Catching Up with Arrow Showrunner Marc Guggenheim

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There are few mediums that writer Marc Guggenheim has not dipped his toe into over the past fourteen years. The TV writer’s career credits include stints on The Practice, Law & Order, Jack & Bobby and Eli Stone. Unafraid to branch out into slightly unfamiliar territory, his novel Overwatch—a suspenseful legal/espionage thriller set in Washington, D.C.—was recently published. If all that weren’t enough, Guggenheim is also a respected comic book scribe whose resume includes Amazing Spider-Man, The Punisher, Aquaman, and Wolverine.

Guggenheim’s love of comics and superheroes has led to his current position as co-showrunner of Arrow, the breakout CW series based on DC’s Green Arrow character. Never one to slack, he’s also working on an X-Men story set to hit stores in August. Paste sat down with Guggenheim to talk about his professional switch from law to writing, touring the CIA headquarters as research for Overwatch, the ins and outs of running a TV show, and his inspirations for the X-Men story.

Paste Magazine: Your book, Overwatch, came out recently. Where do you find time to write a book in addition to everything else you have going on?
Marc Guggenheim: I get asked that question a lot (laughs). For one thing, I’ve been working on Overwatch for a number of years now. It seems as if I’ve written it during the throes of Arrow, but only half of it was written then. The way to do it is really just to do it. Time management is really key for me. There’s a lot of wasted time in any given workday, no matter what your profession is. It was true back when I was practicing law. If you can reclaim that time and put it towards more productive ends, then you can accomplish a lot.

Also, I do a lot of writing in my head. There’s a lot of downtime where you’re filling your car up with gas, you’re driving to work, you’re stuck in traffic—it’s Los Angeles and so much of it is a car lifestyle. To me, that’s a lot of time that could be spent writing. The other thing is, I do happen to be a pretty fast writer. I came up professionally as a lawyer and when you’re a lawyer, writing a 50-page brief in one night is just another day at the office. You learn to make choices really quickly and you learn how to get thoughts down very quickly.

Paste: I’m a good ways into the book and, so far, no superheroes have shown up. Was this a sort of detox from that genre?
Guggenheim: I’ve had an interesting career in that I’ve been writing television for fourteen years now. The first half of my TV career, I didn’t do any genre at all. I went from The Practice to Law & Order to Jack & Bobby to CSI: Miami to Brothers & Sisters to Eli Stone. None of those shows—with the possible exception of Eli Stone—had any genre in them, and certainly no superheroes. At the same time, I was developing this comic book career where I was doing a lot of superhero work and a lot of genre work. It wasn’t until after Eli that I made the intentional decision to start incorporating some of the genre work I was doing outside of television into my television. I tend to write the kind of movies, comic books, and TV shows that I’d want to see. So, my taste as an audience member is in more than just superheroes.

Paste: Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Guggenheim: My sister-in-law had called me up and said, “I’m reading this book about the CIA, and did you know the CIA has a legal department?” I didn’t know and I was fascinated by that idea. I immediately saw the potential to combine my two loves—at least as far as books are concerned. I love legal thrillers and I love techno-thrillers. The idea of the law playing out in the context of espionage was really interesting to me. That was the start.

Paste: Did you have to do a lot of research? Just reading the first chapter, there’s all this detailed and descriptive technical wizardry.
Guggenheim: There was a fair amount of research. One of things about prose versus the other mediums I work in is that you have to do a lot of research. You can’t just say, ‘it’s a helicopter,’ you have to say what kind of helicopter. I’m a huge Tom Clancy fan, and I was always enamored by the amount of technical detail in his novels. I wanted to bring a bit of that to Overwatch. The Internet makes research a lot easier than it would be otherwise. Everything is out there—pictures, drawings, diagrams. You just have to have the patience. I was able to write big chunks of the book using the CIA’s website to describe CIA headquarters before I had the chance to tour it.

