WB Q&A - Rob Thomas
Discussing iZombie, Veronica Mars and More
Creator of the critically-acclaimed series Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas is also the co-creator of the upcoming series, iZombie, starring Rose McIver, which premieres March 17 on The CW. Thomas already had an interesting background prior to beginning his television career in 1996 when he penned an episode for Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and he has been writing and producing TV projects ever since. His second project to get picked up was Veronica Mars in 2004, which ran for three seasons and led to a feature film last year—fueled by a landmark Kickstarter campaign—as well as two novels; the second one—Mr. Kiss and Tell—being released this past January.
You’ve had quite an interesting life and career to this point, playing college football, doing the rock band thing, high school teacher, novelist, television writer and producer. Was television the ultimate goal for you?
RT: Yeah, it kind of was, at least being in entertainment. I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, since I was a small child. My two other loves were rock music and sports. I played college football [at Texas Christian University], but I was second-string tight-end, playing behind a guy who was my same eligibility at TCU, so I decided I would grow my hair long and play in a band [Editor's Note: No, not the same Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 fame]. Then somewhere in the nine years when I played in a band, I finally realized that I was a pretty mediocre musician and I should just stick to words. I was sometimes proud of the lyrics I wrote, but certainly not of my bass playing [laughs]. So I was either going to write for Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated, that was my early goal.
Once I wrote my first novel [Satellite Down], I felt like I had finally found the thing I could do. But, even then, I realized that the things I really liked writing were plots and dialogue, which are really what screenwriters are good at. Writing long passages of prose describing a room or the night sky or the dew on the grass, like you need to do in a novel, are things that I have no patience for and very little talent in. So screenwriting really played into my strengths as a writer I think.
You got your first TV writing job on an episode of Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast, right?
RT: Yeah, that was a very strange thing. I was just a huge fan of that show and I wrote them a letter, saying, “I’m a huge fan and would love to write for the show,” and I sent them a copy of my first novel, which hadn’t even been published yet. I think it was still in galleys. But they let me write an episode and that was my first entertainment gig. It was ambition and doggedness [laughs].
Writing for television is one thing, but creating and running a show is something different…
RT: Yeah, it is, but I love the “world building” of getting to do a TV show. The nice thing is that you don’t have to have that all in your head, it just sort of grows. I think The Simpsons is the best example of that, where America can walk around fictional Springfield and know everyone in the community.
It was a pleasure with Veronica Mars, where you find those guest stars that you like and you think are good, and you figure out ways to go back to them. Where after a few seasons, it feels populated, it feels like you have created a world. I mean Veronica Mars sort of started out with this line: “Fictional seaside beach community in California, this town with no middle-class.” And then each week you just painted a little deeper.
Let’s talk about iZombie. Were you a fan of the short comic book series or were you approached to explore the possibilities for a series?
RT: I was approached by Susan Rovner [Warner Bros. Television’s head of development] about it, but it was at a time where I just couldn’t see myself doing it because I was finishing editing the Veronica Mars movie and I was already doing two pilots. So I was telling Susan, “no,” even before I read the comic book, because I was wiped out and just didn’t see how I had the time to do it.
Well, it isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill crime procedural, what with the main character being a zombie who discovers that eating brains is not only tasty, but she also gets inside the head of the corpses and uses that knowledge to solve crimes…
RT: What Susan pitched it to me as was that we need another great female lead on The CW. We want the new Buffy, the new Veronica. It was less a pitch about a zombie series, and she kind of sold me on the look with the cover of the first iZombie comic, like this should be the girl. This is who we need as The CW’s big new female lead.
She just wouldn’t take no for an answer [laughs]. She just kept working me and I’m really glad she did, because I eventually read the comic book and I could see the show in it. She said, “If you want to write it with [producer/writer] Diane Ruggiero-Wright and if that would be more doable for you, then why don’t you do that. That’s what really pushed it over the line, because co-writing made it possible for me in that timespan. And Diane and I have worked a ton together going back to Veronica Mars, so having a partner on it made it all possible.
The trailers look really great, especially the comedic use of “ish”…
RT: [Laughs] Well, thank you, I’m glad you think so. That “ish” was not in the script actually. That was something that we thought of when we were shooting it. We were in the middle of that scene, and I think Diane said that “ish” line behind the monitors and then I thought, “Maybe Rose [McIver] should say that.” [laughs].
There are some substantial differences between the comic book series and the TV show. How loose would you say this adaptation is?
RT: Oh, there are some pretty major differences. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was a bit concerned about how fans of the comic book are gonna feel about some of the liberties we took with it. In the comic book, they have all sorts of monsters—mummies, were-terriers and ghosts—and I kind of felt like True Blood had the market cornered on having every kind of monster within it. So I really didn’t want to do the multiple monster thing, I wanted to keep it straight zombies. That sounds funny, “straight zombies” [laughs], so maybe “solitarily zombies”? I just wanted to limit it to zombies only, and my own personal taste is that I respond better to science-fiction as opposed to supernatural. I would be a bigger fan of 28 Weeks Later or World War Z, where the form of zombies are humans turned rabid by a virus, rather than the zombies that come up from the graves because of the Pharaoh’s curse. It’s just a personal taste thing for me.
