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Vulnerability As an Asset: A Conversation with 'Keep Breathing' Creators Martin Gero and Brendan Gall

Martin Gero and Brendan Gall speak with Script about how their story idea for 'Keep Breathing' was developed, their process behind character development and shaping episodes, how Martin and Brendan became creative collaborators and so much more. Plus, these two share invaluable advice for writers breaking into the industry.

After her private plane crashes in the remote Canadian frontier, lone survivor and New York lawyer, Liv, must battle both an unforgiving wilderness and past personal demons to stay alive.

Keep Breathing is a survival thriller series executive produced by co-showrunners and writers Brendan Gall and Martin Gero (Blindspot, The Lovebirds) and Maggie Kiley (Dr. Death, Dirty John).

Finding and establishing a creative bond and relationship is hard to come by in this industry - it really can feel like one in a million, but when you do find that shared creative spirit with another, the storytelling possibilities are endless. And that's exactly what was forged and continues to develop between seemingly connected at the hip creative partners Martin Gero and Brendan Gall. Their latest creative endeavor is the meditative adventure drama Keep Breathing, which garnered a top spot on Netflix's viewership worldwide within its initial release on July 28, 2022. 

I had the great pleasure of speaking with this creative duo about how this story idea was developed, their process behind character development and shaping episodes, how Martin and Brendan became creative collaborators and so much more. Plus, these two share invaluable advice for writers breaking into the industry.

Keep Breathing. Melissa Barrera as Liv in episode 102 of Keep Breathing. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

Keep Breathing. Melissa Barrera as Liv in episode 102 of Keep Breathing. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Where did the seed initially come from for this story? Was it character first or the idea of being out in the wilderness?

Martin Gero: Yeah, it was kind of the wilderness. Brendan and I have been very lucky that we have never worked on the same kind of show twice, and we were just finishing up this other show called Blindspot which was a rollicking, great time, but it was like the loudest television show, maybe ever. And we come out of a mix one day with a concussion headache and we were circling around the Warner Bros. backlot and just thinking like, ‘What is the quietest show we could do? What is the opposite of this? What is something that would feel actually restorative and meditative?’

Martin Gero

Martin Gero

We're both Canadian, and I've been privileged to be able to experience the Canadian wilderness growing up and we were living in the states at the time, I still do and it was often like this incredible respite to go up there and recharge and we were like, ‘Can we bottle that feeling? Is there a way to have a show that has stakes and has urgency, obviously, but that can also feel like a three-hour walk in the woods and have the same effect?’ That was kind of the initial idea.

Sadie: You certainly brought that essence into this show. How much time was spent ahead of time breaking down Liv’s backstory, and then choosing pivotal and emotional turning points from her life and interweaving it with her survival mode in the wilderness?

Brendan Gall: Originally, our intention was to keep the story entirely in the present in the woods, a survival kind of realm. I think we were partly influenced by a film called All Is Lost, with Robert Redford stuck on a sailboat and that film for us is so captivating, and he says like two words other than a short little voiceover at the beginning and the end. Essentially everything else was silent and just him working through problems. And we were very interested in a version of storytelling that was immediate and sort of cast based. And like, [laughs] in some ways, like a procedural about not dying in the forest. How do you build a fire? How do you stay warm at night? How do you make drinking potable drinking water? All these sorts of things that we don't have to deal with in our lovely, luxurious life with plumbing and rooms and things. It just becomes interesting, especially when you're an amateur - you're good in your field – Liv was a very talented lawyer, but she's not interested in camping and she's certainly not interested in surviving in the woods by herself. But there she is.

