Louise Farr 2015-06-03 23:03:53
Jim Kouf & David Greenwalt brew police procedural with fantasy-horror to concoct Grimm. Enough. I’m done, a burned-out David Greenwalt told himself back in 2010. The phenomenally successful showrunner—The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel—was finished with the TV-writing business. Maybe he’d teach instead of write, Greenwalt thought at the time—except he’d already tried that and found it damned hard, not to mention underpaid. Of course, requests for meetings kept on coming, but he turned them all down, including one from producer Todd Milliner. Greenwalt told his agent, Bob Gumer, that he just didn’t want to take the meeting. Why do it? It was pointless. He was out of the industry. This time Gumer prevailed by offering to accompany his client to Milliner’s Hazy Mills production office. “He was afraid I’d fall asleep on the couch,” Greenwalt jokes. Then, the moment Milliner mentioned the concept—“a modern retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales”—the jaded Greenwalt thought, Wow, what a good idea. So once again it was back on the pitch trail. His initial presentation to NBC was “pretty bad,” Greenwalt admits, explaining that it wasn’t sufficiently “hard-edged or exciting.” For one thing, his original hero Nick Burkhardt, the last living descendant of the Grimm family, was a hotelier. The network bought into the premise, anyway, with the proviso that the lead be a cop, and Greenwalt went off to write a pilot. “I knew for sure I couldn’t do it alone,” he says. So he contacted longtime writing partner Jim Kouf and begged, “You’ve got to do this with me.” By 2015, Grimm, an hour-long police procedural-cum– relationship fantasy that teems with tentacled, slithery, fanged, and destructive creatures known as Wesen (pronounced Vessen), is heading toward its fifth season on NBC in the fall and has begun a TNT syndication run. Along the way, Grimm evolved from solving a crime an episode into a sweeping saga that spans royal blood feuds dating back centuries. At San Diego’s Comic-Con pop-culture fest, Grimm panels overflow with devoted fans, and the series has spawned a Grimm-based merchandising bonanza in playing cards, pins, lunchboxes, and paperbacks. (The show’s co-creator Stephen Carpenter, who once had a Grimm script in development at CBS but isn’t involved with the NBC version, has even penned a handful of YA Grimm novels.) Ironically—after kicking off all this Grimm business by persuading Greenwalt to take one last meeting—it was Gumer who quit to teach, at Pepperdine. A photograph of the agent, dozing atop a stack of scripts, holds a hallowed place on Greenwalt’s desk: “I look at it every day.” Big Reveal A bizarre bromance portrait of Greenwalt and Kouf, painted by the actor Jeff Bridges, dominates a wall of the GK Productions suite, located in Universal Studios’ Sid Sheinberg building. Naturally, there’s a story behind the blurry rendering. At 18, Greenwalt landed a Universal mailroom job but didn’t begin writing screenplays until age 25, while working as a stand-in for his friend Bridges. After Greenwalt met Kouf at a Dan Petrie Jr. Poker game, the two teamed up and went on to an early 1980s Paramount deal, where Bridges gifted them with the painting. The pair wrote the comedies Wacko, Class, American Dreamer, and Secret Admirer together, before going their separate ways—Greenwalt to TV and Kouf to the features Shaker Run, Stakeout, and Rush Hour— not reuniting until the 2000-2001 Angel. “I knew he would love television if I could get him into it,” Greenwalt says. Now, at the end of each Grimm episode, the gilt-framed painting shows up as their company logo, creepy and amusing enough to fit the tone of the show, which deftly balances humor, horror, and romance. “It was about being very tired and kind of old,” the paradoxically energetic, bearded Greenwalt says of his desire five years ago to quit the industry. “I came into TV in my 40s, which is kind of late in the game, and I worked so hard for so many years that I was pretty run down. I had some great success, and then I had some shows that were a little more frustrating, and a couple of pilots that didn’t go, so I was not really interested anymore.” Reinvigorated by Milliner’s Brothers Grimm concept, Greenwalt still faced the challenge of structuring a series based solely on those dark, 19th-century narratives that have delighted and terrified generations of children. Granted, the academic folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote more than 200 tales: a useful selling tool for the network, maybe. But Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Red Riding Hood were already creatively well picked over, and fewer than a dozen of the stories would hold up to further reinvention in hour-long television episodes. Immediately, Greenwalt and Kouf decided that they didn’t want to depict separate fairy