''Gossip Girl'' producer on straying from the books
Stephanie Savage, a producer and writer on The CW's show, explains why characters like Jenny, Eric, and Vanessa were tweaked for the small screen. Plus: teasers on upcoming episodes!
Greetings, Gossip Girl fans, Lindsay here. I recently had a dish session with GG producer and writer Stephanie Savage (who’s also an O.C. alum) about the process of bringing the popular book series to the small screen. It was no small task, and S admits — much to the dismay of many of you riled fans out there — that some adjustments had to be made. Either way, she promises this season (continuing Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW) is only getting juicier. You know you love her.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How closely do the writers work with author Cecily von Ziegesar?
STEPHANIE SAVAGE: We didn’t really work with Cecily on the script specifically, but I went to New York to do research for the show, and I had a great afternoon with Cecily where we met for lunch at Barney’s and then she walked me through her old neighborhood. And we spent about four or five hours just talking about her world, because a lot of the stuff in the book is based on her own experience…. It’s been really collaborative and really positive. I think she’s pretty happy with where we ended up on it.
How many of the books have you read?
When we started out, Josh and I had only read the first book.
Have you read others since then?
Yeah, I’m working my way through all 11, and we just got the prequel, which I’m very excited about.
When you guys were first coming up with the script, did you sit down with the first book and say, ”Okay, we’re going to take this as a base, but riff from there”? Or did you want to stay as similar to the books as possible, but later decide to go in a different direction?
We fell in love with a lot of the stuff that was in the book. I think the core characters are very similar in the two, and Gossip Girl and her voice carries over in both. Josh [Schwartz, co-producer on Gossip Girl and O.C. creator] and I both thought that was a great hook that we were very excited about. So we started from a place of wanting to honor the characters and the world and the tone of the book, and then we had to ask ourselves as writers and working in a different medium, what changes we thought we had to make in order to make it a successful television show.
One of the immediate changes I noticed on the show was that the character of Jenny Humphrey (played by Taylor Momsen) doesn’t have the big chest that she was best known for in the books.
We made a point of not writing Jenny’s large chest into the script because we just felt we would be saddling — quite literally — a young actress with something that would prove to be difficult over time. Either we had to limit our casting pool to young actresses with enormous chests, or we would be asking a 14- or 15-year-old girl to go to work every day with a giant padded bra or chicken cutlets in her bra, and it didn’t sit well with either of us. When we met Taylor, we just felt she was so interesting, and she brought another layer to Jenny in the way that she had a kind of intelligence and danger to her, in addition to being naïve and sweet and wanting to be a part of this world. You also felt like she could go All About Eve on Blair’s ass any moment.
Why did you put the Humphrey family in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood, instead of on the Upper West Side, where they live in the novels?
We felt that for the vast majority of Americans, the difference between the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side was a little bit too subtle to try to grasp. So we talked about making them a downtown family, and then we were like, you know, the new downtown is Brooklyn, so we put them there.
Another change I wanted to ask about was making Eric (played by Connor Paolo) younger. Was that just to add another dimension to the character?
We wanted to have a better reason for Serena [Eric’s sister and Gossip Girl‘s protagonist, played by Blake Lively] to come home from boarding school. In the book, she comes home just because she was partying all summer and missed the beginning of classes and gets kicked out. But we felt like if we were bringing her back into this world, we wanted her to be a sympathetic heroine, and having her help someone in her family felt like that was a good place to start.
Is it ever going to come out on the show how much of a party animal Serena was before boarding school?
We’re definitely going to show some flashbacks to old Serena. You’ll actually see the first of those in our Thanksgiving episode. We want to have fun with that, but we also wanted to be careful — it was really important to us that the Serena who came back from boarding school had had some kind of an epiphany, that she understood it was wrong to sleep with her best friend’s boyfriend, and she was really going to make an effort to try and be different.
I heard that the Vanessa character is going to be making an appearance soon.
Yes, Vanessa [played by Jessica Szohr] starts in our sixth episode. Our Vanessa is fairly different in terms of her presentation: She doesn’t have a shaved head — which I think die-hard fans of the book will probably be upset about — and she’s not really punk-rock, but she fulfills the same role in Dan’s life of being his long-time best friend. There’s a little bit of sexual chemistry there, and she’s someone who keeps Dan grounded in his outsider perspective — she’s very critical of the Upper East Side world that he’s slowly getting pulled into.
What do you want to say to the avid GG book fans who complain about the tweaked characters and plotlines on the TV show?
I think that one’s a book and one’s a TV show — you have to write for the medium you are in. In television, a lot of the stories need to be more emotionally grounded. The books also have a longer reset period between them, so you can jump over big story issues between books, whereas with television, viewers kind of expect continuity between the episodes. It would be very jarring for people if Serena and [her best friend] Blair [played by Leighton Meester] got into a giant fight in the first episode, but in the second episode they were friends again and we never explained why. So I think you just have to deal with different expectations of the medium that you’re working in, and you also have to be free as a writer. The series has 11 books in it right now, but God willing, we’re hoping to make 100 episodes. So you have to be able to find characters that, as a writer, you can just really dig into and live with and put a part of yourself in, and try to update them too. I think Cecily went to school in the ’80s, and the books were written in the early 2000s, and there’s certain things that might have worked in the books that maybe don’t feel like they’re going to work now.