Weekend With The Writer: Supernatural’s Robbie Thompson at DePaul University
Last weekend was one of those wonderful times when my academic self and my fannish self don’t have to be split down the middle – one of those times when I can put on my fangirl hat without taking my psychologist hat off. It was the Celebration of Supernatural at DePaul University, which brought together academics who research the show and the fandom, and fans who write about the show and the fandom – in other words, since we’re all doing the same thing, why not share it with each other under the umbrella of a whirlwind day of thinky thoughts about the show we all love?
I went to Chicago a few days early to hang out with fangirl friends and just have fun. Drinks at the historic Palmer House, lunch at the historic Walnut Room (which google tells me was the first restaurant opened in a department store in 1907!), and lots of time to talk Supernatural and fandom and just about everything else. We joined the rest of the conference speakers for pizza at ExChequer’s on Friday night, where I caught up properly with Mo Ryan, television critic for Huffington Post, who was one of our first supporters when we were writing Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and many other bloggers and academics and fans – all of us talking excitedly about the show that we’re all still passionate about (even if occasionally infuriated…)
Conference keynote speaker Robbie Thompson came by too, and spent a few hours hanging out (and avoiding spoilers for S10 and S11). Not all the conversation was about Supernatural, but we did have one epic conversation about the Show that made so much sense to me.
Robbie started it by asking the question, “What is it about Supernatural that makes it so special?” We all have our own answers, and several of us shared them, then asked Robbie for his answer. He said he’d been doing some interviews recently and kept getting asked that question, so he’d had some time to think about it. In fact, he was organized enough to give the reasons in chronological order, starting at the beginning – with Kripke, of course. Kripke came up with this great idea, was smart enough to make the lead characters brothers, and knew when to take the show from MotW to something deeper, as much about relationships as monsters. Next came the brilliant casting – of Jared and Jensen. You rarely get one lead actor who’s both a great actor and a wonderful human being instead of an asshole, Robbie said, and they got two. That’s unprecedented. (And later they got more great actors who are also awesome people, like Misha and Mark and so many more).
Robbie: Supernatural has the best cast, and it starts with Jared and Jensen.
Then the show added directors who knew what they were doing and could jump in and helm the show and take it in the direction Kripke wanted it to go. Bob Singer and Phil Sgriccia have been there from early on, and continue to shape the show.
Next came the talented and experienced crew, many of them from the X Files. They were already experienced and used to working smoothly together, so it was a unique working environment from the start. It’s highly unusual to have a crew stay together for ten seasons, but that’s what’s happened with Supernatural. The next thing that contributed was Sera Gamble as showrunner, who Robbie speaks very highly of, and then Jeremy Carver, who kept SPN running even after Kripke (mostly) left. There are other phenomenal directors too, like John Badham. And Andrew Dabb, the writer who inspires the other writers – Robbie and Bob have called him the heart and soul of Supernatural.
Robbie: If you’ve ever liked a story arc on Supernatural, that’s Andrew.
Finally, Robbie said, it all circles around to the fans. Their passion, the sense of community that makes fandom so special and so nurturing. The ten years of meeting up at conventions.
Lynn: We’ve all had a decade to develop this ‘reciprocal relationship’ we enjoy – building it up at conventions and online. Few other shows have been able to nurture such a relationship with fandom, and certainly not for that length of time. Long enough for the cast to get to know the fans as people, and to break down stereotypes.
No wonder this feels so unique and so special. I love knowing that it feels that way from both sides – Robbie feels it, and just last week we talked at length with Richard Speight and Rob Benedict about their sense of how special this is.
Robbie seems as passionate about the Show as we do – when he started working on it, he intended to just watch the episodes that were key to understanding the plot so far, and got so sucked into it that he ended up binge watching them all. (We can perhaps relate to this just a wee bit…)
We pretty much closed down the bar Friday night, because who wants to stop talking about Supernatural with one of the writers of Supernatural?? (Rhetorical question, obviously).
Saturday was the conference, which started early and jam packed an impressive number of panels into one day. I sat in on thought-provoking and lively discussions of representations of family on SPN, the meta episodes of Supernatural, and how the show inspires activism and social issues. (Robbie wasn’t contractually allowed to attend any panels, but he would have really enjoyed all of them.) We participated in a panel on writing about Supernatural, which made it very clear to me that I actually don’t write about much that ISN’T about Supernatural!
Before the keynote, I sat in on the screening of Fan Fiction, and ended up scrambling for tissues when the entire audience started singing along to ‘A Single Man Tear’ and that haunting version of ‘Carry On’.
There was also a costume contest, for which we and Mark Oshiro were judges. They were all awesome!
Thompson gave a keynote talk and answered every single question that anyone had; in fact, he refused to stop and take a break even when it was scheduled, because he was afraid he wouldn’t have time to answer them all!
