As a writer, producer, showrunner and director, Greg Berlanti has shepherded a wide range of TV series and films. Perhaps best known for bringing beloved DC Comics characters to life on the small screen in The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl, Berlanti is now extending his storytelling prowess to the streaming platform DC Universe. He is also behind the NBC drama Blindspot; the CBS pickups God Friended Me and The Red Line; The CW’s buzzy Riverdale; and, also from the Archie Comics universe, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for Netflix. Throughout his career he has championed diversity in characters and subject matter, wanting the fictional worlds of his shows to reflect the people and lifestyles that exist in real life.
TV DRAMA: What atmosphere do you want in the writers’ rooms so that people feel free to share ideas and contribute to the creative process?
BERLANTI: I’m not running any of the shows directly, but I’m working with the showrunners as though they are a writers’ room, in a sense. Very often I’ll work with individual showrunners and writers of a certain episode, or I’ll work with the writers’ room at certain key moments of the year, hearing the big pitches or hearing what they have in store. It’s about encouragement, and whenever you’re hearing a writer’s pitch, you are the first audience. I try to experience the story as though I’m an audience member and ask what would come to mind if I were experiencing that. I do try to separate out my production hat and let it be as creative an atmosphere as possible. If you put too many financial constrictions in terms of what we could afford, do or not do, you can hinder creativity. The job is so hard and challenging: you have to dream something up out of nothing, then execute it, deal with the studio and the network and production demands, and communicate to the actors who then have to perform it. You finish it, and you’re still dealing with post-production and then with critics and the audience. That can all be so demanding. The one thing young writers can bring to a room the most is enthusiasm and encouragement because it hasn’t been knocked out of them yet. Weirdly, I feel I’m in a place in my life and career where I can offer [enthusiasm] again and be as encouraging as possible to all the different people who have such herculean tasks.
TV DRAMA: And many of your shows are on broadcast networks, each with 22 episodes. That is a lot.
BERLANTI: Some of them are; some aren’t as long as they used to be. Our company made 160 to 170 hours of TV last year. Assuming that we watch multiple cuts of each, or read multiple scripts of each, you’re talking about overseeing many thousands of hours of television.
TV DRAMA: How steep was your learning curve when you became a showrunner on Dawson’s Creek?
BERLANTI: The learning curve was very, very steep! I keep thinking my learning curve in this career is going to get less steep, but it keeps getting steeper. Every time you reach a new plateau, there is a new element to learn—that is part of why I love showrunning and this business. It’s been challenging for me. I learned very quickly that every showrunner is different and there is no one way to make a show. You have to be very open and knowledgeable and self-aware about what your strengths and weaknesses are. And it takes a village to pull one of these shows off. There is a once-in-a-generation type of person who can do it all themselves—I was not one of them. I didn’t realize how much I needed those around me to lean on and to collaborate with.
TV DRAMA: Have you seen the role of the showrunner evolve?
BERLANTI: The job of the showrunner has gotten harder as all of these shows have gotten more expensive and bigger. [It used to be] on a network show, you would work until April at the most, and then you’d come back in June. It was almost like being a schoolteacher, because you’d get a couple of months off. Now you finish in May and you come back in May! You get one week at Christmas and a one-week hiatus between seasons. Part of that is driven entirely by audience demand for production values and the size and scope of these shows. More and more, the audience doesn’t see a difference between TV and film. They expect everything to look really good and be exciting and big. So we are shooting for more days and we’re editing for more days. And we’re spending more money so we can compete in a marketplace where our shows are compared and contrasted with multi-hundred-million-dollar movies and other shows that may get twice our budget. And yet the audience [doesn’t distinguish between the two]. There’s not a budget that runs at the bottom of the screen [during episodes of shows]. They want all of them to look great. So you are working more hours to meet those demands. The job has definitely gotten more cumbersome. [It] used to be a universe where there was one de facto chief. Now there are many chiefs in charge; maybe one’s running production, one’s running the story room; it’s more dependent on multiple leaders.
TV DRAMA: A lot of your shows are based on and incorporate DC Comics characters. What is it about those characters and stories that continue to resonate with today’s viewers?
BERLANTI: So many people grew up with these characters and they are iconic in their eyes. Our job is always to find ways to humanize them and bring them to life but to honor what made them each individually so special. Speaking for myself, I have very fond memories of the characters and what they meant to me as a kid and what it felt like to read those books. That’s the obligation of anybody in any generation carrying those characters forth, whether in books or on screen. It’s a great honor to be able to escort them into a new generation and in doing that find new ways to modernize them and their world.
TV DRAMA: Is casting a superhero or any of the characters on those shows more challenging than casting characters that do not already exist in the comic-book world?
BERLANTI: In some ways it’s harder and in some ways it’s easier. The easier part is that you do have a very clear sense of the DNA of this character that everyone’s loved. It makes it harder in that you may search longer to find someone who lives up to that idea. You have a clearer idea of what that character is and should be. More than the look, more than the backstory of the character, we are really trying to align the heart and soul of the character with capturing the character’s essence. Inevitably, if an actor walks in and you have four or five producers and network executives in the room, when it’s very clear that it’s that actor, it becomes very, very clear to most people that it’s that actor. That part makes it a little bit, I wouldn’t say easier, but it makes it more apparent.
TV DRAMA: What are the challenges in keeping a long-running show fresh? I’ve heard that the third or fourth seasons are particularly challenging.
