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: Beverly Hills 90210 Producer Talks College Years, Slams New 90210

17 01 2010

When I first contacted Beverly Hills 90210 writer-producer Larry Mollin, he immediately told me had nothing to do with the new 90210, saying in part, “it is diluting the legacy” of the original and pointing out “they are making decisions with characters that they hardly understand.” As loyal TDW readers might expect, that was music to my ears.

And, thankfully, Mollin was happy to chat about his tenure with the original show, which included a whopping 128 episodes from 1993 to 1997, also known as seasons 4 through 7–“the college years.”

If my interview with Charles Rosin, where we discussed “the early years,” was chapter one, consider this the next installment in the iconic show’s storied history.

TeenDramaWhore: How did you first get involved with the show? Were you familiar with it previously?

Larry Mollin: I had one teenage son and one moving on, so I knew they watched it. The season before that I had done the first season of Renegade and then I moved off. I was looking for a job and I had written a spec screenplay called Borderline Normal, which got made into a movie. A small movie, but it was quite good. It played on Lifetime. It was about children of divorce, about young people in crisis. I guess my agent must’ve got the script to Charles Rosin [Ed. Note: henceforth to be called Chuck] and all of a sudden I had an interview at 90210. Before that, I had done mostly drama, action drama. I had also done comedy, too. My background was theater. I had been a playwright and a theater director for years in Canada. I came here in ‘78. But I had mostly done CHiPs, Knight Rider–mostly action stuff–and did lots of pilots. I was a studio writer for years for different pilots. So then Chuck met me and really liked the script. He was looking for something different, because the show was going to college. It was going to start the year after the high school graduation. We hit it off and I had a deal there. And really quickly I became the main writer for the next 128 episodes. I was kind of the go-to guy. I wound up executive producing the show [my] last year and producing it when Chuck left after season 5. I pretty much ran it even though I didn’t have the title.

Darren [Star] created it but he really wasn’t there to make it the hit. He left pretty quickly. Chuck Rosin was the guy who really gave his heart and soul to it the first couple of years and really, you know, put it on the map and it really reflected Chuck’s sensibility. And then the Wassermans, Steve and Jessica Wasserman [Ed. Note: also known as Jessica Klein] were his key. And then they had their own internal problems. They were a divorcing writing couple, which is not very productive, as you can imagine. So that was a disaster and then I came in in the midst of that so I became the go-to guy in season 4 and wrote with Chuck and wrote with the other influencer there, even though he didn’t have a big position, Chip Johannessen, who is now the executive on Dexter. Kind of  a quirky guy. Chip and I wrote a lot of stuff together. So between Chip, Chuck and I, in season 4 and 5, we pretty much wrote everything. The Wassermans certainly brought a lot of heart to it and when they were together they had a wonderful sensibility but, unfortunately, I guess it’s hard to sit in a room when you hate each other. So that didn’t quite work out. They stayed on for a couple of years but you had to work around them. It wasn’t a good situation. Steve’s gone now, but Jessica’s around. She’s a good lady and tried to make it work but it didn’t quite happen.

So that’s how I got on the show and on the show then we were basically trying to take this teen show and make it more, make it a bigger demographic. In those years, we turned it into the bigger hit that it was. Bigger demographic, more sophisticated. I come from a rock and roll background so I brought a lot more of a hipper thing, which kind of meshed with Chip. So we were able to put more of an edge than what had been happening. It became a hipper show, I think. Then we added The Peach Pit After Dark a little bit after that, maybe it was season 5. I can’t remember when we brought that in but it was different. But I created that whole college stuff. I created the KEG House. I remember that was a great day. Thinking, “Kappa Epsilon Gamma. KEG. Oh my god!” I was so thrilled to find something in an acronym that meant something that wasn’t a real fraternity. I couldn’t obviously use any Greek letters that were actual fraternities so that was a total miracle. I was so thrilled about that. We just had a ball. We always felt the show needed to have a certain level of immaturity to it and hijinks. Steve Sanders [Ian Ziering]–we all were Steve Sanderses a bit growing up and could bring in that level of it. And then we believed in romance. We believed in telling stories slowly, not rushing. Kisses were important. The storytelling of what we did worked. Plus, we knew the audience was watching so we were very, very careful not to break our own stories. Occasionally we screwed up. But for the most part, we really cared about the show. And this was, for the most part, before the Internet had really taken off. There were just hints of it. It was a dial-up world then. You had a sense of what the people were thinking but it wasn’t like today where you could really know. But we were really aware of our audience and cared. We were all in. We were doing 32 hours a year. No one ever did that again. After I produced the 32 at the end of college [season 7], no one ever did it again. It gave Chuck a heart attack after he left [after season 5]. It was hard, but it was great.

TDW: For someone in your position, when you’re coming into a show in its 4th season, how did you familiarize yourself with the characters and the past storylines?

Mollin: Well, you gotta do your research. You need to go back. You need to watch everything and you need to read everything and you gotta pay attention to what everyone’s saying. But the characters were well-drawn. I was a little bit older than everyone else so I kind of knew my way around TV writing. I had been doing it for 15-20 years by that point. But you had to go back and go over it, familiarize yourself with everything. There weren’t that many episodes–only maybe about 60 or 70 episodes at that point–so I could go through them kind of quickly in a couple of weeks, just to make sure I understood everything and wasn’t going to repeat stuff. And I could ask questions. I always had researchers then. But I loved the characters. And, like I said, I had teenagers then so I kind of knew what worked for them and what I thought was strong. It just suited me. It just suited what I was doing. It kind of combined a lot of the comedy and the drama. I was able to bring in some action stuff, like I did the whole action thing with Dylan [Luke Perry] in Mexico [Episode 5.18, Hazardous To Your Health]. We got a chance to do some things that were different for 90210, had a bigger scope. Chip and I did the two-hour in Palm Springs, P.S. I Love You [Episodes 5.31-32], with the whole action plot with Dylan on the tram. That was phenomenal what we pulled off. We had big production. And all the time we were doing that stuff, we were doing two shows at once.

