Although she’s best known as the screenwriter behind such high-profile features as Alexander, Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys, Laeta Kalogridis is bringing her most personal vision to television. As the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s Altered Carbon —the 10-episode cyberpunk series based on Richard K. Morgan’s acclaimed novel — she returns to the small screen in the midst of a peak TV revolution that’s a far cry from the network landscape she entered into more than a decade ago with her short-lived WB Network series Birds of Prey.
In advance of the show’s Feb. 2 premiere, Kalogridis spoke with THR about her Hollywood odyssey, from her first script sale as a UCLA screenwriting student to creating one of the year’s most-talked about series.
When I was a kid, my grandparents were Greek immigrants on my father’s side. My grandfather used to read me Greek myths, in which there are a great many goddesses and stories of strong women. And I was entranced by them. Then I started reading science fiction very young, and I loved it.
There was a brief period in college where I flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer, because my father was one. But I was cured of it rather swiftly. I was very lucky in that I just kept pursuing graduate degrees where I could get scholarships or TA-ships, and I ended up in the MFA program for screenwriting at UCLA.
I had been agitating for a rewrite class, because at the time at UCLA, they didn’t have any classes for rewriting. And I very much wanted to take a script and keep reworking it. There was a certain amount of institutional pushback. They even got a little hostile, because even then I was very pushy. I ended up convincing a really wonderful writer, Dan Pyne, to let me take an independent study with him and rewrite my Joan of Arc script [In Nomine Dei] multiple times, which is what I ended up doing.
A friend of mine who was in the UCLA producing program, Bennett Schneir, read the script for me. And he gave me some notes and then after I did the notes, he looked at it and was like, “You know, I think you could probably sell this.” He had been on [then-CAA agent] Bob Bookman’s desk before he decided to become a producer, and he knew [future Endeavor co-founder] Tom Strickler, who I believe was also an assistant at that desk. Strickler calls me and says, “I think maybe I could sell this.” I just thought, this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, right?
And then he sells it. Literally takes it out on a Tuesday and sells it on a Thursday. I was shocked. Nobody was more shocked than the then-current administration at UCLA.
Richard Donner and Joel Silver used to have side-by-side offices at Warners, and I was working for Joel on the rewrite of the Joan of Arc script. Joel had talked to Richard and Lauren about me and said that they should meet me. They called me about another project they were doing, and I came in to the office and they had all of these X-Men figures all over the place and they were like, “So we’re trying to decide if this should be the original X-Men, or it should be X-Men involving Wolverine.” My oldest son is named Logan, so I’m like, “I’m feeling pretty strongly that you want to go the Wolverine route.” That turned into a series of conversations, and those conversations turned into me not getting the other job, but me getting the X-Men job. From that point forward, I was able to get assignment work.
I will always be grateful my whole life to Lauren Shuler Donner, because it didn’t even occur to her that I couldn’t do it. She advocated for me hard for the studio, and I really believe it’s because that’s just not the way her brain worked. She was evaluating me as a writer, not based on gender.
Birds of Prey was a project that I loved from a comic book perspective, but I also found that I did not understand or appreciate the difference in sheer volume between network television and movies. Say you’ve got about nine months to make about 22 hours of filmed entertainment, versus about maybe two years to make two hours of filmed entertainment. Like a great many other feature writers, I did not have a real understanding of the way that the beast had to be fed in order for that process to work optimally creatively. So I learned a huge amount on that show.
One of my favorite stories is, I got fired off Bionic Woman in part because I was told that I don’t know how to write women, and they promptly replaced me with a guy. What I find lovely about the story is how unaware the white dude who said that to me was when he said it. I’m not bitter, but clearly whoever he hired wasn’t quite able to really find that voice either based on what happened to the show.
People sometimes ask me, “How do you keep doing this?” And the real answer is it’s not about how you handle success, it’s how you handle failure. Because if you have any kind of career, you will make movies you’re not proud of, you will make television shows that you are fired off of, you will get stuff that you love that never makes it to the air in any form. Don’t worry about what happens when things go wrong, just accept that they’re going to and figure out how do you want to cope with it when it does. Because if all you’re trying to do is avoid it, well, that’s not possible.
I do have a #MeToo story, but my #MeToo story happens in childhood. I was very lucky in Hollywood. I had one meeting with Harvey Weinstein, after which he called and yelled on my answering machine, and my husband and I were both listening to him, like, yeah, probably don’t want to work with that guy. The people that I have worked with that have taught me the craft and for me kind of fostered a real respect for what the business can be at its best, I’ve been very fortunate in that way. I’m very fortunate now with Altered Carbon, just the way Netflix is, the way that [Altered Carbon co-producer] Skydance is, that there are strong women running both of those companies. And I firmly believe because of those women, my opportunities have been different than they would have been.
Personal: Married with two children. Lives in Los Angeles
Reps: Adriana Alberghetti and Richard Weitz, WME
Hot Project: Creator, showrunner on Netflix’s Altered Carbon (all episodes premiere Feb. 2)