June 29, 2015
In The Mix

Reign Maker

From TV to movies and back again, Brad Silberling loves what he does, no matter what screen it ends up on.

Deanna Barnert

Whether Brad Silberling is directing and producing his own scripts or someone else's, it's all about telling a story.

He finds the story in everything. That may earn eye rolls from Bodhi, his nine-year-old son with actress-producer Amy Brenneman, but it's a definite asset in this business.

Silberling directed series including NYPD Blue and L.A. Law before turning to films such as City of Angels, Moonlight Mile, Land of the Lost and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

His recent work for Reign and Jane the Virgin — both successful series on the CW — changed his trajectory again. He is an executive producer of Reign; at Jane, he was an exec producer of the pilot and occasionally directs.

Armed with a two-year catchall deal with CBS Television and his next original screenplay, Silberling — who took time out for a chat with emmy contributor Deanna Barnert — is ready to go wherever the next good story takes him.

Q: Your résumé is impressive, yet someone recently called you a "rising star." How does that feel?

A: It's funny. It's a pleasure. I'm enjoying the legion of filmmakers who've reinvested in television in the last few years because of the migration of great material, great storytelling and character-driven work. It's hard to find that in the cinema these days.

As a filmmaker, you're always hoping that what interests you interests other people. These last couple pilots were ones I zeroed in on, so it makes me feel like I'm not nuts!

Q: What made you zero in on them?

A: When I read Reign, I responded to the point of view, and that's true of Jane, too. When something has a really defined point of view that is somehow unique, I can really bring out that character. Usually, it also allows me a visual telling of the tale.

With Reign, I thought I was about to read a modern-day retelling of Mary, Queen of Scots, but instead I cracked open a 16th-century piece. I was immediately intrigued.

I responded to the timeless question of whether this young woman could find love without having to deny her sense of power. I have a daughter [Charlotte] who's 13, and my wife is obviously out in the working world. That was a compelling piece of the puzzle.

Q: And Jane?

A: The premise was so outlandish that I had to get my hands on what Jennie [Urman, creator–executive producer of Jane] wrote!

Again, I had a way in — a POV that excited me. What struck me was that you could do a contemporary fable that would resonate. Then Gina Rodriguez came in and just killed everyone [as Jane]. She felt so real, and that was the heart of the concept.

Q: Once you got these pilots directed and produced, was your job done?

A: I feel like Jenny and I email every day. We conspire about director choices, I jump in [to direct Jane episodes], and early on, I came to sit in the cutting room with her to help get her on her feet.

But she's a machine. I have no worries for how that show will continue on.

The trick on Reign is that it's a true Canadian coproduction. I'm not allowed to direct. That broke my heart.

[Executive producer] Laurie [McCarthy] is a great partner, and I cared for those actors, so I tried to keep my hand in, aesthetically, in a roundabout way. I remain a consigliere to Laurie. I also spot the series score with [composer] Trevor Morris, who is terrific.

Q: You seem drawn to female-driven stories. What's that about?

A: Amy pointed that out to me when we met. I can't honestly tell you why. I'm just more interested in women, and when I sit down to write, I find a great access point through these women.

But Down Dog, the pilot I directed for Amazon, couldn't be more different than Jane or Reign. It's split-focus and it reminded me, tonally, of my favorite work of [Hal] Ashby, Shampoo.

It's a very honest, unsparing look at the west-side yoga culture and the cult of personality of some of the gurus.

Q: What's it like to transition back to TV as an executive producer?

A: Steven Spielberg and I laugh about how you never lose your episodic muscle — you know how to think on your feet. I did episodic for almost four years before Steven happened to see a repeat of a show I'd written, which became my path to making my first movie, Casper.

In those early times, I also did a pilot for an odd little comedy, Great Scott, which was Tobey Maguire's debut. That was my first time having to broaden the toolset, in terms of producing other directors and helping them in post. I dabbled, but I selfishly wanted to start making movies.

Coming back to it now feels like a natural outgrowth. I've had a hand in producing my movies and I've done other pilots, including my wife's pilot for Judging Amy.

Whether it's having to deal with actors' representation and studio politics, objectively trying to shape material that's not your own, or trying to keep directors off their faces — these skills have grown out of the work. 

Q: Did you ever consider doing anything else with your life?

A: I didn't. The strange thing about having Steven Spielberg become both mentor and friend is that I walked into a theater on the first day, first showing of Jaws, and I walked out with this unbelievable desire to tell stories on film. That day, I stole my dad's movie camera.

My father [Robert Silberling] was a documentary producer who segued into television as an executive. To his credit, he was incredibly supportive. He said, "There're a lot of other nice boys out there who want to be directors. You're going to need to start writing."

I listened. I was an English major and then went to UCLA [School of Theater Film and Television] for graduate school.

Q: You've worked with Hollywood's most respected actors. Have you ever gotten nervous or star-struck?

A: I should have.... Meryl Streep came up to me after the first day of Lemony Snicket’s and said, "I'm so sorry. I was just so nervous!" It was not false modesty.

Actors put themselves out [there] more than anybody. I think they feel tremendous affection from me, and a sense of attentiveness. It's not a coincidence — I go out of my way. For the people I love to work with, I create the opportunity.

When I read material sent to me, I'm selfishly thinking about the cast of players I love.

Q: Does that cast include your wife?

A: I am blown away by the work she does, so yes. But right now, she's going into season two of [HBO’s] The Leftovers. Our intermediate step is that we're producing a writer, Jill Gordon, together.

We enjoy working together, and Amy’s a remarkable writer, but I’d love to help shape another piece around her.

Q: You're often identified as a director, but you keep using the title "filmmaker." Is that how you see yourself?

A: Filmmaker and storyteller. The edges blur, but whether what we do ends up on a laptop, my phone, a TV screen or in theaters, it's still filmmaking.

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