Brendan Gall

Brendan Gall

When we realized we were making a series and not a 90-minute feature, we sort of realized that we were craving something more - we needed to understand more about this person. What's great about the movie, you don't know anything about his life, you kind of only see little glimmers from a presumed daughter or an ex-wife or something, you really don't know who this person is. And for us, we started to crave who this person was, how she came to be in this moment in time. Why was this corporate lawyer all of a sudden going to the Northwest Territories? And a story sort of organically unfolded. And honestly, I think, Martin, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we kind of created a backstory as needed as we were putting her in situations in the present. We were asking ourselves what sort of moments in her life would she flashback to in this moment that will help to inform it, or cast that moment into relief, put it in opposition. And this story about an estranged parent and kind of a chaotic childhood, and a person who was so armored up from that childhood that she had a great deal of difficulty loving and allowing herself to be loved in romantic relationships and even close friendships, you know, she's a person who doesn't let people get close, period. And it just kind of evolved organically and the truth is, it was only after I think our first run through the material in outline stage that we really made sure we went back and then put the backstory in a linear shape that truly makes sense, and there was some rejigging to be done. But we kind of built it around the present truth be told.

Sadie: Wow, that's such an interesting process.

Martin: Yeah, and I think honestly, once it was done, we realized how autobiographic some of it was [laughs] because part of it seeped in really slowly. It was fascinating what got dredged from the subconscious as we were writing it and it became really clear to us that when you talk to people about being stuck in the woods, aside from the survival aspect, the thing that seemed to stick out the most was like, ‘Oh my god, I'd be alone with my thoughts.’ [laughs] And you're like, ‘Whoa, that's pretty intense. That's number three on the list of being stuck in the woods?’ And so, for us, our lives are so willfully busy most of the time, and it allows us to constantly be distracted and not deal with things and so, it became really clear to us that suddenly as the flashbacks start very impressionistically to the point where people are like, ‘Who is that woman?’ Even though she says, ‘Mom,’ the first time you see her, it doesn't land - it's just like a wash of images. And then as the chaos in the present subsides and she gets her feet under her, that's when slowly this deluge of memories and moments that she has not dealt with ever start to come to her. And I think oddly, the journey becomes one of healing for her. Not just survival.

Sadie: Yeah, it's wilderness therapy.

Martin: Yeah, exactly.

Sadie: I think a lot of people can totally relate to that, especially writers, we're always in our brains and talking to ourselves in some way. It's just so interesting how you guys were able to walk that fine line between all those aspects of that storytelling.

Brendan: I had a playwright friend who just reached out and he said that he really appreciated that he felt the value of that it felt like vulnerability was an asset in the character - a thing to be chased as opposed to the sort of like very common storytelling thing sort of like obdurate strength being the value that you're chasing - Liv has no shortage of strength. She's an incredibly strong character. Physically and also emotionally in some ways. But for us it's interesting, we all build these defense mechanisms for ourselves that get us through our lives. And then at a certain point, those defense mechanisms when they don't serve us anymore like Liv armored up to get through her childhood, you know, and it made her a great lawyer but it also cost a great deal and all of a sudden, that defense mechanism starts to cut her off from relationships and from people. And so, it was nice to be able to tell a story where a character is maybe against her will, becoming more vulnerable, becoming more open, and open to her past and kind of dealing with it.

Sadie: And I do wonder about future Liv – is she going to be the same professionally and with her personal relationships?

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Martin: I think it's all about balance, right? Liv's living an unbalanced life. If she could find a way to have a relationship with those close to her that is healthy and still be a badass in court? Great, more power to her but like, one was infecting the other pretty bad.

Brendan: We wrote the pilot pre-pandemic, but the rest of the series is very much in the heart of the pandemic when we wrote it, and it absolutely informs in terms of the story we were telling and I think, I observed a lot of people with all these Zooms we were having - we were in people's lives and kind of in people's families and in their spaces and seeing kids wandering in and out of frame. I did feel like for myself and for people I was observing in the industry, a reordering of priorities a little bit, and also an acknowledging of people's personal lives that was prior, sort of put away, and sort of purposefully not discussed or looked at, and I think for her out in the woods, there's a reshuffling of priorities probably that happened when she gets through it and things that seemed important suddenly aren't and things that didn't suddenly are.

Sadie: It's just such great character development that you explored over six episodes. Again, I don't know how you guys do it, but you’re pros.

Martin: Honestly, it's through mostly failing, if that makes you feel better. [laughs] We’ve been lucky enough to work long enough that we're standing on an ocean of failure.

