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Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Jake 2.0 writer and supervising producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach is one hella cool geek. Not only can he work the name of Thor's hammer into casual conversation with the greatest of ease, he's worked steadily as a writer and producer on series such as seaQuest DSV, Charmed, The Chronicle and Boomtown. Born in Puerto Rico, he spent his formative years in Ann Arbor, Michigan (where he acquired a taste for White Castle slyders) before heading to sunny California for USC film school's graduate screenwriting program.

Currently working in J.J. Abrams's Lost, Grillo-Marxuach took time out of his busy schedule to answer fan questions about Jake, his fellow writers, and how awesome it was to meet El Hombre Nuclear himself, Lee Majors.

j20fans: Okay, for the record, how do you pronounce your name?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It's spelled "Javier Grillo-Marxuach" but it's pronounced "Throatwarbler Mangrove."

How'd you land the Jake 2.0 gig? Were you there from the beginning?

I was not part of the genesis of Jake. In fact, while the Jake pilot was in production, I was working on my own pilot for NBC (Future Tense). However, Silvio Horta and I became good friends and forged a synergistic professional relationship when I worked for him on The Chronicle, which I count as my favorite year in television (Boomtown is up there, but we didn't get to do Elvis impersonator vampires and sex-crazed alien assassins on that one). Anyway, Future Tense failed to make the fall schedule and Jake did, so Silvio was kind enough to invite me to the party, and, along with David Greenwalt, rescued me from the dread spectre of unemployment.

What was the Jake writer's room like? Who were the card-carrying geeks? Did you all sit down to break stories together? Or was it more a case of a writer pitching an idea, and being there from beat sheet to writer's draft to shooting script? How collaborative a process was it?

The writers' room on Jake is wasn't so much of a room as much as it was a large open space in the middle of a building that housed several recording studios in addition to the Jake offices. We had an endless procession of musicians ranging from hip-hop MCs to new age Tibetan bowl percussionists (and, on at least one occasion, Tia Carrerre) roaming our workspace as we tried to break story. At one point we were breaking a Rear Window type story where Jake was forced to spend the week cooped-up in his apartment on sick leave and was constantly thwarted in his attempts to get some sleep by the endless rehearsing of the rock band next door. Although the story was ultimately scrapped, I like to think it was inspired by our working conditions (the band was to be a Christian heavy metal band named "Godyssey 5"—it would have been worth writing the episode just to get that one in).

The writers' room is a necessary instrument of the trade—it is the place where ideas are debated and the good ones rise to the top (and survive the test of ridicule). On most of the shows I have worked on, the individual writer brings in an idea, develops it in the room and then goes off to write a beat sheet and script with notes from the executive producer, studio and network at each step.

Your script is ultimately your own, but in a well-run staff with an effective room, you go off to write knowing that the story was put up to rigorous scrutiny and what you are writing is the best that it could be. That, to me, is the ultimate fusion between individual creativity and the collective process... and when it works well, when the boss is fair with the criticism and generous with the praise, and all the individual writers come at it from a baseline of mutual respect and a desire to do whatever it takes creatively to make it work—when all the cylinders are firing, there are few things that are more satisfying.

"To this day, two of the writers refer to each other exclusively as 'Vlix' and "Big Head Solo'."

As far as the process of breaking story goes... the process of breaking story with a group of fellow writers—which, by the way, is something I love and wouldn't trade for anything—is nevertheless somewhat akin to the mutant offspring of the most protracted group therapy session in the history of psychology and the siege of Thermopylae. After a year on a show, you have spent more time with the other writers than with your spouse, so you get to know everyone very well. Which is a long way of saying that when you spend that much time with people, you find out that everyone has an otaku-like compulsion about something. Golf. Poker. Soviet history. AM talk radio. Muppets. That much said, and without naming any names, the Jake room had an appreciably high sci-fi "geek quotient" as would only be appropriate to a show of its type. To this day, two of the writers (and I won't name names) refer to each other exclusively as "Vlix" and "Big Head Solo."

Who was your favourite character in the ensemble to write, and why? Likewise, with which character do you identify the most?

Jake, Jake and Jake. I saw the character as an archetypal geek with an endearing edge and an unwavering sense of decency, and I loved him for that. It was Silvio and David's job to pull me back from my more self-indulgent geek tendencies (an early draft of "The Good, The Bad and The Geeky" featured half page soliloquy explaining how The Matrix is the Rosetta Stone of nerd self-image). I identified with the character (because, let's face it, if someone gave me superpowers today, I'd still be a total doofus) and wrote him as a more attractive, heroic, better-spoken, emotionally stable version of myself: essentially someone who would use the trope "jingoistic mesomorphs" in conversation.