Paste: You toured the CIA headquarters?
Guggenheim: Yeah, I reached out to the CIA, went through a couple of different hoops and they had a media liaison. I explained I was a writer, had a legitimate publisher, etc., etc. They were very kind and offered me a tour. I got to walk around the halls of the CIA. Obviously, there are large portions that are not open to the public, but it was helpful to walk the halls and soak in the energy and get some of the details down. Of course, they don’t’ allow you to bring anything in with you. I couldn’t even bring a pad or paper. So, I basically raced out to my car afterwards. I was sitting in the parking lot scribbling things down and drawing pictures—as much detail as I could remember. I can only imagine what that surveillance footage looks like (laughs). Luckily, no one stopped me at the gate to ask for my notes back. After I finished the manuscript, I had the opportunity to meet an actual spy for the CIA who was really helpful in adding details and correcting all the stuff I still got wrong.

Paste: You mentioned your training as a lawyer. At what point did you decide it was not the path for you?
Guggenheim: I had been writing since my third year at law school—not professionally but on the side. It wasn’t until I was in my fifth year, which is when you have to decide to fish-or-cut bait on the partnership track, that I decided, “Okay, I don’t want to be a lawyer, I want to make a run to be a writer—if I’m going to do this, now is the time.”

Paste: Was your family okay with it, considering both of your brothers [Eric and David Guggenheim] had also become writers?
Guggenheim: Not really (laughs). Here’s the thing—Eric was writing professionally at the time, but David wasn’t. It wasn’t like there was this established base of success in my family at that point. I think my parents recognized that I wasn’t happy practicing law. They were very supportive of me doing something else. I think they also know that I’m not a spontaneous, reckless person. It makes for a good story, saying I quit my job and moved out here and got a job in television. It’s all true, but the less interesting part is that, by that point, I already had a manager and had written a screenplay that had gotten me meetings.

Paste: How did you get your first job?
Guggenheim: I had a sample— a West Wing script. My manager read it and said, “This is good, we can get you an agent.” I was so naïve I didn’t realize how difficult that could be. She sent my script to a variety of agencies and one called back and said, “I think I can get you a job on The Practice with this.”

Paste: Were you the go-to guy for the law information?
Guggenheim: Actually, no. The reason I was hired was [creator] David E. Kelly had, at the time, three shows on the air—Practice, Ally McBeal, and Chicago Hope—and he was about to air Boston Public. He decided he was going to take a step back from running The Practice. He wanted to hire first year writers who used to be lawyers. So here I was, perfect timing.

Paste: So, how did you end up going into comics?
Guggenheim: That’s a good question. I actually had to break into comics several times. The first time was when I was working on Jack & Bobby. I was getting married and—at our bridal shower—I talked to one of my writer friends, who was David Goyer’s assistant. She said, “I don’t understand why you don’t write for comics.” I told her it was because it’s harder to break into than television. She said, “My boss, David Goyer, writes comics and has an editor he really likes; if he doesn’t mind, I can put the two of you in touch.” His editor was this guy named Peter Tomasi and he was writing Aquaman at the time. He basically said, “I need some issues of Aquaman, would you pitch on it?” I pitched him a couple ideas and there was one he liked. It ended up being this two-parter (“Kiss of Death”).

A year later, my manager introduced me to a guy who was working at Marvel. This was when Joe Straczynski and Kevin Smith were writing for Marvel, and the idea of a Hollywood writer doing comics was no longer a foreign concept. At the time, I was working on Law & Order which was having great ratings, and that helped me get my foot in at Marvel. I wrote a Punisher story, which just got published last year. The script I’d written was for Axel Alonso. At the time, he was an editor, and he’s now the editor-in-chief of Marvel. I guess he saw something in that script because he gave me the Civil War tie-in. That’s what put me on the map. Once that came out, my phone started ringing. I joke that I had to break into comics twice because nothing happened after that Aquaman story came out.

Paste: Obviously, writing a comic book script is very different from other kinds of scripts. Is that something you had to learn and get advice from people about?
Guggenheim: Completely. I outlined the Aquaman story without any difficulty. I sat down to write it and discovered I had no earthly idea how to do it (laughs). I didn’t know where to begin. Fortunately for me, I was working on Jack & Bobby at the time, which was co-created by Brad Meltzer. So, I was able to go down the hall and knock on Brad’s door and say, “How do I write comics?” Brad’s a wonderful, wonderful guy for so many reasons. He was so patient and gave me a tutorial on how to do it.

You have to re-train your mind. When you write movies and TV show it’s all continuous action. Comics are a completely different art form. It’s sequential storytelling, so the action can’t be continuous because the artist can only draw one thing at a time. That’s the nature of static medium. Brad helped me make that shift. I didn’t want to be “The Hollywood” guy. I didn’t want to be the guy where the artist is like, “What are you doing?” I try very hard to write my scripts from a very artist-centric place. I try to be as clear as the artist needs while, at the same time, provide some leeway.

Paste: How did you get involved with Arrow?
Guggenheim: Jack & Bobby was also where I met Greg Berlanti. Greg and I have worked together off-and-on in the ten years since then. The summer where we started talking about Arrow, Green Lantern had just come out, which we co-wrote with Michael Green. I was in the middle of pitching a pilot that his production company was going to produce. That coincided with Greg having a deal at Warner Brothers. He mentioned he had a take for how to do Green Arrow as a TV show. Peter Roth, the head of the studio, said he wanted him to do it that year. Greg asked me if I would do it with him. Eventually, we went in and pitched it to the studio and then the network. It all came together from there. The show is difficult to produce, but the development process was painless.

Paste: What kind of Green Arrow stories were you taking into account while writing it?
Guggenheim: The two comic book works that were probably the most instructive were Green Arrow: Year One and Longbow Hunters. The centerpiece of Greg’s take was the idea of the flashbacks. We would tell a five-year long origin story through flashbacks. Year One was the proof-of-concept, that you can tell a year’s worth of story set just on this island. Before, The Arrow’s story was just a panel or a page, depending on which version of his origin you were reading. It wasn’t until Year One that [writer] Andy Diggle and [artist] Jock told an entire story with a beginning, middle, and end with a pre-Arrow Oliver Queen.

Paste: Is it challenging to balance the Island material with the main plotline without making the Island stuff seem like it’s filler?
Guggenheim: Always. The flashbacks are one of the hardest things to write on the show. They’re a challenge in a lot of respects. For one, we try to thematically relate them with what’s going on in present-day. At the same time, we have a story we’re trying to tell in the past. If the flashback story services only to relate to the theme of the present-day story, it really does seem like filler. The other thing that was challenging is that we have to produce the flashbacks within the eight or nine day shooting schedule of the rest of the episode. We have to figure out a story we can basically shoot in one day. So there’s that limitation.

At the same time, in the first season, we experimented with two episodes—episode seven [“Muse of Fire”] and eight [“Vendetta”]—where we thought, “Let’s see what the show looks like without the flashbacks.” We all felt like those episodes suffered from not having flashbacks. For better or for worse, they are part of the DNA of the show. I know some people think, “Oh, the flashbacks are filler,” or “I don’t need to see 24 episodes worth of flashbacks, you can do it every other episode,” but we found that it needs some kind of flashback component for it to feel like a full-fledged episode of Arrow.

Paste: And you’ve experimented with who’s having the flashbacks.
Guggenheim: Well that’s the thing. In episode 21 of the first season [“Undertaking”], that was the first time we did a non-Ollie flashback. And that worked so well that we started doing more in season two. We did one with Laurel, one with Diggle, we did one with Oliver before the Island. Those were successful to the point where, in Season Three, we’ll probably do more non-Island or—we need to come up with a new name for them—non-linear, if you will, flashbacks.

Paste: Being that you were writing the show for the CW and they have a specific brand, were there elements or notes you had to incorporate into the scripts to make it fit in with the brand?
Guggenheim: A lot of people think so, but actually, no. Our mission statement from Mark Pedowitz, the head of the network, was that they actually didn’t want us to service their brand. What Mark was trying to do two years ago—and has successfully done—is change what the brand of the CW is. It’s gotten very far away from being the Gossip Girl channel.

Paste: Was the “Team Arrow” dynamic with Diggle and Felicity a plan from the start?
Guggenheim: Not at all. We always knew that Diggle would learn Oliver’s identity and become his ally. Felicity was a big surprise. She started off as a one-off character in episode three of the first season. As we were writing episode four, we were seeing such great dailies from Emily Bett Rickards, we thought, “Let’s put her in episodes four and five.” We had so much fun writing for her. Then the network kept saying, “We’re going to see her again, right?’ We were like, “Way ahead of you!” Eventually, you get to the point where she has to learn Oliver’s secret or she’s the biggest idiot in the world. So we brought her into the fold. I wish I could say this was our master plan from the start, but it really wasn’t. One of the things we always say about the show is that we need to have a plan, but we also need to give ourselves room to deviate from that plan. Part of that deviation is writing towards actors we’re responding to as producers, and writing to their strengths. You have to listen to the rhythms the show is hitting and push it towards what works.

