Stephanie Savage: Co-Executive Producer/Writer

After working for Drew Barrymore's film company and then partnering with producer/director McG, Stephanie Savage became one of the three individuals to help create "The O.C." and her tireless attention to all aspects of the show has paid big dividends after only one season.

Going back to the beginning, how did you get started in the entertainment business?

I came up to Los Angeles in 1995 to do research for my PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa, and I ended up going to work for Drew Barrymore to do development for her company Flower Films. And I ended up working on the first "Charlie's Angels" movie.

From the stories that have been told, the production of that film was anything but easy...

Well, the first "Charlie's Angels" movie was kind of a cluster-f#@k. It was in trouble from the beginning; it never really had a finished script. So I ended up working really hard on that movie. Normally, in development, I would work with my bosses on the script and with the writers, and then say goodbye, and they'd go make the movie and I'd maybe visit them once a week. But because we never really got out of development on "Charlie's Angels" I was basically living on the set. And that's where I met McG, because he was directing it.

Eventually you two would form your own company, Wonderland. How did that partnership come about?

Well, we worked really closely together on that film and then when it was all over, we just kept working together and started Wonderland, which is a production company. We have like twelve employees now, and we have a feature film deal at Sony Pictures and our television deal is with Warner Brothers.

How did you first come up with the concept of what would become "The O.C."?

McG and I wanted to develop a show that was set in Orange County, because that's where McG is from. We decided that it was a really interesting world because you have this great sort of tension between the kind of conservative, Republican values and wealth and gated communities that is very Reagan-esque and, on the other hand, you also have this epicenter of California skate-and-surf culture.

You have these really cool bands like No Doubt, Social Distortion and Sublime coming from there and that was the kind of scene that McG grew up in, so we thought that was really interesting. I mean if you go down there, it's like a mixture of country clubs, rock clubs, and there's dads golfing with their sons and kids partying in the streets, and it just seemed like a really great world to explore.

So how did your paths cross with Josh Schwartz?

We went out to a bunch of writers for just the sort of general story area of something revolving around Orange County, and Josh immediately came back with a great take on how to do a serial-drama set in that world. So we kept working with him and then pitched it to Warner Brothers and then to Fox.

How much time passed from that first germ of the idea that you and McG had to the time that you felt the three of you were ready to pitch "The O.C."?

It's all kind of a blur to me now [laughs], but it was definitely just a matter of weeks. I think I met Josh in June or July and we pitched it at the end of August.

Because of Josh's young age-at least in the eyes of the television industry-did you run into any network reservations?

SS: There wasn't any trepedation in terms of setting the show up or getting the pilot episode done-because Josh had done two pilots before and our company had done a pilot for Fox previously-so there was a pretty good comfort level that we could do that. But they were definitely concerned when it was time for us to go to series and they wanted somebody more experienced to come on and be what they call the "show-runner."

They tried to partner us with many, many people, but Josh and I kept rebelling. We hunkered down until we got through the pilot without a show-runner and then by the time we were on Episode Two of that first season, we met the delightful Bob DeLaurentis and we hired him to come in and be that person that keeps the train on the tracks because Josh had never run a series before.

Your official credit for "The O.C." reads Co-Executive Producer. How would you describe that role?

SS: In the world of television, it's hard to know what a person does based on a title [laughs]. Titles are contractual and they have to do with how many shows you've worked on. Like on my first show I got a "producer" credit, on my second show I got a "supervising producer" credit and on my first show of the second season I got a "co-executive producer" credit and now I have "executive producer" on all my shows. It doesn't really have a whole lot to do with a job description.

I'd say that, first and foremost, I'm a writer. Last year I wrote two episodes-"Chrismukkah" and "The Telenovela"-and then this year I'm writing three episodes.

There are so many different storylines and characters on the show, and there are different writers on different episodes. Does that make things confusing?

SS: Well,we have a really small writing staff and everything goes through Josh's computer before it gets on the air, so there's a very tight Quality Control aspect to the writing on the show. It all goes through the Schwartz filter [laughs].

You mentioned that McG grew up in Newport Beach and we've heard that Josh ran into kids from that area while he was attending college at USC, but what kind of research did you do on the people and the area?

