The first ever ATX TV Festival was this weekend, celebrating a whole spectrum of programs with panels and big screen presentations of some of the best TV out there today. It also brought a whole host of the talented folks behind those shows to Austin. I was lucky enough to snag a few minutes with the lovely and amazing Julie Plec, writer and executive producer of The Vampire Diaries, allowing me to pick her brain a bit about TVD thus far, its characters, the challenges of adaptation, drinking games and, of course, the awesomeness of Alaric.
George: I'm here today as a fan more than anything else, but that wasn't always the case. I was real skeptical at first. I think it was probably about the time Alaric showed up that I really started paying attention. Anyway, what's always really impressed me ever since I started seriously watching is the balance in tone the show achieves, taking itself seriously but not too seriously and yet not falling into complete camp. Has that been a difficult balance for the writer's achieve each season?
Julie: Yes. We have a rule that we remind ourselves of all the time and that we try to follow at all costs. I mean, obviously some rules are made to broken, but when you set out to follow it it really gives a good foundation, and that is: These are real people. These are real young people in a real world -- a world of science, a world of history -- and that everything we do has to somehow emanate from a real world point of view. Even our magic, we try to always keep it grounded into the earth, into the elements. You know, of course we break that rule all the time out of desperation. But if we always connect everything back to love, to family, to loss, to loyalty, to friendship, then we've found that we've been able to keep it tonally in check. We made the joke in season 1, we were like "well, placeholder pitch for this is a 'vampire compass,' but that's ridiculous so what's the cooler, more real world version of that?" And then, of course, it winds up being… a vampire compass. But we always, always try to take everything back to a very human place.
And the hardest thing for both me and for Kevin [Williamson -- fellow creator, producer, and writer] when we were beginning was that his go-to writing style from Dawson's and from Scream is very cheeky, very pop culture self-aware, and mine is very zippy, sassy, very Mean Girls, John Hughes-ian. And we both had to pull our own natural voices back, because if you start having all your characters talk in that great sort of bubblegum, self-aware, wink-wink flavor then tonally you are on the edge of camp. And, we knew tonally we had to be different than Buffy.
G: Yeah, about that...
J: I'm huge Buffy Fan
G: Because even though we were big Buffy fans, we definitely didn't want to watch another version of Buffy, or a show that was all cheeky, wink-wink sort of style.
J: The beauty is that we have Damon. Damon gets to be our Buffy. Damon gets to have the sassy comeback, and the fun lingo, and sarcasm, and the over-the-top dialog because Damon himself is so cool that he can get away with it. But if everybody lived in that hyper world of pop then I think the show wouldn't work as much. And who wants to follow in Joss Whedon's footsteps? I mean, he's the master. So first thing you do is try to differentiate yourself.
G: Was it difficult at all working and adapting from the original books? Was it a conscious decision to set out to be a bit different? Full disclosure: I have not read the books so I can't truly compare how different they are; but, for instance, we just went back and re-watched the first season and there was lot more "Dear Diary" kind of action, at least in the very first episodes, though it quickly moved out of that.
J: The books are called "The Vampire Diaries," so we knew we had to have a journalling element. Although, Kevin, to this day, he hates it so much -- even we first started he said "I can't wait until we can get rid of this diary stuff."
J: Some people loved it, some people didn't like it; but it had to exist. It's "The Vampire Diaries."
But, we definitely really responded to the characters that the books gave us, and the town, and the world that the books set up for us. But because of Twilight and also not wanting to accidentally be re-doing Buffy, we had to immediately start making decisions that were independent of the source material so that we could build a world that we connected to and believed in and felt had a lot of different roads to travel, story-wise. And then it just becomes runaway train. Every once and while we go, "Oh, did they do this in the books? I think so? I can't remember." It's different than if we were say to adapt a series like The Hunger Games or Twilight where you really don't want to mess with that for fear of getting annihilated by the book fans. We had a lot more freedom.
G: I think another of the show's greatest strengths its insanely good ensemble cast. At one point did the cast seem to gel as a whole? Were the elements just there from the start, or has it been a process of building and refining?
J:When you're doing a pilot, you've got 41 minutes to introduce about 10 characters, and a world, and a story. So when you consider that you're pilot is centered around probably just two of those characters, and there's about eight characters that get about 2 minutes of screen time per, so it's very difficult to make your mark as a supporting character in a pilot. And yet the beauty of a long-running series is that, theoretically, by the time you get to the end of the series your supporting characters have become your co-leads, if not sometimes become the true leads. I think that Caroline's character is on a journey to by the end of the series -- should she survive it -- be one of the strong female leads of the show. So what's fun about it is the evolution of all these people.
