Q&A With James Griffin of the Almighty Johnsons
September 29, 2013 § 33 Comments
James Griffin is the Kiwi God of all things Almighty Johnsons. Griffin, who has worked on many well known projects including the fabulous Outrageous Fortune, the delicious Sione’s Wedding (aka Samoan Wedding stateside), the recent Blue Rose, and many more projects was the primary creative lead behind the Johnsons.
In this Questions and Answers thread, Griffin took time to respond to many of our questions providing some fascinating insights about the series, its characters, and the creative process.
Q: This year’s writing was amazing. What happened between last year and this year to up your game so much, and lend such heart to the series?
JG: On one hand, thank you for that; on the other hand, as someone rather fond of what we did in 1 & 2, a slight harrumph at the upping the game part of the question. However, the general point is certainly valid and I think 3 did grow on the predecessors in many ways – performance and look as well as in the writing. This is what you expect, that you keep learning what works for a show and you try to do more of it – and, of course, less of the stuff that is bad.
In terms of what we did well this time round, I think the series got off to a faster start, with a clear build towards Ep,7, where Axl accepted he could be a good Odin by saving Derrick/Thor. In part this was, as always in response to events beyond our control (in this case Keisha’s availability, which forced us to do that little story arc in two episodes) but largely it was because we had a clear(-ish) path to the series end mapped out.
Oh, and having Dean for an entire series helped – even if it meant writing his stupid beard in and out.
Q: [On behalf of Richie] Is this the end for the Almighty Johnsons? Things were wrapped up so beautifully in the finale, so what hope is there for a series 4? Did you add Colin’s red-glowing-stone as a just in case scenario?
Knowing this show has been walking the tightrope in terms of surviving here, in the New Zealand market, we always planned to make this season more rounded than the others. But we also wanted to send a message that there is heaps more story out there for these characters, and that we could go on if the will is there. As to whether that will is, indeed, there, that involves a chain of decisions being made in the show’s favour, starting with TV3 deciding they want it again. As of writing I have heard nothing from them.
In terms of Loki’s red stone, there was actually another scene after he tossed it to the ground that explained its purpose and gave a much stronger hint of the story to come, but that never made the cut.
Q: We hear that there were generally a lot more scenes shot, and much more script written, than ever made it to our screens. What were some of the hardest cuts you had to make and how did they influence the shape of the story? If you had had a full 60-75 minutes to work with, what extra story would we have experienced?
I wouldn’t say a ‘lot’ – for the most part. As with every show there are scenes that get dropped, usually for time, but it didn’t really get epic on us until the last few episodes, where the desire to get as much as possible in each episode constantly battled with the time constraints.
The worst thing about this is that what inevitably goes first are the nice character moments – the ones that add depth but don’t necessarily serve the plot in any essential way. A whole 3-scene mini-arc involving Tigilau emerging from the sea and throwing dead fish at Axl was the main sacrifice, but I also miss a little scene between Dawn and Anders where he asked her if she would miss him when she forgets him, to which she answers, logically, that no she won’t miss him because she will have forgotten him.
In Ep.13, if we had more time, I would have loved to explore in more depth the various takes the characters had on the central thesis of the episode: what would you do if this was your last day on Earth as a God?
Q: Can you tell us how the writers room worked for this show? How much did you contribute to each episode? And how were other writers part of the creative process of the whole storyline?
You say ‘writers room’; I say the big dining table at my house where a bunch of people – me, Tim, Natalie, Ross and Laura (after Helen left to work on another show) – would sit around and have way too much fun, while occasionally getting interrupted by my two cats. Every now and then we would bring in a guest writer – Nick for Ep.5 and Michael for Ep.9 – and they would join in the hilarity.
Storylining, when it is working well, is the most fun you can have writing. You get to talk about life, the universe and everything and pretend what you are doing is circling round the episode at hand, trying to find the story. Plus you get to eat yummy nibbly things all day.
