One of the absolute highlights of this year’s Comic Con for me was sitting down to chat with Robbie Thompson, gifted comic writer and screenwriter who wrote some of my very favorite episodes of my very favorite show. That would be Supernatural, in case you didn’t know. Which is pretty much impossible unless you’ve just stumbled over this blog for the first time.
I attended Robbie’s panel on Intersectional Feminism in Comics, which was awesome and entirely inspiring, so we were all in a good mood afterwards. We decided to try to find a room where there weren’t a million people around, and took a bunch of friends with us – Laurena, Candice, Anne and Kamila – who were down with listening in to our epic interview. They will henceforth be referred to as the Peanut Gallery (‘PG’). For the most part, they were PG. The most part. Just sayin.
After several false starts traversing the ginormous convention center, including being barred from using the press room for our interview, we found an empty room with lots of empty round tables. Robbie, ever the intrepid one, shrugged and said, ‘how about this one?’
Occasionally a Comic Con staffer would come in, take a look at our oh-so-professional interview in progress, and quietly back out. Score!
I start the interview by tossing my handwritten notes about what I’m dying to ask and my little vintage audio recorder on the table.
R: (points to Lois Lane like tape recorder) Look at this, so professional..
L: Hey, it’s ancient, it’s done a million Supernatural interviews.
R: Uh oh, look at this, guys…(points to what appears to be a big stack of questions, a la Inside the Actor’s Studio) There’s going to be some Bernard Pivot in there. There may be some things I say off the record…
L: Of course, you know I’m good with that. (but honestly? There weren’t many!)
R: Okay let’s do this!
L: So I have another book coming out in the fall called Supernatural Psychology.
R: (gasps) OMG another book on Supernatural, imagine…
L: I know you’re shocked.
R: Supernatural and psychology, it’s you. You found your safe space.
L: (laughing) It’s true. It’s written by a bunch of psychologists who all love this show. And we write a lot about trauma and we write a lot about codependence.
R: Do you write a lot about brodependence?
L: That’s pretty much exactly what we’re writing about, yes.
R: I feel like I coined that term.
L: You might have…
R: I didn’t. (He didn’t)
L: People use it a lot though…it’s kinda a no brainer. But still, good on you. So usually when we talk about codependence, we talk about it in a negative way. But on Supernatural, the codependence in some ways is not a negative. I mean, I love the brodependence, you know that.
R: Mm hmm.
L: And so do a lot of people. But some people really take issue with it. When you look at Sam and Dean, is their codependence a point of resilience for them, like a way they’ve made it through so much trauma, or does it make life more challenging for them in terms of getting through their traumas?
L: These are not gonna be softball questions, by the way, since you busted me for asking you too easy questions on your King Books YouTube chat.
[Hey, he told me not to softball it!]
R: Yeah… So I’m gonna answer this first as a fan, and then as a writer.
R: As a fan, it’s never been anything to me other than resilience. They’re in a world that would certainly overpower me….
Everyone: (is nodding emphatically)
R: And they don’t have a ton of people in their lives, so to me I think them being able to bro-depend on each other makes a lot of sense. I’m also the youngest of two boys – and we’ve spoken about this before – but as much as I was drawn to Supernatural as a genre fan, I love monsters and there’s not a show I don’t think would benefit from some genre elements. Like if Mad Men was about all that same shit but then there were aliens, I’d be like sweet!
Everyone: (is nodding once again)
R: Let’s go make that show!
L: Then they could have conventions for it.
R: So, as the youngest of two boys, I look up to my older (so old) brother and I really relate to the dynamic on the show. But as a writer, it depends on the situation. There were times when the boys were at odds, where they challenged that dependence, or sought independence, that were extremely helpful from a dramatic standpoint. I know that from a fan standpoint, any time you separated the boys, there was…what’s the word I’m looking for?
L: Outcry? Pitchforks?
R: Pandemonium…fandomonium? It was not beloved. But it can help the story. I remember on the first episode I wrote, Slash Fiction, we changed the ending, they weren’t gonna be at odds, they were mad, and it was rough, but they were together, and then we changed it, splitting them up at the end — and also Sera added the scene with Dick Roman meeting Crowley. And I remember, I think it’s one of the first times I went online to check to see what people thought, I wasn’t twitter savvy at that time but I went on some message board, and people were like “well good job, but he fucked it up in the end by splitting up the boys.”
Everyone: (is laughing knowingly)
R: And I was like, okay, I get where you’re coming from. So as a fan, I never looked at it as a bad thing, and I never really looked at it as anything other than a dramatic device as a writer. It always depended on the story. I do understand where the criticism comes from though – the show itself is very claustrophobic. My wife worked on a show where their call sheet was like 12 people and you have to service all those voices. So when you have a show like this, that is so tight and compact, you’re gonna end up in these situations. As a fan, it never really got in my way of enjoying an episode. As a writer, it would just depend on the episode. But there was never a time when I was like, don’t break them up! [sobs]. If you break them up and then bring them back together, you root for that, you know?
L: It’s good drama, yeah…
R: The rule is, you figure out what the audience wants and never give it to them, but the variation on that tune is figure out what the character wants and make it really hard for them to get it. And I think there were times when we split up the boys creatively where that made sense for the story. In terms of the actual codependency, I know it’s a common criticism among some fans who would like to see them have more friends and spend time with more characters, which would be awesome, but it is a smaller show. And it’s something no one likes to talk about, but they don’t have a Game of Thrones budget. It’s not like they have 10 Million dollars to produce an episode.
L: I’ll say
R: It would be great to populate their world. I think I shared this with you before, I had an alternate pitch for the 200th episode that was essentially like The French Mistake II. The boys go back to that episode’s universe but they go to a Supernatural convention and every convention in that universe starts out with the Misha Collins Memorial, because he’s one of their fallen heroes, but I was like that way we get to bring everybody back! And they get to play themselves! And folks were were like, that’s great. That’s gonna cost 6 Million Dollars.
Everyone: (is laughing)
L: You’d have to bring back like 63 people!
R: Yeah, and that’s money spent even before we film the episode! So yeah, I understand the co-dependence being viewed as a criticism of the show and I understand where people are coming from. I think the more you see the brothers with different characters, the more you see different things about them. Ultimately it’s a show about two brothers fighting monsters and the people that they fight monsters with. So their brodependency to me was nothing more than a strength to play with, or to take away from them to make them weaker, which again helps the drama.
L: Yeah. I think it’s an unusual thing, and I understand both sides of it. It’s been a very insular show and I like that. You don’t usually get two actors willing to be there day in and day out, and you get so much depth between two characters when you’ve got 13 years of that insularity. But at the same time, I think other characters bring out things in them, and I think they’ve struck that balance.
R: One of my favorite things was bringing in a new character and seeing how the characters react, but also seeing how the boys react. Classic example, and I’ve worked with Tim Omundson on a couple shows, when he got cast as Cain.
L: Oh, so so good.
R: It was fun to watch the dailies for that episode. I was addicted to watching the dailies in general, because it was a front row seat to the gag reel.
R: But it’s also a front row seat to two really talented actors and a supporting cast that’s also phenomenal. And you can always tell, the boys don’t ever phone it in, they don’t ever fuck off for a take, they’re very dialed in. And you could just tell that Jensen in particular was really dialed in for that episode, First Born. Part of that comes from the fact that Tim came in very prepared and had a real strong take on the character but they also had a great director, John Badham. There was an instant chemistry even though I don’t think they had ever met in real life, only as characters. I think it’s really fun when you can bring in an actor or a character who can really mix up the dynamic and add drama.
L: Mm hmm
R: And if it creates chaos for the bond between the bros, all the better for the drama.
L: Yeah. I mean, I’m one of those fans who have said in the past, no don’t make them fight. But it was interesting, this last season the brothers were mostly on the same page, and they could have done something more with that but instead we just didn’t really see much of their relationship at all. It wasn’t like oh now we’re gonna show you a lot of what makes that bond between them work and gives them that resilience – and maybe a lot more of the teasing and fun that Sam and Dean used to have between them in the early seasons even, in between disasters – but instead we just didn’t focus on their relationship as much. And that’s why I watch the show!
