Andy Greenwald took the brave step that few TV critics ever dare – he became a TV writer. Making the move from critic to artist brings with it the obvious concern of putting one’s own work out into the public domain, opening the door to criticism of not only the work, but of the person who had previously declared themselves an arbiter of creative taste and artistic merit.
When Greenwald launched his first TV series Briarpatch, any scathing criticism was quickly silenced. Briarpatch noisily arrives on screen with tremendous confidence. It’s a bold and audacious series. Years of watching and analysing TV has clearly paid off.
Briarpatch is a 10-episode murder mystery starring Rosario Dawson (The Mandalorian, Sin City, Death Proof) as Allegra, an investigator who returns to her home town in Texas to catch her sister’s killer. Not only does she face a town teeming with lies and corruption, but it’s also overrun with animals who have escaped from the local zoo.
In a chat with creator Andy Greenwald, he explained where the idea for the show came from and about making that journey from TV critic to TV creator.
SBS: Briarpatch is based on a 1984 Ross Thomas novel. When did you first read the book and what made you want to adapt it as your first TV show?
Andy Greenwald: Sure. Well, I first read the book probably 20 years after it was published, probably around 2004, 2005. And I told many people this: it isn’t my favourite of his novels. But in many ways I thought it would be the perfect vehicle to adapt. Should I ever get the opportunity. All of his books can get awfully baggy with plots on top of plots and multiple characters.
I was encouraged by my agents to just come up with a spec script – we’re fast forwarding, about 12 years to 2016 – Briarpatch was always in the forefront of my mind. And I had always thought that it would be great to gender swap the lead, both because I’m more interested in female stories in general, but also I was really interested in sister relationships, as an only child, but also now as the father of two daughters. It felt like an opportunity to update it with modern storytelling techniques, and also a great thing to layer layers of weirdness on top of.
Speaking of weirdness, the show is a bit of an oddball, Twin Peaks, kind of murder mystery. It’s set in a town with a number of escaped zoo animals wandering around. What’s the balance to keeping oddity on TV to a level where audiences are willing to go along with it?
It’s a great question. And it’s one I’m not sure entirely that I’ve figured out yet. I love genre storytelling for any number of reasons. One of which is when you tell a story that audiences are familiar [with] – in this case, it’s a revenge story told in a strange small town – you can kind of Trojan horse a lot of other stuff on top of it.
In terms of the animals, they’re not in the book and it’s not something that I intended to do. I’m not known as the world’s biggest animal lover in my spare time, I’m not an animal hater, just not an animal guy. But when I was writing the script in sort of a blur in 2016, it just kind of appeared on the page. It just kind of made sense that as Allegra was arriving in this taxi, I just felt like someone had shot a kangaroo. I wasn’t sure why, but by the end of the script, there was also a tiger and there was a crocodile. It just felt natural to me, like it had to be there and it had some emotional resonance and weight that I wasn’t entirely sure of yet.
To answer your question more directly, I felt that I had a north star in terms of what was reasonable to expect audiences to watch on a show like this. I knew that everything emotional on Briarpatch had to come first and we also had to service the murder mystery plot to get people who wanted a little bit more of a meat-and-potato show. If we were able to satisfy those two things, there’s a lot of room in the margins to colour with less traditional crayons.
Every TV show is made better with Rosario Dawson. Was she who you had in mind for the show when you were developing it, and the same goes for Jay Ferguson. I’m thinking about a former TV critic casting one of the stars of Mad Men… It makes me very suspicious that you may have had him in mind from pretty early on.
I wish I could say yes, because I would seem like a genius. I didn’t have either of them in mind. When I was writing the script, I didn’t have faces. I had personalities and energies, but I could not picture who would play these parts. If I had known that I was writing it to be filmed for a certain star, I think it may have crumbled under that weight.