In terms of process we actually did work quite quickly. Once the general series shape had been plotted out, each episode would only take a couple of days to beat out. This would then be turned into a storyline document and then on into script – fairly standard stuff. One new thing we did institute this time round was when we thought we had finished beating out an episode we would go back and check it had sufficient ‘fuck yeah’ moments – be they a cool God power incident or something emotionally strong or sometimes just something plain weird. If we deemed there weren’t enough of these we would go back over the episode looking to put in more.
The best part for me in this process is that I get to play devil’s advocate, throwing out story ideas to a bunch of intelligent, opinionated people and then sit back and listen as they argue back and forth. Plus the yummy nibbly things, of course.
Q: What happened to Derrick, Gaia, and all the rest of the Norse pantheon when Odin & Co packed up and left? Did these events affect other pantheons such as the Maori and Polynesian gods? And what’s up with the elves and the dwarves?
When we started shooting my plan was to shoot a little moment with each of our ‘guest Gods’ before their stint on the show ended – Gaia, Derrick, Susie, Joe, Karen. These would have been their moments when the Pure Light poured forth from them – Gaia in England somewhere; Derrick drunk somewhere etc etc.
This was a great plan until you think it through – the stresses on the production to fake these moments and places; the fact that we would have had to decide on the style, time of day etc of the Ga way before Ep.13 had been written… In the end it all fell into the way too hard basket, which is a bit of a pity, but given how over duration the last episode panned out, it may have been a lot of effort for something that got cut out.
Also when we actually started looking at the end, I realised I really wanted to focus on the Johnsons and their close associates, to make the closure more personal. Further testament to this is that the original planned ending had a postscript six months down the track, where the bro’s and Olaf were having beers on a West Coast beach as a thunderstorm rolled in. The last image we talked about right at the start of writing this series was of the Johnsons, on the beach, making fun of Thor being in a bad mood, to which Thor replied by sending a lightning bolt to hit the beach right beside them, then chasing them down the beach with more lightning strikes – and we freeze-frame and fade to black as they ran away. But, at the end of the day, going out on Axl re-introducing himself to Zeb – “Axl, Axl Johnson” – was too good, too real, to go past.
In my head the other pantheons of Gods were totally unaffected by the Norse events. As George said about the Maori Gods, they are much more at one with the land; unlike the Norse Gods who, as Derrick said “the Earth abhors us, our presence here” or something like that. Same deal for the elves and dwarves, I reckon, who would happily carry on in any realm, unlike the noisy, intrusive Gods.
Q: Is there a chance you’ll return to
speculative fiction “high concept” in future projects? I know that the ratings for such efforts as the Almighty Johnsons and other NZ projects like This is Not My Life weren’t as high as they could be, and yet (at least for me) they created extremely compelling drama. Would you go that way again?
Intriguing question – but one I’m not entirely sure I totally understand. By ‘speculative’ you mean what others might call ‘high concept’, right? Stuff which steps out of the ‘normal’ world? If so, then sure, for if that is the approach the idea calls for, then that is the path you need to follow. Ideas should be pure of concepts like ‘ratings’ because the idea needs to stand and fall on its own merits. So you present the idea you want to make and then hope someone likes it to want to give you the means to make it; and then you hope that people want to watch it.
Q: Is there a fundamental Kiwi character that you express through your art, and how does it shape the projects you work on? Are you giving voice to a particularly New Zealand worldview in your shows? What did your experience with the Almighty Johnsons and Scoundrels teach you about overseas markets?
First, bless you for using the word ‘art’ in relation to television. Second, gosh I’m not sure what to say. I never think of these things in such global terms. It is very much about finding characters that interest you and, most importantly, who will bump into each other in intriguing and entertaining ways.
However, I guess there is a subconscious thing going on of trying to find characters that reflect the world you are living in at any given point in time. But the danger of letting your views on the world inform your characters too much is, in my opinion, that they can easily end up sounding like mouthpieces for the writer’s world-view rather than real-in-a-TV-sense people. That, to me, is not what a character should be about – unless you are Aaron Sorkin.
