Chill(b)in with Philbin
With a pocketful of pop-culture references and a resume of critically-acclaimed shows like Dead Like Me and Saturday Night Live, J.J. has brought us some memorable OC episodes, including "The Shower", "The O.Sea", "The Shape of Things to Come" (aka the introduction of Taylor Townsend), "The Cliffhanger", and most recently, "The Undertow". Much thanks to her for kindly taking the time to do this, and thanks to all you readers who took the time to suggest interview questions. So link it on all your blogs, post it on TWoP, and email it to your little sister. Hope you enjoy reading about J.J.'s journey to the OC, and don't forget to leave comments!
When did you decide you wanted to write for television? And why television over film or print?
I always wanted to be a writer, although I changed my mind a lot growing up about what kind of writer I wanted to be. When I was little, a friend of mine had a camcorder, and she and I used to write scripts and shoot little movies on the weekends. Eventually, we developed a sitcom called “Sunny and Rainy,” which was about an optimist and a pessimist living together. (Give me a break. I was eleven.) We actually shot like a dozen episodes of this thing. And I really loved it – loved coming up with stories, making them into scenes, developing characters. The experience stuck with me. I’ve often thought about writing a novel someday, and of course I’d love to write a movie, but for the moment I’m hooked on the energy of a writers’ room. I love collaborating, bouncing ideas off one another. And I love the moment when someone throws out an idea and it sparks, and suddenly everyone is creating something together.
What are some of your favorite shows of all time? And what are you watching these days?
Growing up, the first show I was obsessed with was Moonlighting. I used to memorize the scripts, write letters to the writing staff with ideas, etc. I haven’t watched it in years though, so I have no idea if it holds up. Other shows I was addicted to – SNL, Cheers, Friends, Party of Five. Of course I watched 90210. And these days? Besides the OC, obviously, I watch Lost (the first season was amazing), The Sopranos (this season has been incredible so far), and I loved Six Feet Under. My husband writes for The Office, and thank God I happen to love it.
I read in an article that you actually met your husband while you were both at SNL. I’ve been to a handful of after-parties and they are always quite tame. Any fun stories from your era?
It was pretty tame in comparison to the stories we’ve all heard about the show in the seventies and early eighties. Nobody was snorting coke during the table reads, but it still felt boisterous and fun, just because there were so many huge personalities in one space. And I did meet my husband there, so obviously I hold SNL near and dear to my heart for that reason.
How does the OC work environment compare to your previous shows?
For one thing, it’s easily the smallest staff I’ve ever been on. So, if you’ll pardon the cliché, we have become a little family. Josh Schwartz, Bob DeLaurentis, and Stephanie Savage head up our staff, and they are, fortunately, really happy people, and they set the tone for the room. It’s a very safe environment, where you can pitch a terrible idea and not have to worry about being mocked. (Bob is famous for letting us down easy when he rejects our pitches. Instead of “that idea sucks”-- which actually happens in some writers' rooms -- Bob will say “there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat.” And somehow, you know your idea didn’t resonate with him, but you don’t want to kill yourself.) Also, unlike any other writers’ room I’ve been in, there are dogs everywhere. Stephanie, Josh, and Leila (our exec story editor) all have dogs, and on any given day, there are one or more of them in our writers’ room. (You may recognize their names as shout-outs in the show. Stephanie’s dog is named Harper, and Josh has a chocolate lab named Maya. My cat, Pancakes, is also referenced in almost every episode, but that’s sort of an accident.)
So how exactly did you get started with the OC?
Back before the pilot even aired, I had a meeting with the exec producers. I loved the script, and when I met with the gang, I was struck by how deeply passionate they were about this show and the characters they had created. We had a great meeting, and I don’t know if they were going to hire me or what, but a week or so later I got an offer from Coupling, which at the time was supposed to be the next Friends. Obviously, that didn’t pan out. When Coupling got canceled, it just so happened the OC needed a new writer. I met with them again, and at this point I was a huge fan of the show, and this time they offered me the job.
How many writers are on the show?
This past season, we had six people writing scripts. Bob DeLaurentis doesn’t actually go home and write scripts, because if he did, the show would literally shut down. But he is deeply involved in every aspect of story-breaking, and he often coaches us through the actual scenes. So even though you don’t see his name with a “written by” credit, he’s a vital force on the writing staff.
