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May 05, 2009

Q&A: Josh Schwartz

Josh Schwartz The A-list showrunner talks about “Chuck” fans, his plans for the “Gossip Girl” spinoff and why he's a more Marty McFly than Alex Keaton...

By Matthew Belloni

He’s still waiting alongside the show’s fervent, Subway-eating fans to see whether NBC will pick up “Chuck.” But even without it, Josh Schwartz is one of the busiest writer-producers in town. His CW hit “Gossip Girl” launches a possible spinoff (the 1980s-set “Lily”) with the May 11 episode, and his online series “Rockville, CA” is drawing viewers to TheWB.com. Schwartz, 32, also is working on a script for Fox’s “X-Men: First Class” as well as what could be his feature directorial debut, MGM’s remake of “Bright Lights, Big City.”

THR/Belloni: I had no idea that “Chuck” fans were that rabid.

Josh Schwartz: Neither did I. The first year we went to Comic-Con and I was like, “Oh my God, no one’s gonna come.” But it was packed and there was a standing ovation. We went back last year and they’re like, “OK, we’re gonna give you the 3,000-person room.”

“Lily” is set in the ’80s. But the networks haven’t had much success with period shows lately.

Schwartz: Well, “Mad Men.”

True, but I was thinking of the broadcast nets with “Life on Mars” (ABC) and “Swingtown” (CBS).

Schwartz: Well, “Freaks and Geeks” (NBC) was (set in) like ’79 or ’80 and that’s, you know, just the greatest show ever, so it’s a good target.

You had such immediate success as a TV showrunner with “The O.C.,” and now you’re maturing. Will there be a time when you’re not able to write the teen stuff?

Schwartz: Oh yeah, I’m certain of it. Chuck is in his 20s, and I just got married, so that certainly is rich with material. But for me, I remember really acutely being a teenager and those are just fertile periods in your life. Decisions feel so epic and full of drama -- and that audience, if they connect with what you’re doing, they’re extremely passionate about it. Think about it, the songs you remember the most, the movies that you remember the best, the TV shows that you treasure are ones that you fell in love with when you were at that age.

“The O.C.” begat MTV’s “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” which inspired Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” which led to “The Real Housewives of New York City,” which is basically an unscripted version of “Gossip Girl.”

Schwartz: Yeah. “The O.C.” is funny because it’s a show that only ran for four years but spawned multiple reality shows. Our measure of success now is whether we spawn a reality show.

Given its relatively small ratings, why is “Gossip Girl” such a media sensation?

Schwartz: “Gossip Girl” became the first show that indicated that the way people watch television is changing. You can go on iTunes, every episode is No. 1, ahead of all these bigger shows. The streams are high, the DVR time-shifting number was something like 40%. There’s a much bigger audience
for the show than the (Nielsen) numbers might indicate.

The show was initially available online, then it was pulled, and now it’s back. Why?

Schwartz: The thinking was, if you pull the show offline, that audience would be forced to watch it on TV. The problem -- and we all learned is that the people who (watch it online) aren’t going to watch it on TV.
They’ve already evolved. Kids go to college now and they don’t bring a TV, they just bring a laptop. If you pull it off CWtv.com, they’ll find it on another Web site. Or an illegal one. I’m happy they decided to put it back online.

Could “Gossip Girl” go online-only?

Schwartz: I don’t think it has any need to. The partnership with the CW has been great. It’s so much a CW show now. I don’t know if the world is ready for an online-only show.

Wait, you’ve got one.

Schwartz: I mean one that’s longer than 5 minutes an episode.

Will your “Bright Lights, Big City” be contemporized or will it be set in the ’80s?

Schwartz: We’re still figuring that out but my inclination is that it does not have to be in the ’80s to tell the story. I actually find the story more relevant (now) than ever.

The ’80s era obviously had a big impact on you.