Another big show we did, we did the Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl [Episode 5.12, Rock of Ages]. I’m in that show; I played the roadie, ‘cause I was a roadie so it was kind of funny. I just wanted to go back to my roots a bit. I was a roadie for Blood, Sweat and Tears. So we did that episode and the same day that we were filming it, we were doing the fire episode [Episode 5.13, Up in Flames] with the lesbian and Kelly [Jennie Garth] in the bathroom. That’s how ballsy we were, production-wise. We were so good at what we were doing, we were working so hard, we could do two shows at once. Those were really big episodes, good episodes, I think. I think the first two years of college were really sensational. We really stepped it out and expanded our thing. It was too bad that Shannen [Doherty, Brenda] left. It was unfortunate. But we found Tiffani [Amber Thiessen, Valerie], which worked well.

TDW: That was actually my next question. You were there for some big casting changes. You had Shannen leave in season 4, Tiffani join in season 5, Gabrielle [Carteris, Andrea] leave later in season 5 and you had Luke leave in season 6. What do you remember about those times and having to adapt the show?

Mollin: Oh, it was sad. The Shannen one, we wanted her to work. I mean, the writers loved Shannen. She’s a child of this business. You give her a script and she’ll just read it exactly like you wrote it. Never change a word, never ask a question. She had a photographic memory. She could be doing anything she wanted the night before and just come in and nail it–and the other kids hated that. She’s tough on the set. She’s just a child of the industry. It’s not really who she is. She’s just whoever she plays, in a lot of ways. She’s just a kind of unusual, very talented professional but hard to get along with. She just kind of pissed everyone off eventually and she pissed off the most important person, which was, you know, Tori [Spelling, Donna]. And not only that, she introduced Tori to a man who beat her. So that pretty much put the death card on her. So that was pretty much that. I think they were willing to go with her but, basically, what happened was, in the middle of a show, she cut her hair and totally screwed us up for continuity so everyone was pissed off at her. Like I said, not the writers so much, but the producer people. And the other kids were out to get her head, because she had pissed everybody off, and they basically went to the old man [Aaron Spelling] and said she had to go. He was happy to let her go because, like I said, she had introduced Tori to the guy who beat her. I’m not going to mention his name. So that was just the way business was done there. The old man was never the bad guy. He would let everyone else be the bad guy and then he’d get rid of her and then bring her back again [in Charmed]. But it was unfortunate she left, because we had all intention of keeping her there. And I always feel bad, because it was my idea to send her to England to get acting lessons [Episode 5.31-2, Mr. Walsh Goes To Washington], which kind of became a bad joke because she was a good actress. I never thought she was a bad actress. That whole storyline came out of something that I really loved. I loved Tennessee Williams and we went to the estate and got the whole Cat on a Hot Tin Roof thing [Episodes 4.27-30]. We had the Laura Kingman suicide [Episode 4.29, Truth and Consequences]. It was kind of out there but it was good, it was fun. It was well-done and Shannen was good in it. But it was a way to get rid of her. But we, obviously, always kept her alive in season 5, 6 [by mentioning her]. We always meant to keep her and, of course, that’s the big relationship. Our largest triangle–her, Dylan and Kelly–that’s the crown jewels, as far as we were concerned. We would never do anything to harm that so we always just kept it going. And that’s what’s so harmful to me. All these careful things we did, these new people [on the new 90210] are just indiscriminate. Whatever they can get the jolt with, they do. There’s no thinking.

TDW: We’ll get to that later on, for sure.

Mollin: So she left and Tiffani came in. We obviously had an exhaustive search to replace her. We looked at many people. We liked Tiffani and we thought, “Oh, this is cute. I think she’s Brian’s girlfriend. He’ll love this!” When we cast her, Brian [Austin Green, David] was so upset! Oh my god, he felt betrayed! We were totally shocked and had no idea. But, then, of course, we realized why: because other people would be kissing and feeling up his girlfriend! That’s what the guys do. That’s their free shot. Luke’s a wonderful man and Jason [Priestley, Brandon] is a wonderful man. But they are young guy actors on a show, which basically means they get to feel anybody up they want. And that’s just the way they are. I’ve got tons of outtakes of this stuff. That was just the fun of it. That’s just the way it was before sexual harassment became really a watch word in the industry. Young actresses just had to put up with that sh*t. I had seen that for years and years on shows. It was the way it went. Obviously if a girl didn’t like it, she could complain but most of them just put up with it and just expected it. The guys were just like that. But Tiffani came in and we just had fun with her character. Chuck and I created her character. I remember creating that one-hand pot-smoking/rolling thing [in Episode 5.01, What I Did On My Summer Vacation And Other Stories] and her character just took off. She was a total two-faced character and we really hadn’t had anyone like that on the show. We brought in the character and it totally helped lift the show up a bit for a while. Who was next?

TDW: Gabrielle. She left later that season.

Mollin: Well, Gabrielle, we asked her politely–she was the oldest–if she could just hold back. We didn’t want to do a baby. Did not want to. We certainly didn’t do the Hunter Tylo thing where [Melrose Place] asked her to get an abortion but, you know, we didn’t want to go down that road. But she got pregnant and was having the baby and there was nothing we could do. I actually used my whole personal story for it. Her premature baby and all that came out of my life. We gave it a good shot. I have to admit I was not in the room when Mark Damon Espinoza [Jesse] was cast. I was totally appalled that they cast this guy. He had ears as big as Botswana as far as I was concerned. I just could not believe it. I have no idea what happened in that room that day when they cast him. I just thought they totally blew it. To have a guy with a receding hairline– just everything I thought was wrong. And he was a nice man but it just was never going to happen. And rather than getting like an Esai Morales, someone who was really sexy and good–I just had no idea what he was thinking, the old man. He was always difficult with minority casting. He would always go ways we would never understand but we never wanted to get into it. So they cast him and they just didn’t really click. It didn’t really add to us. It took away a lot of the fun, to have to be in this grown-up stuff. We eventually just didn’t think it was going to work, and I don’t know who made the decision; I guess it was the old man. She was done. She was gone. We sent her off to Yale, as I remember [Episode 5.30, Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills]. But she came back. She came back for Steve’s birthday party on the Queen Mary [Episode 6.31-2, You Say It’s Your Birthday]. I think we brought her back for that. I did that one with Steve Wasserman. That was a big show, too. That was a fun show.