Here are some of the things I enjoyed learning.
Robbie graduated from USC and is best friends with the author of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ since that time. He self deprecatingly refers to himself as a college dropout, which is technically accurate since he dropped out of his first school, but he went back. And finished. (And credits his mother with encouraging him). He was inspired by Star Wars, as were so many fans who watched it on the big screen.
Robbie spent some time describing the pitching process in general, and on SPN in particular. Perhaps the best way to understand how the process of spooling out a story arc goes is comparing it to a road trip. You set out and are intending to go to Place Z, but along the way you get to Place X and say oh, this place is nice, let’s stay here instead. (I wondered if Place X happened to have a dog and a veterinary hospital and look kinda fuzzy…)
The first day of a new season (which will happen in just a few weeks for the SPN writers), everyone comes in with their pitches, and you lock in three or four. When Bob Singer said they were going to do a musical episode for the 200th, Robbie’s first reaction was ‘oh no, that’s absurd, please don’t make me do that’. But then, he admitted, he wanted to – he likes a challenge. And he knew that would be either wildly loved or wildly hated, but in either case, fans were sure to be passionate about it. So he came in with all musical pitches because he really wanted to do it (and the rest is Fan Fiction history).
Robbie talked a bit about creating the character of Charlie, which was an emotional topic for everyone considering what happened in the last episode. He said Sera asked him to create a new character for her first episode (The Girl With the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo) because Jared might have to leave at any moment due to the impending birth of his first child and they wanted to be sure he was able to do that.
Robbie: Because she’s awesome, and she’s Sera.
Not only was that episode to be a myth arc episode, but he had to introduce a new character too! No pressure, Robbie.
He created the character to be sort of like the whistleblower on ‘The Insider’, and based Charlie a little bit on his brother, too. He’s an IT person, and very smart. Felicia Day hadn’t been cast when he initially wrote the part of Charlie, but Robbie said he always writes a bio for a character even though no one uses it but him. This time, it was a collaboration. Felicia brought so much to the character, and when they cast her, Robbie knew that he could give her more lines because she’s a great actor. What they didn’t know is that she’d have such chemistry with the boys. He mentioned how she played the “I love you” “I know” scene, with heart instead of just a funny line.
Another funny Charlie line was actually added by Sera: “Gotta go, cramps!”
Robbie said he seeks out the actors’ opinions too. They have an open door policy. For example, he reached out to Misha Collins before and after Angel Heart, wanting his input, because it’s really hard to play two versions of a character in the same episode (Cas and Jimmy, in this case). He watched Jared play multiple characters one day while on set too and was amazed that he could do it so smoothly.
Robbie: I find collaboration with the actors invaluable. I love being able to collaborate with the actors in the storytelling.
His favorite scenes to write are the boys in the car, because you get to write what he called a ‘grace note’ – a scene not about plot, but about the characters. (I love those scenes, Robbie – write more!)
He also mentioned the multi-level collaboration that happened in ‘Slash Fiction’ when Sam and Dean have to give up Baby and are in another little car. Robbie wrote that there was a My Little Pony hanging from the mirror and Dean takes it down in disgust. Then Jensen added that he gets in the car and actually cuts the My Little Pony down. Then post added the sound it makes when he does (‘Eeeee’). Then the director added the My Little Pony in the trunk after. Voila, collaboration!
Robbie also talked about writing that scene of Dean singing “All Out Of Love” in the car.
Robbie: I have a theory about what the boys secretly listen to when the other isn’t around, so I put in ‘All Out of Love’. And Jensen hit every single note of that song. (Just sayin…)
He wrote in the script: Sam is epically horrified.
Robbie: And Jared’s expressions were priceless.
They actually ran out of time and were going to have to cut it the day before filming and he was devastated, but Phil Sgriccia and the boys loved it and wanted to do it. They made it happen, so again, it was a collaboration.
His favorite song in the show, btw, is ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and Jensen’s epic performance. I feel like he has a lot of company.
Robbie had nothing but praise for the actors, saying he has total confidence in them. For example, in the recent episode ‘Angel Heart’, Dean was supposed to give Claire the gun and say happy birthday, but Jensen added in the “don’t shoot me” (which made me laugh out loud when watching).
Robbie: We have writers on set all the time. We have Jared and Jensen.
He also said he loves going up to the set to watch filming, since the boys are so “dreamy”. Nothing wrong with Robbie Thompson’s eyesight clearly.
Being on set has also helped with his own writing.
Robbie: One of the things I learned from being on set is how little dialogue you need.
(With Supernatural anyway – those actors can tell you more with a clench of the jaw or a furrowed brow than most people can with a paragraph of lines!)
