The Greenhouse has creative artists involved from all over the world, so we want to shine a spotlight on our various members so you can get to know them and all they’re up to.
The Greenhouse’s Shun Lee Fong recently sat down with Mark Grossardt, who spends his time screenwriting and in film post-production (editing & motion graphics), and who is a Greenhouse member residing in Denver, Colorado. The two of them had a long conversation in which Mark shared his thoughts about his current projects, handling criticism, and his passion for exploring deep themes through science fiction…
SLF: How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
MG: My first job out of college was at a small production house. One of my coworkers there was also a film geek, he more interested in the cinematography end of things, me more interested in the story creation and post-production end. In addition to all the projects we produced for our corporate clients, we also ended up shooting a short together. All that experience helped me understand everything that goes into content creation, while also helping me discover that my true passion lies in writing.
SLF: What projects have you worked on that you are most proud of?
MG: Some years back I was a part of a writers’ room tasked with creating a ten-part miniseries for a faith-based SVOD platform. The showrunner showed a huge amount of trust in
me by assigning me episode four, the penultimate episode, the final episode, and also co-writing the pilot. I think we turned in a great series that managed to explore faith-based themes in a real and unvarnished way, whereas so many faith-based projects can fall victim to… well, so many things that add up to bad storytelling. The producers loved the project, but funding fell through, so it’s still sitting on a shelf. Rumors are that they’re making another push to get it off the ground, so fingers crossed.
SLF: What are you working on now? Is there anything you need to help keep that project moving forward?
MG: I’m in the midst of converting a script that never quite worked as a feature into a pilot. For someone who no longer lives in L.A., I feel kind of silly focusing on TV right now, but I didn’t want to abandon the project all together. I’m not sure what additional assistance I need to get this thing across the finish line sooner. Can someone pick up my kids’ carpool so I have more time to write?
I’m also trying to push two completed projects out into the world: one, a weird little sci-fi drama feature that’s a twist on the alien abduction trope, and two, a zany middle-grade novel about a sixth-grader who gets inducted into the super-secret society that runs the world. Both of these projects need as many industry eyes on them as I can get, so if you know someone who might be interested in either type of project, feel free to reach out for more info.
MG: Hard to say. There are plenty of things that I would’ve loved to have written now that they’ve already been created. Obviously, it’d be great seeing one of my specs go into production. Most of Michael Crichton’s catalogue has been mined for the screen, but I’ve always thought that Prey had a really interesting premise that would make a great jumping off point for a cool techno-thriller. It’d be a tough nut to crack for the screen, but I’d appreciate that particular challenge.
SLF: What inspires you creatively? And why?
MG: The exploration of science. I want to know how the universe works. The world around us is simply natural revelation, so I want as much knowledge about it as possible in order to better understand the mind of God. Probing the discoveries of humanity’s great minds naturally leads to a lot of big philosophical questions that make for fertile story telling ground. How questions of faith go hand in hand with questions of science.
SLF: What is it about science fiction that draws you as a creative?
MG: I think that it’s the desire to know everything about everything. I just kind of a naturally curious person, and I want to know how things work. I think that kind of stems from the desire to know the mind of God and know how God works. You know, if God created all this and put all this in motion, like, by what mechanisms did He do all that? What are His rules? How does this all fit together? That naturally leads to an interest in science. I’m always just trying to learn new things that I didn’t know before about the way the world works, and a natural curiosity in science leads naturally into a propensity to tell stories in a science-fictiony vein.
SLF: I was reading a Wired magazine article a few years ago, and this particular article was talking about science fiction as a genre and saying that it may be the only genre left that allows for asking deep philosophical questions. Not just from a science perspective, but like, philosophy. Why are we here? Is there such a thing as purpose? How do we find that purpose? What do we do when we miss that purpose? All those things.
SLF: And my guess is that you probably have a lot of that inside of you as an artist as well.
MG: Yeah, I think so. It’s funny because, the more you study about scientists, the more you find that in their own personal lives, they run up against these big questions you’re talking about, and that’s part of what drives them in their own scientific pursuits. And I think you’re probably right that, boy, if you’ve got the big questions, this is the genre that makes sense to explain them.
I think that’s another part of what attracts me to science fiction is just that inkling of, “Could this really happen? Could this really be in our future? What if?”