On a side note, I wrote much of the online content on UPN's Jake website, so the three people who saw the "Ask Jake" columns invoking the works of Martin Caidin and rhapsodizing about an industrial strength degaussing magnet named "Mjolnir" have a pretty good idea about how I saw the character.

Fess up—are you the Rush fan? You can tell me. I won't judge you.

Something wrong with being a Rush fan? I roll the bones and hold my fire as a red barchetta drivin', Priest of the Temples of Syrinx... and it echoes with the sound of salesmen. Of salesmen... O-o-o-f SALESMEN!

Which of your scripts do you love the most, and why? What was the coolest thing to write and then actually see on-screen? Conversely, was there anything you thought worked on the page but perhaps not so much in practice, or didn't come off the way you'd hoped?

Well, the last episode of seaQuest I wrote was pretty good...

"Because, as we all know, Lifetime is all about bare-knucle backroom bloodsport..."

I love my three Jake episodes equally but for different reasons. "The Good, The Bad and The Geeky" was intended to be the "Finnegan's Wake" of geek double-entendre. Only some... fifty percent of the nudge-nudge-wink-winks of the original stayed on the screen—but, frankly, the show is better for it. "Whiskey—Tango—Foxtrot" was incredibly fun to write and I got to do some things with Lou that I had been dying to do. It's rare when you get to create a character's backstory, and I liked having her in a martial arts gym and on out the field kickin' some jingoistic mesomorph tush. Also, "WTF" gave me a chance to write some nice extended monologues which the actors were kind enough to knock out of the park... and after the unbridled testosterone of "WTF," "Get Foley," was my chance to get in touch with my "Lifetime" side... because, as we all know, Lifetime is all about bare-knucle backroom bloodsport and UZI wielding bank robbers.

"Originally, that little dancing Lucha Libre guy was supposed to be the icon for Clu..."

In the "things not turning out the way you wanted" there isn't a lot—we had a great production unit in B.C. and they worked long hours to make the show work—so my one regret is a very small one... the Lucha Libre fighter in "The Good, The Bad and The Geeky." The CGI was put in progress while the script was in rewrite—so originally, that little dancing Lucha Libre guy was supposed to be the icon for Clu, the virus writer of the hacker team, whom, we would later find out, could only write code while wearing a Lucha Libre mask. The entire Iron-Hawk Knight Quest plot thread was not supposed to come from Jake recognizing the character but out of an investigative thread that was dropped for reasons of time and pacing. However, production had no time to change the animation, so we wound up with this weird connection between a Lucha Libre guy and online fantasy role-playing—as well as the impression that we were somehow ripping off Strong Bad (although I am a steadfast Homestar Runner fan, the whole Lucha Libre thing is a throwback to the deep and abiding love of Santo movies I developed growing up in Puerto Rico).

Of course none of this had any bearing on the overall quality of the episode. It's indicative of how good our production was that the most vexing miscommunication I experienced during the course of the season was something so trivial.

When you wrote "The Good, The Bad, and the Geeky" was it always intended for DuMont to recur?

It was left open ended just in case the character "popped" with the audience. Like I said before, the long-running threads of a show aren't always the result of pre-planning but of knowing when to run with something that works. When that episode was written, the idea of giving Jake a nemesis was already in the air, and so we left it out there to see if it stuck.

Fans got a big kick out of the pop-culture references on the show—and your scripts were responsible for quite a number of them (Tron! Firefox! The Chronicle!). How fun was it to work those in? Was there every anything you wish you could have gotten in there, that was veto'd?

They let me get away with murder for the most part. I did write in a shout-out to Alex Richmond, our recapper from Television Without Pity (as a way to acknowledge all the love we got from their site) into "Get Foley," but the episode never aired, and that made me sad.

There was also a lot of back and forth about the scene in "...Geeky" where DuMont taunts Kyle with the Latin phrase "Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur." In the original script, Kyle retorted with "Vescere Bracis Mei" but it was decided that a more direct response ("besame el culo") was in order.

Which single episode do you think really captures the essence of Jake 2.0 as a series?

"Double Agent." Hands down no questions asked. How can you beat Lee Majors offering Jake a Fresca? The answer is simple: you can't.

Okay, truth—how cool was it to get Lee Majors? Was there whoooping and general merriment?

