‘Jett’ Showrunner Sebastian Gutierrez on How He Wrote the Entire Season on Spec

     July 13, 2019

From creator/writer/director/executive producer Sebastian Gutierrez (Gothika), the nine-episode Cinemax drama series Jett follows Daisy “Jett” Kowalski (Carla Gugino, who’s also an executive producer), a professional thief who’s fresh out of prison and trying to turn her life around for her daughter (Violet McGraw). But since the life of a long-time criminal never works out so smoothly, Jett is drawn back into doing one final job, by powerful crime lord and sometime lover Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito), that leads to a series of assignments from ruthless criminals that put everyone she cares for in danger.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Sebastian Gutierrez talked about what drew him to TV, how the origins of Jett came about, writing the entire season on spec before taking it to networks, directing all of the episodes, how he views Jett, what he enjoys about watching Carla Gugino bring so many of the characters that he creates to life, the approach to his film career, and whether he’s still looking to finish his Elektra Luxx trilogy.

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Image via Cinemax

Collider: When you were developing and writing this series, did you start with a world and create the character out of it, or did you start with the character and create the world around her?

SEBASTIAN GUTIERREZ: That’s a really good question. I’ve never done television before, and I was so intimidated because it seemed like you have to create all of these worlds and that just seems really daunting. And then, somebody said something to me that’s so redundant, but it was so simple. They said, “Don’t worry about creating a world. Just create a character that you can follow in many different situations.” And I thought, “Well, that I can do.” So, the truth is that the origins of Jett come from a lifetime of reading every pulpy crime novel that I could get my hands on. But also, that first episode, which acts as a prologue to the series, was half of a feature script about this heist in Cuba. I was like, “I could just grab this and turn the fallout of this proverbial last job into who we follow, and all of the characters that we meet, even in passing, can become the characters that we follow in the next eight episodes.” So, it really came from the character. It was about, who is this woman in a man’s world, existing in this playful Elmore Leonard-esque crime caper world? And then, looking at the TV landscape and realizing that, with the anti-hero, there’s still a crazy double standard, where men can do whatever they want. Even though the roles are much better for women in television than film, women are still relegated to either a Lady Macbeth manipulator, or they’re somebody who is so strange and socially awkward, in order to be a bad-ass, that all sorts of excuses are made for her. I thought, “Why couldn’t I have a woman who’s a criminal and, if she’s gotta sleep with somebody, she sleeps with somebody, and if she’s gotta shoot somebody because that’s the only way to get out of the situation, then she does it. That was really where it came from.

When you haven’t done TV before, and then you end up directing this many hours, did reality set in, at some point, when you realized just what it was going to take to direct this many hours, or was it something that you enjoyed and wanted to do again, as soon as possible?

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Image via Cinemax

GUTIERREZ: A little bit of both. The truth is that, by some clerical error, I wrote the entire season on spec. So, when I went to places, and ended up at Cinemax, I had the whole thing. I was like, “Here it is. Take it or leave it. Give me notes now, and then let us go do our thing.” And to their everlasting credit, Cinemax gave me notes and said, “Okay, go make it,” and we basically did it exactly like a movie. It wasn’t any different, doing a movie versus TV, except that it was many more hours. It was the scope of the thing. It was like, “God, we’re still here?! We’re only on day 25, and we’ve got how many more days?!” But what was fun about that was that the whole thing was like one big puzzle, where we were shooting all of the scenes that took place at the restaurant, in Episodes 1, 4, 6 and 8, at the same time. For the actors, it was both daunting and exciting because they could read the whole thing and go, “Oh, my character has to go from here all the way to here. Even though we’re not shooting chronologically, I can now build on that.”

Do you feel like this season tells a full and complete story, or do you feel like there’s much more story to tell? Would you like to have future seasons to explore these characters?

GUTIERREZ: I would love to have future seasons to explore these characters, but I didn’t know that until I was making it. Suddenly, when I was making it, I was like, “Oh, yes, I know exactly happens next.” It wasn’t like, “In Season 3, this is what’s gonna happen.” It really came from character and the things that were happening, which was really exciting.

If this series does continue, will you continue to direct all of it, as well?

GUTIERREZ: I would like to. For the second season, I would do it the same way. I would write it all, and then direct it, like one big movie.

Jett is very clearly a criminal. Do you think of her that way, when you think about her, as a character?

