Here’s another of Diane Haithman’s TV showrunner interviews for Deadline:
It wasn’t love at first bite with showrunners Kevin Williamson, 45, and Julie Plec, 37, for a teen drama on The CW based on L.J. Smith’s popular book series. But Plec talked Williamson into reading the novels, and the pair became convinced they had a shot at reinventing the high school vampire even in the long shadow of Twilight. The frequent collaborators already had a pedigree in angst. Williamson had created the Scream movie franchise, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and produced Halloween: H20. Plec had co-produced Scream 3, Wes Craven’s Cursed – written by Williamson — and The Breed, plus been a production consultant on Dawson’s Creek, which Williamson created for the WB. All that experience paid off: When The Vampire Diaries premiered on Sept. 10, 2009, it attracted one of the largest audiences of any series since The CW had launched back in 2006. The first season finale will air on May 13, and the show already has been renewed for a second season.
In this interview, Plec and Williamson explain their division of labor; the risks of riding the vampire trend; the relentless story demands of the hour drama’s six-act structure; and the differences between The Vampire Diaries and Glee:
DH: Your goal is expanding your audience beyond teenage girls?
JP: In terms of the teenage girls in our audience, our job was just to not screw that up, because they were there to be had. But men and grownups and all, that has been a nice surprise hearing that people are tuning in who not only normally wouldn’t have, but it’s become a secret obsession for them.
KW: I also feel like we’re winning over some of those hardcore genre boys, who like their vampires mean. The ones who seem to have given it a chance seem to respond well to it. I’d just like to get more viewership in all the cult quadrants.
DH: Cult quadrants – there’s a phrase that is probably more on your mind than mine. The vampire legend has been around so long, it’s easy to forget that vampirism only recently has evolved into something glamorous and sexy.
KW: You know, the first time I remember vampires being glamorous was [the 1987 movie] The Lost Boys. I just remember how cool that was when I was a youngster, how much fun it was to see vampires be young and teenaged.
JP: Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, and never die. It’s fun being a vampire.
DH: That’s what Peter Pan wanted — without the dietary restrictions. Why can’t the world get enough of vampires? They can certainly get enough of other supernatural legends, but there’s just something about vampires…
KW: I’m sure all good things must come to an end eventually, but hopefully that’ll be right around Episode 100 [the number of episodes required for a series to be sold into syndication]. Who knows how long it’s going to last?
JP: There’s that risk that you’re the thing that pushes it over to the backlash, the thing that makes everybody turn around and say: “You know, that’s enough.”
KW: Julie and I considered that greatly when I first read the book. On page 50, I said this is Twilight. And so I wasn’t really interested. And then Julie was reading ahead of me and she said to just keep reading the book because it really does depart from Twilight. And when I continued on, I realized that they are really two completely different worlds, two different stories. But then is it one too many?
JP: And weirdly, not only were we not the thing that made everybody go: “Oh God, no more”, but, after we started, everybody said: “Oh, great, now there can be more vampire things.”
KW: We sort of slipped by. But Julie and I …we know what we do, and do well. And we thought if we’re given a chance, if people stick with us, they’ll see this is not Twilight.
JP: And earn our place in the lexicon, or whatever.
DH: Although I have to think The CW would have been thrilled if you were another Twilight. I can’t imagine them having a problem with that.
JP: That’s why we initially said no. We thought, OK, it makes sense that network television might want to capitalize on Twilight, and would consider themselves so lucky just to have Twilight for TV. That’s not what we wanted to deliver them. But there was nothing in the way that they approached this material or presented it to us that made us feel like, oh, just do what they do so well in those Edward and Bella movies, and we’ll be just fine. At the beginning, they challenged us to be as original and fresh as we can be.
KW: The pilot is probably as reminiscent as it gets, the first day of school, guy meets girl, it’s very similar.
DH: It seems as though, Kevin, when you have ventured outside of the supernatural, the TV shows haven’t worked as well. [Williamson’s ABC series Wasteland and The CW’s Hidden Palms both tanked].
KW: Yeah, thanks for bringing that up.
DH: Is that the difference, or was there something else going on?
KW: I don’t know. I mean I do feel like this is my pool to a certain degree, and it’s fun to swim in it. And I have tried to venture out, I have had some ups and downs and certainly had some TV shows that have just like crashed and burned…Who knows? Vampires are hot. I just sort of attached myself to the right train.
DH: Tell me logistically how this show got on The CW and how it work now.