I was like, what’s even happening between Sam and Dean, they’re just like two work partners working together, where’s the emotional stuff I want to see?
R: And again, I understand where the criticism is coming from, and there are fans who want to see them spend more time with other characters, and with specific other characters, which I totally understand.
L: Me too, and that’s valid. You always want to see your favorite characters together onscreen and see their relationships explored.
R: At the core of the show, though, is those two guys, those two bros, and if you’re not adding friction in there and things are perfect, like having a good time and nothin’ but high fives…
R: You wouldn’t give a shit!
L: It would be boring, you’re right.
R: People were always like, why won’t you let the boys hug more? But you gotta earn a hug. I think the last script I wrote [Don’t Call Me Shurley] I literally put in, “maybe they hug, maybe they don’t” and the boys and Bob chose not to on the day, and it was the right choice. I only remember scripting one or two hugs where I was like you gotta grab your bro and hug it out.
L: it has to mean something.
R: But that’s our job as writers. When I hear that criticism of splitting up the boys, and the distress it causes, I’d think well, I’m doing my job, because you’re supposed to play with emotions. The emotional reaction is the point.
L: (laughing) You definitely wrote some episodes that played with emotions…
R: (laughing) I like to mess with people, I guess…
L: You do! All the SPN writers do.
PG: (are nodding)
L: I’m jumping around, I know, but these are just the questions I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, or ones I’ve asked but just in conversation instead of an interview.
R: (looking over my scribbled notes on a scrap of paper) I like it! I see “J2”, “JA”…
L: I was scribbling during another panel…
R: (to PG) How we doin’ so far, guys? Anyone falling asleep? Anne is sewing…
L: So J2 have talked many times about how much they love the episode “Baby”…
R: (interrupts) Who is J2? Is that the Justice League?
L: (eyeroll) Please.
L: Don’t even.
R: So when I first got on twitter, I didn’t understand how people talk, and really I still don’t, especially whenever I dip my toe into tumblr, but for the longest time people would say “RT” something and I’d be like, Robbie Thompson? “Thanks for the RT!” This is exciting, thanks for me? You’re welcome! And then I was like oh, it’s retweet… so anyway, J2…
L: As the kids say…
R: Do J2 say J2?
L: They do sometimes actually. Once they were at a con and a fan asked a question that started with “J2…” and Jared looked at Jensen grinning and said “J2, that’s us!” all gleeful like. As though Jensen couldn’t have figured that out.
R: That’s adorable.
L: It was. Anyway, it’s interesting to hear the reasons why they loved “Baby” so much. They loved the freedom of it just being the two of them in the car, and they got to drive away from the crew and it was just them…
R: Mm hmm
L: Jensen has talked about how that freed them to be more Sam and Dean, just the two of them in the car, and they’re essentially brothers in real life, and even when they were driving along and drinking and teasing and bantering, I guess not all of that was scripted?
R: (grabbing his phone) Keep talking, I’ll pull the script up.
L: Jensen loved that, that they just let them go and do what they wanted.
R: Is that 10.04? 10.05?
L: I play a game with Jensen where I always try to guess what’s ad libbed in a script, because those things come through differently, and often as some of the most genuine character moments. Not that Jensen or Jared or Misha bleed through, but they come through as some of the most human moments. Many of the scenes in Baby came through that way, maybe because they were so free. Also the sleepover scene, they loved that – and I think this is why you wrote it and why you also loved it – they loved showing those little moments that make Sam and Dean so Sam and Dean. Did you anticipate they’d feel that way?
R: Yeah, anytime you pitch an episode – a lot of times, writers spend time on sets, and if I have one regret about Supernatural, it’s not spending more time on set. But it wasn’t set up that way since Season 1. I did end up going up a bunch of times – you and I hung out on set together one time in fact…
L: We did! For “Slumber Party”. [Robbie was a superb tour guide and showed us around the bunker. I tell the whole story in Family Don’t End With Blood, but I think it was even his idea for me to sit on Dean’s bed. Which of course I did….]
R: I always joke that we may not have staff writers on set, but we have two writers on set, and that’s Jared and Jensen. And it was the same with Misha and Mark. There was an example of that in “First Born” too, where Mark says “You’re good, but I’m Crowley.”
L: Oh I love that line!
R: It was a combination of two different lines, one that was scripted and one that was in the description, and on the day the scripted line I wrote didn’t work and John Badham said to Mark, well, try something else. And Mark tried different things and came up with that line.
L: That makes so much sense.
R: So, to answer your question, whenever you’re pitching an episode, you want to pitch something that’s produceable, that’s your first job, but also pitch something that’s in keeping with the canon of the show and speaks to the characters. If you can, move the plot forward, and if you can’t, shine a light on the characters. So I hoped that the boys would like the episode. I knew it was going to be a challenge to shoot. God bless Jensen, trapping him in a car with a gaseous costar is no joke, but the idea for that episode really came from…I think at that point I had written 14 or 15 episodes and I loved writing the show – I still love writing the show …
L: (silently sobbing)
R: I mean, I don’t write it anymore but I still love my time writing the show…
L: Who knows? Someday…
R: (laughing) I told them, Season 20.
L: You laugh, but my tape recorder is on…
R: Bob and Jeremy were always incredibly kind and gracious – oh, I just noticed your tattoo…
[Yes, this is how my interviews usually go…]
L: Thank you? So, Bob and Jeremy…
R: They always allowed me to do something a little bit weird or different, and every year I’d try to take advantage of that. After the first year, that is, because I had to get comfortable and not get fired, but every year after the first, I’d be like, I wanna find a way for them to say no, I dare them to say no. A lot of people ask, oh they wouldn’t let you do this or that? But they really never said no, they’d just say, “What’s the story?” I had pitched an iteration of Baby a couple times, but every time they were like…
L: How are we gonna do it?
R: Not even that, but rather, what the fuck’s the story? And the timing had to be right, too. Which it was for Baby, plot-wise and director-wise. I have this stack of notebooks with terrible titles, huge lists of songs for Supernatural episodes and coming into Season 11, I was looking through the scenes I’d written that I enjoyed writing. And the scenes I enjoyed writing the most were the boys in the car. It’s pretty simple really. Number One, you have to do them, from a production standpoint, we do the PMP or Poor Man’s Process, which you’ll see in the script. That’s just the two guys on a dark stage in the car, with fake lights, and Serge [Ladouceur] is one of the best DP’s and the lighting crew is one of the best in the business, so it looks and feels real. For the longest time Supernatural didn’t have standing sets, so you could burn maybe two to four pages on that set for that day, it’s an enormous cost savings.
L: Oh I guess that’s true. We got to watch them shoot a PMP scene the first time we were on set, we wrote about it in Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls. With Serge standing with us explaining exactly what they were doing, and it was so fascinating.
R: So setting scenes in the car comes from a practical standpoint, but for me what I loved about them so much was that you couldn’t move the plot forward a ton. Even though the car was moving, the story could slow down. There was always space, a moment – or as I used to call it, a broment – even with Sam’s unbelievable wifi, even if he was looking something up for a case on that fucking computer that never loses a signal…
R: You could always find a little moment in those scenes to let the story breathe. Let the characters just be. And this isn’t a criticism of the series, but it’s 42 minutes and a procedural show. There’s a case and a lot of elements and details take up a lot of real estate in the script — and I’m looking at the other writers at this table, they know — for a procedural show, there’s always exposition that has to come out, and you know those just eat pages up. Typically for Supernatural if you wanted to hand in a script that wouldn’t get too heavily noted, you wanted to keep it to 38 or 39 pages. At least 20 to 30 pages of that is gonna end up being the blah blah blah of the case. So I just noticed that the scenes that I really loved writing and watching were the scenes of the boys in the car because you could put in character moments that would shine a light on the boys and let them play and improvise.
