Exclusive: Michael Lange On Being A Teen Drama Director

24 01 2010

What makes someone a teen drama director? Well, directing four–yes, four!–of them certainly helps! Michael Lange directed 12 episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, 7 episodes of Dawson’s Creek, 13 episodes of The O.C. and 3 episodes of One Tree Hill. Not too shabby, eh?

Lange is currently a producer on Greek and will soon start working on Drop Dead Diva. If you ever wondered what it was like working on more than one of the teen dramas–or on any show for that matter–let Lange give you some, ahem, direction.

TeenDramaWhore: How do you become a director for one of these shows or even any show?

Michael Lange: Well, I’ve been doing it for 26 years. I’m going onto my 27th year this July. I now have a long track record so I get jobs through my agent and just my reputation. I have pretty big network of people now that I’ve worked with so that’s kind of how I do it. How people get into doing it is a whole different question and is extremely different now than when I was doing it, because of technology. When I got into to directing, everything was on film. This was the early 80s–1983 to be exact. I got a job as a post-production assistant on a show and I made it my business to be in dailies, which is when everyone watched the film from the day before–every single day–and, of course, everyone showed up because it was all on film. So at lunch time, people would assemble in the screening room and everyone would watch the dailies. The same thing with all the editor’s cut, the director’s cut and the producer’s cut. It would all be screened in a screening room and anyone who was interested in having a vote on anything had to be there. That’s exactly how I got my first opportunity. We were watching a cut and it was missing a few pretty crucial pieces of footage and the producer said, “Oh my god. How are we going to fix this?” and I literally raised my hand and said “I know how to fix it,” which, of course, I didn’t know, and he said, “Okay, go.” And everything in those days was much more casual so I was able to book a facility for the next day and book talent and book a little production company to shoot it. None of that could happen today because everything is all purchase orders because of all the insurance stuff. Everything is much more regulated today. Anyway, I did my thing and everyone thought it was great and that was the beginning of my directing career.

Today, it’s more about relationships. For example, I am fairly influential in who gets to direct Greek. However, I have four colleagues–four other exec. producers on the show–all of whom want to see the footage, propose directors, take a look at their resumes, possibly meet them and then the network also gets involved. Whereas when I did it, one guy gave me a shot. No network. No other producers had to okay it. Just that one person. So now we have a big committee and also because the budgets are much tighter now than they were then, we don’t have a lot of room for missteps. So a lot of times we reject people who don’t have that much experience, even if they’re very talented. If they don’t have that much experience, we can’t really afford to take a chance in case they’re going to mess up, ‘cause then it affects everything. If someone goes seriously over-schedule, then it affects almost the rest of the season. You have to try and catch up for those extra costs. Like last year, I had an intern who was a very impressive guy, very smart, very personable and we actually wanted to give him a shot to direct an episode. Unfortunately it didn’t work out because a couple of people kind of balked at his lack of experience. So it’s tough today.

Sometimes a cameraman on a show–like our cameraman, if we go a 4th season, he’s sort of guaranteed to be able to direct an episode. Sometimes the actors on shows will make it part of their deal to direct an episode and then hope to continue directing. But for someone brand-new breaking in, it’s really, really hard now. One of the ways I suggest they can show people their work is if they make a short film. But, again, it has to be really good because they’re competing against people like me who have a lot of film on their resume and a lot of experience. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Tougher than I can ever remember it being to get in. I mean, it’s never been an easy thing to do, obviously, because there’s  a lot of people vying for not that many jobs but today even more so. It’s kind of a killer. We’ve done 64 episodes of Greek and I’ve produced on 54 of them and I think pretty much every one we have had directors that have quite a bit of experience. I don’t think we’ve given a shot to anyone that is brand-new. I think they have a better chance, in a way, on the bigger shows because they have a little bit more of a budget and therefore more room for missteps.

TDW: When you’re hired to be a director for an already established show, what are you responsible for?

Lange: Well, for example, next week the show I’m starting on is the finale of Make It Or Break It [Ed. note: Make It Or Break It is executive produced by Paul Stupin, who was the executive producer on Dawson’s Creek]. I’m not really familiar with that show. I’ve seen a couple of episodes. So what I’ll do is I’ll probably spend the first day of prep immersing myself in the show–reading as many scripts as I can and watching as many of the previous episodes of the show as they can show me. I obviously read the script I’m about to direct but I usually try to do all the other stuff first so that when I read the script, I’ll have some kind of context of what’s going on. Then once I familiarize myself with the show and the script, I try to meet the [director of photography] and maybe talk with him a bit about the style of the show that they like. I’ll try to interact a little bit with the actors and a little bit with the writer. The director does casting of any guest star roles and then also if there are any locations in the show that are not the normal ones that they shoot, you’re shown the [options] by the location manager and you figure out which ones are going to work best and that kind of stuff. They’ll run the schedule by the director to see if they’re comfortable with the amount of work each day. Then if there are any script suggestions that the director has, things that he or she doesn’t think work, obviously you’re able to weigh in on that also. It’s a little bit political and you have to sort of pick your battles a little bit. If there’s something in the script that really seriously bothers me, then I’ll usually ask around before I go to talk to the producer about it. I’ll sort of check out if that’s normally how the scenes go or maybe there’s something I don’t realize. Then if everything checks out, I’ll go and talk to the producer.

I remember once doing a David E. Kelley show. I did Ally McBeal and he was notorious for not liking anyone to comment on the scripts and there was something that really bothered me in one scene so I told the producer that I needed to go talk to him and they pretty much recommended against it. But my attitude as a director is if you’re doing it as a safe job, that’s not really what the job is. You really need to sort of put it on the line. So I decided to go in and talk to him about it and actually, luckily, he agreed with me so he made the change. But had he not agreed with me, I don’t know. But that’s a risk you take. You have to take those, I think.

TDW: So do you find it’s a balance between your vision and what the show has done thus far?

Lange: Yes, definitely. Television is a medium where each week the audience wants a version of the same show. Not literally the same story but they want the characters to be consistent, they want the show to look consistent. It’s their show. They’ve adopted it into their lives and I don’t think they want it to be different. So part of the responsibility of each director coming in is to sort of observe what the show is and basically do that. You’re sort of shepherding the show through that’s week episode and, at the end of it, it shouldn’t really look significantly different than all the other episodes. What a director can bring to a show is enthusiasm. A little bit of a different point of view is great as long as it fits what they like. Like on Drop Dead Diva, one of the things they liked about my episodes-which is why they offered me this producing position on the show–is that they felt I really got the tone of the show more than some of the other directors they had last season. So that’s something also; you try to pick up the tone of the show and basically do that. I always try to encourage a lightness on the set because I think people do their best work when they’re having a good time. That’s another thing that’s influenced by the director: the tone of the set. We’ve had some directors on Greek who are more serious and the tone of the set becomes more serious. It has some advantages but on Greek we’ve ended up leaning towards directors who are not that more serious. Well, serious about the work but not serious about how you got there.

TDW: I cover 6 shows on my site and you’ve directed 4 of them. I thought, if I was ever to interview a director for the site, it’s gotta be one that worked on as many of them as you did.

Lange: Oh my god. That’s wild.

TDW: I thought we could go chronologically and see what you remember from each of your experiences. Looking at the ones you did for Beverly Hills 90210, you directed some pretty huge episodes there. The season 4 finale [Episode 4.31-32, Mr. Walsh Goes To Washington], the season 5 premiere [Episode 5.01, What I Did On My Summer Vacation And Other Stories], the season 6 premiere [Episode 6.01, Home Is Where The Tart Is], the season 6 finale [Episode 6.31-32, You Say It’s Your Birthday], the season 9 finale [Episode 9.26, That‘s The Guy]. Those are huge benchmarks in the series. What do you remember about those? Is it different being called in for a premiere and a finale?

Lange: I had a great time doing the finales and the premieres. It is a little bit different. The finales usually–well, I think the 9 wasn’t but the other two finales were 2-hour episodes. So for the [one-hour], that show was shot in 7 days and for the two-hour, we ended up getting 14 days. And usually there was one sort of giant set piece sequence. I think in the season 4 finale, it was the carnival, right?

TDW: Yes. Season 4 you have the Greek carnival.

Lange: It was a huge amount of fun. And basically, because it’s 14 days you have more latitude in how everything is scheduled and you have more production value. I got a crane a couple of those days and everything is sort of bigger and better. So they were a huge amount of fun to direct and usually the stories are pretty epic in those finales. The same thing with the premieres, though those were 1-hour. But because it’s a premiere, you have more time to prepare. And there’s a little bit of a badge of courage thing. As a director, it’s a little more prestigious to do premieres and finales. At least in those days, on that show. Usually also there’s more publicity about them so pretty much every day on those episodes, there was someone, you know, doing interviews or behind-the-scenes stuff.