JP: We got hired to do this job in November of last year, we immediately wrote the script, pilot season was essentially already over, and this was a late thing for [Vampire producer] Warner Bros. and for The CW. We wrote the script as quickly as possible over Christmas , handed it in January , it was ordered to pilot within a week of us handing it in, we then produced and made the pilot in Vancouver in March and April. And then immediately turned around and posted it in an accelerated 10-day process, and delivered it. It got picked up within a week, and the first day after the upfront week, when we went to announce the show in May , we started our writers.
KW: The minute we started, we were already a month behind. One of the reasons for that is The CW has an early season launch — they launch in September when the other networks are mid-October or beyond — so that was a handicap for us.
JP: We have a full production office and all of our stages and all of our actors are in Atlanta for the whole time. And we have here in L.A. all of our post-production and everything involved in post, and our writers. In a perfect world Kevin and I should be in both places all the time, and unfortunately for us we haven’t been able to go back and forth as much as we would like.
KW: I also think we have the most amazing postproduction team too. I am working with some of the best editors I’ve ever worked with in my life. That has just been such a tremendous help for the process. We’re lucky that all the other elements came together so Julie and I can just agonize over the scripts. Because we’re writers.
JP: If you think about it, we are making 22 movies [per season], 22 shoots and 22 preps, you have to sign off on 22 episodes worth of wardrobe, photos and props, etc, etc. And on top of all that you have to actually sit down and be creative, and write. If there is one person on the planet who says they can do it all by themselves, they are lying And if any one of those departments is not doing it well, it’s disastrous. It’s a catastrophe.
KW: The only department that’s not working [well] is us. Everyone else is doing their jobs like gangbusters. The problem is really Julie and Kevin.
DH: What is the division of labor between you two as the official showrunners?
KW: It’s a first-year show, so we really are glued at the hip a lot of the time, even though we know that’s not how it should be.
JP: I would say this of our partnership: much to our detriment, we are very co-dependent, and we like to make all the decisions together.
KW: But also it’s because we are out of time, and we didn’t have the luxury of being able to sit down for a month and say: “Gee, Julie, how do you see the show?” “I don’t know, Kevin, how do you see it?” We’ve just been kind of swinging from the hip. We do a lot of things together so that we can be on the same page creatively.
JP: I always say we should be two people doing two people’s jobs creatively; instead we’re two people doing one person’s job. Instead of having an extra brain, we share a brain right now. But I think that’s going to be true of any first season show when you are really just trying to get a shared sensibility, and one person wouldn’t necessarily know the right look or tone or vibe or attitude right off the bat. So two of us can duke it out, fight it out. And as far as the process goes, we both sign off on everything – we write together, we break story together, we do everything together.
KW: We look at wardrobe together…
JP: And sometimes we fight. He’ll say: “Oh God, I hate that shirt, that’s the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen,” and I say: “Uh oh, I think I just approved it an hour ago.”
KW: But I think it’s working out. Ultimately though, the goal is after this first year when we’re up and running, we can just sort of divide and conquer a little bit.
JP: A better division of labor, and better division in terms of experience.
KW: In terms of the process of writing, we have to work so fast, because we’re so behind. But the thing that always works well with me is, Julie and I talk it out, if we just talk it out, I can go write it really quickly. I’ve always been able to work well with Julie.
DH: Who sits down at the word processor and actually writes it?
KW: Julie does. We split it up.
JP: I’ll say, you take Act I and I’ll take Act II, we’ll each write our acts and then we’ll swap and re-write each other, and end up in a place where if we’re both happy with it, we’ve made it as strong as it can be. So it’s funny, because we’ll sit sometimes across from each other in the same room — for the pilot, it was his kitchen table, and he had his laptop and I had mine, and we’d sit in silence for 7 hours with our headsets on, and then exchange pages. And now we’re so sick of our office, any opportunity that we each get to go home and work individually at home, we take.
DH: You hear about these writing teams where one of them is good at story, and one of them is good at dialogue or character..
KW: I can write something really, really fast and I can hand it over to Julie and she can clean it up and make it really sing, and vice versa, I hope.
JP: I was not a writer professionally until the last 5 years, but I had worked with Kevin on and off for the last 15 years, as friends and occasional associates and I learned to write basically by helping him.
KW: By writing Dawson’s Creek.
JP: No. I learned very early on to mimic…
KW: She’s not really telling the truth, exactly – are you scared of the truth? On Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), that was a very, very tough time. I was in the middle of 3 or 4 different movies, trying to write that show, and Julie helped me write it, simple as that. And I got a lot of those scripts done because they were co-written by Julie. And/or written by Julie.
DH: It seems that more and more when I want to interview the showrunner of a show, there are two or three of them. Has it come to that point one person can’t do it all?
