Andrew W. Marlowe on how TV’s glut of grim procedurals inspired him to create Castle, ABC’s hit series about a crime-solving novelist.
Written by Denis Faye
If you ask Andrew W. Marlowe why he came up with his ABC crime show Castle, he’ll tell you it’s because network television had taken all the fun out of murder.
“Procedurals had become about things other than character,” muses Marlowe, whose writing credits include the films Air Force One, End of Days, and Hollow Man. “A show like CSI specializes on the forensics. A show like Law & Order specializes in the specific procedural elements. What I was missing were the shows like Moonlighting and The Rockford Files, where character played a really big part of it. A couple weeks later, you didn’t really remember the case, but you remembered the people.”
The series’ eponymous lead, Rick Castle, played Nathan Fillion, is indeed a character. In fact, the fictitious crime novelist, who follows around homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) each week as she solves murders, has become so fleshed out and three-dimensional that he’s written the two best-selling, real-life novels Heat Wave and Naked Heat – which is to say, you can actually go to Barnes & Noble and buy the books, with Castle listed as author on the dust jacket.
Some cynics might accuse Marlowe of playing ghostwriter, but he won’t own up to it. He will admit, however, that as Castle cruises through season three, it’s becoming increasingly meta. “It’s getting really crazy on the show because the novel [Heat Wave] gets optioned for a movie, and we have an actress come to follow Castle and Beckett around as research for her character,” he explained in an interview recently to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site. “The levels of meta get a little bit blurry and confusing. There are times when I feel like I’m in a Charlie Kaufman film.”
Is writing a series about a writer a guilty pleasure in the writer’s room?
Of course it is. It’s a guilty pleasure for me and my entire staff. We’re allowed to look at our characters through the lenses of our own lives and put all the joy and pain and suffering we go through in our processes into his process. But, unlike us, he gets to get out of his 10 by 10 room and live his adventures sometimes. That’s the joy.
How’d you come up with the idea?
Photo: © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion in Castle.
Part of it was actually that. Having written a bunch of action-adventure and written some really fun scripts and thinking, “What if I could actually live this?” and finding a character that was able to be my surrogate in the fictional world and go out and do that.
To do a murder mystery under those auspices seemed very exciting to me. It seemed like with the other kinds of storytelling and procedurals on television were going to a place that was more sensationalistic. You know, ripping the stories from the headlines and taking it to the extremes. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to come home from work and turn on the TV and see that level of darkness every week.
But murder is kind of dark.
I wanted a show where we could have fun, where we could take the crime and the victim’s family seriously, but there was an element of gallows humor and our people were actually normal people out there doing their job, using humor to deal with it.
In terms of the humor of the show, as we walk that fine line where we’re dealing with a body and the victim’s family every week, M*A*S*H was a big influence on me, where they mixed humor with life and death situations.
Do you have writers who have done those Law & Order-style procedurals? Was it a big shift for them?
It is a big shift for them, and it’s a big shift for character writers coming to the procedural universe. It’s a different set of muscles and part of the challenge is not going too far in either direction. There’s a learning curve when you get to any new show but our guys have done a really great job.
What’s your process for finding that balance?
The process in the writer’s room is that we have a brick wall that we just bang our head against until something good comes.
No, it’s the same sort of process of throwing ideas out there and editing them back, and if we’re missing an element, working that element in. It’s a very familiar process to any of the writers out there who have been in a room.
Can you talk about the meta nature of writing the show, specifically, with the Rick Castle novels?
Yeah, he’s published two books, both of which have been on the bestseller lists. He’s hard at work on his third book, which is called Heat Raises. Both Heat Wave and Naked Heat have sold pretty well.
And since the premise of this show is that this novelist has lost his inspiration so he’s decided to follow Detective Beckett around to be inspired, it only made sense to me that when he published his novel, that our loyal fans were able to see all the adventures they had in the first season in the first book. When you read the book, you’ll see that Richard Castle is drawing from all those adventures to create his narrative. You can pick out moments. In Heat Wave, it’s the first season. With Naked Heat, you can see a lot of second season in there.
And there’s also a wish fulfillment on my character’s part, on Richard Castle’s part. He writes the books because it’s a more accurate reflection of the kind of relationship he wants to be having with Beckett, the same sort of relationship that Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook are having. It’s fun for me because we know the dangers of resolving sexual tensions on a show too early, but in a lot of ways, for the loyal audience, it gives them what they want because his fictional characters are embroiled in a relationship which has its own complications, but they get a little bit of the relief of seeing surrogates for the characters get together.
When you to write a mystery novel, and I’m not saying that’s happened, how would your creative process be different from when you’re writing scripts?
With novel writing, you can go into internal monologue, and that’s the significant difference. When you’re writing a novel, you can go into people’s back stories, tell readers what they’re thinking without having to show it through the subtleties of behavior.
Plotting is still the same. You’re just filling out the world with a lot more detail, a lot more richness. You’d have to do the job that my production designer, my props department, and my costume department are doing. You have to see that and bring that in. It’s all the corners of the pictures you’re painting in people’s minds. When we’re writing screenplays, we’re mostly focusing on the dialogue and the action, and we have suggestions for the kind of looks, but we have a lot of other creative souls who are contributing to the endeavor, making it much, much better. As a novelist, a lot of that work falls on your shoulders.
But being able to delve into peoples’ heads, being able to tell your reader that what they’re saying is 180 degrees from what they’re thinking, is a really interesting storytelling device. That sort of depth that, when you’re writing for the screen, you can’t quite do. You have to rely on performance and get a different kind of depth.
When writing a novel, do you think you might have the moment where you say, “Hey, I can do whatever the hell I want! I don’t have to worry about budget!”
That’s always a fun thing when you’re writing a book. Your characters can show up on Mars without you having to worry about it. The process of writing a book, you’re beholden to different masters, so you’re not necessarily dealing with S&P and all the other issues you have with the on-air stuff. Castle has a lot more leeway writing his novels than we do writing for the series Castle.
I would imagine writing a movie about a pre-existing character would be a polar opposite experience from writing a TV series based on your own creation.
It is curious because you’re writing for television, you’re writing for a very particular form. You know, gearing up for an act out, working to sustain the audience’s attention in eight minute bites, and being very cognizant of budgetary matters. I have a project up at Warner Brothers currently titled EDF that Pierre Morel is attached to direct. On that, I spend, on a single page, what an entire episode of Castle would cost. You just have more time and more money and more resources when you’re doing features.
But the significant difference when you’re an artist is that, in feature writing, from writing it to seeing it onscreen, absolute best case is about two and half years. Usually it’s three, four, five years. And what do you get for it? You kind of get a weekend and then you’re done. Something else comes out. Look, if you’re a big movie, there’s kind of an aftereffect and maybe people talk about it for a while, but unless you’re Star Wars or The Matrix, you get your weekend, and then you’re one of 1,000 other pieces of product on the video store shelf or in a Netflix queue. The thing about writing for television is that you can create an extended conversation with the culture. You can come into their living room 30, 40, 50, 75, 100 times, and it’s interesting for that.
The scope and scale of features, I love. Being able to take people to brand new worlds and to spend that kind of time and energy on the craft of putting a film together is exciting, but there’s also something great in the day-to-day writing it on Tuesday, shooting it on Thursday fun of television, and people being able to watch your characters over the course of a season or over a couple years.