Brendan: [laughs]

Martin: Mistakes that were hopefully caught before they made it to air and when they weren't they're even bigger lessons, but the incredible thing about working for a streaming platform like Netflix is the time. It's sometimes aggravating at the glacial pace that it takes because everyone wants to like, 'I want to be making stuff now!' They originally bought this as eight one-hour episodes and through the writing and experimentation we were like, 'I think this is six-hour episodes.' And then as we were making them and editing them we were like, 'This is six half-hour episodes. I'm so sorry.' [laughs] But they so supportive because it doesn't matter. What matters is a great product and to have a year to write them and to have truly a year to do post-production on this thing really allowed us to catch all the mistakes we made. And make it clean and make it the thing that you saw.

Sadie: When putting together your creative team, namely your two directors Maggie Kiley and Rebecca Rodriguez, did you have these two directors in mind going in or was this kind of like an interview process of like, what works best for the show and how do they deliver tonally?

Martin: It was an interview process. I was certainly aware of both Maggie and Rebecca. And they both, I don't know, it's really hard to explain, all of these meetings are always kind of like...

Brendan: Alchemy. [laughs]

Martin: Yeah, alchemy. There’s like a speed dating aspect to it. [laughs] You know what I mean? You have to very quickly be like, ‘Oh, is this my person? Is this the person that is really going to take our vision and make it better and honor what is there?’ And we just felt tremendously safe with them and also, so aligned with them creatively. And thankfully, that went through, and then also, thankfully, you know, we're both executive producers and Brendan was there every single day of shooting, and we're just so thankful that they, both of the directors, felt like creative partners the whole way through and that was a conversation that didn't just end in prep. It continued through production and post-production. As the entire team of us - Iturri Sosa who is also one of the writers and in all of our editors, and our directors, as we all kind of found the show together.


Brendan: Of course, we had our idea of like, ‘We're gonna make this tiny little show, it's gonna be bare bones crew,’ and then of course, it balloons up to however many 100 people ended up being there, but we were so lucky. Just the collaborators that we got, were true collaborators. They were excited about the material. And I think, we're very interested in curating a group of experts who know things we don't know. So obviously, we have very strong opinions, but also, we want to be challenged. We want someone who knows more than we do about sound about production design to come up to us and say, 'Hey, I think you're missing an opportunity here,’ or ‘I think this is a good idea, but it's sort of wrongheaded in how you're executing it,' and you build this thing together, and they show you things that you could have never brought yourself and elevate the material again and again and again. And it just grows exponentially with all of these people who were such passionate storytellers in their field.

It was a really humbling and moving thing to watch every day, because the process of making the show was not easy. It was not easy on our lead actress who showed up every day with unbelievable grit. And it was not easy on any department - lugging equipment through the woods through ridiculous roads that weren't even roads every day, mosquitoes, and fire warnings and it was an insane process and everybody was so game. And it was just an incredible thing to behold.

Sadie: It's such an incredible feeling when you find a team that is so gung ho about the story and just wants to make the best thing possible together.

Brendan: You feel it. People are responding to it, and I know they're responding to it because of the love that it was made from. For Martin and I, the process is as important as the product. And if it's a shitty process, if it's an unpleasant toxic process, the show was a failure regardless of its commercial success. It's not how we're interested in working - life is too short. And, there's no reason to not find joy and kindness and respect in the creation process, and that's what we really are chasing now. And I felt really proud of what everybody brought.

Martin: And just very quickly, but like Episode Five, which is a lot of people's favorite episode - that's kind of the huge dream episode. That episode, when we saw the director's cut - and this is not on the director and it's not on the editor, it's fully on us - that was a piece of shit. [laughs] It was a garbage mess, that I couldn't sleep for two days because I was like, 'Oh my god, we were doing so well. What did we even think this episode was about?!' And thankfully, our editor Mike Banas and I, who was a longtime collaborator, who we, unfortunately, lost right at the end of this process, we rewrote that entire episode in the editing suite. And it was miraculous to watch him, once again save our ass. [laughs] And take that episode that went from fully embarrassing to now a fan favorite. You're never out of the woods. It's always chasing you. And it's OK. [laughs] Things can be always fixed. You know? It's like there's always room for repair.

Brendan: The problem solving is actually part of the fun.

Sadie: How did you two initially connect and become essentially lifelong creative collaborators?