TDW: Yes. We also saw her again in seasons 8 and 10.

Mollin: I never watched after season 7. What they did there was so appalling to me. Our thesis was always that we basically tried to write them as ordinary kids living extraordinary lives. But after I left, they were ordinary kids living ordinary lives! Like they couldn’t get jobs. What do you mean, they couldn’t get jobs? They went the wrong way. Brandon was supposed to have a great job! What the hell? They made them struggling. It was just wrong. Every choice they made was all wrong. They didn’t understand how to tell stories. Michael Braverman [the new writer-producer] was a disaster and Jason was supposed to take over and he didn’t take over. It lived on and it did its thing but it just became more of a Melrosian soap opera. They didn’t follow the thing that we had set up. These kids were supposed to be having great lives and that would’ve made the show fantastic.

TDW: Well, let’s now go to Luke, because he left in season 6.

Mollin: Luke, he was tired of it. All the kids hated the show by season 5, other than Tori. They all just hated it. Every day they would come in was just torture for them. We were making them do things, making them play these characters. Luke is a wonderful man and a good professional but he just wanted to go. We tried to really stack it up, and thank god we cast Rebecca Gayheart [Toni], who was just such a dear and so wonderful in that part.

TDW: I have a question about that storyline. Chuck told me they had purposefully filmed Jack’s death in season 3 [Episode 3.21, Dead End] in such a way that it could turn out he was really alive. In season 10 we saw that happen [Episodes 10.18-20] but I’ve heard that it was supposed to happen in season 6 until Luke revealed he was leaving. So instead in season 6 we find out that there’s this guy Tony Marchette [Stanley Kamel] behind Jack’s death and Dylan sets off seeking vengeance.

Mollin: I don’t remember the exact sequence of it. Josh Taylor [Jack] never came back when I was there but there was talk of that. Chuck had that FBI agent [Christine Pettit, played by Valerie Wildman] who he always liked. She was a friend of his and he liked to try and throw her work. So we always teased with that. We talked about that but we didn’t really know where to go with it at that point and Chuck was gone at that point. So once Luke was leaving, we wanted to have a big story and there’s nothing bigger than avenging the death of your father and we kind of went that way. That was a very good storyline in the sense that it was a good way to get to Dylan to leave [Episode 6.10, One Wedding And A Funeral]. It was really powerful. It was huge ratings for us. It might’ve been the biggest rating for a non-season finale show. It was big and we did it right. Everything went pretty well with that one.

TDW: It was a phenomenal storyline and it still stands out today to fans as one of the saddest ones.

Mollin: Yeah, it was great. The leading up to it was good. I was able to bring in a lot of my cop show background. We had a lot of tense stuff, stuff we had never done before so that was fun. And we had good actors. That gentleman who played Tony just died recently.

TDW: Yes. He died in 2008.

Mollin: He was excellent in that. But, yeah, that was fun. Luke left and we knew we were certainly going to miss him. We were floundering for guys after that a little bit and went through a bunch of different ones but I guess he came back [in Episode 9.08, You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello] and needed the money or whatever. He would’ve been too embarrassed to come back when I was there or any of the regular [writer-producers] from his time because we knew him so well and we’d know why he was coming back. He was just too proud a guy to come back when Chuck or me or the Wassermans were there. He wouldn’t have done it.

TDW: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced while doing the show?

Mollin: The workload. Like I said, we were doing 32 hours a year when I was there so the biggest challenge is just trying to meet the audience’s expectations and beyond. To be true to the characters and just have each show have the template be satisfied. For us the template was–we used to kid about it. Let me see if I can remember it. It was emotion, passion, bonding, fun. If it had that, we felt pretty good about an episode. And then Chip and I added another 4, which was kind of the reverse. I have try to remember this now. Commotion, fashion, blonde-ing, sun. That was the reverse. It was a chance to really reflect on what was going on for us but be true to these characters. And we got a long game in them. We knew what our big rooting interests were, we knew who our big couples were and we were going to take our time to get to them. We obviously knew David and Donna were really, really important no matter who they were with at the time. It was always going to be when they would get back, because that’s what the audience wanted. The same thing with Dylan and Brenda or Dylan and Kelly or Brandon and Kelly. You had all that stuff there. We put people in between them and made you suffer and wait for them but we knew where our money was buttered on that stuff. It was just trying to get there and not jump the shark, not go for the cheap jolt. Don’t do anything indiscriminately because you have to deal with everything. There’s ramifications. You have to deal with the reality. We tried to keep emotional reality. That was really important to us. Whereas other shows like Melrose didn’t have emotional reality. We tried to keep that–and also keep time real. We stayed in the seasons. If you were watching the show in February, the show was about February. We were doing 32 but we tried to make that reality seem real and just have fun with it.

TDW: Do you have favorite episodes or storylines that still stand out to you?

Mollin: I have ones that didn’t work that I remember!

TDW: That was going to be my next question!

Mollin: I think Dylan losing his money [in season 4/5] was kind of a fun of storyline, Dylan getting fleeced. He had the half-sister [Erica, played then by Noley Thorton], and that whole thing, which ended up in Mexico, was pretty good. That storyline I really, really enjoyed that a lot. I enjoyed all the storylines that led to the Palm Springs thing, too [in the season 5 finale]. We had Kelly and the lesbian, Dylan and the stupid movie after rehab. And that episode ended with Brandon and Valerie [hooking up], which we knew was going to be a great season-ender. I think they were watching the Smurfs birthday party they had had as kids and I remember we had to get the rights to that. But that was a very cool episode. Chip left after that.

TDW: So what do you look back on with regrets or what do you think you could’ve done better?