Q: Were the Almighty Johnsons inspired by any particular people in your life? How did you develop these characters, and their limitations?
Not any particular people, no. And I’m pretty sure the same would go for Rachel, that when we sat down and developed TAJ, that we were – as per the previous question – creating characters that would spark off each other in interesting and evolving ways.
There is, however, reality in there in the form of my maternal grandparents emigrated from Sweden to settle on a farm in Central Hawkes Bay; my mother’s name was Ingrid; the Fredsberg House where they found Hoenir was her maiden name… Little personal touches like that, just to keep myself amused and pay homage to my Scandinavian roots.
In terms of the character limitations, they were really the first thing Rachel and I talked about in defining the brothers Johnson – that New Zealand Gods wouldn’t be that Godlike because here we don’t like it when the poppy gets too tall.
And in terms of the development process, the initial work went into defining them, first and foremost, as brothers and family. We parked the God stuff until much further down the track. The next real step came with a workshop of the first script – as much to convince the network of the show but also a good chance to try out actors – Dean and Jared were part of this workshop. Then, once it was greenlit, you look at the characters again with actual people in mind. It’s a process that keeps on processing really
Q: Can you tell us more about that workshop? What scenes would we recognize in it, and what ideas didn’t make it to the final production? Also, was it recorded and might it be released as a DVD extra?
There’s not much to tell, I’m afraid. It was a rehearsed table-read of Episode 1, pretty much in the same form as we shot. We worked it for a day and then at the end of the day the network people came in and we read it to them, so they could hear it off the page. I’ve done the same thing for Sione’s Wedding and Diplomatic Immunity and it seemed to help the process then also. And there were no cameras there so no DVD possibilities, I’m afraid.
Q: [On behalf of Julie] Were any alternate endings considered or scripted? The series seems to have concluded, so will we ever see an epilogue, either on TV or via the app, the series website, etc.? The cast members are very accessible to their fans via FB and Twitter, but they kept the secrets of the finale very well. I know that actors don’t leak plot spoilers, but in this case it wasn’t just the plot, but the fact that the season finale was effectively the series finale. What was it like to keep this knowledge collectively to yourselves?
I’ve mentioned endings in an earlier answer, so unless there is something specific arising out of that, I won’t go there again. And no, no plans to release anything else (other than the Zebisodes which are a whole different thing) so what you saw is what there is and will be.
One of the great things (among the other many great things) about this cast is that they are all totally into the show, so for them it is a matter of pride to keep the secrets of the show intact. I know for a fact that when TV3 promos let slip that Michele was alive straight after the screening here of her ‘death’ at the end of Ep.12, that many of the cast were deeply upset by this. These people are professionals who know that the anticipation and the speculation is a huge part of the fun of a show like this.
Q: [On behalf of CJ] Anders ended up at the finish of this series pretty much in the same place emotionally that he started. If you got a 4th series, would you continue this trend? Or is there a place he could grow to?
Dean is a very smart cookie, and when we chatted before the writing process for TAJ3 started in earnest he had one request for Anders: don’t make him nice. He’s referring, of course, to the tendency for continuing characters in a show to get nicer over time. I assured him that this would not be the case, and I think we stayed pretty true to that. We did, of course, see a lighter side to him – and a moral side, in extraordinary circumstances – but I think Anders is still the same beast coming out as he was going in.
Just as an aside, I think the whole thing about characters ‘growing’ is a bit misleading. Essentially you want them to stay the same, but to reveal more facets to their personalities as they get a body of experience behind them. A bit like life, I s’pose – you get older, you make new mistakes, you repeat some of the old ones, you have some wins and some losses, but essentially you still remain you.
Q: [On behalf of Helen] I have a couple of small-picture curiosity questions about Ygdrassil. In the past, KiwiGods and others on this blog have pointed out that it seemed to be the human qualities of the goddesses that were enhanced when using Ygdrassil rather than their goddess powers, (Michelle’s healing, Stacey’s athleticism and grace, Ingrid’s folk knowledge). Can you confirm whether this was indeed what the writers had in mind here? I’m also curious to know what gifts of Gaia’s would have been enhanced if she were to use the stick. Thanks.
