Jason Rothenberg is a screenwriter and television producer, best known for developing the hit CW series “The Hundred,” the story of one hundred teenagers who are sent back to earth after a nuclear apocalypse drives the human race into space. Jason serves as both show runner and executive producer, splitting his time between the writing room and set.
Though he’s based in LA, I managed to catch Jason on set in Vancouver, during the filming of the show’s second season finale, only a few days after being renewed for a third season.
When we first meet, Jason is standing in the middle of video village, a collection of monitors and coveted canvas chairs, each bearing the show’s logo and a name. On one side of us is a simple bedroom filled with replica paintings – art preserved during the apocalypse – around which a handful of actors in full combat gear are rehearsing for their upcoming scene. Behind us the dining room, complete with plates of half eaten food, waits patiently for the final sequence that will be shot later this afternoon. If not for the network of electrical cords covering the floor, or the constant background noise of radio chatter, you might believe we really are standing in the heart of Mount Weather, a giant post-apocalyptic fortress and one of the show’s central locations this season. As a fan, I certainly want to.
It strikes me, as I follow Jason off set (the great stone walls sadly revealed to be nothing but plywood and steel cables on the outside), that everything in this world – the blood-soaked extras lined up for the washrooms, the wardrobe department full of skeleton hands and futuristic guerilla armor – has come out of Jason’s head.
During our interview and on set, Jason is remarkably friendly, telling stories and joking with the crew, putting me at ease almost immediately. Towards the end of the day he passes around an iPad displaying a fan’s recap of the most recent episode (which he reads and retweets most weeks). As the executive producer on set, he is constantly interacting with the actors and director, editing dialogue or making notes for post-production. But despite the rush of activity around him, he finds time in between takes to chat with me about his career as a writer and what it’s like to work in television today.
Tell us a little about how you got to where you are as a writer/creator in television.
I always knew I could write, like from the earliest school years. But I didn’t know how to have a job as a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writing I wanted to do. After I graduated, I literally came down to I was either going to write books or screenplays – I had never even read a screenplay before. I looked at them and the screenplay was this thick and the book was this thick, and I was like “Eh, I can write a screenplay more quickly.” Little did I know it’s like haiku, y’know? The length doesn’t make it any easier. So I started writing scripts, and I got lucky pretty quickly. My first script got me an agent, which almost never happens, and eventually it was optioned for no money, but it was a good calling card. Three hundred people in the industry read the script because of my agent and then—I had nothing else. No scripts, no other ideas, no idea what I wanted to write yet, I didn’t really have a voice as a writer. So my agent fired me – or “dropped” me – but that was okay, because then I started to work my way up.
Slowly but surely I got a job as an assistant to a producer, and I met people who were working, developing movies with him, and at some point I probably told one of them that I was a writer and he read something of mine and liked it. So this particular sleazy producer hired me to write a martial arts movie, which was weird because I knew nothing about martial arts. It didn’t matter because he said, “Just get to the fight scenes, and when you get to a fight scene just write fight scene, and we’ll figure it out.” So the script, instead of a hundred and ten pages – it was like 25 pages and 8 fight scenes. The movie never got made of course. But they paid me $8,000, which was a lot of money. Someone was paying me to write. That was kind of cool.
And then I met a guy who was a real legitimate producer. And he hired me to write something for another $8000, but it was a good story, and that script got me another agent and that ultimately found its way to Jodie Foster, and Jodie optioned it, and then developed it for a while and she decided to put it in what they call “turnaround.” I could resell it, essentially, and that script turned out to be my first sale as a screenwriter.
That was like – I don’t want to tell you how much money – I had like $60 in the bank and the next day I had sold a script for seven figures. It was a good day. I thought that that was it. I thought that that was the mountain. You know, I’d been climbing this mountain; it’d been six years from the day I landed in LA to that day. And I thought that was the dream you know? I was going to sell a script, I was going to be a working writer. I never thought I’d sell a script for that much money. Anyway I looked around and I was like “Now what?” And I realized there was just another mountain. I got to the top of this mountain, and I looked up, and oh my god, I still had so far to climb after that. And no one was giving me anything, so I still had to pitch and figure out what I wanted to do.
The script sale and that job were the beginning of fifteen years of nonstop work on huge movies. But nothing got made for those fifteen years. Not because the scripts weren’t good—some of these scripts I wrote I still think are good—but for one reason or another they just don’t happen.
I was making quite a lot of money doing that, because a screenwriter makes his money for the writing not for getting the shit made. So I was getting money, but I wasn’t getting anything shot. I didn’t know how to make a film, I didn’t know how to make a show. I didn’t know anything really.
And then I said okay, well, I’m going to start writing for television. And because I had that feature career I was able to just come right in to television as an executive producer, as someone pitching to the studios. They were interested in what I had to say because I had a name already in the feature side.
I got a pilot made five years ago, and then I wrote a couple that didn’t get made, for Warner Brothers, and then the book proposal of The Hundred came my way and obviously, now we’re going into season three.
Can you talk about the literary influences on the show – it’s adapted from a book and has been compared to Lord of the Flies. What’s it like to combine a textual medium with a visual medium?
It is based on a book, this show. But when I first got involved there was no book. The book was a proposal for a book. It was a couple chapters and then an explanation of where it was going. The idea – sending these hundred juvenile delinquents down to the ground – is what drew me to the project. Lord of the Flies is one of my favourite books, probably the first book I remember reading as a kid and being like “Whoa.” I didn’t mind reading it, you know? It wasn’t homework, it was something that I actually finished because I liked it. And I’d been looking for a way to tell that bigger story, and this book proposal fell into my lap, and it kind of spoke to me in that way. It just touched a lot of creative buttons for me.