SLF: There’s a realism to science fiction, even with some of the more bizarre science fiction out there, there’s a certain amount of realism. When you look at Star Trek and the things that Gene Roddenberry basically foretold, that we’re seeing now—back then it might have seemed fantastic, and yet here we are now.
MG: Yep. And Star Trek was all, I mean, it was nothing but social commentary just all wrapped up in, you know, phasers and Klingons and whatnot. It wasn’t even thinly disguised for the most part.
SLF: We did a live interview with Gene Roddenberry’s son (producer Rod Roddenberry) here at The Greenhouse, and I asked him, if he could have any particular technology from Star Trek in real life, what would it be? He ended up saying he wanted the replicator because if you remove need from people our society would be a different place, because suddenly the concept of need is done
away with. But then he thought for a second and said, “But then on the other hand, you could replicate an atomic bomb…” And I replied, “Yeah, because the problem with technology is that it tells you what you can do, but it doesn’t tell you what you should do.”
SLF: The moral, ethical – coming full circle to what we were talking about – the philosophical questions that still need to be answered.
SLF: (Laughs) It’s hard to have a story without both the moral and the immoral people.
MG: That is true.
SLF: You said that the themes you like to explore are how faith and science go hand in hand. We live in a culture that has largely dismissed that idea. Many people have instead embraced the idea that faith and science are polar opposites, that they have nothing to do with one another. What would you say to those people?
MG: That is one of the worldviews that maybe drives me the craziest. The people who would say that they are polar opposites or diametrically opposed and that you can’t espouse one thing without denying the other. To the core of my being I feel that is so wrong. Science is natural revelation, and I believe that we are here to probe our natural surroundings and to look at nature and the natural realm to find more clues about who God is and how He works. And so, where most of the world says here are these two things, and one’s over here and the other’s over here – I’m a firm believer that, no, they’re the same thing. I mean, science is a quest for truth, and God is ultimate truth. It’s a Venn diagram, it’s a circle.
I just wish that more people thought that way, or at least didn’t hold this antagonistic viewpoint in their heads. I guess in my storytelling I want to be able to express that idea that, no, it’s okay for the smartest people that you know, the best scientists in the world, would also have a close relationship with God, or at least a hunger to find out more about Him. That shouldn’t be a rarity. Back a few hundred years ago, all your best scientists of course were these deeply religious people who were trying to probe the mind of God, and this current atheistic view of science—I don’t know, I don’t understand it.
SLF: I think even some of the great science fiction writers, while they may not have had a lock on any particular religion or faith, they were asking the questions. Thinking of Star Trek, Roddenberry on many occasions delved into the question of the existence of God, what role does faith play in the scientific mind. Isaac Asimov was the same way; he asked those questions a lot, and not from a weird, kind of kooky, “let’s create our own religion” perspective, but an honest delving into that overlap that you were just talking about, that Venn diagram. “How do you find those two?” And conversely, many people of faith have been scientists or science fiction writers. Finding where that overlap is is part of the truth journey.
MG: I wish more people wouldn’t set up this false dichotomy and then try to adhere to a false dichotomy when they are trying to argue their position on one side or the other. It’s not productive, it’s false, and awful.
SLF: And it minimizes the quest for truth—
MG: Yes, absolutely.
SLF: —and the minute you minimize that, suddenly you are putting certain topics outside the realm of discussion and debate. And I think there’s – you know, we’ve talked about science fiction writers, but I think that even with people of faith there needs to be some more room for debate. Honest, charitable debate.
MG: Yes. And I think once you set up these two different sides and decide to stick to them, you become a dogmatist — is that a word? I’m using it — you become a dogmatist on either side. Ultimately, it’s going to close you off from ultimate truth, in one way or another. And that’s unfortunate.
SLF: And it sets up a perceived battle line, as if somehow people of faith are at war with people of science, and vice versa, when actually the clearest approach to it would be to say,
“Hey, we’re all in this together, we’re all trying to solve a common problem which is a lack of full understanding.”
MG: Yep, agreed.
SLF: What is the most important thing for a creative professional to know?
MG: Where the bathrooms are. And how to handle criticism.
SLF: How do you personally do that? How have you learned to handle criticism?
