John Shiban recently granted us at BuddyTV the opportunity to speak with him about Supernatural, the popular sci-fi drama on The CW. Supernatural follows brothers Sam and Dean Winchester as they travel America in their 1967 Chevy Impala, encountering all sorts of Supernatural disturbances and foes along the way. John Shiban started out as a Staff Writer on X-Files and has been in the TV business for almost a decade. He is now a writer and executive producer on Supernatural.
Supernatural airs on Thursdays at 9PM ET/PT.
You landed a job on X-Files early in your career. How did you break into the TV business?
I went to film school at AFI, grad school, and intended to be a feature writer, to be honest. I went through the school writing program and met a bunch of people which is, ultimately, very important. And me and my buddies were all trying to get jobs after school in writing and a couple of years down the road I had written a few spec features that nobody bought, but a friend of mine named Frank Spotnitz got a job as a staff writer on X-Files and met Chris Carter etcetera, and got on there, and recommended that Chris read my stuff. And one day I was working on computers to make a living and writing at night and I got this call from Chris’ office saying that he read a script of mine and wanted to meet me. So I drove down and met him, terrified of course, and the next day FOX called and offered me a staff job and I was there for seven years. It was an overnight success that took years.
How long into being a writer on X-Files did you become an executive producer?
The way it goes is you bump to story editor and then I went up to co-producer then producer, that was after my second year I became a producer, and then the last two years of the show I was an executive producer.
What do you prefer, writing or producing? Or does it go hand in hand these days?
I’m actually one of these writers that enjoys writing. But the great thing about television is the writer/producers are really the bosses, so you kind of have an opportunity, where in features, the director has the final say in a lot of ways. In TV, it’s the writers, so that’s great. I love being a producer because you actually spend a lot of time trying to get the vision that you had in your head and working with the creative people on the set. So it’s very rewarding. But I do like to write, to sit down and be alone with the computer.
Do you credit Chris Carter and X-Files with helping your development, or do you kind of evolve at your own pace when you get into the business?
You know, I’ve got to say, X-Files was really my film school and one great thing about Chris, and I’ve tried to follow his example, he was very open to the young writers getting involved in all aspects of making an episode. He considered it collaborative and that he wanted everyone’s best work, and if you were interested in going to the editing room, for example, and hanging out and working on your episode after it was shot, he was open to that. So that’s how I learned to cut a show, that’s how I learned to mix a show, and sound editing and all that stuff just by being around it and being in that environment. So I give him a lot of credit for that and I try to do that with young writers as they come aboard on our show and say, listen, get involved, watch this cut and tell me what you think and that kind of stuff. And that’s where you really learn, it makes the writing better. I can’t say enough about the editing room because, as they say, the movie is made three times: you write it once and then the director and the actors and the art director and all those creative people make it again on the set, in the real world. And then all that footage goes into the editing room and you make it all over again and you have to tell a story with what you’ve got and you have to figure out what you don’t need anymore from the script, but it all can serve your writing if you’re open to it in that way.
You’ve done almost exclusively Sci-Fi work. Were you a big fan growing up? What inspired you?
Yeah, I’ll admit, yes, I was a geek in school and I ran the Newberry Park High School Science Fiction Club and I ran the Astronomy Club. I was a total fanboy, and originally I was very much into science fiction and, particularly, I wanted to actually write and be like Ray Bradbury or Larry Niven or one of those guys, and it wasn’t until I went to college and sort of fell in love with the movies that I thought, “Hey, I want to write screenplays instead.” But, yeah, definitely, I’m from the genre.
You said you started out trying to write features. When you finished X-Files did you keep writing sci-fi because you loved it so much or because that’s what you knew?
Well, it’s very easy in this business to get pigeonholed, and people look at what you did last and say, “Well that’s what you do, that’s what you’re known for.” So they’ll hire you to do more things like it. I’m lucky in that I do love the genre, and genre writing, so that doesn’t bother me. I have friends though who got their lucky break on a sitcom and really don’t want to write sitcoms but they’re stuck because that’s what you’re known for, and for somebody to hire you, they’re looking for what you’ve done, and it can be difficult to break that mold. But I’m lucky in that, and it’s what’s great about Supernatural. The features that I was writing in the very beginning were in multiple genres – I wrote a horror script, I wrote a romantic comedy, I wrote a film noir thriller, because I was trying to show my stuff, and what’s great about Supernatural is that I can bring a lot of those skills whether it’s the thriller aspects, the humor, and certainly the horror to the table. So you get to play with that stuff and it’s valuable to write other jobs and valuable to that side of your writing but you don’t always get hired to do it.
What’s your take on the state of sci-fi on TV these days? Is there an audience for more?
I definitely think there’s an audience for more. I mean, certainly the explosion of sci-fi on cable proves it, and then Heroes on mainstream is a very genre show. I definitely think the audience is out there and the timing is right. I think when the world starts to get screwy, people look to fantasy and science fiction and horror for some relief, for some release, for an opportunity to deal with emotions that they don’t necessarily want to face by watching CNN. And I think historically, I think that’s always happened – people turn to fantasy. The old Universal horror movies were the most popular things right after World War I and after the Great Depression, for example, when people didn’t want to face reality. I don’t want to make it sound like they’re escaping this, but it provides people with an opportunity to deal with emotions. The greatest stuff, X-Files in its own way, fit its times – the paranoia and the fear of government and now the stuff that’s coming out also fits our times. That’s why I think Heroes is such a success and I think people will be clamoring for more. The trick is, and you know how the business is, there’s one success in a type of a show, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, and all of a sudden there’s ten of them. And if there aren’t any hits in that group…Last year, when Supernatural started, there were a half dozen genre shows on TV, and none of them made it. We were blessed with a certain amount of success considering our network and the draw. Our numbers aren’t Desperate Housewives numbers by any means, but who we are and where we live, we did well enough to come back, which is great.
How did Supernatural come about? How did you get involved?
Supernatural sprang from the mind of Eric Kripke, and God bless him for it because I’m having a ball. It’s a really fun show to work on . Eric had done Tarzan for the WB and when that went away, they asked him to do another pilot, and he had always wanted to do a horror Movie of the Week-type show, investigating American myths and legends and urban legends and whatnot. And, as I understand it, he went through a couple permutations before and actually wrote a whole script about a reporter and a partner and a little bit of Night Stalker, X-Files kind of thing. And the executives at Warner said you know, that’s not quite what we think is right, and in about two weeks he came up with the brothers and the mythology and the search and on the road, pounded out this script and they loved it. And after they shot the pilot and brought David Nutter on board, who I know from X-Files, that was when they approached me. They were looking for a Senior Writer to come on to work at the writers room with the writers and help break stories. And I loved the pilot and they loved my work, and it was kind of a marriage made in heaven. After the first meeting we were like, let’s do this.
Supernatural has some similarities to X-Files. Does that make it harder or easier for you, personally, to write episodes?
That’s a good question. It does have similarities, but the tone is so different. We look at them as sort of what is the scary movie of the week that we’re doing. So, for example, the next original that airs on December 7th is called Croatoan, and we kept saying last year that I’d love to do a “28 Days Later” kind of episode. So we’re always pulling from much more of a popcorn, movie to movie, Saturday matinee fun place than the X-Files, which pulled from a lot of darker, government conspiracy, evil among us sort of source. So in a way, they’re both equally difficult, but they come from a different place.