Schwartz: I remember my childhood very vividly. The “Lily” spinoff is in ’83, so I was pretty young then. But it’s just a time that made a big impression on me. “Chuck” is ’80s reference after ’80s reference. We had Chevy Chase on the show, Scott Bakula. I always say to myself, if the 12-year-old version of me could see the shows today, there’d be a serious high-five. To hear that Michael J. Fox gave his blessing (for “Bright Lights”), there were no two bigger pop-culture icons of my youth than Marty
McFly (from “Back to the Future”) and Alex P. Keaton (from “Family Ties”).

Which were you more like?

Schwartz: I didn’t skew quite as conservative as Alex Keaton. I had the orange Marty McFly vest.

You also wrote a bunch of “Golden Girls” references into “The O.C.” Did you read Bea Arthur died?

Schwartz: Yeah, that’s sad. It’s weird that I was like 10 years old, home on a Saturday night, watching a show about senior citizens and totally relating. “Golden Girls,” “Empty Nest,” it was like a whole block of
senior-citizen television and I couldn’t get enough of it. I found out that Rachel Bilson and Samaire Armstrong (on “The O.C.”) were also huge fans so it worked its way into the show.

What are you doing on “Lily” to make the “Gossip Girl” audience comfortable with the period?

If you never lived through that era -- like most of our “Gossip Girl” audience didn’t -- there is a fascination, like we were fascinated by the ’70s. My sense, based on absolutely no empirical data -- which is how I like to form most of my opinions -- is that their connection to that era is via Michael Jackson, Madonna -- those broader pop culture references. Fashion-driven, especially. So there’s an appetite there, they want to go deeper into that era. Vernacular, politics, the stories that were shaping that time. In the same way New York is a character on “Gossip Girl,” the ’80s will be a character on “Lily.” It’s not designed to be like “The Wedding Singer,” where the ’80s was the punchline. The ’80s are the backdrop.

Why is it that a lot of big TV writer-producers haven’t been able to match that success in film? J.J. Abrams is doing it now, but there aren’t many on that level.

Schwartz: There have been some. I look at a guy like Jim Brooks, who has had great success in either medium. I would argue he’s the most successful producer of the past 30 years.

You must be one of the only TV showrunners who people give their CD to in clubs.

Schwartz: They do come up to me. I love music, I love going to shows. The idea that someone would put me on a list to go see a band -- I used to be online at Ticketmaster at 4 a.m. To now have some level of hookup in the music world has been a pretty good upside to all this.

Do people come up to you and say, “Hey man, you ruined my favorite band”?

Schwartz: They do, which I take as a pretty good sign. I remember when we put Death Cab for Cutie on (“The O.C.”), and they hadn’t had a lot of success, and our talking about them was in sync with them releasing a record that really took off so we got some credit for that. So many people came up
to me. And I said, “I hear you, I get it, there’s nothing worse than having a band that you think is yours, loving that band, and hearing it in a car commercial and realizing it’s no longer just yours.” That being said, we use the music respectfully, we are fans, and that is always the way we go about things. And the band is able to achieve a level of success and continue to make records and quit their day jobs. I’m sure it’s weird for them too but at the same time it helps them fully realize their ambitions as a band. No one ever went up to a radio DJ and said “Hey, you ruined my favorite band.” I really think TV has replaced radio to a big extent.

Have you ever seen any numbers showing what kind of jump bands get after appearing on one of your shows? That Imogen Heap song you played over the funeral on “The O.C.” had to be big for her.

Schwartz: Yeah. It ranges, but that song (”Hide and Seek”) got a huge spike, then it got picked up by (L.A.’s) KROQ. She very nicely played at my wedding and sang our first dance song.

Who else played your wedding? Was it just a stream of indie-rock bands you’ve helped?

Schwartz: No, just her. We didn’t want to make it like the “Rachel Getting Married” wedding.

You’re a bit of an unconventional pick to write an “X-Men” movie. Did they approach you?

Schwartz: It’s something I’d always fantasized about doing. I knew (producer) Simon Kinberg and he approached me about it. I’ve started it and I’m having a blast, but I’m not allowed to say anything more.

What’s something you’d like to do but haven’t?

Schwartz: I would like to do a straight comedy. “The O.C.” had a lot of humor in it; “Chuck” is as much a comedy as anything else, but that’s something I’d like to try.


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