Heart. Humor. Spectacle.
Those three words are scribbled in red marker at the top of a huge whiteboard in the writers’ room of The Flash at the Burbank Studios. They’re an unofficial mantra for the CW superhero series—and also for its executive producer Greg Berlanti, who wrote them to inspire his staff. At 10 o’clock on a November morning, the 42-year-old writer-producer has gathered there with his team of Flash scribes to pitch ideas for the show. Dressed in a henley and jeans, with his Keds kicked up on the conference-room table, Berlanti acts less like the powerful showrunner he is than like a guy sitting down for a beer with his pals. Just a few minutes before, he’d been in the Arrow writers’ room down the hall, listening to story ideas from co-creators Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim. Berlanti has been a huge comic-book fan since he was young, and seeing him at work is like watching a kid play with his favorite superhero toys…except these action figures will be life-size when production starts. ”Can we please have a scene where Oliver and Roy are climbing up the side of the building and someone sticks their head out the window?” he asks, referencing an iconic image from the 1960s Batman series. A few hours after that, he’s screening a battle between the Flash and Arrow for their crossover episodes (which will air on Dec. 2 and 3), making noises like ”Boom!” when the two heroes slug each other. ”His excitement is contagious,” says Grant Gustin, who plays the titular character on The Flash. ”And if you’re not already excited about it, you’re going to be excited about it because of Greg. It’s just a dream come true to him.” Berlanti himself maintains a Flash-like pace: By the end of today, he will have advised on Arrow and Flash edits, met with The Mysteries of Laura EP Jeff Rake (Berlanti is an EP on the show), discussed casting and costumes for his upcoming Supergirl series on CBS, and met with the writers of next summer’s Peter Pan reboot Pan (starring Hugh Jackman), on which he’s a producer.
This is the busiest and most successful period of Berlanti’s near-20-year TV career. A writer on Dawson’s Creek at 26 and creator of his own series, Everwood, at 30, Berlanti currently has three hit series under his watch (The CW’s Arrow and The Flash, NBC’s Laura). Just two months after its debut, The Flash is one of the highest-rated series in its network’s history. Yet at a time when TV showrunners have become just as famous—and outspoken—as their stars (see: Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Chuck Lorre), Berlanti prefers to stay behind the scenes. In person, he comes off as affable, even-keeled, and charmingly unaffected—even slightly wary of the Hollywood spotlight. ”I’m very, very cautious,” he says. ”I don’t try to seek out that kind of stuff.” That may change whether he likes it or not: 2015 is shaping up to be an even bigger year for Berlanti, thanks to Supergirl, Pan, and a recently announced gig writing for the Oscars. A workload like that would reduce plenty of producers to Bluetooth-enabled screaming fits, but Berlanti seems almost unflappable. ”I guess I’m kind of like a lot of characters I write about,” he says. ”I really believe tomorrow will be better than today.”
Growing up in Rye, N.Y., Berlanti was always drawn to superheroes—in part because he felt a connection to their secret identities and hidden powers. ”I was really, really repressed about being gay, so it struck me in that way—I am of this world, but I am not of this world,” says Berlanti, who came out when he was 23. ”But it wasn’t until after the fact I looked back and was like, ‘Oh, of course.”’ Comics also appealed to his love of storytelling. He did puppet shows at birthday parties as a kid, and later discovered playwriting at Northwestern University. There he met Julie Plec, the future co-creator of The CW’s The Vampire Diaries, who introduced him to screenwriter Kevin Williamson after college. Impressed by Berlanti’s spec scripts, Williamson offered him a writing job on The WB’s Dawson’s Creek. The Creek cast—James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Katie Holmes, and Michelle Williams—had become veritable pop culture phenoms by season 2, and at 26, Berlanti had only a few years on them. ”We were all very young and growing up together at the same time,” he says of the experience. ”I would go down [to Wilmington, N.C.], and you couldn’t go to dinner with the kids without people shoving body parts in their face to sign.”
When Williamson decided to step away from the Creek at the end of that season, there was an opening for a new showrunner. Several producers had attempted the job and failed, but Williamson believed Berlanti could rise to the occasion. ”I felt such a kinship with him and an ability for him to share this vision,” says Williamson. ”I just thought, ‘He’s the guy.”’ But it wasn’t clear to Berlanti that he could save the day. ”They kind of made me do it,” he admits. ”I thought, ‘This is disastrous, and it’s going to end very badly.’ The network and the studio really gave me a shot and supported me.” Unlike many first-time showrunners, Berlanti wasn’t shy about going head-to-head with the suits. ”I really wanted a gay kiss between Jack [Kerr Smith] and another character,” he explains. ”They were like, ‘If you take the job and it goes well, you can have a gay guy kiss another gay guy.”’ Berlanti got his kiss, a major moment for the show and television history—not to mention a personal victory. ”I grew up without any gay representation [on TV] except for the thinly veiled [kind],” says the writer, who will introduce a gay villain in the Jan. 27 episode of The Flash. ”There are obviously so many people that are doing a great job of it now. Look at someone like [How to Get Away With Murder creator] Pete Nowalk. I don’t know the guy, but I really applaud what he’s doing with that. But I do feel a certain sense of obligation.”
