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Javier Grillo-Marxuach: ‘Lost Was NOT Purgatory’ (And Other Tales)

About Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a screenwriter and producer. He has the kind of resumé most Bang2writers would kill for, including iconic shows like Charmed and Lost. He’s continued with fantastic modern TV such as The Witcher, The 100 and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance as well. Wow!

I was delighted to Zoom with Javier recently. I love high concept, dystopian and post-apocalyptic story worlds. He’s literally worked on some of my favourite shows that have influenced my own writing!

Javier also wrote the AMAZING 11 Laws of show running, an online essay/memo which really requires its own post. Until then, make sure you read it by clicking on the title link. You can also find loads of other helpful stuff from Javier, HERE.

So without further ado, here’s Javier’s top tips for B2Wers. Ready? Let’s go …

1) Getting ANYTHING made is a miracle

With a CV as golden as Javier’s, it’s difficult to pinpoint which piece of writing is his best … and it seems it’s hard for Javier to decide too!

He eventually settles on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

It’s just such a beautiful show … its mere existence is a miracle. And everything that led up to the making of it – and through the making of it – is just miracles stacked up on top of the other. But I kinda wish we’d gotten a second season. We ran out of miracles, just one too short because we had a full story that we wanted to tell.’

The Dark Crystal was one of my favourite movies as a child. I was delighted by the Netflix show and GUTTED there wasn’t a second season too.

I can totally relate to what Javier says about miracles. It often frustrates me when I see writers tearing shows, books and movies a new one. I feel like those creatives are our colleagues. We should understand and appreciate only too well that getting ANYTHING made or published is incredibly hard.

That doesn’t mean we have to like everything – far from it. Constructive criticism is also always welcome as well. Just stop slagging stuff off for the sake of it online!

2) It’s All Collaboration

There’s a thirty-seven year gap between The Dark Crystal movie and The Age of Resistance TV show. In between there’s been a variety of Dark Crystal comics, novels, toys and more.

What’s more, Age of Resistance was not the first attempt to develop more material from the 1982 movie. There was an unproduced sequel called The Power of the Dark Crystal that was developed between 2005 and 2012. This eventually became another comic book.

I think it’s fabulous to see how The Dark Crystal grew into a phenomenon ‘beyond’ that first film. Javier agrees.

‘At the end (of The Age of Resistance), there’s a card that says basically all of the people whose material we owe a debt to … I think it also goes to show that  it’s all collaboration. We were working with material from Jim Henson from the 1980s, as well as material that had been written afterwards. It’s a continuum and we’re all working with each other.’

3) Genre can be a great vehicle for important issues

Genre is often considered not as ‘worthy’ as drama or literary fiction … but what if it made the big issues ACCESSIBLE?

‘I probably went into genre first because it’s something I grew up with and loved. It seemed like a good way of getting into topics that I wanted to explore without getting too close to, to my own heart.’ Javier says, ‘I think as I’ve gotten older, you know, genre just opens up more and more. As you work in it you get to know genre better … You realise this is an incredible way to deal with these issues of the human heart.’

4) Learn ‘Trope Tetris’

Tropes get a rough deal online. People often think they hate tropes, when the reality is ALL writing uses tropes … It’s actually the overused and toxic tropes they hate.

Javier advocates using what he calls ‘Trope Tetris’. This means learning the tropes, then building on top of one another like the iconic Nintendo game.

‘The real trick behind doing Trope Tetris is to fool the audience into thinking they’ve never seen it before.’ Javier says, ‘The more tropes you know, the better you are at Trope Tetris … Knowing tropes is like knowing the Chinese alphabet. No one knows all the characters, but whoever knows the most characters? It’s a symbol of experience. It’s a symbol of wisdom.’

But how do we know which ones are ‘best’? You don’t, Javier says. Instead you have to look for the ones that everyone sees ALL THE TIME.

‘This is why you just have to write all of the ‘throat-clearing’ tropes out of your mind. Then know the storyworld as much as you can so that the tropes that come into your head aren’t the expected ones.’

 5) You Need To Know What You’re Writing

Since he was a writer on Lost, I was keen to talk to Javier about JJ Abrams’ notion of The Mystery Box. Did he bring this concept into the writers’ room with him?

No, Javier laughs – JJ was too busy prepping the pilot!

‘The Mystery Box only works if you know what’s in it,’ Javier says, ‘because the audience’s expectation eventually wanes after you don’t show them things.’

Javier explains the hatch was their first ‘mystery box’ item … and that JJ Abrams wanted to put the hatch in the very first episode of Lost. So how come it didn’t make it in?

Answer: Damon Lindelof.

‘Damon didn’t want to put anything in that we didn’t have the answer to.’ Javier says, ‘We’ve been brainstorming, I was in the hatch for weeks, if not months. And he came in and basically said: there’s a guy in a room. If he doesn’t push his button every 108 seconds or minutes, or whatever, the world ends. Wow. And that’s all he needed.’

5) Keep Track of Your ‘Longitudinal narratives’

Javier has worked on lots of non-linear and complex storylines in his career. I like to write non-linear novels, so I was interested in how he approaches and keeps track of what he calls ‘longitudinal narratives’.

