I’m having a really bad day and John Shiban is running late. Putting out fires is just one small part of his job as Executive Producer on The CW’s cult hit, Supernatural, and one has to wonder which demon has poked his head in to create havoc.
Shiban and mysterious Big Bads go way back. He has a résumé most genre writers would envy. After spending many years in the Chris Carter-verse, writing and producing on The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen and Harsh Realm, he jumped over to Star Trek: Enterprise for some time. Not only has he gotten to write for the poster child UST relationship of Mulder and Scully, now he gets to put words into Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles’ mouths – thus creating envy in countless women glued to their TVs every Thursday night.
Talking to Shiban is surprisingly cheerful and my horrible no-good day is finally looking up. Shiban is a man who so obviously loves what he does and the show he’s working on that it’s sincerely inspiring. He digs into what makes Supernatural so good and so scary, the chemistry of Padalecki and Ackles and what Mulder and Scully would think of the Winchester boys.
Warning – there be spoilers below. Proceed at your own risk! But really – you want to proceed.
You’ve worked on The X-Files and other Sci-Fi-ish freaky genre shows before coming to Supernatural. So to start out, what makes something scary?
That’s a really hard question! One of things we always try to do is make the commonplace scary. Things are scarier if you feel like you’re in the real world as opposed to a fantasy. That’s something we really brought home on X-Files and we do that on Supernatural as well – to make it feel like you’re in middle America, you’re in our world, with this otherworldly thing intruding on it. I think that’s a way to scare people.
One great thing about Supernatural is that we try to do a different type of horror movie every week, and the horror tradition comes from a lot of common fears that we have. The fears of the real world – like home invasion and violent death – fears about the other side, fears about life after death, fears about what we’re doing on this planet. So we try to play into all those things by being honest with ourselves.
More than once we’ve had this conversation in the writers room on Supernatural – [Executive Producer] Eric Kripke will say ‘What scares you? What are you scared of?’ And we normally say, ‘You, Eric.’ But that’s kind of the way we find them. We always start with, ‘Oh my God, last night I had this crazy dream and when I woke up, I thought there was someone in my house!’ And that’s where a story will start.
Speaking of the way you start stories on Supernatural – the Monster of the Week always ties in to some issue the brothers Winchester are having. Do you find a legend that fits what you want to address, or do you match the episode “theme” to whichever legend you’ve already found and decided to use?
There’s always two big things that drive every episode – one is ‘What is the legend? What is the real belief behind it?’ We always try to start from something that somebody has believed — some urban legend or some myth, and the second thing is the journey we’re on is the Winchester family journey. Every episode has to address that in some manner. Sometimes the two dovetail very well, I can’t say we always come up with one and then the other. Sometimes when we’re breaking story, someone will say, ‘I have an idea for an episode about the brothers, but I don’t have a monster.’ So we hunt around to see what kind of monster fits the issue.
It’s actually helpful when we’re breaking story because I had to go through all the research once before [with The X-Files]. We end up doing it differently on Supernatural. The great thing about America and American myth and legend is that there’s so much. We have the whole library of Weird California and Weird Kansas and Weird Indiana books and the whole thing. Believe it or not, if you dig enough, you can find a legend that can deal with a specific theme. If it’s a good theme for our show – if it’s something that tests the boys – it’s going to be something that has a certain universality to it. And that’s where legends come from.
But sometimes they don’t mesh completely – and I think that’s okay. We’ve never tried to perfectly match – like there’s a lying ghost and this is an episode about lying to each other. We don’t really attack it that way. It doesn’t bother us if the boys – the boy/boy melodrama is what we call it – the boy/boy melodrama doesn’t necessarily have to fit so nicely into the myth of the episode. Sometimes it’s really just about them being in danger and surviving and their little theme has to do about something else.
What is your favorite part of writing Supernatural – is it the Monster of the Week aspect, or the overarching plot of the Big Bad Demon?
I love all aspects but I guess my favorite pieces to write and to see put together are the suspense scenes – the scary moments. Chasing or being chased. I love that stuff and it’s fun to write and finding new ways to do it, clever ways for the boys to get out of it. That’s my bread and butter.
How hamstrung do you feel working with only two main characters (again), even if the fans would be happy watching Sam and Dean read the phone book together on screen for 42 minutes a week?
You know, it’s funny – in theory, I would feel hamstrung. In the top of the year when we get together and first start talking about the mythology and the arc, it does feel like ‘Oh my god, do we need a broader canvas?’ But what’s really great about the characters that they developed and, honestly, how the actors have embodied them, is that they’ve got a lot of complexity. And we keep finding more layers of that onion to peel back and more interesting things to discover in it.
And honestly, [it was like that with] Mulder and Scully in a similar way. Although, yes, they had other characters and we have other characters too — we have Bobby and Ellen and Dad. The world has expanded in year two to a certain extent, but there’s so much interesting baggage that these characters carry. We started off this year with Dean, after Dad’s demise, having this inner darkness and rage – that’s carried us a long way. And Sam questioning what the demon meant, who he is, and who I am, basically – we’ve found more and more layers to it. So we’re really not that hamstrung and we’ve got some really exciting things coming up, I have to say.
