Last May, the CW introduced a new dramedy from showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman: Jane the Virgin—an adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen. It was a standout at the Upfronts and went on to become a critical darling and a Golden Globe winner for star Gina Rodriguez. Snyder Urman started her career on the ABC comedy Hope and Faith before stints on Gilmore Girls, Men in Trees, Lipstick Jungle and 90210. Jane the Virgin is her second series as creator; the first was another CW show about a 20-something woman, medical drama Emily Owens, M.D. She also penned the CW dramedy pilot Danni Lowinski, again a remake of a foreign format (this time German) about an aspiring lawyer in her 20s.
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What is it about this stage in a woman’s life that appeals to you?
It is such a fraught time when you’re defining yourself and deciding who you want to be personally, professionally and in the world. The decisions that you make are very vital and scary. Jane feels the most relatable to me because we went through a pregnancy. With Jane I get that period in her life, but I also get to explore the next stage, which is how to retain your identity as a woman, a professional and a mother.
Had you watched any soaps or telenovelas before Jane came along?
I hadn’t before I looked into the project. I had watched Ugly Betty, the American iteration of (a telenovela), and then when the project was presented to me I went back and I watched a few. But I also read a lot of synopses and stories just to get the pace and rhythm of them and know what we were nodding to and what we were going to move away from. One of my writers, Carolina Rivera, originally did telenovelas in Mexico, and she’s been just an endless resource in terms of what telenovelas do, what the expectations are, and what the tropes are. That’s been helpful.
Did you watch any episodes of Juana la Virgen?
I watched the pilot and read through the series. It starts off—she’s a 16-year-old girl, and Jane’s a 24-year-old woman. Already there is a difference between a 16-year-old virgin and a 24-year-old virgin in that it’s maybe a little bit more circumstantial at 16 and a little bit more deliberate at 24. They also take somewhere between 10 and 15 episodes for her to find out she’s pregnant, and that’s act two of my pilot. So it just moves at a different pace. I took some of the details that I thought were great in terms of setting up the stakes, and the rest I moved away from because I felt as if that show existed, they did it really well and I wanted to do something different.
What was your reaction when you were approached with this idea?
They gave me the logline of: a virgin gets accidentally artificially inseminated. I really thought, “I’m going to pass on that project. It sounds too crazy.” I said I’d sit with it for the weekend. I started walking around the neighborhood and I just started to think, “Can I create circumstances where it could be believable that that could happen? What would that feel like?” And as I started to try to feel the reality of it, it started to become more alive and fun for me; it started to present as this kind of fairytale between fate and destiny.
After Emily Owens my dad had said to me, “I really like that show, but why don’t you do something more original next time?” I was like, gosh, it’s really hard to get a show on the air, so medical seemed a good idea. But I understood what he was saying, which is just that medical shows are done and they’re done well. What he was saying was to sort of swing for the fences a little bit more. There was something about that weekend thinking about Jane that it just started to become this whimsical fairytale, and I started to feel inspired by it, and I started to think this could be something that’s really different.
And the comedic tone, did it come immediately?
I wanted it to be a different tone than Ugly Betty. I knew it would be comedic because I write things with that energy, but it took me a few iterations of the outline to really fully crack it. I kept handing in the outline to the studio and network, and they would say, “OK, good, go to script,” and I’d say, “You know, I don’t think I have it yet.” And I would take it back and do a revision.
I’m very hard on my own material, and so it took me about three iterations of that outlining of it ’til I cracked a few central things. One of them was making Jane’s father the telenovela star. That brought it full circle to me and lent itself to the comedy, and the fairytale, and the whimsy. Incorporating the narrator, having a connection between the narrator and the narrative, at least in my mind, all of those things unlocked the piece.
What is the narrator’s connection to the narrative? Do we know who he is and will it be revealed?
I know who it is. It’s not a connection that unfolds, at least not for the first two seasons. But he’s definitely somebody with a point of view and skin in the game.
Regarding the little notes that pop up on the screen—were you originally going to use graphics or was it something that just happened in the editing?
That was in the editing room. I have the first cut of the pilot. I felt all the performances were really beautiful, and it was grounded, but I realized I needed to show the audience how to watch the show because there was so much going on. I was worried that you wouldn’t know if you were supposed to take it very seriously, or too broadly, or whatever.
And in my first pass once I got the cut, I started to freeze and type what Alba’s passions were, and what Xio’s passions were, and what Jane’s passions were, and then from there, I continued to evolve it throughout the pilot, and then everybody liked it. So I continued with that, and now we just continually try to challenge ourselves as writers in the edit to continue to develop that vocabulary and find new ways to tell jokes, and we use it for our shortcut to storytelling.
But you don’t want it to be a crutch. You want it be interesting and funny in its own way. I think it adds another layer, and it adds another meta layer as well, because we are, in some ways, a meta telenovela. I find that that helps and also just gives it a whole other canvas for telling jokes, making comments, showing the audience how to watch the show.
You noted how much faster-paced your show is than the original. Is there any concern that you might be racing through plot too fast?
We’re going to continually bring in new complications and new fun twists and new telenovela tropes. This season an overall theme was the line between reality and fantasy. The underlying theme next season is how Jane can keep her identity as a woman and a mother at the same time. We have these deeper character evolutions that we’re going to be examining. Then the romance is always going to be a big part of our show. I don’t feel like we’ve played out any of it because I feel like people have made mistakes, and sometimes it’s timing. Sometimes it’s not. I still feel like we have a ways to go with all of our characters.
Jane has come very close to losing her virginity. Will she go through with it and how will that affect the title?
Yeah. When Jane gets married she’ll lose her virginity, at which point we’ll put a line through—it’ll say Jane the Virgin and you’ll see a line crossed through the Virgin. That’ll be our title going forward.
You’ve addressed some serious issues, such as immigration, that Latinos specifically face. What is your take on the show’s social mission?
I feel like all shows have a point of view. We’re very overt about ours. You’re always looking for complications in storytelling and I feel like that’s a very organic and real one that a lot of the Latino community faces. The hope is that by making a personal connection it just changes the politics and we start to think about the people behind it.
After 150 episodes, Juana la Virgen ended with their versions of the Jane and Rafael characters found in the mountains with a newly born child. I assume that’s not an ending that you have in mind?
No, no. They have the baby at the end of (that series), (our Jane’s) having the baby at the end of season one. We’re building to a very different ending. I’ve known what the ending is since I began this journey—however many years—because I feel like this is a show that you really want to be meticulous and diligent about plotting because there’s so many balls that we try to keep in the air.
And I want the audience to have the confidence that they’re in the hands of storytellers who know the journey that they’re taking the audience on. Not that you’ll always agree with every choice that the character makes, but it was always important to me to know where we’re going in the end—to know where we’re going in every season and what we want to accomplish—and how our characters are going to learn and grow and change—where we’re going to find our big comedy.
Can you give us a hint about how Jane the Virgin will end?
No. I know how it ends, and I feel like a lot of things will click together in that ending. I’ll just say that.
Do you envision a particular number of seasons that would be ideal for the journey you’ve plotted?
No, it doesn’t have to be as specific as that. I just need to know when we are ending so I can build towards it.
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