TDW: Does that translate to more pressure for you?

Lange: Well, I’m sure there is more pressure but you have to sort of train yourself as a director to not really notice the pressure too much. I’m sure it comes out somewhere in my body; I’m just not sure where. In a way, on the finale, which were, as I said, were 2-hours, it felt like to me there was less pressure in terms of time because you were able to have a little bit more time for everything. And was the Queen Mary–

TDW: That was the season 6 finale.

Lange: Yes, that was also a huge amount of fun.

TDW: I would imagine that it must be somewhat difficult to shoot on a cruise ship.

Lange: Actually, it wasn’t. It was completely a joyous experience. There were a number of scenes that were in the lobby of the ship and as soon as I got to the lobby, I said to the producer that there’s no way we’re going to shoot in this lobby because the actual lobby of the Queen Mary is extremely small. So I said we needed to build one on the stage. So that whole lobby was a set. So what you try to do is minimize the degree of difficulty that will hurt the actual shooting of the scenes but there’s a point at which, obviously, if it’s too easy, that’s not good either. It’s a bit of a judgment call. The lobby I just said we can’t do that. Then everything else–shooting on the deck, the ballroom scene with the Goo Goo Dolls–that was actually on the boat. That was great. The crew on that show, they had been doing it for a number of years and it was an excellent group of people. They knew the show well. A lot of making those sequences go well is just in the planning. When to shoot what and how to do it. That stuff. So it actually went really well on the Queen Mary.

In fact, I have one little personal anecdote, which is amusing about that one. The Queen Mary is in Long Beach, California, and I live in the Hollywood Hills. It’s like a 45-minute drive from my house to the Queen Mary. So I thought to myself that these were going to be some killer days and I decided to stay on the boat. We shot there for six days and it was actually a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and then a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. So Wednesday night I stayed on the boat, Thursday night I stayed on the boat, and then the following week, Monday and Tuesday I stayed on the boat. And I thought that way I’ll eliminate an hour-and-a-half of driving in my day. The first day, I believe, was the day we did the Goo Goo Dolls sequence. They did 3 songs. We had a lot of scenes in the big ballroom and almost the entire cast was in the scenes. I thought, well, that’s going to easily be a 14-hour day. Well, we ended up finishing it in about 11 hours and every day there was actually shorter than I imagined it to be. But I still ended up staying on the boat, which was great. We actually pretended we were on a cruise. There were a number of us that were staying aboard and we would go up to the bar and have some cocktails and appetizers. It was just completely a fantastic experience.

TDW: Wow. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Lange: It was a huge amount of fun, I must say. I always enjoyed doing that show because it was so well-produced that it was–I’m not going to say easy, because easy is the wrong word. But relative to other shows that I directed, it was just all pleasurable. There really wasn’t that much pressure and the cast was fantastic. The producer was a great guy and everything about it was really great.

TDW: In season 9 you had another big one, You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello [9.07]. It wasn’t a finale or a premiere but it was big in the history of the show because it was the last episode with Tiffani Amber Thiessen [Valerie] and it was the return episode for Luke Perry [Dylan]. Were there high expectations with that?

Lange: Everyone was looking at the dailies more closely but that was a show where there was not a lot of presence on the set of the network or the writers. I remember a couple of times, actually more early on in my experience on 90210, where I didn’t do enough shots for them and I’d have to go back and pick up some more shots but pretty much by season 9, it was a pretty smoothly-run machine. The biggest job, honestly, by that time was just to get some enthusiasm out of the cast. Because they had been doing it for so long, they were sort of not always as energetic as they should’ve been. So I would often have to cheerlead them into getting a little more energy into the scenes.

TDW: With that episode, one of the things viewers who are fans of both Valerie and Dylan complain about is that there weren’t scenes with them together. Valerie leaves and a few minutes later, Dylan shows up. Was it just built into the script that way? Did it occur to anyone that there was an opportunity for another reunion here?

Lange: I think it was just built into the script. But there was not much that happened by accident in those scripts. They were pretty well thought through. I’m sure they had good reasons for doing it.

TDW: A little over a year after your last 90210 episode, you direct your first episode of Dawson’s Creek. You directed huge episodes there, too. There’s two I want to talk about but the first one is early in season 5, where Mitch [John Wesley Shipp] dies at the end [Episode 5.03, Capeside Revisited]. There was distinct choice there not to see the car crash. You sense something is about to go wrong and then there’s like a bright white light and you sort of hear it. I was just wondering about that decision.

Lange: Very honestly, a lot of it is budgetary. We discussed it at length. I remember that pretty vividly. It starts with budget. It was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina and the budget of the show was not huge because it was The WB. The budgets were a little bit lower. It would’ve been a big deal to actually crash the car. But we could’ve made an issue of it and figured out other ways to save money on the episode. Like if I had felt it was important enough, I probably could’ve probably convinced the producer to readjust the budget and have the car crash. That’s the kind of the stuff a director can have an influence on, even only as freelancer. But I actually felt that given the emotional punch of that sequence that, in a way, it would be better to leave it to the imagination of the audience rather than vividly show it. And also, the type of show it was, I felt it would better to do it more in a representational way rather than actually show the crash.

TDW: With crash you think physical impact but by not showing it, it also had an impact–an emotional one.

Lange: Right. We talked about it quite a lot and ultimately decided it was a win-win for everybody. A win for the budget and also for the emotional punch of the scene. We all ended up feeling it would be a much more powerful scene without the crash because then the audience would just sort of feel the loss as opposed to getting all caught up in, “Oh my god, wasn’t that an amazing crash?” I think ultimately it almost felt more real by not seeing it. Once you see the crash, you’re gonna think “Oh, it was a stunt guy,” “Oh, wasn’t that amazing?” “Oh, look at all the fire” or whatever we did for the crash. This way it was all about the heart of what was happening.

TDW: The next episode I wanted to discuss was the last one you did, Joey Potter and the Capeside Redemption [6.22]. Though it was the episode before the series finale, it was almost like a series finale itself. Dawson [James Van Der Beek] and Pacey [Joshua Jackson] make up. Jen [Michelle Williams] and Jack [Kerr Smith] move to New York. Joey [Katie Holmes] finally goes to Paris. It’s just a tremendous episode in terms of quality and significance.

Lange: I was literally just talking about this the other day, just from the technical aspects of the bit where Joey goes to Paris. We had at one point talked about recreating it in Wilmington and I kept saying that would be bogus. There’s nothing in Wilmington that looks like Paris. So we actually ended up having a small–you know, sometimes, you just have to sort of say things as a director that are just going to sound insane. And I just said, “Let’s do this. If we can get a shot in that mall, at the of which is the Eiffel Town and the other side is a museum. I’d love to have a shot that starts on the museum, pans around and ends up on the Eiffel Tower in the background and I will figure  a way to get Katie into that shot with a green screen.” They look at you like you’re crazy and then you call the visual effects guys and they say, “Yeah, I guess we can do that” and you just figure it out. So we ended up shooting the Katie part of it with her standing on a picnic table in the harbor in Wilmington and we just dolly-ed around her and stuck it into the green screen. It was pretty cool. And then we ended up doing a day in Montreal, where we took her up to Montreal, which does look a lot like Paris. So we shot for a day up there and that really sort of put her there, which was kind of cool.

TDW: It’s just such an amazing capstone to the series. If that was the series finale, that would’ve been perfectly okay. Anyway, later that year you moved onto The O.C. and with The O.C. you managed to direct an episode in every season.

Lange: I did!

TDW: But the first one you did [Episode 1.08, The Rescue] was kind of a big one because it was kind of like a season premiere. The first seven episodes of the series had aired all in a row, beginning in August, and then the show was on hiatus for a month and you had the responsibility of presenting the next episode where the network knew a whole bunch of new people would be tuning in. Was that like doing a season premiere?

Lange: Yes. It definitely was. There were a lot of eyes on that one. A lot of people on the set. It was a big episode for them, as you said, because it was effectively a premiere. And also there was pretty big cliff-hanger with Marissa [Mischa Barton] in Mexico. So in my episode, she was in the hospital for pretty much the entire episode. The big pressure in that one is that in a premiere, everyone wants it to be pretty splashy and yet I was sort of saddled with having Mischa Barton in the hospital in one room for most of the episode. It was a collaborative effort but you have to sort of figure out ways to keep it interesting visually so it doesn’t feel like she’s in the room the whole time. That was sort of the big pressure and challenge of that episode.

TDW: With The O.C., now you have your second teen drama that’s set in California but with different looks. Both are depictions of rich lifestyles in California but have different feels.

Lange: A lot of it is 90210 was started in…

TDW: 1990.

Lange: So The O.C. was like 10 years later, right?

TDW: Thirteen. 1990 to 2003.

