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TV Producer of the Year Greg Berlanti: “I Still Fight About Everything”

As prolific as Shonda, Ryan and Chuck, the lower-profile showrunner behind today’s network hits ('Blindspot') and hunky superheroes ('The Flash,' 'Arrow') is not too big to keep pushing Hollywood's comfort zone on sexuality, abortions and so-called taboos.

Greg Berlanti settles into a bank of couches in his office on the Warner Bros. lot, tucked in between brightly colored pillows with hand-stitched logos for two of his shorter-lived television series, No Ordinary Family and Dirty Sexy Money.

There are eight more pillows throughout the spacious office, one commemorating each of his film or television projects. His mother has them made for her now-43-year-old son, who welcomed a son of his own via surrogacy in February. “A lot of times, the pillow turns out better than the show,” says Berlanti as he surveys the room, which is cluttered with superhero mementos and an excess of baby gear.

The New York native, who studied theater at Northwestern University, got an early education in TV showrunning when he was tapped to take over The WB’s cultish teen drama Dawson’s Creek at the tender age of 28. In way over his head, Berlanti recalls having standing calls on Sundays with his businessman father, who’d walk him through such things as how to hire or fire and how to manage a budget. “It was a steep, steep learning curve,” he says with a chuckle.

In the decade and a half since, Berlanti has become one of the most prolific producers working in TV, with a résumé that includes Everwood, Jack & Bobby, Brothers & Sisters, The Mysteries of Laura, Blindspot and CBS’ Supergirl. But it has been his impressive ability to breathe new life into both The CW and DC Comics with the critically and commercially successful Arrow and Flash that’s earned him top billing in TV circles.

He has dabbled in film, too, with the Katherine Heigl-Josh Duhamel rom-com Life as We Know It and the DC misfire Green Lantern among the lengthy list of credits on his IMDb page.

During an interview in that office in late April, where the boyish, openly gay producer awaited the fate of a few of his Berlanti Productions’ five series and one CW pilot (live-action Archie Comics drama Riverdale), he opened up about the times he nearly walked off of Everwood and Dawson’s Creek, the soul-crushing experience that was Green Lantern and the three words that have led to his success.

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You used to strive to be a Norman Lear-esque provocateur with your work, regularly including gay storylines, abortion storylines, AIDS storylines. Fair to say your goals have changed now that you’re working largely in the genre world?

It hasn’t gone away forever, my interest in doing shows that are relevant — and that’s how I used to think about it. It felt to me that if we were doing character-based shows, and we weren’t dealing with issues that people were dealing with or that you saw on the nightly news, it just wasn’t appealing. I felt like the richness of the characters was determined by all the things you could go into. We’re doing Riverdale right now [at The CW], which will be a straight character show, and I’ll push. Even in the pilot, we deal with some of those issues. There’s a gay character, a closeted character, a child on medication. So yeah, the seeds are there. (Laughs.)

There’s less of that in your genre shows.

Even with the action shows though, I’ve still tried to do my part in making those shows relevant where I can, whether it’s having openly gay actors play straight characters or straight actors play gay characters. But obviously, no, my day is not as much about, like, “So, which character has gonorrhea of the throat?” anymore. (Laughs.) Which we dealt with on Everwood, like, six episodes in.

“Grant came in, and he wasn’t the obvious choice. He was much younger than Barry had been, but he had the heart and the spirit of what we were trying to represent,” says Berlanti (right), with ‘Flash’ star Gustin.

For a while there was a gay storyline in every project you did. Why was that so important to you, and did you meet with resistance?

In the beginning, there was resistance. When we did the Jack kiss on Dawson’s Creek, everyone was tentative. [It was the first passionate kiss between two men on primetime TV.] But I took over the show, and that was an important thing to me. If we were going to bring the character out, it seemed silly to me that he couldn’t kiss. By the time I got to ABC [to do Brothers & Sisters], we were in one of our first story meetings [talking about Kevin and Scotty] and I think we even said, “But don’t worry, we’ll cut away here.” And they were like, “No, if anybody else would kiss there, they should kiss there.” So, from the time of that Dawson’s kiss to the time of Kevin and Scotty, it had changed a lot.

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And that was only, what, half a decade or so?

Yeah. And now, Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, writer/executive producer] put in a great moment in Riverdale where two girls kiss who aren’t lesbians. The characters are making a commentary in that moment on faux-lesbian kissing. So, yeah, now it’s passe. (Laughs.)

What would you have done had they said no to that Jack kiss?

I was prepared to quit. I really was. I had a similar moment with [The WB] a few years later when we did the abortion episode on Everwood. There hadn’t been one since Maude that wasn’t a medically based or needed abortion. I had had an abortion storyline in the pilot pitch. [Treat Williams’ Dr. Andy Brown] was going to be an abortionist. Yep, that was in the original pitch. (Laughs.) And they were like, “We love the romance of it. We love a father living out his deceased wife’s dream for him. But I don’t know about the abortion part.” I believe they said, “Can you just get them in the tent first and then you can deal with that issue?”