Mollin: Interesting. Regrets would be Jamie [Ray] and having to fire him.

TDW: That was going to be another question!

Mollin: That was such a sad time. That came out of the season 5 finale, too [where Ray pushes Donna down the stairs.] We had this whole plan. He was going to go to rehab because he was an abused child. We were going to redeem him because we liked him. He was a wonderful kid. Jamie was a dear guy. We liked him. He was a great worker. But that episode happened and there was a lot of mail to the old man–“How can Donna be so stupid and be with this guy?”–so we came in to start the new season, which was right after since we only had like a week or two off because we were doing 32, and he goes “You have to get rid of him.” And we go, “What are you talking about?”  He said, “You have to get rid of him. Everyone thinks Tori’s stupid.” There was no arguing with him. That was all he cared about. So we had to fire him. It was just devastating that I had to tell him that. We had just signed him for a million dollars, but he got to walk away with his money. But it was still devastating for him. We left him as being a beater, which stayed with him, unfortunately. People thought he was a beater. It was just terrible. I just always felt really bad about that. It just didn’t work out well. [Ed. Note: Walters was written out in 6.13 but had brief returns in 6.30 and 7.10]

TDW: Do any other regrets stand out?

Mollin: D’Shawn Hardell, who was played by Cress Williams. We loved having him there. We wrote an episode called Blind Spot [Episode 4.26] and the secondary plot has Tori in a little relationship with Cress Williams. I think they might even kiss.

TDW: Donna was trying to make David jealous.

Mollin: Yeah. Well, that was it for him. The old man brought us upstairs and said, “No, we have to get rid of him.” [Ed. Note: Williams does appear in 4 more episodes, 3 of which were in season 5.]

Here’s another story about the old man: We had to create a new guy for Kelly and we hired a guy, paid him a bunch of money. His name was Dalton James. He played a character called Mark. He ran the TV station.

TDW: Yep. It was season 7.

Mollin: So we’re doing 32 episodes so we’re writing away and we have half the season written but we’ve only shot through episode 5. We get called in to the old man’s office. “We have a big problem.” I go, “What’s the problem?” Well, we knew that Jennie didn’t like him. So it’s me and Steve Wasserman, and he goes “I just found out that Dalton James is anti-Semitic.” We go, “What?! That f*cking–” And he goes, “Well, we have to get rid of him.“ And we go, “Well, we’ve written another 10 episodes for him! We have this whole story!” And he goes, “Well, he’s anti-Semitic. I can’t have him here.” And we go, “You’re right!” and we get all pissed off and then we walk out to the elevator and Steve goes, “He’s a f*cking liar.” He knew we were going to complain if it was just that Jennie wanted to get rid of him, so he made up a story that the guy was anti-Semitic so we’d be pissed off and write him out. And that’s the kind of guy he was.

[Jennie] didn’t [complain regularly] and was a tireless and loyal cast member from the get-go to the end. So whatever she told him that set up him calling us upstairs into his office to kill off “Mark,” I have no idea. We were basically told no chemistry and he was an anti-Semite. The old man knew with the character suddenly gone we had a heap of rewriting to do in a very short time and figured we’d resist mightily. He took preemptive action, jacked us up so we swore we’d sent the sucker off to hell in a blink of an episode. I think in the elevator going down from the office we laughed, speculated that we’d been played but appreciated the old man’s artistry at it. With him, the ends justified the means and screw the actor’s or anyone else’s reputation. He played at the game hard. We had no evidence that Dalton James was anti-Semetic. Most likely wasn’t.

TDW: The way Mark was written out–he and Brandon competed for the Dreyer fellowship and Kelly didn’t like his behavior and she said sayonara [Episode 7.14, Jobbed].

Mollin: “Next time your phone rings, bet someone it’s not me. You’ll be right every time.”

TDW: Exactly. But really, you would’ve kept him?

Mollin: Oh, yeah! We were going to keep him. Once that happened, we changed everything. But he was going to be one of our regular characters. We had hired him for 13 more but we got rid of him in the middle of the season. We planned to have him the whole year. We had written scripts for it so we had to go back and re-do everything to get rid of him.

TDW: Well, getting rid of him paved the way for Brandon and Kelly’s reunion.

Mollin: There was always that but we were going to have him in the middle of it and really save it for a little later. I just remember us going down there and being pissed off and going “We don’t care how long it takes to rewrite!” and then we realized he totally just lied about it. He was willing to throw the guy under the bus because he knew we’d resist. So that’s typical Spelling. He just manipulated us with something we’d want to hear. He knew the only way to get that reaction from us was to tell us the guy was anti-Semitic.  It probably hung with the guy. I don’t know if he ever worked again.

TDW: Another actor-character I’m curious about is Jason Wiles who played Colin in season 6.

Mollin: That was fun. He did a good job for us, I thought. He was never going to be a long-term character for us so we kind of set him off on a stupid path a bit. At the end we maybe went off a little. We had a car chase [in Episode 6.32, You Say It’s Your Birthday]. It was not terribly out of place. It was fun having Kelly on cocaine for a while. I thought that was kind of good. It challenged all her relationships with her friends, thanks to the new guy in town. Brandon worried that she was becoming a cokewhore. And that was pretty good. We felt we had earned that. We built it up pretty good. That was another thing we believed in. We believed you had to earn emotion. You had to set your scenes up to earn the emotion. You can’t just all of a sudden indicate and tell it and then try to explain it. You have to set yourself up. We were really tough on ourselves on that. We wanted to make sure we earned our emotions.

TDW: I am curious to know your personal preferences: Kelly and Dylan or Kelly and Brandon?

Mollin: If I’m Kelly, I’m thinking you’re better off with Brandon. As a father I guess, I’m saying Kelly and Brandon. Dylan’s an addict; he’s always going to be an addict. Dylan’s the bad boy. Dylan’s going to want Kelly and Kelly’s going to want Dylan but Kelly’s going to be better off with Brandon. But Kelly’s always going to be fantasizing about Dylan. I think that’s just how it is. It’s your typical “girls want bad boys,” even though they’re bad for them.