Lange: So a lot of it is just because the times have changed and technology. A lot of the look of television has to do with what we think people are expecting to see, based on movies and stuff. The audience for television now is pretty sophisticated visually. So if you look at old television shows, although the content may be great, visually a lot of them are pretty crappy because I think in those days the audiences weren’t as sophisticated visually as they are now and not as demanding. So we’re always trying to keep up with that to some degree. And then 90210, because it was Spelling and they were very, very conscious of the budget there and it was a pretty inexpensive show to make, the look of that show they didn’t care so much. But The O.C., you know, [executive producer] McG was sort of one of the influences of the show and [creator, executive producer] Josh Schwartz was a brand-new young guy. They were wanting to appeal to a much more visually hip audience. It was the first show where the whole kind of concept of wish fulfillment was talked about. I remember in my first meeting with Josh, he said “Basically, what we want to do on this show is we want to create a show where the audience wants to go there and be in the show or be in that fictional community. Every scene needs be ‘I want to do that, I want to be there.’” So that’s all wrapped up in how it looks. The set design, everything about it, was much more thought through than on 90210.

TDW: Speaking of sophisticated direction, in one of those episodes, you directed George Lucas [Episode 2.23, The O.Sea].

Lange: I did! That was cool. That was actually the second time I had ever met him. The first time, coincidentally, was on 90210. We shot a scene at the airport in L.A. and it turns out it was George Lucas’ daughter’s 16th birthday and all she wanted–she was a huge fan of the show–for her birthday was to visit the set of 90210. So that was the day that worked out for them to visit. I knew in advance that was he coming so whatever the time was, this giant limousine pulls up at LAX with his daughter, who I can’t even remember, and him. So we met there, which was funny, so then the episode where Seth [Adam Brody] ends up having dinner with him, it was really cool that I was able to direct those scenes. It was fun. He’s an interesting guy. Obviously kind of a genius. But he’s completely interested in technology. That’s his big thing. He’s not a great actor.

TDW: No. It was very much him just reading the lines.

Lange: Right, exactly. At one point, I think in the second scene, I can’t remember specifically what the line was–it was something like “What?! You’re doing what?!”–and he just couldn’t do it. So finally I said, “George, it needs to be more Jewish.” And he actually said, “Oh, you should’ve gotten the other guy for that then,” meaning Steven Spielberg. But I said, “I’m not sure what you mean, George, because there’s a lot of Jewish directors in this business.” And he said, “No, I mean Spielberg” and I had to say, “No, I knew you meant that.” He didn’t have a great sense of humor, I must say.

TDW: I just remember being surprised that he even did the show at all.

Lange: I was surprised too, but I think, again, he had a daughter–not the same one that was at 90210 but his younger daughter–who was a huge fan of the show. So she came and it was like a visit from the Queen. All the cast was sort of commanded to be there and the daughter got to meet all of them and have pictures. It was quite the event.

TDW: Two other episodes that stand out to me for the drama in them is in season 3. There’s a sequence where you have Ryan [Benjamin McKenzie] and Marissa on the beach and they’re having sex for the first time but the sequence is inter-cut with Jimmy [Tate Donovan], Marissa’s father, getting the crap beat out of him [Episode 3.03, The End of Innocence]. And the scenes just go back and forth in rapid cuts. That was just intense.

Lange: That was very intense. I actually had a funny thing on that, too. He got the crap beat out of him underneath the pier and I wanted to have a bit where they smashed his head into one of those concrete columns and I said I really couldn’t do it with a stunt guy because it needed to be up close and personal to really sell. So I actually had them make an overlay piece out of foam that looked exactly like concrete so we were able to shoot his face being smashed into it. That was pretty cool.

TDW: Wow. The next one I was going to say is actually a death later that season. You have Johnny [Ryan Donowho] falling from the cliff [Episode 3.14, The Cliffhanger] and, like with Dawson’s Creek, we see it start to happen but we don’t see the point of impact.

Lange: Right. I think it’s the same sort of the thing. The value of showing this boy falling and hitting the ground is not huge, I think, emotionally. Both of the shows are emotional-based. You want to always have the heart and the emotion. If you show too much graphic stuff, it’s going to take away from the real story.

TDW: The last one I wanted to mention was in season 4, a really comedic episode [Episode 4.06, The Summer Bummer]. You had Ryan with all these crazy fantasies about Taylor [Autumn Reeser].

Lange: Oh my god. That was fantastic.

TDW: And you also had this character of Che [Chris Pratt], a hippie-ish guy Summer [Rachel Bilson] met at Brown, and he handcuffs himself to her. When you’re doing the dramatic episodes versus the lighter ones, what’s it like on set? Are things more tense in the dramatic ones?

Lange: I think that depends a lot on the director. I am always pretty much light. So when I direct, even in dramatic scenes, I always like to keep it light.

TDW: Your time on The O.C. overlapped with One Tree Hill and One Tree Hill brought you back to Wilmington. Do you have any comments on filming in Los Angeles versus Wilmington and do you prefer one to the other?

Lange: They both have their advantages. I love Wilmington. It’s a lot easier to get around there. The people there, because not that many things are filmed there, they’re always happy to help out and oblige when we use locations there. They’re always excited about it–“Oh, they’re filming a movie here!”–whereas in L.A., everyone’s much more jaded about the whole experience. In Wilmington you never have anyone turning up the music because they hate that you’re there, whereas in L.A., that happens more frequently than I’d like to say. So that aspect of it is great. For me, I live in L.A. and I have a family so I like being home. Being away from home is not that great. Also, although the crew on both Dawson’s and One Tree Hill were excellent, I think the best crews are in L.A. for sure. There’s no question about that. There’s definitely excellent crews in other places but if you want the best of the best, L.A. is the place and the same thing with casting. A lot of times with the smaller roles–although the talent pool in Wilmington is certainly wonderful; they’re all very nice people–the truth of it is you get a much deeper choice, many more choices, of actors in L.A. Like if you go out of for a small part, you’ll see 20 people in L.A., of which maybe 15 of them will be good for the part and 5 of them will be great. In Wilmington you’ll see maybe 5 people for the part and 4 of them will be okay and 1 of them will be good. So the talent pool, in every aspect–crew and cast–is just better in L.A.

TDW: Of the four shows, One Tree Hill you directed the least with your last episode in 2007 but of the four, it’s the only still on. Because of your commitment to Greek and other things, is it unlikely you’ll go back there at all?

Lange: Yeah, probably not. I don’t think I’ll go back there. They have called me a couple of times but I’m not available. But I like the show and I love Wilmington and the crew and everything is great about it. I always have a good time.

TDW: Looking at all four of these shows, they get lumped together in this teen drama category but do you see any distinct differences between them?

Lange: I think all things being equal–if you produced all of them at the same time–they’d probably be pretty similar. A lot of shows are reflections of the time in which they’re created and produced. Because, after all, these kind of dramas are reflecting the mores of the culture they’re about and that’s all sort of evolving and changing as time goes by. I think if you look back historically at the–it’d be interesting to look back 100 years from now; you can probably get a pretty good idea of what teenage culture was like from those shows. And if you looked at them together, you could probably see the evolution of how things have evolved. Obviously there’s many similarities that have concerned teenagers from pre-historic times, I’m sure.

TDW: Have you checked out the new 90210 at all?

Lange: No, I haven’t seen it. Most of it is because I’m pretty busy but part of it is because, to me, the real one is the one I did. The new one is just a pathetic copy. Well, that’s stupid of me to say because it’s based on nothing. I haven’t seen the show. It’s just an emotional reaction because I feel very close to [the original] 90210. It’s literally based on no knowledge [of the new show] whatsoever.

TDW: Have you see any of Gossip Girl?

Lange: Just one or two of them and I think that one, it’s not really my thing. And also working on Greek, because it’s so authentic–it’s a little bit heightened but it has an authenticity about it–it makes me sort of cringe when I see these shows that just don’t feel real to me and that’s one of them. I’m from New York and it’s not a New York that I recognize.

TDW: My last question is two-fold. What about Greek do you love so much and does working on it differ from a traditional broadcast teen drama, given that it’s on a cable channel?

Lange: What I love about it is I love the way it sort of evokes–even in me, I went to college a long time ago but it just has such an authentic quality to it–memories and feelings that are just kind of wonderful to sort of play around with in my head. I always figure a director is basically a highly paid and hopefully educated audience. So I assume it has a similar affect on people watching the show. The issues it deals with and the way it deals with issues between people, and the heart, which is just a big part of the show as well as the comedy, is just something that I love about it.