Martin: Well, I love my friend. He makes everything better. It's a really rad collab. When we met in our early 20s, we were both very serious about writing and we're kind of some of the only people that were serious about writing and so we've been reading each other's material for forever. And then the first chance that I got to run a show, Brendan was of course going to be a part of it, and the Venn diagram of what we were good at, there used to be very little overlap. I think I was good at this sort of stuff, he was good at that sort of stuff. But we've been making stuff for 15-20 years now and the Venn diagram has kind of gone away. [laughs] I'm kind of good at what he was and he's honestly better at doing some of the things that I used to be good at.

Doing this thing is so hard. It is so lonely to be a writer, in many ways. It requires a level of vulnerability and introspection. It feels wonderful to have someone standing there who can affirm, 'No, that's good,’ or ‘No, that is very bad.' Before anyone else, honestly. [laughs] And it's built on just phenomenal trust. Brendan always says it's like, well, I'm gonna stop talking.

Brendan: What am I going to say?! I don't know what I'm about to say. [laughs]

Martin: [laughs] We love to argue, and it's never gotten weird. You know what I mean? It's insanely respectful. And that kind of pressure on a piece makes it better always, and you're lucky if you're a solo writer to maybe have a friend that can give a good pass, but to have somebody who's actually there, in the very creation of the piece constantly making it better, it can help give you more confidence in the piece and also make the piece better. And whenever we're off, we kind of default to the person who cares about it more.

I've been many times in an editing suite, and I've just offered Brendan $1,000 to just change something. [laughs] I just I'm like, 'I hate this so much. Can we please change it?' And like he's like, 'Yeah,' and vice versa. Although he never offered me money. [laughs]

Brendan: It's a great little side hustle. Pretend to care about things to make Martin pay me. [laughs] The first thing Martin and I made together was a fringe show in Toronto in the early 2000s with a handful of friends. And I think, in some ways, we managed to somehow keep that feeling of the glee and joy of making something. We just have these moments of clarity where we look around at the incredible fortune we have and the things we've got to make and at the level, we've been able to make them and we know how lucky we are. Apart from a day here or there have managed to not get too jaded by the industry and still really love what we do and love working with each other and we keep each other honest when one of us gets tired and wants to give up and just be like, 'Good enough!' the other one you know inevitably says 'No, not good enough. We got to stick with this. We got to do this again. We got to make it better.' And we just take turns being the strong one and being the tired one. [laughs]

And yeah, we love fighting, but we're fighting for something together. So that's the difference to me is it's a discourse. It's a debate, and it's done with so much love underneath all of it. And a mutual goal that I just keep waiting for us to get tired of working together and it just hasn't happened for me yet. And at this point, I don't really think it's going to and it's, ‘What's the next thing?’

Martin: It's one of the longest relationships of my life. Whenever I have an idea and he thinks it's a good idea for a new project, I'm always like, 'Wow, this is cool.' [laughs] It's lame of both of us. I don't know how we've been able to hold on to so much naivete, but I think it's important.

Sadie: All I can picture is sixty years from now guys are like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks still hanging out, walking over to each other's houses with meatballs --

Brendan: Eating dinner together. Watching the wheel.

Sadie: Exactly.

Martin: I think that's honestly an important part of it, though, is that Brendan doesn't like to hang out. Brendan is a homebody, so honestly, this is the only way I can ever see Brandan. Because if we don’t continue to make things the friendship will just die within a year if we stop making things.

Sadie: [laughs] You just have to keep paying him too, that helps.

Martin: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]

Sadie: I really appreciate that the two of you don't necessarily pigeonhole yourselves to one specific genre as creatives. I wonder, is there a difference to how you approach world-building in a type of genre like sci-fi or writing a comedy feature, or does it not entirely matter and it’s kind of all of the same if that makes any sense?

Martin: It totally does make sense and honestly, I think it's the great failing of the industry that if you have done a half-hour comedy that's all you're allowed to do. I was very lucky that the early part of my career was just chaotically tonally diverse and we've just been able to somehow continue that. But I mean, every writer loves everything - none of us just watch comedy or just watch drama or just watch reality - we love it all. And so, as creators, you don't want to fall into the rhythms of this is how I write a scene and this is how I do this. It’s exciting to be wrong and to do something that is just out of your comfort area. And also, it's a way to combat writer's block and burnout.