L: Yes yes yes!
R: I think a lot of my love for those scenes came from the first episode I wrote, which was Slash Fiction in Season 7. I wrote a little scene where they were in the piece of shit car – we called it the P.O.S. car for short – and Dean is very frustrated that he has to drive this terrible car and he turns on the radio and Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” is on. And I just thought that would be both the worst and the best song for him to hear in that moment, because he’d get into it. I think the line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is there, which is the first line I ever wrote for Supernatural.
L: Such a great line.
R: I was pitching the scene to Sera and said that and Sera was like, you just wrote your first line for Supernatural. I was like, I’d better write that down before I forget it!
L: She recognized that as something that would totally fit.
R: So, that scene was in all the production drafts and then the day before we shot it, it got cut. I was like, what happened? Well, the episode got too expensive, it doesn’t look like an expensive episode but it was our attempt at Orphan Black with two Sams and two Deans and two Bobbys. I was so bummed, that was my first episode, but I understood why they cut it because it wasn’t plot, but to me that’s the good stuff.
L: To me too, that’s the character building stuff.
R: But the director, John Showalter, made it happen — the next day I was watching the dailies and I was like wait, why are they in the car? And why is the song on? And why is my face wet?
R: To me, that scene was very instructive. It was my favorite part of the episode. It has all these little things in it, that reflect what a collaborative process making TV can be. There’s the My Little Pony thing. On the day, Jensen added a bit where – in the script it just says, he rips it off and tosses it – but he added a little bit, and this is just because he’s a great physical comedian, where he can’t get it to come off and he has to pull out his knife and cut it.
L: Oh, that’s right!
R: And I wrote in the script like, Sam looks on in horror as Dean starts to sing along with the song, but what Jared did with that is light years better. He really created to a ‘no, maybe he needs this’ kind of a moment. And at the end of the episode, the trunk pops up and you see the Leviathan head in there and you see the My Little Pony is back there, so it’s tracked through the whole story. And they added it on the sound mix, when Dean grabs the My Little Pony, it makes a little squeeze noise like ‘meep’, which is so humiliating. First it won’t come off, and he’s just so frustrated.
R: And so, for Baby, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to see a whole episode of just that shit?
L: And this is not really mysterious, because you can tell that they often cherish those moments because they can riff around them, and this is their chance to be creative too.
R: Bob and Phil always used to say to guest directors ‘let it roll, Jared and Jensen will give you something, like a little button for a scene, a little moment.’ Even if it’s not the moment for the beginning or end of a scene, it might be a little look that they give that the Editors can put into another part that makes it look like they’re reacting to something else. So that’s where the episode came from, the desire to just live in those moments and see the boys live in those moments. I also very selfishly wanted to write longer scenes. Delivering exposition, you know, you’ve gotta do it and get it out really quick, especially on TV. But the first thing I pitched conceptually was what ended up being the sleepover scene.
L: (grins every time he says that…)
R: I was pretty adamant that we had to have that top down shot.
L: Oh yeah, it wouldn’t have worked without that visual. It’s a million fans’ screen saver or phone screen.
R: Phil, who’s a true hero of the show, he deserves a great deal of credit for the show’s success, too.
L: I think so too.
R: He called Jim Michaels and he and Jim worked it out, and we did have an old beat up version that had the top off. But I wanted to live in that scene forever.
L: So did we!
R: I’ve been asked what’s the favorite episode that I worked on, and mostly all I see is problems and mistakes that I made, but I will say that Baby is the one I had the most fun writing, it was just pure joy. I think the original version of that scene was like 20 pages long.
L: (involuntary noises because *&^%$#@$%^ gimme gimme gimme!)
R: We cut it back to like four or five.
L: I want the 20 page version!
R: What’s amazing about the filmed version of that scene, and it was a challenge. A ’67 Impala looks big, but Jensen and Jared are big, so the physicality of that was a challenge. I think it ended up timing out to about six or seven minutes, and then we trimmed little things – nothing load bearing – things you didn’t need. What’s amazing is they did it, every single take, perfectly. Like a stage play.
L: (is sort of swooning at this point, but very discreetly…)
R: And you think, oh, well, they’re actors, they should know how to do that. But the thing is, when you’re an actor on an ongoing show, you’ve just wrapped one episode, you’re prepping another, and you’re shooting another. So you’ve got like 16 different scenes over three episodes in your head, and we’ve got a floating shooting day so they may need you to do pick up from a previous episode. So to have all that stuff in their heads…
L: My head hurts just thinking about it.
R: This is how cold they had it, there was a take where I can’t remember who, one of them did the other one’s lines, and then the other one did the other one’s lines, and then they did the whole scene switched. And it was like, how? I don’t even know how they’re doing that.
L: I don’t understand it.
R: I don’t think I’ve ever shared this, though, there’s an amazing take – and I hope he forgives me if you do end up sharing this part – where it’s super emotional, and I think it’s an A and B camera over Jared’s shoulder on Jensen and it’s great, super emotional, like 6 minutes long, and so dramatic. You could hear a pin drop. And then at the very, very end as they tuck in to go to sleep, they had to kinda like wiggle down into the seats, you hear the gentlest, sweetest little fart from Jared.
R: (laughing) I never confirmed it was Jared, but I’m pretty sure.
L: I’m pretty sure too.
R: And it was like the longest pause after they settled in and then BRRRR. God bless him, he waited until the scene was done.
L: (still laughing) Then he could let go.
R: Then he could let it rip. So I certainly hoped they’d enjoy the episode, but I knew it would be a challenge. But fortunately Bob and Jeremy let me take a real big swing. The lion’s share of the credit has to go to the episode’s director, the legendary Tom Wright and to Serge and his crew that built those camera mounts. There’s a sequence in there….hang on, I think I have it…
[I’m convinced that Robbie has pretty much the entire show on his phone, btw]
R: Ah here, so this is what’s scripted. “And then Bob Seger’s classic Night Moves starts playing through the car’s speakers. Sam recognizes it from the opening chords: c’mon, don’t Night Moves me. Dean shakes his head: this is happening, just let it wash over you.”
And then in the description, which is not lines of dialogue, it says “Seger starts to sing and Dean lip syncs along. Is he into it? You’re damn right he is, it’s Seger, one of the top ten song writers of all time according to Bob Singer.”
So, when I was pitching the episode, when you’re pitching a song, you’ve gotta be careful because you don’t know if you’ll get the rights and you also don’t know if people will like it. So I had a bunch of songs, I had a list.
L: Just in case.
R: Just in case. I had a bunch of songs before Night Moves, and it was actually my wife, who’s a writer as well, I had songs… Like A Virgin, Feels Like the First Time, which was pretty close but not quite the right one
L: That might have worked
R: Feel Like Makin’ Love I think was another one, and my wife was like, it’s gotta be Night Moves. And then I heard the line about the Chevy and I thought oh, you’re a much better writer than I am. But when I pitched it to Bob, you never know, Bob’s a musician and I thought am I gonna have to fight him if he doesn’t like Bob Seger? But he literally had said “I think Bob Seger is one of the greatest rock writers of all time,” so I put that in the description. Then on the day, Jensen turned it into a line where he said ‘one of the greatest rock writers of all time’ and he added in ‘Samuel.’ And then Jared added in the line, ‘It’s Sam,’ which is obviously a call back as well.
L: And it was awesome!
R: So I knew that there would be moments like that if we could just get them on wheels and get it moving, in the car, for real. If it was just gonna be a process shot of them with a fake background like a Hitchcock movie, it wouldn’t work.
L: It worked too because they really were alone in the car and let it play out.
[Robbie continues reading from his phone to his rapt audience]
R: “The song kicks in and we move through quick shots of the boys singing along, laughing, talking, eating fast food. New paragraph…”
Everyone: is still rapt
R: “Being brothers.” And then that’s it, that’s all I wrote. So everything you see there is them, and the director said ‘let’s just give them room to play.’