TDW: I wanted to ask about one of the famous lines from that triangle, “I choose me.” [Episode 5.30, Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills]

Mollin: Oh, god, yeah. That was Jessica, actually, who came up with that. That was a cop-out. That’s the “goodbye Andrea” episode, before the last of the season, and she had to choose between them. That was alright. That was kind of cute. That worked. I thought that worked well overall, because, again, we needed to sustain that. We didn’t want to kill the triangle. We wanted to keep making people wait for it. It’s an art.

TDW: And you had Brandon keep the ring he proposed with and it came out again in season 6 [Episode 6.02, Buffalo Girls] and season 7 [Episodes 7.19-20, 7.24, 7.26., etc].

Mollin: Yes, that’s right. In one of those season 7 episodes, Jason plays the jeweler [Episode 7.20, With This Ring]. Phil Savath wrote that episode. That was good. He’s gone now, too.

TDW: So you slowly put Brandon and Kelly back together and the ring was a big part of that.

Mollin: Yeah, that was good. It was a good use of stuff from the past. We tried to really remember what we did and always use things. We tried to have stuff in there that were rewards for people who were loyal viewers. Little, little things that they would get. We always threw that in there. And for ourselves, too. We’d pull in little things from the past and it worked out nicely.

We tried to be smart, too. We did a storyline that was just fun. Me and Chip, we created the character of Lucinda Nicholson [in season 4] . We tried to really have some fun. Her class stuff was really fun. We tried to make her this bizarre professor. It was a cool character. Dina Meyers, she was excellent. Those were interesting storylines, those first couple of years. And we loved the KEG stuff, all that kind of crazy, stupid stuff.

TDW: I was in Los Angeles last January and I went to some of the locations, including the KEG house.

Mollin: Oh, you went to Occidental College in Glendale?

TDW: Yep. It was such a trip to be there.

Mollin: That was perfect. It was really smart. Chuck and I went looking and we looked at Pepperdine, which is in Malibu, and Chuck said, “If we do that it’s just going to look like Malibu High. Let’s put it in Glendale.” And he was right. We always imagined it was in West L.A. but it was in Glendale. It had a California look without being too beach-y.

TDW: It worked well. It was just interesting to see that the KEG House was actually somebody’s house a few blocks from the campus.

Mollin: Yeah. That was fun. That fraternity stuff was great. Because we all were Steve and we all felt very close to his character. He didn’t have the biggest storylines but he always had the most fun.

TDW: When you have the girls changing their hairstyles and the way they looked, how does that work? Did they need to come to you first?

Mollin: Well, hopefully, they would run it by us first. But what typically would happen is that one would do it and then the other one would want the same thing. Every time that would happen. “Oh, she’s got the good hair. Why can’t I have that?” So you have to, basically, move it around. But they’d have to clear it with us because so much of it has to do with continuity. When you’re doing two [episodes] at a time, you had to be careful. They would run it by us and we had very good hair people and wardrobe people. We had the best of that. It was always tough, though. That’s why when Shannen did that one thing with cutting her hair in the middle of the show without asking anybody, that really screwed everybody up and kind of created the atmosphere that, when the push came to get rid of her, no one resisted.

TDW: Tori seemed to have the most hair changes of anyone.

Mollin: Well, you know, she was a special case. When you’d go to meet Mr. Spelling–that’s what how we referred to him–to tell him what the episodes were going to be about, the first thing he’d ask was “So…what’s Tori doing in this episode?” So then we always started with, “Well Donna is…”–even if she had a small part, we’d start with her in the pitch. Donna first. But it was endearing. He obviously loved his daughter. It was a wonderful for thing for him to be able to create this character. But we would tailor the pitches to begin with Donna, no matter what they were, even if she had one scene in the thing. But eventually she became a very good actress and a lovely person. Whereas all the kids kind of got jaded about the show, she always came in “Where’s the new script? I can’t wait to read it.” Lovely, lovely gal. A trooper. We had some great times with her. Really well-liked by everybody. She was a trooper.

TDW: So at what point did you decide not to continue with the show?

Mollin: Well, I never had a chance to continue. They came into my office and threw me out.

TDW: I wasn’t sure what happened…

Mollin: It was terrible. I was the only one standing at that point. Chuck was gone. The Wassermans had totally blown up, couldn’t even be in a room together anymore. I was the only executive producer left, doing 32 episodes with a weaker staff. I brought one guy down from Canada, who I used to work with from years back, who helped tremendously. The ratings were fine–maybe they were a tick under but they were certainly really good ratings. But Jason wanted to take over the show. He had some bright ideas. Again, the kids hated the show. To make them sign their contracts every year, the company had to make assurances to them. They didn’t want the Wassermans back because they had really pissed everyone off and they kind of painted me with the same brush. Jason said, “I want to take over. I want to have a whole new show” and that was it. They decided to have a whole new show. They brought in some guy [Braverman] and then fired him six weeks later.

And in typical Spelling fashion, for all of us, Chuck, the Wassermans–not Chip, because he wasn’t running the show–but for anyone who ran a Spelling show, even Frank South at Melrose, never worked for FOX again. Spelling would always stop it. He was a motherf*cker. He was a loving man who could be a motherf*cker. He didn’t want you to have any success beyond him because that would mean he wasn’t successful. We all learned this but it was a shock to us. To come out and then never work for FOX again.

TDW: When you say it was a struggle to keep the actors to stay on, what were they upset about and what made them stay on? ‘Cause, by the time we got to the series finale, there were 4 originals [Garth, Ziering, Spelling and Green] still there.

Mollin: They stayed because something kicked in: the fact that they were getting paid pretty handsomely. They would never get that kind of money again, probably, most of them realized. Ian Ziering figured that out. Brian did. Brian was the youngest and he was a good kid. But they were all growing up and they hated it but they loved it. They understood it but at the same time it was hard for them. Like any actor on a long-running show, you love it and you hate it.