In terms of day-to-day, episode-to-episode, what are my influences? I love books and I love movies and I love television, but I try not to be too derivative. We know that we’re in a Hunger Games sort of world, and that’s why they [the CW] were trying to make The Hundred in the first place. But by now I think the show has become its own thing. It’s not The Hunger Games, it’s certainly not Lord of the Flies anymore (as we enter the second season). And now it begins to become its own thing, and that’s kind of cool, where you start to see other things start to emulate us.
What is it like as a showrunner to collaborate not only with other writers, but with actors and directors as well?
I have a unique position on the show because I am the creator. I feel like I’m kind of collaborative but at the same time I’m very demanding. I know what I want.
What happens is we sit together as writers in a room – and they spend all day in the room – while I come in for an hour here, an hour there. I’m in post [post-production] or a series of notes calls, which is the most time consuming, and I’m rewriting a LOT of their scripts. So the worst part of the job, for me, is that. I don’t have time to sit with the writers and take them through exactly what’s not working. Ultimately we’re going to shoot whatever’s ready on the day we’re shooting. In features, you shoot when it’s ready, right? So that’s why development can be endless. In television it starts on the day we decide it’s going to start.
This season there were a couple episodes where I was rewriting three or four days into production. The night before we were shooting I was issuing pages, and the actors would get to the set and they would read the new scene that they’re about to shoot. Luckily I think in all those instances the new scene was always better than the old scene, and I think ultimately they’d rather shoot a good scene than a scene that they’ve had for a while.
How do you deal with a scene or a plotline that you feel wasn’t your best, or wasn’t well received, now that it’s out there?
This year we have a thing where Finn went crazy and shot up a village, and a ton of people thought we did that too quickly. I acknowledge that. I feel like we told that story really well, some people got it, some people didn’t. You’ve got to let it go at some point. It was really important to the show and now that it’s off in the ether and belongs to people who like the show, I’m not going to second-guess it. What’s that old saying? Yesterday’s news, they wrap fish in it.
What’s the hardest part of writing in TV today?
The hardest part really about writing a television show on broadcast television is standards and practices, worrying about things like, obviously language, nudity, certain levels of violence, that they won’t let you do. And it’s frustrating when we work very hard and I write a scene that’s pretty raw and intense and disturbing, and up here in Vancouver the crew commits and the cast commits and they do these amazing awesome disgusting things, and then I get notes from lawyers saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. We had to cut the heart out of a couple of really intense scenes.
So now that you’ve told me the worst part, what’s the best part of the job for you?
The best part is when the writing is done, actually. I love post [post production]. I love seeing what comes out of here and it’s a final rewrite really, and I change things almost more than I do on the script level in post sometimes. You can add lines; you can really change the way a story is told by what comes before and after. You can do so many things. It’s been a revelation in a way, how much you can change things after the script is already written.
What advice would you give to young writers wanting to get into TV writing?
You just have to keep writing different stuff. Don’t spend too much time on one thing.
Get in the door any way you can. So if it’s as an assistant—I promoted my assistant. She was my personal assistant, then she was the writer’s room assistant, and last year I gave her an episode to write. So she got a credit on the show and this year I made her a staff writer, and next year she’ll probably be bumped up from that because she is amazing. You just have to get noticed, somehow. Once you’re in the door you’re on the team, you know? I’d much rather hire someone I know well and who took their time. You don’t want to be pushy and obnoxious and shove your scripts at people, but when the time is right, I will read stuff and if it’s good – of course the writing has to be good – but if it is I will definitely hire that person. So that’s a piece of advice.
The other piece of advice is, and this is something a writer told me when I was first starting out, is just keep your ass in the seat. You’ve just got to keep writing, that’s all.
What do you look for when someone gives you a piece of writing?
I’m looking for dialogue that sounds real, depends what I’m looking for on the staff, but big imaginations and wild ideas. We like to have people in the room who are really good at big ideas and other people who write emotional stuff really well. You have to have a balance. You can’t just have a bunch of idea people.
The thing that everyone is looking for is a good draft writer. That’s the hardest part of being a showrunner: if the draft comes in and you have to rewrite it, you loose a week of your life, you have to take your eye off what you need to be doing and suddenly you’re rewriting another episode when you should be working on post or working on your own episode or whatever it is. So good draft writers. Work on the craft.
With such vocal fan base, is there a lot of pressure or do you enjoy being able to interact with fans?
I have fun with the fact that we have really engaged fans. I mean it’s crazy how intense they get about it. And I love that. I mean, that’s what you want, people who are really engaged and care.
When we wrap up I leave Jason with phone in one hand and script in the other, his attention focused on the monitors as the actors and crew run through the final scene of the day. Though they’ve been at it for hours, everyone – from the blood-soaked extras to the camera crew to Jason himself – is still buzzing with energy. It’s an energy that will spread easily to the audience, who even now are waiting eagerly to see where he will take them next.
Hannah van Dijk is in her first year of UBC’s BFA program in Creative writing. Some of her short fiction can be found in The Garden Statuary (www.thegardenstatuary.com). She is currently working on a series of short films and a children’s novel while battling a serious Netflix addiction.