L: Wait, so Jared changed the line to ‘in my brother’s 67 Chevy’?
R: Yeah, that’s all Jared.
R: Which at first I was like, oh shit, because if you sing along, it’s a separate fee. But they worked it out. Supernatural really does have one of the best Post Production teams ever.
L: Absolutely they do. I think you should feel really good that they so often say that’s their favorite episode.
R: That’s very kind of them. I wrote them a very large check to say that.
L: Well, they’re running with it.
R: Jared said we should just do one of those every year, and I agree, especially since the case was so thin and it was easier to break.
L: The case doesn’t matter in those episodes, it’s just the framework.
R: I did want to do different iterations of monsters we hadn’t seen that season, which we did. But the rest of it was I just wanted to live in those moments for as long as I could. And that ended up not being the longest scene I wrote that year! The longest scene ended up in…
L: Don’t Call Me Shurley! And guess what? That was one of my other questions. [shoves scribbled paper in front of Mr. Thompson] See? That says “long dialogue scene DCMS”.
R: Chatty Kathy, that’s me!
L: Never change, please! I love that scene though. I’ve talked to both Curtis Armstrong and Rob about that scene.
R: He seems nice.
L: He does, doesn’t he? (laughing) It’s something about the name.
R: Someone calls him Robbie and I’m like oh, what?
L: I don’t call Rob Robbie though.
R: (deadpans) Neither do I. I call him Mr. Benedict. And I don’t make eye contact when I say it.
L: Well, he’s God… anyway, neither of them seemed too intimidated by the fact that you wrote so much dialogue for them in that episode. And they pulled it off perfectly, but were you a little worried?
R: No, and I’ll give you an example why. I wrote an episode in Season 7 that Jenny Klein came up with a title for called The Girl With the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo.
PG: Ooooh yes!
R: And there was a lot of dialogue for a character who was brand new named Charlie Bradbury….
PG and L: More oooooh.
R: And I was extremely worried, because we hadn’t cast anybody to play Charlie Bradbury. Part of the reason that character came around is because Jared was about to have his first kid and we were trying to pad out some scenes, because he has to be there for that, that’s more important than anything.
R: And they ended up actually having their kid the next episode, so best laid plans…
R: But I was really nervous about that script because we didn’t know who was gonna play Charlie. We’re spoiled — the show has at its core, two great actors and you know you can throw them anything, and you have great supporting cast like Misha and Mark and there’s nothing you can’t throw at those guys! I think Misha has played 17 iterations of Cas.
L: I think he has! And made them all seem different too, which is pretty incredible.
R: Yeah, and Mark is like genre royalty. And Jim Beaver as well. I only got to write for him a few times but you give him any exposition and it will sound like the greatest fucking scene ever. So it was really nervewracking but then Sera told me that they booked Felicia Day and I was like Oh —
L: Now we’ll be good.
R: Now we’ll be good, and so we went back in and opened some stuff up and added some scenes because we knew we had a great actor. So no, I wasn’t nervous with Don’t Call Me Shurley because we knew those guys are great actors. I knew Rob socially through the show and I basically just reached out as a fan to Curtis and was like oh, you should come by the office. Because that’s totally normal!
R: Nobody really comes by the office, but I just wanted to meet him because he’s from Michigan, too, and he’s in one of my all time favorite shows, Moonlighting. I basically wanted to get him telling stories, Curtis is a wonderful storyteller.
L: He is!
R: His autobiography is out now (Revenge of the Nerd, available on amazon) and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it, but you should also download it because it’s him talking, and he’s a theater trained actor so it’s amazing. Like a one man show, just a great performance. So those guys, they’re theater guys, so they live for that stuff. And for that scene, I knew I had two great actors, so it wasn’t intimidating. And Bob was directing and he’s a helluva shooter. I was a little worried about the balance of the episode, but it’s supposed to be off, sort of in a meta way. There’s a scene that got cut where Chuck is talking about how stories have to have balance…
R: So, it is an unbalanced episode because it’s a lot of those two guys talking, and yet in my opinion the whole episode is really about that last moment when the boys realize who has saved the day.
L: What an awesome last scene!
R: So I wasn’t intimidated, but I did reach out to Rob and Curtis and say, there’s a truck ton of stuff in here, are you guys cool with that?
L: And were they? I bet they were.
R: They’re both such dedicated, talented actors and they understood it. I also reached out to them during the writing process. Specifically, with Curtis I was stuck on a scene about the biography stuff. I’m not as big a music aficionado as he is, so I sent him a Direct Message, as you kids all it…
R: And I was like hey, I need something that expresses this, but I don’t know shit about music biographies. I didn’t know at the time that he was writing his own, so he was like oh, hang on. So he did his own research and asked some friends, and came back with the examples that we used, and it ended up leading to that line “Richards all the way”. All that stuff came from a conversation we had over direct message. With Rob, we talked very early in the process. With that episode, I thought I was done for the year, because I had written Safe House and I was like okay, that’s a fun one to end the year on. Then Jeremy and Bob very kindly asked me to write one more and they were like, oh and this is the episode where we confirm that Chuck really is God.
L: Oh, no big deal…
R: And I was like well, we have to do something a little different for that one then…
L: Umm yeah, ya think?
R: A lot of the stuff doesn’t totally make sense and we have to explain some of it, so my pitch for it was I think this has to be a conversation between two people. But really the first idea I had, I went right to Bob because he’s a very talented musician, and said, what do you think about this episode ending with Rob Benedict as Chuck singing Fare Thee Well?
L: OMG so you did come up with Fare Thee Well!
R: Well it was the first song that popped into my head but I was like, ‘this song or some such thing’. ‘Some such thing’ has been both a blessing and a curse for me. In this case, a blessing. But I was part of coming up with the Mark of Cain and the First Blade, and I was like, “You know, it’s like the first blade, it’s like the jawbone of an animal or something, like the first blade but we’ll call it something else later, you know, something cool…”
R: And now there’s like a Supernatural Clue piece that’s the First Blade.
R: And now people have it as a tattoo, and they’re like, look at my First Blade tattoo and I’m like no, that was just a first thought, just a shorthand, goddammit! It is a great design, though. The crew made it look beautiful. But anyway, I went to Bob and said this is gonna sound weird but I kind of loosely based a structure for the episode where it looks like Chuck isn’t gonna help out, but then he does. You ultimately find out he’s doing it for different reasons, but I wanted the ending of the episode to be sort of triumphant, like he’s here, he’s back and in the game. The song gives us his answer after we spend time wondering if he’ll help, and worrying that he won’t. And so I pitched it to him, and Bob is great about this stuff, he has a very intuitive sense of what the show will bear in terms of doing something that’s a little bit different. And he was directing the episode. And he was like, (laughing), ‘I like it, it’s out there.’
L: That’s why this show works so well for so long, I swear…
R: So, I didn’t want to put Rob on the spot, I know he’s a great performer and a very talented musician, but the idea for this moment didn’t come from me knowing that, it came from watching the original theatrical cut of Amadeus a lot – not the director’s cut – and how music is the language of God, and I thought this feels like what we’re talking about here without really talking about it. So I reached out to Rob and said hey, not for nothing, but would you be open to singing this song or some such, send me a list of songs, but you’ll be singing. And Rob, being a total trooper, he said yeah I think that’s cool.
L: Rob loved the idea, I think. He wasn’t being a trooper – I mean, he IS a trooper, but he was like yay, I get to sing on Supernatural!
R: And we traded a couple of songs back and forth, as did Bob and Phil, but we all just kept coming back to Fare Thee Well, I don’t know why. It just was the right song.
L: I had never even heard of it, but now it seems like a no brainer.
R: It was a song I’d heard when I was a kid, the Bob Dylan version maybe? And then it’s featured pretty heavily in Inside Lewin Davis, which location wise was an inspiration for the episode, too. It’s one of those songs that’s in the public domain, so you have to be careful what orchestration you use, and then Bob wanted Rob to make it his own, make it his own version.