What have you seen Jared and Jensen learn/grow into/become better at since the beginning of the show?
Certainly, their hair has changed.
A lot of it, I think they came in, certainly with the chops. I do think they’ve both grown as actors and the depth of character that they’re finding and is really exciting to watch. They’ve really embraced all the things that we’ve thrown at them and I’m consistently amazed that they keep all that inside. Some actors won’t do that and these guys know every moment that Sam and Dean have gone through and I get the sense that they run it through their heads before they start a scene. They’re carrying that baggage, that maturity with them. I give them a lot of credit. They really take the show and fly.
How have the actors that were cast changed the way the characters are being written?
What’s really interesting about casting and when you find chemistry between actors – I’ve been blessed in my career with being able to write for David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson] and now being able to write for Jared and Jensen. They’re all terrific actors but this mysterious quality that you can’t manufacture is chemistry. That thing called chemistry – when you get to write for it, it’s such a pleasure. Because what happens is that you’ll do a scene, they’ll bring something to it that you didn’t expect, that you didn’t even intend in the writing and ‘wow, that was a layer I didn’t know!’ and that motivates you to use that emotion. Everything from ‘Gee, that made me laugh. That wasn’t supposed to be funny!’ leads to writing more humor for him. It’s like a tennis match – we send it up to Canada and get the dailies back and go, ‘whoa, he can really handle the crying scenes. Well, that broke my heart, let’s give him more crying scenes.’ And these guys have so embodied them as characters – the scenes that you write start to work, and when they start to work, everything gets better.
On a show that’s way, way more about family than freaky things that go bump in the night – how have you managed to do such a good job of simultaneously conveying Sam and Dean’s close bond and constant friction?
You hit it right on the head and we say it in every story meeting – this is a show about family. The one thing about the two brothers – they’re very much brothers in the sense that they love each other but there’s things about each other that drive them nuts. But they’d never go to – and we’re very careful not to write them this way and the boys would never play them this way – it would never get personal. They do have a lot of respect for each other and if they weren’t talking to each other and talking to someone else, they’d probably say amazing things about each other. But in a relationship like that, you never say to your brother how much you love him – it’s just not cool. (laughs) But they do have that respect for each other, and they can fight all they want but I never get the sense, and I hope the audience never gets the sense, that they’ve lost respect for each other.
Having said that, we’re doing an episode coming up called “Tall Tales,” where we take the brother relationship – the good and the bad, the bickering, the fact that these guys have been on the road with each other for two years, staying in the same hotel room together and sitting in the same car together — and have them get on each other’s nerves, and have fun with that idea. We have a bad guy in the episode – I don’t want to give anything away – but the bad guy feeds on that and it becomes brother versus brother in a very humorous, yet sincere way. It’s a nice twist late in the season to acknowledge what you’re talking about – that these guys are really just a two-man team and in some ways they’re closer than a married couple. They spend every moment together.
The conversations between Sam and Dean are so very guy-like, and yet the show obviously has a huge female audience. Which is the opposite of your standard The WB approach, where the guys sound like girls want them to. Was that a conscious decision to write against that type?
It wasn’t a conscious reaction so much as Eric created these characters from different, deep dark parts of himself and brought them to life. I don’t think he cared one way or another whether they fit in anybody’s mold but his own. And I think it’s a tribute to the depth and quality of the characters – No. 1, that people are interested in them.
But I actually appreciate your characterization that our guys talk like real guys. The one thing we keep trying to do every week is keep them grounded. On the same theory, if it’s grounded then you feel like you’re not watching a fantasy, you’re watching something that could happen to me. I could run into this guy at the gas station. It’s Sam Winchester and there’s a ghost behind him. It’s nice to know it has that feeling because we’re always re-writing and trying to get things to sound as real as possible.
Were you expecting such a big female following for Supernatural?
To answer your second part, the minute we cast Jared and Jensen, I know we’d have a big female audience. (laughs) I knew we didn’t have to worry about it! The other thing I found in X-Files and Supernatural and the genre work in my career as a whole, that horror movies have a huge female audience. I can’t explain it but I think the subject matter combined with those two guys is going to bring the women in.
The girls on Supernatural are generally pretty tough. Sure, they’ll scream, but they tend to fight back a lot. Especially in “Asylum” – when the boyfriend is panicking, all ‘I don’t know how to use a gun!’ and the girlfriend looks at him and is like, ‘I do, Jesus!’ and racks the shotgun. That was excellent. Do the writers make a point to shy away from writing weaker women?
Certainly we’ve had our share of damsels in distress, but we were very conscious of the clichés. I think Eric and myself, Bob [Singer] and the staff all feel like we want to take every horrortrope whether it’s werewolves, damsels in distress, the sorority girl party haunted by whoever and make it our own, make it an episode of Supernatural.
