Opening Doors: Jessica Jones Creator Melissa Rosenberg
The more money involved in any industry, the more timid and conservative the financiers become about what they are willing to back. When deciding what to greenlight, they cling to outdated ideas of what audiences will want to watch, often lagging behind what the rest of us have always known: both men and women alike will watch, love and cheer a badass female protagonist.
Props, then, to Netflix for recognizing that a series based on the Marvel character of Jessica Jones and created by Melissa Rosenberg could be fed to a hungry audience waiting like chicks with tiny beaks open for their lunch to be placed directly into their maws.
Jessica Jones first appeared in Alias (Marvel Max imprint) in 2001. The Jones origin story begins in high school, where she is with Peter Parker when he is bitten by the spider that turns him into Spider-Man. She then barely survives a car crash involving a vehicle transporting radioactive chemicals. Awakening from a months-long coma, she learns that her family died in the crash and that the radioactive chemicals have left her with both superhuman strength and a modified ability to fly. She later meets the villainous Kilgrave, who uses his mind-control abilities to torture Jessica and force her to do his criminal bidding. Eventually escaping the domination of Killgrave, Jones hangs up her superhero costume and opens her own detective agency. Jessica Jones the series begins a year or so after these events, when a walk-in job — two parents looking for their missing daughter — leads to Jones confronting not only Killgrave but the trauma he left her with.
Along with all the pleasures to be expected from a good meal, with Jessica Jones we also swallow commentary on larger social issues, such as sexism, trauma and abusive relationships — issues that in mainstream dramas are often delivered in overly earnest ways. Indeed, as Jessica Jones demonstrates, social and political issues are more easily digested when served with some serious ass kicking, great dialogue, and gorgeous actors, not to mention excellent wardrobes.
Melissa Rosenberg, who has a track record for both hugely successful films and television shows (Twilight, Step Up, Dexter) as well as a commitment to strong female characters is exactly the person to bring us the Jessica Jones story. Her early interest in theater and dance served her well when she co-wrote the 2006 feature film Step Up. She went on to be the sole writer of all three of the Twilight movies as well as the writer/producer of Dexter and the creator/showrunner of Jessica Jones.
I sat down with her in L.A. to talk about the show and more.
Filmmaker: Thank you for naming your company Tall Girls. As you can see, I am one too.
Rosenberg: It’s funny. When my president, Kate Schumaecker, who is six-feet, walked in for an interview, it was like, “Do we really have to do this interview?” Whenever we’d go to a party, we’d always be the ones a head taller than everyone else.
Filmmaker: Could you tell me more about how and why you started Tall Girls?
Rosenberg: It’s a continuation of everything that I’ve been wanting and trying to do for many many years, which is to create interesting, complex, multifaceted roles for women in front of and behind the camera. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a show or movie with a lead female role. It’s about gender equality, it’s about all characters being interesting, and it’s about all crew being equal and balanced. We took a bit of a hiatus because of Jessica Jones — that was a 150-hours-a-day job.
Filmmaker: Jessica Jones was a long time in the making?
Rosenberg: Four or five years ago ABC studios put me together with Jeph Loeb, who’s the head of Marvel TV — this was after Dexter and Twilight — and he had asked, “What do you want to do next?” This was lovely — no one had ever asked me that before. There were two things I really wanted to do, — find something like the female Tony Soprano, and find something like the female Iron Man. Complex, damaged, interesting characters. I think the first thing they came up with was Penoza, which was a Dutch series that I loved. [Penoza was adapted by Rosenberg into the 2013 ABC series, Red Widow]. I loved that eight hours of television, but, unfortunately, no one tuned in. Broke my heart. The other thing that they brought me was Jessica Jones. Jeph brought me this fantastic book by Michael Bendis, Alias. I’m not a comic book aficionado but I was completely engaged by this character. It was Marvel’s first adult comic book series. Very edgy. The character goes to some pretty dark places, right to the edge of the human psyche. It was fascinating, and [the lead] just happened to be a woman. I completely fell in love with that character. Unfortunately it wasn’t a great fit for ABC. A few years passed and then Jeph started calling me, “I’ve got something in the works.” And then he finally revealed — it took a year or so — that it was the Netflix deal for the miniseries. If I had, in my wildest dreams imagined the perfect place, it would have been Netflix.
Filmmaker: I like the release of all of them at once, so you can binge watch them.
Rosenberg: Me too. In creating it, all 13 hours are completed before any audience ever sees it. I mean, any audience. They don’t test it. You’re not relying on focus groups or even audience feedback. The only thing you have to go on is your gut. And the gut of the people with whom you work.
Filmmaker: I don’t think art should be made by committee.
