“Make Risky, Artistic Choices” Showrunner Andy Greenwald On ‘Briarpatch’
Briarpatch the highly-entertaining anthology TV series on the USA Network is based on the novel by Ross Thomas. Showrunner Andy Greenwald spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about his creative journey to get his TV show on air.
“I loved writing about TV and speaking to people I admired to learn how the sausage was made, but I wanted to leave [entertainment journalism] and work on getting a spec script made,” said screenwriter and former critic Andy Greenwald.
In addition to writing for publications like Entertainment Weekly, Spin, ESPN: The Magazine, and The Washington Post, Andy Greenwald is the author of Miss Misery: A Novel and Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo.
Thanks to a friendship with Josh Schwartz, producer of The O.C. and Runaways, Greenwald signed on to write a spec script within the world of music. “It was something that interested me more than I realized,” declared Greenwald.
“I took this book idea I was struggling with and turned it into a spec script. Then I got an agent and did absolutely everything the wrong way. I didn’t move to LA. I didn’t put myself out there. So I had a few years trying to get things moving, but kept freelancing for places like Vulture.”
Greenwald finally decided he no longer had the same passion for music, but really cared about the types of stories being told on television. “I really cared how the story got made and the whole process. It was really a lightbulb moment. I had always had this interest, but didn’t put two and two together.”
While working with Chuck Klosterman at Grantland, Greenwald interviewed Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion). Thanks to this interview, Hawley called Greenwald shortly after to speak about adapting a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
This project is still pending, but it led to the screenwriter being hired to write for the series Legion. “By 2016, I realized I had to move to LA. My agent told me to write a spec and not worry about the rights, but just create a sample. Because there was no pressure and I had been thinking about Briarpatch for years, it was the best and most creative experience of my life.”
Creating the World of Briarpatch
Thanks to the success of Legion, Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) reached out to see if Greenwald had any writing samples, so his agent sent over the spec for Briarpatch. “A day after I turned in Briarpatch, Sam wanted to do it, but then we found out Paramount already owned the rights.”
On the new USA Network series, Rosario Dawson stars as Allegra Dill, an investigator who returns to San Bonifacio, her Texas border hometown to try and solve the mysterious death of her sister, a police officer who died in a car bombing.
“In any field, we are the walking-talking embodiments who ingest everything we love,” Greenwald said. “I am the sum total of my influences. I love shows like Twin Peaks. It taught me what art could be and the range of emotions you could put into something. I also love the comedies of Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation), which are about community and entertainment in a different way.”
As a former critic, he learned the ins and outs of storytelling for television. With so many VOD streaming platforms, he started to feel that there were too many TV shows to cover everything. “I have a long track record of covering what moves me, so I think people knew what mattered to me. Sam [Ismail] and the network didn’t push me to deviate from my vision, which was rare and fortunate. The tone of Briarpatch was there from the beginning.”
“[As a critic] I started to feel my job was that of a wealth management consultant, where viewers had a certain amount of viewing hours and I could advise them on where to spend their hours. That period made me appreciate how precious [viewers’] time is and how many TV shows there are. I didn’t want to take any opportunity for granted. I wanted to make the biggest choices I could make, take the biggest swings and make the risky, artistic choices.”
Greenwald feels that since television comes into the home, it’s a more intimate medium. As such, he sees viewers as a community. “I knew if I got the opportunity, I didn’t want to squander it by playing it safe. The other thing is having a perspective on the industry, coming in sideways, and listening to people on all sides of production. I started to have a vision of how I might run things, which was a kind of humanitive way. I don’t have tolerance for the brilliant asshole. We can leave the pettiness on the side.”
After USA Network approval and a positive view of the creation process, they could then combine various juxtapositions in the series. “Hopefully at its best, it can be stylized and emotional, dramatic and funny, thrilling and absurd. I’m not sure what box we fit into, other than the one we hopefully have built for ourselves.”
Stylized Yet Relatable Characters
On the screen, of course, Briarpatch is clearly built to entertain. All of the characters are very stylish, from Kim Dickens’ confident Sheriff to Jay Ferguson’s cowboy millionaire to Timm Sharp’s foolish wannabe con man to Alan Cumming’s cruel, yet fashionable villain.
“I have to credit the author Ross Thomas for the characters. He’s one of my favorite novelists because characters pour out of him. It seems effortless how he would create unique, funny, charismatic characters. Some characters came from the book, while others came to me on the page. Cindy McCabe was a small character in the book, but when you have an actress like Allegra Edwards, it just took off. I really believe there are no small parts. I’m in love with every character on the show.”
Greenwald added, “Everyone in the TV writers’ room had a different favorite character. The excitement of writing for characters and giving them both range and dignity, but also an arc, was really thrilling from a writing perspective, and hopefully from an acting perspective. It was a great collaboration and synergy.”
The screenwriter and showrunner looks at adaptations as a chance to take the story beyond its original world. Television allows for the opportunity to both expand and focus on the creation of character. Female characters in the 30-year-old book were briefly mentioned, but the writers expanded upon these roles so current actresses could develop these characters in greater detail.
“There are these wonderful bones in the novel, but we can add all of this other blood and muscle to them so we end up with characters we love. I think the exciting thing to me about genre is the ability to play with it, poke at it, and expose the humanity underneath.”
Advice From Sam Esmail
In noir specifically, Greenwald said audiences want to see “cool, sexy, confident people who wear the right clothes and have the best comebacks and know what to order at the bar or how to pick a lock.” He continued, “I love that stuff, so I wanted to service it. In doing it over ten episodes you can crack at their armor.”
Underneath the “coolness” of character, you can then start to uncover the true emotions and motivations of the characters and find out how and why they behave the way they do. “When you meet Allegra Dill, she’s Humphrey Bogart. She’s hard-boiled. She’s an iceberg, where everything is under the surface. But we have ten episodes to push past that and see why she built those walls. Then we use everything in our arsenal to knock those walls down.”
In the end, Greenwald wants to tell an emotional story and a satisfying who-done-it. These days, the screenwriter sees the relationship between creator and critic in a slightly different fashion. “I know not everyone is going to see what I see, be it the hard work or mistakes. My role, whatever you want to call it, is to illuminate as much as possible for those interested and I’m very excited to share tours of the sausage factory, but a lot of the joy for me came before it aired, in the TV writers’ room, on a scout, or with the actors. It was about the process, whereas a lot of interviews are about the results.”
As a final bit of wisdom, Greenwald reiterated the idea to “not make the safe choice.” While working with Esmail, he saw that the producer really liked the idea, tone, and vision. “As a critic, I had championed bold moves, so Sam told me to make these choices. But, when it was my ass on the line, I suddenly became conservative. I realized I whiffed and he was right.”
The screenwriter concluded, “We needed to make the bolder choice and that’s a drum he beats loudly and frequently. It’s very helpful, but also inspiring. When trying something big, that’s when he’s happiest. I felt confident making a bold choice because I knew Sam would like those parts best.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.
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