This season, you’ve been given a “producer” credit, what does that actually mean? How have your responsibilities changed?
They really haven’t. Every writer has a “level”, which loosely corresponds with the amount of authority you have in the writers’ room, and maybe how many scripts you are assigned. When I first got to the show, I was a story editor, and since then I’ve graduated to co-producer. It’s in our contracts that we graduate a level every year, so it’s less that I got some huge promotion and more that I managed not to get fired.
Could you tell us about the creative process behind the show? How is the overall season arc decided? Does the show stick pretty strictly to this initial plan?
We come up with emotional arcs for the characters before the season starts, but we don’t get married to any specific stories, because we know characters are going to evolve during the season in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Volchok, for example, was supposed to be around for only two episodes, "The Swells" and "The Anger Management". We loved his energy in those episodes, but the story we were telling was over, so we moved on. Maybe six months later we were sitting in the writers’ room, talking about what sort of guy Marissa would find after Ryan, and it dawned on us that Volchok would be perfect. Here’s a guy who isn’t going to coddle her, who has no interest in rescuing her, and we realized she would probably be attracted to that. We put the brakes on the story we were about to tell with her, and checked to see if the actor was available. When we found he was, we were off and running.
How are episodes assigned?
Bob comes up with a writers’ rotation at the beginning of the season. The more experienced the writer, the more scripts assigned. We don’t get to choose our episodes, and most of the time you don’t know if you’ve lucked out or not until you really get in there and start breaking stories.
How much of the writing is collaborative vs. isolated? What is the general schedule like to take an episode from the page to the screen?
Okay, I hope I don’t bore you to death, but I’ll explain as best as I can our system at the OC.
Like most shows, the story development phase is entirely collaborative. When we start breaking an episode, all the writers who are available (ie: not at home writing scripts) are in the room. It starts out pretty vague. We write on our huge dry-erase board what we know is going to happen in the episode (ie: this is the one where Johnny dies. Or, this is the one where Jimmy Cooper leaves for good.) Then we start talking through how we want to tell that story. We bounce around ideas, sometimes get frustrated, tear our hair out for a while, eat way too many snacks, and somehow or another, the stories start to come together. We write the beats out on the board, and eventually, the writer goes home and writes an outline, detailing each scene of the episode. The outline comes in, and the writers look over it, dissect it, point out possible problems and pitch on fixes. Sometimes that process can take weeks. When finally Josh, Bob, and Stephanie Savage agree that the outline is ready, the writer goes home and writes a first draft.
Usually, writing a draft takes about 10 days. When you’re done, after you’ve fretted about it and over-thought everything, you email the draft in to Josh, Bob, and Stephanie. A day or so later, they’ll meet with you and give notes. Sometimes the notes are huge. It’s not uncommon to throw most of the first draft away and start over. And sometimes the notes are minimal. Either way, you’ll write one or two more drafts of the script, according to notes from the studio/network, the actors, the director, and anyone else under the sun who’s got something to say about it, and then we start shooting. The whole process takes about six weeks. More often than not, by the time an episode of mine starts shooting, it’s time to start breaking my next one.
How do you settle any creative disagreements amongst the writers and producers?
Everybody weighs in with their opinion, but Josh, Bob and Stephanie have the final word on everything. Fortunately, we tend to agree on the big picture issues.
I know for some other shows, the creator may call it in from home after a few seasons (ahem, Alias), how involved is Josh Schwartz with the weekly on-goings of the show?
Josh is in the office every day. He might not be writing as many episodes as he once did, but he’s supervising the stories we’re writing, he’s up in the edit suites going over the cuts as they come in, he’s on the phone with the network, he’s meeting with the actors, he’s picking music – he’s one of those people who’s everywhere at once. Fortunately, he’s got a lot of energy, and he’s extremely passionate about the show.
Fans of the show, especially on TWoP, tend to have very strong opinions. For example, while prepping for this interview I found this link, where if you scroll down, you’ll see a comment on this myspace that reads:
For Xmas this year, I would like for all the writers of the OC except JJ Philbin to be dragged into the street and shot. Except for whomever wrote last night's episode - they should be drawn and quartered.