The process of pitching and writing an episode is fascinating. In the first script, there are gaps – for example, it might say “TBD monsters…” (monster to be decided). That initial script gets sent to the studio, who might send it back with notes. Then Robbie puts it all on a giant white board to map it out. He might have anywhere from two days to write an 8 to 10 page outline, then four days to 2 weeks for a first draft. As the script goes through changes, the color of the pages changes, so that a finished script is multicolored. This process is pretty grueling for a television show like Supernatural.
Robbie: The monster eats 50 pages every eight days, but you just do it. Supernatural is an impossible show to make, but we have the greatest crew in the world.
Researching new monsters is fun, he said, sharing that Sera had a rule that the monsters they use in the show be “google-able”. But he also enjoys adding to the existing lore, like they recently did with the Grigori watcher angels.
Sometimes he writes things in to reflect what’s happening in the actors’ real lives. Jared and Jensen kept talking about the mixed martial arts or some sort of classes they were taking, so Robbie wrote that fight scene in First Born for Jensen to do, with a “here ya go, buddy!” And he did it all himself, fighting with his stunt double. They actually broke a cabinet during the fight, it was so ‘real’.
There’s one episode that Robbie has pitched repeatedly that everyone really really would like to see get made. He calls it the ‘fluff ‘n fold’ episode, which consists of the boys doing laundry and arguing about who has to watch the dryer. While they wait, they each have flashbacks about their time apart in Season 8 – Dean in Purgatory, with only five bullets in his gun, and we get to see how he used each of them. Meanwhile, Sam’s flashback shows him doing all those things that we were all sure he was doing, like frantically looking for Dean. As Robbie said, ‘everything that happened before he hit that f—king dog.’ Even though the brothers probably wouldn’t share their flashbacks, at least we would finally know!
Why oh why does this pitch keep getting rejected??
Of course, fandom illustrated that idea a long time ago with brilliant artist Petite Madame’s rendition of Winchester Laundry Day. Not quite as fluffy as Robbie’s version, but damn, is it gorgeous.
Robbie also said he liked the idea of the ‘Wayward Daughters’ spinoff very much – and that Robert Berens should write it. I immediately tweeted that and Berens favorited it, so I’m taking that as a commitment. What?
And Thompson, like everyone else including Jensen, wishes there had been more episodes with Demon!Dean, and that he had gotten to write some. Damn!
He also wishes he’d had a chance to write some Soulless!Sam.
Robbie: I’ll go home and write the fanfic tonight…
Me: Ohgod, would I read that…
Nevertheless, he has had a chance to write some amazing episodes.
At one point, Robbie was talking about one of the episodes he wrote that was set in another time, and said with a smile, “Jensen likes to dress up anyway.”
More fanfic, anyone?
Robbie was candid about his feelings regarding Charlie’s death. When he was writing 10.18, he was asked to change Jacob’s last name to Stein because Frankenstein… His reaction: WHAT? Then he was told: Oh, and we killed Charlie. His reaction: Double what??!
Apparently he tried to talk them out of it. He emailed. He offered an alternative. He sent sternly worded texts. So much so that Bob Singer quipped, “Okay counselor…” He went down swinging, but we all know he didn’t prevail. Somehow it makes me feel better to know he tried though – and that he loves Charlie (and Felicia) as much as we do. There were quite a few fans at the conference who stopped to tell Robbie how much having a queer character on Supernatural meant to them personally. Her importance is felt deeply by Robbie as well.
Robbie: Charlie is not me, we have different pasts, different histories. But I know what it’s like to feel different and not give a shit.
On both Friday night and Saturday, Robbie talked a lot about working with the talented actors of Supernatural. He loves being able to go to the set when he can, though it’s not the norm on SPN. And he clearly respects actors as creators of the characters too. Robbie emphasized that Supernatural is a collaboration – which is something many of the actors we’ve interviewed have said. Director of Photography Serge Ladouceur, in the chapter he wrote for Fan Phenomena Supernatural, also talks about the collaboration that brings Supernatural to life. They all seem to value it and to appreciate how extraordinary it is.
There was a question about being pranked, since he’s been on set a few times to watch his episodes being filmed. Robbie fell victim to the infamous ‘tech scout gag’, where they make sure that the person’s food order is gigantic when they all go out to eat. A plate with about eight chicken breasts and seven pounds of broccoli appeared before him, but he was like ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna eat all of this!’
He also did a speed round of commonly asked questions.
Favorite character? The impala.
What character would he bring back? Rufus. Because then he’d get Bobby back too. In fact, he’d call the spinoff “Grumpy Old Men of Letters.”
What’s happening with Metatron?
Robbie: The Metatron story isn’t over. We love writing for Curtis Armstrong.
(Yay! We love Curtis too – in fact, check back for a new interview with him soon!)
Why did he kill Meg? Because he’s a horrible person. (lol)
Who does he want to guest star on SPN? William Shatner. (yes please)
How does he maintain character consistency?
