‘The Terminal List’ showrunner empowers his writers room to create great TV
July 8, 2022
The Terminal List wasn’t a piece of intellectual property that David DiGilio owned. Instead, he was offered the opportunity to pitch his perspective on the show and get hired on as showrunner. What he brought to the table was both experience and his idea to take the military/political thriller novel by Jack Carr and add a psychological thriller element to it.
The Terminal List stars Chris Pratt as James Reece, a Navy SEAL whose entire team is ambushed during a covert mission leaving much of his platoon dead. When he returns home, he struggles to remember the events and whether he is responsible for their failure. As Reece chases after information, he slowly finds there are nefarious players in the government who want to keep things in the dark, at any cost.
Carr’s thriller was published in 2018 and garnered much attention in Hollywood. Pratt had received an early script from a friend, Jared Shaw, who was a former SEAL and who also plays the character Boozer in the show. He insisted Pratt take this on as his next role.
However, Pratt wouldn’t be the only one who wanted to make this project. There was a small bidding war between his production company, Indivisible Productions and Fuqua Films (Antoine Fuqua's company). Instead of competing though, the two decided to team up to make The Terminal List.
Soon, they realized the scope of the book was way too big to fit into a two-hour movie. They needed an experienced showrunner to make it into a viable series – enter David DiGilio.
“I got the project as an Open Writing Assignment and was blown away by the look inside the military class on the page,” DiGilio recalls upon reading the novel. He adds, “There was something going on in Reece’s head and I responded to the notion of taking that concept and dialing it up.”
DiGilio pitched the concept of a military thriller becoming a psychological thriller where the truth is constantly in question. The producers liked it, and then pitched it to Carr who approved.
Bad timing, good results
The Terminal List was officially sold the week in March 2020 when most of the world seemed to shut down because of the pandemic.
DiGilio recalls, “We were one of the first Zoom rooms going after COVID started. We had an amazing room, which included a former Special Ops guy and lots of character-driven writers who understand action.”
They worked in the virtual writer’s room for most of 2020 leading into the prep for shooting by the end of the year. They started shooting in 2021.
Adapting for the screen
The most important aspect of adaptation according to DiGilio is honoring the material and using what makes it special while also finding the areas you can add that surprise existing fans.
“For example, we used the psychological element and [introduced] the unreliable narrator narrative. I was making sure to not change the character and honoring the military authenticity [that] Carr put on the page,” DiGilio explains. The intention was to have the psychological element as a surprise and delight for both the book fans and TV fans alike.
Writers often desire to make everything their own instead of building on what has been established. DiGilio advises writers to fight that urge and not change anything too much.
DiGilio, like many creators, believes in character first. Even in existential action films like those made famous by Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, where the themes have to be as big as the set pieces, it’s important to connect with people on an audience level.
“It’s why I do TV over movies,” DiGilio states. There is more freedom in a series to explore characters. He starts with creating character bios and their arcs, then builds out the story. He continues, “It is a delicate dance because the two inform each other.”
DiGilio starts with a very detailed outline, something he learned early in his TV career because showrunners must ensure everyone in the room is on the same page. His outlines often exceed 15 pages, all done in Final Draft.
As rigid as this may seem, DiGilio also believes you can’t dictate a room – you must empower the writers in the room.
“Everyone is going to bring something special to the page,” DiGilio says. “The first draft might not be in your voice yet but if you play a collaborative part, by the time you’re doing a showrunner pass, it’s in good shape because you taught the room the voice and your vision.”
“Empowering gets you something far better,” he shares.
Advice on collaboration and genre
If DiGilio is taking a single lesson away from his experience with The Terminal List, it’s that the good guys can win.
He says of his experience, “Pratt is an incredible person. Fuqua is an incredible filmmaker and family man. There is such a tremendous level of positivity and good human nature behind the cast and crew and producing team on this show. Tremendous work comes when everyone brings positivity.”
“It’s important to understand who you’re in the foxhole with when creating TV because it’s a battle to get great stuff made,” DiGilio mentions. To ensure there are no bad apples in the bunch, he offers his own NANA rule: No A**holes Need Apply. Simply put: collaborate with good people.
For writers itching to write the next great thriller, DiGilio believes the thriller is one of the best traditions in Hollywood so he suggests looking at the classics like we look at history, such as doing a deep dive on Hitchcock. This means not just watching the movie but breaking it down scene by scene so you can see character work, structure, and not just what is being said but left unsaid.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.