Hollywood, Writer: The Rumpus Interview with Brian McGreevy

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Brian McGreevy has had the kind of dizzying career assent you usually only see, well, in the movies. At 28, he’s already been a working screenwriter for years and had two scripts* on Hollywood’s coveted Black List. This month his first novel, Hemlock Grove, was published by FSG and it’s already on it’s way to becoming an original series for Netflix — a show Brian is also executive producing and co-showrunning.

One suspects that had he written his dreams down on a piece of paper as a teenager growing up on the industrial outskirts of Pittsburgh — a time when, according to a friend’s Facebook post, he walked around town with a “raccoon’s penis bone around his ear” — it would have said: write a literary horror novel, develop it as a tv series with Eli Roth on board to direct, then bring the whole production back home to Western Pennsylvania to shoot amongst the gothic ruins of my youth. Natch.

You might think you have to be a Hollywood douchebag to make all these things happen, smiling and hand-pressing and compromising yourself until you reach that soulless place where success is most likely, but one can’t help noticing just how uncompromising Brian’s been. Despite overt pressure to follow the trajectory of successful franchises like Twilight and Hunger Games, where the sex is always sexless and the death equally bloodless, Brian has gone on record as saying, “you can pry my rape scene from my cold dead hands.” In other words, Hemlock Grove is for adults and shares more DNA with shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Twin Peaks.” Nor is the novel your standard, pulp genre fare. Critics are reaching for names as diverse as Lethem, Salinger and Bram Stoker to describe the novel’s balance of supernatural thrills and true-to-life psychological drama. But this very mixture of literary fiction and classic genre also made the book a tough sell; he burned through eight agents and half a dozen publishers before FSG took on Hemlock Grove.

I know Brian a little and he is an unusually blunt guy. He’s also a good giver of advice, so I thought it would be fun to ask him some direct questions about his success as a writer and now that he’s a showrunner, the qualities he looks for in other writers. Oh, also about that raccoon penis-bone thing…

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The Rumpus: Your writing career is obviously going really well at this point (mildly speaking) and a fair amount of ink has been spilled about that success. So give us some of the low-lights. (Feel free to elaborate on your role in the Austin plasma trade.)

Brian McGreevy: In the summer before graduate school I was “Subject 23” in a medical experiment.  There is an entire subculture of people who derive their income from doing one experiment after another, and each one involves having blood drawn several dozen times so of course the real pros all have veins like junkies.  In the initial physical the nurses were fighting over who got to do my blood draw in this sort of vampiric way: “This one’s clean!”  It’s a compliment I’ve never received before or since so maybe that’s not a lowlight.

“Success” as defined by a professional achievement it serves corporate agendas to publicize creates a warped perspective.  It’s like looking at a wedding and thinking these people haven’t had like a million shitty or retarded romantic milestones before this one you happen to be doing the Chicken Dance at.

But one thing that was pretty awesome was getting my first studio gig one week before the writer’s strike of 2007, which meant not being able to get paid for four months.  I had to get a job as a barista in this chi-chi south Austin market to pay rent with a contract from Fox sitting in a shoebox in my closet.  The market was called Cissi’s.  Think about that phonetically.  This was definitely a highlight for my friends, so it’s all relative.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on regarding the worth of MFA programs for writers. Whenever we’ve chatted, you’ve spoken highly of your program and especially your cohort at the Michener Center, but you’re also probably mindful of the ton of writers who graduate from professional writing programs each year and can’t get any traction. There’s a school of thought that goes: Fuck writing programs and get out of the fishbowl, living life is more important. What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

McGreevy: I’ve heard it said that you’ve experienced enough love, joy, terror, etc. by the time you’re five years old to understand the full spectrum of human experience, and I subscribe to this.  I believe the answer to this question is “live authentically.”  If the idea of going to a graduate school for writing makes you want to stick your head in the oven, then don’t.  You can develop your truest voice anywhere.  I happen to have been at my program at an exceptional time—three of my friends, none of whom had any nepotistic connection to the publishing industry, made major book deals in the last year.  They say it’s “who you know,” but the only people we knew was each other.  (Also, any time someone starts talking about how it’s who you know or the System is rigged or whatever, shove that person in front of the A train before that toxic, defeatist bullshit gets into your head.)

Just be yourself.  I realize I’m quoting the genie from Aladdin, but it’s good advice.  I also recommend being bad at compromise.  The two great fears about MFA programs are 1) that they have a tendency to homogenize fiction, and 2) it makes teaching as a safety net too appealing (which is to say, teaching in lieu of actually producing, as opposed to subsidizing same).  These are valid criticisms, and I wouldn’t claim to be the final authority on them.  But at the same time there is something wonderful about an environment that privileges the transaction of ideas.  As someone who works in Hollywood I left the fishbowl for the USS Indianapolis, but came into it with a very strong sense of my own identity and values.  Or at least the faculty to hear “No” as “I fuckin’ dare you.”

Rumpus: You got your film agent and manager while you were still in grad school. How did that come about? There are a lot of writers pinging queries into bottomless inboxes out there — even writers from good programs — did you do something magical to ensure the Odds Would be Ever in Your Favor?

