I am always fascinated by the producers and writers who are responsible for some of my favorite shows. Melrose Place was awesome and Thomas Calabro is one of the greatest actors of all-time, however, the show wouldn’t exist without the brilliance of Darren Star. This is why I was pretty pumped to talk to Stephanie Savage, the former supervising producer of The O.C. and the current executive producer of Gossip Girl. Savage was in Toronto as part of CTV’s upfront presentation and I talked to her about the differences between The O.C. and Gossip Girl. We talked about the presence of sex in dramatic teen programming and I also asked her how she was able to secure one of the coolest jobs around. With Gossip Girl premiering tonight on CTV (even ahead of the U.S. with the show debuting on The CW tomorrow), there is no better way to get ready. Prime Time Pulse will also feature interviews with other Gossip Girl castmembers over the next few weeks.
Murtz Jaffer: I want to start by saying that I am a big fan of yours. I watched all The O.C. DVD commentaries religiously.
Stephanie Savage: Oh, thank you!
MJ: I was like one of those chronic O.C. watchers, you know the ones that like watch the show and then watch each episode again, only this time with commentary? I wanted to ask you how excited you are about Gossip Girl in terms of a comparison between how excited you were for The O.C. when it first came out.
SS: Well, we’re really excited about Gossip Girl. I think that we had so much fun making the show and it feels to us, very fresh and very original and it’s own thing. The O.C. was very very special. It was kind of the first thing that Josh and I did together and we were a real underdog when we made that show. No one was expecting it to work out. We came on in the summer which was like this weird experiment at the time. Because we were coming on in the summer, we had to do (when we shot the pilot) we had to do like a sizzle reel from the first two weeks of production. The pilot was incredibly difficult because we were basically shooting two projects at one time, which is more information than you need! But that was very special because it felt like it kind of came out of nowhere.
MJ: Right, right, right.
SS: It surprised everybody. We always loved the show and we thought people would like it but that was sort of a wonderful surprise. And this coming after The O.C., it feels like the expectations are higher. There’s a little bit more pressure. People are watching us more. The network, it’s on The CW in the U.S. is definitely positioning the show to be successful.
MJ: Definitely, it was the lead at the U.S. upfronts right?
SS: Yeah. In a way that makes you go… oh! (Laughs).
MJ: This one versus The O.C., this show is obviously based on a series of books. Is there more of a pressure in terms of appeasing fans of the books as to how the show will come across on TV?
SS: Well, the Alloy Entertainment guys who are also executive producers on the show (who created the books), they have been very very cool with us in terms of letting us change whatever we want. I can already see on the message boards, little hints of people saying “Nate has green eyes” and “Chace Crawford has blue eyes…”
MJ: Right, right, right.
SS: And then we’ll certainly get some of that, but I am hoping that anyone who loves the books will come and check out the series and they’ll understand how they fit together and they’ll be a fan of the series as well.
MJ: You mentioned the message boards and I know you and Josh did this on your other show as well. Is that still something that you guys do when you come out with a show like this?
SS: Everytime we do something, everytime it’s a new season or a new show, we swear that we are not going to do it.
SS: (Laughs). And then you always end up getting pulled back in.
MJ: Gossip Girl is about text messaging and the sidekicks and stuff. Is that kind of how you see highschool now or is it more of an exaggeration?
SS: I think that it’s not that much of an exaggeration. It’s definitely a divide. The difference between when I was in highschool… I mean a lot of things haven’t changed at all, that’s really something that has. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in my late 20’s. It’s really the way kids communicate with each other and the way they organize their time is really different than it used to be.
MJ: I think it’s like the gossiping still happens, it’s just the method in which it happens has changed.
MJ: Are there any characters on this show that you especially like writing for? I watched the pilot and I was like I only want to watch this for Blair and Chuck.
MJ: They are like the center you know?
SS: Chuck was definitely really fun and Josh and I had a lot of fun when we were writing, especially the Chuck dialogue. Because someone would say something and be like ‘really?’ ‘I didn’t know you had that in you… alright.’ It was very fun in that regard. He’s a delicious villain for sure.
MJ: He totally reminds me of that guy on Cruel Intentions. Ryan Phillippe’s character. Speaking of Josh Schwartz, explain what working with him is like. This is now your second show so I am sure you know all of his little quirks.
SS: It’s really fun. One of the reasons why we wanted Josh, Josh was asked by The CW to do this show and he asked me if I would do it with him and I am very flattered and honored that he would ask me to and also very happy because it means that we get to keep working together. When we first worked together, I was at Wonderland and I had a story idea for developing a show that was set in Orange County and Josh was one of several writers that came in to pitch.
MJ: And you wrote it really quickly right?
