The prolific writer-producer-director reflects on what he’s learned in his incredible life and career—and offers advice on how you can get unstuck in yours.
BY MATT TUTHILL
You know his work even if you don’t know the man. Brannon Braga has been a prolific writer and producer of television and film since the early 90s when he joined Star Trek: The Next Generation as an intern. He quickly worked his way up to being a writer and executive producer, eventually penning more episodes than any other Star Trek writer—including the show’s excellent two-part finale, “All Good Things…” He went on to produce and write for a huge number of projects—including 24, Salem, The Orville, and the return of Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson—not to mention two more Trek series and a pair of big-screen Trek adventures.
While taking a brief break from the editing bay of his upcoming Books of Blood—a film adaptation of the Clive Barker novels—he spoke to Robert Irvine Magazine about Cosmos: Possible Worlds, what he’s learned in his legendary career—and the surprising parallels with Restaurant: Impossible.
Robert Irvine Magazine: The new season of Cosmos is called Cosmos: Possible Worlds. What can viewers expect to see?
Brannon Braga: There are infinite stories to tell in nature. And this time Ann [Druyan, the show’s writer/producer and Carl Sagan’s widow] had the concept of Possible Worlds, meaning, we are going to do some extrapolations and theorizing about what far away exoplanets might be like and what life might be like if it exists. The show is still very science-based. Possible Worlds is also metaphorical: the human brain is a world of its own. The possible worlds of the future. There’s a lot of different meanings and layers to it. The original Cosmos, which was made by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in 1980, is a show that I saw when I was just entering high school and it had a huge impact on me. The original is still regarded as one of the great science programs of all time.
RI: I want to rewind to the start of your career to another show that you worked on that was set deep in the cosmos: Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is suddenly relevant again right now with the premiere of Picard. When you watch the new show, will you be able to do that as a fan, or will the writer in you be thinking about what you might have done differently?
BB: I can do both. I can sit back and enjoy Star Trek as a fan, but I’d be lying if I said my writerly instincts don’t kick in from time to time because I worked on that show for the first 15 years of my career. I feel like I have a very deep connection to Captain Picard. I did four seasons and two movies with him I really love Patrick Stewart. I look forward to the show. Of course, I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to think, “Man, I wish we could have afforded all those visuals.” We were still using models back on Next Generation. There were no computer-generated effects. But I’m looking forward to it. It sounds very relevant and I am glad Patrick decided to go back to the character.
RI: You must have some fond memories of working with him.
BB: Yes. Working with Patrick, he was a perfect gentleman and very nice to work with. I think just by coincidence, I wrote the episode that he directed on Next Generation. So I worked with him more as a director than an actor. He’s a really good director.
And I think what I learned from Patrick was indirect, in that the hardest character to write for was his because he brought so much intellect and empathy and thoughtfulness to his character. Whenever Picard was in a scene, it was important. He wasn’t in every scene. He was just so great.
You know, I’m not Picard, I don’t feel any of those qualities that Picard has on any given day. So it was challenging to write for him. And part of the reason Picard was so effective was because Patrick could even make my dialogue sound great. He just brought a believability and gravitas to everything. It’s really hard to separate the two—the actor from the character. Patrick’s just kind of an exquisitely trained actor, so well rounded, so instinctive, and it forced me to up my game any time I was writing. It’s not that I wasn’t doing the same with the other characters, but Picard for me was especially challenging.
RI: Everything gets rebooted these days. Even the original cast of Star Trek got rebooted in these newer films, but no one’s touching a Next Generation reboot. If I were you, I would take that as a nice testimony to the finale that you came up with. Kevin Feige cited it as an inspiration for Avengers: Endgame.
BB: Yeah, but that’s not to say that someone won’t reboot those characters one day. I wouldn’t rule it out. I am not saying they are. I’m just guessing. But there’s probably a reality where that could happen. I just don’t know.
RI: The Orville [which Braga produces alongside Seth McFarlane] carries the spirit of Next Generation with it so well and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the hardcore Trek fans that I know that have embraced it. They wisely see that Trek is about more than the alien races, more than the ships, the backstory. It’s a worldview, it’s an optimism, it’s about creative problem solving and The Orville has all that. I thought it was interesting that it was developed around the same time as Star Trek: Discovery which has a darker tone to it, and doesn’t feel like classic Trek. I wouldn’t want to ask you to get into comparing the two, but I am very curious about what made you realize that now was the right time to bring that optimistic kind of sci-fi back to the mainstream.
