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Scott Rosenberg, Writer of The New 'Jumanji' Franchise, Part II: Producing, Directing, And Playing With Cow Brains

December 12, 2019
6 min read time
“There’s nothing harder than producing hour-long television.”

So declared Scott Rosenberg, writer of feature films like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and Con Air. In "Part I: From Indie Specs to Blockbusters and Back," we covered a number of Rosenberg’s silver screen credits, breaking the rules, and balancing work and family. Now we’ll look at some of the many television shows on his résumé.

Currently, Rosenberg produces several shows through his production company, Midnight Radio. 

“There’s nothing harder in the world,” he stated again. 

“When you’re doing a movie, you’re writing the movie; and then you’re casting the movie, and then you’re hiring department heads, and then you go shoot the movie, and then you’re scoring the movie. On a television show, you’re doing all those things but at the same time because you’re casting one, you’re shooting another; you’re prepping a third, you’re post on a fourth, you’re scoring a fifth. It’s sick.”

His first forays into television include October Road and Life on Mars for ABC. October Road revolves around an author returning to his hometown and the people he based his book on. Starring Bryan Greenberg and Laura Prepon, it ran for two seasons.

Life on Mars, adapted from a BBC show in 2008, sends an honest New York cop (Jason O’Mara) time-traveling back to the corrupt world of the NYPD in the 1970s. This surreal procedural fortunately was granted a satisfying conclusion at the end of its only season.

Rosenberg started Midnight Radio with longtime friends and fellow writers André Nemec, Josh Appelbaum and Jeff Pinkner. All three worked with J.J. Abrams, and Appelbaum and Nemec co-created October Road, Life on Mars and Happy Town with Rosenberg. The company launched with Zoo, a show Rosenberg described as “summer popcorn” that lasted three seasons on CBS.

“What did we used to pitch it as? ‘But with animals...’” He struggled to remember, running through zombie flicks. “Oh, World War Z with animals! Instead of zombies it was all the animals in the world decide that they don’t like us and they wanna kill us.”

Most production companies are run by actors, directors or others who don’t necessarily write. So “there’s a tremendous comfort factor for the network and the studio to know that it’s writer-based,” Rosenberg asserted, “because if for some reason scripts don’t come in well, we can backstop everything.”

The company is focused on television, diving headlong into the new media landscape with series on multiple platforms. Among its productions are such diverse shows as History’s Knightfall, exploring the world of the Knights Templar in the 1300s, and Netflix’s Everything Sucks!, a delightful high school comedy.

One of Midnight Radio’s highest profile shows is Limetown, which recently premiered on Facebook Watch with Jessica Biel in the lead. Based on a podcast, the show follows a journalist investigating the mysterious disappearance of 300 people at a neuroresearch facility. 

Rosenberg is confident in the sustainability of the world of streaming. The workload is tough on him and his colleagues, though. 

“We split everything four ways, with the idea being that we have a better shot of having some show land and be a hit if we put more out there,” he said. But they are “stretched thin because we’re all still writing movies as well.”

And how is this expansive new landscape shaping up for writers? 

“Oh, my god, it’s amazing,” he crowed. The bubble may burst at some point as the market reaches capacity of course but “for now, there’s just hundreds and hundreds of shows. And all those shows need writers.”

Another show, in production in New Zealand for Netflix, just made the news. Cowboy Bebop, a live-action version of the popular anime space Western, stars John Cho as a cooler-than-life cowboy leading a sketchy gang of bounty hunters as they chase criminals across the solar system. But Cho suffered an injury on set that has put production temporarily on hold, possibly for several months.

A setback of this magnitude would send most producers into a tailspin of recasting, rescheduling and countless other fixes. But, as far as Rosenberg is concerned, “there is nothing to do except get him well. Shut down for as long as it takes and use the time to continue post on the episodes shot and work on the scripts of the episodes to come.”

And everyone is anticipating the series reboot of High Fidelity. The show gender-swaps the main role, landing Zoë Kravitz in what was John Cusack’s romantically challenged character in the original Nick Hornby film adaptation. 

High Fidelity was a no-brainer for me because I was one of the writers of the movie,” Rosenberg reasoned. “That’s totally in my world.”

Midnight Radio has a gatekeeper who filters pitches before taking it to the top. If the project is approved, the two partners who respond with the greatest enthusiasm take it on, work with the writer to hone the pitch, and scout around for potential venues. In the case of High Fidelity, creators Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka pitched the show as their dream project.

Like many new shows with shorter seasons, High Fidelity has a smaller writers room than many traditional shows, about seven people total. 

“I love a smaller room,” remarked Rosenberg. “The bigger the room, the slower the go. More voices, more people talking. More people shooting down good ideas.”

The show premieres, quite appropriately, on Valentine’s Day 2020 on Hulu. The next Jumanji movie, Jumanji: The Next Level, comes out shortly before Christmas. And Rosenberg is considering adding directing to his credits, possibly with the original thriller feature script he just finished. 

“I’ve always been curious about it ... To do something that terrifies me — it seems like the right thing to do.”

Why would a veteran writer-producer who has spent his adult life on sets find directing intimidating? 

“When I sit down behind the computer I am the most confident, arrogant, cocky– I know exactly what I’m doing.” But he readily confessed that directing doesn’t come naturally to him. “Like, I don’t know how I’d cover this scene right now of you and I talking,” Rosenberg said.

Working with inferior directors might boost many people’s confidence in their own abilities, but not his. 

“I look at the amazing ones and go, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do what they do.’” But it seems like a logical thing to try at this point in his career.

Rosenberg adds that fear holds a lot of writers back from what they claim they want to do. 

“You never fail until you try,” he said. 

So if an aspiring writer finishes a script that doesn’t go over well, “all of a sudden you’ve lost your sense of place, your sense of self. But if you don’t write it, then you get to always be, ‘I’m working on the screenplay. I’m working on the screenplay.'”

The immediacy and instant gratification of today’s culture make it more difficult for people to accept how much work this path entails. Headlines about writers selling spec scripts don’t help, either.

“It creates this belief that, ‘Oh, god, I can do that. It’s easy. All I need to do is write a script and then I’ll become a screenwriter.’ And it’s a lot harder than that,” Rosenberg said.

“Again, I wrote 10 scripts before one was ready for prime time.”

A frequent festival panelist, he regularly warns people that their first screenplay is not going to be good. But “nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to hear that because they worked so hard.” Instead, people now tend to expect everyone to read their first attempt and tell them it’s amazing.

“It’s about learning a craft like anything else. You wouldn’t operate on a brain until you operated on a bunch of cow brains first ... and that’s what those first scripts are. Those first four, five, six scripts that you write” — a chuckle — “they’re cow brains,” Rosenberg said.

“That’s what your headline of the story is.” 

Rosenberg cracked up but persisted with the vivid metaphor: “People are avoiding the cow brain. You cannot circumvent the cow brain.”

He said he believes that “most people know if they genuinely have the goods, deep down.” The advice Rosenberg gives writers trying to break in is oft-heard but sage: “Watch a lot of movies. Watch a lot of old movies. Read fiction. Don’t just read scripts. But most importantly is, figure out a story that is deeply personal and deeply specific to you.”

It doesn’t matter what the genre or the plot is. 

“It can be The Matrix! But if there are elements that come directly from your life, from your struggles, from your triumphs, from your journey, then that is what’s gonna set it apart,” he said.

“You can’t chase what you think they’re gonna want. You just can’t. You just gotta write what’s true to you and then hope that it’s true to everybody else.”

And don’t skip those cow brains.
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