Posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2016 by Fred Topel
When Netflix dropped the first season of their latest Marvel series, Jessica Jones, on November 20, many viewers finished it before Thanksgiving. To comic books fans, the rest of us were just catching up. The show pulled a lot from Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias series, including Jessica (Krysten Ritter)’s relationship with Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and the villain Kilgrave (David Tennant) who could control people by simply uttering commands.
Jessica Jones came to television via showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, a longtime writer on Dexter and shows like The O.C., Birds of Prey and Party of Five. She also created the short-lived drama Red Widow and perhaps most famously wrote the screenplays for all five Twilight movies. We would have wanted to speak with Rosenberg about Jessica Jones anyway, but the fact that it became such an instant phenomenon only gave us more questions in a post-holiday phone interview.
Was it important to you that Kilgrave be a moral threat as well as a physical one?
What was most important with the villain was very much that he be multi-dimensional, that he not be a mustache-twirling, out-to-rule-the-world [villain]. From his point of view, he doesn’t see himself as morally bankrupt or evil at all. In fact, he thinks what he’s doing, he’s just giving people what they want. But because he’s a sociopath he can’t distinguish between those things.
Do you sympathize with him? Because there’s a moment where you realize he’s never had a real connection because his ability makes everything he says filter through this power.
Yeah, in working on him, it was interesting. We didn’t want to get into feeling sorry for him. We dabbled. We went there for a moment so the audience kind of goes with you into, “Oh gosh, that’s kind of a sad story.” Then you turn it around with, that doesn’t mean he’s any less of an evil guy. I’m sure Hitler had a sad story as well. Showing that this is a human being but for whatever reason he’s doing these hideous things, he’s still doing them.
You might want to tell him, to quote another Marvel character, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
But with a moral threat, I realized yes, if someone wants to destroy the world, they have to be stopped, but if they can make you do things you don’t want to do, that hurts more.
Well, it’s more personal. It’s a more intimate wrong. I think it’s relatable in an individual way, whereas taking over the world, as well the stakes are incredibly high, it’s perhaps a little harder to connect to.
Related to the Kilgrave issue, I feel like there’s always a conundrum in dealing with rape in film and television. Even if there’s a revenge story, the audience is still inevitably subjected to a rape. Were you thinking about this when you focused more on the psychology of it and realizing that Kilgrave’s power is actually committing rape?
Yeah, I think there’s just a lot of rape on television and in film. It’s a bit of a go-to in many ways. I personally feel like I’ve seen enough of it and I was more interested in the effects of it rather than the actual incident, or in this case incidents. It was really the fallout of it. That was really where my focus was. I was less interested, and I didn’t feel a need to see. In some ways, I think it lands even more horrifically to just really be inside Jessica’s experience with it.
You’re right, there is a lot of it in film and television. I suppose a part of it is that as a viewer, I would want to deal with a subject that impacts so many people, but there is that problem of, how do you deal with it sensitively without exploiting it?
Well, that is always the dilemma. It’s too often titillating which is just extraordinarily damaging. Yeah, we came at it from the fallout.
What were your hard boiled detective references?
Chinatown for sure. I had that in mind in terms of tone and pacing. That was pretty much it, the biggest one. Of course, there’s always Bogey.
There’s always different writers of every episode, so do you do a “banter pass” to make sure all the back and forth is consistent?
Yeah, you know, I do, particularly in the first year of a show. It’s funny, in re-watching the series, you really see a piece of everyone in every episode, all the writers. Ultimately it goes through my typewriter but it’s a very collaborative process.
I suppose is that the job of any TV show, when you have so many voices, to make it feel like one consistent voice?
Yeah, that’s a showrunner’s job, to really make it all one. It’s really the showrunner’s vision, ultimately, that brings it all together. From the writing to the look, the cut, the sound.