Interview: 'Jessica Jones' Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg Talks Kilgrave, Luke Cage, And Rape On TV

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."

Right. [Laughs.]

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.

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I'm sure I haven't seen everything that's posted about Jessica Jones, but I didn't see any comments that it was an interracial relationship between Jessica and Luke Cage. Are we past that issue finally?

[Laughs.] I wish that were true. No, there are some really disturbing comments that I choose not to focus on. I block those. Not many. One or two, but sadly it's just stunning when that happens. Wow, we really do live in a backwards world.

So there was some. I was fortunate to miss those.

Yes, you were fortunate. I unfortunately did not. I quickly blocked them though.

In developing the show though, that's a relationship that comes from the comics too. Were you past race in dealing with two characters who have this connection?

Yeah, I think that's how Bendis treated it. Completely, it was past the interracial relationship and past gay marriage and past abortion. These are all issues that have been very dicey in the past and still are for a good portion of the world, but I chose to treat them as matter of fact.

Did you sort of inherit Luke Cage from the comics and the fact that Netflix was already doing another show with him?

Yes, Luke Cage is very much a part of Jessica Jones's story in the comics. From the get go, even back when I was developing it for ABC, that relationship was always going to be really important.

Were there any restrictions on how you could use Luke Cage since they needed him for another series?

Yeah, it's funny. We were originally working on a lot more stories for him. Then we realized he has his own series and his series will be dealing with his origin story and so much of what he is. There was a moment of crisis of, "God, what are we doing?" It actually ended up playing really well into our series. It really maintains him as a big of a man of mystery, doling out just enough information, really the information that was most important because our show is called Jessica Jones. It's not the Jessica and Luke story. So what was important was his story as it relates to Jessica. That was the important element.

Were there more people involved in casting that role than the other roles?

It was all the same folks, like myself, Marvel and Netflix. I always supported Mike Colter, as did everyone else. My comment to them was, "I love him but you guys have to live with him for years, so I defer to you." This one, I was going to let them obviously be the ultimate say, but we were all in agreement on it.

That reminds me, I had a chance to talk to Susie Abromeit about playing Pam, and she said very early on she auditioned for the role of Jessica. That would've been a very different Jessica, but obviously it was always Kryten's role. How did that all shake out?

From the very beginning, back several years ago when we first started developing this, we kept lists of names that helped fashion the character, helped me to fashion the character. Krysten was always on those lists and then several years later when we developed this for Netflix, again she was on the list. She came in very early in the audition process and pretty much set the bar incredibly high. Doing our due diligence, we continued to cast about. We wanted to make sure we were making the right choice, but no one ever came close. No one ever hit that mark, that perfect blend of dramatic chops and comedic chops.

Were there any other subplots you would have liked to spend more time on?

In breaking the story of each episode, you're bandying around a ton of ideas. There are a whole stack of ideas that we didn't use. Some of them are definitely ones I'd want to revisit but ultimately I like the amount of story that was in there for the other characters, and it gives us a lot of room to play moving forward if we are so fortunate to do that.

Could you have done a 22-episode season?

No. I mean, we could've but I don't know that it would've been great. I think 13 is really 13 hours of storytelling. Shark jumping starts happening when you're trying to stretch that out over the course of 22. I think for this particular storyline, I wanted it to be a contained storyline of the Kilgrave experience and that particular aspect of Jessica's history. Then drop the mic and walk out.

Were you a big comic book fan before this opportunity came your way?

I wasn't. I really wasn't very well versed at all in it, which was why Bendis's books were so captivating. I didn't realize that there was this kind of writing, this kind of storytelling going on in comic books and was just completely involved and invested immediately.

Are we at an age where we're all comic book fans or well versed enough in the genre now?

Yeah, while I wasn't a comic book aficionado, I'd seen every one of the superhero movies, Marvel's run and I'm a big fan of the genre at least on film. Before I got ahold of the books, I'd gone into ABC and they were asking, "What do you want to do next?" I said, "I'd really love to do a female superhero, a female Iron Man." That's when they put me together with Jeph Loeb over at Marvel TV and he brought me Jessica Jones. This is exactly the character I've been wanting to write most of my career.

We've never seen one with a tone like Jessica Jones and future filmmakers will probably refer to the Jessica Jones tone. Was it hard to articulate exactly what you wanted it to be?

It was, because I was discovering it as I was creating it. With every episode and every script and every cut, you do this process of elimination. "That's not really the show, that's not really the show. Wait a minute, I think this is it. Let's do more of that." It's a really interesting process to hone what it is your vision is. I couldn't have told you 90% of what I know now about the show going in. It was really a discovery process. You let the actors inform you. Every element of it really informs your vision. You bring an incredibly talented team. You surround yourself with incredibly talented people and they all bring something to it, things that I could never have imagined, like our music. Sean Callery who did our score. This is someone who is just incredibly talented. With Sean, you get out of his way. Just let him do his thing. He's so good.

Have you seen any of the articles on "Don't Compare Jessica Jones to Supergirl?"

I think some of them, yeah. I think Supergirl is terrific. It's just a really different kind of show. I love any show where there's a kick-ass chick in front of it. She's terrific.

I think the gist of it is you don't compare Iron Man and Batman just because they're both men.

I think that's a very good response.

I haven't heard much about the Twilight short films they announced. Are you involved in any of those?

I'm not, no. I don't know anything about it. I'm doing this now.

Would it be hard to see someone else take over something you were so intimately involved with?

No, not at all. I think I've given everything I could. I had nothing more to add to the series by the time we finished. I feel like it would be really exciting to see what someone else could bring.