I have been watching God Friended Me since the day it aired and have loved it from the start. In fact, I had seen many promos for the show and couldn't wait for it to air. Like you will read below in a quote by Steven Lilien, with the current climate in the US so divided, I was looking forward to watching a heartwarming show about love, friendship and hope.
What I didn't know, until about episode 12, was that the show was written and created by a Livingston High School graduate—a fact I learned from Jason Ubaldi, the star of the last edition of this column. So, when I started thinking about who to feature next in the Where Are They Now column – Steven was first on my list!
I really enjoyed speaking with Steven and getting to know the person who created this very special show. I hope you enjoy reading about him as much as I enjoyed wiring this piece!
Please note that while two of the first three articles to run in this column have had to do with success in TV, I am interested in talking with and writing about anyone with a connection to Livingston who has done something interesting or charitable. I don’t want anyone to think that they have to be in this field to be considered for this column. There are so many interesting people who have come through the Livingston school system or who live/have lived in town and I look forward to hearing from you all!
When Steven Lilien, a 1995 graduate of Livingston High School and two-time Varsity baseball and basketball player, went to Arizona State University to study architecture, becoming a writer for TV wasn’t even a thought in his mind. Now, with multiple shows under his belt – two of which he’s created, he’s an award-winning showrunner.
“As a kid and young man, while I loved watching TV and movies, I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be writing for TV,” he says.
On Feb. 8, 2019, Steven’s hit show, God Friended Me, which he created with long-time writing partner, Bryan Wynbrandt, received the coveted Humanitas Prize for a 60-Minute Drama. In addition, the show, which was picked up for a 20-episode run in its first season, has been picked up for a second season.
“We couldn’t be happier with the success of the show and the prestigious award,” says Steven, of the prize, which was created to honor film and TV writers whose work inspires compassion, hope, and understanding in the human family. Like all the of 2019 prize winners, Steven will be donating the $20,000 award to nonprofits engaged in nurturing young writers. This is the second year that prize winners have made this gesture.
According to CBS, God Friended Me is a humorous, uplifting drama about an outspoken atheist whose life is turned upside down when he receives a friend request on social media from God and unwittingly becomes an agent of change in the lives and destinies of others around him.
When Steven was at college, he lost his father and started writing in his spare time. After graduation, he packed up and moved to LA.
“It’s crazy to think that I’ve lived in LA for 19 years – 10 with my wife Lindsay,” he says. “My kids were born here and are native Angelenos.”
He says that getting into the business was hard. He spent his first six weeks in LA, sleeping on a friend’s couch.
“There were times when I wanted to give up my dream and move back to NJ, but my friends and family were very encouraging and supportive,” he says.
He shares that some even sent him money to keep afloat when he was a PA.
“This was everything to me,” he says of the support he received.
According to his brother Andrew, a 1990 LHS graduate, who is raising his family in Livingston, “There were times, especially in the early years, when Steven was in LA, that he'd have some long stretches of being unemployed. A show would get canceled, and sometimes it took a long time to get on another show or to get something sold. Many friends and family members urged him to quit and come back East and find a 'real job.'”
“I always believed in him, as his dedication 'to always following through and staying with it' are his best traits,” he says.
He shares, “In the early 2000s, Steven was working as a PA for Imagine TV, on 24, for Ron Howard and Bryan Grazer. Bryan called the office to say his car had broken down at a studio and he was stuck. The company sent a car to get him, but the car never showed up. Everyone in the office was afraid to personally go and get Bryan for fear of maybe being chewed out. At the time, Steven was driving a late 1980's model Acura Integra, that barely, and, I mean barely ran. It had about 200,000 miles on it, and I'm not even sure if the passenger seat of this two-door car moved back because the passenger, literally, had to sit about an inch from the windshield. Steven showed his dedication to the company and his job that day by personally driving this ‘piece of garbage,’ to pick up and drive Bryan Grazer back to the office.”
He adds, “I knew from that moment, Steven had the dedication needed to stick with it, no matter how long it took, or what he had to do to succeed. He refused to give up, and get quote, 'a real job.'”
“Steven ended up getting a big break by landing on an obscure ABC Family show called, Kyle XY, a Sci-Fi show about a kid with no belly button, and from there, he took off,” says Andrew.
Kyle XY was also significant for another reason – it was where Steven met his writing partner Bryan Wynbrandt.
Steven went on to work steadily, writing for shows like NBC’s Boomtown, CSI NY, Hawaii 5.0 and Gotham.
He and Bryan then created Alcatraz for Bad Robot/JJ Abrams, which aired for one season, and wrote a show, called Overbrook, that had Will Smith attached. But like many shows in LA, he says with a laugh, “It never got made.”
Steven says he and Bryan came up with the premise of God Friended Me seven years ago. It was born out of a simple insignificant event. A friend suggested a friend for Bryan on Facebook, and suddenly he and Steven just started riffing on what it would be like if they got a friend request from God about people in need of help.
“We put this idea on the back-burner, as we were working on Alcatraz at the time,” Steven says. “Then, a year and half ago, the country became so divided and torn over the election and people were losing touch with humanity – it felt like the right time to tell this story, where hope was front and center.” Thus, God Friended Me was born.
Steven says there are eight writers on the show’s team and that many of the stories in the scripts come from the writers’ personal lives.
“That’s why they ring so true with viewers,” he says. “The stories touch you and make you feel, laugh and cry.”
He also says that some of the stories are loosely based on stories he’s heard over the years, and on his and Bryan’s lives. For instance, like Miles Finer, the show’s main character, played by Brandon Micheal Hall, who lost his mom, Steven lost his dad.
Steven says that he was very involved in the casting of the show for the pilot and that when Brandon walked in, “with all that charm and charisma,” he knew they had found Miles.
He adds that Joe Morton, who plays the father of Miles, Arthur Finer, heard about the show and reached out to them for consideration.
“He had just come off of many seasons of Scandal, where he played a villain, and wanted to play a completely different character,” says Steven. “Hearing that he was interested was incredible — it was dream casting.”
He says that Suraj Sharma, who plays Rakesh, was easy to cast. He adds that this character embodies many people whom Steven has been close to in his life. Suraj, who starred in Life of Pi, sent in a self-taped audition, flew out to LA and landed the role.
God Friended Me is a bi-coastal show. It is written in LA and filmed in NY, which gives Steven many opportunities to visit with his family, most of whom still live in Livingston, or nearby, and to eat at favorite places like The Ritz.
“The show has been a labor of love,” says Steven, adding that he’s proud that it’s a family show he can show his kids, Beau, who is 5 and Liv, who is 8.
He says that the character Liv, the younger sister of Cara Bloom’s Violet Beane, one of the show’s leads, is named after his daughter, Liv. The character, Liv, is played by Eleanor Koski.
Steven jokes, “My daughter is always asking me how the actress playing her, is doing.”
With God Friended Me doing so well, Steven says that while he has many other show ideas rolling around in his head, right now, he is just focusing on what’s in stow next season for the characters of his hit show.
For those wondering about having their own TV writing careers, he says, “People can accomplish anything they put their minds to,” and recommends “chasing one’s dreams.