A conversation with showrunner Max Borenstein.
At this year's Austin Film Festival, I learned three things about showrunner Max Borenstein:
We met for coffee on a rainy afternoon in Austin, and we talked all about his award-winning HBO series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. He also gave clues into his robust development process, including for his four movies set in the MonsterVerse (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Kong).
Max has ample experience researching and plotting story for both TV and film, and he shares tips on that process below! Keep reading for insider information into your favorite shows, as well as analogies that will blow your writerly minds.
PR: You've worked on some projects with pretty big, specific worlds. When you're approaching a project, how do you go about building out the world?
MB: Research. I start by reading a lot of things and sort casting as wide a net as I can. I loved taking history classes in college, and so I think, for me, there's a whole phase of every project where I'm just sort of gathering stuff, not knowing exactly where it's going to land, and taking notes. Then, a little story starts to coalesce, but you end up having a larger canvas around that just because you've been gathering and gathering and gathering possible stuff, you know?
PR: How do you filter through all the things that you've learned and researched to make a story?
MB: You know, you just sort of start to have an instinct about it. There's like a magical thing that happens as you collect and collect and collect research: some starts to hang on. I think what happens is, as you're gathering a bunch of different things, if you know basically what the story is, then some things start to magnetize to the spine of it, and other things don't. Usually, too much stuff gathers.
It's like if you imagine… Have you ever seen a magnet with a bunch of filaments? If you have metal shavings on a table, and then you have a spine that is magnetic… [The shavings will] gather. Right? And at the least, [the spine will] pull [the shavings] closer… And, [the shavings will] either come right and glom onto [the spine] because they feel core, or they'll start to edge towards it cause they feel adjacent.
And so, you have to have a strong sense of what the movie is, or what the show is. And then as you're researching, things will sort of start catching in the filter, or they'll pass right through.
PR: For Winning Time, specifically, since it's based on real people and a real story, what did pitching ideas look like in that room?
MB: We had to figure out what the point of telling that story was. Which is like that magnet at the core, right? We had to think about “why are we doing this?” Not just “because it happened”: that wasn't a good enough pitch. It had to hit the magnet of what we decided the story was about. Why we thought it was worth being a television show in the big, large sense, and then also in the individual sense of why you were telling any individual stories that were connected to that larger story. And so, that was the sort of filter we put it through... We wouldn't put things in the show, even if they happened, if the only reason we put them in was because they happened. They had to make it into the show because they happened and they fit the idea of why we wanted to tell this story.
For us, it was a story about the origin of the NBA and the modern NBA as a kind of origin story for the place we are at in our country, you know, socially, culturally... So how did each of those little stories speak to it, right? How did the journey of Jerry West, Jerry Buss, [and] Magic Johnson, how did they kind of contribute to our take on what this story has to say about what it is to have this kind of ambition in America today coming from different places, different classes, different races, different genders?... How does that speak to why we're telling that story 40 years later? So everything in the room is kind of filtered through that lens. Yeah, I think it's - it's the job of the showrunner to articulate what the show is about.
Finding your way into a Story:
PR: I want to ask about Godzilla, which is such a big, Blockbuster movie. How did you find your individual window into this story?
MB: I mean, I think that's always sort of the most important thing for me, and for a big movie like [Godzilla], it's like, sometimes the parts of it that are myself are hard for anyone but me to recognize. With that movie, when I decided to even pursue it as a job, it was because I found something in the original Godzilla movie that connected with me, and I was interested in exploring it in a modern way. I was looking at it as a disaster movie, and I felt like it related to… it wasn't that long after 9/11 and [Hurricane] Katrina, and it felt like we lived in a world of these large disasters that felt so beyond our control. Godzilla felt like an interesting metaphor for that, and Gareth Edwards, who was the director, responded to that as well. So that became the genesis of that first movie.
I would say, with Winning Time, it was a little easier to find my way in, or more natural because I grew up in LA… I'm deeply attracted to telling stories about LA, and I have opinions about what that means to me… I remember people like the characters, like when I write Jerry Buss, I'm thinking of my dad. And so I think it's moving to me when Jeannie Buss is moved by the portrayal of her dad because my dad just passed away last year, and in writing Buss, I see my dad, too. And that's what I'm writing it from. I'm using outlines of that real person and fitting it in, but I'm channeling someone that I knew.
PR: When you see the plethora of stories told about LA, is there anything you feel is missing that you still want to talk about?
MB: Well, I don't know that there are that many stories told about LA. There are a lot of stories set there… I think the difference is some are set there 'cause people have moved there and it happens to be there, right?
PR: That's a good distinction to make, set in LA versus about LA.
MB: Yeah, I mean, that wouldn't be the first thing people say about Winning Time, but, to me, it's the thing that comes to my mind… And I happen to be a Lakers fan, but in that case of the Lakers, I said to Jim, “Why are we telling it?” Because there's an infinite plethora of things that happen, and your job, in doing a dramatized version, is to find things that are gonna benefit from what you're able to do in an artistic treatment of it.
Plotting a Season of Television:
PR: This is more of a technical question, but when you're plotting a season around a certain spine or story, what is that process like for you? How do you go about setting the hook on each episode and deciding how many episodes are in a season?
MB: I think, for me, it starts, usually, more broadly: you just have a sense of what that initial arc might be. And that all comes from having done some research. If it's literally a true story, you're literally doing research. But even if it's not, you're doing a version of research: people are generating ideas, and then you start to see what starts to fit and what starts to fall in line.
I think it's the process I was talking about: If you have a strong enough magnetic core, then as people are shaving off the metal filaments, you'll find some are metal, [and] they cling, and others are wood, and they don't, and then, some are in the middle, and they kind of move towards it. Then, at every iteration, it's that same process of filtering down the creative. You then decide roughly where that season breaks up into episodes. You take an episode and you start doing the same thing for that episode. And then, eventually, it'll be the same thing for scenes. And eventually, in the edit, you're gonna do the same thing for moments.
Starting fresh is this kind of crazy thing. You don't have anything, and then you just need to find a thing. Once you have a thing, you can find maybe another thing. And once you have two things, you have a line. You know, and then once you have, you know, another couple of things around the line, you can create a shape.
PR: Are you good at math or geometry?
MB: Not really, but I can metaphor.
Austin Film Festival:
PR: Last question: I was curious why you decided to come to the Austin Film Festival. Do you do festivals like this often?
MB: It's, it's funny, I don't do them that often, but this is just a wonderful one that's like focused on writers. So, I first came maybe seven or eight years ago, and there was a group of friends that - we're all in LA, but we don't all hang out all that often - So, we try to come back here because it's an opportunity to hang out. That's sort of, for me, that's why I keep coming back.
Thank you so much, Max, for taking the time to chat with me! Your advice is endlessly helpful, and hope to see you at the festival next year. Thank you to Alexa for coordinating! xx