In short: yes. In slightly longer form: Michele is a doctor, so it made sense to bring out that side of her – even if she is the world’s least empathetic doctor. Also we wanted something that drew a line between her love goddess status and the life-giving properties love can provide; if you let it. Stacey is, of course, a physical being so that one was obvious. (As an aside, did anyone notice that we deliberately had her wear gloves when she helped Anders get The Stick from the fumigation container, so she would actually land a hand on it?) And Ingrid is wisdom with mental health issues, so being wise at a price seemed also obvious.
Good question about Gaia. Have to confess we never pondered this. As Idun maybe she would grow award-winning vegetables. Or it would get her pregnant. Hmmmmm.
Q: [On behalf of Julie] Axl was able to intercede with Odin to save Michele’s life. In your concept of the story, do any of the ex-gods still have this ability, or was it a one-off just before Odin’s departure? Because otherwise Axl could request that Odin restore the memories of the mortals in their lives.
When Axl made that promise to Michele, I like to think that was the first real time he had spoken as Odin. Of course the voice of Odin sounded a lot like the voice of Axl so no-one took him seriously. And now that Odin and Axl have parted company this was most def a one-time deal.
Q. [On behalf of Jake] You hinted at a greater story arc for Zeb in comments made around the end of S2. I got a sense that it was put on the back burner in order to tell a more focused tale about the brothers in S3. Is there yet more to tell about Zeb – any hints? Or was it his disillusionment this season being referred to? Also, I kept (badly) predicting the return if Rob and Val. Just to assuage my interest – was there ever a thought that there might be more to Rob?
Can’t remember what I said about Zeb, but the comment that the ‘associate’ Gods got rather shunted to the background for this series is fair – which of course, wasn’t fair on them. One of the reasons for the Zebisodes was that Hayden would have something gnarly to do that was totally in character. Above and beyond that, however, Zeb has no Godliness at all, so there was no Freki gene lurking within him. Sorry.
In terms of Val I had this nutso idea that she would return at some stage with a child – and thinking she was going insane because she had witnessed it change from being a baby that looked like it was Rob’s, to a baby that looked like Mike’s child, then it would change back again. She was the only one who had seen this and no-one believed her and they all thought she was going mad. Mike and Olaf would have, eventually, diagnosed this as being that Mike’s God-sperm had lived on in Val’s reproductive system long enough to latch on to Rob’s human sperm, to fertilise Val’s egg. In effect Val would have had twins but in the same baby body.
When I told people about this idea they would usually look at me like I was somewhat disturbed.
Q. [On behalf of Jake] Would you and your team consider another medium to continue telling tales with? Joss Whedon used comics, but I prefer radio dramatisations , like those still produced by BBC – eg the recent Gaiman “Neverwhere“. I presume radio production is a fraction of the cost and could be funded by Kickstarter. How about a short series set with the returned gods in Asgard? Could be a nice comedic bridge. Also how can an International fan base support the show in general?
Intriguing. All worth thinking about. Someone suggested the other day that a movie might be an option, but I am not sure about that. For now I am happy to step away for a bit, let everything settle down before considering other possible incarnations of the God boys.
To be honest I think the best way the international fanbase can support the show is to, well, support it internationally. Spreading the love for when it starts on SyFy in the US next year would be good. In terms of getting TV3 to commit to a TAJ4, I really think that will only come from their perception of audiences numbers and reaction here in New Zealand, because someone loving the show in Canada, the UK or Australia isn’t serving their advertisers here.
Q: What’s next for you?
Working. Writing. Writing. Working. Got a bunch of people coming to sit round my dining table on Wednesday but nothing I can talk about yet – or possibly ever.
Thank you so much on behalf of the entire KiwiGods blog and its readers. What a marvelous treat this has been!