You’re Never Smarter Than Your Audience
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Frank Spotnitz. Photo courtesy of Big Light Productions
Art + Stories, Opinions

You’re Never Smarter Than Your Audience

An Interview with Frank Spotnitz
Dariusz Kuźma
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time 11 minutes

“I think this golden age everyone is talking about is already gone. […] There’s an awful lot of bad TV now that is unremarkable and easily forgotten. At the same time, there’s probably more good shows than there have ever been, just because so much work is being done. I think the challenge now is that it’s very difficult to stand out and to have the impact that television used to have back in the old days when it was broadcast over the airwaves,” says the television writer and executive producer Frank Spotnitz, whose résumé includes work on The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle.

Dariusz Kuźma: I know that you do not like using the term ‘showrunner’ to describe your work as a screenwriter and producer, but it became so popular that I would like to start our conversation with defining what exactly a ‘showrunner’ is.

Frank Spotnitz: The term ‘showrunner’ came about in the US in the 1990s and means the lead writer/producer. The reason I don’t like the word is because it feels a little bit too self-congratulatory to me. To say that you are a person who runs the show. I may be the lead writer and producer, but there’s a lot of other writers and producers working alongside me who also run the show. It is true, however, that if you’re the showrunner, you’re in charge; you are the decision maker. What’s unique about the showrunner system in Hollywood is that the lead producer is also a writer. Whereas in Europe the lead producer is almost never a writer – they are exclusively a producer, hiring writers and directors. In Hollywood, it used to be the same, really, until the 1990s when the networks and the studios combined, and they wiped out many independent producers. Their way of thinking was that they didn’t see the need to have non-writing producers in charge of shows. That’s when the showrunner system took off.

You were a part of this system and you have observed the evolution of the industry throughout the last 25 years. How did the job change from The X-Files to, say, The Man in the High Castle

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Carmen Gray

In the ‘90s, experiencing arthouse cinema involved a walk to the video store to select a VHS cassette from its small “foreign” section. At least, it did in Dunedin, the student-dominated but isolated city in New Zealand’s south island (literally the end of the world, you might say), where I went to university. Outside the annual film festival, which brought more obscure titles to the big screen, there were few places to discover anything beyond mainstream releases. But rare bites of arthouse were all the more vivid in their scarcity, manifesting out of a void of context like mysterious apparitions. I remember as if it were yesterday our scandalized delight around Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, when it screened at the festival. Just learning such a film existed, and that the limits of art were not where we’d previously presumed them to be, was revolutionary – and if this, then what else was waiting?

This was a pre-download and streaming era, before half of life was lived online. The wider world felt a whole less accessible, and a whole more exotic, and that included Europe, where I (like most of my peers) had never been. Among the handful of European auteurs we did know about, was Krzysztof Kieślowski. His films A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love had a cult following. If memory serves, he was my first gateway into the arthouse of Central and Eastern Europe (at any rate, I wasn’t to come across the likes of Věra Chytilová or Sergei Parajanov for years yet). We didn’t have any grounding in the slower and more oblique end of arthouse, but we didn’t need it for Kieślowski, and he spoke to something else – a teenage taste for that whiff of danger that turned transgression and alienation into a source of fascination. Tarantino’s indie spectacles of lawlessness Reservoir Dogs and True Romance were all the rage, as was the rootless amorality of Mike Leigh’s Naked, and books by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, with their anti-establishment hellions. It wasn’t a stretch to embrace the extremity of A Short Film About Killing, with its disaffected drifter and his shocking crime, or A Short Film About Love, and its perverse, taboo obsession.

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