Rosenberg: I’m with you on that one. Although you know, television and film are very collaborative.
Filmmaker: Yes, but I think collaboration is something different than “by committee.” You are collaborating with people you are choosing to work with that you respect and admire. You are making something together which is different than…
Rosenberg: …being told how to do what you do.
Rosenberg: Yes, I’m not into that. I had great collaborators. For better or for worse it’s a pretty singular vision.
Filmmaker: In Jessica Jones there is this metaphor for domestic violence, patriarchy, a broader idea about how women internalize thinking about themselves and how that affects their behavior that is kind of amazing to see.
Rosenberg: I didn’t set out to do an issue series. We didn’t gather in a room and say, “We want to attack domestic violence” and all the various issues that we ended up attacking. I came into it as a feminist, certainly, and there were many feminists in that room – they all were. So that obviously is going to inform our point of view, but it wasn’t that we went in with an agenda.
Filmmaker: That’s probably why it works so well.
Rosenberg: The way we approached it was to be true to the character. It was about, “What would this character from this background in this situation say or do?” Just being true to her means you have an honest portrayal. Hopefully that translates into something that people can connect with.
Filmmaker: It speaks to a lot of aspects of the way that society works, or doesn’t work, as the case may be.
Rosenberg: We’ve gotten incredible responses from survivors, both men and women. I think my rage at the world comes out. It is a challenge being a woman in this world, you now, it just is. Sometimes you get really fucking pissed off, and then, “Oh, wait a minute, I have a medium in which to express that.” And if those [social] issues aren’t important to [an audience], they can still respond to the fun characters and fun story. It’s interesting, there’s been a lot of discussion about abuse and assault and women in power, women in Hollywood, feminism — all conversations that I am beyond thrilled that are happening. It’s my dream to contribute to that conversation in a positive way. But I notice I’m also a little bit nervous about it. The show gets so much response to that particular [element] that audiences begin to limit themselves. I had this experience in Twilight, because it was about love, because it was about romance, because women liked it, it was the subject of a great deal of contempt from critics and men. It was entertainment, and I get that it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, certainly, but it took some hits in ways that were surprisingly vitriolic. If you go and look at any of these huge successful movies with male leads…
Filmmaker: — of which there are many.
Rosenberg: — yes, geared towards 13-year-old boys. So you throw a bunch of crazy little machines and fighting and stuff like that in there and great special effects and you’ve got a movie. It’s a bad movie, but it’s successful, and people say, “This is just a bad movie.” They don’t go into the venom of just how hideous and contemptuous it is. That was the sort of thing that Twilight attracted.
Filmmaker: And you think that was partly born out of —
Rosenberg: Partly born out of its appeal to women. So, I’m humbled and grateful for the response Jessica Jones has gotten, and I want everyone to be able to see it. I want everyone to be able to enjoy it and for it not to get classified in this very narrow vein.
Filmmaker: Those issues are embedded into something that has a wider reach.
Rosenberg: That’s what I want it to be. That’s my whole goal in life.
Filmmaker: With Dexter too, I enjoyed the complex ideas about morality and where the lines are that make people believe that something can be okay.
Rosenberg: My favorite thing about Dexter was that we would present this character and get the audience rooting for him: “Yeah, kill that guy! He’s evil!” Everyone is living vicariously through Dexter. Then he turns around, and he reminds us, “Oh, no, I’m sick. There’s something wrong with me.” It was such a great mirror for the audience, myself included, to turn around and look at what that instinct was to want to go and kill someone who makes you angry.
Filmmaker: Yes, and who gets to make those decisions? It’s about the death penalty.
Rosenberg: Yes, it was an anti-death-penalty morality tale for sure.
Filmmaker: I am an anti-death-penalty girl.
Rosenberg: Me too.
Filmmaker: What would your advice be to filmmakers who are interested in transitioning into television?
Rosenberg: I think television is still the place for writers. I think film still treats writers rather poorly. We’re pretty fungible. They are hiring the next writer before the first writer has even finished a draft. I think that has a lot to do with why motion pictures have taken a major hit. There’s no voice. As you were saying earlier, it’s creating something by committee. The ones that I think are so beautifully done are the ones where there is a singular voice from a writer, or writer/director. And I think television is proving that time and time again. One of my major pet-peeves is that the word “filmmaker” is used to describe directors. “Excuse me, but we’re all filmmakers.” As a show runner you are in every frame of every episode. For better or worse, that’s your voice. In features, even in the best of circumstances, like in Twilight, where I was the only writer on every movie, still I would hand in the script and there would be crickets. Regardless of how many years of producing experience I had. I was not involved on any level in anything else. Those films were all made by the studio. That was a good experience, but it’s not one that I am racing back to have without being a producer on the project. One of the things I’m doing with Tall Girls is trying to transition feature writers into TV. It’s a very different kind of storytelling. With film you are closing doors. You’re telling a two-hour story, and you’re closing doors. With television you’re opening as many as you possibly can to leave yourself avenues for five or six years of storytelling. It’s structurally a very different thing. But the biggest challenge and difference between film and television is the engine. For a television show you need an engine. Where is your story coming from? With Jessica Jones: she’s a detective.
