News Roundup: One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, 90210 and More

21 04 2010
  • The CW sent out a press release of upcoming sweeps highlights, which Zap2it handily categorized by show. They left some things out, but all of it should be considered spoilers so consider this fair warning. If you guys want, I’ll post it all, as given in the release, in a Spoiler post. Let me know.
  • There is “We Are One” campaign to further encourage The CW to renew One Tree Hill.
  • has an article on the showcase Jana Kramer (Alex, One Tree Hill) had last week.
  • I’ve heard speculation for a while now that Hilarie Burton (Peyton, One Tree Hill) has been dating actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. With no legitimate outlet reporting it, I didn’t post anything on it. But now we’ve got confirmation: the duo appeared on the red carpet last night for his movie The Losers.
  • Kenzie Dalton, girlfriend of Chad Michael Murray (Lucas, One Tree Hill), wrote on her blog that CMM has a graphic novel titled Everlast coming  out this summer.
  • How To Make It In America, starring Bryan Greenberg (Jake, One Tree Hill), has been renewed for a second season on HBO.
  • Bob Levy (executive producer, Gossip Girl) has been named executive vice president of film at Alloy.
  • ABC is reportedly developing a daytime talk show for Tori Spelling (Donna, Beverly Hills 90210) and a “co-host to be determined.”
  • Eric Mabius (Dean Hess, The O.C.) has been cast in Outcasts, a BBC series.
  • Jeffrey Stepakoff (writer-producer, Dawson’s Creek) is returning to Wilmington April 30 for a book signing to support Fireworks Over Toccoa. Have you read my interview with him?

Dawson’s Creek Writer Jeffrey Stepakoff Reflects, Discusses New Novel

28 03 2010

As you may recall, I adored Jeffrey Stepakoff’s book, Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. The title alone sold me but I relished learning not just about the inner-workings of one of my favorite TV shows but also about the industry in general.

Stepakoff and I have been in touch on and off the past few years, and I was thrilled when he contacted me a few months ago to let me know about his upcoming novel, Fireworks Over Toccoa, which will be released Tuesday.

In our recent chat, Stepakoff discussed his book and shared the lessons he learned from his days writing and producing Dawson’s Creek.

TeenDramaWhore: For those that don’t know, what was your title on Dawson’s Creek and how long were you there for?

Jeffrey Stepakoff: I was on Dawson’s for three years, seasons 3, 4 and 5. My last title there was co-executive producer.

TDW: What were you responsible for?

Stepakoff: Like most writer-producers, I was responsible for writing, of course, sometimes supervising writing, story development and I had producorial responsibilities, which meant going to the set and participating in making the production.

TDW: When did it occur to you write a book about your experience in television and have one of the focal points be specifically about your time on Dawson’s Creek?

Stepakoff: Well, the book, of course, is not just about Dawson’s Creek. It’s really about my experience as a television writer during what was arguably the most tumultuous period and one of the most thrilling periods in television history. There was a book that I very much loved that came out in the late-80s by Michael Lewis called Liar’s Poker. Liar’s Poker was Michael Lewis talking about what went on during the bond trading era of the 80s , and while I was working in television during this remarkable period of time, I thought, “You know what? Someone should track what’s going on here. Someone should track the rise of television, the rise of creative content, this explosion of new networks, this explosion for new venues for television programming.” As we got closer to the reality television era, it became clear to me that this was a really remarkable untold story in the history of television and much of it centered around the television writer. So, to answer your question, it was something I had thought about for quite a while, actually, and it wasn’t until that I kind of had one foot out of the story room that I was able to really focus on it. So it’s not really just a story about Dawson’s Creek. It’s a story about television and, moreover, the history of the television writer during this remarkable period of time in television history.

TDW: This is your first novel. Can you give a little synopsis?

Stepakoff: Fireworks Over Toccoa is a love story set in Toccoa, Georgia–which is a small town about two hours north of Atlanta–in 1945. It follows the life of a young girl, Lily, who at 17-years-old marries a young man, who two weeks after ships off to war in 1942. Three-and-a-half years later, in the last week of June 1945, right before the Fourth of July, she’s preparing for her husband to return home and the entire small town of Toccoa has a fireworks display they’re preparing for. For the display, they’ve hired this young pyrotechnician, an Italian boy or a boy of Italian heritage, from Pennsylvania to come down and put on the show. Nobody has seen fireworks in the area in almost a decade because of the war. During the war, anyone who made pyrotechnics, any of the small family-run factories, were actually making munitions during World War II. So this is a big deal for the town in many ways. And while this young Italian man comes to town, Lily meets him, sees his fireworks and discovers that her feelings about what she wants in the world are not what they were three-and-a-half years ago when she committed to her husband. She falls in love with this young Italian man and has to make some very hard, challenging and, ultimately, dramatic decisions about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. So it’s a love story and a story about what’s going on in the world in this period of time.