Because we’re on ABC Family we have to be a little more careful than we would like to be in terms of the drinking and the partying and language and stuff like that. There’s a little bit of battling occasionally between us and the network over stuff we want to do. We had this one sequence where it was supposed to be at a homecoming parade or whatever and there was an Antony and Cleopatra float. The float was built by the Omega Chis, who are kind of the straight-arrow guys. The KTs re-rigged it so it looked like Cleopatra was going down on Antony and at one point there was an explosion of foam from a beer, which was supposed to simulate, you know, an orgasm and the network wouldn’t let us do that. In fact, we had to carefully make sure it didn’t look like she was doing that. So there’s sort of those issues but those would probably be the same on network television. And then, of course, the cable budgets are significantly lower so there’s the production challenge of trying to make a show which has to look as good and feel as good. It can’t feel like it’s a low-budget show so that it a little more challenging but, truthfully, that is kind of fun to me. Other than that, it’s not dissimilar from how it would be on a regular network.

TDW: What is the outlook on a 4th season?

Lange: You know, it’s impossible to say really. It would be guessing. They’re going to let us know by the middle in February. It’s hard to tell.

TDW: Yeah. People are speculating now for all the other shows as well but with the upfronts still so far away, it’s a little premature.

Lange: Very. We’re back on the air a week from today [now tomorrow] and if the ratings are great, most likely we’ll get picked up and if the ratings are bad, most likely we won’t and if the ratings are medium, then we won’t know.

On that note, I encourage you all to tune in tomorrow night at 10pm eastern on ABC Family for Greek’s mid-season premiere.

Come back next week for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index

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Exclusive: John Wesley Shipp On Being A Dawson’s Creek Dad

20 12 2009

What’s better than a dad? A superhero dad. And, yes, my friends, they do exist. Look no further than John Wesley Shipp. Not only did he play a bonafide masked crusader in The Flash as, um, The Flash but he was also the most kick ass dad Capeside ever had on Dawson’s Creek.

Shipp and I discussed Mitch’s most memorable scenes, the heyday of soap operas and his independent film work.

TeenDramaWhore: What was it like living and filming in Wilmington? It’s so far from Los Angeles where most things are filmed.

John Wesley Shipp: You know, it’s funny. Not just in terms of where to work but at different points in my career when I’ve really wanted to have an experience, I’ve noticed that if I really hold it in my mind, the experience will present itself. Right before Dawson’s happened, I was thinking, you know, I’m sick of living in L.A., the land of perpetual glare. I sure would like to do a series somewhere that had seasons. I’m from the Southeast, so close to my family, which is all in Atlanta, would be nice. Not a series like The Flash, where I’m killing myself every day, practically opening a vein with each episode. But something that had some interest and was cool. Dawson’s Creek presented itself so it’s kind of what I asked for. At least in the beginning, the parents had vital storylines. Of course, they were subsidiary but they were independent and intersecting with what the kids were experiencing. That was fun. It was fun for a couple of years and then it was fun again at the very end. But in terms of working in Wilmington, Wilmington’s a cool town. I love the fact that the water–which Dawson’s Creek used very effectively–was almost a character in the series. It was very effectively used. It’s very much a part of the landscape. And the town is sort of like traditional, small town, historical society, Southeastern coastal town meets Hollywood. And then there’s the beach culture. On one side, it’s all new, the Outer Banks, cool places, houses to rent, condos. The other side, which is on the Cape Fear River, is older, historical. They had downtown candlelit carriage rides to view the houses that had been restored. There’s a river culture. There’s even a little sophistication in it. They had this wild club there for a while. They have cool cigar bars and eateries and restaurants down on the river. So I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. I also think that given the fact that the show exploded the way it did and we had such a young cast–and I know it was a pain in the ass for them being separated as the years went on–I think the production probably benefited from the fact that we weren’t in L.A. or we weren’t in the fastest-track place, because those kids became international stars overnight. Even as intelligent and well-intentioned as they were, it probably would’ve been very heady stuff for them had we been, say, in L.A.

TDW: Let’s throw New York into the mix, because you filmed in New York City, too, when you were on Guiding Light.

Shipp: Yeah, I lived in New York City for 14 years. I love New York City. I started my career there and I had my first success there. When I was living there, I was living there the way you’d want to live there. I had a great apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking the river and I had a house on six-and-a-half acres in Woodstock to go to on the weekends. So that kind of was the ideal way to live in New York. Then I went back in 1992 for a year when I did Dancing with Lughnasa on Broadway and a stint on All My Children. I don’t know if it was my youth or my success that I remember fondly or if it’s entirely New York but I’m actually wanting to move back there. L.A. can be very oppressive. There’s many opportunities about L.A.; I don’t want to be a whiner about it. But it is a one-industry town and everyone is in the motion picture industry. Everyone has a script in tow and everyone is an actor and everyone is a producer and everyone is on the hustle, getting this project made–you know what I mean? It can be a bit mind-numbing. Plus all that sun. New York is, as they call it, the great teeming metropolis. It’s teeming with life. Everybody does something different and nobody is particularly impressed with what you do because everybody is so busy carving out a piece of the rock themselves, a piece of that island for themselves. It’s just such a melting pot and it’s exciting. You walk out onto those streets and you’re alive. So many different people from so many different worlds. I think for an artist or an actor, it’s probably much healthier creatively to live in New York than L.A. But I’ll only speak for myself.

TDW: If you came back to New York City, would you want to do Broadway again or another soap? One of the ones that’s still here, anyway.

Shipp: I don’t know about daytime. Daytime seems to be in a pretty tough spot at the moment. I wonder, and I’ve heard speculation, about whether there will be any daytime dramas left in 5-7 years. Certainly I would like to do theater. I’m attached right now to the production of a little play with the Firebone Theatre Company called Song of the Bow. I’m attached to that and they’re looking at production next September. I’m also, after our phone interview, talking to a producer from Atlanta. He’s actually in New York right now checking out theater space. They’re taking the play from Atlanta to New York in January and he’s talking to me about the possibility of whether it would be a good fit for me. I would love that. I would love going back to New York doing a play. I think it would be the best thing for me right now so we’ll see. We’ll see if it holds true that what I hold in my mind happens. Of course, first choice, I’d really like to do an interesting series in New York because (whispers) that’s a lot more money. We’ll see what happens.

TDW: What was your reaction when you found out Guiding Light was going off the air after 72 years?

Shipp: Well, the Guiding Light I knew, from everything I had heard, no longer existed. They weren’t shooting in a studio anymore. It was practically students with handheld cameras in driveways.

TDW: That was very much my understanding of it as well, from what I’ve read and from watching it.

Shipp: I would watch it. It would be on at the gym and I’d look up. I just thought the production values had flipped. I was at a Guiding Light Emmy party at Krista Tesreau’s on August 29 in L.A. I have some pictures up from that party on my Facebook page. It seemed like ancient history. I left that show, what, 25 years ago? A quarter of a century. It was exciting. Guiding Light was a great time and it was a great time to be in daytime. That and when I went over and did the story on As The World Turns with Julianne Moore and Steven Weber. It was a time when the youth explosion, the numbers, the ratings were way up from what they had ever been before. As a consequence, the networks and Proctor & Gamble were putting money in. I went to the Spanish Islands on location. I went to St. Croix on location. Of course we also went more regionally. I don’t think they did even local locations anymore. We went up to Connecticut, Kent Falls, where we did the whole Laurel Falls Kelly-Morgan wedding and story. It was an exciting time. If you were going to do daytime, the early to mid-80s was the time to do it. I was very fortunate to work for Douglas Marland on both Guiding Light and As The World Turns. I had the best of the best in my daytime experience.

TDW: So if that was so wonderful, what 10-15 years later made you switch not only to primetime but a teen drama?