And you agreed?

I did, but I said I was going to do it by episode 12. Then I waited all the way until episode 20. And when they said then, “You know, we’d prefer you to not do it,” I literally walked out of the office. We’re going back now 16 years, so my memory’s not terribly vivid, but I remember John Litvack, who’s since passed away, came over from the network and said: “Let’s work together on this. I can help make this happen.” All they ultimately asked was that we represent both sides of the conversation.

Why was something like that so important?

I created the show because I wanted these characters to feel like they were in the real world. And then probably more than anything for me as a kid, representation really mattered. For most of my childhood, even through college, there was a lot of feeling very alone. I loved TV, so when those very special episodes of anything came or when certain characters reflected the world I lived in, I felt connected.

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Is it any easier to get an abortion storyline pushed through today?

Well, then we did it the next year in Jack & Bobby, too. We were just handing them out. (Laughs.) But I think it’s still a touchy subject.

Are you still having these kinds of fights?

I don’t think anything has changed! I still fight about everything, I swear to God. I still am on the phone with any executive at any level to get something sold or get something bought or get a story thrown out. None of that is any different, and that’s one of the great equalizers about television. So many times, I’ll work on a pilot or whatever, and you’ll see a feature director come in and you just wait for the first notes session that they get. They’ll go, “Wow, they give a lot of notes.” Mmm-hmm. “They’re giving notes every other minute of the thing.” Yeah, they don’t care [who you are].

Berlanti (left) with boyfriend Robbie Rogers, who plays for the L.A. Galaxy.’

So what do you fight for today?

Of the things that are personal to me, they’re not necessarily fights but they’re choices we made that were different that became conversations. For instance, in The Flash, Iris West was never black in the comic books, and for Supergirl, James Olsen was never black in the comics. So I wanted to contemporize these comics that I loved growing up and have them reflect the society that we live in now. Those have all been conversations. There’s a character we just added to Arrow, Mr. Terrific, who is African-American and gay, and then of course we had one of our original Black Canaries [on Arrow] be bisexual. So I’m doing it in a way that’s not as overt now, but it’s still about working in some of those very real qualities so that everyone feels represented. And in the last couple of years, we’ve been focusing on doing it behind the camera as well.

How so?

This year on Arrow, we’ll be at 50 percent with either women or diverse directors. When we started, you’d hear back a lot, “Well, they have to have either directed for the network or they have to have directed action.” You’d say, “That’s a catch-22 because where did they get an opportunity to direct action?” And they used to say, “Well, you can try one or two new directors out a year on a show.” But when it’s a young show or you’re a new showrunner, you’re scared. We’ve been able to change that a bit, and hopefully we’ll have female directors across a lot of the DC superhero shows over the next couple of years who can go on and do superhero films and get other action jobs.

What did you learn early on about what the showrunner job entails?

When they first brought it up [on Dawson’s Creek], I said no. Then they brought it up again, and I said no again. I thought, “Oh, great, I’ll start my career by taking over the show, and then it will fail, and I’ll be done before I can even begin.” But Jordan Levin, who was running the network at the time, said, “You know, Greg, this isn’t a dialogue.” (Laughs.) “You’re going to do this.” One thing I learned is that I’m not a one-man show. I tried that first year to do a lot more myself, and it didn’t make me a happier person. In fact, I was a little bit of a tyrant, and I realized I don’t want to be that person.

How and when did it start to click for you?

It’s funny, the famous people who were doing it at the time were, like, David Kelley, and I thought, “Well, he sits down and writes a script in his office in a day.” So I tried that for a while, but I realized I’m not that person. I like giving notes to writers and breaking stories with writers. And so I started to fashion the show a bit around what my strengths and weaknesses were. I couldn’t write fast, so I was extra-reliant on writers who could write quickly. I could break stories quickly, and I enjoyed the cutting room, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time in it, so I was reliant on other producers who were more gifted at that initially. And I learned that probably the least valuable place for someone like me to be, a lot of times, is on set. Because if I’ve done my job right, I don’t need to be.

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Your peers who have multiple shows — Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Chuck Lorre — have considerably bigger profiles. Does it hurt or help you to keep a lower profile?

Someone said to me a long time ago, “Avoid publicity at all costs unless it comes to you. Because at best, it’s a push.” I have a Twitter profile, but I avoid red carpets and all that kind of stuff. I’d rather no one talk about me ever, and I just get to do my thing. I’m an introvert. But the Instagram piece has been interesting — especially now that I have a kid. I post some fun things with [my son] Caleb because I think about the gay kid out there who’s thinking, “What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to ever feel normal?”

You’ve had tremendous success in TV but have struggled a bit in film …

I’ve had a lot of stuff not work on TV, too. I’ve had as much failure in this business as I’ve had success, across both spectrums. We can count pillows! (Laughs.) But Green Lantern is a great one to point to. I got fired from that movie as a writer and as a director, and yet my name was all over it. I still get blamed for it, even though I had nothing to do with the finished product. As Marc Guggenheim always says, there’s a very Google-able script that we did write that was not executed that I still stand by. But at the time, I thought, “Oh God, that noose will hang around my neck my whole life.”