‘You’re constantly keeping track of the big picture of the show. You start with the big picture, by putting up the 10 poles of the season up on a whiteboard. Then you start narrowing it down … As in ‘Okay, we know this is going to happen halfway through the season.’ Put the entire season into the major events. Then start working down from those in terms of plot character, and so forth.’

6) If You Screw Up, Own It

In an age where writers are ‘scared’ of ‘getting it wrong’ when it comes to diversity and representation, I needed to ask Javier about his experience on The 100.

For the uninitiated, Javier wrote The 100 episode titled Thirteen in s3 in which fan-favourite Commander Lexa Kom Trikru dies. The love interest – and antagonist – of series protagonist Clarke, there was an outcry at the manner of Lexa’s death. Many fans were hurt and outraged, accusing the show of the toxic ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope.

‘We messed up,’ Javier agrees, ‘We should not have done what we did.’

 There’s no doubt in my mind the oversight on Lexa was systemic. The whole show was at fault, not Javier alone. But what came next was Javier taking on the debt himself … and living to tell the tale (in contrast to what all the ‘anti-wokists’ say). 

‘I got a lot of a lot of backlash, but I thought ‘I can take it’.’ Javier says, ‘What’s gonna happen to me if I go ahead and talk to the fans? Sure, it’s unpleasant to have people rage at you, but I could turn my computer off, get off Twitter for a couple of weeks. And it would not have affected me. But I went online. If that’s the worst withdrawal that I have to make from the Bank of White Privilege, then really I’m okay.

Owning up

I really appreciate Javier’s candour here, not to mention the fact he confronted the gaps in his own ‘trope tetris’. He spent a lot of time doing panels, talking to fans and is still happy to discuss the infamous episode with me too.

Part of the trouble of course was that the actor playing Lexa, Alycia Debnam-Carey, was leaving for another show. How does Javier think The 100 would approach this now?

‘I think what Clarke and Lexa needed was a sustained, romantic, emotional relationship that showed that it was possible for these characters to find joy.’ Javier says, ‘Maybe if we’d been able to show them having their relationship earlier … Or maybe not killed. Maybe not killing Alexa the same way that Tara McClay was killed in Buffy? Maybe not having a bullet-catcher … That was a last-minute decision that wasn’t actually made by me, but because of production exigencies on the show. So you know, coulda, woulda, shoulda … and we could have, we should have and I wish we would have, but we didn’t.’

Such a high profile incident has pushed the conversation of LGBTQ representation forward, Javier agrees.

The fans raised $130,000 for the Trevor Project. They started a convention for LGBTQI+ fans of science fiction and fantasy and, you know, up until the pandemic, they were going I think to their fourth year. I’m deeply sorry for the hurt we caused. I think there are a few silver linings but that doesn’t mean that I would do it again in any way.’

7) Be A Functional Writer (Not A Dysfunctional One)

We start chatting about top tips for writers: what separates the functional writer from the dysfunctional writer?

i) You need to finish work

‘You need to have complete material out there that people can see. You only get good by finishing one and moving on to the next. You don’t get good by working on the same script for 10 years.’

 ii) Always look for ‘the third option’

‘I think I think always looking for the third option in a scene is a good one … There’s the way scenes always turn out. There’s the scenes that there’s the opposite of that. And then there’s the third version, which is the interesting one.

 iii) Read, read, read!

‘Never stop reading. Books, maybe non-fiction, maybe long form journalism, you need to keep a steady flow of ideas. Have concepts and have just crap in your head. Not research. It’s just reading. It’s just being curious about the world and wanting to fill my head with anything that might be useful later.’

BONUS …

 8) Lost was NOT Purgatory, Mofos!

‘It was never purgatory. It’s not purgatory. It was not purgatory!’ Javier laughs. ‘In the writers’ room, we never talked about it as purgatory. I say that a lot. I’ve spent the last 15 years saying that.’

This issue reminds me of the French literary critic Roland Barthes who talked about how ‘The Author is Dead’ … Readers and audience members get to decide what a story is, not the creator. Is that what could be going on here?

Javier grins.  ‘I was sitting at a bar in a movie theatre about five years ago. There were two women sitting next to me. And they were arguing about how the island was purgatory. I’m just sitting there, you know, nursing my drink listening to this conversation. My wife is looking at me like, ‘Oh, God, here it comes, here it comes’ … I finally turned to my wife. And I go, like, do you mind? She goes, go ahead.

‘So I turn to the to the women and I say, ‘Hi, I couldn’t help but overhear. I was one of the writer-producers on Lost. I can tell you for a fact that it’s not purgatory.’

They thanked me and said, Nice to meet you. I turned back to my drink. The moment I turned my back, the woman closest to me turns to the other one and says, ‘So let me tell you why it was purgatory …(!)’

So … could this mean Barthes is correct, which in turn means the island on Lost WAS purgatory?

Javier shrugs. ‘Yeah, they watched it, they liked it, they paid for it — great. It can be whatever the heck you want at the end of the day, right?’

Thanks so much, Javier!

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