Richard Hatem: Producing 'Grimm' and 'Once Upon a Time in Wonderland'

A writer and executive producer's unlikely career trajectory takes him from fistfights on top of trains to werewolf dens and beyond.

 

If your spec script isn’t getting the attention it deserves, take heart. Richard Hatem spent a decade writing 25 film scripts and television episodes before selling anything. After writing spec scripts for shows ranging from Simon & Simon to Cheers, Hatem and his writing partner Matt Reeves [director of Cloverfield and Let Me In] received their big break in 1993 when the pair sold the script that would become Under Siege 2: Dark Territory to Warner Brothers.

That was a great break, but then Matt went off. He went back to graduate school and began to focus on directing. I still wanted to write, so then I had to almost start back at the bottom and establish myself as ‘Ok, that’s what I wrote with Matt. Here’s what I can do on my own,’” Hatem says.

Hatem established that when he sold a script for The Mothman Prophecies, a 2002 film starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney that Hatem also co-produced. With production experience under his belt, Hatem co-created the 2003 series Miracles, then quickly moved into writing and production jobs on fantasy series including Tru Calling, Stephen King’s Dead Zone, Supernatural, and The Secret Circle. For two seasons, he served as co-executive producer for the cop-fantasy series Grimm, before moving on to a consulting producer role for ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. We caught up with Hatem in between his Grimm and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland roles.

Get In Media: You’ve got extensive work in the fantasy realm. What is it that attracts you to that [genre]?

Richard Hatem: It’s weird. When I wrote Under Siege [2], I was the action guy. In fact, the first job I got was writing the [first draft of the] first A-Team movie in 1996 [the actual film wasn’t produced for another 14 years]. Then once I did that and that became my most recent sample, all anyone wanted to meet and talk to me about were other TV adaptations. “Oh, How the West Was Won or Wild Wild West or name the TV show, Six Million Dollar Man. Can you do that?” Then when I wrote Mothman, it all became supernatural stuff. And I love supernatural stuff. I’m not really into science fiction and fantasy.

GIM: Really?

RH: No. I don’t read those books as much as I read True Stories of Haunted Wisconsin or whatever. Books about people who have been abducted by aliens, but nonfiction books about supernatural topics, parapsychology, that’s the stuff that’s really interesting to me. I’ve enjoyed enough shows within that genre to understand the way they work and they’re typically fun and you don’t have to take the world quite as seriously as they do on The Good Wife. I always feel like on The Good Wife, you really have to know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to know what is going on in a big law firm. When you’re writing for Grimm, you just make this shit up. You’ve got your own internal rules, but it’s like, “Ok, this guy is an owl creature and let’s see what ‘Owl’ is in German,” and you give him a freaky name and you move on.

GIM: On a fantasy show, you have effects, you have things that wouldn’t be financially a thing on The Good Wife. How do you balance having a limited budget?

RH: Every show is different, but I can tell you on Grimm, every time a person morphs, which is that effect when a person sort of reveals the animal within and then sort of sucks back up, there’s a specific price. It’s like every one of those is [say] $750 and we have a certain dollar amount on any given show, you can do maybe eight morphs. That’s what we’re budgeted for, but in certain episodes, we have a whole lot more. Sometimes we have a little bit less or we take from other areas of our effects budget. Maybe we do some of it with costume or maybe we just lose the shot altogether. Ultimately, people tune in to see those effects, but they don’t need to see them in every scene. If you can use them judiciously, you can get away with whatever you need to do.

GIM: What is your pitch process like?

RH: I thought that my pitch process was the same as everybody’s. You know Andrew Miller, he was the executive producer and creator of The Secret Circle on the CW. His pitching process, it turns out, is diametrically the opposite of mine. My pitching process is I think about the idea. I think about what’s cool about it and then I just go in. I prepare very little. I just try to keep at the center of my being what I love about the idea. I walk in and go, “Ok, here’s the idea. Here’s the guy. Here’s what he does,” and I talk very casually. I don’t worry about “Oh, I forgot to tell you! Oh, it’s important! He never knew his dad.” No. I just try to imply the tone, the characters, and what I want to do in terms of the conversation I’m having. That’s what’s most successful for me. 

