ANSWERS! ANSWERS! ANSWERS!
In which I (Matt) abuse my personal relationships with people to ask them dork-ass questions about their professional practices. Up this week? Marco Ramirez.
Marco writes television, movies, and plays in Los Angeles, including, most recently, DAREDEVIL season 2 on Netflix, on which he, along with Doug Petrie, acted as Executive Producer. I met Marco when he was Supervising Producer (I think?) on DA VINCI’S DEMONS, my first taste of both TV writing and a TV writing “room,” which is pretty much what it sounds like -- a bunch of writers in a room making a plan for a TV show. So, Marco’s a great writer and a great guy and he’s just helped shepherd a great season of TV, that doesn’t appear on TV or act like a season. And I really wanted to ask him about working in that space...
SPOILERS AHEAD for DD s2...
There’s a ton of stuff to recommend the second season of DAREDEVIL — your leads couldn’t have more chemistry if they were all dating, you top the hallway fight from Season 2, fucking Jon Bernthal is a force of nature — but I think my favorite thing about the new season is how amazingly artful your episode-outs (JARGON! That means the last moment of a show. Literally how we, the viewers, go out of an episode.) get. There’s a, like, Brian K Vaughn quality to how WHAT THE FUCK?!? the last minute of these shows hit, how artfully crafted and paced the episodes flow to get to that last second. It’s like you’re daring people to turn it off — I found it a challenge to ever stop at just a single episode. Did the nature of being ‘on’ Netflix, of being broadcast via OTT (JARGON! That stands for “Over The Top” and means venues like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. No one in television that I’ve spoken to has the same explanation of why streaming services like that have been branded OTT but that’s what they call it now. OTT. OK? OK.) versus a network, influence the writing and structuring of the shows and the season?
First off, thanks! Those are really kind words.
As far as the end of episodes go, I think that by design this season we built in a "hook" as often as possible. This is my second Netflix show (I worked on the first season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK before coming onto DAREDEVIL), and the all-at-once format certainly presents new opportunities in storytelling, but even aside from that, it was also a personal aesthetic choice when approaching a show like DAREDEVIL. In some cases, we follow the tradition of shows like LOST or THE X-FILES, where there's a big "world-building" question to end an episode (like the end of Episode 7 with the giant black hole). In other cases, we built to what were essentially "splash pages" where you finally come face to face with a new character - either one you knew was involved (Frank in Episode 1) or one you didn't know was going to make an appearance (Fisk in Episode 8). To me, that feels like it honors the way we digested Daredevil stories the first time around - in comic book form.
I like that idea - that we're daring the audience to turn it off. In terms of season-arc structure, we certainly stepped back from the boards and looked at the season as a whole, building a macro-structure (Kurt Sutter, who I worked for on SONS OF ANARCHY, was GREAT at this - he also worked on THE SHIELD). It sounds pretentious as shit every time I say say this, but it's true - in my mind, I thought of DAREDEVIL Season 2 as a piece of music, and it was important, looking at the thing as a 13-hour story, to know where the rests and the crescendos were, what themes got repeated, what instruments got played when (Frank, Elektra, Karen, Foggy, etc).
Tell me a little about that macro-structure — how you plan on it, how it can change, how it should change. What it means exactly to ‘step back from the boards’. Was the whole season scripted before you started shooting, for example? How does having that roadmap help out practically, as opposed to or in addition to creatively?
This is in no way anyone's mandate or business model, just how I choose to wrap my head around it. To me, the macro-structure is what you get when you step back and look at the season as a whole. "Stepping back from the boards" is quite literally stepping back from a bunch of white boards and being able to look at a season in one panorama. Like the further you step back from Guernica the more you actually "see" it. (Jesus, THAT sounds even more pretentious than the music thing.) Looking at it from a very broad, outline perspective, we were more able to have a room full of really smart writers take a crack at structuring the thing as a 13 hour story. To me, this is probably the most fun part. Big, big picture stuff.
In TV, it also serves a very practical purpose - scheduling. So we know who and what we need WAY in advance.
Of course, it all changes organically as you move through the process. A location goes away, it rains when you don't want it to, it doesn't rain when you DO want it to, there are new ideas in the room, or a character really pops, etc. - but that's just TV.
Last one: during my week on DA VINCI’S DEMONS with you, you’d leave at the end of the day to go workshop a play you were putting up. It struck me as a Herculean expenditure of energy and focus, and you had way more to do on DvD than I did (you were, y’know, actually making the show). How’s your time structured and balanced now? How does your work life, your personal life, and the writing, like a play or whathaveyou, find space in a 24-hr day?
Oh man, I feel like I should be asking YOU this question.
Yes, even though I definitely spend the bulk of my time writing for TV, I still consider myself a playwright as well - and this year - also a screenwriter (I'm adapting Akira for Warner Bros - another dream gig). It takes a lot of energy indeed, and as my career grows and evolves, I'm still very much learning how to wrangle all these different parts of my brain.
Artistically, working in the three mediums is actually kind of great because it constantly forces me to refocus on what makes each of those mediums work. In theatre, my approach is more experiential. That's to say, my work as a playwright is really focused on the experience of being in a theatre, which has limitations, but which also (at its best) forces an audience to imagine. For example, my play The Royale (which I was rehearsing when we were on DvD together) is about boxing, but the fights are invisible, spoken in stream-of-consciousness monologues by the two boxers in the ring. For me, theatre is a place full of possibility, where you can have an actor point at a folding chair and call it a throne, and an audience filled with adults who paid handsomely to be there are on board with it. That's crazy.
In TV/film, by design you get the chance to present something fully imagined. In film, you're talking about a journey under two hours. In cable TV, you're talking about thirteen. The kind of stories you tell in each medium change according to what's best suited for them.
As far as scheduling goes, deadlines help me. I set them for myself even when no one else does. (Of course, that makes them easier to break.) But in TV, once you start production, the train is GOING. It's kind of amazing, what we're capable of doing when we know something needs to shoot tomorrow. As far as multi-tasking goes, though, the scariest moment for me is when I realize there's cross-pollinating going on and I've used a line of dialogue or a story beat in more than one thing I'm working on. That's when I step back - not just from the white boards, but from the building - and realize I need to take a day off and get my ass to a Clippers game.
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