TDW: Why have a character at 17, versus someone older than that, with a husband in the war?

Stepakoff: During the 1940s people married earlier. Right before World War II, young women were marrying, as were young men, because the boys were shipping off to war. It was an incredible time in American history and world history, where people were making all kinds of life-changing decisions because no on really knew what tomorrow would bring. At 17, people were thinking about today. They weren’t thinking about three-and-a-half years later. I also think 17 is a very dramatic period of time for people. It’s a great time in the life of  a character to tell a story.

TDW: Is there anything you learned from working on Dawson’s Creek or one of the other shows you worked on that you were able to apply to working on this novel?

Stepakoff: It’s funny that you ask because I’m actually sitting here working on my second book. I’m taking my understanding of classic story structure, Aristotelian story structure, which is what we use in television and motion pictures, to craft my novels as well. These are stories that are meant to touch, move and entertain in a very traditional form. So did I learn anything from working on Dawson’s or other shows? Yeah, I learned story structure. I learned how to craft a story first on the fly and then later with a degree of richness that I think comes from sitting in a story room and working on television and also motion pictures. I spent several years, a couple of years, in Disney feature animation doing a very similar thing, which was designing this kind of story structure. My work in Hollywood has very much informed the current work that I’m doing in fiction writing. The difference is that when you write television or a motion picture, you’re really laying out the outline or the blueprint for a story. You’re writing dialogue, you’re writing very direct action. But when you write a novel, you’re the writer, the director, the characters, the set designer, the lighting designer–you lay all of it out. You lay out the arc of the story, the subtext, what the characters are thinking, you describe what everything looks like. Obviously it’s a much longer process but in many ways it’s a greatly satisfying process because you get everything just the way you want it, ideally. But it’s very much like the television and motion picture writing and production experience.

TDW: I’m particularly interested in some of your earlier background because I, too, have an interest in television writing and novel writing but I recently finished journalism school and I know you were a journalism major for undergrad.

Stepakoff: That’s right. You were at Northwestern, right?

TDW: Yes, I was.

Stepakoff: Excellent. It’s a great school.

TDW: I really enjoyed it but I do have questions about transitioning to other things. I’m wondering what from your journalism education you’ve been able to apply to this.

Stepakoff: It’s a very good question, Shari. I like rich and authentic worlds. I like to put myself into a world that’s real. I like to learn about worlds. In journalism, of course, we learn to really delve into a story, to look for facts, to look for the story. The difference, I suppose, is that in journalism, you’re looking for the real facts to tell whereas in fiction or dramatic writing, you want to make a story satisfying and you can fictionalize things. But journalism is great to dig in and find out information that really took place. A lot of what I wrote in Fireworks Over Toccoa is about the war and what people were doing, everything from how women wore their hair to what was going on with the Coca Cola company to race relations to how men and women were dealing with each other–all of that is research is that I did, journalistic research, that helped me render a world. So the journalism background was very helpful.

TDW: Is your second novel a sequel or something independent?

Stepakoff: It’s a new story. The same kind of structure and, I suppose, the same sort of storytelling voice but it’s a new story.

TDW: I can’t let you go without asking the age-old Dawson’s Creek question: Dawson and Joey or Pacey and Joey?

Stepakoff: I like whatever is best for the story. Typically, what’s best for the story is to keep things dynamic. That’s the best way I can answer you.

TDW: What is dynamic to you?

Stepakoff: Fluid. It means that people, just like we do in real life, can change their minds and change their hearts based on how a story unfolds.

TDW: So, to you, there isn’t necessarily an endgame.

Stepakoff: I think that’s a good way to put it, yes.

TDW: I think quite a few people will be happy to hear that!