Filmmaker: Do you recommend that new writers try to break in by writing spec scripts?
Rosenberg: Nowadays you don’t spec an existing series, nowadays you spec a pilot. People want to hear what your original voice is. I always recommend you study. Always. Everyone. I’ve studied for years and I have never stopped being a student of the craft. I mean if you don’t understand craft, you’re …
Rosenberg: You’re screwed, yeah. Part of it is just experience and doing it over and over and over again. It can also be learned. Craft can be learned. There are so many great film programs. I’m sure there are those people who have never written a word in their life and sit down and write something brilliant. I’m sure Picasso before he studied anything just –
Filmmaker: I bet he made some bad paintings.
Rosenberg: …and I know he studied, but I think it is a craft like any other, and you have to learn it. Writing is really hard. With writing any one of six billion things is possible on the blank page. I think young writers who are coming up, and who have a story to tell, should study writing, but they maybe should do that after living a little bit of life, you know? I had so many jobs before I went to film school. I packed a lot in.
Filmmaker: Do you remember the very first script you wrote?
Rosenberg: I do. It was a script called Mambo Man. It was a romantic comedy. Never got made but it was my calling card.
Filmmaker: Even before that — do you remember writing when you were 12?
Rosenberg: When I was a kid I was always sitting down at the typewriter to write the great American novel. I’d get three paragraphs in and get distracted. I had a lot of different interests, primarily the performing arts. I did my undergraduate in theater and dance. I worked with a theater and dance company for a long time, and one of my original ambitions was to be a choreographer. I didn’t focus on any one thing really until my late twenties. But the other important bit of advice that I would give any writer is to have something to write about. I see a lot of kids coming right out of high school into film school and then they want to get a job. What are you writing about? Being in film school? Go join the Peace Corps or become a lawyer or a doctor or have adventures or join the Army. When I am hiring writers, that’s what I am looking for. I want to know what kind of stories you are bringing. Were there days when you were working with a traveling circus? I actually met someone like that. That’s really interesting! She worked with a traveling circus! I take a lot of gratification in mentoring young women. And I’ve managed to find young women who are as driven as I am, which is tough because I am fucking driven.
Filmmaker: Did you have projects that didn’t happen that still haunt you?
Rosenberg: Oh, God, those are the worst. I remember this one pilot that I had written. I went and pitched it, it was one of the first things I sold, it was a good pitch, and it was a good concept but there’s always that moment from concept to execution, where you go, “Oh fuck, what is this? What have I sold? I can’t make this work.” You hope that 90% of the time you actually are able to execute it, where you go, “Oh, okay, the concept works.” But this one, I couldn’t figure it out. It haunts me to this day. It was a Sliding Doors concept — parallel universes. It was very hard to do, I realized. And every time now when I face a challenge, which I do constantly because that’s what we do as artists, there’s this little voice saying, “Remember that project? You failed on that one.” Forget that I succeeded on the others — that’s the one that sits there like this little demon ready to pounce any time I have any doubts. I’m sure it’s disappointing for anyone to read that someone who has been doing this for 23 years is still waiting for the moment when everyone figures out she’s a fraud.
Filmmaker: Isn’t that common? Isn’t everybody pretending?
Rosenberg: That’s what we all do. I know. We hope this time we’re going to make it.
Filmmaker: I was wondering if there were ones that didn’t happen but succeeded in a different way? They didn’t come to fruition but you learned something valuable?
Rosenberg: All of them really. For instance I wrote on the first season of The OC. I loved the show, but it wasn’t a good match for a myriad of reasons. Two of the executive producers were Doug Liman and Dave Bartis. At the same time, they were doing Mr. and Mrs. Smith at Summit Entertainment. Erik Feig over at Summit had this musical — it was actually a music movie. He went to Doug’s company and said, “I’m looking for a writer, I want someone with the voice of The OC.” And Dave said, “You should check out Melissa Rosenberg.” He didn’t even know that I had a dance background. So it was this serendipitous thing, and I went in and met Ann Fletcher, who was a director and also a choreographer, and it was the easiest meeting, the easiest job I’ve ever gotten in my life. It was perfect. All the pieces came together. And it became Step Up. And then eight months later Eric called and said, “How do you feel about vampires and teenagers?” “I love them! Buffy, I think, is one of the great series of all time.” So that was this case of having gone through a lot of different motions — The OC led to Dave Bartis, who led to Step Up, which led to Twilight, which led to everything else.
