In the latest installment of our Talking TV series, we sat down for an in-depth conversation with Mark Schwahn, the creator and executive producer of The CW’s One Tree Hill, to discuss his show overcoming a disastrous start, the strong bond it has with its fans, a controversial school shooting episode, and the groundbreaking four-year jump in time it takes in tomorrow night’s season five premiere.
BostonNOW: When did the idea of doing a four-year jump first come to you?
Mark Schwahn: I pitched it when the networks merged, when the UPN and the WB formed The CW. I had to go in and meet the new brass and convince them to make a season four. At the time we were fighting for our lives for season four. I pitched them season four and said, "if you pick us up for season four, you’re going to want a season five because this is what I plan to do." I actually pitched it two years ago.
It was funny. I said, "you’re going to want a season five" and everyone sort of chuckled and somebody mentioned that the kids were looking really old. I said, "I have a fixer for that. It’s unprecedented but I want to jump the show ahead a bunch of years", and it literally stopped the room. No one had ever considered it. I said, "why not? We’ll jump ahead four years, they’ll just be embarking on the journeys they talked about high school, they’ll have acquired the information to do that, and we’ll have the mystery of what happened in those four years and we can go back and grab it for a scene, a moment, or an entire episode." We’re going to do all of that this year.
BN: Was it hard to manage continuity when filming scenes that jump around the timeline that much?
MS: Some of them are very different looking when we jump ahead. What we thought going in was that we would be spending a lot of time in flashbacks but when I went into the writer’s room, I found the writers – and the actors – we so invigorated by the jump, and we broke such good active journeys for the characters moving forward, that we haven’t spent a great deal of time in flashback. You’ll see in the first episode there are a couple of moments where it seems like we’re hiding some hair or a wig…We’re never shooting in order so it can get a little tricky (laughing).
BN: Did you go into this season with the idea that it would be the final 22 episodes?
MS: I tend to never think that. We debuted so poorly – we were the lowest rated show on any network our first week, probably the first few weeks – and I still thought we’d get a few so seasons out of the show. I thought, "this is going to work, people will love the show". I’ve had innumerable conversations about how I plan to do this and how it will work because almost every studio and network has architecture so they can say, "we did it this way on this show." For this they had no architecture. Nobody did. The way I approach it is "this is going to work." I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it would work. It’s the best idea and the best direction for my show and if it does work the way that I think it will, why wouldn’t we get another season?
A part of me says, "you hit 100 episodes, everybody is happy and starts looking for something else to do" but for me, we hit a 100 and the show starts paying down its deficit (laughing) and creatively, if this jump ahead invigorates the show the way that I think it will, I am writing a new pilot. I think it plays that way. Our season premiere felt like I was writing a new pilot, and it felt like the opposite of what my first pilot was.
My first pilot was a familiar world – kid from the wrong side of the tracks – but you didn’t know the characters. This year the first episode is the opposite; you know the characters, you know the people, but you don’t know the world anymore.
BN: When I first read about the concept of the jump, I thought, "oh, that’s how they’ll keep Dan on the show. He can go to jail for four years and then get out on some sort of technicality. He can still be a part of the show without the audience feeling he wasn’t punished for his crime."
BN: That’s absolutely true. Paul Johansson is an asset to this show and that character that he and I have crafted for four years is hugely influential. I had said all along at the end of last season, "I am going to send Dan to prison but I will not send him to prison and not jump ahead." You have to jump ahead…Dan Scott was a pretty influential guy and manslaughter can get you out in a pretty reasonable amount of time…Dan is not a huge part of this new world right off the bat but he is a part of the world early on this season. Paul is a really hard worker, a really smart guy, and he believes he should be in every episode and that it’s important to the show, and I love him for that. I didn’t want him to feel like this was a strike against him and the work he’d been doing. I said to him, "This jump ahead is designed in a big part to keep this character alive and to keep him a part of this world." That’s certainly turned out to be the case, although not necessarily right away.
BN: I know that Kevin Federline is going to be on the show this season. There must have been some hesitation that people might view the casting as a publicity stunt as opposed to for merit.
