This morning’s INTV conference in Jerusalem, Israel kicked off with a discussion with Greg Berlanti, who chatted with WME Partner, Scripted TV Development Marc Korman about his ascent from his childhood in Rye, NY as a puppeteer and head of the AV Club to having 15 TV series on the air at the same time through his production shingle (a record for a TV producer) and a Warner Bros. TV deal worth $400M in cash guarantees.
In an opening sizzle reel, one of Berlanti’s peers said that if they had to liken him to a DC superhero in his Arrowverse, it’s The Flash, because he’s everywhere.
But if there’s a theme that goes through all the shows that Berlanti has worked on from Dawson’s Creek to the current You on Lifetime and Netflix, it’s “compassion” per Korman. But asking Berlanti about his secret sauce, the TV series creator and EP expounded, “I grew up realizing that I was different from the majority of the people around me” as “a gay man”.
“I always sort of felt part of the environment I was a part of, but there was sort of part of me that was outside, observing that. I don’t know if that was because of my sexuality necessarily, or was because of my desire to be a storyteller or a writer. I think a lot of writers regardless of their sexuality feel that way. I think a lot of people who feel ‘other’, feel that way, and it just so happened that storytelling, and being a part of storytelling was a way to make sense of that.”
Berlanti’s sensibility has culminated in creating several milestones for the representation LGBTQ community on TV: the first televised gay kiss, the first televised gay marriage, the first gay superhero, the first black superhero, the first gay black superhero and the first lesbian lead (Ruby Rose in the upcoming CW Batwoman).
Berlanti spoke about how he wanted to be Jim Henson when he was younger growing up in the 1980s, calling his mother his “first WME agent” as she negotiated his pay; Berlanti would get asked as young as the age of 12 to perform puppetry at younger kids’ birthday parties. “She didn’t care that it didn’t make me more popular or that kids made fun of me, she saw my future well before I did, and was very encouraging to the things I did and the things that inspired me,” said Berlanti. The story beat format he used in writing puppet skits is what he carried over into his writing process today. It was during his college days in Northwestern that Berlanti realized acting wasn’t working out, and he embraced playwriting.
From the time he was 14, Berlanti said “I was becoming aware of my own sexuality” however it was “at a time when an entire generation was being wiped out from AIDS. I conflated the two: If I tell people this secret, I’m going to be gay, and if I’m going to be gay, I’m going to die. I had never met a gay person that I knew of, not in my small town or community or (that I watched on TV.”
Berlanti then witnessed a moment that would change his life. While heading to participate in “Hands Across America”.
“We were crossing the street and there was an AIDS march. It was the first time that I looked up and saw men holding hands. Obviously a number of people were sick and angry, and had a right to be,” said Berlanti.
“A man was crossing the street and he reached out his hand to mine. I didn’t take it because if I shaked his hand, my parents would have figured out that I’m gay and they’ll know my secret. So I didn’t do anything. I remember him and that moment for the rest of my life. Years later I thought I hope I have the courage to live as myself and to come out and be who as I am,” said Berlanti.
Years later Berlanti was able to reciprocate and provide encouraging to a young gay youth. After a test screening of Love, Simon in the middle of Kansas, a young 13-year-old boy who identified himself as being gay approached Berlanti, thanking him for making a film that made an impact on his life. “He reached out to shake my hand,” says Berlanti. In the summer of 1996 at the age of 22, Berlanti came out to his family.
Berlanti told the crowd that as an aspiring screenwriter he wrote a spec based on his personal experience of coming out. “It was the most personal thing and everyone said it would not get made, but it gave me all these opportunities,” said Berlanti. The script was passed to Kevin Williamson who gave Berlanti his first break. Berlanti initially was working on a script for him, when Williamson gave him a shot in the writer’s room during season 2 of Dawson’s Creek. Berlanti essentially buried his nose in writing, really never being that vocal. in the writer’s room. Half of his scripts wound up airing during second season and as people got fired above and below him (Williamson departed the series early on and Berlanti couldn’t follow due to his contract), Berlanti was soon installed as the showrunner by the studio; the youngest ever at 27.
“I learned very quickly how much I needed other people,” said Berlanti saying that Dawson’s Creek was “a steep learning curve.” Other shows followed: Everwood inspired by his childhood upbringing in suburban New York, Jack & Bobby, the Arrowverse, Riverdale, the list goes on. In regards to his mastery of the crossover episode on TV, Berlanti attributed it inherently to comic books, which have long practiced that in their plotting.
Korman’s final question to Berlanti was about advice the TV creator could offer to aspiring scribes.
Answered Berlanti, “What’s great about writing is that you can always be doing it. If I got dropped on a desert island, I’d come back with a story. The most powerful thing you can know about yourself is what your voice is, and it’s always changing and being redefined, and you can always be rediscovering it. And that time between, you, the pen and the paper, or the computer and you’re figuring that out, can change your life. It changed my life.”