The whooping echoes to this day. It was outstanding. I got to sit in a room and tell Lee Majors that I used to watch his show in Spanish as a boy in Puerto Rico... and then he turned to me and said something to the effect of "yes, to this day when I go to Latin America, they still call me El Hombre Nuclear"—how awesome is that?

Pretty damn awesome. Had the plan been from the beginning to try and get the original bionic couple in the show? Or did that come along later?

We always talked about the possibility of approaching Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors for the show—but it was one of those things everyone talks about but you never quite think is going to happen... however, when the network had the same idea on their own and suggested a bionic stunt cast, it seemed like it was written in the stars. At first we thought about approaching both of them to play Jake's parents, or maybe to put Lindsay Wagner in the role of Dick Fox's former lover and adversary—but she wasn't keen to do another bionic reunion, which worked to our advantage in the story break because it helped to focus the story on Jake as opposed to the guest stars.

Speaking of stunt-casting, were you a Man from UNCLE fan? Was David McCallum nifty and cool on Three? Would you have brought him back, had the WB not been big jerks and cancel the show after only airing a handful of episodes?

First of all, there's two kinds of people in this world, people who dig on The Man From UNCLE and people you shouldn't associate with.

Sadly, I did not get to meet David McCallum, but by all accounts he was a gentleman and a scholar. As far as I know there were no plans to bring him back, at least not in the thirteen episodes that were written and filmed—shame too, he would have made a cool father figure to Jonathan Vance.

The cast changed quite a bit over the course of the series—starting with Darin being written out, and Marina Black's character exiting in "Middleman." Was it a conscious decision on the part of the staff to focus more on the NSA?

TV series evolve out of budgetary concerns, creative necessity, the whims of the storytellers, and five million other factors. Usually a show decides what it is all by itself and then slowly reveals itself to the writers as they go about the business of creating stories and ascertaining what works and what doesn't. The NSA/conspiracy stuff came out of a directive from the network to do more serialized storylines for the series in an attempt to get viewers more invested in the show. We had already established Warner, the NSA board of inquiry as well as Director Skerritt and DuMont up to that point, so we picked up the materials we had already laid out and went to work.

Tonally, the show covered a lot of ground as well—going from light comedy and action/adventure to the conspiracy stuff with the introduction of Warner in ep 11. Was it ever hard to balance the shifts, and still retain Jake's innocence without the realities of the spook biz wearing him down?

Yes and no. Jake was the kind of character who could support extreme changes in tone without losing his integrity. At the end of the day, he's would always find his way to a place where he was a huge geek. No matter how good a spy he became, there was always going to be that core of dorky, clumsy endearing-ness to him. At the same time, we made an effort to vary the tone of the shows and had much internal discussion regarding how to keep him from becoming a character out of a Le Carré book. So if the pendulum went too far in one direction, we would make sure to swing it right back in the other.

Were there any scenes that were cut that you really regretted not making it to screen? Such as the Lou and Kyle tag in "Get Foley"?

"Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot" was originally written and filmed so that Jake shot Kyle only after Kyle gave him a direct order. In the scene, Jake held the gun, not sure if he had it in himself squeeze the trigger, then noticed Kyle muttering something, which Jake then nano-heard as an order to "aim for the stomach." It went to the theme of the episode: Jake accepting Kyle as his superior and accepting his orders no matter how repellent. We went back and forth on whether to service that or the idea that Jake had, through his contact with the Wolf Pack, gone feral enough to make such a ruthless field decision. In the end the way it was edited shows off the latter, and I don't think it's to the detriment of the show, but I would have preferred it to be more about Jake's relationship to Kyle.

Most TV shows are about 42 minutes in length (including opening and closing credits) nowadays, so the first thing you always cut for time is the character stuff. That often works to the advantage of the episode in terms of keeping a taut narrative drive, but you lose a lot of texture, as in the Kyle and Lou tag. There were several other Kyle/Lou exchanges in "Get Foley" and "WTF" that showed their growing relationship as a team... but what can you do, the show is called Jake 2.0 right?

The show in many ways is a throwback to not just the action/adventure series of the late 1970s (Six Million Dollar Man, etc.) but the genre shows of the 1980s as well (Greatest American Hero and Scarecrow & Mrs King spring immediately to mind). What was your favourite TV series when you were a kid, and how do you think they influenced you—both writing on Jake, and in your other series work?

Jake 2.0's saga cell was inspired by two of
Grillo-Marxuach's favourite series, The Incredible
and The Six Million Dollar Man

That genre of TV was definitely an influence. Many of the writers on the show were of an age to have grown up watching such shows. I personally grew up loving "The Six Million Dollar Man," and "The Incredible Hulk" (as evidenced in our saga sell/pre-teaser scene, which was a collaboration between myself and editor extraodinaire Shawn Paper, and was inspired by the title sequences for both those two shows).