Then Andrew came to the class that I teach at UCLA and someone asked him how he pitches and he’s like, “I write it all out, single-spaced, and sometimes it’s ten pages and then I read it.” And I’m like, “Andrew, you’re nuts.” He has sold many shows this way and not only that, he also brings his iPad and he has a slideshow. He’s like, “Alright, we’re in New York.” There’s New York. “And Lisa comes to town,” and then there’s a picture of a famous actress, a picture of this person. Whatever works for you is the best way to do it, so what tends to work for me is to keep it very conversational and very casual.

GIM: You’ve stated that you can’t take into consideration what an audience wants. You can’t write to their whims and you can’t write to what a network wants either, but these are the two entities that are determining whether a show makes it or breaks it.

RH: Even if you wanted to [predict what the audience wants], you couldn’t. What the audience wants, you sort of give up and you find the audience part of yourself. “I like comedies, so I’ll write a comedy” or “I like thrillers, so what did I like about 24? How did they structure their thrills and how can I bring that to whatever I’m working on and enjoy it as much as I enjoyed that other thing?” Even as you’re writing, you are an audience to your own process.

The network portion of the question, actually you can. You can absolutely predict what studios and networks will like. Once you’re in business with them, they will not only tell you what they like, they will tell you what they need. Most of the notes you’ll ever get from a studio or a network are along the lines of “Is it clear?” Those are the first three words always. Is it clear enough that he likes her? Or that there’s danger coming? Or I’m afraid we’re going to get confused that he’s a werewolf and not a vampire or whatever. Clarity, clarity, because their fear is that confusion will drive people away. And writers usually argue, “Well, no that’s supposed to be a question. We’re supposed to be actively wondering, ‘Oooh, I think she likes him. Now I’m interested because I have a question and I want it answered,’” so there’s this constant tug of war between what’s an intentional question and what’s unclear and confusing.

GIM: With explaining the mythology of a show, whether it’s a supernatural show or not, do you have a specific process for that?

RH: Luckily viewers, both network and cable, are kind of educated and there are also films and books. It’s out there in the culture. Thirty years ago when there were three stations, you were casting such a wide net. It was like, “How are we going to convince one-third of the adults and children in America that there are vampires?” And often that would be the end of the conversation because it’s like, “Well, you can’t, and even if there were, who gives a shit? Let’s move on and do a show about cops.”

Now all you need is the one twenty-fifth of America’s population that cares deeply about vampires. If you can just get them, then you can be on the air for a long time. That’s an educated audience. They come in with a feeling for how these things unfold. Harry Potter did more to educate people than anything in the world in the last 20 years about how a character goes from a normal life and then sort of steps through into a world of supernatural magic, supernatural danger, supernatural skills. It’s a common journey, but it’s one we enjoy watching. We enjoy watching the people get to that place, learning what it is. It’s always got to be an outsider and so those steps are almost pre-determined by that kind of literature and you just have to do them in your own way with your own specific character.

GIM: You teach writing. What are the mistakes you see your students or new writers make most frequently?

RH: The one thing that has been coming up in the last year, a lot of ideas about TV shows about people who are in their mid-twenties and just don’t know what they want to do with their life. Period. End of story. Most of the people writing these things, that’s where they are in their lives. They’re like, “No, but I just want to write about a guy who moves to LA and he starts working at a bar and all the people at the bar, one wants to be an actor and one wants to be a writer and one wants to be a director, but they’re all struggling and they haven’t made it yet and the main character doesn’t even know what he wants to do.” And while that’s a very real place, it’s a very difficult set of tools from which to build an episode of television. Where do you start and how do you know when you’re done?

GIM: How do you know when you’re done? When you start a show, do you have an ending in mind?

RH: An ending for the series?

GIM: Yes.

RH: You could, but why? The real question is, how do you know what an episode of your show is? I’m talking about one-hour dramas. If it’s a medical show, then there has to be a resolution to the medical question posed at the beginning. A law show, typically there’s a trial and it concludes with if the person is guilty or not guilty. If it’s a cop show, the crime is solved. That’s how you know. Those shows are called procedurals because you’re following a particular procedure, and then it’s all the stuff that surrounds it and the characters involved and how they feel about it that becomes what people fall in love with. But Chris Keyser [co-creator of Party of Five], how do you know when you have achieved Party of Five-ness? It’s harder to define and then you have to sort of invent the rules for yourself. The more rules you have in the writers’ room, the more quickly you can make progress and know you’re making progress in the right direction.

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