Martin Gero on Filming Keep Breathing, Melissa Barrera's Incredible Talent, and Quantum Leap's Return to TV

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We had the opportunity to chat with Martin Gero, who, together with his partner and collaborator, Brendan Gall, created Keep Breathing, currently stealing time from Netflix binge-watchers.

Mr. Gero is also the man behind bringing Quantum Leap back to NBC, and we chatted about both shows and much more in great detail.

Enjoy!

Martin Gero at PaleyFest 2016

You're a really busy man.

Yeah. I like to work.

I can tell.

It's a privilege to do what we do, so I'll take the opportunities when I get them.

Blindspot was such a huge success.

Yeah.

Martin Gero Enjoys 2015 TCAs

What challenges have you faced creating new content in its wake?

Well, I just don't want to repeat myself mostly. I mean, I've been tremendously lucky to have such a weird disparate career. I started in really hard sci-fi and then did like strange -- we called it like a "noir-otic" -- with Bored to Death and then like a really trashy, but wonderful, soap in LA complex and then Blindspot.

And so one of the reasons we did Keep Breathing for Netflix was it felt like tonally so opposite. In fact, the idea came from when my co-creator Brendan Gall and I were mixing an episode of Blindspot that was so loud, as that show was, that it gave us a concussion headache.

And we were walking around the Warner brother lot, kind of stunned. And just saying like, what is the quietest show we could do next? And that's kind of where Keep Breathing came out of. So, each piece is kind of a reaction to the last, if that makes sense.

Martin Gero Slight Smile

Sure, sure. That's kind of fun. I like that that's where it came from. Gosh, that's awfully loud. [laughs]

I was like, 'this is loud. How do we do a show that's so quiet?' What's the quietest show we could do? And Brendan and I are both from Canada as well.

And so when we get super stressed out, we have the ability to just like go to the Canadian wilderness, and we realize that's a privilege a lot of people don't have. So could we make a show that would be exciting and have stakes but also feel meditative and restorative, like a walk in the woods does? And we hope we've done that.

Was it made directly for Netflix? So it hadn't aired anywhere else previously?

No, it was made as a Netflix original. It was developed, produced, and made with Netflix.

Keep Breathing During the Crash

I was just curious because, even if it's a Canadian filmmaker, so often they're like, 'oh, we better set this in America.' And it wasn't; it was in Canada, which I appreciate -- the fact that Canadians can make Canadian content in America.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think the great thing that Netflix has done is it's really dispelled the myth that Americans are only interested in watching shows that take place in America.

Yes.

And I mean, our lead character is American. She's from New York; there are scenes in New York, but I don't think that's a thing anymore. I think people just want to watch great stories. They don't care where they took place.

Yeah. Thankfully we're done with taking a popular show from overseas and trying to recreate it here.

Exactly.

Using MacGyver as Her Guide

That was always so unfortunate. So many bad shows came out of that. So you and Brendan work together a lot. What's your partnership like?

Well, we've just been friends since our very early twenties. When you're in your twenties, and you want to be a writer, at least where I grew up, there weren't a lot of people that also wanted to be a writer. And so we gravitated towards each other and have been giving notes on each other's scripts for over 20 years now.

So when I got the opportunity to run my first show, I mean, he was one of the first calls I made because our sensibilities have been gestating together for so long. And so there's a real shorthand now. It's going on 15 years of almost full-time professional collaboration. It's really wonderful to have a partner like that.

So other than wanting to make a quiet series, what was the thought process behind Breathe, AKA Keep Breathing? The way I saw it was that it suggests everyday traumas are just as challenging to survive as the more obvious plane crashes.

Yeah.

Liv is Haunted by her Mother

Am I off the mark?

No, no, that's a hundred percent right. Well, it's funny because, as we're thinking about something, we talk to people that we know and like, and tell them, 'oh, we're thinking about doing something in this area.' And more than one person said the scariest thing to them wasn't the plane crash. It was being trapped alone with your thoughts.

Oh, okay.

And we were like, wow, that is true. I think all of us, to a certain extent, have so many opportunities to busy our mind. If we don't want to deal with anything in this modern world, we really don't have to. We can watch TV while we're on Twitter and we're playing Wordle.