To learn more about Fireworks of Toccoa, including how you can win a related sweepstakes, visit

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index

News Roundup: Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek

24 01 2010
  • The Times Online has a feature on Taylor Momsen (Jenny, Gossip Girl).
  • Ryan Reynolds did an interview about his Green Lantern co-star, Blake Lively (Serena, Gossip Girl).
  • Billy Baldwin (William, Gossip Girl) did an interview (with his brother Alec, incidentally) about playing father to Lively on GG.
  • and have interviews with Shantel VanSanten (Quinn, One Tree Hill). The second one has spoilers.
  • Jeffrey Stepakoff (writer, Dawson’s Creek) has a novel coming out called Fireworks Over Toccoa.
  • Jane Lynch (Mrs. Witter, Dawson’s Creek) is included in a Glee: Then & Now photogallery and the “then” for Lynch is her 1-episode role on DC.

News Roundup: Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill and More

22 01 2010
  • Crains has an interesting article about changes being made to the Nielsen ratings system–which could help our teen dramas.
  • Gossip Girl has another nomination (Dramatic Actor You’d Most Like To See In A Comedic Role–Leighton Meester) in’s Winter Games.
  • LimeLife has an interview with Eric Daman (costume designer, Gossip Girl).
  • If you missed Blake Lively (Serena, Gossip Girl) on SNL, it’ll re-air tomorrow night.
  • Brian Austin Green (David, Beverly Hills 90210) and Eddie Cibrian (Casey, Beverly Hills 90210) are each starring in upcoming Hallmark Channel movies.
  • Hilarie Burton (Peyton, One Tree Hill) has a new blog post on the SoGoPro site. Also, this is a pretty cool video about SoGoPro’s first year.
  • Busy Philipps (Audrey, Dawson’s Creek) is nominated for Comic Actress You Think Of As Your Secret Crush, Knowing She’s Everyone Else’s, Too in’s Winter Games.
  • The TV editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has an interesting Q & A on Dawson’s Creek. I happen to disagree with both the question and the answer, though! But I have read the book he mentions–Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff–and have discussed on the site here and here.
  • Interesting reference to Dawson’s Creek in this recap of The Vampire Diaries.
  • Interesting reference to The O.C. in this recap of The Vampire Diaries.
  • Ausiello has spoilers on the character Melinda Clarke (Julie, The O.C.) will play on The Vampire Diaries.

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

Cliffnotes: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing

8 08 2009

Shortly after I read Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity, I started a different book: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff.

Like I put in my previous post, below is my initial correspondence with the author.  Unlike the last one, though, this one is much more inquisitive about Stepakoff’s role as an executive producer for Dawson’s Creek and other shows.

Dear Mr. Stepakoff,

Thanks so much for e-mailing me.  I was ecstatic that you replied so quickly, especially since I was unsure the message I left would actually reach you. I just finished reading your book Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing this afternoon. I am a 20-year-old journalism major and film & media studies minor at Northwestern University’s The Medill School of Journalism with a television obsession. I’m currently interning at Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly.

As my sophomore year wound down in June, I roamed Barnes and Noble—a frequent pastime.  On a promotional table, something Dawson’s Creek-related caught my eye.  It was your book.  I flipped through it, unfortunately unable to afford it at that time.  I added it to my ever-growing reading list and got around to it this past Sunday.  Your story fascinated me.  I have many comments and many questions.  I hope you’ll be willing to read through my novel of an e-mail and the attached documents.

The particular genre I dedicate countless hours of my life to is the teen drama.  This torrid love affair began with Beverly Hills, 90210.   90210 premiered when I was just three years old and I began watching it at the very adolescent age of nine, during the sixth season (I actually just finished reading Dr. E. Graham McKinley’s Beverly Hills 90210: Television, Vision and Identity).  I originally viewed Dawson’s Creek as the enemy, a ploy by the WB to usurp Fox’s viewers and bragging rights of having the hottest teen show on TV.  I was staunchly anti-Dawson’s Creek—that is, until 90210 ended and, eventually, the DC commercials drew me in.  Like with 90210, I didn’t start watching from the beginning but, in this case, half-way through the last season.  Still, I became hooked, obsessed—you name it.  I’ve since seen every episode countless times, as I’m sure you can imagine.  To read your account of how the Joey-Pacey romance was conjured up was such a thrill.  Forget Dawson—I was ALWAYS a P & J fan.  But, I’m not writing to gush.  I’m writing for some advice, to pick your brain.  First, I think it will be helpful to tell you more about myself.