MG: Oh, boy, poorly, and not as quickly as I probably should have. And I’m still in the process of figuring out how to parse all of that. I think you need to… no matter how brilliant you are or how richly you have been gifted in creative talents, if you’re going to get into a creative industry, I think you need to understand, straight up, that you are going to be rejected and face harsh criticism far, far, far more often than you will receive any kind of praise.
I think the sooner you can come to terms with that fact and not let any of that rejection or criticism seep into you on a personal level, you’ll be a lot better off. You’ll become a lot more efficient creator and a lot happier creator because you’ll spend a lot less time worrying about all that stuff. Trying to take that criticism and rejection and giving it more importance than it deserves. You’re going to stop trying to mold yourself to try to fit that criticism and rejection. I mean, granted, a lot of that is going to be instructive, and yeah, you should take cues from some of that, but if you find yourself bending all of your creativity in order to satisfy some perceived rejection that’s out there, I’m not sure you’re going to produce anything great.
SLF: There’s a pain that comes with criticism.
MG: And it’s really, really hard to do. It’s easy to say, “Don’t worry about this stuff.” But it’s really hard to do, because we’re constantly told as creatives, “If you’re going to make anything good, you have to inject yourself into it, you have to put all of you into your works.” And so the works become fused to our personage in a certain way, so when people come along and attack that work, it’s no longer outside of ourselves—it is a piece of you. So they are literally attacking a piece of you.
SLF: And not just a piece of you; if you’ve done your job right as an artist — it’s the deepest and most real part of who you are.
MG: Right! The most vulnerable, delicate part of you, and the sword goes into it, and it’s bound to hurt. So, I understand it sounds silly to say, “Well, don’t let that sword that’s swimming around between your ribs there… ah, don’t worry about that!” I get it. It’s not easy. But I guess we have to find a way to heal quickly. Maybe that’s the answer: heal quicker. It’s okay to be injured, just heal quicker.
SLF: It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. And the healing process ultimately makes you become a better creative artist.
MG: I think so.
SLF: Although I’m sure there are exceptions to that. Where we see people who are not able to heal, and then it turns into an infection.
MG: Gosh, I would argue that that’s probably everybody. At least everybody has dealt with that. You know, some people never get out of that sepsis. It becomes a life-long sepsis. But I think the people who ultimately succeed in a fulfilling way do have a way to overcome that.
SLF: Not only are we as creatives in the position to receive criticism; we are also often put into the position of giving criticism. How would you approach the giving of criticism so that, even though you are driving the knife home, instead of it being the broadsword, it’s the scalpel?
MG: I, unfortunately, have been far too broadsword-ish than scalpel-ly. Ugh… you cut me deep! ‘Cause this is something that I’m not good at at all. And I look back on my life and anytime I’ve been put in a position of trying to give constructive criticism. I like to think that I have pretty tough skin, and so I just kind of have this assumption that anyone who is asking for my feedback on anything likewise will have very tough skin. It’s just kind of an assumption on my part, that, well, if they’re serious about this, they’ll be able to handle harsh criticism. Obviously, I never try to be mean about anything, but…
SLF: You’re not a mean guy.
MG: Well, I can act a good game…
MG: You know, if there are problems in a work that I see, then I generally want to get right to the problems and attack them head on and say, “Yeah, this is problematic, this is not good, and here’s why, and here’s what I think needs to happen about the change.” In my haste to fix the problems, I’m very, very bad about telling people what they’ve done really well and what is great about the project and what excites me about it. And that’s something I need to work on, because no matter what level of success you have achieved, part of the truth of this person’s work is that — for most people — there’s something really good about it, and they deserve the truth.
The truth is often, yeah, there are problems in here that need to be fixed, they can be fixed, but the other part of that truth is also, look, you’ve got something worthwhile here — most of the time — and you’ve got the talent and ability to make something worthwhile. Because with my own work, I’m always focused on the problems, I naturally port that over to evaluating other people’s work and say, “Okay, good stuff, yeah, blah, blah, blah, whatever, whatever. What we’re here to do is fix all the bad stuff.” And I should know better, but… I struggle!
SLF: All of us do.
MG: I don’t know… I haven’t been thrown out of all my writing groups yet… I must be with a bunch of gracious co-writers…
SLF: Tell us about your experience with The Greenhouse’s Catalyst Writers Group.
