The TV Superhero Guru Behind ‘The Flash’

Greg Berlanti must have superpowers. That’s the only explanation for his ability to juggle an insane number of projects, including television’s best broadcast pilot.

Diyah Pera/The CW

Marvel might be kicking DC’s ass in the big-screen clash of the comics titans, but over in television, it’s stuck playing Clark Kent to DC’s Superman. While the mega-hyped Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stumbled out of the gate last fall, DC’s scrappy, thrilling Arrow—based on Green Arrow, the vigilante that billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) becomes after being discovered on a remote island five years after he was presumed dead—has had confident command of its world since premiering in 2012. That’s in large part due to the brilliance of Greg Berlanti, who runs Arrow alongside Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg.

And now, DC’s go-to television guru is at it again, with The Flash, broadcast’s best pilot this fall. (It premieres Tuesday on The CW at 8 p.m. ET/PT; Arrow kicks off Season 3 one night later, also on The CW). It’s the story of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a CSI investigator whose mother died under mysterious circumstances when he was 11. Barry is struck by lightning during a freak storm and, after nine months in a coma, wakes up to discover he has become the fastest man alive. While almost all new shows take much of the first season to find their way, Flash arrives impressively fully-formed and self-assured. And, oh yeah, it’s a helluva lot of fun.

The Flash is the latest addictive series from Berlanti, who serves as showrunner with Kreisberg. One of TV’s most prolific writer-producers (Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, Jack & Bobby, Eli Stone, and Political Animals, among many others), he’s also dabbled in film (he wrote Green Lantern—yes, we’ll get to that below—and directed the Katherine Heigl rom-com Life as We Know It).

His two superhero series are just the tip of the iceberg for Berlanti, who is also executive producing The Mysteries of Laura, NBC’s critically reviled but surprisingly popular new Debra Messing drama, and producing Pan, next summer’s big-screen reimagining of the Peter Pan story, starring Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard. And since our interview this summer, he’s nearly doubled his workload, striking deals for three new series in development for next season: Blindspot, an FBI thriller for NBC; the supernatural procedural The Things They Left Behind, based on a Stephen King short story, for CBS; and most exciting of all, a third DC superhero show, Supergirl, which CBS has already given a series commitment to (and which he teases below).

Berlanti sat down to talk about how comics changed his life, how he pulled off Arrow and Flash, and his own superhuman abilities to juggle an insane amount of TV and movie projects.

How did your obsession with comics begin?

I grew up in New York and there was a Caldor that had a Sunday flea market. They had a comic book section, and I would bring all the change I collected from the week and dump it on the comic book stand. That was 11 or 12, through 15. And it happened right at that renaissance that was Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths—all this stuff was happening in comic books that was really cool and easy to obsess about.

And then you discovered The Flash at 13.

He was the first character that made me cry. He died in the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Barry was really like the first fanboy in a lot of ways. Amongst all these DC guys, he was always like, ‘Wow, there’s Superman!’ ‘Oh, that’s really cool what Batman can do!’ He was saying the things and feeling the things that you were feeling while you were reading the comic book. And there was the notion that, okay, I’m not from another planet like Superman, but I could get struck by lightning. That could happen to me! Then, when he sacrificed himself for all of them, it was like, wow, potentially the least powerful or least iconic of this group had died for the safety of the whole universe. That was a really pronounced thing. I remember thinking, “I didn’t think that comic books could make me feel this deeply.” So that was how I latched on.

When you created No Ordinary Family, you basically made the mother a female Flash.

Yeah, she’s a speedster.

So by that point, you’re thinking it might actually be possible to do The Flash someday?

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Yeah. While I was working on Green Lantern, I met [DC Comics Chief Creative] Geoff Johns. When I came back to Warners in TV, everybody at DC and at Warners television said, “Which character would you like to do as a TV series?” And Arrow was the one that I said, “I could see how that’s something we could do on TV that you couldn’t do anywhere else.” Knowing that his origin story was his time on the island, the fun part about it to me was okay, let’s tell a five, six year story about how he becomes [Arrow]—how in a film, that would be the first 20 minutes of the film. But on the show you could actually tell it narratively over a long period of time.