JP: Absolutely, totally, completely impossible — to the point of absolute, chaotic nervous breakdown. We were talking to another set of showrunners recently, and when they got to the fourth season of a show, they had four of them. Four executive producers. And the show was running smoothly enough at the time and everybody was on board with everybody’s creative vision that they would each take an episode to oversee from start to finish…and then it would rotate. That’s my fantasy.
DH: To be able to do all the work on one episode and then take a break?
JP: Well, the minute you finish up one episode, another starts. It’s just that you are not multi-tasking six things all the way through.
DH: I remember looking back at some old news stories when The Vampire Diaries first launched, and they were predicting the hits, and Vampire Diaries and Glee seemed to be the most-often mentioned, as different as they are.
KW and JP: We love Glee. It makes us so happy.
DH: The shows tap into such different aspects of the high schooler — one is bright and cartoonish, whereas the other is dark and brooding.
JP: It’s all about the outsider, though.
DH: The vampires would be the cool kids, but they’re vampires — that’s what makes them outsiders. But they look really great, whereas the outsiders in Glee are sort of the goofy kids.
JP: The unfortunates.
DH: Even if they were vampires, they wouldn’t be cool?
JP: But boy, can they sing.
DH (to JP): In terms of creating the male and female characters, do you feel as confident writing a man as a woman?
JP: [In our male characters] I think there is an inherent, I don’t know, femininity isn’t the right word…
KW: I like my females strong…
JP: And we like our men strong, but also emotionally sensitive, so on the Kinsey scale of characterization, they kind of fall right in the middle together.
DH: Which character is the most popular? I’m sure you must pay attention to fan sites and Twitter and all that stuff, because people are so obsessed.
JP: The good thing is, they do these little polls once in awhile, ‘Are you Team Stefan [the “good” vampire] or are you Team Damon [the “bad” vampire]’”? And every time they are about 50-50, which is a very good thing, because Stefan is more of the straight man, and Damon is more the comic relief. If our villain was overpowering Stefan, we’d be screwed.
DH: When this show came on the air, there were some interesting promos done, like a Vampire Diaries blood drive. Where is that line between camp and the kind of seriousness that a project like this has to have?
KW: There was not only a blood drive; they passed out “fang floss” and vampire suntan lotion. That’s one of the things that we do with the show tonally — we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But, at the same time, we try to tell a really hot story. So hopefully the combination works together.
DH: TV critics have come to a deeper appreciation of this show as time passes. At first they wrote it off as a teen show, a vampire show, whatever. And then they started getting kind of interested.
KW: We’ve actually tried to tell some compelling stories, and just carve out our own little vampire world, so we don’t get compared. This show came after True Blood, it came after Twilight. I was a huge True Blood fan and I know every episode, and I’ve tried really hard to stay away from those story lines, regardless of how inherent they are to the vampire story.
JP: Not to put words in any critic’s mouth, but I think we have our solid group of critical bloggers. And what they continue to love about the show is that it’s both perverted and twisted and earnest all at the same time, and it’s romantic and epic but also kind of nudge wink-wink fun. We explore the character of the 140-year-old vampire with both a melodrama and a self-awareness. You can’t pigeon-hole it into one arena. Plus, they love all the twists and turns.
DH: It’s a very complicated story, and you do have to write in two different historical periods some of the time.
KW: From a writing standpoint, it’s a very difficult show to plot out. The genre element, the teen element, the high school hijinks combined with the life-and-death stakes on a week-to-week basis. And create all this mythology. So you have individual episodes that seem episodic enough. But at the same time, you are carrying an overall serial. It’s a very hard show to plot out. I find it very challenging.
JP: We read a review in the middle of our season, the end-of-the-year kind of stuff, and TV Guide gave the show an “A-“. And they said the only reason it wasn’t a perfect A is, they couldn’t imagine that we still had more story to tell, that we still had more episodes in us, and that time would tell.
KW: I’m telling you, we are so not out of stories, it’s crazy.
JP: Kevin is always making fun of me because I get on my soap box about things, but I think that the six-act structure has made TV storytelling incredibly difficult I got so annoyed that I got on Facebook and said that I was going to start lobbying for the death of the six-act structure. I swear to God, within two hours every writer friend of mine who is on Facebook had written some comment about how it’s the worst.
DH: Tell me about that.
KW: Well, it’s a decision that was rooted in money. It’s a business decision. It’s from the advertisers: how you can keep people from changing the channel? It wasn’t rooted in a creative decision.