GUTIERREZ: Yeah. Jett is somebody who, for whatever reason, when she was a child, she figured out that she didn’t want to grow up and get married, or ride a unicorn, or wear a princess dress. All she really likes to do is figure out how to break into places and steal things, and it’s not about money. It’s an interesting question because, if a guy is a master thief, that question is hardly ever asked. But if it’s a woman, you’re like, “Well, what is she after? Does she want all of this money?” It just makes her feel really good, and she’s really good at it. She’s not a sociopath or cruel, or any of those things. She’s just really good at being a criminal. That does not mean she doesn’t have a moral code. The story inside the story is this family of women forming around her, with which she has this really strong bond. She’s just not prone to a lot of small talk and being corny. She’s very insightful and intuitive.

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Image via Cinemax

Anybody who just really goes after what they want and does what they have to do to get it, makes her such a fascinating character.

GUTIERREZ: No, I agree, and it’s rare character. At one point, we were getting song submissions from female songwriters, to see if they could be in the show, and they were really good songs, but the gist of the lyrics was always, “I’ve been done wrong. I’ve been kicked. I’m on my knees, but I’ll get back up and get my revenge.” I was like, “You know what? Jett would kill these women.” Jett is much more like Michelle Pfeiffer in Catwoman, who saves the woman from the purse snatcher, but when the woman is crying, she’s like, “Stop sniveling!” She gets it done. It doesn’t mean that she’s infallible. It just means that’s not an insecurity she has. She really does know what it is that she’s good at. And then, the fact that she has a child, she has vulnerable sides and weaknesses that are forcing her into the situation she’s in right now, but she has never been victimized. She doesn’t identify with any of that stuff. She’s just a different kind of anti-hero role model for young women to be like, “Yeah, and she doesn’t even text.”

You’ve done a lot of work with Carla Gugino, over the years, and you’ve created such fascinating characters for her to play and bring to life. What’s it like to watch her bring to life these characters that you create and write for her?

GUTIERREZ: The short answer is that it’s so fun. I’m so in awe of actors because they, mostly, make what you meant better, and somehow you still get credit for it. I’ve never understood it, when writers or directors try to be such a stickler. I’m very specific about my dialogue, but if somebody comes up with a better idea, I’m always like, “I know where I came up with this idea. It was three o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t come up with anything better.” So, it’s super exciting. Carla, as you probably know, is forever underused. She is basically cast to fill in for stuff that’s not quite in the role, and that’s so frustrating. It’s so exciting, for me, that I can actually give her stuff to do. I’m like, “Now you have to sing and dance, and do this thing. And you have to break in a door and unlock the thing and get out of the handcuffs.” With some if it, you’re just laughing and like, “Good luck!” But, she’s so game. In the case of Jett, Jett is a character that’s so outwardly different than Carla. Carla is all empathy and emotion and warmth. When you then have her play a character that is much more like the kind of character that Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood would play, who has to hold everything back, it creates this wonderful, super cinematic tension that eventually will get its release, but that is really exciting to watch. In short, she’s my favorite actress. I really like giving her new stuff to do.

I’ve been a fan of the films that you’ve done with Carla, as well. I loved Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx, and you’ve said that they were part of a trilogy. Are you still looking to complete that trilogy? Do you still want to do a third film?

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Image via Cinemax

GUTIERREZ: First of all, I’m so glad that you liked those movies. Women in Trouble really came about from having a video camera and a couple of friends who went, “Well, what if we just make this thing up?” I just wrote these 10 scenes, and we shot one, every day for 10 days, and we had a movie. Five days into it, we were like, “This is so fun. Let’s make a sequel!” The entire intention of it was to go to South By Southwest and have fun. But suddenly, from that, YouTube approached me about making this movie Girl Walks Into A Bar, which was made for $100,00 in the same way, in 10 days, with actors coming in and shooting a 10-minute sequence, every day, almost like a play. The next thing I knew, I was like, “Oh, no, people think that I just wanna make these weird little movies.” We didn’t even have a set. All we had was actresses and a bunch of dialogue. So, I really had to take a break, but I’m not a very patient person. If you give me a camera, I’m like, “Let’s go make a movie.” It’s so fun. Making a movie should be like a game. But I really had to be disciplined, and sit back and try to raise the right amount of money. We made a movie last year, called Elizabeth Harvest, that I’m really proud of. Jett was already brewing when that happened, and a big part of making Jett was that I like cinema, and production design, and really composed shots and colors. All of it ties together. But back to your initial question, there is a script for Women in Ecstasy, that was written awhile back, which is really cool. Whether it will get made or not, I’m not sure. If you tell me, “My friends at Netflix wanna give you money to make it, and it will be really cool, so can you fit it in between Jett Season 1 and Season 2?,” then maybe. I can tell you that it’s about female roles in movies, and it’s cool, but I’m not sure that it will happen. That was more like a thing that I couldn’t resist saying. I was like, “There’s a sequel. No, it’s a trilogy.” Back then, when we made that, everything was a trilogy. Now, everything is a franchise.

Jett airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.

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