Shipp: It was what was offered. I mean, I had been through The Flash and that was disappointing in many ways. It was handled so badly by the network and that’s not just my opinion. That’s the network’s opinion. We had a number of things going against us for that show, even though we were a critical hit and the industry really dug us. But we had a network that had the oldest demographic so all of our in-house advertising fell on deaf ears. Plus we debuted in the fall and then we were off for baseball because CBS had the World Series that year. So we went on and off then we went back on. Then the Gulf War broke out. Then we went back on and George H.W. Bush threw up in Japan so we were preempted again. Then they moved our night. So it was impossible to find an audience, although it’s doing well now on DVD. It was released in 2006. So after that I went back to New York and did the play Dancing at Lughnasa on Broadway and a series of guest shots and TV movies and things like that. And then Dawson’s Creek presented itself. The interesting thing about that is they had already shot the 20-minute pilot presentation. I believe at the time they were auditioning for Mitch, I was in Moab, Utah with David Carradine, Lee Majors, Cathy Lee Crosby and Michelle Greene doing a movie called the Lost Treasure of Dos Santos. What a cast, huh? It was a riot. But, anyway, then I heard about this project. They were deciding to go in a different direction with the father and they sent me the pilot presentation. If you can think back to before Dawson’s Creek exploded on TV–and as a result of it, so many spin-offs and so many teen dramas and so much saturation and copy-cat shows to the point where it became something of a cultural joke almost–if you think back before Dawson’s Creek, there was nothing like it. I mean, yeah, you had Beverly Hills 90210 but it was completely different in tone. The kids were beautiful and–ours were, too–but theirs were popular and sexy and with it and hip, slick and cool and, let’s face it, didn’t have the brain power of our characters. What was interesting about Dawson’s is that it was not slick. The kids were not hip, slick and cool. They were a little bit on the outside. Joey Potter [Katie Holmes], that whole story–not exactly your typical teen queen there with the problems in her family. Pacey Witter’s [Joshua Jackson] father being a drunk. And that Michelle Williams [Jen] character being a real outcast at the beginning. And even Dawson [James Van Der Beek], his mom cheating on his dad and experimenting with an open relationship. There really was nothing like it. And, also, I noticed the language that these kids were using. I thought, wow! We were even criticized for that. We’re writing up to the youth audience; we’re not writing down to them. Why would you criticize that? Isn’t that a good thing? You mean the dialogue is too smart? That’s a criticism? But, anyway, how did I come to do it–I didn’t really look it as a teen drama. Now, when [creator] Kevin Williamson left the show [between seasons 2 and 3] and it became more and more of that and the parents were increasingly de-emphasized, that led to my leaving. At the end of the four seasons and the kids were going to be going to college, I saw the handwriting on the wall. We would be standing in the background with Lily and waving at Parents Day and I really had no interest in doing that. So when they wanted to renegotiate our contact, I set my price really high. Then they started production on the fifth season and two weeks into production, the WB shut them down because they had no story and that’s when Paul Stupin came to me in L.A. and said if we gave you the money you were asking, would you come back and kill the character? I kind of budged my heart for a minute but I have to tell you, it was a great decision. It was the perfect time to leave Dawson’s Creek. I did indeed get two beautiful episodes that made me feel like the previous four years had been about something. You know what I mean?

TDW: Yes. Those episodes [5.03, Capeside Revisited & 5.04, The Long Goodbye] are just incredibly moving. For a show that was, at times, a lot about sadness, those really stand out as sadder moments and turning points for Dawson, his mom, for the way that it affected his relationship with Joey. We got that in that episode after Mitch’s death. We see how his death has affected everyone as there’s those flashbacks or re-imaginings of Mitch with each of the characters.

Shipp: And imagine for me–what a sendoff?! And what a tribute to Mitch. I mean, I really got to tie up each relationship. I got a retrospective of what Mitch had been and, as you say, what he had meant to everyone and went out on a real high note. It worked out really well for me.

TDW: The other scene [in episode 2.05, Full Moon Rising] that stands out in my mind–and I was talking about it to someone just a few weeks ago; they were watching the series for the first time–was the scene where you’re in the kitchen with Dawson and he’s kind of confronting Mitch about having an open marriage and Mitch kind of breaks down and says, you know, “I was never taught what to do if my wife had an affair.” And the way that you just delivered that line was just heartbreaking.

Shipp: Honey, thank you so much. I loved that. Kevin Williamson wrote that episode. I didn’t even have to act it, you know what I mean? Just the idea of this man and those words. You can barely even say them. I think I even heard you choke up trying to say them.

TDW: Yeah, it’s true.

Shipp: “My dad taught me how to do this, he taught me had to do that but he never taught me what to do if my wife cheated on me. I never knew to ask.” I mean, I can barely say those lines now. So beautifully written and so incredibly vulnerable, particularly for a male character on television. I love that scene. I love that episode.

TDW: Did you keep up with the show or its storylines after you left?

Shipp: Not at all. I never saw it after I left. And it’s not that I sat down and made a conscious decision and it’s not that I had a resentment about the way things went down, because it was totally a collaboration. They needed something from me and I wanted something from them and we both got it. But, having said that, when you’re such an integral part of a family–and that’s what you become and it’s also an impact of being in Wilmington because we only really had each other. So on the weekends, you’ll be going out on boats and going out to Masonboro Island, we’d throw the football around, ride around on wave runners. We did everything together so it was very much a family and to know that your family was going on without you, it was too sad for me. I really had to make a clean break. It’s interesting. They had asked me to come back recently. AFI–was it in AFI?

TDW: The Paley Center. They had the panel.

Shipp: They asked me to come and be a part of it but I couldn’t do it. I think James did it and Meredith [Monroe, Andie].

TDW: Yep. It was James, Meredith, Kevin, Paul Stupin and Busy Philipps [Audrey].

Shipp: They had actually asked me to do it and I wish I could’ve. That would’ve made me feel like a part–it would’ve completed something for me to be able to do it. But I’ve been up in San Jose. I’ve been very busy and I just got back from doing an independent film in Ohio that I’m very excited about and had another, a comedy with Jodie Sweetin, play to really good notices at two film festivals, one in Wilmington.  And another film I had premiered in New Orleans at the New Orleans Film Festival in the last several months so, you know, I’ve been busy. But one thing James had said–they said something about the death of his father and he said “I was really sad because I wouldn’t get to see John anymore” and that’s the way it was. I was literally killed off. When you leave a show, you leave a show. And it was accentuated by the fact that we were sequestered in Wilmington. So, no, I never saw an episode after I left.

TDW: Well, I can tell you that, in the series finale, Gale [Mary-Margaret Humes] actually remarried.

Shipp: Yeah, I knew that because I keep in touch with Mary-Margaret. But do you know that I just found out–and I mean a couple of months ago–that Jen died, right?

TDW: Yes.

Shipp: I just found that out, like two months ago.

TDW: If you have the time, I really recommend picking up the complete series and watching the last two seasons. The emotion that we talked about earlier was there for Jen’s and maybe that goes back to the fact that Kevin Williamson returned for the series finale after he had been gone for so long. You really had his voice, his emotion and his rawness that he would put into things.

Shipp: I’ll tell you, those are good words to describe it. It seemed to me that–this goes back to the pilot presentation when I first watched it–this had a sound and a look and a feel that was unlike anything that was on television. It’s difficult now to imagine as there’s been so many copy-cats and spin-offs and it’s been run into the ground. There was a rawness amidst the sophistication. There was a bumpiness, a sense of dis-ease about the emotional lives. And also I always felt that Kevin really was Dawson, I think. I haven’t had this discussion with him. I could be wrong. But I thought we were seeing all of this life on the creek through the eyes of Dawson, which were Kevin Williamson’s eyes. I felt for James after Kevin left because I really felt that Kevin is the only one that really gets Dawson and I’m sure that was difficult for James after Kevin left. It was much easier to write for Pacey, much easier to write for Joey. To a lesser degree I think it was easier to write for Jen. I don’t really think they quite knew–they experimented with different things. But it was easier to write for Pacey and Joey. But the more awkward unique perspective of a Dawson was Kevin’s voice. I mean, my god, Greg Berlanti is a wonderful writer and oh, god, the man–I just blanked on his name–who wrote my last two episodes was just brilliant and some of the best stuff I had. But I do feel the show suffered from Kevin’s awkwardness and the lack of the Kevin’s awkwardness. There was something really awkward in the writing of Dawson that Kevin really got that we missed after he left.

TDW: Going back to you and your storylines, did you think the show gave a realistic portrayal of parent-child and husband-wife relationships?

Shipp: I don’t know about realism. I think realism is overrated. I would say it gave an interesting perspective. One thing I will say is with the explosion of information with the Internet and the sophistication of kids–I mean, my nine-year-old niece and twelve-year-old nephew have their computers in school and their this and their that and they’re so much more aware of the world and what’s going on–that I sort of think that the parents, adults, have a much wider ranger of possibilities. They’re not locked into authoritarian roles in modern society. In other words, in the 40s and 50s you started wearing suits and you got a corporate job and the dad was the head of the house and the mother was the nurturer and the father was the provider and everybody knew what their roles were and everybody got old very soon. I sort of think after the 60s and 70s and all that, and certainly today, there’s a much wider range of possibilities and, in a sense, the kids are growing up faster and the parents aren’t growing up as fast, getting old as fast. So they’re meeting in the middle. Does that make sense? I know what I’m trying to say. It’s that consequently you have a lot of more options. What I enjoyed was when Kevin would turn the–and he did it many times–he would turn the father-son relationship on its head. Another thing we were criticized for. I read things saying what kind of parents were these, what kind of role models, blah, blah, blah. But what I enjoyed was the intentional flip-flopping, the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent. I think that was interesting writing. Is it realistic? I don’t know. Again, I think realism is overrated. If I want realism, I don’t have to ever turn on the TV. I just live my life. But I think it has to be true but it doesn’t have to necessarily be real if there’s a sense of truth in it, and I think there was. I was tickled to death that Dawson goes out on his first date and I’m more comfortable talking about it than he is. I tell him, “Have fun, play safe.” And he’s all “For chrissake, dad!”  You know, coming in and finding his parents making love on the coffee table, he’s totally grossed out and disgusted by that but I thought that was great. I loved that. It certainly was more fun for me as an actor than if I had to come in and be “the dad,” you know what I mean? I mean, who was Mitch? What did he do for a living? Who was this goofy, kind of lovable, sensitive, lost character? There was a certain wisdom that he had, simple wisdom. Certainly he wasn’t the stereotypical patriarch of the family and I was glad ‘cause that would’ve been boring as hell.

