Jonathan E. Steinberg is one of Hollywood’s rising stars. His very first outing,¬†Jericho, quickly gained a cult following. When the network cancelled it, the fans who loved it fought to bring it back‚ÄĒand won!¬†Following¬†Jericho, Jon wrote and sold several pilots, and then went on to develop¬†Human Target¬†(a DC Comics adaptation) for Fox. It aired for two seasons. Always busy, he currently has three series in development, and it was just announced that ABC has ordered a pilot for his reimagined Beauty and the Beast.
Jon and I first met in 2007 when¬†Jericho¬†was cancelled, and since then I have worked with him as a designer on¬†Human Target, the¬†Jericho¬†season three graphic novel, and most recently on Beauty and the Beast. Jon agreed to answer a few questions about the process involved with being writer/producer on a major television series.
1. Jon, you’ve developed two shows from the ground up.¬†Jericho¬†was a world you created from scratch.¬†Human Target¬†was a world and character that had already been established as a comic book. (I’m intentionally ignoring the Rick Springfield TV show.) How did your approach to writing¬†Jericho¬†compare to your experience with¬†Human Target?
World creation, I think, is really a part of any show, whether it’s based on underlying material or not.¬† For example, with¬†Human Target, the underlying material we started with was tonally very different from what we wanted to achieve with the show.¬† Further, there were elements of that material that worked amazingly well in their original medium, but which we felt might not translate as well to live-action TV.¬† (This is no knock on the books, by the way; I’m a huge fan of them.¬† But graphic novels and TV shows do different things well, and I think you have to play to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium you’re in.)¬† When you take those two big changes into account, we were building a lot of that world from scratch.¬†So I don’t know that my approach to those two shows differed very much because of the existence of the source material.
The biggest differences come from other factors, I think.¬† For example, on¬†Jericho¬†the show was really heavily dependent on its mythology, and relatively quickly that mythology became pretty involved.¬† On¬†Human Target, though, the franchise was much more based in individual stories and character relationships, and the show’s ability to generate a new adventure every week.¬† That difference alone requires very different story mechanics to generate a series that’s going to do what you want it to do.
2. If I understand the process correctly, you write a pilot on your own (unless you have a writing partner). When it’s sold, you then share your characters and world with a writing staff and/or freelance writers. Is it difficult to make the adjustment from being the sole voice of that world to having a lot of input and ideas about where the story should go from a group of other writers?
The nice thing about having lots of input from other writers in a series is that the pilot process can be pretty exhausting creatively.¬† So in some ways, those other writers are the story cavalry, arriving just in the nick of time to help you get the show moving again.¬† On a good staff those extra points of view are invaluable: helping you to see holes in the story you hadn’t noticed before, coming up with new angles and dynamics you hadn’t thought of.¬† But it’s true, sometimes that can be a difficult process; for example, on¬†Human Target, there was one particular story element relating to our main character’s backstory that I had gotten into my head and had assumed was part of the show’s canon.¬† I went for months assuming that my version of the story would be the one we wrote into the season finale.¬† And very late in the process, while we’re breaking the season finale, I got talked out of it by one of the writers on staff.¬† He simply had a better idea than the one I was married to.¬† That can be hard to process, but ultimately it‚Äôs much better for the show. ¬†
3. As a follow up, obviously you have to compromise some aspects of your vision when you sell your show to a network. As the original creator of a show, how do you deal with disputes about creative directions that go against the original vision you had in your head?
I think the key is always to try to walk the line between maintaining a clear creative vision for your show while also constantly reminding yourself to listen to other people’s ideas.¬† Frequently, the notes that feel the most disruptive and most frustrating are the ones that get you to challenge your most closely held assumptions, and ultimately that lead to big leaps forward in terms of the quality of your story.¬† Bottom line is, if somebody really hates something you’re doing, it doesn’t mean they’re right, and it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it does mean that, at the very least, you should probably go back and check all your math that led you here, and make sure what you¬†believe¬†is cool about it actually¬†is¬†cool.
4. You’ve developed several pilots, all of which involve different settings, characters, and scenarios. How do you go about creating an entire world? What’s the first step? Do you draw from your own life and experiences? Do you do a lot of research?
For me, the central character dynamics of the world are the most important thing.¬† Ultimately, everything really ought to be growing out of that.¬† Whose story is this?¬† Why do I care?¬† Why should anyone else care?¬†¬† In terms of the specifics of the world, I’ll watch a lot of movies or shows that touch on elements that feel relevant to try to get the ball rolling.¬† I’ll read a lot.¬† It helps to be immersed in the kinds of elements you want your world to feel like and function like.¬† And music is big too; as I’m breaking a story for a pilot, I’ll listen to a lot of music that feels relevant to that world.
5.) In the time that I’ve known you, there have been many occasions that you’ve told me you’re doing another draft based on notes from the network/studio. How do you weigh feedback that comes in? Do you incorporate every idea that you’re given, or do you sometimes balk to protect the some part of the story that you really believe in?
As with most of this job, it’s all about finding a balance.¬† I don’t think networks and studios would even want to work with someone who just blindly implements every note that’s thrown at them.¬† Anybody can do that.¬† So sometimes I think it makes them happy to have you push back on certain notes if you feel like they’re not good for the show.¬† It shows you have some idea of what the show should be and aren’t just taking dictation. ¬† But you also don’t want to be the guy who pushes back against everything, because A) Nobody wants to work with that guy, and B) that’s probably not going to yield a very good show.¬† It can be difficult when a studio or network demands that you change something that you feel like is bad for the show, but in reality, that’s not a scenario that occurs very often.¬† If a note just won’t die and continues to be thrown at you, chances are, there is some merit to it.
6. On¬†Human Target, you used a full orchestra to score the episodes. How much do you think about the music when you’re writing your script, or do you just let that happen after the fact?
For me personally, music is a big part of anything I write.¬† By the time I deliver a script, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about what it’s going to sound like if it gets produced.¬† I just feel like score is a huge factor in determining how an audience perceives a story, whether the audience is aware of it or not. ¬† And if you’re not using that tool to your advantage, you’re simply not telling the best story you can tell. ¬†
7. What’s your number one tip for becoming a better writer/storyteller?
Write more.¬† You can’t get better at it if you don’t do it.¬† And consume more.¬† Watch (and read) as much as you can, and try to pay attention to what’s working about it. How is it making you feel, and why is it making you feel that way?
Thanks, Jon. As I’ve said many times, it’s an honor to know and work with you. Fingers crossed for Beauty and the Beast!
Read part 1 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Carol Barbee here.¬†