Berlanti pushed more boundaries with the first series he created, Everwood. Although he pitched the show as the story of a small-town abortionist—slightly audacious given its target teen audience—execs at The WB persuaded him to change the lead to a family-practice doctor (Treat Williams). Again, Berlanti had one condition: He still wanted to tackle abortion. ”The studio and the network were like, ‘We know we said we’d let you do it at some point, but maybe not today,”’ he recounts. ”I was like, ‘No, or I’m leaving.’ It got to the point where I was ready to quit.” Berlanti’s confidence didn’t go unnoticed by his cast. ”He had a creative control over the show, and you could really feel his presence,” says Chris Pratt, who was far from guarding any galaxies when Berlanti cast him as the town jock, Bright. ”He’s capable of showing real heart without being melodramatic. A family drama like Everwood could be corny—the young love, loss, and regret, that’s all very soap opera—but he was able to do it with pure class and quality.”
Those same characteristics persuaded ABC execs to hand Berlanti the reins on their troubled 2006 series Brothers & Sisters. The pilot needed reshoots and recasting, so Berlanti stepped in to restructure the series, shifting the focus to the Walker family matriarch (Sally Field) and her daughters (Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths). ”Greg came in like a superhero,” says Field. ”He saw that he had a really strong cast and really no show. It wasn’t really about anything, and he focused it.” His role on the ABC series set the template for how Berlanti runs projects: He prioritizes writers, studio meetings, and edits, and puts other producers in charge of the cast on set. ”Some people love being on set and working with actors—I’ve always been much more behind-the-scenes,” he says. ”I can affect the quality of a show more by being there for the [story] break, by doing a second polish of the rewrite, and by doing the casting and editing. I always feel like I have to check all those boxes, and being on set is dessert.”
In 2008 Berlanti made his first foray into the superhero business when he co-wrote the screenplay for DC Entertainment’s Green Lantern. The script was rewritten, and the 2011 film, starring Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, was a critical and commercial flop. Ever polite, Berlanti says only, ”The result probably wasn’t what we all had hoped and wished it would be.” But he formed a good relationship with DC and was asked to choose one of its properties to develop for TV. ”I said I’d do Oliver Queen [Arrow’s alter ego] because it’s a crime drama,” says Berlanti. ”It’s very relatable. It’s very TV in that you can focus on the stunts; you don’t have to do special effects.” After Arrow premiered in 2012 to record ratings for The CW, Berlanti, Kreisberg, and Guggenheim started thinking about expanding the world and introducing superpowers. Two years later, The Flash debuted to 6.8 million viewers, and Berlanti found himself managing the network’s two highest-rated series at the same time. He does admit that the biggest challenge is delivering big-screen thrills on a small-screen budget. ”With Flash, we’re doing all the stunt work and then adding visual effects into the component,” he says. ”It’s a lot of iterations.”
Later in the afternoon at his other office on the Warner Bros. lot, Berlanti meets with fellow producer Ali Adler and Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood to go over looks for their upcoming revamp of Supergirl. The show will follow 24-year-old Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, and in a twist that could melt fanboy brains, Berlanti says it’s possible this Supergirl could enter the worlds of Arrow and The Flash. His office is decorated with hand-stitched pillows, each featuring the name of one of his shows. It’s a tradition started by his mother, who special-orders them. They usually take about six months to arrive and have been getting increasingly elaborate (the Arrow pillow has feathers and appliquéd arrowheads). Berlanti’s office is also lined with photos of his casts and a portrait of him with one of his TV heroes, Norman Lear. In the early days, Berlanti strived to be provocative, much like the All in the Family creator, but he says that these days he’s aiming for a different approach. ”To me the new version of subversive is, Can you get a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old and their 42-year-old parent in the same room to watch a show together?” he explains. It makes sense that Berlanti wants the broadest audience possible for The Flash. He has a personal connection to the fleet-footed hero. ”The Flash was the one I was the most emotionally invested in [as a child],” says Berlanti. ”He was the first one to make me cry. He was the sweet one of the group, and at the end of the day, you never thought he would be the one to save everybody, but he was.” To anyone who’s worked with Berlanti, that description probably sounds familiar.