Monkey in the Middle: Grillo-Marxuach talks "The Middleman"

After ten years, comics and television scribe Javier Grillo-Marxuach's TV pilot-turned-graphic-novel "The Middleman" has found its way back to the small screen. On June 16, the first of 13 episodes of a television adaptation of "The Middleman" airs on ABC Family, with a collected edition of the original comics coming in July from Viper Comics. CBR News caught up with Grillo-Marxuach to get all the details fit to print.

At the center of the "The Middleman" is 20-something art-school graduate Wendy Watson. The tale opens with our heroine struggling with painter's block and the latest in a string of unsatisfying relationships with boyfriends. Wendy's artwork is not paying the bills, so she is forced to find temp work to augment her take-home. "And during a routine temp assignment, she is attacked by a monster, and saved from that monster by this All-American hero, enigmatic, Dirk Square-jaw type guy who's the Middleman," Grillo Marxuach told CBR News. "And because of the way that she deals with the monster attack, he hires her to become his sidekick."

Killing many-tentacled monsters, it turns out, is just another day at the office for the Middleman, who works for a super secret organization that protects the Earth from all threats extra- and intra-terrestrial. "Their motto is, 'Fighting evil so you don't have to,'" Grillo-Marxuach said. Even though the show finds Wendy and the Middleman routinely fighting off aliens, monsters and androids, Grillo-Marxuach characterizes "The Middleman" as "light-hearted and optimistic." At the core of "Middleman" is the almost father/daughter dynamic that develops between Wendy and the title character, a relationship that is in the writer's words "constantly tested by the absurd evils that they have to fight."

Grillo-Marxuach's pilot script for "The Middleman" was promptly relegated to the cold vacuum of his hard drive after striking out a few times with at pitch meetings. Indeed, the writer's representation at the time encouraged him to put "The Middleman" on the shelf. Grillo-Marxuach moved on to successful stints on shows like "Lost" and "Boomtown," but he still held out hope that "The Middleman" wasn't buried forever. "It was a project that I could not let go of," Grillo-Marxuach said.

It was during his time on "Lost" that Grillo-Marxuach met then-staffer Paul Dini, also known for his enormous body of work with Batman. Dini, who has written the Dark Knight for comics and the small screen, encouraged Marxuarch to resurrect his pet project as a creator-owned comic book. Grillo-Marxuach quickly found a partner in crime in artist Les McClaine, and found a home for "The Middleman" at Viper Comics, who will reissue the title in collected form in July as "The Middleman: The Collected Series �" Indispensability." "I had a pilot that I really wanted to do something with, but TV wasn't beating down my door for it, so I kind of decided, 'Okay, let's show the world what it could be,'" Grillo-Marxuach explained.

During the project's many years in limbo, Grillo-Marxuach never stopped casting "The Middleman" in his head. "Matt Keeslar is an actor who I had seen in the film 'The Last Days of Disco,' and he's really fantastic in that movie," Grillo-Marxuach remarked. "And I remember seeing him in that and thinking, 'He could be this guy.'" After ABC Family green-lit production on the series, Grillo-Marxuach told the network that Keeslar was his prototype for the title character. "So Matt and I met, and discussed it and so on, and he was game for it."

Natalie Morales, the actress who landed the role as Wendy Watson, came to "The Middleman" through the audition process. "We have Amy Britt and Anya Coloff doing our casting, they cast a lot of Joss Whedon's shows, and they found Natalie and brought her in and she was just spectacular," explained Grillo-Marxuach. "And this was a process where I think that the dialogue is pretty dense, it's pretty difficult, and Natalie is somebody who brought this kind of effortless charm to it. She's obviously a gorgeous and talented person, but we looked at a lot of people with those two qualities, and what Natalie brought to it was, she could take this very sort of arch, constructed dialogue, and give it a very sort of charmingly naturalistic sense of, 'This is just who I am, and this is how I talk,' and that was really crucial to it."

Grillo-Marxuach has an extensive resume as a television writer, but "The Middleman" represents his first time wearing the "showrunner" hat. "It is tremendously challenging, and it makes tremendous demands on you time," Grillo-Marxuach confessed. That said, the writer was quick to add that ABC Family has been incredibly nurturing of the project and of him personally. "There is nothing that I have to do in this job that isn't worth it for the product we're putting out. I think the show's really swell, and I have a great staff. I get to work with people that I truly love, respect and admire." And after 20 years of experience in the industry, Grillo-Marxuach says it's been "a real breath of fresh air" to finally be able to helm a show, and do it his way.

Creating an issue of "The Middleman" required little more than Grillo-Marxuach and artist Les McClaine simply doing their respective jobs, but putting together an episode for a primetime television series requires a few more cooks to stir the pot. "In TV, there's a crew of about 150 people, and all of these departments, and it's a real hierarchy," Grillo-Marxuach explained. "The burden is on me to communicate successfully to everyone who works on the show what it is that I and the writers of the show envision. You don't just write a script, put it in a machine, and a show comes out the other end. Part of being a showrunner means that you have to consistently, and with great clarity, tell everybody what the show is supposed to be, so that when they go to do their job, they're free to do it to the best of their ability."

Naturally, many of the threats Wendy and the Middleman face are decidedly easier to depict on a comics page than they are in live action. The first episode pits Wendy and the Middleman against a mob boss who turns out to be super-intelligent Gorilla. "It was a lot easier for Les McClaine to draw 25 apes than it was to actually find something of that scope and spectacle," Grillo-Marxuach laughed. The third episode finds our heroes battling against a horde of Mexican Wrestlers, which also promises to be a daunting prospect, especially on a television budget. "But we were very much able to render the pilot in a way that was really true to the comic book, on our budget and schedule, so it's not impossible either. You just have to know where to cut, and how to cut without taking away the soul of the thing."

Some of Grillo-Marxuach's primary influences for "The Middleman" were the monster-of-the-week sci-fi shows that were prevalent in the mid-'90s, when he first conceived of the series, such as "Buffy," "Angel," and "The X-Files" to name a few. Grillo-Marxuach himself worked on "Charmed," and "The Middleman" was the writer's attempt at responding to those series by creating one of his own. "In terms of television, that monster-of-the-week format was very much in place and in full swing at the time, much more than it is now, which I think is one of the reasons why this is a good time for the show," Grillo-Marxuach said.

The writer also characterized "The Middleman" as "tremendously absurdist," and cited "Mad Magzine," the Muppets and sci-fi author Douglas Adams as a "troika" of absurdist influences. "Especially the 'Mad Magazine' of my childhood, which was a tremendously intelligent and politically active, very anti-establishment kind of thing," Grillo-Marxuach said. The writer contended that Jim Henson's Muppets, too, were "form breaking" and "aesthetically daring," and that "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" creator Douglas Adams had brought a "unique voice to comedy and sci-fi" which strongly influenced him as a young writer.

Grillo-Marxuach has also been a longtime fan of superhero comics, and that genre's influence on "The Middleman" is unmistakable. "There's a scene in the pilot where Wendy describes her pull list, and literally says the comic books she reads," he said. That aspect of the "Middleman" script is something the writer has had to continuously update over the part 10 years. The pilot is also riddled with other comics references, including an apt comparison between "Middleman's" Mafioso primate to Flash villain Gorilla Grod.

"The Middleman" has already shot six of its 13-episode first season. "Then, depending on the wisdom of the ratings gods, we'll know if we're going to do more," Grillo-Marxuach said.

"The Middleman" pilot premieres on Monday, June 16 on ABC Family. Viper Comics' collected edition, "The Middleman: Indispensability" is on sale in July.

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