When ABC canceled two of his three series on the net in the spring of 2009, Greg Berlanti took it as “a good sign from the universe that it was time to make more work for myself,” he says.
That ambition is among the qualities that has made Berlanti one of the smallscreen’s most prominent showrunners, even though he’s barely a dozen years removed from his first writing gig on “Dawson’s Creek.”
Berlanti is juggling more than ever this fall. He’s steering the launch of ABC’s most anticipated new series, Michael Chiklis starrer “No Ordinary Family” (see review, page 23) and he’s parenting “Brothers and Sisters” through its fifth season.
Meanwhile, he used his down time last year for his first studio bigscreen directing gig, Warner Bros.’ romantic dramedy “Life as We Know It,” which opens Oct. 8. WB wanted to be in business with Berlanti after his pitch a few years ago that convinced the studio to bring DC Comics property “Green Lantern” to the screen. Berlanti co-wrote the script and is producing the Ryan Reynolds starrer, which is shooting in Louisiana and planned as a tentpole release for WB next summer.
Berlanti, 38, is clearly hoping to cruise the same multi-hyphenate expressway that J.J. Abrams and Judd Apatow rode to prominence in TV and film. Friends and colleagues say one of his strengths is his ability to compartmentalize, to focus on the most pressing need at any given time while remaining attentive to all of his creative offspring.
“The more things you have to work on, the more important it is that you focus hard on your story — what story are you trying to tell and how strong is it,” Berlanti says. “Whether it’s film or TV, whatever it is that I’m focused on most on that day is what gets my writer brain. My writer brain thinks about stories.”
As much as he’s got going now, Berlanti believes that nothing will ever be as intense as exec producing three primetime dramas at once, as he did in the 2008-09 season with “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone” and “Brothers and Sisters.”
“There were times I wanted to shoot myself in the head,” Berlanti admits.
He maintains an ultra-lean staff at his ABC Studios-based Berlanti TV-banner — it’s basically him and prexy Melissa Berman — because in the past that when he expanded the company, his time was consumed by meetings that kept him from hands-on creative work. He’s able to handle as much as he does because he tends to work with a close-knit group of writers and directors, people he knows from years together in the trenches.
Jon Harmon Feldman, who was the showrunner on “Dirty Sexy Money,” came to Berlanti after that show ended with an idea for a series about a regular family with super powers. He and Berlanti huddled together to hammer out the concept and broad story for the “No Ordinary Family” pilot script, and during that period Feldman wound up doing a polish on the “Life as We Know It” screenplay.
Berlanti took off to Atlanta late in summer 2009 to lense “Life,” with Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel, while Feldman finished the “Family” script. By the time Berlanti was back in L.A. doing post-production work on “Life,” he and Feldman were prepping for the pilot shoot.
To helm the “Family” pilot, Berlanti tapped David Semel, the helmer-producer who directed the first episode of television that carried Berlanti’s “written by” credit — a seg of “Dawson’s Creek.”
Berlanti’s collaborators on “Green Lantern” included scribes he’s worked closely with in TV, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Green. After Berlanti pitched Warner Bros. on his idea for the feature, they sent him off to work on the script without even asking for an outline.
“I keep hearing that the pace of features is supposed to be slower than the pace of TV, but things have happened quickly for me. On ‘Life,’ I read the script in May (2009), got the job in June and we were shooting in September. It was like a pilot,” he says.
“I think the ability to be able to do something of quality but on a rather quick schedule helps people who come out of TV” into features, he observes.
Berlanti first tried his hand at feature helming a decade ago with the indie romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Club,” released in 2000 by Sony Pictures Classics. He’d intended to pursue more feature work but his TV career got in the way.
Berlanti segued from “Dawson’s Creek” to creating “Everwood,” which ran from 2002-2006 on the WB. The 2004 WB drama “Jack and Bobby” (the story of teen brothers, one of whom was destined for the White House) may not have been a commercial success for the WB, but it became another calling card for Berlanti.
ABC turned to Berlanti in 2006 when it ran into trouble with “Brothers and Sisters” as the family ensembler was prepping for its premiere. His latest effort for the Alphabet takes him into new territory as a producer. “No Ordinary Family,” which preems Sept. 28, involves a lot of special effects and its family-friendly fantasy premise is demanding, as writers have to maintain the excitement without straining credulity. (Think “Heroes” Syndrome.) Berlanti’s models are the 1970s actioners “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman,” which he loved as a kid.
“It’s not the easiest show to pull off in nine days,” he says of “Family.” “The burden is on us to sustain what we have in the pilot, which is a blend of great acting, great visual effects and great fun.”
Berlanti takes pains to emphasize how much the hard work of his creative partners, like Feldman and “Brothers and Sisters” exec producer David Marshall Grant, make it possible for him to be such a multitasker. The importance of having strong people around you in the writers room and on the set was something he learned from “Dawson’s Creek” creator Kevin Williamson, who was nurturing to the young scribes who worked on that show, Berlanti says.
“The relationships you develop are the most important thing you do” as a hyphenate, he says. “You can’t control how something you make is received by the world. You try to make it great, and it works or it doesn’t. But you can control the experience you have while you’re making it. I’ve realized that’s where the fun and the joy is in this business.”