BERLANTI: That can be for many different reasons. By the time you are working with people in a creative endeavor in the third or fourth year, everyone is a little tired and they’ve all spent a great number of hours together. It’s a family in that regard. The first two years of the show you are discovering a lot of new things, especially in a character-based show. In years three and four and in the years after, you are finding new ways to go deeper and to surprise yourselves and surprise the audience. If you are not surprising yourself, you are not surprising the audience. In this day and age, too, probably a big challenge is that there are so many new shows. Every day somebody is telling me about a new TV show I should watch. Even though [by the third or fourth season] you have the length of time on your side and people’s connection with the characters on your side, you have to keep working to take risks and challenge yourselves. You have to see the show in a new way so that it does hold its own, not just against itself but against every new show coming down the pike.
TV DRAMA: Long before people in the film and TV industry started talking about diversity—or the lack thereof—the casts and stories on your shows have always been diverse. Why has this been important to you?
BERLANTI: I would say it is twofold. In part, as I got my start as an openly gay writer working on a show not in the mainstream, I found my own voice. It was something I felt very comfortable with and wanted to look for new ways to do that. The other thing is that I always wanted to be part of shows that I felt reflected the world we all live in and the world I was living in. It only takes a short walk to a coffee shop to see that not everybody looks or acts alike. In those differences, there are some really rich opportunities for storytelling, for conflict and resolution and connection with the audience. And for people to see themselves or their story or the story of someone that they know reflected on the screen is a powerful thing that can connect them to the show.
TV DRAMA: Because your shows reach a young demographic, you’ve probably helped a lot of people by allowing them to see themselves in ways they hadn’t before on television.
BERLANTI: That’s one of the more rewarding parts of the job when you do connect with a younger person. Even now that I’m much older, I actually meet people who are older themselves who say, I watched your show 15 years ago, it made me realize this about myself and that I wasn’t alone in this way or that way. You see the great person they have grown up into and it’s nice to have been there for them in some way when they felt a little more isolated.
TV DRAMA: I so enjoyed the film you directed, Love, Simon.
BERLANTI: Well, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger wrote the Love, Simon script. They run This Is Us, so we were all a bunch of TV folk working on that. We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons about the audience. TV allows for great storytelling [and the film] allowed us to spread our wings even more. It was nice that we all had a shorthand because we all came out of television.
TV DRAMA: I read that earlier in your career you had to fight to get certain storylines approved. Are there still topics or issues that you have to fight for?
BERLANTI: It’s interesting; it’s not as overt. I do think people in executive suites—especially in television—are more excited by diverse storytelling and things that are different. They have recognized that that will help them stand out. That being said, they can have that appetite, but then you get into making the show, whether it’s in casting, the story itself, or the execution, and in this job you are always convincing people to take a leap. You are always convincing executives or actors or other writers or directors to trust you and jump with you and do something daring in some way or to try something that hasn’t been tried quite that way before. It can be challenging and if it works, it’s most rewarding. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s pretty rewarding because you feel like, well, at least you’ve learned more about yourself and you tried something.
TV DRAMA: Are streaming services offering different or more creative freedoms than networks?
BERLANTI: You used the right word, different, not more. Each form has its restrictions that you may not realize when you are outside of them. And each form has what is cool and different about it. There is no doubt that when you are doing a streaming show, you are not worried about act breaks or some big plot explosion every 15 minutes, but you have a different muscle and responsibility to keep people engaged. Very often I’ll find myself still using the structure of a network show just because, even though it forces certain things, it also makes you have to think about certain [elements] that make [the show] more narratively compelling. Obviously, the maturity of the content you are allowed when you are off broadcast feels freeing, but, by the same token, sometimes the restrictions on broadcast can encourage more inventiveness. I’m a big fan of both. [Producing for] network television is still exhausting because you are doing more of it and it can be overwhelming time-wise. There is no way around that.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about the shows you are producing for the DC streaming service, DC Universe.
BERLANTI: We have two new shows, Titans, which will premiere in the fall, and then Doom Patrol. Titans was created by Akiva Goldsman and Geoff Johns and I’m working alongside them and Greg Walker, who is running that show. A show for the DC streaming service is somewhere in between a premium cable show—it’s not a network show by a lot—and a movie, in terms of its look and the money we are putting into it. Titans is very mature; it has a lot of adult themes and I’d say is “edgier” than what we do on network television. Hopefully it will surprise a lot of people and isn’t something that people can go to the movies or turn on The CW and see and isn’t like one of our other shows on network. It’s very specifically its own thing and it’s been a challenging but very exciting process to figure out what it could be there, both in terms of how we shape the stories and just what are the boundaries that we are pushing against. It’s got all of everyone’s favorite Titans characters in it. That will be exciting in the fall as people discover that.
Doom Patrol, which Jeremy Carver created, in some ways is a spin-off and in some ways its own original thing. It’s also unlike anything else I’ve ever worked on for network television. Like the Grant Morrison run of the comic book, it’s very out there and trippy but also a superhero group you’ve never seen before. The DC service and platform is allowing us to find a new way of telling these stories and challenge ourselves regarding how much we can twist and turn both the storytelling and the audience’s expectations. In general, streaming shows can be much more novelistic in a way, whereas network shows are more episodic. They are great things to explore either way, but they are different.