Josh Schwartz has an enviable position – or an unenviable one, depending on how you look at it. The wunderkind creator of The O.C. got good news from two channels this May at the Upfronts, where many found disappointment. He’s got two shows premiering this fall – NBC’s Chuck, which revolves around a normal guy who inadvertently downloads a computer server of government secrets into his brain, and Gossip Girl for The CW. Based on the popular YA book series, it follows the lives and relationships of privileged teenagers from New York’s Upper East Side.
Now that reality has set in and storylines need to be broken, Josh takes a quick break to talk to PopGurls about his new shows, fan response and what it’s like to be called out by This American Life‘s Ira Glass.
For most people, it’s pretty ideal to have one show on the air, much less two. What has it been like?
It’s been awesome, totally exciting. Obviously not planned to work out this way (laughs). But thrilled that it did and now I’m beginning to understand how much work it is.
Is it a problem or a benefit having the writing staff in L.A. and Gossip Girl filming on the east coast?
I think it’ll work out – it happens a lot, with a lot of shows. They’re shooting in Canada, they’re shooting in North Carolina and the writing staff is in L.A. But it was really the only way I could be a part of both, was to do it here.
For someone who didn’t read the Gossip Girl books, how would you sell them on the show?
It takes you into the world of the Upper East Side, but told through the eyes of young people — which I don’t think you’ve ever seen before. It’s all told through the perspective of this anonymous blogger who writes this Web site called “Gossip Girl” – which is sort of like a Perez Hilton or TMZ for the Upper East Side.
[The show] speaks to what it is like to live in that world – which is an unbelievably rarified world that you can’t buy yourself into, you have to sort of be born into. It’s also how young people communicate in the 21st century.
That’s a really good point. The clips I’ve seen of the pilot have kids constant flipping out their Sidekicks, which I think is very dead on.
Yeah, when someone walks into a room, it’s no longer murmuring of the crowd – it’s everyone whipping out their Sidekick and texting each other.
Is there anything in the books that you decided just didn’t work for TV?
No, aside from how quickly they advance the plot in the books. There’s 10 books and our initial order is for 13 episodes so, right then and there, we have to figure out how to make this material last.
How faithful do you plan to be to the books?
The pilot is a good template. It’s very much inspired by the books and a lot of the characters are from the books directly, but I also think that there are some changes that have to be made in order to make it last for the length of a television series or just that you need for dramatic effect.
For instance, in the book, Serena’s brother is older and in the show, he’s younger because [that way] he better folds into the world of our kids. And giving Serena a little brother to take care of, it shines a light on her character that is really necessary to understanding and liking her.
In the pilot, Serena is the heroine and Blair is the villain. The books do a really good job of, and something that is important for us in the series is, [showing] that it’s never that simple. As we go forward in the series, there will be times where you can’t believe that Serena just did something and hate her for it. And you’ll feel empathy for Blair and are actually rooting for her.
Coming off The O.C., what is the difference between writing about the drama and turmoil of teen boys and girls?
Well, for one I understood teen boys a lot better going in. But that’s been one of the really fun challenges of doing the show. Starting from the perspective of the female characters and they’re the ones driving the story. I’m really lucky to be working with Stephanie Savage [The O.C.’s co-executive producer] on Gossip Girl, who also really understands the mind of the young female – I learn a lot from her as well.
What’s do you think is the essential conflict of being a teenage girl in Gossip Girl?
In this world where it’s all incredibly heightened – it’s trying to forge an identity for yourself. It’s the incredible amount of pressure and scrutiny of that world. It’s almost impossible.
On The O.C., many of the girls already sort of had their shit together…
Not so much Marissa Cooper.
Yes – and speaking of Marissa Cooper… there was the notorious storyline where she dated a girl. When you were writing it, was there some heartfelt commentary about girls trying to figure out what they like?
It was definitely the idea that this was a girl that her character really felt comfortable about. Marissa was someone who was always striving to find herself and get caught in one maelstrom of drama to the next and try desperately to be more independent and adult than she was and bumping up against that. And railing against her mother and finding out that she really needed her mother.
The character of Alex, played by Olivia Wilde, was a girl who was already emancipated from her parents and was working. She actually did have her stuff together. She became like a mentor for Marissa in a lot of ways. And that was a lot of the appeal, the attraction.
Have you seen how many people have created their own fan trailers for Gossip Girl on YouTube?
I’m treading gently in the world of fan response. I got a little too caught up in that on The O.C. – [checking out] message boards. It’s a slippery slope.
When you get involved in fan response – does it skew what you plan to do or what you’re thinking of while you’re doing it?
It can do all of the above. I think that sometimes that can be incredibly helpful – I love fan reaction and it’s really valuable and they’re watching the show from a very pure place. Also, people can not like something because they don’t have all the information of where the story is going and they tend to get critical in a vacuum. But you can take that criticism to heart. I think it’s dangerous if you ever start writing to try to please the message boards.
You have to know what your story is and really try to stick to that. But it’s also really valuable to hear people’s response along the way – it’s a balancing act, to balance the two.
What was one great fan response that really excited you?
Well, definitely the response to the Seth and Summer relationship. That was really exciting.
Will there be parents on Gossip Girl?
There are a couple of key parents that are in the pilot right away. There’s Matthew Settle, who plays Rufus Humphrey, and Kelly Rutherford, who plays Lily van der Woodsen. As we move forward in the series, we’re going to expand and deepen that adult presence.