You can fill up and redline your brain pretty easily. And so I think, for the most part, we're doing that not to deal with the things that are very painful to us.

Voices of the Dead

And so the idea of telling any sort of survival story, you can't get around it being pretty linear, no matter what you do. She crashes. She's got to survive. She hopes to make it out.

And so, for us, creating this backstory of who she is becomes the mystery of the show, and why she's made the decision she's had becomes the character mystery that pulls you along. And it was an opportunity for us to talk about some very personal stories.

And it's a very succinct six episodes. How did you decide on that?

Well, the wonderful thing about working with Netflix is they're so malleable to whatever the story needs. When you're working in other venues, they have to slot you into what their air requirements are or even what their online requirements are.

And I think Netflix's platform is so malleable. They had bought this as eight hours, eight one-hour episodes. And then, as we started writing them, we were like, I think this is six, which is a weird thing to do for people who get paid by the episode. But we were like, creatively, this feels like it wants to be six. And they agreed.

An Evening with Blindspot

And then, as we were editing them, it just felt like the pace of them wanted to be like more in the half-hour, 40-minute range, as opposed to like the 40- to 50- to 60-minute range. So we let the story dictate the form, which you never get to do, which is incredible.

Yeah. Well, that's good, though. It's nice to know that you didn't take your creativity and say, heck with it. Let's just go for as long they want; a lot of people do that.

Well, honestly, I think that's one of the reasons the show is doing so well.

I know for me, when I start binging a show, and I'm like, 'oh my gosh, this is going to take me 15 hours to watch this first season.' It's got to be really great for me to invest my time. Whereas our show is kind of bite-size. So it's really not a huge commitment. You can just say, well, 'I'm into this, let's finish it tonight.'

Searching for a Signal

Sure. And you said the storytelling was very personal to you. Did you and Brendan choose from your own lives what would go into her life?

You kind of do it subconsciously. As you're creating these characters, it's only once you're done that you realize, 'oh, there's some tonal similarity to our lives here and stuff that one or both of us has been dealing with.' It's such a cliche, but the more specific and personal you make the work, weirdly, the more universal it becomes.

And so I think it's really struck a chord with a lot of people because it's dealing with these issues like reparenting and surviving your childhood and what you have to do to armor up to survive your childhood, and then how hard it is to put that armor down when you're an adult.

I think everybody can understand that.

That goes for almost everyone in one way or another.

A Waking Nightmare

Did you always have Melissa in mind for the lead?

No, we didn't have her in mind, but I was a huge fan of Vida when it aired originally. And I just felt like both of those leads exploded onto the screen and were so great and had an incredible energy behind those performances.

We wrote it just as the character, without an actress in mind, but then, when it gets greenlit, they present you a list of who's available. And we immediately were like, oh shit. If Melissa's available, it's got to be Melissa.

And we were worried; when we met with her originally, we kind of did the absolute opposite of what you're supposed to do when you're convincing a star to come do your TV show. You're supposed to be like, 'it'll be fun, and there'll be treats. And what a great time you get to be in Vancouver.'

Whereas we were like, 'look, this is going to be brutal and hard. The water's going to be cold. We're doing all of it for real. You're going to be dirty the whole time. You're not going to have a scene partner for 75% of the shooting. There's going to be bugs; it's going to be hot. And then it's going to get cold at night.'

Struggling to Stay Alive

So, she was like, 'look, I know what you're doing. I know what you're doing. You're not going to scare me off. I love this character, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to bring it to screen.' And she really Tom Cruised the shit out of this.

I mean, she really did almost everything herself and had to get cold-water training and scuba certified, and she does so much dangerous stuff, which is cool. But then she's also able to actually perform during those sequences, as well. It's really in a site to behold.

So she actually was going into the water on a set for the underwater plane?

Yeah. The underwater plane stuff was all done. It was in a giant pool that we built, but it was still like 20 feet deep. And there were safety divers, but there were wide shots where the safety divers were not close, certainly. And she did it all herself.

She got really, really good at holding her breath. And then, honestly, even more impressive was all of the open water work in and around the lake that she crashes into; that water was just above freezing.