MG: I’m really enjoying it. The thing that maybe I was not expecting was how much I would grow to like the people I’m in the group with. This kind of comes from my results-oriented mindset of going into a writers group and thinking, “Okay, these are the people who are going to help me improve, and I’m going to do my best to help them improve, and these will essentially be transactional relationships.” And looking back on it, it’s silly that I would think that. (Laughs) I don’t know why I would have thought of it that way. I’ve really come to like the people I’ve been in groups with. I don’t know why I wouldn’t expect that to be the first thing I would think of: “Oh, I get to hang out with really cool people who have similar interests as I do, and other really talented people who have interesting projects going on that I want to know more about, and things that in some tiny way I may be able to help them realize these great things that they’re trying to do.” That’s been really nice.
SLF: How do you think about risk? What role has taking risks played in your life/career?
MG: Most of the creative work that ever made a dent in the world took risks and did something weird, new, or taboo. I try not to be afraid to take creative risks. Most projects will fail, but that’s just part of the game. The ones that are new and different and exciting might stand a chance. Work that takes no risks might not expose me to ridicule, but it also won’t excite anyone. Easier said than done, but I’m trying to be bolder in each new thing I write.
My philosophy changes when it comes to risking things in my life that I hold dear (family, stability, etc.) in pursuit of creative fulfillment. I still believe that an entrepreneurial spirit can lead to great rewards, but risks that could jeopardize other things in my life that I value need to be much more calculated. I don’t play the lottery unless I know I can rig it in my favor.
SLF: How do you recommend that people push themselves into taking risks?
MG: I think, probably, the first step is… the biggest artistic risk that you can take is that opening up of yourself and the vulnerability to let yourself into your work. Because I think we’ve all seen artistic works that you can tell are either derivative or by the numbers or uninspired. They’re facsimiles of other people’s work. And they might be very well done, and sometimes, unfortunately, in this industry that’s what you get the check for, but if you really want to make something that is going to move the needle and move somebody emotionally and connect with people in the way that hasn’t happened before, you’re just going to have to open yourself up and lay out some really vulnerable emotions and the things that are weighing on you as an individual and not be afraid to explore those things honestly and deeply.
It’s a big risk because it allows people a window into your psyche. And we’re all closed off to other people — I mean some of us to different degrees than others — but we’re only 100 percent honest with ourselves. And even then, maybe not. But you’re the most honest with yourself then, and if you can open that up and allow everybody a chance to peer into that… that’s scary. But I think it’s the only way to make something that is ever going to resonate, because you’re going to find there are other people out there who connect with the emotions and the things that drive you. And maybe that makes it a little bit less scary. I think that’s the first step… (Pauses) I want to say I had two steps, but I can’t think of the second one.
SLF: The second step is to repeat step one.
MG: (Laughs) Yeah… And I don’t want to paint it like I’m able to do this, like I’ve cracked the code and everything that I write now is just me bleeding out on the page for the whole world to see. No. (Laughs.) That’s super scary.
But I’m trying with each work that I create, trying to have a little bit of me that is honest and true, and no matter how messy it is, still not being afraid to put it on the page and let other people scrutinize it…
SLF: How do you do your best work? How do you recommend that other people do their best work?
MG: I haven’t figured it out yet. (Thinking.) I think I need a quiet space with few distractions. I think the general environment needs to be happy and healthy. In other words, the other things in my life need to be somewhat resolved, or put together, or free from chaos, I guess. And if all of the other things in my life can be relatively stable, then that allows my mind to focus on the work instead of spinning about other things in my life.
Now, we’ll never be granted a life that is free from strife and stress and strain and influences and other things we’re going to have to deal with. As creatives, we have to learn how to push through that, I think. And once you come out of those potentially dark periods, that can be great fodder for creative works. So I don’t know… There’s got to be a balance there, and me personally, I’m not great at finding that balance. At least not now. So I don’t know… I guess I’m speaking in the abstract. I would produce my best work if these parameters were consistently met. I don’t know if that’s really helpful, because the more I think about it, that just doesn’t happen that way! (Laughs)
SLF: And maybe that is the art of life.
SLF: Not just that thing we’re writing or the film that we’re making or the song that we’re composing. It’s finding the… I’m going to use the word ‘harmony,’ and creatively and artistically making our lives into works of beauty. And that’s a process, not an arrival. That’s a process that we’re always doing.
MG: Yeah, yeah… I like that. Agreed.
More on Mark Grossardt: Creative Directory Page • IMDb
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