I was also a big fan of Knight Rider (it was a shadowy journey into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist), Battlestar Galactica, Misfits of Science, The Powers of Matthew Starr, Manimal (the episode where he learned kung-fu by watching videotapes of animals fighting each other—genius!) V, Airwolf, The Quest, Wizards and Warriors, Automan, Quark, Mork & Mindy, Greatest American Hero, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Bring 'em Back Alive, The A-team, the Gil Gerard Buck Rogers and pretty much anything genre that ever aired (and usually died a swift death by cancellation) when I was a kid/teenager.

As bad as many of those shows were they tended to have a freewheeling sense of fun that seems largely absent from today's TV. Jake was not so much a throwback as an attempt to fuse the fun of those shows with a more modern writing and visual sensibility. The tightrope was to do a show that had all of the enjoyment but none of the cheese.

That much said, there is one single television series that I can truly call my favorite as a child and adult, and that's The Twilight Zone. In terms of invention, sustained quality, imagination, and the ambition to do meaningful and relevant work, that series comprises the single most important body of work in the history of the medium.

While you were breaking the story on "Get Foley" was there ever any plan to explain why Benton never revealed Jake had amnesia?

Do you remember the movie Krull? The conceit of the film was that Prince Colwyn had to retrieve Princess Lyssa from the Black Fortress of The Beast—only the Black Fortress magically teleported itself to a new location within the planet every day, so it was nigh-impossible to find or reach before it vanished to another place. In order to find the Black Fortress, Colwyn's mentor, Ynir, has to brave an audience with The Widow of The Web—for which he ultimately paid with his life. So that's all well and good, right? Except that one of Colwyn's allies on his journey was the Cyclops, who had been cursed by The Beast with the knowledge of the time of his own death—which we find out later in the movie, just happens to be the exact same time when he is helping Colwyn, Ergo and Torquil storm the Black Fortress. So, given the gravity and peril of Colwyn's journey—and the inherent danger in braving an audience with The Widow of the Web—why didn't the Cyclops just TELL THEM that he was fated to die at The Black Fortress of The Beast and give Colwyn the time and location of this event?

I swear... the question haunts me to this day.

Okay... Was Skerrit written out to put Lou in direct conflict with Warner, without a buffer? Or was Jim Byrnes just not available to reprise his role?

Skerritt wasn't really written out of the show—we just found out that Warner made for a more natural villain because of the way she was introduced into the show (as well as a slightly less creepy sexual partner for DuMont—for those of you who have seen the unaired eps) and chose to highlight her. Jim Byrnes is a fine actor and his character was supposed to have been Lou's mentor—so I'm sure that had the show continued we would have eventually found reason to bring him back.

Was there ever a story you really wished you'd have gotten to tell? Other than obviously the three final unproduced episodes. But an aspect of a character or relationship that you were dying to explore?

DuMont (Jesse Cadotte) and Jake (Christopher Gorham) in "The Good, The Bad, and The Geeky"

Frankly, we covered the gamut in the last three, especially, for me, "Nano-A-Nano," which I outlined as was to start writing on the same day we got cancelled. By the time we broke the story, we pretty much knew it was curtains at the end of the first season, so we planned to really end the series with a definitive sense of closure—and all of the unfilmed episodes made up a three episode arc designed to do just that. "Nano-A-Nano" featured DuMont escaping from prison after Warner tries to have him killed, hacking his way into the NSA and stealing the nanites, having a massive "burly brawl" with Jake inside the NSA (and destroying all of our standing sets in the process), Lou taking Warner down once and for all by exposing her illicit affair with DuMont, DuMont using his nanite powers to infiltrate the NSA satellite grid and crashing one on Jake's parents' house, Jake having all the nanites literally ripped from inside his body by a super-conducting magnet and still managing to blow up DuMont with a rocket-powered grenade launcher, and finally, Jake becoming an NSA Agent based on his own merit and settling down with Diane (who would have quit the NSA to pursue a slightly less ethically-challenged career in academia).

It would have been a satisfying ending to the series that would have truly brought Jake and his entire gang full circle... and of course, we left a little room there to re-nanite Jake in the Hail Mary event of a second-season renewal.