All the actors look fondly back on it now, I’m sure. They all knew what a good opportunity it was. And we created a very good environment for them there. They had it pretty damn good but they had to work their asses off, just like I said. For 4 years, we did 32 hours a year. People do 13 a year now and that’s a season. 32 hours! And they were big shows. They weren’t small shows.

TDW: Did you keep in touch with any of the cast?

Mollin: Jason I talk to occasionally now. He probably cost me millions of dollars but we’ve become friends again. He’s a good man. He just didn’t think that he was putting someone out of a job. He just wanted to take over executive producer and then six months later he didn’t. Like I said, he hired this guy Michael Braverman and they had no idea what to do. They totally floundered. They cut the order down. They were f*cked. They brought in this one guy that we had worked with, John Eisendrath, [and] with him they driveled it out til the end [of the series] and even repeated storylines, which was kind of annoying.

TDW: Jason continued to have his name as producer even after his character left in season 9 [Episode 9.06, Brandon Leaves].

Mollin: Yeah, that was just a deal. He wasn’t producing.

TDW: Talking about storyline repeats, in season 10 is when they did do the “Jack McKay is alive” storyline but they did it in such a way that it didn’t make sense with earlier things.

Mollin: They were untrue to the saga. You had to know the saga. That was so hard about writing the show. The show was only in our heads. You had to be on the inside. And not a lot of people wrote the show. We just kept it with a couple of people writing because we were the only ones who understood all the different details of it. It was always fluid, because people were dropping in and out because  it was hard to keep up. I remember the network was telling me I had to get more writers; I was writing too many episodes. I was like, “What? I’m just trying to get through this. We’re doing 32 hours. Give me a break here.” They didn’t understand. And, like I said, no one was able to do [32] after me. We were exhausted. Chuck had a heart attack. I took a year off. It was a lot of work but it was something we were proud of. And that’s why the new show diluting the legacy is so hurtful to us.

TDW: Sticking with the old show for another minute–so you never kept up with it after you left?

Mollin: I never watched after the start of the new season, the Hawaii episode [Episode 8.01-2, Aloha Beverly Hills]. I saw that and went, “Nope, that’s it for me. They don’t know what the f*ck they’re doing.”

TDW: That is just so interesting to me. Chuck told me the same thing, that he didn’t keep up with the show after he left.

Mollin: No, he didn’t. We’re all built with schadenfreude. You want it to do poorly after you leave. Everyone feels the same way. But I didn’t realize it was going to be that poor. I just got pissed off because they weren’t being respectful. I just stopped watching.

TDW: I’m sure you know about the series finale, though.

Mollin: I don’t know much.

TDW: Well you know David and Donna married. Did that seem right?

Mollin: Yes, that seems right. They should marry. That was always meant to be. That was the big relationship. The last episode I wrote had Donna losing her virginity in the college graduation episode [Episode 7.32, Graduation Day]. I always felt like one of those guys who built the pyramids and you bury yourself inside. You can’t survive after that. ‘Cause I finally did the thing you were never allowed to do: let Tori’s character have sex.

TDW: And that ended up being your last episode!

Mollin: You know, it’s funny. It was kind of endearing for many years. The old man, that’s how he controlled what he considered his daughter. Even though he couldn’t control her in real life because she’d be out there having sex with everybody, he was very concerned about keeping Donna a virgin. And we went with it because it was kind of good; we got lots of good stories out of it. We had lots of “almost”s and stuff. So, at the end, going into it, I went to him and said “Should she go to a priest? How should we play this thing?” and he said “No, just do it.” I always felt pretty good about that scene I wrote there. “How did I get so lucky?” “You waited.” It was kind of nice. It was sweet.

TDW: I also wanted to talk about the DVDs. I’m not really sure how the decisions are made but I’m going to guess that you guys aren’t involved.

Mollin: Chuck was involved–he did some commentary in the beginning. I haven’t seen any of them.

TDW: We haven’t gotten extras since season 4.

Mollin: Yeah, they didn’t want to put the money into it or they didn’t want to talk to us. They could’ve talked to me, certainly, but they never did.

TDW: The fans are not happy. They’re upset that there’s no extras, there’s odd photoshopped cover art, there’s scenes missing, there’s songs changed.

Mollin: Are songs changed after season 4?

TDW: Yes. Songs are either changed or scenes with certain songs in them are cut.

Mollin: Oh man. You see, what happened was this– and it hurt me with a lot of stuff I did before this. When we used to make music deals, we’d make them for 5 years because that was the life of the show. Then there was an afterlife when cable came in and things were running longer and longer. You had to start making your music deals in perpetuity. We didn’t start making our music deals in perpetuity until season 4 so all that stuff that Chuck had done from seasons 1-3, you had to redo. So whoever puts the DVD together has to go back to the music companies and make new deals. And they have you over a barrel, so a lot of people just strip out the music and redo it.

TDW: Well, I can tell you–thanks to a really dedicated fan I know–some of the things that are missing are what we talked about. In Luke’s last episode, Nobody Knows Me by Lyle Lovett.

Mollin: No! That’s out?!

TDW: That’s out.

Mollin: Oh my god!

TDW: Some of Jamie’s performances are out.

Mollin: No! Holy sh*t. Jamie’s performances are out?

TDW: Some of them, not all. It’s peculiar in that way.

Mollin: He must’ve had deals for some songs and then not others then.

TDW: So this one dedicated fan has the DVDs but is also DVRing them on SoapNet but neither editions are perfect versions and they’re each missing different things.

Mollin: So on SoapNet, you’re seeing it with the original music?

TDW: For the most part, I think so. But some scenes are cut out. For instance, in the season 7 finale, Clare’s long goodbye scene with Steve on the beach?

Mollin: Yeah, I wrote that.

TDW: That’s not on SoapNet.

Mollin: That sucks!

TDW: So you guys are not consulted on cover art, asked to do extras, nothing.

Mollin: No, nothing. But don’t forget, there’s nobody there anymore. Spelling Entertainment doesn’t exist. The old man died [in 2006] and all Paramount has is a piece of software to market. There’s residuals. They have to pay us our money when they run stuff or if they create something off our characters, they have to pay us character payments. But they couldn’t care less.