MS: You have to know that’s going to be everyone’s reaction but I was thinking, "we’re going to hit 100 episodes, and we’re not on in the fall, so, with apologies, I don’t really need to hire Kevin Federline for promotion." I wasn’t promoting anything – I wasn’t on the air, I didn’t even have an air date scheduled at the time. He had already done some acting so it wasn’t like I was reaching outside of the actor pool. I said, "if I am going to hire someone to do this small arc and he can be good as the character" – the character was written Kevin Federline-esque, at least his public persona – "if he can do it and it works, let’s do it."
I don’t follow the tabloid stuff, I don’t actually watch much TV, but I don’t live under a rock, either. I knew who Kevin was; I had never heard his music. I’m a big music fan but I’m a little hip hop challenged. I knew who he was, knew he had been married to Brittney and that they’d had some troubles. I knew all that stuff but thought, "have this kid come in an audition and let’s see if he can do the part." The camera loves him, he’s smart, and I have to say the cast loved Kevin. We didn’t really get "K-Fed"; we got Kevin Federline, young actor.
BN: Looking back to 2003 when the show debuted, and further back to when you were thinking up the characters in your head, where has One Tree Hill gone that surprises you the most?
MS: I don’t know how it is for any other show creator – this is my first TV show – but it was a learning experience for me. When you’re writing a feature it’s like driving on the interstate; you get on and you go. You go quickly, you follow your map, and hopefully you have this great journey. Writing TV was like driving back roads, saying "let’s stop and explore, look over here and see where this road leads." It was very different, much more of a marathon than a sprint, to mix a bunch of clichés (laughing).
I’ve always been a big sports fan and I wrote it as a feature before it was a TV show and couldn’t get it made. It was very much a sort of Hoosiers for 2003. When I look back, it was so much more sports-centric than it is now. Obviously we had a female driven lead-in with Gilmore Girls at the beginning, so we wrote less basketball along the way. The basketball was never written to be just basketball. I love how sports can often times illuminate something bigger, tell a story that is bigger than the game itself. That’s what I was attracted to but increasingly we found other ways to do that and it became more about relationships, more about love triangles, but always about human beings finding their way. Which is why the movie was called Ravens and the team was the Ravens, because in mythology ravens are used to guide travelers to their destination, and I always though the show was just about people trying to find their way. It’s still very much the same but it’s like redecorating a house; it’s the same house but it looks a lot different than I thought it was going to (laughing).
BN: In the first episode Lucas and Halley are introduced as best friends, and there is the scene up on the roof top. On a lot of other shows, those two characters at some point down the line end up romantically involved
MS: As a matter of fact, on the show we took over the town we filmed in and the stages we filmed on from, Dawson’s Creek, that was exactly the case.
BN: Did you purposely set out to not go that route or did the characters just not go together that way?
MS: I never knew that James (Lafferty) and Joy (Galeotti) would have such chemistry but I positioned them to have chemistry because I always planned the Nathan and Haley relationship. I didn’t plan for them to be married at the end of the season, that was something we found in the writers’ room… The fact of the matter is I was aware of the Joey and Dawson relationship so I knew I wasn’t going in that direction. Not because of Dawson’s Creek but because of Nathan. Nathan, being the insidious guy that he was at the time, could infiltrate Lucas’ world via Haley. I also knew the oldest story in the world is a bad boy changes his behavior for the love of a good woman. That was where we set out star and it worked really well. James and Joy are a big part of that. There’s a small group of fans out there, they are called "shippers", who wants Lucas and Haley to be romantically linked, but there are people who want Dan and Haley to be romantically linked, too (laughing).
BN: Speaking of fans…Obviously ratings are important, and the backing of the network is important, but I don’t know that there is a show on TV with as dedicated a fan base as One Tree Hill.
MS: I would agree with you. I’m glad you said so – we say it all the time. It’s a two way street. We’ve cultivated that relationship, we try to be good to the fans. Creatively they don’t always agree with the choices I’m making but that’s their right to disagree. I’d like to think it’s because they’re passionate about the characters I created and the journeys those characters are on, and certainly the work the actors are doing. I saw the internet as a tool we could use to not only promote the show but to have a dialogue with the fans.