Rosario Dawson was someone who I’ve loved and admired for a long time. And when her name came up early on, I was immediately really excited and intrigued. Because this is my first rodeo, I assumed that there was absolutely no way it could happen. The book was written in 1984, set in 1984 and we updated it for the modern day, casting people who didn’t look like the people who usually get cast in these parts. The first step was turning the noir detective into the femme fatale literally and making it a woman – but having it be a woman of colour was also pretty important early on.
Jay Ferguson for that [part] was the hardest one of all. It was one of my favourite characters to write and he has to jump off the screen and has to do a lot of things that are really challenging in today’s landscape. I remember saying to our casting director, Susie Farris: I need someone who is physically imposing, charismatic, funny, romantic, charming and capable of being absolutely notorious and terrible, but you also absolutely have to be in love with them. I don’t think they make actors like that anymore.
My wife, whose favourite television show is Mad Men, was just reading a newspaper article on the iPad and she just looked up and she said, ‘What about Stan?’ And everything snapped into place in my mind. And I mentioned it to our casting director and she just emailed back that night. He is a magical actor and performer and the fact that we have one of the stars of Mad Men in our show is pretty special.
You started out as a music critic before moving into TV criticism. Was it a far-fetched idea for you to take the leap and shift your career into writing for TV?
I think it probably was very far-fetched and maybe it should have been more far-fetched to me. It probably took me too long to realise that I love music and I loved my career writing about music for Spin and other places, but I never really cared about how the music was made. At a certain point I realised that I was tired of talking to drummers, because I don’t know how to play drums. And I wasn’t sure what I was learning from them about what they did. I liked hearing the songs.
Stories, specifically story for the screen and story for television, I care passionately about and always have since I was reading TV Guide for the articles at my grandparents’ house in the eighties.
Making that shift over to TV, you’ve had a lot of support from some of the more gifted TV writer- producers working today. Noah Hawley, who is responsible for the Fargo series, hired you to work on the show Legion. And then Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail helped you develop Briarpatch. Is that level of TV genius intimidating for the first time?
What was incredibly fortunate about my transition was that I kind of came at it sideways. What was incredible about it was, I didn’t know Noah at all. We’d never crossed paths. We’ve never met, we’ve never spoken. I learned later that he had been reading my articles and listening to my podcast. He came on the podcast at the end of 2015 to talk about the second season of Fargo, then he cold-called me three days later and asked if I wanted to work on a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation with him, which is a dream. And I don’t mean to make light of it, but it really came from the fact that he was interested in me, because I wasn’t pursuing that career.
He liked how I thought about TV and he wanted a brain that hadn’t been formed, already hardened, into a certain way of thinking from being in TV writers’ rooms for too long. And similarly with Sam, because he was a fan of the podcast and of the writing that I was doing, I think he respected how I thought about [things].
There’s that terrible saying, which is those that can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Were you nervous about spending the years in the public eye analysing other people’s work before putting your own creative efforts out into the world?
Yes. I assumed that I would be in for my fair share of lashings and that’s totally fair. I’d like to think that everything that I ever wrote as a critic came from love of the medium, love of storytelling, and a desire for everything to be good, if not better. I also tried to bring a fair-minded eye towards the realities of TV production, which is to say that it’s not always living or dying on the genius of a single creator. There are so many different forces at play, including collaborators, market forces, networks and streamers, and pressures and contexts, etc., etc. So I’d like to think that I would be in for whatever criticism I would get. It would be fair. And, that actually was born out.
The other thing was though, I felt that I learned a lot by being a viewer and by being in conversation with creators. I was pretty passionate about the types of things that I enjoyed watching and what I wanted to see. So when I was given the opportunity to do it, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to stay true to those principles and also, having seen and reviewed and loved many things that tried and failed or just failed, I was very aware that you don’t get unlimited swings.
I hope Australian readers are okay with American baseball metaphors, but I felt like if you only get a couple of strikes up there, you better swing hard and swing for the fences.
Briarpatch is now streaming at SBS On Demand.