9:15am PT by Diane Ruggiero-Wright
How 'iZombie' Is "Wish Fulfillment" for Its Co-Creator (Guest Column)
I'm the co-creator and executive producer (along with Rob Thomas) of the new CW show iZombie. It's the story of a fake-psychic zombie medical examiner who eats brains and solves murders. It's ripped from the headlines of my life. For my portion of the pilot, I basically handed the studio a handful of diary entries and said, "Shoot it."
Would that it were that easy. Still, it wasn't as insurmountable a task as I once might've thought. Early in my career I had a bit of a problem with the advice "write what you know." In that I took it literally. And it almost ruined me.
I was a waitress from New Jersey when I sold my first screenplay — about a waitress from New Jersey. The script was so autobiographical it had an excerpt from an actual suicide note I had written (the note that I found so amusing that I decided not to go through with the deed and spend more time writing). It was because of that very personal script that I was given the opportunity to create my first TV show, That's Life, the story of a 28-year-old bartender from a blue-collar Italian-American family who was going to college for the first time. In other words The Diane Ruggiero Story.
The powers that be seemed to delight in the details of my life. My father working for the New Jersey Turnpike seemed almost exotic. "Love it! Put it in!" Rock bottom moments like having been a mall Easter bunny — or that time I paid for a boyfriend to take spin classes while he cheated on me with our instructor — were turned from failures to fodder. It was like my WGA card was suddenly a free pass from all of my stupid decisions, embarrassing moments and personal heartbreaks. Then the show was canceled.
As I struggled to come up with new pilot ideas, I was encouraged to "make it personal" and "write the story only you can tell." If you want to send a writer into a self-doubt spiral, give them that advice. Watch them walk around in dirty sweatpants, cursing to themselves while day-drinking, knowing that the perfect story is somehow already theirs, but they are too stupid to figure out what it is and write it.
By this time, I was "write what you know's" bitch. I wanted to write superheroes. I wanted to write sci-fi. I wanted to be Joss Whedon or Edgar Wright. But every script, every pitch revolved around a smart-assed, Italian girl from North Jersey who came from a working-class family, dated poorly and was impossibly drawn to getting in her own way. I was convinced my wheelhouse was the exact size of four square miles of the town I grew up in. When I went out for my first staffing season, my confidence was at an all-time low. Luckily, my second meeting was with Rob Thomas.
Rob had read an earlier script of mine and had enjoyed it. He was effusive and, most surprising, he seemed sure that I could write his teen detective Veronica Mars. Veronica, a 15-year-old petite, blond, southern Californian, was witty, ballsy, sarcastic and street smart. It was my wheelhouse, he assured me, just different geography.
I was terrified when I started the job. I couldn't fall back on my embarrassing stories or personal craziness because that wasn't Veronica. She'd never have cat litter stuck in her control top tights, or be dumped by a 28-year-old who collects beanie babies. She was flawed, but in a badass, admirable way. She was a strong female character created by a … six-foot-two Texan football player … wait … what?! Lesson 1: "Write what you know" is great and all, but "know how to write" is kind of the key to the whole thing. Lesson 2? I knew a hell of a lot more than everyone, other than Rob, thought I did.
Concentrating on telling a good story, instead of mining for the gold in my own history made for much better writing. Suddenly, everything was on the table. There was no more "stick to what you know." In every episode there was a different mystery to figure out, a different skill to learn long enough to be able to write about it effectively for 52 pages. Writing Veronica Mars changed "tell the story only you can tell" to "tell the story we broke in the room as best as you can while finding ways to use your unique voice in support of the characters." It was a learning experience I will always be grateful for. One that helped free me to write whatever I wanted.
With iZombie, I'm finally fulfilling my dream of writing a genre show. Can I relate to zombies? Sure. I have made many questionable dietary decisions. I can easily see myself pushing my face through the broken windshield of an overturned car to get at a good eggplant parmigiana sandwich. But our zombie, Liv (played by Rose McIver), isn't some undead version of me. She's a Type-A surgery resident-turned-police medical examiner who pretends to be a psychic while she helps solve murder cases. She's noble. Heroic. She's my wish fulfillment. I'm not taking the details of my life and making story out of them, I'm putting myself in the head of an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance and helping her seize the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
Liv won't be calling tomato sauce "gravy" anytime soon. She'll never reminisce about how she thought Frank Sinatra and the Pope were the same for the first 11 years of her life. She will be her own person, while staving off a zombie apocalypse, and she'll have the voice of a Texan football player and a New Jersey waitress, who are very busy "writing what they know."
iZombie airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.