We’ve said it all along, and some people find it disingenuous, but we never did anything with the thoughts that we’d have the biggest show or get rich. It was never about what would make us more money or help up beat Lost in the ratings; it was always about, "if this was your favorite show, what would you want? What would be cool?" When we first did our music tour we had a lot of doubters because we weren’t in the music tour business, but I said, "the characters are fictionally going on tour, the Wreckers are coming on the show and are leaving with Haley and Chris Keller, so what if we really do the tour? Wouldn’t that be cool if you could go and meet some of the cast and spend the night listening to some good music?" It was all done under the idea of, "wouldn’t that be cool?" We did it with Brooke’s clothing line, we did it with the Honey Grove episode last year where we said, "wouldn’t it be neat if the characters that you watched every week came to your town and were still in character but you were you?" Some people feel like that’s hucksterism or outside of the lines but I always thought, "if I were young and I loved this show and could reach out and touch it in some way that I didn’t anticipate, how much fun would that be?" It’s served us well. It’s how you get to 100, I guess.
BN: Over the years there has been a lot of tabloid publicity about back stage goings on at the show. Were there times when your job became more about simply keeping people focused?
MS: You know what helped a lot? Having them in Wilmington. We weren’t The OC and some of these other shows…I can’t imagine how it would have all these young actors working in LA, on a big network, with all these premieres and the nightlife available to them. Joe Davola is one of our executive producers and he also executive produces Smallville, and he said to me, "thank god Tom Welling and Kristin Kruek were up in a small town in Canada working on the show and unaware of what big stars they were becoming", and that helped us a lot, too.
I have a really good relationship with every member of the cast. Doesn’t mean I know them incredibly well or that we hang out but we always have open lines of communication. It was an ensemble, with Chad sort of leading the way, but everybody was pretty young, and everybody needed the show for their careers, and the show needed them. It pretty much kept everybody honest. I have to say, we’ve had out moments. Every show has it’s moments. You’re in a creative capacity, there’s no right or wrong answers, and you’re in close quarters. It’s like high school. We spent four years in high school in two ways, dramatically and otherwise. I bet we had a lot less moments than other shows with our size ensemble of young actors.
BN: The TV landscape has changed some when the show debuted. Do you think if you were trying to pitch One Tree Hill to a network in the spring of 2008 you could get it on the air?
MS: I think there has to be a place for stories about people that don’t have a huge hook. I always say that on a lot shows, the technology has become the star. I don’t watch a lot of TV but when I did see reality TV I saw soap operas. She’s the villain, he’s the hero, this one’s duplicitous. They were real people but the producers were very smart about stealing moments, stealing looks, and making it into a soap opera. I just can’t imagine there won’t be a place for that kind of storytelling. It may change, it might not be on your traditional TV set.
I tell stories. Part of it is wish fulfillment, part of it is me taking a character and saying, "boy it would have been great to join my basketball team and have that moment in the sun", so I’ll tell that story for Lucas and live vicariously through it. At the end of the day it still just about the human experience and I assume they’ll continue to tell those stories to people who are living those lives and want to see it reflected on their television.
We were the last pitch they bought as a pilot script. We were the last pilot script they ordered. We were the last show they picked up for series, and it was supposed to be mid-season. We were accelerated to the fall when the Bruckheimer show, Fearless, fell through, and because of that we weren’t promoted at all in advanced press. We were the lowest rated show on any network (laughing)…And here we are, approaching 100 episodes. There’s no way you can plan for that but you can believe in what you’re doing and work hard.
BN: Do you have favorite episodes of the show from over the years?
MS: Yes, I do. Obviously the handgun episode will always be close to my heart. A lot of my favorite episodes are in part creative, in part because of other things. The handgun episode…when I first pitched Joe, he reacted very strongly and defensively. I felt that and tried to explain why I wanted to tell this story about Jimmy Edwards. The producers in Wilmington found out about it and then they were very concerned. The studio was concerned, the network was concerned. I had to take a lot of meetings and talk to a lot of people and basically at the end of the day they defaulted to me, saying, "you’re on your own island on this one." I said to them, "what about this show, and my voice, leads you to believe I’m going to write Reservoir Dogs in a high school? (laughing)". I said, "I know what I want the story to be, I know I want to help someone somewhere, and I think it will."
I love a lot of the episodes. The finale of season four – the house party that ended at the River Court – I directed it, and I love I for the moments I spent with James Lafferty at 3 in the morning on set. There are a lot of reasons why I’ll love a particular episode.
