Flash of Genius
Greg Berlanti may be the most successful gay writer-director-producer you don’t know. Unlike some peers with Hollywood at their feet, Berlanti is rarely seen on a red carpet. Nor is he tabloid fodder, making speeches, or dating Lance Bass.
Perhaps he’s too busy working. Berlanti, 38, is in postproduction on Life as We Know It, October’s romantic comedy-drama with Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. He is simultaneously writing and executive-producing ABC’s No Ordinary Family, a highly anticipated fall series, as well as producing the big-screen adaptation of Green Lantern while working on a screenplay for a film about another DC Comics icon, the Flash. Berlanti’s also still an executive producer on ABC drama Brothers & Sisters and has at least six other feature films in various stages of development.
Yet Berlanti seems remarkably relaxed for a man who has spent the past 10 years as a driving creative force behind some of the most compelling and LGBT-inclusive TV programs in history. With his movie-star–handsome features, he could be an actor himself. But what he really wants to do now is direct. And after a decade-long absence from feature filmmaking, Berlanti is finally doing just that.
Life as We Know It is an opposites-attract tale in which two gorgeous people who instantly dislike each other are united to care for the baby daughter of their deceased best friends. The plot is definitely not breaking new ground cinematically, but with his penchant for effectively combining comedy with tragedy (his best TV work, including Everwood, is evidence), Berlanti has proved that this is his forte.
Sitting on the overstuffed sofa in his office on the Disney-ABC lot in Burbank, Calif., Berlanti is taking a rare break from a relentlessly busy schedule. He describes what drew him to Life. “I liked the combination,” he says, “that it wasn’t just a baby movie and it wasn’t just a romantic comedy.” The film continues a recurring trademark of his work, the life-affirming comedy that springs from unexpected tragedy. The sentiment was certainly a hallmark of his first film, The Broken Hearts Club. Berlanti wrote and directed the semiautobiographical ensemble piece in 2000, making it the first major studio-produced movie with all gay characters in 30 years—since 1970’s seminal The Boys in the Band.
He originally had bigger-budget ambitions for his follow-up feature. A self-described comic book nerd, he was nearly set to direct the film version of the hugely anticipated Green Lantern, the adaptation of which he was writing with Michael Goldenberg, Michael Green, and Marc Guggenheim. But Warner Bros. passed him over for a director with bigger-budget film experience. Berlanti accepted writing and producing credits on Green Lantern. Meanwhile, impressed studio executives offered him the pick of a stack of smaller-budget projects for his sophomore directorial effort.
From a pile of scripts he chose Life. More accurately, it was actually Katherine Heigl (already attached as star and executive producer, she had director approval) who lobbied for Berlanti. The actress says it was Berlanti’s intimate TV work that was the deciding factor for her. “He is a really seasoned, fantastic writer, and I knew he could bring that experience to the table,” she says. “I think he has a great sensibility for honest, grounded relationships.”
Growing up the only son of an Irish-Italian family in the Waspy community of Rye, N.Y., Berlanti says he sought out gay culture in the bits and pieces he could find. Though only 40 minutes from Manhattan, his hometown felt like it was much, much farther. He recalls being 13 years old and sneaking home copies of The Village Voice from a local deli when he realized the free paper contained gay-themed articles. Later, when he worked at a local video store, he watched films starring Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson just to see other gay people.
Now considered one of the industry’s most reliable hit makers and script doctors, Berlanti was struggling to make ends meet, working various temp jobs in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s. In 1996 he traveled to meet his parents, who were on a trip to San Francisco. While Muhammad Ali was lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta, he turned off the TV set and came out to his parents. “The next year was bumpy for us,” he says. “But when Broken Hearts premiered in New York, my parents threw a premiere party at a gay bar for all their friends and my friends.”
By Christmas ’98, he’d saved enough money to take a break and write the screenplay that became Broken Hearts. A friend he’d made while attending Northwestern University knew Kevin Williamson, white-hot from creating the Scream franchise and whose Dawson’s Creek series was about to premiere, and showed him Berlanti’s screenplay. Williamson hired Berlanti as a staff writer for Dawson’s second season.
When Berlanti returned to Dawson’s after a break to shoot Broken Hearts in 2000, all of his supervisors had been fired. “A network executive said,” he recalls, “ ‘You’re the next guy in line. We can give the job to some other person and inevitably fire them, or we can give the show to you to run.’ ” Berlanti was 28 at the time. Looking back, he compares the experience to being in graduate school: “I really was learning something every day that I didn’t know.” Acclaimed series like Jack & Bobby, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, and Dirty Sexy Money followed. And Berlanti, remembering the dearth of gay representation from his youth, incorporates LGBT characters and story lines as organically as possible.
This fall will bring the premiere of Berlanti’s latest, No Ordinary Family, a weekly series about a family who emerge with superpowers after their plane crashes into the Amazon. The series is in some ways a departure for Berlanti, yet the fantastic element is a natural fit for the comic book fanatic.
“They’re soap operas for boys,” he says of the appeal of superheroes and comic books. And as a gay man, he identifies with the stories. “So many superheroes are of this world—but not. There’s a real hint of melancholy that no matter what you do, you can save this world and you’ll still never totally be a part of it,” he says. “You’ll always be one step removed.”
And he’s looking forward to working in a different genre. “I learned a lot in writing Green Lantern. After years of doing straight-character dramas, to get the energy to come into work every day you want to do something new.”
Downtime also might be something new for Berlanti. Two years ago he told Out magazine he didn’t know how much longer he’d continue at the pace he’d established, but he hasn’t slowed down yet. “One day off is sometimes all I get,” he now says. And that’s usually spent with his boyfriend of five years, Brian Young, who coincidentally has launched his own career as a staff writer on another Kevin Williamson program, The Vampire Diaries. “It’s been one of the easier, nicer parts of my life,” Berlanti says of his relationship. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to just be together, whether it’s going for dinner or hiking or whatever.”
But for now he keeps up the superhuman schedule. “I’ll be directing something else in the next year,” he says. “That’s my real hope.”