I finished Granite Flats season 3 and was hungry for more. I felt like season 3 was where the show really matured. It’s pacing was just a little faster—something I’d said was needed all along. It all just seemed a little sharper, quicker, and more gripping. I asked some questions on a Facebook post from the official Granite Flats page, and was surprised to receive answers by John Christian Plummer, the sole writer of Season 3, as well as Scott Christopher who plays “Frank” in the series. I felt an interview was in order. As you’ll find out, Mr. Plummer is not LDS but is a deeply spiritual, practicing Buddhist. He provides some great insights on writing, work, and life, and how they interact with faith. There are no spoilers in this interview, so read freely.
Tevya: Hey John, to get us started, tell us a little about your history: where you grew up, education, work experience, family, etc?
John: First off, thank you so much for your enthusiasm for Granite Flats!
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and a suburb of New York City, got my degree from Tufts University in English and Drama, and I’ve been working as an actor, director, producer and writer in theater, television and film since before I even finished school. I’m married to Maia Guest, a brilliant actress who plays Dr. Susan Andrews on Granite Flats, and we have wonderful two sons, Charlie, who plays Timmy Sanders on the show, and James, who is 9 and isn’t yet in show business (his choice). We also have a hilarious dog named Luigi.Tevya: I had no idea you were married to one cast member and father of another.
John: Yes—we are so fortunate to work together on this.
Tevya: Tell us a little about your faith and spirituality, such as what it is, and how did you came to it, and what role it plays in your life & writing?
John: For the past 19 years, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist and member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organization. There are many types of Buddhism, as there are many types of Christianity, but our practice is based in the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that everyone has unlimited potential or what we would call a “great self,” which we can draw out by chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra, “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and helping others to do the same. When I first met with Scott Swofford, the Executive Producer on Granite Flats who is a practicing Mormon, I did something I don’t often do in a show business meeting—I talked about my faith. And, amazingly, Scott knew all about the SGI because he did his mission in Japan! SGI Buddhists have a shared mission for world peace which we believe can be achieved through each person in the world becoming their best self—wise, compassionate and courageous. Writing is a faith exercise, and every day I’ll chant to hear the voices of the characters and let them tell their stories through me.
Tevya: How did you get started screenwriting?
John: I was running a Shakespeare company I’d founded right out of college, and started to want to do original shows that didn’t exist, so I had to write them. After moving on from the theater company, I eventually had to cop to the fact that I was writer and that I loved film and television. I wrote lots of spec features, was in a sketch comedy group where I was generating a huge amount of material every month, and became determined that I would do it as a living, which soon happened.
Tevya: Have you published, or attempted to publish any books or other forms of writing?
John: I have not, though I do have a novel that I’d love to see published. But that’s such a different world, and not one I’m really in.
Tevya: What was your first “real” screenwriting gig?
John: My first paid television job was on a wonderful sketch comedy series called ILL-ustrated for VH1. My first paid feature job was to write a script for Wendy Finerman, an amazing producer (Forrest Gump, The Devil Wears Prada), which was almost made a couple of times. The feature business is filled with unproduced scripts.
Tevya: How did you get on with Granite Flats?
John: I had worked in New York City with Beth Howard, a producer who had once worked with Scott Swofford, and she made the introduction. I was initially brought in to consult for a couple of days on how to turn the original ideas into a series. Pretty quickly, I was hired to help rewrite the pilot and was kept on as the de facto head writer.
Tevya: What attracted you to that project?
John: The premise, which I initially articulated with Scott as “the cold war in small town America.” Scott is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, and he’s also enormously open in terms of where the story can go. He’s allowed me great leeway about what we’re exploring. I said MKULTRA, Scott said yes. And it went from there, encompassing literature, the Oxfordian viewpoint of Shakespeare, the writings of Paul, James Angelton, Whitman,Through the Looking Glass, and so on.
Tevya: I personally saw a marked difference in Granite Flats season 3. I attribute some of that to you being the sole screenwriter for that season, whereas you’d shared those responsibilities previously. How did that come about and is it likely to continue?
John: That’s very generous, thank you. Toward the end of shooting Season 2, Scott asked if I’d write all of Season 3. I think if we do end up getting to shoot Season 4, I’ll be writing all of it.
Tevya: Do you feel like a single screenwriter is the ideal arrangement for TV and why?
