It was a dark and stormy night, seriously a pop thunderstorm poured down moments before I called talented writer and Co-Creator of iZombie Diane Ruggiero-Wright. After a couple of tech glitches, a little bit of puppy pee, and a wonderful conversation about detective television shows I was able to pick the brain of one of the people behind the creation of the show that brought the writers of The Nerdy Girl Express together.
How did you get your start in TV writing?
“I was a writer, just for myself *laughs*, I was waitressing in New Jersey. I wanted to be a screenwriter, but I didn’t go to college or school for it. I had a customer that I was waiting on, who I developed a friendship with, and after about a year he asked what I really did besides waitressing. I said I’m a writer and he said I’m a writer too. I totally thought “a writer, yeah whatever,” and totally blew him off. Then another year went by and I was waiting on another customer, who knew I wanted to be a writer, who said I know this successful writer and I blew him off too. Then I saw them sitting together after another year and I said “You’re the accomplished writer he was talking about?” He had wanted to read something of mine and I didn’t really have anything. I had a really long bout of writer’s block, so I only had ten pages. His name was Mark St. Germain, he had written on The Cosby Show and he’s predominantly a very successful playwright, though also still a television writer. He read the first ten pages of this feature and he put me on a writing schedule. Every Tuesday he would come in and I would give him more pages, then when I had finished the script he gave it to his agent and they picked me up. The agent gave it to Nora Ephron, who had Columbia Pictures buy it for her and I had sold this pilot for a movie. Because I was this waitress who sold a movie I got a lot of press, a lot of articles, about “The Waitress Who Sold a Script.” I went back to college at about 25, 26, I went for a little while after high school and then I was just working. One article just mentioned I was a waitress who sold a script and that I went to college then. It just worked out that CBS was looking to do a show, like a combination of Thirtysomething and Felicity. A producer named Anita Addison was on vacation and happened to have my feature, someone had given it to her to read. She happened to see this article about how I had gone back to school and she thought this woman would be perfect for this. They asked someone to do this pilot and I pitched them a story based somewhat on my life, but mostly on people I know and my family life. I wound up selling it and it was this show called That’s Life. It was my first time ever writing anything for TV, I didn’t even know what the format was. They had to send me examples of TV shows. We made the pilot, it got picked up for a series, and it was on the air for two year. It was completely insane, I literally went from waitressing to meetings in my black and whites with my backpack. I’d be meeting with people from like Jersey Film and Michael Keaton and I’m still waitressing. I had this script out there and I had this pilot. It was like a month and I was just out in Los Angeles shooting a pilot. Though that wasn’t my first TV show, that’s a lie, the first show I wrote I was a little kid. I wrote 7 pages where Charlie’s Angels took the Love Boat to Fantasy Island and I just thought that would be a really good idea. There was a hockey component, the Devils weren’t in New Jersey yet so it was the Rangers. I had something like the Rangers doing an ice show on the boat. I wrote this whole crazy thing and that was really, technically, the first TV I ever wrote *laughs*.”
Did you ever think you’d be writing a show about a zombie when you started writing for TV?
“It’s so funny because there was a time last year where I supposed to write a Wonder Woman comic, but that sort of fell through (Interviewer’s note: I would so read that comic!). I just thought I so desperately want to go back in time to tell myself as a kid “You’re totally going to marry a super cute guy and have an awesome baby, be writing a show about zombies, and have a Wonder Woman comic.” Like my ten year old self would explode. If I found myself at my most tween angst-y depressed self, d I would just be like “hey, your life is going to turn out awesome.” I have always been a comic book fan so the dream would be more you’re going adapt a comic book than it would be specifically zombies. I’ve always had more science fiction desires, which is funny because that is never the stuff that they would pitch to me. They would always have me meet for these shows about fashion or the girl works at a fashion magazine. Like, have you met me, I’m like the least fashionable person *laughs.* Give me half a werewolf and a flying saucer and I’d be gold. It was really nice to be involved with something that I’d watch even if I weren’t.”
How did the idea for iZombie the show evolve?
“Warner Brothers had the comic and they liked the title and the idea of there being a cute young zombie among people that no one knows is a zombie. That was basically what they were interested in. They approached Rob Thomas with it and science fiction, genre stuff like that, isn’t normally his thing, but he was intrigued and he knew it was my thing. We had worked together on Veronica Mars and we worked really well together. We had written a movie and another pilot, we’d just got done working on the Veronica Mars movie and because we work so well together he called and said “Look at this comic and tell me if you’d be interested.” I said “I’m interested, you had me at the title. I’m completely on board.” I read it and we knew we couldn’t do it completely, like we couldn’t make the comic a show because there was too much crossover with things that already existed and the production value would be way too expensive. We knew we’d be going a different route and we just started working on it. We didn’t want it to be like Touched by a Zombie, like every week she eats a brain and reunites someone with their lost relative. We wanted there to be a criminal element and actually Dan Etheridge, one of our executive producers, came up with the idea of her being a medical examiner. We had come up with a few things where she was just working with a cop, I don’t remember quite how it happened. There was a crucial part of the development that probably should have come from me or Rob, *laughs*, but was totally Dan. We just started talking about it, who she was, what we thought would be fun, what we liked about the personality of the comic. So much of the tone and flavor of the comic is still in the show, even though they are different, it is still very clearly inspired by the comic.
