Greg Berlanti rushes into his office on the Disney lot, insisting that he’s never, ever late. He’s so emphatic it’s easy to believe him, but it’s also easy to understand why he might be running behind these days.
The writer-producer-director — whose TV résumé includes acclaimed programs such as “Everwood” and “Brothers & Sisters” — is juggling a dizzying number of projects. He has just launched the ABC series “No Ordinary Family,” which premiered Sept. 28, and he directed “Life as We Know It,” a romantic comedy arriving in theaters Friday.
The Green Lantern action figure lying face up on Berlanti’s desk hints at the next big challenge for the boyish-looking 38-year-old.
Berlanti is one of four writers credited for scripting next year’s “Green Lantern,” Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ big-screen superhero movie starring Ryan Reynolds as pilot turned guardian of the universe Hal Jordan. Berlanti also is writing the treatment for that film’s sequel and is serving as a producer on both “Lantern” movies.
He hopes to write and direct a movie based on another DC character, “The Flash,” which is in the early stages of development, and he helped frame the screenplay for the sequel to “Clash of the Titans.”
From the looks of it, the man who built his reputation on character-driven drama is crafting a new identity for himself as the go-to screenwriter for Hollywood blockbusters aimed at fanboys.
“It’s probably the most anxious time I’ve been through,” Berlanti said.
Anxiety, the kind that accompanies new parenthood and budding romance, is in abundance in “Life As We Know It,” a film that recalls Berlanti’s earlier creative life. The story centers on a perfectionist bakery owner ( Katherine Heigl) and a womanizing sports television producer ( Josh Duhamel) as an unlikely couple who must learn to care for their best friends’ infant daughter after her parents are killed.
Though it’s only his second feature — his first, 2000’s “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy” featured Zach Braff and Timothy Olyphant — Berlanti said his television training prepared him well. It helped him work quickly on the film, which had to be shot in less than 50 days to accommodate Heigl’s schedule, and it taught him how to keep emotional material from becoming overly sentimental.
“What we were most nervous about was shying away from the tragedy too much and making it more of a broad comedy or a shticky baby boomer-type comedy,” said Heigl, who produced the film and was instrumental in hiring Berlanti. “We both agreed that that wasn’t the direction we wanted it to go.”
Heigl said she relied on her experiences as an adoptive mother to a baby girl to help ground her character, and Berlanti said he tried to use small, intimate moments to make the movie feel as real as possible. Mostly, he relied on his instincts.
“You have to always be in tune with that voice inside you, how you react to something and trust that,” Berlanti said. “With this kind of film, you have to lead with your heart.”
Given that sincerity and heart aren’t qualities typically associated with big-budget Hollywood comic book movies, it seems puzzling that those are precisely the projects Berlanti is pursuing. But he says he’s returned to the fantastic tales he read as an adolescent because he sees the genre as “rife with metaphor,” an avenue to tell more dynamic stories.
With “No Ordinary Family” — about a couple (played by Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz) and their two children who acquire special abilities after surviving a plane crash — Berlanti said he’s found a natural way to amplify the drama inherent in, say, keeping a marriage together or enduring the trials of high school. He’s optimistic that introducing big action set pieces into a character-centric series will help capture the attention of today’s distracted TV viewers.
“Sometimes on straight character shows on network, it feels to me, you’re forcing conflict that doesn’t necessarily need to be to keep people invested because the competing reality show has a great act break,” Berlanti said. “With this, I felt like I could finally do a character show with act breaks that should hook people and can be big and explosive because that’s when the powers kick in.”
In the case of “Green Lantern,” producer Donald DeLine said Berlanti’s background helped him differentiate the script from others in the comic book camp. “I loved the fact that he … would be unfettered by any preconceived notions of how a movie like this might or should go,” DeLine said. “Hal Jordan has to be flesh and blood and a relatable, compelling character, and that’s what Greg does so well.”
The glut of superhero productions in theaters and TV today, Berlanti believes, stems from the love affair that children of his generation had with costumed crime fighters.
“Comic books, when I was growing up … were really great stories,” he said. “You get your first chance to do something big and you think back to those things you loved as a kid. You want to make that happen.”