TDW: Are you recognized for the role at all when you walk down the street?

Shipp: Oh, yeah. Constantly. You know what I’m most amazed about? And my mom has picked up on this, too. The amount of times I get recognized for Guiding Light. I wouldn’t even recognize myself from Guiding Light! But the two things I get recognized the most for are, of course, Dawson’s Creek and The Flash.

TDW: Are you back in touch with any of the Dawson’s Creek cast or crew?

Shipp: Yeah. I never was out of touch with some of the people. Mary-Margaret and I, in fact, our friendship if anything has grown deeper since the show. We’re very close. We’re constantly in touch and she kind of plays the mom role and gets the gang together every now and then. I haven’t talked to Katie in years but she and I have messaged. She sent a message through an agent at the premiere of a movie but she’s got her own thing going on now and that’s consuming her. I’ve actually seen Meredith several times and her husband. Michelle, of course, has been in New York. The person I’ve most consistently been with–and I keep up with everybody through her–is Mary-Margaret.

TDW: One of the films–I think you already mentioned it–that you’ve been working on is Port City.

Shipp: Yeah, that was the comedy with Jodie Sweetin at the festival in Wilmington.

TDW: Well, coincidentally, that also stars Matthew Laurance and Barabra Alyn Woods, who also played parents on teen dramas.

Shipp: Oh, yeah.

TDW: Matthew was on 90210 [as Mel] and Barbara was on One Tree Hill [as Deb].

Shipp: It’s like, where do teen drama parents go to die? Port City. (laughs) And then this last film that I did–I just got back a couple of weeks ago from Ohio where we filmed it–was a company out of Chicago called Glass City Films. It’s a wonderful script called Separation Anxiety, in which a young man either falls to his death accidentally from an icy dam or commits suicide and we don’t know which. His two best friends, one female and one male–there’s also some sexual tension there that we find out about–and his father, who is me, spend the movie trying to make sense out of his death based on what we need to believe. Interestingly enough, the father needed to believe it was suicide, which I immediately found interesting. He saw his son as kind of a drifter, where his life was just sort of a series of accidents. It was intolerable for him to think that at the end of his life, it was just one more accident. He needed to believe that it was an intentional act that he set out to accomplish and accomplished. Now isn’t that an interesting perspective? That’s not something I’ve ever seen, where his father needs to believe his son committed suicide. We fight it out, the three of us–me and the two best friends. Most of my scenes are with the girl who–that’s a complicated relationship so I won’t go into it but it’s more than just best buddies with her and my son. We spend a lot of time hashing and thrashing that out and what we need to believe and finally come to an accommodation where I’m able to go bury my son. It was a good group of people, a talented crew and cast. I can’t wait to see it put together.

TDW: Where we can we actually see you next? Is Port City going to get a wide release or is it just doing festivals?

Shipp: I don’t know. Karma Police, which debuted at the Dallas Film Festival the year before last, is out on DVD and on I think–I can’t keep up with these sites–Blockbuster Online or Netflix, so I know it’s out there. Grotesque, my little short film that I’m so proud of, we banged out in New Orleans last year in about a week. I play a priest with a dubious past. That’s online and the trailer for that is in my Facebook videos and there’s a link to the actual 29-minute version. And then Separation Anxiety will also do the festival market.

TDW: Do you like the festivals better than a major motion picture that’s in theaters everywhere?

Shipp: No. I would rather it be straight to theaters. Again, it’s a matter of what’s offered. I will say one thing–and it’s not just my particular insight–but there’s a lot more creative freedom the less money there is riding on a project, you know what I mean? The more money, the more hands in the pie. The more sets of suits that have their handprints on the script and the edit and the this and the that, the more of a business it is. I understand that. It’s wonderful and spontaneous and creative working in an independent film atmosphere but make no mistake: I would not turn down an A film that would be set for a major release.

TDW: I hope to see you in one soon! And I’d really like to see Port City.

Shipp: You know, it’s funny. I was kind of worried about it because it’s sort of a screwball comedy and my character’s really a jerk, a goofy filthy jerk and that’s not necessarily been my trademark but all the feedback I’ve gotten is “Wow! What a great departure! You should do more comedy!,” which my brother has been telling me for years because he knows how innately ridiculous I am. But I’ve managed to shield the rest of the world from that.

TDW: Hopefully not for long!

Shipp: I’ve actually taken off the last year, for all intents and purposes. Those projects that I mentioned came to me of their own volition. I’ve not been interviewing. I’ve not been auditioning. My dad came up to San Jose to pastor a new liberal church out here that’s been facing some difficulty and then he had heart surgery. Well, I came up to San Jose and they ended up losing their music director and my background is music. I was an opera major at Indiana University in Bloomington before switching my major to theater and I’ve studied keyboards since the age of 5 so I grew up with music of the church and for the last year, that’s been my primary occupation–rediscovering my love of music and my spirituality in a very inclusive and liberal atmosphere. It’s been great for me being of service to my parents, who are now back in Atlanta. My dad’s doing fine. And I agreed to stay on at the church through Christmas, the Christmas Eve service. So I have two more Sundays to plan musically and then I’ll be flying to Atlanta to be with my family and probably re-engage my career full-time beginning in February.

TDW: Mary-Beth Peil was an opera major as well.

Shipp: Yep. She has a glorious voice. A wonderful woman. People who only knew who her from Dawson’s Creek have no idea who that woman is.

TDW: I interviewed her, via e-mail actually, last month and I would’ve loved to hear her real voice because I know her Grams voice isn’t actually hers.

Shipp: No, she’s young and sexy and funny. You just wouldn’t know her with her hair down and all that. And she tends to be play those severe, more matronly parts because she’s good at it. She’s on a series now, isn’t she?

TDW: Yes, The Good Wife with Julianna Margulies.

Shipp: Right.

TDW: Alright, well, I’m glad we were finally able to connect.

Shipp: My pleasure, Shari. It’s been great talking to you.

Come back next week for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index





Most Shocking Deaths, Pt. 2

24 11 2009

Part 1

8. A drunk Johnny falls off a cliff (The O.C., Episode 3.14: The Cliffhanger)

7. Mitch gets into a car accident (Dawson’s Creek, Episode 5.03: Capeside Revisited)

Come back tomorrow for two more deaths no one saw coming.





Exclusive: Executive Producer Paul Stupin Revisits Dawson’s Creek

15 11 2009

With the Paley Center’s “Dawson’s Creek: A Look Back” panel and the release of “Dawson’s Creek: The Complete Series,” I’ve been on a DC high the past week and a half.  Imagine my delight in finding someone who was not only just as enthusiastic but also chock full of insider stories only true fans like TDW readers could appreciate. And when you combine that with the fact that this guy is also partly responsible for introducing Beverly Hills 90210 to the world, well, that pretty much makes him a teen drama god.

After reading all the DC and 90210 goodness executive producer Paul Stupin shared with me, you’ll never want TDW’s stroll down memory creek to end!

TeenDramaWhore: How was the Paley Center panel?  How did it come about?

Paul Stupin: It came about for two sets of reasons. The first was that there are a  lot of die-hard Dawson’s supporters and fans out there that could support such a event. And the second key element is Sony is planning to issue this monumental all-seasons of Dawson’s DVD collection.

TDW: Yeah! It came out yesterday and I went to three different stores and finally found it!

Stupin: I just think it’s the coolest thing ever. So it was a good opportunity to call some attention to the DVD collection while at the same time having an event for the fans. It was really fun for me because when I did Dawson’s, I look back on it as a very special and rewarding time in my life and to be able to talk about it and see some cast members and see Kevin [Williamson, creator] again was just a blast.

TDW: I’m sure. I wish I could’ve been there!

Stupin: Yeah, you would’ve liked it!

TDW: Oh, I’m sure. Well let’s go back even further, to 1997-1998, and Kevin Williamson comes to you with this idea to make this semi-autobiographical show. What made you come on board?