Paste: How much do you listen to fans and how do you do so without allowing it to interfere with the creative process?
Guggenheim: It’s funny, I love Twitter. At the beginning, when we launched the show, the CW collected all the showrunners and told us all to go on Twitter. We didn’t know what that was. But we got accounts and started tweeting. I love it and it’s a great way to interact with the fans. On Arrow, we have some terrific fans. It’s helpful to get that “real time” feedback. The Internet has become a presence in the writers’ room and a helpful guide to what’s working and what’s not working. Stan Lee once said that the trick to writing to comic book readers—and I think this applies to all audiences—is that you don’t write what they want, but write what they need. That’s how I internalize things. If you wrote everything the fans were asking for, it would end up being a disaster. I use them as a barometer of success and failure. What are they curious about or not curious about? It’s fun in that regard.

Paste: How does the dynamic between you and [co-showrunner] Andrew Kreisberg work? Do you work together? Do you tag team?
Guggenheim: It’s completely loose. I would say we try to do as much stuff together as possible. But the phrase we always use is “divide and conquer.” If we’re both in the room together, something is wrong. Usually, whatever the problem is, it shouldn’t require both of us to solve. That said, there’s lots of story breaking that we get together on. And we do like to work together because we always feel we’re getting the best out of each other…It’s funny, we get asked that question a lot and I wish there was a set routine, but every day is a different adventure.

Paste: What shows do you guys bring up in the writers’ room a lot?
Guggenheim: We talk a lot about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I would say those shows are very influential on us in terms of how to structure a season—a Big Bad and everything. I think if you watch us, you see a lot of those influences. We talk a lot about Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad. Right now, there’s Silicon Valley. The first year of Arrow, Girls—which admittedly is not my cup of tea—I did start watching, just because the writers were talking about it so much that I felt the need to at least be informed. I watched it and then, when I realize I have two young daughters and they could grow up to become this, it became at lot less enjoyable for me to watch.

Paste: Orphan Black?
Guggenheim: Oh, yes! Orphan Black, thank you…I loved the first season enormously. That’s one of the big reasons we have Dylan Bruce on the show. He’s terrific. There’s a wonderful group of actors on that show. I’m just getting into Sons of Anarchy and enjoying that. I’m a big Wiseguy fan, mainly because it was the first show that had arcs. Because of the nature of the show, which is about this undercover FBI agent who would get close to his quarry, the idea of antagonists that you can relate to is instructive for a show like Arrow.

Paste: With other DC shows coming on the air now—Gotham and Constantine—does that restrict the parts of the DC universe that you guys can reach into?
Guggenheim: I don’t know…we haven’t addressed it yet. The way we work with DC is this—at the beginning of the year, they give us a list of characters who they think would be good for Arrow and that we might want to use. That’s always super helpful. Then, on an episode or arc basis, we’ll go to DC and say, “Can we use this character?” Or, we’ll go, “Hey, we have a character like this, is there a DC character that fits that mold?” Sometimes they say “yes,” sometimes they say “no.” Sometimes they say we can use one character but not another. There’s one character in Season Three that we couldn’t get, but DC proposed a better character. It just goes hand-in-hand. I think one of things people appreciated about Season Two was how far we went into the DC universe. We’ll be continuing that into Season Three.

Unfortunately, we’re pitching Season Three to the network tomorrow so I can’t announce anything because I haven’t even showed it to the network yet. I think people who are fans of the DC Universe—and I realize it’s not every viewer—but people who are fans of those characters are going to be very pleased with Season Three.

Paste: The Season Two finale really appeared to conclude the first two seasons…
Guggenheim: That’s exactly how we feel, thanks for saying that.