BN: You did an episode last year – Pictures Of You – that played out over one class in real time, and you brought in the Vice Principal from The Breakfast Club as a great little nod, and I thought it was one of the best hours of the TV season.
MS: I appreciate that so much. I wrote that as well and remember I wrote it incredibly quickly. It’s always fun to step out of the serialized journeys that we’re on and let the kids talk about being kids. We loved that one. Les Butler, who is our lead editor and has been with us since the pilot, he directed it. I love those types of shows. That’s certainly in my top 3 or 4 episodes, for sure.
BN: How soon after you started writing the Jimmy Edward episode did you know how it was going to end (with Dan shooting his brother Keith)?
MS: The writers were at lunch one day and I was sitting in the writer’s room. We had all made a decision together that Craig (Scheffer, who played Keith) wasn’t going to return to the show that season. There were a bunch of reasons why but there was no animosity, it was a collective dialogue. I was sitting in the room thinking, "if I am mandated to do this, how creatively can I use it, in the very best, most significant way?" I had been wanting to tell this story about a kid who was bullied in school and made a lot of mistakes and felt like he didn’t have a way out, and then had been having this dialogue about Craig, and I just started thinking about it, and where Dan was with Karen, and it all started to come together for me.
The writers came back from lunch and I pitched them the final scene in the hallway. I gave them the precursor – there’s a kid and he comes to school with a gun - and everybody is startled by it, I was talking them through it, telling them this happens and this happens, and then Keith comes in and talks to the kid because he knows him, it’s a character we’ve seen before. I knew it would be a character we had seen before but I didn’t know it would be Jimmy. I like people to think I took Jimmy Edwards off the show in episode three just to bring him back here but (laughing)…That just worked out wonderfully. So I told them that Keith talks to the kid but can’t get through to him, and the kid turns the gun on himself. And everyone was startled. And then I said, "a hand reaches in and picks up the gun. Keith looks up and says, he’s dead Danny. When the camera finds Dan he raises his arm and pulls the trigger." The room was whisper silent. My writers are good, they are inside the show as much as I am, and you could tell…I mean, I just told you that story again and the hair on my arm stood up.
BN: I’m 36, have watched TV pretty much my entire life, and if I made a list of the 10 most genuinely shocking moments I’ve seen on television, Dan shooting Keith would be on it.
MS: The first letter I got was an email that night was from someone who was outraged and horrified and said that I had done an episode that this woman couldn’t look at her kids and explain because it was pro-bully. It said, "the Dan’s of the world will always win."
BN: Wow, that’s a terrible way to look at that episode.
MS: That’s what I said! I got on the phone with the network and said, "I don’t think it’s my job to parent her or anyone else children, but I will parent these children because how can you watch that episode and come away with that? Do they really think we were going to celebrate this act and let Dan get away with it? Come on, what show are we watching? It might not be tomorrow but he will pay for this choice."
I was really afraid because that was the first letter but after that there were so many wonderful letters about peer counseling groups that were initiated and schools that showed that episode to their students. Without that moment it’s still a wonderful episode but we’re a serialized show and the mileage we got from that moment, while alarming and dramatic, has been pretty much what I expected it to be. You’re right though, you don’t shoot a beloved character at point blank range on a TV show, you just don’t do it.
BN: What kind of a preview can you give me for the new season?
MS: Jumping ahead four years is probably a little scary to our fan base, especially our younger viewers, but what I love about it so far is that it’s very much the same show, very much One Tree Hill… Some of the characters have left Tree Hill and not been home since, some have lived in Tree Hill the whole time. There are some new characters. One of the most influential is Jackson Brundage who plays Jamie, Nathan and Haley’s son. He’s a wonderful kid. One of the things I was most excited about was that the show was always about fathers and sons, history, family, and what makes a family – Peyton and Brooke are certainly a family in my mind – and I love the idea of having Jamie with the River Court guys. How is Lucas as an Uncle when Keith was so influential to him? How are Skills and Mouth and the guys around this little boy when they are still finding their way? We have characters who have been really successful…and others have had these dreams they haven’t even started to approach yet. For the writers and the actors, we all have this new canvas to work with. Some of them may look different but at the end of the day it’s still One Tree Hill, we’re still proud of it, and I think creatively we are having a fantastic season.
Don’t miss the two hour season premiere of One Tree Hill tomorrow at 8 pm on The CW.