While most of my college friends don’t bother to watch television, it takes up a great deal of my life.  When new episodes of One Tree Hill air (the only teen drama still “active”), I won’t go out.  I’ll sacrifice being with my friends.  While home for the summer, I’ve relished having SOAPNet, where each weekday I can watch six hours of 90210, One Tree Hill and The O.C.—all reruns.  I watch Dawson’s Creek every morning at 9AM on TBS (tomorrow’s ep is Stolen Kisses, where Joey and Pacey have their second and third kisses while on spring break).  If I have the choice to talk to a friend on the phone or go out or even take one of my beloved naps, I won’t.  The repeats are more important, repeats that I’ve seen thousands of times.  If I have nothing to do at night and I can go to bed, I won’t.  I’ll stay up til 1AM just so I can watch 90210 which airs certain nights at midnight.  And when I can’t watch—say, because of interning or something like that—I TiVo it and take something else out of my day so I can watch it before the next episode airs.  The affect these shows have on me is probably abnormal but still healthy. I can see it, and so can my friends, none of whom watch any of these shows.  I often have to explain why I won’t go out or why I won’t take their call.  Whereas some people turn to shopping or alcohol or a journal as their escape and release, I rely on the 60-minute shows.  They instantly make me happy.  And most of the time, getting that escape, that instant happiness is more important than anything else. My friends just don’t understand the connection I have to these shows.  When all else fails, I fall back on this defense: There are a lot worse habits I can have.  I don’t do drugs, I’m still in school and I haven’t murdered anyone.  Let being addicted to teen dramas be the worst thing I do.  Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

But my love of TV extends beyond the watching teen shows to keeping up with all the latest news in the industry.  During my childhood, each week I looked forward to the day TV Guide would be delivered to my grandmother, with whom I shared a home.  I would take each issue as it arrived and read all the glossy pages in the front which contained articles, briefs and tidbits on one of my greatest pleasures—television shows.  I’ve always been a television junkie, eager to know the behind-the-scenes happenings, cast info, and even plot spoilers. TV Guide’s Ausiello Report, E! Online’s Watch with Kristen and the Chicago Tribune’s The Watcher are among my favorite things to read.  My desire to be an entertainment journalist stems from my love of pop culture, keeping up with celebrities and the media, and, obviously, a big part of that for me is television. I’m well on my way to what I thought was my career goal but your book has re-lit the previously latent flame in me that burns for television writing.

Until I read your book I had never heard of a “spec script” nor did I know anything about the process of becoming a TV writer.  Turns out, by the definitions you provided, I’ve already written tons of spec scripts.  After 90210 show ended, I ran a role-playing-game (RPG site) where we wrote episodes continuing the show, thus deciding what happened to the characters.  I came up with storyline after storyline for the characters.  My writing can be accessed at, and though it was last updated in 2002, there are about 25 “episodes” (written in narrative form but separated by scenes) that detail the characters’ escapades. I wrote what believe were legitimate plots, ones I always fantasized would be turned into actual episodes or movies.

In addition, I’ve written a one-act play, and a short story that accompanies it.  Both are attached to this e-mail for your review, along with my résumé.  I send this to you for feedback, criticism and a helping hand.  I imagine you’re quite busy but I’m sure you can recall what it was like when you were starting out and just needed someone—anyone—to guide in the right direction.  I’ve heard rumors that there’s a Northwestern Mafia in Los Angeles, which I’m sure can one day provide assistance to me, too.  For right now, I’d like to start with you. I hope you’ll give me your time as well as your honest opinions and not “Hollywood speak.”

Interesting tangent: I met Greg Berlanti last year when he came to speak at Northwestern, his alma mater, about screenwriting.  I wore a homemade shirt, which I later gave to him.  On the front it said: Greg—I will ❤ you forEVER(WOOD) ~your #1 fan.  The back said: I cried a CREEK when Dawson’s ended.  It was funny that I wrote the “forEVER(WOOD)” part in my shirt long before knowing that would be the title of the series finale. After listening to him and the other panelists speak, I gave him the shirt as a memento.  A picture of us is also attached to this e-mail.

The next of my e-mail contains my comments and questions specifically provoked by your book.  They are mostly in the order of when they occurred to be me while reading (I sat with a paper and pen and made notes as I read).