Robbie: I like to go back and watch old episodes or read old scripts.
What are Jared and Jensen and Misha like? They’re all wonderful and smell like baby Jesus.
Robbie talked quite a bit about the writing process, both during the keynote and in a master class on writing later that afternoon. He said he took the advice of his friend Steve, who advised ‘write what you feel’, and he also tries to write what he knows. He knows what it’s like to be the little brother, like Sam. He knows what it’s like to feel different, like Charlie.
Throughout his talks, Robbie was always respectful to fans – actually, it went beyond that. Appreciative, inspired by. He talked about twitter responses, and how he often says “oh wow, people saw that? They’re way smarter than I am!” Other times, fans will pick up on things and he’ll say to Bob, “See?”
He’s impressed by fans’ creativity and by the supportive community that is fandom. And there is so much creativity! Robbie signed a gorgeous hand stitched devil’s trap (by @farawayeyes).
Robbie: I’m so inspired by those of you who write fan fiction and by that community.
Of course, Robbie also talked a lot about writing.
Robbie still remembers the first line he actually wrote for Supernatural. He was in a meeting where they were breaking the episode that would be ‘Slash Fiction’, talking about the boys ditching the Impala and driving another car. Robbie piped up and said “nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Sera Gamble turned to him and said, “you just wrote your first Supernatural line.”
He shared some insights about his personal writing process and some suggestions for the rest of us who write. One bit of advice was to figure out a ‘process’, whatever works for you and gets you out of your head for a while. Robbie likes to walk (and wears a headset so everyone won’t think he’s talking to himself – which he totally is). He also has a notebook where he records all his Season 11 ideas (“that will never get made,” he quipped). Who wants to get their hands on that notebook??
Rejection, he said, is a part of writing.
Robbie: I’ve learned the most from my biggest failures. It’s just a part of the process.
Something we learned while writing Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls too. Boy, did we.
Someone asked about whether the writers think about what fan reaction will be when something airs (possibly referring to last week’s episode and the controversial death of Charlie).
Robbie said that they’re aware of how people react sometimes, but said ‘I have to honor the story and the writing process.’ It can’t be, ‘guys we can’t do that scene or ten people will be mad.’ Or even a thousand.
Robbie: You have to listen to your characters and they will tell you what your story should be.
The writers aren’t asked to tweet for the Show, but Robbie enjoys interacting with the fandom. In fact, one of his favorite tweets to get is simply “F—k you, RobbieThompson” – because hey, at least it’s honest. “You’ve gotta take the good with the bad,” he said pragmatically.
We talked on Friday about the reciprocal relationship between producers (and writers) and fans that we’ve written about alot in all our books on Supernatural, and how that relationship can be powerful. Life changing, even.
“That interaction where the Show becomes YOURS is great,” Robbie said.
He also said it’s amazing to write for a Show with such a passionate following. Where so many great things have come from the show (“Like the shirt I’m wearing,” he said).
Robbie: This show is so unique. A legend in its own time. The boys have their part, but it’s you guys. You inspire me. How can I not be inspired by that?
We’re thrilled that he’s read our books; he stopped by our signing table to lend his support. Robbie went on to say that while we all know that the people who make the Show are a big part of our lives as fans, we may underestimate how much it goes both ways.
Kathy and I did a book signing at the end of the day, while Robbie signed next to us. He wanted to know the story behind every single fan who lined up to talk to him, asking them about why the show resonated, listening to what Supernatural has meant to them.
Robbie: You don’t realize how much you guys are a part of our lives too. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work on this show.
And we’re incredibly lucky to have all the talented, smart, passionate people who make the Show what it is.
Robbie clearly loved having the opportunity to talk to fans — here he’s signing a gorgeous custom leather bound copy of Fan Phenomena Supernatural by Fine Blank Books made by fangirl and talented artist Tedra Ashley-W, who also was a vendor at the conference. We have an Impala on the front cover of that book, so this is the custom cover, all handworked and inset leather – how beautiful is this?? (Check out fineblankbooks.com)
We ended the day over dinner with Robbie and conference organizer Paul Booth and his lovely wife Katie.
Robbie said that he was blown away by the stories that fans shared with him, and so grateful for the opportunity to hear them. We talked about Supernatural, but we also talked about everything else all of us are fannish about – a good reminder that many of the people who make this Show I’m crazy about are just as much fans as we all are.
And speaking of that Show…
Is everyone ready for tonight’s new episode??? How many boxes of tissues will I need, and will I have any nails left by the time it’s over??
ETA: NO, I did not have any nails left at all!!!
ps – If you haven’t already, be sure to also check out the new comic ‘Silk’ written by Thompson and a beautifully drawn collaboration!
Read more from Supernatural’s creative team in
Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls and Fan Phenomena
Supernatural – click the links at the top of the page