Stupin: Well, that’s not exactly how it happened but I can tell you. I had read an early draft of this film that he wrote. At the time, it was called Scary Movie but that was going to turn into Scream and they used the original title for something else. I had read a draft of that and I had really responded to the writing. One of the things I loved about it is not only did it have some smart thrills and chills but it also had this great sort of teenage/20-something dialogue. I just loved his voice and I loved the different perspectives that he had brought to the horror genre so I pushed really hard to his agent for Kevin and I to sit down. Originally, I wanted to run two areas by him. The first area was sort of a younger X-Files-esque kind of show and the second one was just a really smart, young ensemble sort of show that could tap into younger characters’ voices. I had ran programming at Fox, so the idea of doing a family show was kind of not on the board because Fox had Party of Five. So we started to talk about potentially doing a show about a number of younger characters who live on the same street. Then Kevin sort of went away and came back and sort of pitched to me a bunch of characters living on the same creek, which, of course, was semi-autobiographical. What made that so interesting is that it specified the idea and made it something unique and took us to a place I had never seen before. And the other thing that made that original pitch so exciting was the characters. He pitched to me the characters of Dawson [James Van Der Beek] and Joey [Katie Holmes] and Jen [Michelle Williams] and how that triangle would work. And then as we were talking about that, we came up with the idea of incorporating another character into the mix who could be a confidante for Dawson and that’s how the character of Pacey [Joshua Jackson] originated.

TDW: I think you really hit it when you said the show was unique. There are a couple of specific things that people are still talking about today and they really want the inside details of how it happened. I know you guys went over a bit of this at the panel but I’d love to hear it from you yourself.  So if we can just go over a couple of different storylines, I’d love to hear what you guys were thinking and the genesis of those. So the first one is in season 2 when we have Jack [Kerr Smith] announce that he’s gay [Episodes 2.14 & 2.15, To Be Or Not To Be… & …That Is The Question].

Stupin: I think there were two reasons for that. The first reason is it was a great way to integrate in a gay character on our series and to do it from the perspective of the kids we’d come to know and love on the show from the get-go. So the thought of involving Joey in a relationship with Jack and seeing that relationship take a completely unexpected turn and then understanding the emotional impact it would have on Joey’s character, and what it would do to Dawson and Pacey–all that seemed really interesting. And at the time, the thought of integrating a gay character and following that journey seemed really powerful and a way to tap into a whole set of emotions that would make our show even more memorable. One of the things that I love about Dawson’s is that it sort of wore its heart on its sleeve. Not only did it capture the voices and that sense of teenage yearning and teenage love and first-time love, and the power and the strength of all that, with love comes heartache as well in many stories. I think it enabled us to tell a really emotional and powerful story for a character that we’d really come to enjoy in the form of Jack. So that was one element to it and I think for Kevin it was a very personal story as well, and it was a way to again put a whole different perspective on the teen ensemble drama in a way that it hadn’t been done before. The second element to it was the fact that when Joey started that relationship with Jack, it was not going to go on forever. The key relationship in our series was what was going on between Joey and Dawson and Pacey, so the Jack character, that romance, was ultimately going to come to an end. And I think there was the thought of what a powerful way to see the relationship head south when the character starts to realize an insight into his own sexuality.

TDW: Going back to the Dawson-Joey-Pacey relationship, I read in Jeff Stepakoff’s book “Billion-Dollar Kiss” that Greg Berlanti–whom I adore–was the one to suggest putting Joey and Pacey together. I was wondering how accurate that story was in the book.

Stupin: Well, at the top of every season, we’ll sit and we’ll talk about [our plans]. We take a couple of weeks and we talk about each character and where we were going and what the sort of macro-issues were that we want to cover over the course of that particular group of 22 episodes. And Greg was definitely a part of that and the thought  of telling sort of a whole Joey-Pacey romance did in fact come out of that, absolutely. But I think you can go back, you can look at the pilot and you can look at the chemistry–and I did, in looking at the pilot last week–you can look at the chemistry between Joey and Pacey and you just know they’re sort of two peas in a pod and sooner or later that element of the triangle is going to get explored. So it’s definitely true what Jeff had in the book but I think that Greg was building from the seeds that were established in the original conception of the show, to tell you the truth.

TDW: Right.  Going to a more somber note: this probably came early on for you guys given how you plan the season but a lot of people were really surprised and devastated when in the 5th season Mitch [John Wesley Shipp] died [Episodes 5.03 & 5.04, Capeside Revisited & The Long Goodbye].

Stupin: Yes.

TDW: I’m wondering what the idea for that was. We never knew if it was casting reasons or storyline-dictated.

Stupin: It wasn’t really casting issues. The thing with Mitch was every year we would figure out a way to have 1 or 2 sort of emotional stories between Dawson and his mom and dad. In the first season we had all that great stuff with her affair with a newscaster. That was just sort of natural. The second season we have the story with mom and dad trying the open marriage, and it’s arguable as to how memorable that actually was. It seemed like such a fresh idea. I’m not sure that it translated quite as well as the idea initially seemed. And then after that, when the inter-relationships between the teenagers grew ever-more prominent and people became much more invested, it felt like the parents–though still important–were not quite as much a part of the storylines. So that’s when we would always try to include them, to have them in different things, to have great sort of Dawson-mom, Dawson-dad scenes but I think we were straining a little bit. And I think that when we got to the point of deciding the fate with Mitch, it seemed like we weren’t using him altogether that much in the series, in the seasons. We were using him but we weren’t using him in a huge way. There weren’t any financial or casting considerations. It really did come from the creative angle, in terms of how would it affect Dawson’s character if in fact this happened to his dad, and exploring that, and exploring the unexpected tragedy of it seemed like another way to really heighten the exploration as to who Dawson was, so that’s basically where that came from. And I remember talking to John Wesley and mentioning that the one thing that this would provide is that it was going to take the Dawson-father storyline to a really heartbreaking sense of conclusion and, at that point, we weren’t using him as much as we had in the past.

TDW: How does that contrast, then, to the decision in the series finale [Episodes 6.23 & 624, All Good Things… & …Must Come To An End] to have another death and this time it be Jen?

Stupin: It was so interesting last week; it came up that in a way it was a great book-end for the series. It frankly never occurred when we were talking about the beginning or the end of the show but one could argue that the series began with a catalyst and that was the arrival of Jen. And the series ended with a catalyst as well, and that was the departure of Jen. And the one thing that I think that it did is it really brought a sense of emotional resonance and power to that final episode, because one of the things with a final episode you want to be able to do, you want to be able to end a series in a satisfying and emotional and interesting way. And if we essentially had the last episode in history for Dawson’s Creek, we could talk about and we could explore issues of mortality involving some of our characters. Then when we talked about it, if we were going to be dealing with the characters’ mortality, she seemed like the most natural character in which to explore that.

TDW: Going back to the catalyst idea, it could be extended that that was really what it took for Joey to finally make up her mind between the two boys.

Stupin: Yeah, I think a little bit. I think the interesting thing was the series sort of ends twice. It ends in the episode before then [Episode 6.22, Joey Potter And The Capeside Redemption] where we get the sense that finally Dawson and Pacey are going to be friends and Joey did actually get to Europe. And I think that had a sense of closure. Then we took it another step and went to a sort of even more sort of larger-than-life ending of exploring who she was going to end up with. I think that was the big question: who was she going to end up with? And I think that that was handled pretty well, too. Like I personally love the thought that what this show was really about was not the romance of Dawson and Joey but about the strength and depth of that friendship and how that friendship was going to exist forever.

TDW: So if you had to answer the question, in your heart of hearts, do you think Dawson belongs with Joey in a platonic, friends soulmates sense and Pacey in the romantic soulmate way?

Stupin: In my heart of hearts, I think we ended it the right away. I think that what she did have in the romance with Pacey was as powerful as the friendship with Dawson. And I think that we were able to come up with a sense of satisfying closure for both of them. ‘Cause I will tell you, weirdly enough, when I was looking at The Sopranos–I’ll weirdly liken it to the conclusion of The Sopranos, at least from my weird perspective, because I was a fan of that. I like to think, in my mind, that Tony Soprano is still out there–maybe it wasn’t going to last forever, but maybe he’s still out there with his family, still dealing with the issues and still dealing with all the balls he was juggling. And in my mind, I like to think that Dawson and Joey are still out there in our alternate TV universe, still communicating with each other and still sharing the inner-most aspects of their hearts and still dealing with their friendship as adults, and that Joey and Pacey still have that romance. Because I feel like what we were able to come up with was, for me, an emotionally-satisfying conclusion for both stories which doesn’t let anyone down. And I know there are people who think Dawson and Joey should’ve been together romantically and I totally understand that point of view but I think we did the right thing.

TDW: Well, as a Joey and Pacey fan, I completely agree with you!

Stupin: Well, I can tell you this: that decision wasn’t made until the last hour was being shot and so if you look at the first hour of that final two-hour, I think at that point we were leaning toward her ending up with Dawson and so there are a few, I think, little cues–for the life of me I don’t remember exactly–that were set up to lead us in that direction and then, frankly, in the last hour, when the last hour was being shot–because it wasn’t shot as a two-hour; it was shot as two separate 1-hours–that when we came up with that conclusion, it caused us to shift things around a little bit. So I’ll tell ya, we were undecided up until the very last minute ourselves.