SS: Through McG's family I've spent a lot of time down in Newport. And one of his favorite things to do-like when we have to write something for the show-is to head down to the Four Seasons in Newport and hole-up there. So I've experienced firsthand all the stuff that we reference in the show-from the Crab Shack to the Balboa bars.

McG's sister is also one of our unofficial resources. She has three kids in high school or college, and she went to cottillion and she was at the charity league and she did all that kind of stuff.

The storylines and dialogue on "The O.C." have been known to push the envelope of network television, but have you ever had to pull back on ideas that you felt might cross the "line." That "line" which nobody in television seems to know where it is until they actually cross it?

SS: I don't think that's happened with actual plot ideas, but there have been certain scenes that had to be cut because they were perhaps a bit too risky. In "The Telenovela," I wrote a scene where Summer has her first orgasm, and it got through the Broadcast Standards & Practices at the script stage and the dailies got through as well. But as they were watching the final cut, the Janet Jackson thing at the Super Bowl had just happened, and they made us take the scene out. In addition, they took out a line I had written where Summer suggests to Seth that he "just lie there like a buffet" and she'd serve herself.

I was really mad and we were joking around that I was gonna write a think-piece for the New York Times Magazine called, "The Year Summer Never Came." I really felt like it wasn't fair because the same week,the kid on "Everwood" was losing his virginity, but we couldn't do a story on our show even thought it's on an edgy network.

But I got my vindication because Josh told that story to a couple of reporters and it ended up being in the L.A. Times, and then we actually got to put the scene on the Season One DVD, so I feel vindicated [laughs]. I don't blame anybody at Fox, because I know what kind of scrutiny they're under, but I was just mad about that particular situation.

In terms of the storylines, are you feeling more pressure because of audience expectations or are you feeling good about everything because that first season showed that you could take the stories and characters in seemingly endless directions?

SS: I don't think it's harder or easier. One of the things that's easy about preparing for a first season is that nothing's really happened yet [laughs], so people have to get together, they have to have sex for the first time, they have to fight with their parents, and all the marriages have to be tested.

So tell us about the new characters in the second season?

We have brought in four new characters this year to create some different dynamics with the kids. We added these characters-they're not series regulars at this moment-so we'll see how long they stay with us. We brought in two boys and two girls to play with the two boys and two girls we already have.

Do you pay attention to what the viewers think of a particular character in your decisions of which characters stay and which ones go?

We do and we don't. For example, we loved Samaire Armstrong who played Anna and we loved Anna. In fact, Josh and I were working together in my office on a weekend when he showed me the script where Anna goes away.

So he told me to read the scene, while he left to go to the bathroom, and when he came back I was totally sobbing at my desk [laughs]. And I was sobbing, saying to him, "She's just going to Pittsburgh, we can bring her back, right?" [laughs]. He was like, "Oh my god, what a drama queen."

Samaire was originally only supposed to be on for one episode, but we all fell in love with her and she stayed on for quite a while. But we knew that we had done all we could with the Seth/Summer/Anna storyline, so it was the right thing to do although it was hard because we all had pieces of ourselves wrapped up in Anna.

But, in answer to your question, if a character really starts to pop, where you can see the other actors and/or the audience responding to a character, and you quickly see that there's a whole story that could be told about that character, you obviously want to develop that.

You've mentioned the writing of the show, but you are also involved in everything from fashion to the music and the casting. Which area do you derive the most personal and creative satisfaction?

SS: I love being involved in everything. I really get bored if I'm doing just one thing too much. So I love being in the writer's room, but I also love being in the editing room because I think we have the best editors in television on our show, and wardrobe is something that's important to me and I work closely with our costume designer.

I had a lot of fun last year with [costume designer] Alexandra Welker designing Julie Cooper's wedding [laughs]. We were going through magazines and putting together binders of things because Josh was like, "I don't know anything about weddings," so we had a great time.

In terms of the music, I had more to do with the music on the pilot than on an episodic basis because that's really Josh's world, but we love to go see live music and I love to write songs into episodes and all of that.

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