JP: And now it’s the industry standard. And the problem is, you make a decision like that for business reasons, but there’s a creative domino effect. It was hard enough to come up with a great end-of-act break four times an episode in traditional television story telling; soap operas live and die by those moments at the end, right before the commercial break, when something happens, and everyone gasps. That’s the whole point of an act-out, to bring your audience back after the commercial break.
DH: So now you’re actually doing it six times instead of the traditional four?
JP: Let’s see… with the teaser, you are actually doing it seven times. Seven “Wows.” And of course the other thing that has happened is, your screen time has shrunk by a good minute and a half over the last couple of years, so you are looking for seven “Wows” in 41 minutes. When everything has to be leading to the “Wow,” every five and a half or six minutes, how do you actually let a story unfold naturally from a human place, an emotional place, and give it air and give it room to breathe? So when people say to us: “You’re blowing through so much story,” we’re like: “You gotta. You need the WOW!”
KW: I grew up watching Knots Landing. I really believe in the cliffhanger.
JP: I always make the joke that I’m going to do a summit of all the TV writers that I can find to bitch about the six-act structure I tell you, we get Twitter fans all the time saying, there are too many commercials, there are too many commercials.
KW: I think that is also responsible for sending so many viewers to alternative ways of watching TV.
DH: Just too many breaks.
JP: It’s annoying!
KW: I go home, I will wait until 17 minutes after the hour before I’ll start watching [an hour drama on DVR].
DH: Because you know you will catch up by the end.
JP: Some of the lowest rated shows on television have the highest rated DVR numbers. And a lot of them are shows like Heroes and Vampire Diaries and Fringe — shows that are super mythology-driven, where commercial breaks just annoy the hell out of you. You’d really rather just watch it all in one.
DH: We talked earlier about the appeal of the vampire. I saw that YouTube video of the Vampire Diaries stars appearing live at the Topanga Mall in February, with all those girls screaming.
KW: They’ve been doing a lot of mall tours; that was very successful for Twilight.
JP: I’ve got to say, that’s the vampire thing: it’s the wish fulfillment. Every woman wants to be taken by a dangerous, yet pure-of-heart vampire. They say that a mall tour was what made the network realize in One Tree Hill’s first season that it had an enormous female fan base that would stick around. Because One Tree Hill was almost done after one season, and it’s still on the air eight years later.
DH: In a show about vampires, what kind of notes do you get from the network?
JP: One of the byproducts of our being so behind all the time is the network has had to give us a lot of faith and trust. Their big thing is making sure that our female characters are as strong and active as possible. We are always waiting for the: “Your vampires can’t do that, that’s unacceptable” note, and it’s never come.
KW: We’ve actually said to ourselves, we can’t do this or we can’t do that. For example, we’ve been light in certain areas, with the blood on the lips, and we’ve gotten notes saying, well, can we add blood? There have been several times when we digitally added blood.
DH: So they wanted blood.
KW: They wanted it for a story point. And I get the feeling that, since we’re vampires, we can get away with a little bit more than you would otherwise. It’s vampire violence.
JP: It just occurred to me that the greatest thing about the network in this whole process is they have never tried to make more of an element of this show than we’ve tried to give them. They’ve never come at us and said, “Can you make it soapier? Can you make it sexier? Can you have more girls in bikinis?
DH: Can the guys take their shirts off more often?
JP: It’s kind of nice, thinking about it, because they’ve let it be what it should be, and have appreciated it, and they are incredibly helpful, which is so rare.
DH: You haven’t pushed it to a point where they are wanting, less violence, or less nudity or less anything? If anything, they ask for more?
JP: On shows we’ve done before, Broadcast & Standards has been so infuriating and frustrating, you just want to throw the notes across the room because you feel like they are sort of careful and prude-y. But for Vampire Diaries, even the Broadcast & Standards suggestions have surprisingly been very reasonable. I think it’s the genre thing. You can get away with a lot more.
DH: This generation seems to wants to see characters their own age empowered, not controlled by parents. Here, the main character is living with her aunt.
KW: Well, in Dawson’s Creek, the parents were a little absent, too.
DH: Maybe the key for teen shows is getting rid of the parents?
KW: It’s the wish fulfillment of it, watching the kids be the parents. I particularly see the parents on these high school shows, they are more messed up than the kids — that is the sort of the wish fulfillment of the viewer.
DH: On this show, even the old people are young, you know what I mean? The aunt for example, almost looks as young as these kids. I guess it’s all deliberate.
JP: Well, the aunt in the [first] script was about 29, I think, and the actor just won the role because she was fabulous, we didn’t think she looked the same age as our kids at all. But it turns out she’s younger than some of them. Some of our guys are getting up there. Long in the teeth.
DH: So to speak.
JP: So to speak.