Since I’m already on the path to a journalism career, as opposed to television production, I guess a middle-of-the-road job would be as a television critic.  Last year I took a class that focused on entertainment criticism and desperately tried to find my own voice.  Though I have strong opinions, I find it difficult to judge to things on behalf of the masses.  What gives me the right?  Who’s to say that I can discern what’s good from what’s crap?  For instance, I don’t like Jay-Z’s music and I’d be inclined to write a “bad” review—but that’s because I don’t like rap and hip-hop and not necessarily because it is in fact bad.  How do you stop your personal predilections from influencing your professional opinion?  How were you able to tell which scripts were good and which weren’t?

I find it very interesting that after majoring in journalism, you ended up with a career in television writing.  But, to your credit, you also received a masters in playwrighting. I will not be getting a masters in anything—it’s not in the financial cards for me.  So, I have to ask, how much does having the “right” credentials matter?  Will a journalism degree, as opposed to one in creative writing or scriptwriting or something like that, make it harder to break into the business and find success? How much of what you studied in college apply to your later career in Hollywood?  In regards to how the industry works, how much did you learn from experience and how much did you know to begin with?  I pride myself on knowing more than the average viewer but a lot of the concepts you wrote about (the different seasons in L.A., for example) were brand new to me. Also, in regards to breaking into the business (or even staying in it) how essential is it to live in Los Angeles or even in California?  I know you currently reside in Georgia—is that because you’ve “retired” from the industry?

Do you actively watch the shows you write for, when the episode airs?  Do you now watch DC in syndication?  What did you like about it that made you such a fan prior to joining the staff?

Despite all your helpful explanations, I still feel confused as to what a producer’s job exactly is.  Like, on page 273, when talking about the filming of episode 3.12, you said you sat down and “produced” it.  But what exactly does that mean? What is a producer responsible for?  How does it differ from writing the scripts?

Like your younger self, I also didn’t understand what story editor meant.  I assumed it meant literally editing the film together, something I knew I didn’t want to be a part of.  After trying my hand at the mechanics of broadcast journalism, I realized I didn’t like production that much.  But a story editor, as in writing the story, editing it and putting together the final script—that I would love to do. But I struggle with editing my own work and having others edit it.  I get very attached to my original words and have a hard time cutting things out or accepting suggestions.  Do you have any tips for getting past that?

Is it that, in the 90s and early 2000s, minorities weren’t hired or minorities weren’t applying?  Perhaps the whiteness of a writing team was a function of both?

And here I thought doctors made a lot.  Several times you said writers fought for more money not for money’s sake but out of respect.  But how do you justify such a ridiculously high salary?  You’re providing entertainment—a valued commodity, no doubt—but teachers are forced to make due on well under $100,000.  I look at athletes and their million-dollar contracts and feel outraged.  It’s one of the things that bother me most about American culture and society.  Along those lines, it was very shocking to find out that fired writers, producers, etc. still get paid for episodes they did not work on.  A contract is a contract, that I understand, and severance packages are quite common, but it’s also hard to justify someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars for something they did not do.  Doesn’t it make it easier, then, for those in the business to be less concerned with quality, knowing they’ll still be paid even if they’re fired? On the flipside, when the credit is deserved, I was happy to find out writers were paid residuals for characters they introduced, etc.  I just never expected the amounts to be so much!   I knew million-dollar deals were being made (i.e. the Friends cast making a million dollars per episode) but it still never occurred to me television was a billion dollar industry.  I never connected the dots. I guess the problem is I really can’t fathom that much money.  If the industry made $8 billion in 2000, what is it making today?

I never knew independent studios existed.  I guess that’s because by the time I was the age to really pay attention, most of these companies had dissolved, so it made sense I would only hear about the networks. As a journalist, the incestuous and biased web you implied about NBC being owned by GE, which sells weapons to the Pentagon, is particularly frightening.  But as far as I can see, it is imperative to the way our economy works and succeeds that that web not be untangled.  Sad but true.

I have to wonder about the accuracy of the Nielsen ratings.  Though I admit I don’t thoroughly understanding how the system works, reports of its bias do catch my eye. Nielsen doesn’t account for how many individual people are watching, like in the case of High School Music 2 where its extraordinary ratings were probably underestimated due to group viewing parties and the like.  Does TiVoing for later viewing also lower a show’s ratings?

As a fan of Dawson’s Creek, I must admit those pages were among the most intriguing for me. It is especially appealing to read about the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the finished product I saw on TV.  It’s also interesting to read what you thought of the shows. Some thoughts:

· RE: your criticism of season 2—I particularly love some of those eps, like “Sex, She Wrote,” as well as the episodes when Jack reveals his true sexual orientation, Abby Morgan’s death and Joey’s tearful wire-recording of her father.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for realistic stories. I was looking for drama.  In all the teen soaps I watched, that’s what drew me in.