Going from, say, Tyler Lockwood, who was just kind of a one-note bully to now having a very, very rich experience and a rich love story.
G: Yes, honestly, Tyler really annoyed the crap out of me at first.
J: Yeah! That's actually a really good example, talking about adaptation. That was a character we knew was going to be a werewolf, because he was a werewolf in the books. And yet we knew we didn't even want to go there at all until much later. So everything we did for him was plant the seeds for "this is a kid with anger issues," "this is a kid who's kind of a bully," "this is a kid who's father bully's him a little bit," and yet all we could do was hint at his supernatural history. And then the instant we were able to unleash that in the second season, suddenly he made more sense looking back. And, moving forward, we were able to really create a multilayered character. So, yeah, I like that story because he was just a one-note bully in a lot of ways because what else were you going to do with him in four minutes an episode?
G: Along those lines, I have to ask because he's my favorite, what about Alaric? Again, I don't have any background with the books, so I'm just basing it on the show, but I love his progression and story. We actually call him "President of the Handsome Club"
J: Oh my god, yes! I call him the "Sexy Teacher." To my friends, yes, I'm like "Sexy Teacher" is coming over! He was a great character who we hit a little bit of a roadblock with him in the second season, in that he came in with a very strong purpose, which was to be a vampire hunter but there were no vampires to hunt at a certain point because he became friends with Damon, and friends with Stefan, and then starting dating Jenna -- so who's he going to hunt? So, as a storyteller, we fumbled a little bit on his character and it took us a little while to recover from that to give him a purpose and a point of view. And one of the reasons why this last season I love so much for him is that he finally found his way as a guardian to our kids, but then also we got to explore his dark side and then actually capitalize on his dark side and return him to a form of what he actually entered the show to be, which was a vampire slayer.
G: Last question comes from our reader (thanks to @leiaycocho!): How do the lead characters affect you personally? And, who is your favorite character and why? So, actually three questions in there.
J: They've all gotten to the point where they all affect me personally, where you just care about them so much because you just know them so well. It actually makes it harder as a writer because television storytelling is born of out of conflict and your characters need to be in conflict for plot. That means characters are going to have to disagree with one each other. And when you love these characters so much you kind of want them all to just get along. So it makes it harder because you're going to need someone to take a left when somebody else is taking a right and that put friendships at odds and that estranges people. And that's painful, because you don't want them to be fighting.
G: But that drives the show…
J: Exactly, but you need that! So I love them all for different reasons. I feel so deeply sorry for Elena that it hurts sometimes. When you put yourself in the shoes of an eighteen year-old girl and you realize how much she's lost and how strong she's had to be just to hold it all together. I get sad for her. I feel so deeply for Stefan because I think he's got so many demons that he doesn't know how to deal with, and so he goes to such opposite extremes and you just want him to find his middle. I loved Alaric because he just wanted purpose in his life. Damon is so crippled and handicapped by love that it's turned him into everything that he is and yet the beauty of that is that so pure and simple, if he could just get back to the simplicity of who he was he could be a hero and a good guy, but he is also too savvy and self-aware to just fall into that. And he's too self-destructive to let that happen too easily. And then Caroline is just that girl who wanted to be loved so badly and actually had to become a vampire to be lovable.
G: She's one of our favorites, too.
J: I love her.
G: She's fantastic. Another one where we were dubious with her storyline of becoming a vampire, but she really found her strength.
J: She found her strength. Exactly.
G: But, any particular favorite character there?
J: No. I mean, I used love to write Damon and Alaric scenes. They were my favorite to write. If there was a storyline in an episode that involved them I would always choose that storyline to write and to play with because I loved their dynamic and I just loved the bromance of it all.
G: That's what we'd call "A Meeting of the Handsome Club"
J: Exactly! "A Meeting of the Handsome Club!" I love it.
G: Bonus question, because they're not kicking me out quite yet: Are you aware at all of the culture that's grown up around the show? For instance we have drinking game that goes along with our recaps, like a meeting of the handsome club, or Salvatore fisticuffs
J: Oh, I love that!
G: Do the writers at all acknowledge that culture? Do the writers say, maybe, "oh, we should put some more crazy Damon eye stuff here"?
J: We like to be just on the edge of self-aware, as far as fan feedback. We can't help ourselves. We end up finding the drinking games, and the photo recaps, and the funny Television Without Pity stuff. And that stuff inevitably finds its way in, and it's our own way of winking back at the fan base and saying, "oh, we hear you, and here's a fun little morsel of proof that you're not doing your thing in a vacuum."
As we wrapped, Julie assured me afterwards she was going to look up our drinking game. And for the sake of her liver I warned her not to follow the rules too closely.