Filmmaker: Your interest in dance shows up in your work a lot. I think choreography is storytelling.
Rosenberg: Visual storytelling. That really is where the two marry — you’re telling a story through motion. That’s so much what filmmaking is — conveying without words, conveying through choreography, through staging, through performance. It all plays in. That was an exciting discovery when I started writing: “Oh, these are not two different fields.”
Filmmaker: Do you have favorite dance movies?
Rosenberg: My inspirations [on film] back when I was wanting to dance were Fame, Flashdance, and Footloose. But, for me, one of the greatest dance movies is West Side Story.
Filmmaker: It’s also my favorite musical.
Rosenberg: Just beautiful choreography. I’ve watched it over and over and over again. The one garage scene — “Cool Boy” — it’s shot so beautifully, and with such energy, and they’re all coming toward the camera. That is a great sequence.
Filmmaker: You were talking before about writers having something to write about. What was your weirdest or worst job?
Rosenberg: Well, I was a stripper. That was a good one. When I was out in New Jersey I was working with this theater and dance company and one of the other dancers earned a living doing this, and it was very interesting. There was this whole circuit that you could work. I was young, 19, it was so painful to do, but it was also kind of hilarious. I was working in Jersey at the Blue Dolphin. I’d go in there, and I’d be doing my modern Martha Graham kind of dance, and there would be these guys at the bar in gas-station uniforms going, “What the fuck is she doing?” I didn’t earn a lot of money, I can tell you that. I wrote a script about it. It never got made. It was called Working the Circuit. I don’t know if the same rules apply to Jersey anymore — they had all sorts of different rules and regulations. You had to wear panty hose.
Rosenberg: Yeah, it was weird. You’d have this g-string over your panty hose. There were a lot of odd logistics involved. At one point I heard that you could work in Massachusetts for a solid week, so I got on a bus and went to Massachusetts, which was a combat zone, it was hard-fucking-core. I mean in New Jersey you’d always have your pubic hair covered at all times. There were some boundaries. It was the ’80s. But in Massachusetts, all bets were off, and I was freaked out. I was 19. I did not know what the fuck I was doing. So that was super scary.
Filmmaker: What do you want to do now that Jessica Jones is out in the world?
Rosenberg: Jessica Jones is certainly a pinnacle for me. It is the thing that I am most proud of that I have ever done in my 23-year-career. I have to do something very different, I think. I’m into serialization. In that way Twilight was a perfect film for me because it was continuing storylines. I’d love to find another great franchise. It’s not going to be about teens. It’s not going to be about romance. It may have teens in it, it may have romance in it but it won’t be about those things. I love genre. I read a lot of books and properties from studios that have genre elements, but the projects have 16 of them at once: “Okay, they can fly, but they are also ghosts, and then they are also monsters, but they also can turn into animals, and they are also on a star…” For me what’s interesting about genre is when it’s grounded in the real world, when it’s just this heightened element that provides a metaphor and the storytelling framework. I think Twilight is that. Certainly Jessica Jones is.
Filmmaker: I do appreciate also that Jessica Jones and I seem to have the exact same wardrobe.
Rosenberg: Krysten Ritter was so funny. She said, “I want this to be a Halloween costume.” And as it happens it has become one. Before the show was even released it was a Halloween costume. I love that. You know, it’s funny, I go back and I watch the episodes now and I remember being in the middle of them and making decisions that I was forced to make because of budget, or because of location, and thinking, “This is ruined.” I go back now, and I can’t see them. While you’re in it, you’re just getting so riled up, you’re living and breathing it, it’s life and death. In the moment, it nearly fricking killed me. It’s a job that requires a great deal of passion. If I could have had a little distance and was a little more even-tempered, I probably would have gotten here faster. There are people who are better managers of people, who wait to say something. They’re just better at containment. Containment is not something that I do well. I’ve gotten better at it. I tend to be in this mode of “there’s no time to be nice.” It’s a way of shooting myself in the foot because that’s not how people learn best how to give you what you want. You can’t hope that by osmosis they will get what it is that you need. If you actually take the time to bring someone up, to communicate, the next time they write a script they are more likely to hit the mark. Then they become more valuable and you have less work to do. That’s the thing I am still learning. That’s still my grand goal — to be a good mentor, a good collaborator, a good friend. For everyone to have a positive experience. It’s a work in progress.