I grew up writing Dana Scully, a very, very strong female character, and I’ve always been attracted to that and I think Eric has, too. So when we come up with a significant female character, I think our instinct is to say that I’ve always had strong women in my life, telling me what to do (laughs) – let’s embody that and they make such a better foil for our guys and it’s a helluva lot more fun.
What would Mulder and Scully say to Dean and Sam?
Wow, that’s a good one! I think Mulder would be very pleased to have a chat with them. What’s interesting is the difference between Mulder and Scully and Sam and Dean and it’s how you attack the story. Having done both – Mulder was always about the search for the truth, it was so important for people to know the truth. For people to believe, “I want to believe” – believe in the supernatural.
Sam and Dean don’t really give a shit if you believe in the supernatural. They just want to know what it is, and kill it. I’m not sure if Dean would give Mulder and Scully the time of day. First, because they’re FBI agents and already they’re on the other side of the law as far as he’s concerned. Secondly, they’re not going to sit around and discuss the theories and have angst over whether this is part of a giant conspiracy or not. ‘Just tell me how to kill it and I’ll take care of business.’ (laughs) It’s really fun to have written both because with Sam and Dean there’s so much action and there’s high-tension and writing for Mulder and Scully was great, but in a different way.
There’s obviously whole seasons’ worth of X-Files standalone plots that could be adapted for Supernatural. Are there any you’re really dying to see retread? Is there any chance we’ll get a body-switching episode?
(laughs) Funny you said that – we talked about doing it. We did one of those on The X-Files — it was “Dreamland” and “Dreamland II” – that was the bodyswitching episode when Mulder was in Michael McKean and Michael McKean was in Mulder. And I loved that, it was so much fun.
It would be fun to do [on Supernatural], it would have to be a humorous episode. We’re going to do a humorous episode this year with “Tall Tales” and we’ll probably do one next year. And I think you’re right – to see Dean playing Sam and Sam playing Dean would be hilarious. So maybe next year.
Jensen and Jared would knock it out of the park.
Yeah, oh yeah.
We’ve seen Jared bandaged up for a few episodes now — what the heck did Jared do to his hand?
He broke his wrist, just goofing around. But what’s great about our show and how the Winchester brothers live and work, it’s perfectly understandable and I actually kind of dug it once the idea came up that he has a cast on because of what happened when he faced the creature. I love that kind of continuity because it makes it feel real – real people break bones every once in a while. So it was a happy accident – but I am sorry he broke his hand (laughs).
Music is so key, so fundamental to Supernatural and in a really great way. Is there a classic cock rock song you’ve wanted to use but been unable to get the rights to?
There have been a few – nine times out of 10, we’ve been to work it out, which is great because the score, the rock and roll is as much of a character as the car is a character. It sets the tone, lets you know that you’re in an episode of Supernatural.
We always think about it when we’re writing – trying to throw in song references to the script and hope we’ll get ’em. There have been a few that have been too cost-prohibited or prohibitive? on our budget to get because obviously you have to pay them. There’s usually another choice that’s just as cool.
Do the writers specify what kind of godawful theme each motel of the week has, or does that fall to the set designers?
(laughs). It varies – [usually] the art department designer will send down pictures of an idea and it’s always spot-on for the horrific Americana we love to portray. Every once in a while we throw a detail in the script, like when Dean was putting quarters in the vibrating bed. But usually the art department will flesh out our world. From early in season one, the team up there hit their stride and we hardly have to think about that anymore. We just say that we want a motel and they come up with something great.
Will Daddy Winchester be back?
To quote Eric Kripke: “Nobody dies forever on Supernatural.” We will know his fate and we will learn more about it by the end of the season, I can tell you that.
Can you give me any hints on what’s coming up for Supernatural?
We actually just finished basically breaking, in broad strokes, the season finale – a two-parter. It’s really going to shock some people, there’s some big surprises in it. It goes straight for those things I was talking about – Dean has to face his demons and Sam has to face his. It’s really amazing, it’s going to be really cool two-parter.
Why do you think that Supernatural has managed to be a worthy heir to The X-Files throne when so many other shows tried and failed. Is it just how many The X-Files alums it has on staff?
It doesn’t hurt! I worked on or was offered a number of those kind of shows after The X-Files, and the reason I went with Supernatural is that the franchise had the potential that The X-Files had. What I mean is, what is that thing that drives the show? The idea — the character idea and what those characters are after. Where The X-Files had Mulder’s search for the truth and Scully’s search in the beginning about science and then becoming about faith. But the idea of FBI agents taking the cases that nobody wants and fighting the paranormal is a great angle. It’s brilliant.
I felt that Supernatural has a great hook to it. Two boys in a car searching out monsters for very personal reasons, family reasons, is a great engine. That’s why I think it has survived, and why I hope it will continue to survive, because that’s what you need for a series to work – and I think that’s what the [other series] attempts lacked. It’s a hard thing to find. That, plus again, the mysterious chemistry between the actors. If that wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have made it out of season one – and the same for The X-Files. It’s a fascinating, kind of crazy way to make a living but when it all comes together, it’s great. You spend most of your career trying to make it come together.
And you’ve been on some great shows that have done that.
I know. I’ve been blessed.