McGreevy: To start, a tangent, because this calls back to my distaste for people talking in conspiratorial ways about “the System.”  Right now we are in the process of casting, which is quite brutal and can only give you huge amounts of empathy for what actors go through (said as the guy sitting stone-faced on the couch with a cup of coffee as you are making your soul naked).  But I’ve learned a dirty and highly controversial secret about casting—it’s a meritocracy.  There is a consensus about the best person for the part almost immediately, and generally a stressful negotiation ensues because this person will be in demand because of their ability.  But this entails the juice to get yourself into the room, under these godawful conditions.

Writing is no different.  If you are good, and patient, you will eventually have a career.  This is a categorical truth.  Being a novelist and being a Hollywood screenwriter are both, statistically speaking, spectacularly unlikely, and yet half the contacts in my phone are either one or the other.  Patience is really the thing, because how good you are is between you and your god.  In Buddhism they tell you that examining your spiritual practice more than once every ten years is just navel gazing.  I promise you Cinderella’s wedding was annulled after the honeymoon.  Getting paid to do your art is a blessing, one of the great blessings in life, but it demands that much more of you because of it.

Tangent over.  The magical thing I did was enter a script I wrote with my screenwriting partner Lee Shipman into the Nicholl competition.  We didn’t win, but got our manager’s attention through it.  And then when it went out, it proceeded to not sell, and yet now (five years later) has a major name attached to it and will probably be our next film deal.  Or not.  Patience.  It’s the worst!

Rumpus: There’s been this perceived wisdom about Hollywood that you have to conform to its standards because nobody wants to try anything untested and “derivative” is always the word of the day.  Yet, you’ve gotten very far, very fast by staying true to your vision. With the proliferation of niches growing for all manner of TV and movies, do you feel like power is shifting to the side of the creators? Or has it been there all along and writers are just scared?

McGreevy: If you always put out on the first date you will have a much easier time getting dates than respect.  Compromising yourself for what you perceive someone else’s expectations are is always a mistake.  Granted, I’m a fairly conspicuous Gnostic: I believe that God’s power is manifest in all of us.  Look into the mirror and say Namaste until you’re ready to kick the world in its fucking balls.

Rumpus: As the Netflix series based on your novel, Hemlock Grove, goes into production, you must be under a lot of pressure to produce. What’s your writing routine like?

McGreevy: Well, right now I’m alternating between doing this interview and checking out Twitter responses to the graphic novel instead of working, so clearly my focus is the envy of a laser’s.  Typically my routine is to write in the morning, because I know my own slatternly tendencies well enough that this is the best insurance against not putting it off indefinitely.  But these days much of my responsibility is managerial, so it requires parceling out space much more than when I was just writing free-lance.  Recently I was talking to a friend on the phone and told her I had to jump off because I was going into the office and she started laughing hysterically.  To be frightfully honest, I’m still figuring out the balance of my writing with a grown-up job.  Albeit a grown-up job that consists of playing with robotic dog puppets at a monster factory.

Rumpus: Although you are still a writer, you’ve also become a gatekeeper of sorts, at least in terms of staffing your own show. What do you look for in a script and how important is a writer’s own back story when you’re deciding who to hire?

McGreevy: I look for a voice and story sense.  It’s not any more mysterious than that, and you’d be surprised how infrequently you encounter both in adequate supply.  (Wit is also highly valuable, especially in drama.)  As far as biography, its only relevance is in relation to function.  For example, the first writer we hired was a woman out of the New York theatre scene, and she was headhunted to bring very specific qualities to the project (we saw her role as our Teenage Girl Psychodrama Czar).  We also discovered, generally, an inverse curve between a writer’s network experience and how well they’d adapt to this environment.  We’re going for an entirely different mode of storytelling – amongst ourselves we keep calling it our 13 hour independent movie – than the traditional four-act structure of a network one hour where you need some kind of major sting every ten minutes to make sure people don’t change the channel between commercials.  In form what we’re doing is much closer to a cinematic novel than traditional series, and the beauty of Netflix is that the expectation is that people will be consuming major chunks at a time, allowing a greater degree of trust in the audience.  But ultimately what almost superseded samples and was certainly of greater importance than CV was chemistry.  I’ve been working with Lee (who is co-showrunner) for a number of years at this point, so we have a specific but at the same time largely intangible set of criteria of what we look for in collaborators.  It’s such a fortuitous thing that Eli responded to the material, because we’re all so much on the same wavelength about what this project is; it’s the same thing as forming a band, so much of it is just the fickle finger of fate.

Rumpus: There has been much chatter lately about the emergence of the “literary genre novel.” But weirdly, this moniker only seems to apply to writers like Chabon and Whiteshead who only swung toward genre once their literary cred was established. A writer like Stephen King, who has always been genre (and has only in recent years been celebrated as a ‘serious’ writer) seems exempt from this conversation. Do you think there some kind of snobbery at work here? Is the “literary fiction” section of the bookstore bullshit?

McGreevy: I guess I don’t care.  I live in Los Angeles, not Brooklyn; this is a town where TWILIGHT fan fiction erotica just sold for 3,000,000 dollars.  Why not?  America is the greatest country in history.  I’m an artist, I’m just blessed to have people have some kind of emotional reaction to my work.

Rumpus: Bonus question: Care to explain why you walked around with a raccoon’s penis bone around your ear as a fourteen year-old?

McGreevy: Obviously this was the secret of my popularity in high school.

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*  Brian’s two movie scripts were co-authored with his writing partner, Lee Shipman.


Alina Simone is a Brooklyn-based singer. She is currently at work on a book of essays about Russia, family and the tragic-comic struggle to make it in indie rock for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. More from this author →