At the time I was watching The Walking Dead like someone was paying me. I was like balls deep in The Walking Dead, I could not get enough of that show at the time. Not only would I watch the show, but I would literally watch the episode, then The Talking Dead, and I would rewatch the episode. All I wanted to do was talk about the episode for the week leading up to the next one. I would just always be thinking about what I would do, and what they did, if I was presented with that situation. I was always thinking of my plan in the zombie apocalypse, I spent far too much time thinking about zombies and what to do in the apocalypse. It was like my major past time. It was so much fun to talk about a show in which that sort of stuff existed in pop culture so you weren’t writing like “Oh what are zombies?” It was a world where things like 28 Days Later exists and you could poke fun at it. Really any time where you can have horror and science fiction elements and humor is my sweet spot. Bob Dearden, who actually set up this interview, he had worked on the Veronica Mars movie. He was in the room with us a lot and it was just nice to knock around ideas for it.” (Interviewer’s Note: Shout out to Bob for the work he did for me and Stacy Miller to set up this interview, you rock Bob!)
What’s it like being in the iZombie Writing Room?
“To tell you the truth, while I can tell you what it’s like, I’m not in the room as much as a lot of other people because I do a lot of writing. Rob calls me his writer monkey *laughs.* Our room is great. Rob is the world’s best show runner, I’m not just saying that because I work with him. There are so many skill sets you have to have to be a show runner and he has all of them in spades. It’s fun and funny. We crack jokes a lot. The way it’s typically like is we come in and we have our thing that we’re working on for the day. At the beginning of the season we normally talk about the arcs of the season, where we want to end up. What’s Liv’s journey for the season? What is the arc of the season? What’s going to happen in the world in this season? What’s going to push everything off so we can do the following season? We always talk about the ends of the season and the beginning of the next season at the beginning of a season *laughs*. We plan out where we think it’s going and the season long arcs for the show itself. Then we break it down by character and what’s going on with them. Once we have it arced out, all the arcs: Liv’s Peyton’s, Ravi’s, Major’s, Clive’s, what’s going on with the zombies, what’s going on with the world. Once we have it all mapped out for the year, then we start thinking about episodes. Once we get into that we know what B and C stories we need to happen to facilitate the season long arc. Then we look at what we have for that episode and say we have to accomplish this for Ravi’s arc and we need to accomplish this for the zombie arc and here’s where Liv is at romantically. What brain is a good compliment to that or what brain wouldn’t be counterintuitive to this.
At the beginning of the season writers come in with brain ideas or brain pitches. They might have just a brain pitch or they might have a whole murder mystery pitch. Once we have all the arcs down we pair them up with a brain. For example, because we knew we only had a short time for Liv and Major to be on brains together, that’s why when I had the idea for Daddy/Daughter brains it had to be episode two. We knew Major would go off with Fillmore-Graves and we wouldn’t have a lot of time within the season for that. It also gave us a chance to do the Clive story because we knew we wanted to learn more about Clive this season. It all worked out for this season to have this space for Clive’s story.
Sometimes you just don’t have brains that go with the story of what Liv’s doing. Like I’ve been pitching Liv on hockey goon brain forever, but it’s never worked out, like we can’t have Liv dopey and quick to fight. We need her to be kind of smart, not that hockey players aren’t smart, but specifically that type of goon character. It is challenging. I love the brains, that’s my favorite part of the show. I like to write the brains, I like the brains to be heavy in every scene, but you can’t really do that. That’s why it’s good to have Rob, he kind of reigns it in. Like I would have had Liv and Major on Daddy/Daughter brains for like half the season if it was me. It’s good that Rob is there to make the story progress.
We’ve done some different stuff with the brains this season, I won’t spoil anything, but there are some episodes where it’s a different kind of sense, like nothing we’ve done in the past. Sometimes it’s light on the brains and sometimes it’s heavy on the brains.”
On the topic of brains, what have been some of your favorites so far?
