Badass Interview: iZOMBIE Writers Rob Thomas And Bob Dearden
iZombie is a truly wonderful new series on The CW (read my review of the pilot here), and I was lucky enough to talk to Rob Thomas, the creator of the series, and one of its writers, Bob Dearden.
Thomas is also responsible for some of my favorite television in Veronica Mars and Party Down, and Dearden worked with Thomas on the Veronica Mars web series spin-off Play It Again, Dick (which I recapped for FYA here) and last year's Veronica Mars movie.
By the way, if you're not watching iZombie, get on that! You can catch up on the first four episodes here, and the show airs Tuesdays at 9/8c - following The Flash, which makes Tuesday my new must-see TV.
How did you two start working together?
Bob: I saw Rob speak at the Austin Film Festival during the fall my first year as a student at UT [University of Texas at Austin], and then again that spring at a special event where Rob screened the original pilot of Party Down. During the Q&A afterward, he mentioned how nice it was to be able to live in Austin most of the time while still maintaining his Hollywood ties and career, and how he was about to start working on a pilot script for HBO.
Around that time, I was trying to figure out how to fulfill my program’s internship component without having to move to LA and work for free.
A couple months later, I emailed the AFF to see if they would broach the subject with Rob, not knowing if it was even appropriate to ask. They forwarded the message, and Rob got back to me the same day to set up a time to meet.
And his life has been a beautiful dream ever since.
Rob: Bob’s letter reached me at a time when I really was eager to have another human with whom to bounce around ideas. I had to get around how Canadian he was (and remains). Every time he pitched an idea for a plot point or a line of dialogue, and I didn’t use it in the script, he wouldn’t stop apologizing. It helped that he was – or pretended to be – a big San Antonio Spurs fan.
I think Bob thought that interning was going to mean going on coffee runs and changing out the ink on my printers, but that wasn’t the help I needed. I had a few projects I was working on, and he got thrown into the deep end immediately. He helped me break story, which means starting with the big idea of what the story is and breaking it down to how each scene would play out. Back in Los Angeles, I had writer friends and producing partners I could talk through these things with, but in moving back to Austin, I didn’t have those sounding boards. It was also nice to work with someone who actually studied screenwriting in grad school. I went from being a novelist to being a screenwriter, so after 15 years in the business, I finally had someone who could explain to me the difference between (OFF SCREEN) and (OFF CAMERA.)
Bob, can you talk about your journey from RTF (Radio-Television-Film) student at UT to television writer?
Bob: First of all, the program and faculty at UT/RTF taught me enough about screenwriting and writing for television that I didn’t come off as totally useless when I started working with Rob and, eventually, his producing partners. I phrase that in a self-deprecating manner because that’s how I was raised, but I don’t mean to diminish the value of my education at UT. It laid the groundwork for everything that’s followed.
Beyond that, my first move was to hide in Rob’s luggage when he said he was heading to LA to do the Veronica Mars movie. From there, it was a combination of a lot of luck, a lot of very generous people willing to help me out for no good reason, working hard at whatever job I was assigned, and trying to continue to learn and develop as a writer. Hitching my wagon to this guy was a good call.
How has your time in Austin informed your shows?
Bob: I think this is more for Rob, but I try to incorporate an Airstream trailer puppy shelter into every script.
Rob: I’m desperate to have Austin inform my shows. There’s nothing I want more than to get a show picked up that’s set and shot here in Austin, but it hasn’t happened so far. I’ve written and pitched several shows set here, but those haven’t been the ones that I’ve gotten off the ground.
I’ve used a ton of Austin in my shows. You’ll see some of my favorite things – Amy’s Ice Cream, for instance – make it into my scripts. Most of my Austin friends will see their names in the show at one point or another.
Austin was a big influence on Party Down. It was a show about how long we can keep chasing a dream. I was in a band in Austin, and I asked that question of myself for years. Most of my friends in Austin are musicians, and many of them have wrestled with that idea. The second pilot I ever got to make was sort of a reverse Northern Exposure. It was about a minor league hockey team playing in Central Texas. I got the idea after going to see an Austin Ice Bats game. Unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up to series.
In co-writing a web-series like Play It Again, Dick, one that's part of such a big, established universe, how does that process work?
Bob: Usually how it works is I come up with awesome ideas and Rob takes credit for them.
I may be remembering that wrong. What I recall with clarity is that for me, as the inexperienced writer gifted a very cool opportunity, it was kind of like the most absurd fan fiction, except then you get to see it actually come to life.
Rob: There’s not a ton of money in web series, so we had to make it on the cheap. A straight Veronica Mars spin-off would’ve looked very low budget in comparison to the CW series. We could only really afford one location. I wanted to make the limited resources work for us. I was inspired by the BBC comedy Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. A lot of the comedy on that series was built on how cheap it looked. It was an incredibly smart show that intentionally left all of its “mistakes” on screen. Additionally, I wanted to have fun seeing our Veronica Mars actors playing ridiculous versions of themselves, milk some comedy out of the idea that they’d been chafing for years about the limitations of the characters they played on Mars. I just brought in that big idea then told Bob to write something funny within that framework. And, as he said, I put my name on it.
Both iZombie and the Veronica Mars movie premiered at SXSW. Talk about your relationship with the festival.
Rob: My relationship with the festival has spanned all 28 years. My band played SXSW the first couple years of its existence, back when mediocre local bands could still get a slot on the schedule. I’ve now been in the festival as a musician, as the writer-director of a feature film and as the writer-director of a TV show. Next year, I’m going to create an app and try to get in on the tech side. Or get my own pedicab and try to make a few extra bucks. There’s no time I’ve been involved with the festival that I haven’t had a good time. The years I’m not involved I of course grouse about the traffic and the out-of-towners.
Rob, you tend to work with the same team of people throughout projects. How do you know when you've found someone you want to add to that team?
Rob: The criteria is pretty straightforward. Do I like hanging out with them, and do they make my life easier. If the answer to those questions is yes, then I want to keep working with that person. My producing partner, Dan Etheridge, is someone I met on my first night in Los Angeles. We just discovered we were simpatico on what we loved about movies and TV. We kept running into each other at the same movies. He was a producer. I was a writer. We were both at the same Galaxy Quest matinee. We figured we should go ahead and get some work done.
iZombie shares a lot of pop-pulp DNA with your previous shows. What lessons did you learn on Party Down, Play It Again, Dick and Veronica Mars that you brought to the table in iZombie?
Rob: The important lessons I learned from Party Down and Veronica Mars are that I wanted to have one show in my career that a lot of people watched, a show where every week when the ratings came out, I didn’t die a little death. I’ve really tried to force myself to make more populist choices on iZombie than on the other shows. On this show, more than the others, I try to ask myself, “What is the more fun choice?” rather than “What will the critics and my TV snob friends like?” I’d never steer one of my own shows into shameless territory, but I’m trying to actively court viewers, keep the show paced up and not make it feel like the show belongs to an exclusive club. To put it in '80s band terms – I’d like to be REM rather than Camper Van Beethoven.
In adapting a popular comic book like iZombie, there's obviously less freedom than in creating a universe of your own. How do you bring your own sensibilities to this previously established world?
Rob: Perhaps to the chagrin of the fans of the comic book, I don’t really feel like I have less freedom to create a universe of our own on the TV series. I think the comic book is great. I have a ton of respect for it. We took some very key elements of the comic book into the TV series – Liv’s look, the big premise that this zombie can function as a living human if she keeps eating brains, that she inherits the memories of the deceased. But once it becomes a TV series, it becomes its own thing. I never find myself thinking, “We can’t do that. It’s not how the comic book did it.” I probably feel more constrained by the city of Seattle than I do the comic book. In Veronica Mars, we kept getting to build Neptune, and as it was fictional, it got to be exactly what we wanted. With iZombie, I can’t really reinvent Seattle. If I wrote, “Seattle, a town without a middle class…” people would roll their eyes.
Describe the iZombie writers room. Do you have hard and fast zombie rules, a brainstorming board for upcoming meals? Bob, how do you collaborate with the other writers, and Rob, how do you steer the ship?
Bob: I’m new to all of it, so I do a lot of listening and making really funny jokes in my head but usually not saying them out loud. To me, the collaboration is the coolest part of writing for TV. I guess it depends on the dynamic of each writers’ room, but I feel pretty lucky to have been able to work with Rob as well as Diane Ruggiero-Wright, Kit Boss, and all of the other writers on the iZombie staff. I think it takes a rare brand of talent to develop a script on your own, in a vacuum – that’s showrunner level. I’m not there, so I find the process of pitching in to a collective story pretty gratifying. And not nearly as stressful as the alternative.
Rob: In the iZombie writers room, we discuss zombie rules ad nauseam. How is “zombie” transferred? Can zombies have sex. What would happen to a zombie if he fell off a 10 story building. You’d be surprised how long you can argue about such things. Though I haven’t been in a Law & Order writers room, I suspect our approach to breaking murder cases is much different than theirs. I’d wager they start with ripped-from-the-headlines sensational murder cases and work from there. We generally start with, “What would be a fun brain for Liv to eat this week?” So we often start with, “It would be fun if Liv was channeling a peppy high school cheerleader. I’ll bet we’ll get some really great jokes from that. Now, why would someone want to murder a peppy high school cheerleader.”
If I can mix a couple metaphors, there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and in a writers room, you’re getting pitched eight different ways to approach a story, and many of them will have validity, but a writers room is a factory, and you’ve got to keep pushing product down the line, so it’s up to the showrunner to say, “This is how we’re going to skin this cat this week. Everyone get on board for this direction.” If you’re a showrunner who is constantly second guessing yourself, you’ll drive yourself – and your staff – crazy.
Are you guys working on anything beyond iZombie that you can talk about?
Bob: A Christmas Album and a pairs ice-dancing routine for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Rob: I’ve sold a pilot script idea to the CW that I’ll write for next development season, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a pilot script for E! that they may or may not shoot this summer.