TDW: Wow. Well, switching gears slightly, you spoke about Dawson and the way he would communicate with Joey. Going off that, both Kevin Williamson and James Van Der Beek are on Twitter these days. I was wondering, had the service existed when the show was on the air, how do you think Dawson would’ve used it, if he would’ve used it? As I said, They’re both on it now, and Dawson was very much a storyteller.

Stupin: Well, I think Dawson might’ve used it to express his emotions. I think he might’ve used it as a shorthand way of communicating with both Joey and Pacey. It’s certainly easier to communicate things to someone by Twitter than it is necessarily in real life. He might’ve, at some point in our storytelling, he might’ve used it to express something that he might not have been so willing to express in person.

TDW: When you look back on the show and the television landscape then and now, what do you think the show’s legacy is?

Stupin: You know, I think for me it’s–well, first of all, I’m so proud of the show. I think the characters were amazing. I think their stories were amazing. I think the quality of the writing, the quality of the direction was–of course I’m biased but I think it was just top-flight. And I really do think it took the young adult teen genre and elevated it from just a niche kind of show to something universal and iconic. I think adults could look at it. When we were doing it we never looked at it as just a teen show.  We looked at it as just a smart, interesting, relationship show that happened to deal with teenagers and though our core audience was teenagers, it was written for everybody, for people in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s. And I really think it managed to transcend all of that and bring an element of quality and exploration to the genre that really took it to the next step.

TDW: Do you have a favorite episode or storyline?

Stupin: You know, I’m so biased. It’s like trying to pick if you have 120 kids which one’s your favorite. But I think for me there are certain sort of moments that I love. There’s certain episodes, like the pilot because it introduced us to that world, and I remember so much of it almost like it was yesterday. The first season-ender when Joey went to visit her dad in prison, I loved that. I loved the detention episode [Episode 1.07, Detention]. A lot of them are some of the original ones. But then I think I love the episode when they graduated high school [Episode 4.22, The Graduate]. I thought that was just sensational. I love the one-hour ender as well as the two-hour series finale ender. I think there’s so many. The episode where they studied and it was an all-nighter [Episode 2.07, The All-Nighter]. The episode where Joey had to enter the beauty pageant [Episode 1.12, Beauty Contest]. I just love all of those.

TDW: Well, conversely, do you have a big regret or something you wish you did differently?

Stupin: Yeah. My biggest regret would probably be, as I think about it–and it was a mistake we made–was the character of Eve. Remember that character?

TDW: Yeah. You guys even have a joke about that in the episode before the series finale.

Stupin: Yeah. I don’t think the first episodes of season 3 really were as memorable as the other episodes. And I think that whole notion of “Is she Jen’s sister? Is she not?”–I don’t think that was that effective. I don’t look back on that run of episodes as my favorites.

TDW: Yeah, I think the fans do agree with that.

Stupin: Yeah, but you know what, we turn it around.  In the middle of that season we turned it around with–

TDW: With Joey and Pacey.

Stupin: Yeah, with Joey and Pacey. And that certainly helped get us back, I think, to our roots.

TDW: Going more to your history, I know you played a bit of a role with the creation of Beverly Hills 90210.

Stupin: Yes, I did.

TDW: What influence, if any, did that show have on Dawson‘s Creek?  If you learned anything from how viewers took to what was really the first teenage show, as Dawson’s Creek is largely considered the next step in the genre.

Stupin: Well, two things. And it’s an interesting question. The first thing: when I hired Darren Star to write 90210, I felt as if his voice was just so unique in terms of his ability to write characters and come up with dialogue and wit that seemed like it would be a particularly good fit if he put into teenager characters’ mouths. So in a way I think that when I read Kevin’s voice, I felt some of it was the same in terms of being clever and sharp and smart and pop culturally-savvy. I felt like I had found another voice who was capable of taking the genre to the next step. So I felt like both Kevin and Darren brought originally a really unique sense of humor and sharpness to their creation of characters and dialogue. So I think there was a similarity there. The one issue that I took away from 90210, that was very effective in 90210, was the mix of issue-oriented episodes and personal inter-relationships. Though, when we jumped into Dawson’s, we veered away from doing the issue-oriented episodes and explored further just all of the great inter-relationships.

TDW: Going further ahead to the rest of the genre and the teen dramas that are on today, do you think Dawson’s Creek influenced them?

Stupin: I’m sure it did, though I can’t say–you know, again, I’m biased. I don’t know. In my mind, I’m undecided as to what the next real step in the genre is after Dawson’s. I’m not sure what it is. I haven’t watched enough of the shows. I hold, of course again I’m so biased, but I hold everything up to the prism of Dawson’s. I don’t know if any of them that have come since have quite represented that cultural milestone that Dawson’s did.

TDW: Do you think Dawson’s Creek would fly on The CW today? Because it’s so different than what The WB was.

Stupin: Yeah. I’m not sure. I’ve often thought would I be able to sell Dawson’s today? Would I be able to pitch that as a series and get it going, and I’m not altogether sure. Because now, when you look at Dawson’s, we sold it off the strength of the characters and off of the strength of Kevin’s voice being so fresh. Now, I think that the networks are looking for slightly higher concepts. So I’m not altogether sure that a Dawson’s would be able to sell today.

TDW: I have to ask, then, why do you think the 90210 spin-off sold?

Stupin: Oh, I see, are you talking about bringing able to bring it back, for instance?

TDW: Well, no, not for it to be a spin-off. But the 90210 concept today is working.

Stupin: Well, I think the 90210 concept–everyone, myself included, has fondness for that original show. The thought of sort of putting two new outsiders into that world and bringing the  show back is a great way to hook people into a whole new group of characters, and I think it was a great idea. The thing with Dawson’s is I don’t know if bringing the world of Dawson’s Creek back with a bunch of new characters would generate quite the excitement. Because I think when you think about the show, you think about Dawson and you think about the very unique 3 characters, the 4 characters we had, and the actors that played them. And I’m not sure if it was brought back again–I certainly wouldn’t want to redo it with a new Dawson or a new Pacey. So the question would be could we go back to Capeside with a whole new group of characters, and I’m not sure we would be able to put together a new group of people as memorably as we did originally.

TDW: Right. You know, they say lightening strikes once.

Stupin: Right. And you know, I’m afraid you always run the risk of–when you make a sequel to a movie that’s not as good, it kind of reflects negatively on the original movie.

TDW: I completely agree.

Stupin: And I like to think of all our episodes as being so special, I’m not sure it’s something you could bring back.

TDW: Well, my biggest disappointment right now is that Dawson’s Creek is no longer on any channel in America.

Stupin: Really? You know, they gotta get on that! Wasn’t it running like forever in the early morning hours?

TDW: It used to be on TBS. When I was in high school, it used to be on at like 10am. And then they pushed it to 4:30am, 5:30am and then it just faded away there and now it’s not on at all.

Stupin: I’m not sure what the design is on that because I always like to know that Dawson’s is out there.

TDW: I know, I know. It saddens me that it’s just not in repeats anywhere anymore in this country.

Stupin: You know what, those things tend to be cyclical. Maybe in the future you’ll be channel surfing one night. Knowing you, you’ll know way before then but maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

TDW: Fingers crossed.

Stupin: Exactly.

TDW: Well, let’s bring it back and finish on today. You’re with Make It Or Break It on ABC Family. Just looking at your career over the years, what is it about Make It or Break It that you’re here now?

Stupin: Well, what I love about Make It Or Break It is I’m a big fan of the genre, having originally developed 90210 and then developed Dawson’s. When I left to become a producer, I never really thought that my first real success would be in the same genre as 90210 because I actually never thought that lightning would strike twice in that genre for me as quickly as it did. But after I ran Dawson’s, you know, for six years, I developed a real love for the genre. And the thing that I love about Make It or Break It is the idea. It’s a fresh idea, it’s a fresh world. And it provides a pretty unique prism in which to explore sort of teenage relationships in a really unusual way. I mean, these girls aren’t normal teenagers. They’re elite gymnasts and there are rules against relationships as they’re pursuing their passion. How do they deal with that? And how do we deal with the same elements of teenage love and relationships and heartbreak but from a whole different perspective? And I love that about it, and I also love the relationships between the main characters and their parents and their parental figures. I think they’re a really organic element to the show and give us an opportunity to deal with really unusual family situations as well. So that’s why I love it. And also the gymnastics is just really cool. It’s a lot of fun just to see the gymnastics.

TDW: Oh, the gymnastics is just phenomenal to watch.

Stupin: So I think that Make It Or Break It is just such a special show. We’ve done 10 episodes and I think it’s just starting to get its sea legs. I think it has a huge successful life in front of it, I hope.

TDW: Well, best of luck to you on that!

Stupin: Thank you!

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index








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