BB: It was Seth McFarlane’s idea. He came up with The Orville. Seth and I had been talking, I’ve been friends with him for quite some time and he was a Star Trek fan, so he would bring up Star Trek from time to time. I think his feeling when he was first telling me about The Orville was, “This kind of storytelling is not on television.” The standalone episode, a tale well told in an hour. As you say, Star Trek to me is a worldview. A very optimistic one… I think you put it really well; it’s an optimistic view of humanity and what future we could have.
He explained that The Orville would have a more casual set of characters in that it’s like a real workplace would be, perhaps. And Seth came up with some wonderful characters, but make no mistake there was an ethos—and you can call it a Next Generation ethos—but it wasn’t aiming to mimic Next Generation, but it was aiming to capture a certain kind storytelling and a certain aspirational ethos that was missing from what’s out there now.
Because with sci-fi, I think of some very successful franchises about children murdering each other for food, and I just can’t imagine any more grim future than that. I love working on the show and I really missed that kind of writing. I’m glad the audience has embraced it. We were nervous because it with Seth you might think it’s going to be Spaceballs or a satire or something. We were trying to do something a little more dramatic.
There was an episode that was supposed to be a later episode. I’ll call “About a Girl” which was about a transgender metaphor using our Moclan characters. The Moclans are an all-male society and with a female child it’s customary to have the sex changed at birth, and in this episode the father doesn’t want to do it. It’s a very dramatic episode. And we decided to pull it up in the air date order to the third episode because we had to know, “Is the audience going to embrace what this show really is?” And they did. And in the third season, which we’re filming right now, it’s even more dramatic. And I think it’s our best season yet.
RI: You you work in a job that, in the age of the internet and the age of peak TV, you are capable of drawing as much scrutiny as a politician. If you look on Twitter and you look at the way people scrutinize casting decisions and who’s writing what, it can be pretty wild.
With that in mind: We have readers reach out to us for all kinds of advice, including how to process criticism from a friend, family member, or boss. I thought you might have some good advice in this area, seeing as how passionate and protective genre fans—and Trek fans in particular—can be. At this point in your career have you developed such a thick skin that criticism doesn’t affect you? How do you process it?
BB: It’s a question that goes back to the early days of the internet when there were Star Trek forums going on and I looked at them. Of course I did. It was a new thing I could see the next morning and then later, as the internet got faster, I could get reviews and see people responding as the episode was airing. And it replaced fan mail and became something much more broad in the media. I didn’t obsess over the reviews, but I did look at a lot of them because I wanted to know what the general feeling was about things.
You can’t look at reviews—particularly with a fan base as passionate and detailed as Star Trek—and expect them all to be glowing. Because Star Trek is different things to different people and people always have something to criticize, and that’s fair. Have I developed a thick skin since then? Not really.
Criticism always is a little painful especially when you know it’s correct. Not everything you do is successful, but there are some criticisms that are personal and aggressive and you wonder where all that anger is coming from sometimes. But I still do a Star Trek convention from time to time. Generally speaking, it’s fun and can be wonderful.
RI: A lot of readers are also feeling pressure at their jobs and in their family lives. How do you deal with pressure? You’re dealing with multi-million dollar budgets and everyone’s job depends on you doing yours well.
BB: Well, in my particular instance, I’m in a leadership role as a show runner and the one thing I have learned over the years is that yes, I’m responsible to some degree for making sure the show I’m doing is successful because there are hundreds of people’s jobs on the line. But those very same hundreds of people who you feel responsible for, are also people who are working with the exact same motives, in most cases. And you have to trust them to do their jobs. It’s actually not all on your shoulders. There are many people around you and when I hire a crew, or writers, or whatever, I’m looking for people that I can rely on and not control. I want people to do their best and bring their best. And when you realize that you’re all in it together, it makes it a lot easier.
There’s a recurring scene you see in Robert’s work on Restaurant: Impossible for instance, is that people have to know that asking for help is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Me writing a script and asking for help with writing a scene or figuring something out isn’t a sign of weakness. And I wouldn’t have the career I have without people helping me along the way. Absolutely none.