Does it get a little scary how impassioned fans can get? I know Josh has mentioned that he used to read some of the boards, but has weaned himself off of that habit. Do you still read message-boards and fan feedback? (note for readers: I am not the above “Diana”)
I try not to read the message boards, but they are totally addictive, and more often than not, I cave and read them after an episode of mine airs. On one hand I’m grateful they exist – we get to see how new characters and storylines are being received the minute they hit the screen. (A good example: I’ve been in love with Taylor Townsend since the moment she was born in the writers’ room, and it was so validating to see the posters agree). At the same time, it can be frustrating to read them, and sometimes the boards loom large over us as we work our way through an episode. Personal example: just last week, I turned in a script where our kids visit their colleges of choice for the weekend. In Marissa’s story, she went to Berkeley, and was, of course, faced with drugs and alcohol, as every kid who goes to college is. After I wrote the script, we had to submit it to “the powers that be” at Berkeley, for legal purposes, since we’re using their name. Even though we were careful to put all our parties off-campus, Berkeley refused to let us reference alcohol, drugs, or partying of any kind in our story. I guess I can see why – they don’t want their school to be portrayed negatively – but to us it wasn’t negative, it was realistic. In any case, before I could even register my frustration, my mind immediately went to the message boards. I could see the posts in my head. (What kind of college doesn’t have any drinking or partying whatsoever? What planet are these writers from??) And if I were posting, I’d say the exact same thing. It’s a valid point. But there are a thousand little things that are out of our control. That being said, I absolutely appreciate the passion of the posters, whether it be positive or negative. It’s gratifying to know they are as emotionally invested as we are.
Do you have a favorite episode?
That’s a tough one. I always loved "The Goodbye Girl". It aired the first week I worked on the OC, and I remember watching it, getting misty during the airport sequence, and being so happy to have joined the show. And like everyone else, I thought the script Josh wrote for “The Dearly Beloved” was just beautiful.
Which character were you like in high school?
None of them really. But I can identify with little pieces of all of them. Marissa’s angst, Summer’s insecurity, etc. We all pour parts of ourselves and our pasts into these characters, and hopefully that helps make them real.
In my opinion, one of the strengths of the show is the coupling of the over-the-top soap-opera drama with a sense of self-awareness and humor that keeps it grounded, how tough is it balancing the two?
It’s tough, and the worst part is, Josh and Stephanie make it look so easy. Bob D has always said that each of us writers naturally lean in one direction, and so we are constantly trying to walk that fine line between comedy and drama. In a perfect OC script, the drama isn’t too heavy, and the comedic scenes aren’t so fluffy that they lack emotional stakes. John Stephens, who wrote "The Anger Management" and "The Journey", is a real master at this balancing act.
So, I highly enjoyed this past week’s episode, “The Road Warrior”. Being Korean, I loved Taylor’s Korean language skills. Who’s idea was that?
I can’t remember who specifically came up with Taylor knowing how to speak Korean, but if I had to guess it sounds like a Stephanie Savage pitch. Stephanie always comes up with the little quirks that really bring our characters to life. Expect to see more of Taylor’s Korean language skills in the upcoming episodes.
Autumn Reeser’s been such an amazing addition to the show, will Taylor Townsend’s role continue to grow? I want to take Autumn out to a Korean restaurant.
Yes, I think we can expect to see even more of Taylor in season 4. When we brought her on, we weren’t sure exactly where she fit in on the landscape. But we all fell hard for her, so we made a deal where we got to bring her on for a certain amount of episodes. Next year we get to have her full time, and we’re all really excited about it.
Can you give us any spoilers for the rest of the season?
We’re doing something pretty bold at the end of the season. I’m scared to say more than that. But it should make for an interesting season 4.
When can we expect to see the next Philbin-penned episode?
My next episode is shooting now, and it airs on April 20th. It’s [episode] 322, and it’s called "The College Try". As I wrote it, it felt a lot different from our other episodes, since the kids were out of the nest and glimpsing their futures in college. It got me excited for next year.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to the fans?
I’ll speak for all the writers, and say that we’re incredibly grateful that there are so many people out there who feel as strongly about the show as we do. I’d like to thank them for watching it -- and more than that, caring about it. Season 4 ought to be real roller coaster, and I hope everyone sticks around for the ride.