You could also point to Lost as a show that proves you can do…

Flashbacks and flash-forwards, that helps for sure. But there were questions and doubts at the outset. Everybody said, “Well, how is this going to be different?” I said, “We’re shooting in Vancouver and they shot in Hawaii. It will not look like Lost. It will look colder!”

How did you crack the code for making these superhero characters and shows work so well on TV? Marvel struggled with that early on with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But with Arrow and now Flash, it was apparent from the outset that you knew how to make them thrive specifically in a TV environment.

It’s so hard to speak to anybody else’s shows because I’ve certainly had a lot of shows where things haven’t worked, as much as I’ve had shows where things have worked. You don’t always know. Sometimes that magical thing happens, of the perfect casting, tone, style, time slot, network support, a great audience on the network. And we were really blessed with Arrow. All of those things worked. The network has been heavily genre, so we had an audience that had that appetite. They were supportive creatively for us doing something unique. I really wanted to make sure we didn’t screw it up and so we were ready to put our foot down about a lot of things that we felt like we needed to watch.

Like what?

In the second act of that, 15-20 minutes in, we watch him kill a guy, and that hadn’t really happened in DC in that way. But we knew that he needed to feel like he lived in a real world, and this was a guy who had lost his humanity on this island. And the story of the show more than anything was, can he get his humanity back? When we were working and developing that, we talked about Homeland a lot. Here was this guy who comes back and everybody saw him as a hero, but obviously there was a lot of deeper things going on.

And the same is true for Flash: what is this show, that has nothing to do with superpowers? What’s special about it? Why do we want to tell the story now? What’s interesting to us about these characters and these worlds? That’s where most of our time is spent.

You introduced a pre-Flash Barry Allen during an Arrow two-parter last season. With both Arrow and Flash, if audiences don’t respond to and connect with the hero, you’re screwed.

It’s true. And up until we literally all decided it was Grant [for the Arrow episodes], I was willing to make it just a guy who didn’t get struck by a bolt at the end and just made him a CSI from another city. Because I felt like the person had to personify and embody the character or else it wasn’t worth it to blow it. So that was the hope, and then it really worked. We found him and we got really lucky. And it all came together.

Stephen [Amell] was more representative of those DC god-like things, and Barry was one of us. And even though Stephen plays very dark and brooding, I always feel like underneath in Oliver is this optimist who’s just trying to regain his humanity that he lost. And Barry, I always mention a great line from Friends when they said with Chandler, “I wouldn’t want to be there when the laughter stops.” Barry’s very effervescent and bubbly on top. But underneath that, he’s a kid who lost his mom in a tragic way and his father went to prison for it. So there’s a darkness there that we tap into too.

In the Flash pilot, there’s the lingering question of who really killed Barry’s mom. Will that be a series-long storyline like the Arrow flashbacks?

That’s only a season-long mystery.

What about Tom Cavanagh’s character, Harrison Wells, whom we learn something intriguing about at the end of the first episode?

It’s probably only best that I say there’s a lot of mystery about his character and he’s got his own secret agenda, which we will deal with this year. But there is also his role in terms of being one of Barry’s mentors and one of the group at S.T.A.R. Labs. And it’s a vital, vital role to what makes the show special and unique.

Arrow has been embraced by fans and audiences in a way that the Green Lantern movie certainly never was. What did you learn from that experience?

To be more in charge. [Laughs] We wrote a script; it got rewritten. Obviously I enjoyed working with DC because I stayed close with them. But at the end of the day, on TV, as the showrunner, you get to have creative control, for better or worse. Whether the episodes suck or the episodes are great, I stand by them. And in film, a person who’s the writer on the project who gets significantly rewritten…it made me a little bit more of a control freak than before. And that was one of my hesitancies coming to do a DC property.

Because you’d been burned before.

Yeah. I didn’t want to mess it up. You certainly don’t want to mess it up if it’s characters you love and care about. And I feel that same burden every day. But I just am more in charge of the final product that the audience sees.

What’s your involvement on Mysteries of Laura?