I would have no success without other people. I would remind people that when you feel alone, you’re really not alone. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet Robert. I was a big fan of Restaurant: Impossible—not so much because I’m a foodie or interested in restaurants. I was interested in how he managed difficult situations with people feeling hopeless. And just as recently as last night’s episode, he’s telling somebody, “Get out of your own head. There are people around you who can help and I’m here to help.”
RI: People refusing to delegate is a big theme in the show.
BB: And they compartmentalize and don’t deal with the problems because it’s too stressful and they can’t face the failures that are there. Whatever the reason, they’ve isolated themselves, which is the last thing you should be doing in those situations.
RI: So you know that it’s okay to reach out for help, but how much of that do you think is natural on your part or learned behavior? Earlier in your career, was it much harder for you to do that?
BB: It’s learned. I’ve learned a lot. I was a show runner at a very young age and I certainly had some creative ability to do the job, but it took a lot of learning to get to all the other things that make someone a good leader. And it was a learning process for sure. Absolutely.
RI: Another thing that readers are always asking Robert is, “How do I get unstuck?” They say, “I’m 300 pounds and I can’t lose weight,” “I’m in this dead-end job,” “I’m stuck in this loveless marriage.” I’d love to get your advice on how to get unstuck because not only have you found a lot of success in your career, you’re a writer and I’m certain that you have some experience with feeling stuck. So how do you deal with it and how do you think readers can?
BB: It’s a very broad question and I can only speak from my own very narrow realm of experience in my own profession. And the one thing I would say is that in order to get unstuck or in order to move through what feels like being stuck, you have to have a certain tolerance for discomfort.
You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable because sometimes if it’s a job that’s causing you stress, you’re worried about quitting the job because you don’t think you’ll ever work again. That’s the situation I was in when I was in my early twenties and I quit the job and it was really uncomfortable for a couple of weeks, but things worked out. I was coming from a place of fear.
And in terms of even my daily writing work, it took me a long time to realize it’s not going to be perfect the first time. I want it to be perfect coming from my brain onto the keyboard, but it’s not going to be. So, you just have to have a tolerance for discomfort and trust that it’s going to get there. Even if it’s really bad at first, you’re just going to come at it again and again and again until it gets where it needs to be.
There are situations on Restaurant: Impossible where people are $500,000 in debt and have a failing restaurant and they’ve reached out for help in the form of Robert Irvine and every episode starts with discomfort. They have to hear uncomfortable truths from Robert and they deal with it and then they move through it and make big changes and there’s no guarantee those big changes are going to be successful in the long run. Who knows? But it’s definitely better than the situation they’re in.
People talk about writer’s block. I can’t afford to be stuck creatively. I have to deliver material. So even if I have a terrible day where I don’t actually write anything but just go round and round in my head, at least I was trying and got something, some idea down on paper, even if it’s crappy. I’ll come back at it.
So being stuck is a frame of mind for me. You’re never really stuck unless you are physically mired in quicksand. There’s always a way out. And again, ask for help.
There must be people all around willing to throw you a lifeline to you if you just ask. I also think—and this is a really hard one for me to do—you need to take breaks. A few days of vacation is so important. I hate to admit it because I really love working and it’s my main passion in life, but getting a clear head and stepping away from situations is very important.
RI: Books of Blood is a movie that you wrote, directed, and produced. What is this movie about and when can folks expect to see it?
BB: When I was 21, I read Books of Blood by Clive Barker—all six volumes. And I was just completely blown away. These were just radical.
The best horror is radical and Clive Barker did something like HP Lovecraft; he wrote things that you just have to read, you can’t describe them. They’re just so original, and I was a fan.
And over the years I always thought, “Gosh! What a good anthology show that would be.” And in developing the project with Fox and Hulu we realized it might be better as an anthological horror film. So, the movie, which was written by Adam Simon and me—and based on one original story from Books of Blood and two new stories that Clive and I came up with along with Adam—make up the movie. And the three stories are kind of independent, but they cross pollinate each other.
We kind of call it the Pulp Fiction of horror. Terrible comparison because it’s not going to be nearly that movie, but it has that kind of structural vibe. We’re cutting it now and it will be out in October 2020.
This story originally ran as the cover interview in the March-April 2020 issue of Robert Irvine Magazine. Get it—and all back issues—at www.RobertIrvineMagazine.com.