The music stuff we had a lot of fun with, too, with the Peach Pit After Dark. I come from a rock and roll background so I was always bringing in stuff. We had The Flaming Lips [Episode 5.23, Love Hurts] and The Cramps [Episode 6.08, Gypsies, Cramps And Fleas]. Just stuff I really liked. Kind of odd stuff. And we got the Goo Goo Dolls [Episode 6.32, You say It’s Your Birthday]. Here’s something you can put in and Jason will have to live with it. Toward the end of “getting rid of Larry,” for the 2-hour final [in season 7] I was writing with Phil Savath. We had to have a group for the after-graduation party and I worked it around–this was like 1997–and I got the Spice Girls. I had the Spice Girls. And I go to Jason who is directing and I go, “I’ve worked this out. They’re fans of the show. We’re going to have the Spice Girls!” And he went, “I’m not doing the show.” So they wound up getting The Cardigans. Like did anyone know who The Cardigans are? Terrible misstep. It was going to be huge. Then he threw this [Roaring] 20s thing on me, which I never understood. I never understood what that meant. A 20s theme? I have no idea. At that point I realized I was dead. I liked the episode; I was happy with it but, again, J was trying to take over and insert his own style and stuff. So we didn’t use the Spice Girls, which would’ve just been goofy and campy and fun and made the show that much bigger. But instead we had something that was smaller and hipper at the moment but didn’t really last. I mean, does anyone know who The Cardigans are today? LoveFool? They were alright. It was one of the weaker groups we had. And, again, J was directing that and he wanted to insert his stuff and that 20s theme. I’ve never understood it.

TDW: Well, another interesting episode he directed is The Time Has Come Today [Episode 4.25].

Mollin: Oh, yeah. I did a lot with Chuck on that one, too. That one was just so much fun. I did the story with that with Chuck. That was fantastic. I mean, it was goofy and indulgent in a certain way but we had fun with that. It reminds me of another odd one that we did, we went down the stupid road of reincarnation [Episodes 5.26-29]

TDW: Yes! Well, I have to say, as a Kelly-Dylan fan, it’s fabulous to know that, in another life, they were together and that they were soulmates.

Mollin: Well, that’s what we felt! We were writing it for you. What can be more meaningful than learning someone is your soulmate? We bought into it. Again, it was a little indulgent and we did the whole Western aspect [Episode 5.29, The Real McCoy] but it was pretty fun. You’re doing so many episodes, you kind have to push yourself to keep yourself interested. But The Time Has Come Today was fun and interesting. That actually came right after Brenda’s animal rights stuff [Episodes 4.22-24].

TDW: Yes. It did a wonderful job of both hitting the 1960s–the generation, what was going on then and the major events–and paralleling what was going on in Brenda’s life to a tee. The character relationships were just mirrored so well, especially the triangle.

Mollin: Yeah. She had just been activist and it had blown up in her face. We were very happy with it. And, again, if the Internet had been around then, this show would’ve been so enormous. I don’t know if you remember, in the Rolling Stones episode–FOX had bought an Internet company. It was called Delphi. And I actually have Clare [Kathleen Robertson] and David online, doing flaming in a chat room. We had early Internet sh*t on that.

TDW: Yes, you did. And then in the fire episode, that’s how all the lesbians ended up at the party. David and Clare posted the message in the wrong message board.

Mollin: Exactly. So if the Internet had been full-blown when we were there, this show just would’ve been enormous. It might’ve been bad for the actors. It probably would’ve screwed them up even more and made them even bigger celebrities. But it was just so prime for that and it would’ve been enormous. We were just starting to get a bit of that. We tried to keep on the edge of stuff that was going on pretty good.  It was a fun time. I guess I never had an experience that was quite like that, that intense for that a long of a time.

TDW: What do you think is the show’s legacy?

Mollin: It basically put FOX on the map in the drama world. Obviously The Simpsons put FOX on the map really but certainly we were the first long-running drama they had. But the legacy, it made teen drama important. It made teen drama something that everyone could watch. Parents could watch it with their kids, ‘cause the kids were real. Now they just try to make a jolt every two seconds. Nothing adds up. There’s no emotional reality. It just jumps the shark every two seconds.

TDW: So did you watch any of the teen dramas that came after that? Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., One Tree Hill…

Mollin: Dawson’s Creek I didn’t watch. It seemed to be alright. They told a story. They didn’t kill the storytelling by rushing it. O.C.–for us, we were always very defensive. All these shows would come out and they would say “Oh, we don’t want to be like 90210. We want to be good.” In fact, when I went for jobs after and they’d ask what I’ve done, I’d say “Well, I just did 128 episodes of this FOX hit show, 90210” and they’d go, “Oh. It’s too bad you didn’t do a good show.” Well, what was a good show? A show that was canceled after a year? That was the thing. You got painted with this terrible brush. I had a couple of shots after that in primetime but I basically moved to syndication and international stuff because I didn’t want the insecurity of getting canceled after four episodes anymore. But the other shows–O.C., I never really watched, to tell you the truth. They kind of made it just like 90210. They had a Peach Pit thing [with a diner]. It was fine. I didn’t really care that much. It didn’t affect me. They weren’t going to hire me. I tried at one point to get a job but they weren’t interested in hiring me.

TDW: Let’s go to 2008 when you first heard they were going to do a new version of 90210. What was your reaction?

