Bruin Drew Greenberg loved storytelling more than anything, but never dreamed he could make it a career. Yet he has written for some of the most iconic characters in recent TV history.
You were born in New York, but moved around as a kid before your family settled in Kentfield, north of San Francisco. What did you watch growing up?
The rule in our house basically was: As long as we read every book we could get our hands on, we could watch whatever we wanted. My favorite show was St. Elsewhere. I was a weird kid. … There was something about the mix of comedy and drama that seemed to tickle me, which is interesting because I try to incorporate that into stuff I do now. I loved that it could be serious one minute and then really funny the next, and then go back to just tearing your heart out again. … At the same time, I didn’t miss an episode of The Facts of Life.
How did you choose UCLA?
I wanted to experience what life was like away from home. And Los Angeles was away from home, but not so far away that I would get out of reach or homesick. There must have been some element of [the fact that] I’m really used to moving around all the time. And having been in Marin [County] for high school, I said to myself: “Well, I’ve done my time here, so let’s go try something else.” And I’m glad I did. I love my school. I didn’t love Los Angeles so much, but I love UCLA.
What did you learn at UCLA that helped guide you in your career?
I was a [political science] major, but I was also premed. So in a larger sense, I was learning what I didn’t want my career to be — although I went to law school [at Santa Clara University], too, so that lesson would come later. More than anything else, the thing that UCLA gave me had nothing to do with the actual classes I was taking. It was about an awareness of the importance of diversity in the world. I was on staff in the residence halls, and it was so much a part of what we learned there, developing an appreciation for not seeing the world as a melting pot, but rather a stew.
Was the writing always there, and you had to try everything else to get it all out of your system?
Yes, that’s exactly it. It was always the thing that I loved the most. I would write as a hobby. I would write when I could find time. I loved writing stories, and that was something I’d always considered a great outlet, but in a million years I never thought that it could be a career. I took the MCAT, and for my essay as part of the test, I think I wrote a story about soap opera characters and tried to draw parallels to the medical questions that were being asked. Somebody, somewhere read my MCAT test and said: “Kid, go be a writer — or at least don’t be a doctor.”
And then you hooked up with Buffy creator Joss Whedon.
I was kicking around as an assistant for a couple of years before I got the meeting with Joss. But the meeting came. And Buffy at that point was my favorite show on TV. … You know, there’s a rule. When you’re writing, you write spec scripts, and that’s sort of your calling card — sample episodes of TV shows that are on the air. And I had written a Buffy: That was mine. The rule is, you’re never supposed to send the show you’ve written to the people who actually make that show. You send the Buffy spec script to Dawson’s Creek, for example. The executive at 20th [Century Fox Television] sent my Buffy to Joss. I was completely mortified. And when I was sitting in the room with Joss, he had read my spec Buffy, and he started talking about the things I did right. And I don’t know how I didn’t dissolve into a puddle of tears.
You’ve worked on several shows that had cult followings and then became mainstream hits in syndication. What is that added attention like?
I’m glad to know that they’re mainstream. I’d be delighted if they were. … I’m not the best judge of what’s mainstream and what’s not. I tend to like the things that I like, and I keep my head down and I can’t tell. If anybody watches anything that I’ve ever worked on, I’m thrilled. So I see that as a victory.
On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you have a massive Marvel franchise that dictates what you do. It’s unprecedented. What is that like?
It is definitely an experience that I’ve never had before. I love it. And it takes a little bit of coordination. There are logistics that have to be worked out all the time, but luckily that’s above my pay grade. I get to just go in and have fun. … I came on in Season Two, so I was watching Season One at home. They did this amazing crossover with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where what happened in that movie fundamentally changed the premise of the show, and I remember watching it just flabbergasted. … What Marvel is doing is creating a universe that you can throw yourself into, and I dig it so much.
Fans care deeply about this material, as you know. Is that exciting, or is there pressure?
It is both exciting and a ton of pressure. I love knowing that people care. The fact that there is such a passionate fan base for a show like this, it’s delightful. And, yeah, you feel pressure to keep up the quality of what they’re expecting.
Why do people get so emotionally invested in these kinds of shows?
I wish I knew the answer 100 percent. Shows like this speak to something in us. Star Trek is a great example, where we as humans are aspiring to something greater. Not to be too grandiose about it — which I just was. It’s wish fulfillment, but it’s bigger than wish fulfillment. It’s having an aspiration toward being better, and science fiction and comic books have done such a good job of tapping into what we can be.