In terms of the cast, if I’m not mistaken, the starring role of Liv was one of the last roles cast. So was it love at first sight with Rose McIver?
RT: It was kind of love at first sight with Rose, but it took us so long to find her. Now when we casted for Veronica Mars, literally the first actress we saw come in the door out of the 100 or so we saw was Kristen Bell. I knew I had the actress I wanted on day one. With iZombie, we were in panic mode and Rose was literally the last of 100 actresses that we auditioned. We were really getting a little panicky by that point.
What do you see as the challenges for your lead actor in iZombie?
RT: Well, it’s interesting, because the irony of iZombie’s premise is that every week Liv eats the brain of someone new, so she plays a bit of a new character in each episode. There is part of Liv’s character that is always her, but there’s one episode where she eats the brain of a psychopathic hit-man so she becomes this kind of cold, calculating character. In another episode she eats the brain of a cheerleader and she’s this bubbly effervescent character.
Hopefully the long-arc storyline shows a consistency of character, but Rose/Liv gets to play a lot of strange characters. It’s not quite to the level of Orphan Black, but it calls on some of the same skills.
At last year’s Comic-Con, iZombie made their presence known for the first time, and you’ll be debuting the pilot of the show at this year’s SXSW. How important do you think these events are?
RT: I will be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know, but I trust the people around me to decide those things [laughs]. That’s not an area that I work in, how publicity works and how the marketing of a show works. If I had these kinds of answers, I would have tried to implement them by now [laughs]. I trust the publicists to tell me what is important and what is not, and what interviews I should do.
There are certain things that are important to me, like I hope our Metacritic score is really good, because I’m always on that website. So there are things that skew more important to me because of my own browsing habits [laughs]. I can tell you that with Veronica Mars, Comic-Con felt like a really good barometer of how we were doing, between going there as an unknown and then going back a few years later and seeing all these hardcore fans. It felt like being the "Gene Rodenberry of teen-noir" or something. It was really great and pretty intense. We had a really nice turnout for iZombie at Comic-Con last year and I hope that if we’re lucky to be around next year, it’ll be even cooler.
What about the television landscape today? It seems like it’s the best of times and the worst of times, in that there’s more outlets available for projects to air, but, because of that increased landscape, it’s also more difficult to find an audience. What do you think of that assessment?
RT: I think that’s accurate, but I also think that most TV writers welcome it. I mean there’s very little of that, “Wait, we’re not getting a 22 Share” anymore. I think people who are writing for television are thrilled that you can have niche audiences and that there’s just so many more opportunities for original scripted stuff. The times when it bums me out is when I’m hiring a writing staff, because the talent pool is dispersed so much wider now. It’s like, was the NBA better when there were only 12 teams instead of 30? There are a lot of guys who wouldn’t have made the NBA if not for that 30th team, so there’s a division of talent going on. But most people who do what I do are thrilled that there are like 35 markets now for a show when there used to be three.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Veronica Mars movie, and the groundbreaking Kickstarter campaign you launched a few years back to get the movie made. You launched the campaign on March 13 and you had until April 12 to raise the $2 million goal. What was so unbelievable is that you hit that goal in the first ten hours, and went on to raise $5.7 million from a Kickstarter record of over 91,000 contributors. What made you consider this innovative way to get a project made?
RT: It was really a Hail Mary, it was such a last ditch sort of thing. I had gone through all the normal channels trying to get that movie made, and hadn’t been able to. I felt like there was an impassioned audience there and I actually knew nothing about Kickstarter until a musician friend of mine successfully raised $12,000 to reissue his band’s first album. I pledged to that campaign and kind of saw how it worked, but I knew that we would have to raise millions of dollars. So I kept mulling it over, is this really possible?
I eventually thought that we could do this, but the toughest part was the long run. Warner Bros. is a big corporation, so it’s not like you can convince just one person this is a good idea and worth pursuing. There are a bunch of people in that food chain that have to be convinced. Fortunately I got a couple of great champions for the project, but it still took the better part of a year to get the permission to do the Kickstarter campaign. I have to say they couldn’t have been better to us and it was a pretty great year.
You’ve also continued with Veronica Mars in the form of a couple of novels. Will those books continue?
RT: Well, fans of the Veronica Mars books will have to root very hard against the success of the iZombie TV series [laughs]. We did turnaround the second book this year [Mr. Kiss and Tell] while I was doing iZombie, but it was really hard with very long days and long weeks.
I would love to keep doing Veronica Mars books and I hope there will be more in the future, and I know the publisher would like to do more. The thing is if iZombie gets 22 episodes next year, and that’s what I’m really hoping for, I really don’t know when I’d have time, but we’ll see.