SS: Yeah, it all happened pretty quickly. He came in with his great take that I fell in love with and he took that ball and ran with it. We have always worked together really closely and I think that at this point we know each other so well. We love writing together. Last year on The O.C., we wrote, I think, we each only wrote one episode on our own. He wrote the last one and I wrote the second-last one and all our other episodes we wrote together because it’s so much more fun to have someone else in the room to bounce ideas off of.
MJ: Everybody’s going to ask what the key differences are between Gossip Girl and The O.C. How do you see that? I know it’s obviously more technological and the kids are kind of like the same, but what are the big differences?
SS: I think the setting and the world is a big difference. I think that The O.C. is fundamentally a beach community. It’s a noveau-riche world. The outsider characters being Sandy Cohen and Ryan Atwood are really different than the characters on Gossip Girl. And I think that rarified Upper East Side world…
MJ: Well, most teen dramas I think are always West-Coast based.
MJ: 90210. Saved By The Bell. Do you think that working with the East Side and New York is different? Does it add its own appeal to it?
SS: I think definitely New York is its own character in the show. And it was really important to us and the books are set in New York that we shoot the pilot and the series in New York. That was a huge issue for us which understandably (because it’s more complicated and more expensive). It wasn’t totally embraced by everyone immediately but I think once they saw the pilot, they felt like they understood why we made that choice and why we have to continue to do so in the series.
MJ: I think one of the trademarks that I have noticed in this whole Savage and Schwartz combination…
MJ: Is how you guys like writing for the older characters too. You did that with Sandy and Kirsten and I saw in the pilot that you have the whole Humphrey thing going on. Is it tougher to write for the older characters especially when you are writing for an audience that is primarily teen?
SS: We have always loved our older characters. It’s interesting on Gossip Girl as opposed to on The O.C., I feel more like the parents are actually peers. Josh and I are both a little bit older and the characters feel a little bit younger. Matthew Settle is quite a bit younger than Peter Gallagher and his character being someone who was in a band in the 90’s that had some success and working in an art gallery… I feel that’s a very relatable character for us to write. And we did that on purpose. A lot of that we changed from the book because we wanted to have a character that felt more like… I think it’s actually kind of a cultural phenomenon that we’re starting to experience right now. When I was growing up, my mom, my parents were baby boomers and I was Generation X. That was a very clear distinction between the two of us. But now you have Generation X parents with Generation Y kids and they’re not that different! A lot of the guys that I grew up with that now are starting to have teenagers are exactly the same as they were when we were hanging out in the 90’s. They still like to skateboard and snowboard and they still play in their bands. Maybe they have given up their hopes of having a gold record but music is still an important part of their lives and parents today have cool jobs. They work at internet companies or they are creative directors at ad agencies and you don’t feel that big divide. Kids listen to their parents’ records and they aspire to be as good a surfer as their father is or mountain-bikers as their mother is. That’s something that’s pretty original.
MJ: I wanted to ask you about the raciness of Gossip Girl. There was obviously that whole thing with the “Telenovella” episode of The O.C. where that got cut down. The CW is a network that pushes boundaries, so do you that is going to be a factor on the show, in terms of how you write?
SS: So far they have been really cool about the Standards & Practices notes that we have gotten. It was a big concern of Dawn Ostroff’s (the head of the network) at the beginning to make sure that we weren’t just going down some dark path that was going to glamorize sex, drugs, alcohol and shopping for young people. We would never want to do that. It’s not in our hearts, it’s not our intention to corrupt the youth of the world. We had to come up with some strategies on The O.C. Of how to deal with that. What we sort of came up with was when you show bad behavior, to show it in context and then to show that it has consequences. Maybe the consequences aren’t ‘you smoke pot, you get arrested’ or ‘you have sex, you get pregnant…’ but that there are emotional consequences to all actions and those things get played out in the story.
MJ: It’s a pretty good-looking cast and so when you have a cast that is that good-looking, is there more of a pressure that ‘oh, people are going to want to see Blair and Nate hook up’ or whatever. Is there that sort of pressure on you to sort of get the most out of such a good-looking cast?
SS: I think you try not to go there. You try to make sure that whatever is happening in the story is happening from an organic level of character, not because that guy would look good with his shirt off.
MJ: Can you tell me more about working with Kristen Bell because I was talking to Leighton and she was saying that she’s not really on-set, she just does the voiceovers.
SS: She does the voiceover in what is called ADR, so she doesn’t need to be on set with the actors and she is great. When she was doing this, she didn’t know if Veronica Mars was coming back and so she was a real sport to be willing to do this with us. She was actually shooting a movie in Hawaii, so everytime, we made her do it like 10 different times (laughs) because we kept slightly changing her voiceover, she was in Hawaii shooting a movie and she was just such a good sport to come, and she’d shoot all day and work with the sound recordist in the evening and we’d be on the phone with her.
