INTERVIEW: GREG BERLANTI: “SUPERGIRL” AND THE D.C. COMICS TV VERSE
Berlanti is the Executive Producer of Comic Series Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Arrow.
By Abbie Bernstein
Greg Berlanti is an American film and television writer, producer and director. He is well known for his work on the television series Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Political Animals, Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow.
Greg Berlanti seems like he could perhaps be a character created by D.C. Comics, a superhero with the ability to be multiple places at the same time.
At the CW network, he is an executive producer on the interlinked, comic book-based ARROW (which Berlanti developed for television with fellow exec producers Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim), THE FLASH (developed for television by Berlanti, Kreisberg and D.C.’s Geoff Johns) and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW (developed for television by Berlanti, Kreisberg, Guggenheim and Phil Klemmer), while at CBS, he’s executive producer on the freshman series SUPERGIRL (which Berlanti developed with Kreisberg and Ali Adler).
Since CBS is partnered with Warner Brothers in producing SUPERGIRL, it makes sense that the series is shot on the Warners Burbank, California lot. CBS arranges a tour of the major sets of the show for the Television Critics Association press tour, culminating in a press conference within the underground headquarters of the Department of Extranormal Operations, or D.E.O., which monitors alien activity within the SUPERGIRL universe. The cavelike walls are suitably intimidating, and the area contains the full-sized spaceship in which young Kara Zor-El, played as an adult by Melissa Benoist, first came to our planet.
Kara, aka Supergirl, is one of the subjects of the D.E.O.’s interest, but this isn’t as bad for our hero as it may first sound. Kara’s loyal adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works at the D.E.O. as an agent, and we (and Kara and Alex) have discovered that the head of the D.E.O. isn’t really Hank Henshaw, but rather the last green Martian, J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood), the Martian Manhunter, who is trying to stop malevolent extraterrestrials from doing on Earth what they did to Mars.
When the press conference ends, Berlanti makes himself available for further questions on SUPERGIRL and his other D.C.-related shows.
For starters, what does Berlanti see as the difference between SUPERGIRL and its CW relatives, particularly since there’s now been an inter-network crossover between SUPERGIRL and THE FLASH?
“Sometimes there’s just a practical difference of, we shoot [the D.C.-verse CW shows] in Vancouver and we shoot this [SUPERGIRL] down here in Los Angeles,” Berlanti replies. “So there are practical issues. Sometimes there are other story-related things. Each show – I don’t really look at them as much by the network division for the superhero shows – we really look at it by the character division and by the nature of the character and the ensemble you have, and then the crew you have to make that show. So those distinguish them.”
A spin-off from Arrow, The Flash follows Barry Allen (Flash) as he fights crime with his superhuman speeds.
There is regular integration of characters on the CW D.C. Comics series. Most of the LEGENDS OF TOMORROW main characters started out either on ARROW (Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance, Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer, plus the Flash himself, Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen) or on THE FLASH (Wentworth Miller’s Captain Cold, Dominic Purcell’s Heatwave, Victor Garber’s Professor Stein, Franz Drameh’s Jefferson Jackson, Ciara Renee’s Hawkgirl), and people from one series often visit another.
Even so, Berlanti says, each show has its own personality.
“The integration is helpful, but we still look at them very much independently. For something like THE FLASH, Barry – there was always an inherent sunny optimistic kind of fun of a guy who really enjoys gaining power and learning the responsibilities that come with that. I think with SUPERGIRL, we’ve always had a different combination of factors. There’s a different familial element in the show, between having a sister and her foster mother [played by Helen Slater, the Supergirl on the 1984 feature film], and that dynamic, and obviously her relationship with Cat [Kara’s boss at the media conglomerate, played by Calista Flockhart] – it is a lot about female relationships in that regard, and then there’s a workplace dynamic that isn’t quite in the other shows. So when we break it down, I think we sort of examine them that way. But funnily enough, it can even change within the shows year to year. Breaking FLASH this year is very different from breaking the stories of FLASH last year, in part because of who the bad guy is and in part because of where the characters are at in their journey. So there are elements about it that are darker. And there are elements about ARROW this year, in its fourth season, that are lighter. And so they can change even year to year, given the show, based on I think where the character’s at.”
LEGENDS OF TOMORROW is arguably the most ensemble-driven of the group, given that no one character has the title role. Berlanti says part of the fun of LEGENDS is that so many characters are given to snappy patter. Also,
“I think for that show to work, given the combination of all the powers and all the craziness, it has to kind of not be afraid to take some real risks and be over the top sometimes. That’s definitely a goal with it.”
Meanwhile, SUPERGIRL has hosted a lot of former Super actors. Besides Slater, there’s been LOIS AND CLARK’s Superman, Dean Cain, as Kara’s adoptive father, and more recently, SMALLVILLE’s Supergirl, Laura Vandervoort, has come aboard as Indigo. When such performers appear on the show, Berlanti relates,
“That’s always terrific fun for I think everybody involved, and she was so sweet about it when Melissa [Supergirl] got cast, and we knew we wanted to do something with her all year long, and just find the right thing. I’m still hoping we can get Lynda Carter – I really want to get [former TV Wonder Woman] Lynda Carter for the right thing. It would be great for me – I’d enjoy it.”
Then there is the matter of adding Martian Manhunter as one of Supergirl’s closest allies on the series. Berlanti reveals this was not, in fact, planned from the start.
“We knew we wanted to have a twist with Hank’s character and perhaps it was going to be in the vein of Cyborg Superman. We always talk with D.C. at the beginning of the year and say, ‘What other characters might we be able to have?’ or ‘Who’s available where? Who are we going to maybe use on other shows?’ I think for a little while, they had talked about doing a Martian Manhunter series, so I never thought that was on the table, but when everybody saw what David was doing, they saw a real opportunity, like, ‘Wow, if we’re going to have a human embodiment of J’onn Jonzz, this is who we want.’ So that came out of that.”
There has also been use of Bizarro from the comics, though SUPERGIRL has wrought some changes there.
“We do kind of our own kind of twist. [Benoist plays] a man-made Bizarro, not Bizarro from Bizarro, not from another planet. We did do a production element with her in terms of how we made it.”
Some viewers have been surprised that SUPERGIRL sometimes visits dark subject matter. Berlanti says the show’s visual brightness may have literally colored expectations in certain quarters.
“I think shooting in Los Angeles can have that kind of effect. They said it of FLASH, even though we’re shooting it in Vancouver. I think it’s the nature of the DNA of the character, when someone’s doing super-heroics with a smile on their face, I often think, just for my own purposes, it tends to be true – the sunnier and shinier that they are as a hero, the more deeper, darker stuff they have underneath. What we used to say of [FLASH hero] Barry vs. [ARROW lead] Oliver is that Oliver was a pessimist on the surface, but an optimist underneath, and that Barry was an optimist on the surface, but a pessimist underneath, because something had happened to him so tragic at such a young age, and I think it’s not dissimilar to [Kara]. Obviously, they talked about the ‘Red Tornado’ episode [where Kara realized that a military faction was trying to destroy her], that’s an example of where you start to see that come out. But those layers are always really fascinating and interesting to me, because there’s such a dichotomy from what the characters – the most troubled characters, like people, those of us seem like we have it all together, you can actually have a lot more stuff happening.”