Paste: Is it a relief now that the story has now been played out successfully?
Guggenheim: It’s funny…I guess. For me, the big relief was that there were so many things set up about the past that needed to happen in the finale. I wasn’t totally certain we would catch those plates. Slade had to put on the Deathstroke mask in the past and Oliver had to pull it off of him so it could end up washing ashore and becoming the totem that you see at the beginning of the pilot. Sara had to, seemingly, die. Oliver had to stab Slade through the eye. All these things had to happen. We had ideas for how they could happen. Until you shoot the scene and catch the plates, you’re never sure it’ll come together. More than anything, it’s just exciting. The first season we tried to approach like a movie. Season Two is like a sequel. So we’re approaching Season Three like a part three of a trilogy. With a lot of the successful trilogies, the third part feels like a new animal. I think Arrow will still be Arrow, but there will be a feeling of it being a new animal.

Paste: You certainly baited and switched the Oliver/Felicity shippers in the finale.
Guggenheim: Yes! I knew it would be controversial and I knew we’d get a reaction. But that isn’t why we did it. Some people said, “You were throwing [the shippers] a bone.” But that wasn’t our intention. I think our audience members are really savvy. If you’re just throwing them a bone or offering fan service, they can sense the insincerity. For us, it’s just about what the right story is for these two characters. What will give us the most dramatic moments?

At the end of the day, we’re just trying to tell a compelling story. And that’s hard enough. We’re not trying to service any one group in particular. I’d like to think all our audience members—no matter what pair they’re shipping—they all want a good story. They all want to see a compelling hour of television. That is what we have to do first and foremost…I was watching the Twitter feed during the broadcast. Some people saw the twist coming and others were blindsided. When you have millions of people watching a show, there’s going to be a bunch of smart people watching and they’re going to be able to predict anything you can throw at them. My hope is that we may not surprise you in what we do, but hopefully we’re surprising you in how we do it.

Paste: So, who’s feeding Slade [on his Island prison]?
Guggenheim: Everyone’s been asking me that (laughs). I always tweet back #skinnyslade. We’ll probably reveal how the prison operates during Season Three. But it’s definitely something we’ve talked about. There is an explanation for it.

Paste: Now, you’re about to write an X-Men arc…
Guggenheim: Yeah, I’m really excited about that!

Paste: You’re a showrunner for a DC show. Are you allowed to write a Marvel comic?
Guggenheim: No one’s said anything! (laughs) But, no, I’ve always worked both sides of the street, except for a two-year period where I was exclusive to Marvel comics. I broke into DC with Aquaman, I broke into Marvel with Wolverine and Punisher. A lot is made of this rivalry between Marvel and DC but the truth is, once you get to know people, you realize the Marvel people read DC and the DC people read Marvel. They’re all supportive of each other. The industry as a whole recognizes that if either company went out of business tomorrow, everyone would be worse off. The industry benefits from both companies being very strong. So, no, I’ve only gotten people congratulating me.

Paste: Can you tell me a little about the story?
Guggenheim: Yeah! It’s a five-part story. I want to take Brian Woods’ group of X-Men in space. I grew up reading all the early Claremont/Uncanny X-Men. Just before I pitched this story, I reread the Brood Saga. After I re-read it I was struck by how long it had been since we had a true “X-Men in Outer Space” story. I found myself, as a reader, jonesing for it. So when I got a chance to pitch for X-Men, one of the ideas I had was the X-Men in outer space. It’s got a bit of a mystery feel to it, it’s got a bit of a horror feel to it. It’s not a “laser beam” kind of story. It’s more like an Aliens kind of tone. It’s a blast. I’m writing the first issue now and the whole story is broken out. Doing the outline was a real pleasure. Normally, for me, breaking a story is not as enjoyable as scripting it, but breaking this story was a lot of fun. And all the X-Men that I’m writing are all favorites of mine. I get to bring in Deathbird, who was an integral part of the beginning of the Brood saga. I’m bringing in some alien elements you haven’t seen in comics for a number of years. At the same time, I’m playing around with some newer toys like Joss Whedon’s S.W.O.R.D. in The Peak, Abigail Brand—all those characters.

I’m going for something that’s a mix between Joss Whedon and Warren Ellis, which is probably loftier than I’m capable of pulling off (laughs). I love Warren’s writing. I love how his brain works. One thing I’ve really been taken with—and this is the same for Joss’ X-Men run—is the efficiency of storytelling. They really are very clean storytellers in the best possible sense. They allow the artist to shine and each panel is there for a reason. I think I’m writing this arc with a lot of that in mind. We’ll see how the whole thing turns out.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.