Like when we went to scout, it was frozen. We went to take a look in May, and Brendan, my producer co-creator and producing partner, went up to scout it and called me and was like, 'the lake is frozen. They're promising me it will be thawed. It's like snow. I could walk out onto the lake.' And he's like, 'they promise it will be melted, but we have to put Melissa in it.'

Liv Takes a Deep Breath

So we tried to come up with every way not to have to put her in that water. We had thought, could we like build an acrylic tank that we could heat? Or could we build a barge with an infinity pool? And nothing was going to work. There was no getting around her having to be in the water.

And so she actually did cold-water training in her hotel while she was quarantining after coming into Canada where she would take ice baths, supervised by a cold-water trainer, to like acclimate her body, to get her body used to being that cold all the time. Really incredible.

Wow. And the breathing exercises she must have done? That is like my biggest fear of a plane crash or if my car goes into the river. I would die because I could not hold my breath.

I always wonder, how do these people do that? And you can see that the actors are really holding their breath. I'm always so amazed that they could do that.

It's really incredible. And also, it's one thing to do it once, but then to be like, we have to do it several times to get it perfect. And then also, 'I have to perform, I have to emote down here in this plane.' So it's really impressive.

Is There Hope for Life?

She has to emote determination and things other than sheer fear down there. That's incredible.

[laughs] Oddly enough, for her, she has to emote not having a blast, which is what she was, she was having so much fun.

Really?

Yeah, I mean, she really rose to these challenges, and I've never seen a crew rally behind a performer like this.

I think because there were no other actors around for so much of it, everyone felt so protective of her, and she's such a natural leader, coming super, over-prepared, and then doing these insane feats constantly. It was impossible not to be taken by her.

Pulling a Body Ashore

Sure. That sounds like a really interesting shoot. And she had to carry so much of it on her back.

Yeah. She's in every single frame, basically, with the exception of a couple of flashback scenes and so much of it on her own.

Pretty incredible. She was probably happy it was only six, like 30-minute-ish episodes.

[laughs] I think you're right.

As much fun as she was having, she probably thought, can I see some other people every once in a while?

Yeah, exactly.

Looking Out at the Water

So I also want to talk a little bit about Quantum Leap.

Sure.

Because people are always talking about Quantum Leap, and then all of a sudden, here comes this reboot-revivally kind of thing.

Yep.

And bringing these shows back to life is risky business. What's your game plan to lure both fans of the original and new fans to the show?

Well, everyone working on the show is a huge fan of the original. And we also have Don Bellisario and Deborah Pratt; the original brain trust behind the show is working on the show.

Martin Gero Enjoys 2015 TCAs

So it's just a balancing act of trying to modernize it in a way that it like feels like it demands to be on TV right now, but also being incredibly deferential, too. It's a really important show to a lot of people, including me.

I think I watched probably every episode live back in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. So, to be given the opportunity to take on an IP like that and also have the blessing of its original creators to try to do it. They don't want us to do the same show because they did that show, and it was a massive success.

And so, this truly does feel like a sequel more than a reboot. It's a continuation of the story with a brand new set of characters. And again, it allows us to tell great leap stories, but there's a really cool mythology and mystery at its core that takes place in the present day.

So it allows us to tell stories both in the past and now in a way that the old show just wasn't able to do. So it has a little something for everyone, like for people that love the leaps, we're still doing great leaps. I wish I could tell you all about them, but they're so cool, and we are able to do them at a scope that the original show could not.

And then also, it has this phenomenal love story at its center. It has real thrilling mythology at its core, a mystery that I think everyone's going to want to try and figure out. So we're really happy with it. And NBC is giving us the Monday at ten o'clock, which is so exciting. So we're looking forward to hopefully meeting expectations.

Raymond Lee of Quantum Leap

The original show had so many groundbreaking stories through those leaps. It dealt with racial issues and so many other things. Are you going to continue that kind of journey throughout areas of history?

Yeah, absolutely. I think what was great about the original show is it's a TV writer's dream because some of those stories still resonate with people to this day. At its core, it's a show about empathy and literally walking a mile in someone else's shoes and how that changes you. And so that is absolutely a big part of the new version.

Good. Is the mythology going to be connected to the original show? Do we ever find out what happened to that group of people?

Yeah. Some of it is, yeah.