A lot of fans particularly love the fact that Jake had a multi-ethnic cast. And I know when you talked about your NBC pilot Future Tense you were quite excited about the idea of developing a show with a Latino lead. How do you see TV changing-if at all—to better reflect reality? Was it nifty and keen to see Lou and Kyle not pigeonholed as a Latino man and an African American woman, but written as well-rounded characters who were damn good at their jobs who just happened to be brown instead of white?

The future is multi-culti. It's a fact of life... and TV shows are going to continue to evolve and adapt to that inescapable reality (even if in their own annoyingly glacial way) toward truly presenting a balanced portrayal of our society.

As far as Kyle and Lou are concerned, their ethnicity was secondary to making them fully-rounded characters—it wasn't until the (unfilmed) episode 17 that we got around to actually saying that Kyle was Puerto Rican, and while it added an important texture to the character, it wasn't the thing that made or broke him—he was already an admirable, competent and cool (if somewhat injury-prone) character long before that.

Speaking of Future Tense did you ever look at Century City and think "But... but.. that's my show!" or was it a case of parallel evolution?

Although the original Future Tense pilot was written (and purchased by NBC) a full year before Century City and NYPD 2069, were pitched, it would be a tad egomaniacal for me to believe that Paul Attanasio and Stephen Bochco were champing at the bit to rip me off. If anything, Future Tense, Century City and NYPD 2069 owe their survival and existence to the success of Minority Report. I literally got the call that NBC was interested in reviving Future Tense the Monday after Minority Report opened at the top of the boxoffice. So I am sure that if three futuristic law enforcement pilots were made that year, hundreds more must have been pitched.

Even the fact that the plots of both Century City and the original Future Tense pilots hinged on a custody battle over a cloned child smuggled into the U.S. from the Far East isn't tremendously surprising or suspect—both were written at the height of the stem-cell research/cloning controversy. Parallel development.

Jake 2.0 has a small but rabid fan following online, with the whole fan web sites and fan fiction and online chat thing. How—if at all—did your experience with the show's online fandom differ from shows like The Pretender and Three? Do you ever go googling, to see what we're all up to, messing around in your playground? Does it thrill you, scare you, amuse you, or any combination of the three?

And God bless you for your rabid-ness. My experiences with fans have tended to be overwhelmingly positive. While I have had my share of flaming on usenet and other web outlets over the years, the vast majority of my experiences on the web have been fantastic: it is an amazing feeling to know that people enjoy your work and that it gives people a foundation from which to exercise their own creativity.

I remember being on staff on The Pretender, and feeling like we were working in a vacuum without a lot of feedback from the outside, so finding something like Perri Smith's "The Centre" site (and this was in 1996, so the whole web thing was new for most of us) was a big boost for me—it's always great when you see that someone is picking up on the big picture as well as all the little nuances and inside jokes and making an outward effort to show their appreciation.

I Google the shows I work on compulsively, and freely admit to enjoying the sense of affirmation that comes out of seeing a fandom develop around a project with which I am involved. Although I don't read fanfic while I am working on a show (for the same reasons I can't read unsolicited work), I sometimes go back after the show is over and check some out. Anytime something makes people pick up their word processor and express themselves it is a good thing... although, a friend sent me a piece of Charmed incest-slash based on an episode I wrote in which Shannen Doherty turned into a man. I may be a "different strokes for different folks" kind of guy, but that one definitely made me say... ew.

Okay, I'm with you on that one... Do you approach writing a show like Jake or The Chronicle any differently—as a writer—than you would Law & Order or Boomtown? What are the unique challenges of each? And do you have a preference, as a writer and as a TV fan?

I have worked on massively different shows, and yet, they—and all good narrative storytelling—have one crucial requirement in common: they must present a compelling conflict between characters the audience cares about. While my Chronicle episode about vampire Elvis impersonators may not have the gravitas of the Boomtown about an alcoholic homeless man who gets trapped in the world of bumfight videos, both have a "high concept" storyline that becomes dramatically propulsive because the series regulars have tangible stakes in the outcome. One became a story about a series regular learning a lesson about hero worship, the other about a series regular coming to terms with the inevitable need to let go of the illusion that it is possible to control a self-destructive family member. Without that baseline transference of theme to the main character, you have nothing.

Frankly, stories come from everywhere: research, experiences, personal obsessions, that weird dream I once had about a crucified albino midget... I have never been on a staff where the boss said "on this show, we're going to only approach stories exclusively from theme/character/concept," because whatever may be the germ of the story, the work of the writers' room is to make that story work in terms of how they affect the series regulars whom the audience has come to know and love.

And, by the way, my name is pronounced "HA-VEE-AIR GREE-JOE MARKS-WATCH."

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