Nobody gets with the program like Greg Berlanti, the super-producer of television who currently has a record 18 active shows across the dial—the record before Berlanti broke it several times had been 10 shows (a mark reached by both Aaron Spelling and Jerry Bruckheimer), which makes the latest achievement by Berlanti Productions all the more impressive.
The genial 46-year-old native of Rye, New York, who got his start at age 26 when he landed a writing job for Dawson’s Creek in 1998, has established two hallmarks with his unprecedented episodic output: no one has shown a savvier touch when it comes to superhero franchises (he has seven, including Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl on The CW) and no one has seized the cause of representation with more gusto.
Berlanti-produced shows have piled up a long list of firsts. The first gay superhero to headline a TV series (Freedom Fighters: The Ray), the first transgender recurring character on TV (on Dirty Sexy Money), the first transgender superhero on TV (on Supergirl), the first legal gay marriage on network TV (on Brothers & Sisters), and, ramping up for this fall, the first lesbian superhero to headline a television show (when Ruby Rose dons the mask for a Batwoman pilot for the CW).
Berlanti and his partner, former LA Galaxy soccer player Robbie Rogers, were honored last September with the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Gala Vanguard Awards and, that same month, the most productive producer in television was also awarded a $300 million pact renewal that will keep him on Warner’s Burbank lot through 2024. Together the two milestones suggest that Berlanti is going up, up, but not away.
For decades, Hollywood rarely showed much respect or affinity for screen superheroes. That’s changed in a big way. For feature films, the key factor was arguably the advent of CG effects, but that doesn’t apply nearly as much in episodic television. So why is the superhero sector booming on TV?
It has become so much more a part of the modern-day myth and the fabric of our culture that people are now more accepting of genre in general. Genre became mainstream. All the stuff that I did as a kid that was weird and nerdy is now, somehow, mainstream.
And people see that across the board. It applies to more than superheroes. There was a time where you were a kid in the back of the class reading The Lord of the Rings or playing Dungeons & Dragons on the weekend. And now those things are all part of the culture in a much more mainstream way.
What is nice now with the storytelling on film and on TV is that they’re going through a second phase and it feels like people are really taking different risks with the form. These heightened worlds, or characters, or known IPs are now part of the window dressing that gets audiences in the door.
That’s what our different showrunners are doing, that’s what the more successful movies out there are doing. The known IP is the part that marketing can latch onto and then use to get people in the seats, but what keeps them sitting there is character and the execution of the storytelling.
With that mainstream audience in mind, do you have any general rules about superhero storytelling in terms of casting, tone, etc.?
From the beginning the only rule I’d say was to try to please our small group. If we tried to please too many people at the outset we would make it too generic. We wouldn’t take the risks that we want to take. With all the different writers’ rooms and showrunners, there’s a real effort to challenge themselves.
Early on, when we had Arrow, and Flash was in its second season, we had a saying: “Heart, humor, and spectacle.” That was our mantra. Heart and humor get back to what we were talking about with character. The spectacle part was for making sure we pushed the technology of TV.
I do think the audience can tell. They watch the shows but they also watch the movies and they actually do want them to be somewhat comparable these days. So we start on some visual effects sequences months before we start shooting. It can be three to four months of working on a sequence, which you couldn’t do in TV just five or 10 years ago.
Nobody in television is generating more programming firsts in representation than you. It has become a hallmark of your productions, in fact. Has that led, over time, to any unexpected consequences? Has there been pushback
from any partner, or resistance in any part of the pipeline?
I think at the very beginning, when we wanted to change the race, gender, or sexuality of characters, some of whom were iconic, we always explained our case to the powers that be; all of the executives who are equally as responsible for carrying on the mantle of these characters and their long and prestigious legacies.
The case we made was that opening a comic book was to feel like these characters were part of the world they’re trying to save. We justified each one of those changes. We weren’t doing each one to be a first of this or a first of that. We wanted the worlds of the stories we were telling to reflect our world—just as we do for a lot of our shows, even the ones that don’t have capes. We want the stories to feel, as much as possible, like they are taking place in a world that we all live in.
The effort was to make sure the shows themselves were diverse and then, out of that, there has always been the conversation. If you’re going to change any element of a historic character, there’s always a conversation about it. You end up drilling down on what is true to the DNA of that character. So while you may change their race, gender, or sexuality, in reality the essence of these characters—the qualities that make them funny, or smart, or a hero—is there.
I am proud of what we’ve done. I feel like in the TV space we’ve gotten to make a lot of change in that area faster than they have in any of the comic book film worlds, truthfully. But hopefully, our doing that has helped even there.
If we want the responsibility of shepherding these characters through a generation, we have to recognize how we are going to continue to augment these stories to reflect the world today. Then someone else will come along and they will take them into the next generation, whatever that will be.
DC Comics characters appear in every medium, of course, but how do you view the recent trajectory of the Warner Bros. live-action feature films that feature some of the same superhero characters used in your shows? The mythologies and actors are different but the overlap in audience and assets is considerable.
I don’t think it’s any secret that there has been different leadership there within the eight years we’ve been here doing this. There have been different people in charge of DC and making decisions. I’m really excited, both as an audience member and as a person at the company, that the movies of late have been so good and so exciting to the audience.
I’m a believer that a rising tide will raise all boats. The more great movies being made about these characters, the more people will be interested in them. I’m looking forward to all divisions of DC storytelling continuing to find new and cool ways to use these characters and to tell these stories.
I think that the people that are in charge now, and the way they are going about things, and the methodology they are using is great for all of us.
The feature films from Marvel Studios have jettisoned the old secret identity trope from most of their superhero sagas. Thor, for instance, had a secret identity as surgeon Donald Blake for decades in the pages of Marvel Comics, but that was ignored for his Hollywood franchise. By contrast, your shows have held on to the tradition far more. Is that something you consider more important for DC’s characters? And do you think it costs the genre credibility with contemporary audiences?
We get a hard time about it from certain contingencies, because the hero has to let a certain amount of people know what their secret identity is to allow for character dynamics and relationships. But I’ll be honest: that’s always been tricky to manage. When you keep the secret in place it’s a really rewarding thing, but then if you keep it too long you run the risk of people not investing in the characters if they don’t know the secret.
And you’re correct about the credibility. We have had that on certain shows where we have maintained the secret identity of certain characters and it has prevented them from getting closer to a character who doesn’t really know who the lead is.
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