Did you have any hesitation about going back down that DC Comics road for TV?

My only request [when we started on Arrow] was to let us do it our way because I was so heartbroken by what had happened. Being a part of something like that when you’ve loved those characters your whole life, and thinking you’re not going to really get a chance to participate before you even start was very [tough]. Having to go every day to see whatever version of the film that they’d concocted at that point was a bit like having to buckle in and go drive to the same auto accident every day and get hit by the same car.

Arrow had a major casualty this year, one that was extensively built up within the show. How has your sense of what the audience wants and can handle when it comes to grieving changed?

Every year, by the end of the year, whether you’re doing Walking Dead or you’re doing a show like ours, characters are going to perish. That is part of the investment in the show. And of course, we’ve brought a few back because it’s a comic book and we have all sorts of fun ways that we can do that. But people, particularly on Twitter, are very vocal. When I started on Dawson’s, people were very passionate about who got together with whom, we’d get a box of mail once a month, and you’d look through it, and you’d be like, “Wow, OK, that person from prison is very passionate about whether Joey is with Pacey or with Dawson.” And now, with Twitter, you don’t know if it’s just four people with 1,000 accounts. The thing I’d say is that obviously a character’s death is going to be a really sensitive thing for somebody who’s enjoyed a show and that actor, and we don’t take any of them lightly.

From left: Berlanti, Zach Braff, Ben Weber and Timothy Olyphant in Berlanti’s first film, ‘The Broken Hearts Club.’

The DC Cinematic Universe has been criticized for its excessive darkness. You have The Flash, which has often been very bright; Legends of Tomorrow, which is often downright goofy; and Arrow, which is dark but still has a fair amount of humor. How important is “fun” to your vision of what a comic book adaptation should be?

If you’re going to do something like The Flash, part of what made Barry Allen so great was that he was this guy in the middle of all these superheroes who couldn’t believe that he was there, and he loved it. It was the first comic book character who made me cry. He died in Crisis on Infinite Earths saving everybody, and he was the last one anyone expected to save everyone, so inherent in this character was this heartbroken sadness and sacrifice, but at the same time this joy. That duality is something I’ve really latched on to in a lot of what I’ve done. This is the only Flash I’d know how to do.

The Flash film recently lost its director. Is helming that movie of interest to you?

No one’s discussed that with me, but I could never direct a Flash movie that Grant Gustin wasn’t the lead of. He’s my Flash.

What sort of advice would you give to whoever does direct the film?

We have three words above the door [of the Flash writers room]: “Heart, humor and spectacle.”

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If Warner Bros. TV executives asked you to be the Kevin Feige — who is the creative mastermind of Marvel — of the DC Cinematic Universe, what would you say?

It’s never even really come up. Peter [Roth, president of Warner Bros. TV] knows how much I love the characters, and I like being part of this universe in any way that they’ll all allow and are interested in me being a part. That’s the truth. I’m attached to a few films [at Warner Bros.] now, and one, Booster Gold, is a DC property. Zack Stentz, who wrote an episode of Flash last year, just got the job, so he’s writing the script now. I’d probably direct that, or I would want to. But I don’t see my cup as limited. I actually think some of the stuff we get to do on the TV side is richer, deeper and more like the true comic books in the sense that you’re always able to explore a new thing the next week and the stories grow wider and wider.

What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?

I definitely want to direct more. Film directing’s a lot like showrunning. The thing that I probably enjoy the most and also am the best at in whatever art form I’m working in is being the protector of the emotional experience of the audience. Also, I’m a dad now, and I’m starting to think about my life differently in terms of how much time I’m going to have. When you direct a film, you have a couple years between movies, and I’d have more time to be with my family.

You’ve said every few years you try to do a personal project. When will that come and what will it entail?

Last year we had three new shows going on, and I had to make them all work. I owed that to everybody. But my brain is just opening up again, so ask me in five months and I’ll be able to tell you what it is. I’m working on it. I’m just finishing up co-writing a project for Showtime, too, which I’m supposed to direct if it goes. It’s based on a book called You, a love story from the point of view of a stalker, which is very different from anything I’ve ever done.

If you could do a reboot on any of your shows, which would you revisit?

Well, we had an incredible second season planned for [USA’s] Political Animals that would still be surpassed by what’s actually happening in the political fabric right now. The hook of it was that [Elaine Barrish, played by Sigourney Weaver] was going to run for president because, if you remember, the president passed away. So she was going to run, and the vice president, who had ascended to the presidency but was not a great guy, was going to put [Elaine’s] ex-husband on his ticket. So now she’d be running against him. But to answer your question, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are days where I wonder what happened to the Everwood people.

Have you had any conversations about a revival?

Please, my goal with Everwood is just to get it on Hulu or Netflix. I should be able to go home, turn on Netflix and watch an old Everwood episode.

This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.