MJ: If Veronica Mars was picked up, do you think she still would have been the main narrator or was there a back-up plan?
SS: We would have talked about recasting. If Veronica Mars came back and Veronica still had a voiceover, we probably would have done something different. It just is too much to have.
MJ: I definitely think her voice is perfect for a narrator. I am sure you guys thought the same thing. When did you guys get the idea for her? Was it from watching Veronica Mars?
SS: Because Veronica Mars was on TV and we love that show and friends of ours work on it, we were just hoping that it would come back and we would never want to rock that.
MJ: That’s a pretty amazing block though right? Gossip Girl and Veronica Mars?
SS: Yeah. But we didn’t want to rock that boat at all, but when it was presented to us as a possibility, we loved that idea because she’s so fabulous on that show and her narration is great. We just felt that she was someone who would be able to dig out all the humor and attitude that we wanted that voice to have. She did such a good job for us.
MJ: Many people might not know that you are Canadian and I am sure that Canadians and Americans alike are like ‘wow she has the coolest job in the world.’
MJ: Do you have any advice for Canadians who want to break into the whole writing/producing TV shows business?
SS: My path was a pretty tangled one, but I would still say follow your heart and follow your path. People say to me, ‘oh, well now that you know where you are, you should have just moved to Los Angeles and become a screenwriter’ but I don’t think I ever would have done that. And I don’t think that if I had done that, that it would have worked out. I think my path was following my love for primarily movies. Studying that at school. Becoming a teacher. Gaining the confidence to feel strong in my ideas and feel like it’s okay to be challenged and respond. And going out to Los Angeles primarily to do research for my dissertation and then finding that I had a skill set that was really valuable to people in that business. I wouldn’t have had that skill set if I hadn’t have sort of done my roundabout sort of travel.
MJ: What’s next for you? Are you still a big James Dean fan?
SS: (Laughs). Still a big James Dean fan! I am actually writing a movie right now for Flower Films which is great because it’s wonderful that Nancy and Drew gave me my first foot in the door with my first job and now they have come back to me as a writer to ask me to write a movie for them which is based on another Alloy Entertainment property which is called The Au Pairs. So I am working on that right now.
MJ: And are you involved with the Evel Knievel movie?
SS: That project, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it but yeah. McG and I developed an Evil Knievel movie with Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote the script for us) and it’s a great great story.
MJ: Finally, why should people watch Gossip Girl?
SS: They should watch it cause I hope that they are going to fall in love with it. I hope that we have captured something that I take no credit for of the cast and the world and the look of the show. I think it’s very original and very seductive and I think that if you give it an hour of your time, you will want to come back for more.
MJ: That’s perfect, thank you.
SS: Great, thank you.
Stephanie Savage is McG’s producing partner at Wonderland Sound and Vision, the company they formed in 2001. Along with McG and Shaun Cassidy, Savage executive produces and writes The Mountain.
Savage developed The O.C. with creator Josh Schwartz and serves as a co-executive producer on the show’s second season. Schwartz gave Savage her first shot at writing a television script with “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” followed by “The Telenovella.” Savage was recently named “One to Watch” in television in The Hollywood Reporter’s “35 Under 35.”
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was Wonderland’s first feature film production. Other Wonderland projects in development at Columbia include Hot Wheels, based on the beloved Mattel toy; the epic biopic Cleopatra, written by Michael Hirst; the female action thriller Radiant; and Airshow, about an elite team of Navy flyers, written by Simon Kinberg. At Universal, Wonderland is developing Evel Knievel with Se7en writer Andy Kevin Walker.
Savage has produced commercials for Ikea and Coors as well as music videos for Sugar Ray. Before forming Wonderland with McG, Savage was vice president of development for Flower Films, where she supported Nancy Juvonen and Drew Barrymore in the development of Never Been Kissed, Charlie’s Angels and Donnie Darko.
Canadian-born Savage first came to Los Angeles from the University of Iowa, where she taught film history and theory while working on her PhD. She is the published author of several scholarly articles on true crime, scandal and pornography.
Welcome to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where gossip rules and affluent prep-school students find themselves with the money, access and appetite to explore all the temptations New York City has to offer. Based on the best-selling series of young-adult novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, this drama is told through the eyes of an all-knowing blogger who is determined to uncover and fuel every scandal possible–including the intense rivalry between two girls, Serena and Blair–via her constant, avidly read text messages. When Serena unexpectedly returns home from boarding school, she stirs up an old love triangle, finds new romance and creates some powerful enemies. More info on the show can be found at CTV.ca
– Gossip Girl premieres on the CTV network in Canada on Tuesday, September 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
– Gossip Girl premieres on THE CW in the U.S. on Wednesday, September 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
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