It’s not that I’m hands-off, but it was a format that came in that [Laura showrunner] Jeff Rake had a real clear take on. I’ve had that experience on TV before with things, like Golden Boy with Nick Wootton and to a certain extent with Craig Wright in Dirty Sexy Money, where from the outside I play kind of a different role. I get to use more of my producing abilities in helping cast it and helping manage it. The writers are on our same floor and the post[-production] office where we do editorial is on the same floor. It’s great to show up and to play a different role.

Pan sounds incredibly exciting, and quite a different world for you. How did you get involved with that?

About a year ago, Warner Brothers called me up and said, “There’s a young man named Jason Fuchs who has a take on Pan. Would you develop it with him?” It’s an origin story for the Peter Pan mythology. Structurally, I was able to use a lot of what I learned on these shows, in terms of how do we give something the same DNA but still do our own take on it? And, I’m a huge Harry Potter nut. We’re on the stages where Harry Potter is in Leavesden [, England] and we have some of the same crew. It’s also another young protagonist!

I rewatched Disney’s Peter Pan with my kids, and a lot of it is really cringeworthy and uncomfortable to watch now, particularly its depiction of the Indians.

I know! I’m very proud that ours doesn’t—it’s very colorblind. And [director] Joe Wright, without giving anything away, has an incredibly imaginative and genius take on the people who are from the island. I would cringe the same way you would if I felt [the depiction was problematic]. And hopefully it’s reflected in the shows that we do that I don’t have a high tolerance for things that put that kind of message out there to the universe.

With so much on your plate, what’s an average day like? How do you get everything done?

The essential element to me is working with people I trust and knowing that when I leave whatever room I can’t be in, that they’re gonna carry the ball whatever the distance is. Daily— and whether it was one show or three shows, it’s almost always broken down the same way—I do my creative writing stuff in the morning, around 5:30 to 10, before the phones start ringing. Then I go in and I do producorial [work]: rewriting, notes, editing, casting, post-production. And I stay as late as I have to. I’m better about building in time and a life for myself now, and letting certain things go, where before, maybe I didn’t hire around me as well. Now there are all sorts of teams around me.

The only slight disadvantage to doing more and more things is you really have to be where the problems are. So you don’t get to be as much where things are going well. And so, if there’s two things that I’m working on that are going well, I’m not in that story room or on that set. I’m wherever we’re having some challenges. Then, by the time we take care of those, I go back to the other ones. So the disadvantage of having multiple things is on a day where everything is going badly on all things. You want to shoot yourself! The advantage is that’s usually not the case. Usually one or two things are going all right, and it buoys your spirits a little bit.

When you were working on Dawson’s Creek, did you love the show as much as its fans did, or did you think of it more of just a first TV job?

I fell in love with the show while I was working on it. When I first started, I took it because I had sold a movie with Kevin [Williamson] and he said, “Come work on the show with me!” And I was not gonna say no to anything he asked. It was sort of like an arranged marriage that you fall in love with. But by the end, I cared about those characters as deeply as any of the characters I’ve ever written for. And I grew up with the other actors in the show at the time too. We were all kids, really. It was the first show I ran. I was making mistakes left and right! So I have my fondness and fond memories of that time.

Looking ahead, you’re now known as DC’s go-to guy on TV. What do you want to do next from that Universe?

I’ve done a lot of dudes. It would be nice to participate in some females in the Universe!

And you want to continue to do both TV and movies?

Absolutely. I think it’s really nice to be able to bring people from different worlds to each. They’re completely different art forms. I compare it sometimes, not that I’m good at either of these things, to a golf swing and a baseball swing. They’re both swings, but they use completely different muscles. And I think if you stay too long just doing one thing in life, it’s really easy to atrophy.

Finally, I have to ask about Political Animals, which I still miss. That show aired two years ago, just ahead of the whole “limited series” trend that’s so popular now.

Yes, I think that’s part of it. USA has said to me so many times since, "We wish we’d kept it." Truthfully, we were doing the same numbers as a lot of those political-natured shows that are still around. And our lead-in was reruns of SVU! That cast was so incredible, and we had a really great storyline that we could have only done on our show that was gonna drive part of the second year. You just never know with TV. Things come and go, unfortunately.