Will they be written in a similar way to the parents in The O.C., or more distant?
I don’t know if it will be exactly The O.C. paradigm, which was almost 50/50. Probably won’t necessarily go to that level. The key adult roles will play a very important part. So even if there aren’t as many, they’ll still play as integral part as they did on The O.C.
Having fleshed-out adult characters is incredibly important to me, and for the show as well. For me, the character of Rufus is kind of the soul of the show. That guy is the way into the show for a lot of people, including myself in a lot of ways. The way he views that world is the way I think a lot of people view that world – with some degree of skepticism and a little concern for his kids being in that world. He’s a really fun character to write.
Now, you have another show this season called Chuck. I was utterly engaged while watching the trailer on NBC.com, and I can’t wait to see the whole pilot. Where did you come up with the idea for Chuck?
A guy named Chris Fedak, who I went to college with, pitched me the initial concept. I thought there was a real opportunity there for a really funny show, while he was thinking thriller. We started talking back and forth and it evolved from there. We came up with something that’s a fusion of both of our sensibilities – it’s been a really fun collaboration.
There’s been some comparisons to cult favoriteJake 2.0 – had you seen the show?
Not at the time, no. I think he had superpowers, though. I think he was like, bionic. That’s my understanding.
Jake did have powers from nanotechnology.
So Chuck is superpower-free? He just knows secrets?
He just has these secrets in his head, which he flashes on, but he has zero powers. He has negative powers.
His flashes are memories of things he’s read?
The flashes are intelligence that has been downloaded into his brain, that are triggered by certain subliminal triggers. All of a sudden he’ll get a flash – it’s top-secret government information about something.
Chuck also stars Adam Baldwin. There’s something about Adam Baldwin that just goes with a gun. Did you have a character in the script who sported a gun and you knew you had to cast Adam Baldwin?
Chris loves Adam Baldwin. When we sat down and talking about casting, we said “Okay, John Casey.” He’s like, “Adam Baldwin, it’s got to be Adam Baldwin.” Right away, that’s the guy that he’s passionate about. So our first casting session – there was Adam Baldwin and it was a perfect fit. And it will give him the opportunity to a lot of comedy as well.
Which he does really well, but doesn’t seem to often get roles that let his comedic side shine through – he’s often the heavy.
In this, he’s the heavy – but he’s the heavy with a little glimmer in his eye.
How did the rest of casting for Chuck go?
We looked far and wide, we looked at a lot, a lot of people. For the character of Chuck, it was really about finding the guy who you believed was sweet but not totally together, and you believed not having a girlfriend for many, many years. At the same time, could still be a leading man. It was about finding the funniest guy you still wanted to see get the girl. And Zach [Levi] is fantastic at that.
For the character of Sarah, who is played by Yvonne Strzechowski – it was about finding someone you could believe was vulnerable and sweet and the girl next door, which is her cover – but you would also believe with a gun in her hand, kicking some ass.
In a way, it’s almost the perfect world for a fanboy – the geeky boy and the girl with a gun.
Exactly. And our point of view is that in any other show, Sarah is the one that the show would be about. She is that level of proficiency as a CIA agent.
You have the perfect dichotomy of Gossip Girl being your girl-centric show and Chuck being your boy-centric show. Does it help you maintain a strange sense of balance?
Internally, they operate on different sides of my brain. In terms of the stories we’re telling.
But in Gossip Girl, there are very attractive women for the men to watch and I feel a good part of my role in the show is helping the guy sensibility. Even though it’s called Gossip Girl, it’s also for both audiences.
The O.C. was a show that they thought traditionally women would watch only. And a lot of guys watched it or brought their girlfriends to watch. So my hope here is if girls bring their boyfriends to watch Gossip Girl, there will be something for them to watch as well. It’s something that Stephanie and I think about a lot.
And Chuck has a lot of action and comedy, which is appealing to young guys, but there’s also a lot of romance to the show. And I think that Zach Levi is the kind of guy that girls will fall in love with.
Oh, he’s adorable.
And he’s a nice guy – and I think that’s something that’s missing out there for a lot of women.
I agree – there’s a lot more bad boys on shows these days. Not as many have nice guys.
Exactly – and I think women are going to want to protect Chuck. Take care of him.
Along with your Gossip Girl dip into the YA pool, you are working on the film adaptation of John Green’s Looking for Alaska. How far has that gotten?
I’m in the process of re-writing the screenplay right now. Ivan Reitman and his company have come on board to co-finance the movie. So the trick right now is balancing the time to do the rewrite.
Lastly, on an episode of The O.C., Summer specifically called out This American Life (“Is that the show where all those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?”). Why did you write that reference in?
The writer of that episode, John Stephens, is a big NPR fan – as we all are – and a big This American Life fan. It was cool, it was hilarious to us that he watched the show.
In the This American Life: What I Learned from Television Tour, one of Ira Glass’ pieces was his reaction seeing that reference on The O.C. it being one of his favorite shows. What was your reaction to his reaction?
It was really, really cool. We always wanted the show to be something that teenagers could watch and we wanted some part of the show that would be compelling to guys like Ira Glass. So to know that he was watching was thrilling. He was really sweet about it. It’s really cool when people that you look up to are watching what you’re doing.