lot of female speedsters. Where have you seen that? I’m a comic book fan, and I don’t know too many of those.
Flash does go up against a couple.
In time, yes. But there aren’t many well-known ones. That’s the hope. That it’s really fun to see her in that way. It was more that that was cool than, “We have to make the dad the strong one!”
With Romany (Malco) and Autumn (Reeser), you sort of have two Alfreds, or whatever you want to call the helpers. In the pilot, they spent a lot of time testing their friends’ powers. How nerdy are we going to get about that? Are you going to explain how Julie can run without ruining her heels?
In part, we made her a scientist so we could talk somewhat about the physics of it. It’ll never be total verisimilitude, but I think there has to be a sense of reality to it. And then with Jim (Chiklis) and George (Malco), it’s a whole different thing. To me, it’s also the fun of being the friends of people with super powers. We make all kinds of sidekick jokes. We don’t so much wink at the audience as we’re aware of how much the common audience, the regular audience, really knows about this world. We try to make it function on those levels.
For instance, and you’ll know this even better than I do: my recollection of early Superman is that he didn’t fly, he leaped. He could leap tall buildings in a single bound. That’s why we gave Jim that power, as an homage. Very few people will know it in that regard, but we get geeky ourselves: “What if we just did that?”
The one thing about explaining stuff is that if you’ve ever read John Byrne-written Superman, he goes really far down the rabbit hole of, “I must explain how all of this works! He has telekinesis while he flies so he can carry heavy things!” No. Just tell me a story, dude.
There’s fun to some of the argument, though. We always try to buffer it with jokes.
How much do you think the explosion of comic book movies over the last decade paves the road for you?
It completely does, and other shows like this will come along. Just in general, the big screen and the small screen speak to each other like that. I think back to when “Star Wars” was big, and then there was (the original) “Battlestar Galactica.” It was wannabe “Star Wars” every week. I do think that one informs the other. But it also sets an expectation on both a visual level and a storytelling level.
What, if anything, are your memories of “Greatest American Hero”?
A lot. Robert Culp, the book, he lost the book. (Nerd note: One of the show’s gimmicks was that the super-powered costume came with an instruction manual that our hero almost immediately lost, so he never quite knew what he was doing.) That was one of those shows where I remember, in the first year, getting frustrated as a kid. “Why can’t he still have the book?” And then there was an episode where he got another book and then shrunk down and left the book small and couldn’t find it! I had a lot of those memories about it. And didn’t they change out Culp at some point and give him a new partner?
No, I think Culp was there the whole time. They may have changed some of the kids in his class, and they had to change his name, because his last name was Hinkley and then John Hinkley shot Reagan. That was unfortunate.
Obviously, everything now is more sophisticated, but we don’t want to be as goofy about it. I think we have a little bit more reverence. And there won’t be costumes.
I’ve been reading comic books since the ’80s, I’ve been watching TV obsessively since the ’80s. Which medium, narratively, do you think has grown more from that time to now?
My sense is that they’ve both grown in equal proportion, which is interesting. They’ve broadened, so there are now super-niches between each of those niches that were already there. As there’s more and more networks, and as there’s more and more (comic) brands. They set a pop culture standard for thing, as evidenced by Comic-Con and things like that. That’s exciting. Hopefully, better comic books and graphic novels forces people to be more imaginative.
One of the goofy ways that they’ve informed the other, that I’m not a fan of, that people want to bring out pitches for movies or shows, and they don’t sell, or they’re afraid they won’t sell, and agents tell them, “Go make a comic book out of it, and then sell it as a movie.” And it becomes a sales tool then, as opposed to something that’s just original and smart. There’s a place for everything. I guess the exploitation of it is something that to me, as a fan of those kinds of things, is annoying.
What has Guggenheim told you about the difference in the disciplines?
I’ve learned a lot. He’s like you a little bit. He’s a walking encyclopedia of that stuff. He’s like the kid you’re hanging out with in high school who knows so much more than you’ll ever know about the arcana of all of that. He’s such an immediately wealth of information, both currently and historically. He’s a great comic librarian, pointing me in the right direction. “Well, if you really want to read that, you have to read so-and-so’s issue on this!” He’s been my tutor, I’d say, of catching me up. Because the year I put down a lot of them would’ve been ’89, ’90. I’ve spent the last three years trying to catch up on that stuff.
Just out of curiosity, what other stuff have you been catching up on?
I would say going through each of the different characters’ lives and finding different standout standalone ones. Ones that are more adult. And catching up on, “Who did Wally face in those intervening years?” It was already Guy Gardner by the time Crisis came along, “And when did they reveal Guy was from another planet?” It’s interesting to see what’s been done to some of the characters since. Superman, they changed a few times…
He was electrical and blue for a while.
What’s so nice is how many of the characters have come back to where they were.
Do you think that’s just the result of the properties having been around for so long and people being desperate to try something new? “We’ve told a million Hal Jordan stories. Now let’s make him a psychotic killer and bring in Crab-Face Guy.”
I think there’s a desire, and you see it in the films, to go back to what made the thing special in the beginning. Especially now that there’s a whole new wealth of people discovering thing. It feels like the right thing to do.
And the movies can set the table for the comics. “Now we have to keep Hal Jordan cool, because people are going to be seeing Ryan Reynolds play him.”
No Gorilla Grod anymore.
(Mention of Grod takes me off on a tangent by me that I will spare you, save to say that it involves the idea a friend once told me that in the ’50s & ’60s, studies showed that, independent of inside content, comics got a sales bump if their covers featured talking animals, clothes moving independently without people in them, or the color purple. I mention it only because Berlanti’s first reaction, before I mentioned the era, was, “Well, that explains G’Nort,” the incompetent talking dog Green Lantern.)
So I take it G’Nort is not in the movie?
That’s something I stay away from talking about, in terms of what characters they’re going to show. They have a plan.
That’s the thing, though. With all this genre stuff, you want to see how you can do it without getting silly. We have to have the right kind of reverence for it.
Doing Flash, doing Green Lantern, doing this, do you ever feel like you’re going through too geeky a phase right now?
They all came about naturally, and that’s usually my standard: if things come up in a natural way. I think when I was doing two or three family shows at the same time, it was, “Wow, are you going to be the family show guy now?” And now I’m doing this. It’s a lot of fun. It’s just an opportunity to use what you’ve learned.
Have you ever read Astro City?
No, but I’ve heard of it. Marc keeps mentioning it to me. I think he wrote an introduction to it at one point.
Well, the basic idea is that if Watchmen is about what it would be like to be a superhero in the real world, Astro City is about what it would be like to be a real person in a superhero world.
Yes, and that is a fascinating idea to me. In some ways, it informs our secondary characters in a show like this. I’ve always wondered, what’s it like for the guy who loved Lois Lane? What does that dude do? She obviously has eyes for somebody who has a slight advantage over him. Marc and I have talked a lot about those different nuances.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com