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Brendan: It's impossible to call something in when you don't know how to do it yet. When the ‘making of the thing’ is how you learn, you have to be very awake and very present in every meeting. Because you're like, 'We're crashing a plane into a lake…we're actually doing that? I thought that was just a crazy thing Martin said just to scare department heads to bring our A-game,’ but like, 'Oh, we're actually gonna crash the plane. I don't know how to do that. I've never done that. It doesn't sound safe.’ [laughs] You feel very alive in those meetings, and you leave kind of energized being like, ‘Oh, we're gonna crash a plane,' and lo and behold we did and it's a great way to stay activated. And stay learning. It's pretty amazing.

Keep Breathing. Episode 101 of Keep Breathing. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Keep Breathing. Episode 101 of Keep Breathing. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Sadie: You guys are definitely chameleons in that aspect. Any advice for writers who are wanting to break into the industry, either in film or TV or both, what's something that they should be aware of now, especially in the industry, since it's changing so much year over year, with streaming and staffing and hybrid rooms?

Brendan: The one thing that occurs to me is, I guess it's a great example of a show like Keep Breathing, that felt like such a small little thing that we cared about, but we weren't entirely sure how it's going to be received - and people are into it. And I think the lesson for me in that was that you need to keep what you care about centered in your work, whatever that might be. And that as long as you are trying to tell stories that you would want to watch and then as you are trying to build characters that you want to spend time with, you can't go too far wrong. There's so much out of your control - always everywhere, but especially in the entertainment industry. And you could spend your whole life guessing why something didn't go, why you didn't get hired for this or why it didn't land with someone. All you really have as your divining rod - your own sense, your own aesthetic, your own sense of passion and set of concerns and that if you try to fix someone else's, that's when you might still fail, also at the end of the career, look back and say, ‘I never tried to make something I gave a shit about.’ I think that's the most important thing for me is you still might fail but fail at making something you really give a damn about.

Martin: I think that's great, because honestly, this show felt like our side art project. We wanted it to be entertaining and everything, but we knew it was small. We knew it had a pace that was different and we kind of wrote it just on our own, and it sat on a shelf for a few years until Netflix was like, 'Hey, we're looking for survival dramas with female leads. Do you have anything like that?' We're like, 'Yes, we do. Yes, we do.' So, the fact that the show is a now global phenomenon [laughs] I mean, it's kind of mind-numbing in a way that I don't think any of us - like either of us, anyone involved in the show doesn't know how to process what happened this last week. For it to go from release to number one in the globe in two days is inexplicable and it really shows you should not be guessing where the market is. That's not our job as writers. Our job as writers is to make something that feels emotionally resonant to us and pray that other people feel the same. The more specific you can make it to you, the more universal it is, like, if this isn't an example of that, I don't know what is.

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As far as young writers and what they should be doing, I mean, I don't think it's enough to just be a writer anymore is the one thing. You should be out there making stuff. I would have truly murdered someone for an iPhone when I was fifteen. [laughs] You have a film studio in your pocket, you can do everything on it. And not only should you be making stuff compulsively because then by the time you're actually doing it for a living, you made a ton of mistakes and you know what you're doing a little bit more, but it's really the best way to pop is to create something tactile, that people can see and be like, 'Oh, I get it. I get your tone,' but if your tone in your head doesn't necessarily come across on the page, sometimes if you show it to someone, they can understand it better.

Also, I think with these hybrid rooms and mini rooms, the biggest drag is that it's removing junior and even senior writers from ever coming into contact with production. I think you have to start getting creative with how you as a young writer can get on set, how you as a young writer can get in the editing room, even if it's just shadowing other productions, because I think the scary part now is a lot of writers are going to become showrunners without having been on set or edited a show and they will have worked so hard for that opportunity and they won't be ready for it. And so that's the thing that I think our industry is really trying to figure out right now, because there's not a clear answer. Except for the studios just need to spend more money on writer development.

Keep Breathing is available on Netflix.

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