Mollin: Well, I just figured it would suck because they weren’t bringing anybody in with any mandate, who would understand the characters they had to write. It was all just about the title Paramount had sold. The old man would’ve never had done that. For all his failings, he certainly was protective of the material. He never would’ve let somebody just jump over without having taken care of it. They just sold the title, basically, and didn’t care what people did with it. To Paramount, it was just a piece of software. I was concerned. I liked the idea of Rob Thomas at first, because I thought he was a good writer. I liked some of the earlier stuff he had did. But then he was off and, just reading what they were doing, I was like “Wait a second. Do they not have any idea what they’re doing?” I realized right away and I just went, “Oh my god.” Once they had that Rob Estes [Harry] was going to be the principal of the school, I was “Oh, this is f*cked.” That should be the least important part. We would never be in school. That’s the worst thing to do. It’s the biggest mistake to set it even more in school. It was really stupid. And, you know, to have him involved in that, to have adults involved in that, that was really kind of lame. So I didn’t think it would be good but I did watch the first one. They didn’t know how to build or have anticipation. They didn’t know how to make a kiss important. At least Dawson’s Creek understood that. You don’t rush over these moments. You don’t just throw them out. ‘Cause then there’s nowhere to go. These are teenagers. It was just ridiculous, I thought. Jennie, she had her part and would do what they said. It’s not her fault. She was just playing the character but it had nothing to do with the character that we had set up. Then once they started making a decision about a child [Sammy] and who was the father, I just had to stop paying attention. It just irked me because they had no mandate to do these things. They had no equity. They were making decisions on this legacy, which, now, if we were ever going to pick it up again, we have to deal with.

TDW: I want to make sure I have this right. Paramount essentially sold the title, the rights to the name, to The CW and their production company.

Mollin: Yes. They had to make a little deal with Darren to pay for his characters, I guess. Every time you use one of the characters we created–like, if Valerie ends up on the show–you have to be paid. But otherwise, they just did what they wanted.

TDW: And you know for a fact that no one from the original was asked to help.

Mollin: Nope. In fact, Chuck tried to get a job there and they shot him down. They asked to see his daughter. They interviewed his daughter for a job and not him. She didn’t get it either and he was upset with that. But, no, there was nothing. They weren’t interested in what we had to say. They weren’t interested in anything.

TDW: In a conversation we had before this interview, you said the new show was guilty of a “brand abuse” and “revisionist history.” Can you elaborate on that?

Mollin: It is brand abuse. They basically took a brand and watered it down–by making it worse and not being true to it. They made the brand worse. Rather than people remembering our show–well, I don’t know if people are even paying that much attention to this show. It’s still on but it gets only a 2 rating or something. Like I said, we hope that if they use characters of ours that we get paid. That’s all we can do. It’s just embarrassing. Just when I hear what they’re doing–like that Jackie Taylor [Ann Gillespie] died–it just irks me. And it’s not that she couldn’t die, it’s just that these people have no right to make these decisions. Darren, I’m  sure, just had to turn his back to it because I’m sure it’s hurtful for him.

TDW: So you think if Aaron was alive, this wouldn’t be happing?

Mollin: It would’ve been handled in a different way. He would’ve been on it and he would’ve been protective of it. Absolutely. I mean, he’s a good showman. He has his idiosyncrasies and he could be mean and powerful and cruel–and loving–but he cared about his material. He’s a great showman and we learned a tremendous amount from him about what it takes. I really value the time that I worked there. It was great working with these people. You really learn the business from old-time showmen, not corporate people, not people that went to college for whatever. People that understand that we’re entertainers. He would be very protective of that.

TDW: Well, this year marks 10 years since the original ended and 20 years since it started. Has there been any talk of doing anything?

Mollin: No, not that I know of. Because, again, there’s no Spelling Entertainment anymore. There’s no one to kind of harness that, that would care enough about it.

TDW: Hypothetically, then, would you be interested in something, if the opportunity was presented?

Mollin: Would I be? Sure. We had a wonderful time there. There was nothing better than being on a hit show. When it was a hit show, it was great.

TDW: So you’d be up for a panel or something?

Mollin: Yeah, sure. I think Chuck would be, too. We all want to protect our legacy in it. That’s why we do these things, so people get a little bit of our story right.

TDW: Well, I’d like to see that happen.

Mollin: I’d like to see it happen but, again, the brand abuse has hurt the show. It just makes it more ordinary. It was special the way it was. The show probably should’ve ended after college or, like I said, it should’ve gone to a different post-college life for them. Not this struggling, ordinary life that they wrote. They just totally missed the opportunity with where the show was supposed to go. But there was a decision to keep actors in place even though they were bored and they wanted something different. And they got something different. But it struggled for the next 3 years and the ratings went down and they finished the show off. I guess the last episode was alright. Were you satisfied with it?

TDW: I was completely satisfied with it. I thought there was a payoff for Donna and David. I am a Kelly-Dylan fan to the core, so it was very rewarding to see them together in the end. But then, again, you have this new show that changed it but I like to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Mollin: Oh, that was just ridiculous! For them to have done that–I just don’t know what they’re doing! He had a child he doesn’t care about?! That’s just so wrong. There’s nothing you can say. They’ve taken fictional characters and they’ve gone a different way with it. It’s not bad or good. It’s just unfortunate. They just never got the show. They just took it some other way. Plus there’s so much network interference, today, too. The writing is so difficult now for everyone that writes for network TV. There’s a billion notes. Every person in the world is a note-giver.

TDW: And the original writer/producers [Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah], after Rob Thomas, aren’t even there anymore.

Mollin: Oh, no. Once they opened their mouths, I knew they had no idea. I remember reading their early interviews and going, “Oh my god. There’s not a chance they’re going to get this right.” Again, people wanted the old show. They didn’t invest in the characters. The only thing people wanted to watch was when Kelly or Donna was there or when Brenda came. So they were all living on our work, on what we had built up so that kind of pisses you off. But it is the way it is.

TDW: Well, you’ve provided a wonderful amount of information. It fascinates me, really.

Mollin: Well, good. It’s nice to be sort of remembered. It’s something we’re all proud of. And it’s gone on. I’m not surprised that it’s popularity has increased or that its mystique has not diminished. It meant a lot to a whole generation of people–and their parents. A lot of mothers certainly watched with their kids. I’ll still meet, like, 60-year-old professors who have seen every episode because they watched with their daughters.

TDW: And there really is a whole new legion of fans thanks to SoapNet. Well, thank you so much for your time!

Mollin: No problem, Shari. It’s always great to talk to fans.

Come back next week for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index








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