L: He definitely did.
R: And I remember saying to Rob, boy I hope you’re cool with singing this song because I think…
L: (laughing) Oh yeah, he sings it at like every Supernatural convention now! It’s the only song he sings with just Rob and a guitar, and it’s so powerful.
R: There’s a video – I don’t know who has it – taken during the filming of the episode, of Rob’s performance. I was done for the season so I was back East with my wife and I was watching dailies, but someone also shot one of the takes on an iPhone. On the day, they filmed maybe just two takes of Rob singing it with multiple cameras, but someone shot an iPhone video of it and it’s amazing because it’s just Rob on the stage. And even though he’s not in the shot, Curtis is there watching and then you pan over and the whole crew is just there watching.
[Suddenly all the lights come on in the empty room we’re squatting in]
R: [to my audio recorder] This is radio, so you can’t see it, but all the lights just came on!
L: You mentioned God and…
R: Totally not spooky at all…
PG: (are kinda pale)
R: But it’s so amazing because you can really see that Rob nailed it in one take, he totally brought it home.
L: Somebody should release that!
R: I thought it might be on the dvd, but maybe somebody will accidentally leak it on the internet. It’s really special. People have asked me, and it’s not meant to be some sort of meta commentary, I didn’t know at the time that I was no longer gonna be working on the show.
L: Yeah, we all thought that.
R: I love that song, but I didn’t intend it to be any kind of commentary.
L: Are you okay for a few more questions?
R: Bring it on, this is years overdue!
L (to PG): It’s true. We get together and we just end up talking but we never do an actual interview. Maybe because there’s usually food involved. Or drink….
[At this point, there’s a loudspeaker announcement that someone has set off a fire alarm….but that there’s not a fire…at least that’s what we think we heard…ahh Comic Con…]
R: And we were just talking about God…
L: Were we being sacrilegious or something?
PG: (are still pale)
L: Okay, speaking of the boys’ reactions to Baby, Jensen has said he was initially wary of the 200th episode, like really? Did that make you nervous?
R: Yeah, that was pretty terrifying. When I came into that season, I didn’t know we were gonna do a musical. That was an idea that Jeremy and Bob came in with. I thought we were gonna be doing more demon!Dean stuff…
L: So did everyone…
R: But once I knew…
[Another announcement comes over the PA, essentially saying never mind…]
L: It’s fine, as you were.
PG: (collective sigh of relief)
R: So I was surprised, and my initial reaction to the idea of doing a musical set in a high school based on the Chuck Shurley books was, OMG that’s a terrible idea. Can I write it?
R: I was like, this is a really high degree of difficulty and I like situations where I could really screw up.
L: That was a high stakes thing, I was nervous too.
R: It was. And I was nervous, too, but that can also make it fun! It was nerve wracking to write an episode where the boys were in it for only like two minutes, too…
L: That’s true, but that is a good episode…
R: Some people liked Bitten and some people really hate it. It’s at the bottom on imdb.
L: Well, you know why, and it’s not about the quality of the episode.
R: Sure, I know. So the only thing I added to the original idea for 200 was, can we set it an all girls high school? Because it was going to be commenting on fandom, and the last time we did that, I wasn’t here, but it wasn’t really like one of the Supernatural conventions.
L: I think they did that on purpose, so that it wouldn’t be commenting on the real fandom.
R: I have a love/hate thing with the meta episodes, because every time you do it, you’re sorta messing with the fabric of the show. Sometimes I think it’s great and sometimes I don’t like it, including the times I did it. It’s a tricky thing, but because the show opened that door, we couldn’t not walk through it for an episode like the 200th. It’s already canon that they’ve talked about this stuff, so we’ve gotta lean into it. I felt that there was no way to do an episode like that without talking about shipping and shipping culture, and the challenge was finding a way to do that – at least this was my intention – in a way that would not feel in any way dismissive. And again, credit to Bob and Jeremy for being so willing to go there and try something risky.
L: I thought that was very Kripke-esque, because in the early seasons, he wasn’t afraid to go there either and I thought he kept the right tone of affectionate ribbing instead of dismissive. He was like well, they’re writing Wincest, I’m gonna incorporate Wincest and just poke fun at all of us, show and fandom, across the board.
R: Yeah, and I also wanted to poke fun at the show itself. My hope was that if anyone was gonna be the butt of a joke, it would be me or us. Not the people who love the show.
L: Right, and I think Kripke walked that line too – not everyone thought that, but I thought it was affectionate poking fun all around.
R: Whether I was successful or not, I wanted it to be a love letter to the fans. To me, it was a love letter to the people who have been so dedicated to the show and I wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. And it was a song again, like in Don’t Call Me Shurley, that helped — I thought if this episode ends with them singing Carry On Wayward Son and the boys actually hearing fans sing that to them – hearing it as the characters, but also as themselves – I thought that’s enough for me.
L: Jensen has said that they got emotional too.
R: Oh, you could see it, they did.
L: Hearing that song…
R: And Phil Sgriccia shot the hell out of that episode. He made sure that moment played perfectly. That’s all Phil, and obviously the boys.
L: So you and Jensen, how did you reassure him?
R: Jensen and I had a chat. It’s been asked before and I think the story has been blown out of proportion. I think I’ve heard versions that he called, that he flew down… no. He was in town. And he came to the office, and I actually wasn’t even supposed to be in the office that day.
L: So he didn’t come in to talk to you.
R: He came in to talk to Phil, and Bob and Jeremy, and those are grown up meetings so I wasn’t there for that. And he was walking out of Jeremy’s office and I saw him and went in for the hug, you know…
R: They smell like baby Jesus and you wanna get that on you for the rest of the day…
R: So I went right in for that, and we chatted in the writer’s room. And to his credit, he expressed his concerns and talked about the show. He had heard what the episode was about but hadn’t read the script yet, maybe only the outline was out. He had directed an episode, which is why he was in the office, looking at a cut, and we just talked it through. He was great. I said this is what I’ve done with this episode, but you’ve done 200 of these episodes, so read the script, and if anything doesn’t feel right, let’s talk about it and fix it. I’m not the boss of the show, I’m not even the boss of this episode – and this has to feel right for you guys. And that was the end of the conversation.
L: Well, that was the perfect reassurance because he’s got good judgment about those things.
R: Mm hmm. And that’s not an easy episode to do either, for those guys to completely lean into.
L: But they did! They added their own touches even.
R: Yeah, Jensen looking into the camera was not scripted during the shipping dialogue.
L: Right, and I thought that was a nice Kripke-esque nod nod wink wink, affectionate. Like, I see you!
R: That was something he added on the day and I think those things really shine through. The episode doesn’t work if they don’t commit to it. Like I can write what I wanna write and Jay Gruska and Chris Lennertz can create incredible music and we could have awesome directing from Phil – but the guys had to totally lean into it. So much credit to them, because there’s a delicate balance. I wanted to make sure personally that we didn’t offend anybody and I’m sure that we did. And that’s part of what I said to him, I said look, not only do you know the show better than I do, you know fandom better than I do…
L: I don’t think that’s true. Incorrect.
PG: (are nodding)
R: (laughing) I’ll put it to you differently. They go to a lot of conventions, so they understand the dynamics.
L: They do understand certain dynamics, yes. but so do you.
R: It’s a different experience. But I told him I didn’t want to jeopardize any of that stuff. If it’s in any way, shape or form offensive or doesn’t work, you say the word and we’ll figure it out. And we didn’t end up changing a thing.
L: No, because it totally worked.
R: I do love that people totally thought he flew down to talk to me though.
L: I did hear that rumor.
R: I mean, they’re busy fucking guys…it’s like, if they were pissed, just make a phone call, fire that dummy right now! (laughing) I love the perceived drama behind the scenes. If people only knew how many times the decision comes down to something mundane, like schedules or money, can we combine these scenes? And then people see the episode and are like, this is what it really means.
L: Hey, that’s how it goes. Practical decision, but then it’s gonna be interpreted once it’s out there.
R: So many times people are like, did you see that look? Like a gifset. But that’s actually a moment from dailies later in the scene, when they were taking a beat, and you just take that piece in editorial, and put it over here…. but like you said, that’s part of it.
L: People don’t really want to know that. The first times I was on set, I was like, oh. I mean, I like to read subtext in there… so it was like damn, they weren’t even actually talking to each other! I don’t wanna know that, let me keep my illusions.
R: Yeah, and people should be allowed to!
L: I loved that you said that the Samulet was sort of supposed to be in Sam’s keepsake box.
R: It was.
L: That was my first thought in that episode, when Sam opened that box, like it’s gonna be the Samulet!! And I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t the real one that was in there.
R: Well, it was there in theory. That whole episode was about them realizing that retirement might be an option, that felt like a very Sam thing, some silver lining that he’s holding out hope for.
L: Yeah, yeah.
R: And I just wanted that moment at the end. There was actually a scene where they talked about it, and I’m so glad we cut it out because you don’t need it, it plays better with it being sort of a secret. This is again where sometimes when the boys don’t know everything about each other, it’s better. And there can still be little broments.
R: I put in the script, ‘And is the Samulet in there?’ And Bob and Jeremy rightly said, and I’m glad they did because it would’ve been totally different – they said if we’re gonna show that, it feels like it deserves a bigger moment, it probably should be a whole episode.
R: I can’t remember if it was Bob or Jeremy, but one of them said, how about if we put in the Samulet from the 200th episode? And I was like oh, it’s perfect. So that one’s in there, but in my mind that was my head canon [for the real one]. The notion that Sam carried it around for 800 episodes doesn’t make any practical sense. But I think he kept it, and that’s why I wanted to establish that he had this keepsake box. I think we all have a sort of keepsake box, with like ticket stubs from your first date and so on, and I think each one of the boys has one and I think the Samulet was something Sam kept in there. But once Sam started thinking that God was talking to him, he pulled out the amulet just to have it on his person.
L: That makes perfect sense, because he really did think God was talking to him. That was such a great scene when Dean realized Sam still had it, that he’d kept it…. I get emotional…
While I was scrambling for some tissues, the Peanut Gallery had some great questions.
Anne: So you answered her first question first as a fan then as a writer. Can you talk a little more about that conflict?
R: I used to always say, I love these characters but it’s my job to torture them. I’d get comments sometimes like, we love these characters, don’t you know we’re human too? And I’d be like I am too, like people forget I’m human. But as a fan, there would also be moments that I’d be like oh, I don’t want that to happen to them! And there were times I had to write things where I was like oh, this really bums me out because the story or scene was sad or a bummer. There was never a time when I was like, I refuse to write this, and ultimately you’re serving the larger story, but it’s a tricky thing. If you like the show it’s one thing, but if you love the show it can be tricky. Ultimately my job on the show was to do what the showrunners want. I may not always agree with it, but that’s not my job. My job is to present ideas, or if something bumps, a compelling argument – with a fix. It’s not enough to say, I don’t like it. Or that’s broken, I broke it, so ha ha. Great, dumbass, we have like 20 more episodes to write and you fucked up the train, that doesn’t help.
R: There were certainly times I disagreed, and some battles I won and some I lost. Some of those battles I lost — thank goodness I didn’t win them, they were not good ideas. Some other battles I lost, I’m still bummed about.
L: (silently) Charlie…
R: But you have to kinda separate the two. Ultimately it’s your job to tell the story and to respect the history of the show and history of the characters.
L: And that’s storytelling. Part of the reason we like it and it’s healthy for us psychologically is that storytelling reflects real life and it can be messy and painful and traumatic sometimes.
R: And that ties back to your initial question, there are times when the bromance has gotta get split up or the bromance has gotta get traumatized and it’s all in the service of how do you tell a story that’s gonna enrich these characters after 12, 13, 14, 15 seasons. And again, my favorite episode to write was Baby, but getting to write characters like Castiel or Crowley or Bobby or any of those characters, that also gives you a chance to shine a light on the main characters in a way that you don’t ordinarily see them was fun, too.
So you just have to separate the two, take off the fan hat and put on the writer hat. As a writer, I can see where the story will be three episodes from now, and it’s bigger than me. And that’s the trust fall that you’re taking with your bosses, like holy shit…
L: Here we go!
R: You write the part of the story you’re asked to write, and sometimes it’s a batting order thing, I would’ve loved to have written soulless!Sam or demon!Dean.
L: Ohgod, I wish…
R: I didn’t get a chance to, there were like three episodes of demon!Dean and I was like wait, what if there were at least four or five…
L: That’s what all of fandom was saying too!
R: Here’s my theory though. If you had 18, you would have hated it by then.
L: Well there’s a lot of room in between there! How about six??
R: And I would have loved to write more human!Cas stuff.
L: Yes, yes! Another story line that ended too quickly. I loved that, I was like, this is so interesting, bring it, wait what? Already? Those few episodes when Cas was human were so fascinating and there was so much more to explore, so much insight into that character. You guys had some more Cas questions.
Candice: Misha has also said that Baby is one of his favorite episodes, I don’t know if it’s because he had time off.
R: (laughing) I said, you’re literally gonna phone this one in!
L: He did that memorably, gotta say.
Laurena: I have a question.
R: Everybody gets a question, it’s like Oprah.
Laurena: The showrunners, especially Bob, when fans say we don’t like that, often say ‘we go where the story takes us.’ How far in advance do they know where the story is going?
R: This is a great question, and I don’t want to answer for Bob, I can only answer from my own experience. The best example of how a season of network TV gets worked out, where it really clicks, is – and this isn’t my example, I wish I could remember who said it – it’s like you’re taking a roadtrip. We’re all gonna get onto a bus and drive from San Diego to Boston. And our plan is to hit Austin – hang out with the guys – hit New Orleans, hang out with the Avengers – and then hit Savannah and then Boston. But we’re going to Vegas first, we’re gonna spend two solid weeks there. Well, we get to Vegas and it sucks. The hotel’s too small. It’s too hot. So it’s like, we’ve gotta make changes here. So suddenly we’re gonna go to Austin quicker than we were. Then we get to Austin and it’s awesome, the wine, the art, we go see a movie at Alamo Draft House, and we spend more time there than we planned. More people got on the bus. But then you’re like well shit, we still have to get to New Orleans. Now we have to rush to get there, and then it’s like well I have to see everything in New Orleans, but we’ve only got five fuckin’ minutes because we gotta get to Savannah!
R: And that’s what happens, those are the wrinkles that happen when you’re running a show, it’s like “best laid plans”. Someone says oh, I’ve got 5 seasons planned out. Good luck when you cast that person who doesn’t work out or they get cast in a Marvel movie and you lose them. Good luck getting picked up for that second season and then your budget is cut by 30%, now you’ve gotta kill 3 characters! As an audience member I might just think shit, that went off the rails! But if I put on my tv thinking cap I say oh, they ran out of money, or that actor didn’t work out, or whatever it was.
R: For a great example of planning it out while being open to changing things on the fly by listening to the story and trusting the process, I highly recommend checking out the behind the scenes podcasts on the making of Breaking Bad. Vince Gillian and the writers and editors really do an amazing job of laying out how they broke their stories and are totally open about their process and. how they made changes while staying true to their characters. Supernatural, to its credit, is blessed. They have an amazing crew, maybe a few times I can think of where a location was an issue but there was always a fix…and I can’t remember a time when an actor was an issue.
L: Their casting people are just frickin’ awesome.
R: They’re great, in both Vancouver and in LA. So to answer your question, typically when I would come in as a writer for a new season, didn’t matter what level I was, I could be an executive story editor – which is a bullshit title – or a co-executive producer, which is an even further bullshit title – but it would be the same thing. The showrunners, Bob, Sera, Jeremy, they’d say, this is what we’re thinking for this season, and usually it was built around a pivot point, which was the mid season finale. So, you wanna end midseason on some kind of cliffhanger and then pick it up and go this way. With the general guidelines in place, or the destinations on the roadtrip agreed upon, then everyone pitches at the same time, so if this was the writers’ room, you [gestures at one of us] are writing the first episode, you the second, you the third and fourth and fifth and sixth. So we’re all writing simultaneously and sometimes it will be oh, we love that character, can we put him in your episode? And then all of a sudden those things start to kind of domino plot wise.
L: They’re like puzzle pieces, every time you move one you knock the others out of place.
R: And I’m not defending or persecuting when I answer, but it’s a really tricky thing especially when you’re doing something that has 23 episodes. I’m jealous of Game of Thrones’ budget, it’s like a feature, but I’m also jealous of the episode order. My dream for Supernatural was, can we just do True Detective, just one case, and live and breathe that case.
L: Oh wow. Yes please.
R: And every single thing is about that case. Just long scenes of them hangin’ out in bars figuring shit out. That would be fun, but in a 23 order, you just can’t do it. You’ve gotta stretch that story out along a longer road. I’ll see fans say, seems like there were 6 episodes of myth or whatever, and you’re right. I used to call it the kissing scene, where at the beginning and the end you mention the main story, then kiss it goodbye. I used to write a lot of standalones, I didn’t write a lot of, as the kids call it, mytharc episodes. But it was always the same thing, like, “Wow man, what’s goin’ on with the mytharc?” “Gee, I don’t know, but here’s a case, maybe!”
L: (laughing) I know, they have to mention it.
R: And then at the end of the episode it’s, “Wow, something happened that tied to the mytharc or this case was kinda relevant to the mytharc thematically”. And you have to do 10 or 12 of those.
So in terms of “where the story takes you”, I would never want to answer on a showrunner’s behalf, I’ll just provide the context that sometimes these decisions are not so clean cut or as narrative based as one might think. It’s a very tough job to manage a bunch of stories and writers and production and editorial all at the same time, and then sometimes shit happens and you have to make changes on the fly. Again, best laid plans. Some stuff gets worked out well beforehand, some stuff gets changed on the fly because of needs, or reacting to a great actor or plot giving you more story and so on.
You try to make sure you’re listening to the audience, but you’re also months and months ahead of them decision wise. You can’t react week to week, barely within a season. There were times when things changed or a plot or character changed, and people will think oh, they listened to us. I remember there was a season with a character that people did not like, and people were like, thank god they listened to us and got rid of that character. My sternly worded email worked. But I knew from day one, first day in the writers’ room, that character was leaving mid-season.
L: People don’t often realize the timetable either, for making that kind of a change.
R: When you’re a showrunner, those are the gambles you’re making. And they have it tough, but imagine if you’re on a cable show, like you’re done with the whole season before it ever airs. Thirteen episodes are done and it’s streaming and people are like, that’s deeply offensive and you’re like oh no, that’s the plot of the rest of the season. You’re boned. But you’re boned either way. Your job as a writer is to listen to your audience, but not to take dictation.
Typically on Supernatural as far as where the story is going, the showrunners, Bob, Sera, Jeremy — they come in with a strong idea for the mid season finale, and then an idea of where they want to get to. Even within that, things fluctuated. Sometimes you pivot and it works, sometimes it doesn’t and you have to trust your gut. The job Bob, Sera, Jeremy and now Andrew have is so hard, and oftentimes you get a lot of blame and none of the credit. But it was great and educational working with them and on the show. It’s a hard gig. Ultimately that’s the job. Sometimes it works and sometimes it can go off the rails. I’ve gone off the rails plenty of times.
L: It’s probably inevitable.
R; You’ve gotta trust your gut. Okay, who else?
Anne: Current projects?
R: I’m wrapping up Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme and I’m currently writing Spider-Man/Deadpool which will be out in November.
L: Well that’s pretty cool!
R: It’s with one of my favorite all time artists, Chris Bachalo, who’s drawing it. I’m also writing mini-origins for Marvel Legacy, and a couple of pilots, but none of that matters unless they get picked up. Until then, it’s just a pile of papers.
L: Well it might, you never know.
R: If it becomes anything more than a pile of papers, I’ll let you know.
Anne: When you were talking about the show being responsive, aside from people thinking that all the time and thinking they know how television works. One time a friend was like oh, it’s so great they gave the writer an extra two weeks to work on this episode, and it really shows. But that can’t be, right?
R: Supernatural is actually the best for that. We would typically get two weeks to write the script, well in advance of prep. Shows prep an episode two weeks before it shoots, and that’s when all the heavy lifting gets done production-wise. Some shows, though, they’re prepping off pictures of a white board, sometimes maybe an outline, sometimes even just an arena – which is like a one or two page ‘here’s what the episodes is about, we think’. It’s a fucking nightmare, I’ve worked like that. With Supernatural, we were handing in our first drafts to producers – what’s called a writer’s draft – two to four weeks before it prepped. And production will get those scripts too so that Jerry [Wanek] can say oh, in the future I’ll need to have this, and maybe this location can be combined with this one or whatever. So they are so well prepped by the time we even get to prep. I think the shortest amount of time I had to write a Supernatural script was four days, which is fairly typical for most shows.
Laurena: (gasping in horror) Oh my God!
L: (laughing and gasping simultaneously) I knew you would react like that, anyone who’s a writer would be horrified!
R: It sounds like a lot to do in a little time, but it’s not. You’ve already done a two page arena , and a detailed outline. Outlines on Supernatural, tend to be about 10 to 14 pages, but it’s every beat and a lot of times even dialogue. By the time you’re getting into the script, you’ve lived it. And to me, the process of story breaking is where the heavy lifting gets done. When you actually have the story broken and you’re typing away, and some song’s on repeat — it’s Night Moves for the fiftieth time — you’re in your groove. And even though I usually had two weeks to write, even that is misleading. You hand it in, you get notes two or three days later, you get another draft, you send it in to the studio, the network, then you get another draft, then there’s a production tone meeting and another draft. I would always try to write a rough draft in four days, you want to get it out, you want to do what I call the vomit draft. Get it out of your system and then spend two days away from it, and then you come back to it, it’s like oh, who wrote this garbage? Almost all the scripts I wrote, the rough drafts were way long. Like embarrassingly long, like 60 pages when it’s supposed to be 38.
R: And Bob used to bust my chops all the time, and rightfully so. Even when I’d hand in a 38 page script, it would always time long because I’d find every single way to make it look nice on the page, but I was bringing up every single paragraph and window. But it’s like, “You can fuck with the margins, but we’re still three minutes over.”
Kamila: Other writers have talked about how it’s hard to write the Deus Ex Machina characters who have all the power, like Cas. How do you do that?
R: I usually tried to take his powers away.
PG: (laughing) That happens to Cas a lot! Is there a direction to do that?
R: No not really. The thing you have to remember is, it’s like writing Superman. It’s less about what they can do and more about why they’re doing it. And I think with Cas it’s always been that central conflict from going from good soldier to human. It was always a question of why is he doing this? And then figuring out where the problems are, so you’ll see ‘the angel banishing spell, because reasons’. Because we need him out of the scene! But I think saying he’s too powerful can be a crutch – like Superman, you go downstairs and there are 700 Superman comics, he’s the most powerful character ever, and yet his vulnerability is where his humanity comes out, it’s not about kryptonite or any of that shit.
PG: And for Cas as well.
R: Yeah. What causes him the most pain? If he’d just been like, ah fuck those turds [Sam and Dean], like the rest of the angels, he would’ve been fine. But unfortunately for him and fortunately for the story, that’s not how he viewed it. So yeah, it’s kind of a tricky thing. You have to remind yourself like, um, couldn’t he just teleport?
R: And there’s been a series of limitations to help us with that, like, oh no he can’t teleport because…there’s no angel radio…
R: Because we wanted to put him in a car!
L: That got pretty muddy in season 12, like wait, what can he do and what can’t he do, I’m so confused!
R: There’s a scene in the episode where Cas gets his grace back, what’s that episode? Damn, I wrote it, I should know… anyway, he gets his mojo back and then he looks for Metatron, he’s driving off in the Cas’s car. And as Metatron drives by, Curtis’ line was ‘thanks for the ride, Cas-hat!’
R: It was a fun line, but it was cut out of the episode. I think I put that line in another script though.
L: I don’t think so.
R: It felt like a good line for Curtis. Curtis is great.
L: Curtis is great.
R: You can give Curtis pretty much anything, and he’ll deliver it. A theater trained actor.
Candice: Do you feel like it’s sort of a cop out to just remove Cas from an episode?
R: That’s a great question because again, sometimes the decision to do that is more based in some of the practicalities of production than story. People will say, oh, they didn’t want them to be together in this episode, but no it wasn’t about that at all, everyone has contracts, you know? The first episode I ever wrote was for a tv show called Jericho, and I had pitched a very big A story and a B story. And my bosses pointed out that we had some actors who were under contract for that episode, so we literally put them on a list on a board and were like, well, maybe these two have a scene and then these two have a scene, and we can use this standing set. And in another case, we didn’t have an actor for that episode and had to write them out. That’s not how you think good drama is made, but it’s the reality sometimes of how we make tv. So there are times when Cas is out of an episode, and it’s “have you heard from Cas? No, nothing…” We only have him for a certain number of episodes so you have to make them count. I remember in Baby people were like, I can’t believe they burned him on that, but it felt right and it felt like a comedic moment to have him in, and I’m sure Misha didn’t mind. So some of it has to do with that practical stuff and has nothing to do with the narrative. It’s not personal, but I know it can be perceived that way out of context. This is why showrunners have such impossible jobs, sometimes it’s the narrative you can afford to tell. In the end, it’s really a question for the showrunners, but there were times when they’d say, you’re writing episode 16 and I’d say okay, who do I have? Do I have Misha, do I have Mark?
L: Like, who are the players who are on the board?
R: Exactly. If not, can I maybe bring in Jody/Kim? Like, is this a cool episode to bring somebody in or depending on where you are in the season you might need to save some money — so it’s nope.
L: Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that it’s a television show because we care so much about these characters.
R: Okay, anything else?
L: Well, I could ask you my first question that I didn’t ask because I decided it would be too hard to answer.
R: Uh oh.
L: No, not controversial, just difficult.
[Sliding my scribbles over in front of Robbie]
L: What do you think it means?
R: (squinting) Char S & D… dep and trauma…
L: No, just that first one. I was thinking with my psychologist hat on. If you had to do like a case study of Sam and Dean, like we psychologists do, how would you describe them? That was gonna be my first question.
R: Oh Jeez.
L: And that’s why I didn’t ask it!
R: I don’t know….dreamy? Soft?
R: Smell like baby Jesus?
L: Well yes these are all accurate.
R: Firm….oh, you meant Sam and Dean? I thought you meant Jared and Jensen.
L: Still accurate.
R: See 18 episodes?
L: The reason why that’s on there, and I’ve told you this before so it’s no secret, but your head canon for Sam and Dean is very close to my head canon.
R: Sweet. At least there’s one person…. You taught me that word, head canon…
L: So every time you write them, I’m like YES, that’s Sam, that’s Dean. Every writer has a slightly different characterization of them and it’s palpable. Some line up better with my own than others…
L: And I’m happiest when it lines up.
R: That’s kind of you to say, but for me, the credit belongs with the show. For me, the reference point was always the show. I’d go back and watch old episodes of the show to say, well that feels like Sam and Dean. We’ve talked about this before, my go-to was always, if I wanted to get excited, I would go back and watch Mystery Spot.
L; Yeah, oh yeah.
R: Because to me that’s a perfect example of what I love about Supernatural. It’s a super high concept, super funny and also super dark. People remember the funny parts, but it’s really dark.
L; Oh, it’s so sad, so so sad.
R: To me, that’s what I hoped for, trying to get what Billy Wilder used to call “the sweet and the sour,” that sweet spot. So I would try to go back to the show and if it reflected on the characters, I hope I got some stuff right.
L: Maybe it’s because you did all that homework. I told you that Jensen said that you wrote Dean like Dean.
R: Oh, that was the whisky talking…
L: I’m just saying…
R: That was the keg stand talking.
L: I felt validated.
R: Honestly, it all boils down to Krip, and the foundation he and the rest of the crew built from the Pilot on.
L: So maybe that is it, you watched a lot of Kripke’s version of them and that’s my version of them.
R: Also David Reed, who’s no longer on the show, he’s a writer now on The Magicians, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the show and he also had all the old scripts – Krip’s old scripts, Carver’s old scripts, Sera’s, Ben’s and after reading a lot of them, it just gets in your bones.
L: Yes, exactly!
R: Like you can write a line and be like, no it doesn’t work…if you can change the lines from Sam to Dean and don’t notice, it doesn’t work. And I would count the lines, I really would. And fans will count, like Misha only had 5 lines. And I’m like, I know, I counted them! There were actually 10, but we cut 5…
PG: (are nodding)
R: To me, it’s a great barometer of whether the story is representative of both characters. And sometimes you have a story that’s a little more about Sam or about Dean.
L: But it evens out in the long run.
R: Yeah, it balances. And also, to me, it’s less about that than how am I telling the story the best way? So if those stories are successful, it’s from reading Eric’s and Sera’s and Ben’s scripts, they leap off the page, especially the dialogue. And maybe someday they’ll publish the scripts, because it’s a fun thing to do to watch the episodes, like on Netflix, and have the old scripts so I’d see what the director changed, what the boys added, what Misha did, what Mark did. And you see it’s a collaborative thing. My favorite part of any scripts I wrote is always what the director added, or the cast, or crew, or a local Canadian actor added a layer that I wasn’t expecting and really nailed it.
L: That’s why I have this game where I try to figure out what they add.
R: I always love it though, people are like, oh my favorite part was that line that Jensen added, and I’m like yeah, mine too. I wrote the episode, like the whole thing, but…
PG and L: lol
R: You had tweeted about some moment in Baby being added by Jensen and you tagged me in and everyone was like ‘that was my favorite part’ and I was like yeah me too, me too…
L: I gave you credit, I tagged you in!
R: I feel like I kinda set them up like Goose to Maverick, then get out of their way.
PG: So last question, how do you feel about being called Dad?
R: I initially thought the Dad thing was incredibly creepy, but I don’t like to kink shame anybody so… I started calling Misha Dad for a while just to soften it and make it a joke, cuz I didn’t want any shame around it, but the thing is, the first five responses to these guys are always “Dad” and “Say hi to Brazil.” So it started that way and I don’t know when I started being called Dad. And now it’s what? Dad Prime?
PG: lol yes
R: I thought well, I like Amazon Prime, I like 2 day delivery… Any time you get called a nickname, you’ve gotta lean hard into it. I think if you resist you’re asking for worse. So if I’m Optimus Dad Prime, I’ll take it.
L: Now it’s an in joke and it’s not creepy.
R: And now everyone is Dad, there’s Dad…
L: And Dad and the Dads… which Rob and Jason have embraced…
Anne: Now it’s more a nickname of affection and respect.
I think we convinced him. Mostly. That was a pretty nice note to end on. We stopped to take a few pictures and a Robbie selfie, peanut gallery included. And Green Cooler included, of course.
R: Say green cooler!
Until next time, Robbie. With love.
Big thanks to our awesome Peanut Gallery, @lsangel2, @CandiceMcC @houseofdarkly and @kamyb22!
For more behind the scenes on Supernatural, and personal essays written by the actors and the fans, check out Family Don’t End With Blood! Links at top of page.