tale and real worlds. As they batted around ideas at a Toluca Lake restaurant, Kouf—not officially on board but simply helping Greenwalt out—glimpsed a man out on the sidewalk and had a revelation. “What if this Grimm guy could see the monsters within the people?” Kouf mused aloud. That became the driving theme of the show: the frightening ability of homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) to see the ugliness beneath people’s civilized facades. This supernatural talent, inherited from his Grimm predecessors on the death of his aunt, is one he would endeavor to keep secret from those around him, including his girlfriend, Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch), while using it to maintain a balance between good and evil in the world. “It all came from the idea that the Big Bad Wolf in the fairy tale speaks, so if the Big Bad Wolf can speak, there must be something human about him,” Kouf says. Grimm debuted in fall 2011, its creators uncertain about whether they would land a full season. But they did, while other new 2011 shows, including The Playboy Club and the dark workplace sex romp sitcom Free Agents, swiftly disappeared. “When we went to the upfronts in New York and they were picking us up,” says Greenwalt, “it seemed to me—this is just my version of it—it seemed like, Here’s all our soft porn for the year and then here’s this show. We’re not even sure why we picked it up.” But a regime change was happening at NBC, and Greenwalt believes that incoming chairman Robert Greenblatt had an instinct that was proven right, about Grimm’s potential for success. “We’re the only show that’s still on NBC from that year,” Greenwalt observes about 2011. “We’re the Little Engine That Could.” Crime Pays Because Greenwalt’s is the bigger office and looks out to a leafy view and the back of the Smokehouse restaurant, this is where they work. Kouf, whose white goatee imparts a vaguely Buffalo Bill appearance, accommodates his bad back by pacing, lying on the couch, or kneeling in front of Greenwalt’s desk. “They are like a machine, these guys. They are a machine,” says story editor Thomas Ian Griffith. “From the time they walk in that office, they do not stop working until the time they leave.” Confirms Greenwalt: “It’s the only way to do a television show. We don’t talk much about how our weekend was. We just work.” From the beginning, they saw the Brothers Grimm less as simple storytellers and more as early profilers who couched warnings of criminality within their weird and wonderful tales. In a June 2011 Mythology of Grimm, Greenwalt and Kouf produced a template for the series. They decided that Nick’s newly discovered powers would both help and hinder him as a detective. And with his sidekicks—friend Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) and police partner Hank (Russell Hornsby)—Nick would solve a crime in almost every episode. “I suppose there’s some kind of a formula to the show,” Greenwalt says. “But we made the choice early on not to have it just be the same thing every week. We would have characters find out about the so-called Grimm world. We’d have people grow and die and evolve, and that actually made the writing for me a little more scary but a lot more rich.” The character of Monroe illustrates the point, though in the Red Riding Hood–themed pilot he evolves from suspected child molester to good guy. A Big Bad Wolf We-sen (known in Grimmspeak as a Blutbad), a centuries-old enemy to Grimms, who historically beheaded his people—Monroe has reformed from a blood-thirsty animal in human disguise into a Pilatespracticing vegetarian who tries and succeeds in controlling his inner monster. “We knew we wanted to do the classic Big Bad Wolf,” says Kouf. “We wanted to explain him in the first episode, but we didn’t want this particular one, Monroe, to be bad. We wanted that to be a twist; you think the [villain] is him, and then it turns out it’s not. That’s where we discovered the show, writing that scene, and all of a sudden Monroe started to talk.” “And he was funny,” adds Greenwalt. “The notion of him as kind of an alcoholic: I’m a vegetarian, I do Pilates. I want to rip people apart and eat them, but I’m fighting my nature. We thought that was an interesting and amusing character. We knew when we wrote that scene that he would be a regular. We knew that he would be the sidekick.” They also knew that the show had to be set in Portland, with its atmospheric Victorian houses and the lakes, rivers, and damp, ferny woods that resemble Germany’s Black Forest. “We needed the dark, moody skies,” says Kouf, who made a reconnaissance trip through Germany to see the forest firsthand and make sure Grimm was getting it right. They shoot if it rains and if the weather is fine, with four or five days of principal photography out of an eightday shooting schedule. Local diners and other landmarks ground the abnormal goings-on, in which characters morph into hideous, raging beasts. The historic Hotel DeLuxe lent furniture to Grimm to re-create its interiors on set for scenes between cute but lethal blonde Hexenbiest/witch Adalind (Claire Coffee) and the vengeful Prince Viktor (Alexis Denisof). And Nick Burkhardt’s boss, Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), a descendant of royalty who is feuding with his family, visited his cousin at the Pearl District’s swanky Gregory Lofts. Surprisingly, the elegant Raven & Rose restaurant didn’t object to being identified in Grimm as a joint that poisoned Blutbads. They even tossed a party the night the episode aired. “It tripled their business,” Greenwalt claims, gleefully. Feed Your Head With the Portland production team in the hands of directorexecutive producer Norberto Barba, known for Law & Order and influenced by Spanish and Mexican neo-Gothic horror films, Kouf and Greenwalt consider their main job to incorporate writing, editing, and prepping episodes. They make sure never to be late by working ahead. “We always try to get a script done two weeks before actual production, which is a week be-fore preproduction,” Kouf says. “We don’t want to be one of those shows that delivers an outline two days before shooting.” That gives them seven days to work out all the imaginative effects and stunts or eliminate anything overly ambitious or expensive. “These are big scripts and lots of scenes,” Greenwalt explains. “We’ve shot 88-scene scripts in the show.” Working with a partner is like having a built-in rewrite, each believes, and they bounce things back and forth until both are satisfied. “David reins me in,” Kouf announces. “I try to rein him in,” corrects Greenwalt. He wasn’t sure, for instance, that a hallucinatory Alice in Wonderland type of episode could be accomplished in which Adalind makes her escape from vengeful royals who dumped her in a prison cell filled with giant rats. Life can be tough, even for a scheming little Hexenbiest, so Adalind encounters acid trip–type talking figures that emerge from the walls, their tears flooding a staircase and nearly drowning her. It worked, but this material isn’t easy to realize. “We think we’re writing a producible episode,” says Kouf, “and they come back and say, ‘No, there’s 42 shots here.’” Fortunately, special effects have advanced since the days of Buffy and Angel. The writing partners wonder if Grimm could have been possible back then. “With Buffy, you just put some horns on a guy’s head and he was the demon,” Greenwalt says. “This is more sophisticated, and it’s great because you really see that person, that thing, that [evil] being, existing within the human.” Toil and Trubel In initial telephone concept meetings for every episode, Barba, Greenwalt, and Kouf discuss with the visual effects supervisor whether makeup will be required for morphing and demorphing sequences. Known as woging, this is when inner demons reveal themselves to Burkhardt or to young runaway Teresa Rubel, aka Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni). Brief character transformations are farmed out to special effects houses, some of which are adept at composites against green screen and one that’s particularly strong at creating the ghastly creatures Burkhardt fights. In a later tone meeting, Greenwalt, Kouf, and Barba go through the script almost line by line with visiting directors. “What makes it work is there’s an inherent trust on both sides. It’s not an ego-driven machine; it’s a creatively driven machine where our goal is to make the best episode that we can,” says Barba, who directs three episodes a season. “I always like that the writers shoot for the moon.” Which is part of the fun. When shaping their shows, writers dip into history, folklore, and their imaginations to describe their demons. Designers then send images for approval, based on the writers’ descriptions. Sketches of the final beasts end up on screen in a book that Burkhardt inherited from his aunt and which he uses in his detective work to figure out just what the hell is going on beneath the mayhem. A fan fave from Season 3’s “Mommy Dearest” episode was the shudder-worthy, fork-tongued Aswang, a mythical Filipino creature that sucks amniotic fluid from the bellies of pregnant women. Aside from the horror conventions of blood and guts, dark rooms, and false scares, part of the series’ success can be attributed to Kouf and Greenwalt expanding beyond the Grimm Brothers to draw on myths and fairytales from around the world [see sidebar]. The Aswang plot provided a showcase for actor Reggie Lee, who plays Burkhardt’s Filipino colleague, Sergeant Wu, but also appealed to audiences in the Philippines. Likewise, a storyline featuring La Llorona, a weeping ghost from Mexican folklore, was simulcast on a Spanish-language station and successful in Mexico. This means adding subtitles, but using a given country’s language grounds the folklore in reality, Kouf believes: “It gives that country a little bit of possession of the material.” And it doesn’t hurt that Sasha Roiz, who plays Renard, speaks French, Russian, and Hebrew and is filmed on occasion with his shirt off, making him a buff heartthrob for multicultural linguists. “We’re not above that,” Greenwalt admits. Freedom to explore means the writers let their imaginations run wild. Story editor Griffith wrote an episode about a rabbit-like Wesen he named Willahara after learning that meant valuable rabbit in Old English. For a boxing story, he researched medieval drawings and grotesque photographs, asking himself which images he could combine for the artists to create the raging-bull Wesen he envisioned. “Two days ago, it was make believe, then I’m looking at this great rendering,” Griffith recalls. “All of a sudden, it comes to life. It’s real. It’s a little sick, but it’s fun. I was just in with Jim and David, and I started laughing. I said, ‘We’re grown men and look what we’re doing!’ We were coming up with some crazy scares, like little kids playing in the park outside, and we just ran with it.” In search of fresh goose bump–raising moments, the showrunners and their writers (seven, at latest count, including Kouf and Greenwalt) started examining exorcism, paranoid schizophrenia, and extraterrestrials. “We’d find a Grimm explanation for anything,” Greenwalt says. “With the extraterrestrials we had this creature that sort of glows.” He turns to Kouf for a reminder. “What did it need from the cattle? Was it the udder, or . . .?” “The ovaries,” Kouf says. “So in the middle of the night a farmer would see this glowing thing leaning over a cow,” Greenwalt goes on. “We’d try to explain all that. A tiny nod to The X-Files in that one.” Every six weeks or so, if one of their scripts is shooting or they need to check in for a production reason, the showrunners visit Oregon. The husky-voiced and charismatic but inexperienced Toboni, now 23, won her Trubel (pronounced trouble) role last year, so they wanted to be on set for support. Kouf had discovered her while he and his wife, Lynn Kouf, a Grimm producer, visited their daughter, Kalli, at the University of Michigan. “We just weren’t hitting on the kind of woman that we needed, which was vulnerable yet you believe she could kill somebody,” Kouf says about casting. “We saw this one girl and we go, ‘Wow!’” Fairy tale time, indeed, for Toboni. More recently they were up there to meet with a new director and check in with the actors. “At the end of the day, we want a tone of reality. Something where the emotions feel real and the problems—at least the emotional problems— are real,” says Greenwalt. “You already have a buy of, Okay, these humans turn into Wesen characters. You have a couple of buys like that in the show, and everything else has to be played real and not campy. It’s always a problem with these shows, that people think they’re campy. It’s just not so, and we have to make that clear over and over.” It’s a warning that goes out to writers, as well, and that desire for truth means that however fanciful a theme or terrifying a Wesen, Greenwalt and Kouf try to base everything in science or history—whether writing about the beginnings of fruitcake or the rise of Hitler and the decline of European royalty—modified, naturally, for Grimm dramatic purposes. “It’s the detail of the script that you don’t get in the outline that drives your story,” mentions Kouf, adding that those unexpected moments that happen while writing a script can lead to changes in story direction—changes the writers couldn’t anticipate within a two-page outline. “So we go with it, and we wind up in corners and have to figure out how to get out of them.” They can also wind up heading in unexpected directions that do work. Greenwalt gives an example: “We were working on a script and Jim says, ‘What if we do this with Nick, the main character?’ And I said, ‘Gosh, if we do that, he’s going to be arrested by the FBI.’ He said, ‘Great, let’s do that.’ So we go off on these tangents and the characters help us tell the story.” Nick’s arrest by the FBI ended up in Season 2’s “The Kiss” episode. A Room of One’s Own It’s been four seasons now. Five years. A smaller writers’ room than when they started. “I don’t understand these big staffs, I never did,” says Greenwalt. “I love a small room. Not too many voices. With a smaller room, a smaller staff, people are going to write more scripts. We’re writing constantly: every day, every day, every day. Pressure. For us it seems to work better.” However much they write—and they write a great deal, because they want to know for themselves what happens and believe that knowing informs other scenes—they’re also willing to change or throw out entirely their original concept for a show: a challenge for their writers as well as them. Acknowledges Greenwalt: “I wouldn’t want to work for us.” “But at least we’ll have taken those characters through that moment,” Kouf adds. “We try to tell our writers, ‘Don’t jump over the emotional stuff.’ If there’s an emotional moment, a lot of writers have a tendency to cut to . . . The moment after, whereas all the drama’s right here. You missed it. Another thing we try to do is not come at a scene straight ahead. Come at it sideways.” He and Greenwalt cite the proposal episode between Monroe, the Blutbad big bad wolf, and his girlfriend, Rosalee (Bree Turner), a foxlike Wesen known as a Fuchsbau. Over dinner the couple speak coyly about “the first time.” “You think it’s the first time they lost their virginity, but they’re actually talking about the first time they woged or morphed into a Wesen and how it affected them as a child,” Greenwalt says. “I remember sitting there going, How are we going to do this romantic scene? We want to mislead everybody. It’s such a great way into talking about woging because talking about ‘the first time’ you automatically think about sex.” Sometimes, Kouf adds, coming at it sideways doesn’t have to be about an entire scene but about the questions characters ask in a scene. “Maybe the most obvious question is not the question they should be asking. Maybe it’s the one that you don’t think about first. Procedural stuff can be straight ahead, but you want it to be entertaining. Maybe it’s more about an emotional component or a physical component, not necessarily about the evidence.” He sighs. “After 80-something episodes, it’s not getting easier.” Greenwalt had been just a teen when he got that first job in the Universal mail room and noticed, while traveling the lot, that the writers always seemed to be laughing, drinking, or playing darts. Writing’s the thing I should do, he thought. Now here he is, back at Universal decades after that mailroom position, buoyed by this fantastical world he and Kouf have created through their constant writing, on planes, in cars, at Kouf’s Montana ranch, and on the set. “It’s still fun,” Greenwalt says, four seasons into Grimm, with not a hint of burnout. “It still is fertile soil. NAME THE THING How do the Grimm writers come up with the multitude of monsters, known as Wesen, that inhabit the dark interiors of outwardly normal-seeming people? There was the Spinatar, a soccer mom who turns into a spider woman who needs to suck out men’s insides every five years in order not to grow old. And the lawyer who morphs into the Lausenschlange (or “lousy snake”), a scaly creature that strangles his victims like a boa constrictor. But among the most frightening was the leech-like Lebensauger. “We used it twice, and the second time you saw it really mash onto people’s faces. It’s one of the most hideous,” says Greenwalt, chuckling as he admits. “We have fun with some of the names.” This means trying to find something that fits the personality of the Wesen by diving into Jim Kouf’s German dictionary (wesen means creature in German) or seeking out Latin or other word derivations. Framed portraits of nightmare-worthy Wesen featured in the series add a ghoulish touch to a bland hallway that leads to Kouf’s and Greenwalt’s offices. These imaginary beings become more convincing if they’re not merely one-dimensional bad guys, Kouf and Greenwalt say, but possess emotional arcs of their own within episodes: “If they have some kind of a need that they’re fulfilling in their own Wesen world that happens to take the lives of people,” explains Greenwalt. Often the creatures’ genesis can be attributed to groundwork performed by Brenna Kouf, Jim Kouf’s daughter. She was an assistant when, between Seasons 2 and 3, she began delving into worldwide myths, fairy tales, and urban legends. After a couple of months spent in a haze of weird anthologies and Wikipedia, she ended up with a database that became a fat book. Now a copy, with its tales organized by continent and geographical regions, is kept in the writers’ room and sits on desks for the writers to draw from when researching ideas. Her task had been triggered by an email that the actor Reggie Lee, who plays Sergeant Wu, sent to the showrunners, alerting them to myths from his native Philippines that he believed could provide fodder for episodes. “In the email, I found the Aswang,” Brenna Kouf says, about the vile, amniotic fluid–sucking creature [see main story]. “And I thought this was really, really creepy and gross and awesome.” She found it so awesome, in fact, that she freelanced a script based on it, “Mommy Dearest,” one of three episodes that vaulted her from assistant to a Season 5 staff writer. So, um, does it take a particular type of brain to concoct these extraordinary stories that manage to be so dark yet so amusing at the same time? “We’re sick,” Jim Kouf jokes. Or perhaps just unusually imaginative. —LF
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