A Blast on Quantum Leap

Well, yay! I figure he was lost forever. So if they're going to be leaping again, they might want to have that on their radar. You know how to keep that from happening again?

Well, that's a big piece. The fact that he got stuck in time forever is a huge part of the show and a huge part of the basis of the mythology that I can't wait to tell you more about once you've seen the first episode.

Okay, good. And speaking of the first episode, two things. There was a shake-up behind the scenes, and now you're showrunning the series. Will that make it easier to see your vision through?

Yeah, absolutely. Look, I've been involved for almost two years now in the project, along with Don and Deborah, NBC, and Universal, and the show we're making now is the show we've always wanted to make.

Helping Someone on Quantum Leap

Okay. I also understand that the pilot is not going to be the first episode but the third.

It's going to be a later episode. We shot an original pilot, and it will eventually be another episode. It won't be the third episode. It'll be a little deeper, probably six. So we're still using a vast amount of that, but for a bunch of reasons, as you said, this is important. We want to get it right. And that's what pilots are for.

It's for learning about what works and what doesn't work on the show. And we learned a tremendous amount making that pilot; the most important part is that our cast tested through the roof; like, this cast is truly phenomenal. I cannot wait for people to get their eyes on this cast.

It's an amazing group of people that we put together, and they are so likable and so engaging. So we did a little bit of story tinkering to make sure that part was as great as the cast is.

Martiin Gero Eyes the Camera

Did you do any reshooting of the pilot so that it fits in later?

Yeah.

Okay, good, good. I just wanted to make sure because I've seen sometimes where shows just do that, and then it's not tinkered. You're like, why?

It wouldn't have made sense because, again, there is a kind of serialized aspect to the show. The show is great because if you're a casual viewer and you just kind of drop in every now and again, you'll still get a really wonderful closed-ended leap anthology story that is fantastic. But for those that want more, there is an ongoing serialized aspect to the show.

And so because of that, obviously, we can't just move episode one to episode six. So there will be some reshooting involved just to make it line up with where the rest of the story is by the time we get to that episode.

Martin Gero Looks Right

And your IMDB page suggests you have even more TV projects in the pipeline. Is that true?

Oh, well yeah, there's a lot going on. I'm very excited and thrilled to be working with my friends at UTV here, and we've got a bunch of stuff in the cooker that, hopefully, we can talk about. How do you keep all that afloat? And you're also a part of Kung Fu, and there's so much going on. How do you manage all that?

Well, I was very lucky to have one of my first showrunning gigs be executive produced by Greg Berlanti, and he knows what the fuck he's doing.

Yeah. I was going to say, 'enough said.'

Yeah. And so I really learned at his feet how he is able to do so much. I'll never be able to do as much as Greg, but I mean, the best thing about this job is every day is totally different.

Martin Gero at 2018 TCAs

And so it's a privilege to be able to like talk about Kung Fu in the morning and then jump into Quantum Leap and focus on that. And then put the finishing touches on Keep Breathing and talk development with these other writers about what these new shows could be.

It honestly allows you to not burn out on one thing and keep the enthusiasm for all of them going. And then they all sort of kind of cross-pollinate where you're like, 'oh, you know what, we're doing that on Kung Fu.'

We learn some things about how that works, and we can apply that to Quantum Leap where we can apply that, or like 'this really worked for Keep Breathing. Is there a way for us to be able to do something similar in Quantum Leap?' So it's actually easier than it sounds.

And also, I have a tremendous amount of help. These shows are made by hundreds and hundreds of phenomenally gifted and talented people. So, I don't really believe in the like auteur definition for showrunners and television makers. It really does take a village. It's just a great team.

Keep Breathing is currently on Netflix, and Quantum Leap joins the NBC roster on Monday, September 19 at 10/9c.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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Quantum Leap Quotes

Ben: Some people assume that because I’m a physicist, I can’t be romantic. What they don’t realize is science is romance.
Jenn: Yeah, I’m sorry I asked for that speech now.
Ben: I’m serious. Take the law of entanglement. Once two particles experience a shared state, they’re no longer separate entities. They exist as one, even when separated by great distances.

Look, I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job. I’m just merely offering a counterpoint from someone who has impeccable taste in music.

Ian