· Not sure I understand why the ending of season 2 painted you into a quarter.  It’s interesting to read how poorly the show was doing around then, something I was unaware of since I only saw those episodes in syndication.

· I hated the Eve storyline, too.  It was funny to hear it referenced, disparagingly, in the penultimate episode of the series.

· You’re right in assessing The Longest Day and Downtown Crossing as beloved by viewers.

· It was nice to read your mention of Dawson’s Creek, a site I frequented as I watched a lot of the episodes for the first time in syndication.

It was really gratifying to find out that Greg was the driving force between my favorite DC storyline ever, the one that hooked me—Joey and Pacey’s relationship.  It was surprising to find out when in the season that storyline was actually developed by the writers.  Looking back on it, I see foreshadowing beginning in the season 3 opener (Pacey suggests to Joey, while comforting her, that they might become closer) and steadily increasing in episodes like “Four to Tango.”  Maybe episode 3.12 was the first time Pacey himself acknowledged his feelings for Pacey, but I saw it coming from the get-go of that season.  Then again, that’s probably just hindsight.  My heart melted just at the image your one-line description of the episode brought to mind—Pacey watching Joey sleep.  And when you cited Grams’ line (“Love is the hardest of woods”) I could hear it in my head as if she were now whispering it into my ear.  That’s how ingrained into my brain the scenes, images and dialogues of the show are.  Out of curiosity, out of all the episodes you wrote, why did you choose to highlight episode 3.12?

I appreciated knowing that Gina Fattore took it upon herself to be the show’s historian.  I easily fill that role with all the teen dramas I watch.  I assure you no trivia question will stump me, something that can come in handy (I hate when new writers don’t know a character’s backstory!).

It was weird to read stories about Greg Prange, Gina Fattore, names I recognize from seeing flash again and again on my TV screen.  Ironically, I don’t remember seeing your name.  Go figure.

If so many people come up with the story and write and shape the script, why are only one or two people given the “written by” credit as the show opens?  What is required for someone to earn the “written by” or the “story by” credit?

I see the difficulty in developing a season’s worth of episode ideas.  Just looking at things I’ve written, I have no idea how I’d expand them with other storylines.  On the other hand, though, with my 90210 RPG, I essentially did come up with storyline after storyline, all I believed (both as a fan and as a writer) were plausible and, well, good.  It’s interesting that in that sense, at thirteen years old, I was already doing what you do for your career.  My love of doing that, and the emptiness I have felt since stopping, shows me that I do have the want and the need to be in a room with people for 16 hours dreaming up storylines.  I would kill to be a fly on the wall for one day in The Room, and I’d do even more to one day be a participant in the process.  I’ve seen one show filmed—an episode of the sitcom Hope & Faith—and loved what I saw.  I would love to witness that day in and day out, as well.

In your heart of hearts, for you personally, which is more important: critical acclaim or ratings?  Everwood, for example, was a favorite show of mine that was critically acclaimed but didn’t have the ratings it needed to survive the WB/UPN merger (even with a fan campaign to save the show).

What exactly is scriptwriting software?  What does it allow you to do?

Does the 2007-2008 TV schedule contain a significant rise in scripted shows, or does it just seem that way to me?  Granted, many of them will be canceled, I definitely did not notice as many reality shows as in previous years.  What do you like to watch for pure entertainment pleasure?  What new shows are you looking forward to? Whereas experience was the valued commodity following the reality TV boom, what do you think it is today?  What part of the cycle do you think television is in today?  What do you think will be the impact of iPods, etc. on writers’ contracts?  Stupidly, the effects of the digital age didn’t occur to me until you brought them up.

When you gave me your e-mail address, I bet you never expected a reply this long.  I’m sorry to take up so much of your time. Please only answer what you can.

Best wishes,

Shari Weiss

The other teen drama book I have listed on my products page, Dawson’s Creek: A Critical Understanding, I haven’t had a chance to read yet. Also listed is Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN, which is–as the title suggests–about the founding and disbanding of those networks.  It has a few pages on Dawson’s Creek.  It may briefly mention One Tree Hill as well but I can’t recall specifically.  I was unable to get in touch with the author.

Are there any books about teen dramas you’ve read?

%d bloggers like this: