As the titan behind the biggest comic book characters on TV, Greg Berlanti feels the burden. He grew up loving these superheroes – especially “The Flash” – and is now responsible for how a new generation consumes them.
But Berlanti also understands he’s also a caretaker for franchises that will continue to thrive no matter what – even after he moves on.
“These characters are incredible,” he told IndieWire. “They were great before us, and they’ll be great after us. They’ll continue to exist in television, in movies, in comic books and other places for decades and decades to come. It’s nice to play a small part in this particular moment, and show up every day to dream up scenarios that hopefully not only show the best of these characters but the best in ourselves.”
Berlanti, of course, is being modest. The Northwestern grad got his big break on “Dawson’s Creek,” and then moved on to executive produce series like “Everwood” and “Brothers and Sisters.” Even his short-lived dramas – “Jack & Bobby,” “Eli Stone” and “Political Animals” – are remembered for their original ideas and unique structures.
But his shepherding of “Arrow” for The CW in 2012 gave Berlanti perhaps his greatest TV legacy: The creation of an entire TV comic book universe (dubbed, appropriately, the “Berlantiverse”). “The Flash” followed, then “Supergirl” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” Next up, he’s working on an adaptation of “Black Lightning” (just announced this week) at Fox and executive producing The CW’s “Riverdale,” a new take on the classic Archie comics brand.
Outside of comics, Berlanti is also busy: His NBC drama “Blindspot” is heading into its sophomore season, and he has plenty more in the works. IndieWire checked in with Berlanti – who’s even got his hands busy at home, as the new dad to a 7-month-old – to discuss everything from “Supergirl’s” move from CBS to the CW, to what he’s watching these days.
Fox just picked up your adaptation of “Black Lightning.” How did you get involved?
That was mostly [executive producers] Mara [Brock Akil] and Salim [Akil], who are incredibly talented, and the studio just asked me to godfather them a bit, since this genre is newer for them. But they really have a vision for that show, so I hope I can help them execute it.
What is that superhero boot camp like? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years that you hope to impart on the Akils?
A few of them would be that the shows have to exist as if they had nothing to do with superheroes as well. What kind of show would it be? What would it be about? What’s the emotional core of the main character and their journey? Inevitably if that stuff isn’t there, everything else feels like noise. I’d say also, your heroes are only as good as your villains. They have to have a great villain as well to challenge the hero. And to not be afraid to make it as specific as possible. Obviously we participate in a lot of these shows right now, and there are a lot of them in TV and movies. The ones that succeed have a real specificity to them. They did that and worked their heart and soul into their pitch. It’s a very personal story for them. I hope people will connect with it.
We’re seeing so much more representation now with superheroes. Having shows that center on African-American heroes, and with “Freedom Fighters: The Ray” [Berlanti’s animated series for CW Seed], a gay superhero lead. How important is it to you to expand representation in the TV comic book world?
As the shows have gotten more successful, executives are more open to taking the shows in all sorts of different directions and making them for everybody. It’s so great because it’s at the core of these characters. They’re heroes for everyone. It’s nice for people to see some bit of themselves in these heroes. And it’s just as powerful to me when a little boy comes up to me and talks about Supergirl and thinks she’s just as cool as The Flash. It feels like it’s part of the revolution happening in general on television. As there are more shows, people are getting better at realizing there should be more shows about, and for, and by, everybody from all walks of life. That’s better for everybody. It makes you a better storyteller.
Warner Bros. Television Distribution
And now that you’re a parent, you must be thinking how great it is that this is now the norm. He’s growing up in a world where it’s not unusual to have heroes of every kind.
As somebody who grew up feeling a little different and a little more isolated, it’s nice to be a part of that fabric now and see that a lot of people are waking up and getting it. But there’s obviously still a lot more work for all of us to do.
Let’s count how many comic book shows you have on the air now. Six? Seven?
One thing I always feel weird about – because people always ask me, “How do you do it all?” – the truth is, we’re a big company and there are a lot of people who do a lot. There’s a lot of people and showrunners and executives at this company. Indeed, we’ve got our fingers in a lot of different pies, but it’s not because it’s just me there all day long. There are so many people I work with who work their butts off.
You’ve also assembled your own league of superhero showrunners. How does that interaction go?
Each one of them could certainly do it without me, and each one of them has taught me a lot. Andrew [Kreisberg] and Marc [Guggenheim], whom I’ve worked with forever. And now [“Blindspot” creator] Martin [Gero], who I just started working with recently, and Ali [Adler], whom I’ve worked with for a long time, and then back again on “Supergirl.” And the list goes on. It’s definitely one of the more rewarding parts of this business, getting to work with people who you really respect.
Katie Yu/The CW
Is “The Flash” still your favorite?
It was the one for the longest period of time as a kid. It was the character that, when I got my first iPhone, the very first picture I downloaded – years before the show. It always held a special place in my heart. Everyone who reads comic books has that particular character that reminds them of their connection to comic books in general. For me it was that particular character.
As “Supergirl” leaps to The CW, how has the network move – and the relocation to Vancouver – been going?
I just saw the director’s cut of the first episode, and I’m in as much love with the show as ever. It’s been challenging to figure out all the moving parts, moving the show across cities and across networks. But the reality is, I think the show is as strong as ever and it feels really seamless. People will not be able to tell that it’s not L.A. It feels like National City still. There are some new enhancements to the set that we were going to do anyway. Obviously some new characters are coming to the show that we would have brought in anyway to the second season. And so I’m really pleased. CBS in their own wisdom recognized it, there’s no part of the show that’s fighting itself anymore. It has a youthfulness and appeal because of the age of the leading lady, and it gets to embrace that a touch more.
What more can you tell us how often we’ll see Calista Flockhart’s character, Cat Grant?
She’s recurring. We’re trying to get her for at least six episodes this year, and she’s in the first two episodes. We’re just trying to see when she can come back now.
And will we see her interact with Superman?
I don’t want to give it away, but she has a special kind of dynamic with Clark Kent.
How far along is the “Supergirl”/”The Flash” musical crossover?
We just finished writing the fall crossovers. And now we’re trying to figure out how to produce them. That’s probably the most challenging thing we do all year. And now we’re doing it across three shows! But next week we’ll have to start talking about clearing music. I have a few ideas for tone and style in my head but we’re just starting to talk about what that can be. I do want to try and get an original piece of music written. As we make a deal on that we’ll probably make some announcements on the original songs.
Perhaps written by, I don’t know, Lin-Manuel Miranda?
[laughs] I would say, pretty close. I can’t say yet because we don’t have a deal yet, but I did speak to someone we’re really excited about. There are some writers I’m incredibly excited to work with.
Dean Buscher/The CW
Back to the big CW series crossover, how difficult is that to pull off across so many series?
You really are trying to run a single production across three different productions. But they’re run as three separate entities. We have to figure out when we’re borrowing one actor from where. We’re telling one cohesive story; “Supergirl” will participate, but the storyline doesn’t actively begin there. There are some characters who show up in her episode, but the story begins with “The Flash” episode and goes to “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow.” We’re just getting into designing the bad guy for it, and we start now but it doesn’t air until the end of November. We will put a lot of time between now and then figuring out visual effects sequences. Just today I was holding the three scripts back-to-back – that’s 180 pages of material. It’s a three-hour story, almost a miniseries.
And when you place all three scripts together, it unlocks some sort of fortune.
[laughs] It’s very daunting when you hold them all together like that. Each one of these pages is 10 hours of shooting and a visual effects extravaganza. But hopefully it feels like a great kind of crossover comic book sell.
You produce so many hours for TV, but why not bring some of these shows to film? Could the comic book Berlantiverse ever go to the big screen?
There are no plans for that at all right now. And quite honestly, what makes us all enjoy what we do so much is we really don’t feel limited in any way, or that there’s another place or form that we could be operating with these characters. Telling these stories in a television format is so rewarding, and allows for a certain kind of storytelling you can’t do elsewhere.
What was your approach on translating the Archie comics in such a unique way with “Riverdale”?
Sarah Schechter, my producing partner, was working on an Archie film when she was at Warner Bros. features with Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa], who’s a brilliant filmmaker, writer, playwright. He wrote the “American Psycho” musical on Broadway last year. And he personally was the chief creative officer at Archie comics. We went through the exercise of what would this be in a TV form, the same way he was successful in bringing Archie into this generation in the comics. There was definitely a lot of conversation about this small-town, “Twin Peaks” vibe. It feels like it could take place at any time but also only today. My fear when we first started talking about Archie is how was it going to feel like the original material, but still not feel dated. It has a wholesome and a creepy vibe, all at the same time. I’m really excited for people to see it.
What’s inspiring you these days?
I just had a kid seven months ago, and you literally see everything new again because you’re seeing it through their eyes. Even though he’s still very young, you’re looking at the ocean different, because you’re wondering what it’s like to see it for the first time. I’m finding myself remembering kids songs that I had forgotten about. Or telling bedtime stories, reading kids’ books. I don’t know how much he’s absorbing as a 7-month-old. He tends to want to eat the books. But I do know that’s a great source of inspiration for me. The other day I was watching a cut of “Supergirl” on my iPhone, and Superman and Supergirl were in the scene together. I try to keep him away from the TV, but he’ll see it from time to time, and he watched this clip – and started freaking out! I thought, “I hope I have a future nerd in the house!” He kept screaming with glee watching Superman and Supergirl. I don’t know if it was the colors or what, but it was very rewarding.
Do you have time to watch much TV now?
Given the state of our political affairs right now, I find myself watching a lot of political coverage at the end of day. And I’m both mesmerized and horrified by where we’re at right now. It’s as dramatic as anything on TV right now. We’re either watching the slowest train wreck in history or it’s a passing cloud.
What show do you wish you were a producer on?
The obvious one, although I’m only a couple of episodes in, is “Stranger Things.” That was incredibly well executed. It felt both entirely unique and familiar in all the right ways. It was really impressive.