“I loved her on Real Housewife brain, that was Kit Boss’ episode. There’s some coming up that I really like that I don’t want to spoil for you. I liked her a lot on positivity brain. I think my favorite one is frat bro brain. I did enjoy her on stoner and cheerleader, though I sound like a jerk because I’m totally saying all of mine *laughs*. I really enjoyed Superhero brain, that was pretty fun. I liked getting to see her kick some ass. Those are some of my favorites.”
If you could pick any of the brains to be on for a day, which one would you pick?
“Completely superhero brain. I feel like I’m already on frat bro brain half the time *laughs*. That would be the most fun for me, superhero brain. People have asked if there was any brain I’d like to be on and now, if the person had to be dead, I mean Prince’s brain. Who wouldn’t want to have flashes of Prince’s life? Experience what it’s like to be Prince, be that talented, or David Bowie, or go long, Carrie Fisher. Those are the brains that I wouldn’t mind experiencing, like I’d love to be on the set of Star Wars or playing for a sold out Nassau Coliseum for the Purple Rain tour, like that would not suck at all *laughs*.”
Since you were involved in one of my other favorite shows, Veronica Mars, what was that like?
“It was so much fun, it was a hard show, like the mysteries were hard to break, but I had the best time. Rob and I worked really well together and it was so much fun to write that character. It was the most fun in the world. I wish I knew then that that was going to be the most fun I was going to have. Even working on the movie, I had just had the baby and I was writing like crap, and Rob called and asked me to work on the movie. I said that’s really nice, but I’m writing like crap and I’m hopped up on baby juice and he said get back to writing Veronica and it’ll be absolutely fine. He was totally right. I got back there and it was the most fun. Also writing for Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni, it’s a dream. Like what you hope it can be, it’s like that and better. They escalate everything you do to such a height and you think that you’re so much better than you are *laughs.* It was the best, it was so much fun. I will always have a fond place in my heart for her and I love Veronica Mars fans because I feel understood by them. I feel like these are the people who have seen the window into my soul and have loved it *laughs.*”
What was it like bringing Kristen Bell in for an episode of iZombie?
“That was another brain I really liked, that script came out really great. Rob had called and asked her to do it and I hadn’t been able to talk to her. It was fun just to have her involved in some way. I have such great affection for Kristen whenever she does something, like when I see her in a commercial I’m like awwww. I feel like she’s a little sister or something so whenever I see her or hear her I’m excited. It was also fun just to know she had this raunchy little section to read and I’m sure she enjoyed that a lot.”
Have you ever tried the brains on the show?
“I tried them during the pilot and they hadn’t locked it down yet. Then it was like this weird kind of tofu consistency. I’m a vegetarian and even I was like this is a weird, unappetizing consistency. Now it’s a little bit more like a thick frosting, but I don’t sample them frequently. Another thing that’s great fun is figuring out what Liv is going to eat. People always seem to enjoy that. In the pilot I really wanted to see her like shaking the plastic container, like in Edgar Rice’s Pops, and I was so sure I came up with all of it. I went back and there was in the comic a picture that was very similar. This thing I thought was all me, was inspired by the comic. The fried fritter thing was fun.” (Interviewer’s Note: Diane stated she kept thinking of season three brains and to save me from spoilers, did say that the ones coming up are really good. We did agree that the tomato brain was great in the Housewife brain episode. Also expect some episode inspired recipes, I was informed there are easy and fun ones I should totally be able to pull off).
If you were a zombie would you be Team Tan and Dye or Team Au Naturale?
“Oh this is so hard. I feel like I would go au naturale, but I’m afraid that would make me look super old *laughs*. I just don’t think I could pull it off, I think I’d have to be Team Tan and Dye.”
What are your thoughts on the rest of the season?
“I feel like this season is unexpected. There’s a few things that people are just going to be like “Whaaat?” and that they just won’t see coming. Rob definitely likes to fly along, like there’s no jerking around for a couple episodes, things get answered, things move forward. I think people are going to be excited about what happens. It’s very surprising and a lot of changes. A lot of changes in Seattle and for Liv. There’s people that know in her world now and we know there are other people like her that exist, so it’s opened the world up.”
A huge thank you to Diane Ruggiero-Wright for this interview, I had a wonderful time talking with you, and to Bob Dearden for setting this all in motion. You can find her on Twitter, @rugz19, and you can follow the iZombie Writers, @iZombieWriters. We’re looking forward to seeing what else season three has in store for us!
If you enjoyed this interview make sure to check out our other iZombie themed articles, including recaps, previews, and brain recipes.
Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on Twitter, @thenerdygirlexp. You can find me on Twitter, @kleffnotes, on my blog, kleffnotes.wordpress.com, on my kleffnotes YouTube channel, and I run The Nerdy Girl Express Snapchat, thenerdygirlexp.