John: I think it depends on the number of episodes per season. For decades, UK shows, which mostly have smaller orders, have a single writer. It’s starting to become more accepted here, and I think for a series like ours, with 8 episodes, it’s probably the way to go. I think network shows, with 22 episodes a season, require a roomful of writers in the more traditional US model.
Tevya: Which actor/actress makes you smile when you see them performing as the character you wrote for them?
John: Most of them make me smile, most of them make me cry. We are blessed with an extremely talented, generous, hard-working and large ensemble of actors.
Tevya: How much time do you spend researching to make sure the plotline, language, and characters are historically accurate?
John: For season 3, I spent around 3 months reading history and literature. I made countless notes, and all the while listened to the characters talk and wrote what they said as they spoke. Scott and the producers and I met for a few days for me to dump all that work on them, and brainstorm themes and character. Then I started to write, without an outline, which David Milch calls “an instrument of fear.” And I wanted to operate on faith. So no outlines. And Scott never asked for outlines, either; I just sent him scripts.
Tevya: Will there be a Granite Flats season 4?
John: Hopefully we will find out soon, and the answer will be yes.
Tevya: Can you tell us anything about how Netflix picked up Granite Flats and how do you feel about that?
John: I’m not part of the BYUtv administration, so that’s a better question for Derek Marquis or Scott, but I do know BYUtv wanted to expand their audience, and Netflix wanted to explore new genres, so it was a win-win. I’m of course incredibly excited. Netflix is the premiere streaming engine in the world. Now, all you have to say when telling people how to see the show is one word: Netflix.
Tevya: Who are some of your “heroes” or favorite screenwriters, and what shows/films would you recommend?
John: My writing mentors are Shakespeare (also known by his real name, Edward de Vere), Walt Whitman, the apostle Paul, Charles Dickens and David Milch. My mentor in life would be Daisaku Ikeda, who is also a phenomenal and prolific writer. As far as series, Deadwood and anything by Milch, including the little-seen John from Cincinnati are some of the best things you can see on the small screen. They wouldn’t fall under the category of “family friendly,” but they are deeply spiritual shows that continually reaffirm our need to find unity with our fellows and the land.
Tevya: What’s your writing routine?
John: Research is pre-writing. But the writing process begins with prayer, which in my case is chanting. The characters often start talking then, and I just write what i hear, and try to stay out of the way. Prayer is a process of opening oneself up to the vastness of the universe; it has the corollary effect of suppressing the ego, what we call in Buddhism “the lesser self.” The ego is the single most destructive force in creative endeavors. As soon as a writer starts thinking “what should I do?”, they’re in trouble, because the “I” is coming first, not the characters, not the story.
Tevya: Do you have a morning routine and how does it go?
John: I have two kids, one of them a working professional who does school at home, so I don’t have a regular schedule. I write whenever I can, and it changes almost daily. I think it’s good for writers to always be ready to work. All that said, I chant every morning, ideally for an hour, to start my day, and that’s really the beginning of the writing process.
Tevya: Do you have any writing or productivity tips or tricks for aspiring writers or just for work in general?
John: Beethoven said, “Every day a line.” So write every day. Set deadlines for yourself, and meet them. Finish scripts. Don’t rely on outlines; be willing to force yourself to operate on faith, to get lost, get scared, and fight your way out—because that’s what your characters need to do. Work hard. Have mentors and seek to unify with them. Have a sense of mission about the work you do. Constantly challenge yourself. Read and watch new things all the time. Be a spiritually seeking person. And view every obstacle as an opportunity to make things better.
Tevya: Any closing thoughts for us as Granite Flats fans and/or life-hackers?
John: I’m eternally grateful for anyone who watches our series and tells others about it. A story is nothing without its audience, and we are so fortunate to have such wonderful fans.
Huge thanks to Mr. Plummer for being willing to take time for this interview. If you have any questions for him, feel free to ask in the comments. I can’t guarantee he’ll answer, but I got in contact with him because he personally responded to my questions on Facebook. So your chances are good.
You can stream all 3 seasons of Granite Flats on your computer on BYUtv.org or via a number of apps including iOS, Android, Roku, and more. All 3 seasons will also arrive on Netflix in just 4 days on May 15th. Season 3 will be airing on BYUtv in Oct., if you’re unable to stream it for some reason. You can follow John on Twitter.