Take Five with the Children of Tendu
By Leigh Raper
Children of Tendu is a new podcast ostensibly for people interested in writing for TV. But hosts Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina offer up solid advice for anyone interested in collaborative creation or building a career around writing.
Grillo-Marxuach and Molina have decades of combined experience writing for television. Their résumés include many of the shows that keep you up at night or tempt you to call in sick and queue up for a panel at Comic-Con: Lost, Sleepy Hollow, The Middleman, Firefly, and Helix. At different points in their careers they have held most, if not all, of the different staff writing jobs, from entry-level writer to executive producer and show creator.
On Children of Tendu, they share their combined wisdom with honesty and humor. They break down the business into nuts and bolts segments on topics such as finding an agent and how be a good writers’ room citizen. They even have an episode that decodes all of those producer credits and job titles. Here, they talk a little about mentorship, Game of Thrones, and having a plan B (or not.)
Writing compelling and interesting stories is just the beginning.
The Coachella Review: You’re both busy guys doing lots of cool things, why a podcast? And why now?
Grillo-Marxuach: If by “cool things” you mean “getting drunk before heading off to our monthly Dungeons & Dragons game” then yes—we are doing “cool things.” We are both working television writer/producers—but those working lives are no different than anybody else’s, and during a moment of downtime, over a bourbon or two, before our D&D game, we got to talking about the amount of madness, rage and abuse we have experienced in the business—and about how difficult it is to find quality mentors when the stakes are so high, the pressure is so intense and most people in positions of power in our industry—especially the creative types who so often lack management experience—are incredibly busy keeping their heads above water. We wanted to provide an introduction to the business, not just in terms of the craft of writing, but also in terms of what kind of people you should expect to encounter and what kind person you should strive to be.
Molina: Obviously, we’re both suffering from massive mid-life crises.
Also I think we’re at a point in our lives and careers when we look back and go, “Ah, the good old days,” then look to the future and go, “There’s a void in mentorship that wasn’t here when we were coming up the ranks. How can I help remedy that? How can I return the many favors that were done to me by my mentors?” I’ve found myself in some ridiculously chaotic staff situations over the last few years—some of which were weirdly a lot of fun, in retrospect—and I’ve turned to the assistants or rookie writers in the room and said “You should know, it’s not always like this.” So Javi and I were looking for a forum in which we could say this on a broader scale, and also in which we could hopefully prepare writers to a) avoid these situations, b) handle them if they had to, c) be smart/informed enough not to be the person who creates them.
I think Javi would agree with me that this podcast is in many ways a tribute to Michael Piller, who died too young at age 57 after mentoring writers for over 20 years. Our influence will never be as far-reaching as Michael’s, but we’d like to honor his legacy in whatever small way we can.
TCR: I have a Saturday to kill by streaming some TV. What should I watch and what should I pay attention to story-wise? A TV writing self-tutorial of sorts.
Grillo-Marxuach: You should watch whatever it is that gives you pleasure. One of the catchphrases I most despise is “guilty pleasure.” If anything is good enough to give you enjoyment, then that is what you should watch and learn from. If you want to make it into a tutorial on writing, the best place to start is to try to understand what is it that your favorite program shows that gives you so much joy. It all starts with that: what the characters do on screen that reveals their true selves and gets your blood pumping. In the immortal words of Lex Luthor: “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients of a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”
Molina: Watch one season of Game of Thrones. Only one season, though, but watch it twice. Here’s why:
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another show on TV—now, or in recent memory—that’s as fully thought-out and realized as GoT. “Not fair,” you say. “They had thousands of pages of source material to base their show on!” Yes, they did. In a perfect world, you should give that much thought to the worlds you’re creating in your head.
Benioff and Weiss had the years of thought that G.R.R. Martin spent developing his novels as a resource — actually, not a resource, gospel. Which means every facet of every character and every plot twist had been thought about rigorously before anyone wrote a word in script form. Martin had already thrown out dozens of lesser drafts when he wrote the books. And the resulting universe is one of the richest shows that has ever been on the small screen. The second time you watch the pilot —after you’ve seen the rest of the first season (and/or the others)—you will find so many subtleties in every spoken line you will wonder how you ever liked the show the first time around.
I’m not saying you need to spend years crafting your tale—none of us can afford that kind of time if we want to pay our rent. But if you want a master class in character-building (and world-building), you can learn a lot from a day devoted to a Game of Thrones marathon.
TCR: In Episode 3 you talked a little bit about how cable and streaming services were changing staffing season. Speaking of streaming, what other ways do you see technology changing the life of the TV writer?
Grillo-Marxuach: Most immediately, the episode orders are shorter—it used to be they would order 13 with a possible back-nine, making 22 total. Nowadays, most shows are shorter orders, so we—and our agents—have to hustle more, generate more opportunities for employment, and we have to be more entrepreneurial: developing more material and looking for more venues in which to show it. More than ever, the onus is on us to not only have ideas but execute them before others come to us to do it for them.
Molina: I’m terrified that it could lead to some truly destructive practices that could set back writers’ rights in Hollywood a half-century or more. This was something I was very worried about—which wasn’t addressed—during the 2008 Writer’s Guild strike, and it remains a precarious situation. All TV broadcasters are subject to what is called the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) of the guild. Which means there are certain rules they can’t dodge, like contributing to pension plans and paying a specific minimum wage to writers, both staff and freelance. My fear is that, with all the new distribution avenues available to studios big and small, they’ll be able to dodge all the hard-won rights we’ve gained over the years and set arbitrary new guidelines for how much talent is paid for their work.
Because so-called “new media” isn’t television, a lot of the rules don’t technically apply, even if many are currently being honored. And, as we all know, corporations don’t run on honor, they run on money. The moment the studios they can figure out how to pay everybody less—not just the writers, everybody—we’ll be facing some very dicey legal loopholes.
TCR: What’s the best piece of advice you give people working for you that you wish someone had given to you early on?
Grillo-Marxuach: The only thing insecure people fear more than talent is integrity. If you are blessed with both—or either—you need to balance them with humility. Everyone who works their way up to a position of employment in this business has something to teach. You serve no one by acting like you just walked out of an Ayn Rand novel.
Molina: “Live a little bit more.” I knew I wanted to write from a very early age, so I spent a lot of years with my nose buried in a book. I wouldn’t trade the pleasure you get out of a good book for most things. But I came to Los Angeles at a pretty young age with a very set goal, and I wanted to get to that goal ASAP. I could’ve never afforded a semester abroad or a year off to “find myself,” but I could’ve sought out more life experience than I did, and I wish I’d seen a bit more of the world. Try to figure out who you are as a person—as an adult—before you get into an industry that tries its best to turn you into everyone else.
Wait, is this about career advice?
TCR: If you weren’t writing for TV, what would you be doing?
Grillo-Marxuach: There’s no plan B, that’s the only reason I’m still around!
Molina: Selling Devo hats out of the trunk of my car.
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Leigh Raper has a degree in English Literature from the University of Miami and a JD from Pepperdine University School of Law. She writes fiction and posts on her blog about the intersections of pop culture with labor and employment law at leighraper.com. She is slightly obsessed with television, rocks out to classic 80s hair metal and plays fetch with a wicked smart Labrador Retriever. She lives in the hamlet of Palisades, NY, on a rural postal route 12 miles north of New York City.