'The Royals' creator Mark Schwahn talks killing off a character right away
The Royals is E!’s first-ever scripted, original series—and its creator is Mark Schwahn, a guy who’s pretty experienced with scripted, original series: He created One Tree Hill, a teen drama that lasted for nine seasons.
Although One Tree Hill focused on high schoolers in a southern town and The Royals follows royalty in glamorous London, Schwahn says there are some similarties between the two: “What’s interesting about telling stories for One Tree Hill and telling stories for this is if you’re telling stories about human beings, you’re essentially telling the same stories,” he told EW. “The trappings in the world are very, very different obviously, but the core emotions and core themes of what these people are dealing with are absolutely the same.”
Schwahn also talked about what drove him to create a show about modern-day royals, what he learned from One Tree Hill, and how he feels about that surprise death in The Royals’ first few minutes. Spoiler: He has no regrets.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why make a show about royals, and why make it set during the current day?
MARK SCHWAHN: I’m compelled by family dramas, and I just thought, the stakes are so interesting if you’re a royal family. You’re talking about a family business that is influential worldwide, and scrutinized and important one that, to answer the second part of your question, comes with a great deal of destiny or pre-destiny—when in this modern age, in contemporary society, we want our kids to be whoever they can be and whoever they want to be. I just thought that was really interesting, that cautionary tale versus fairy tale. Yeah, it’d be great to be a prince or princess, but look what comes with it.
And this day and age, in an all-access world, it felt like an institution we didn’t have access to. One we could, in a very, very fictional way, create a lot of drama and soap and interesting storylines behind the gates and then do this great public-versus-private story where what you see is not always what it is. I guess the final button to that is nobody in the States was really doing contemporary London. There’s a ton of period pieces that are great, but even the cast and crew on the show, predominantly British, I think felt like it was really refreshing to be doing a modern-day story.
You’ve talked about how One Tree Hill was partly inspired by your own life. I imagine this fictionalized world of royals isn’t, unless you’re secretly a prince. So what is it inspired by? What kind of research went into creating this world?
There’s a lot of research. You surround yourself on your writing staff with people who are either royal-adjacent—Rob Jobson is our royal advisor and he’s an actual prominent royal advisor. He’s a royal consultant, I should say. He’s the guy we turn to and say, “In the real world, how would this happen?” Or could this happen? Or what would happen? We don’t often use that, because we are a royal family, we’re not the royal family. So we’ll take liberties for dramatic purposes. Obviously we make up our titles, sometimes we make up protocol because it serves us well, but since we’re living in a fictional world, I feel fine with that.
We also have a couple writers on staff—one of them grew up British and then was raised in the States for a while, and then moved back, and her father is married into an extension of royalty. So she knows Ophelia’s world, she knows Eleanor’s world, she knows Gemma’s world. What’s funny is we turn to her for all things British. Literally, we’re like, “If you were going to change a distributor cap on a ‘73 Jaguar,” and she’s like, “Guys, I’m not Wikipedia.”
But, yeah, what’s interesting about telling stories for One Tree Hill and telling stories for this is, if you’re telling stories about human beings, you’re essentially telling the same stories. The trappings in the world are very, very different obviously, but the core emotions and core themes of what these people are dealing with are absolutely the same. One Tree Hill, when we did the four-year jump ahead—I remember when I pitched that to the studio and network, and I said, “Look, we’ve talked, we’ve spent a long time talking about who these kids are going to be one day. So let’s just skip college and see who they’ve become.” And in the same way, this story is very much about who are you going to be and how are you going to be that person, and what version of yourself are you willing to live with. And there are villains and heroes.
I gotta tell you, if you really broke it down, you’ll see a lot of similarities. In the writers’ room, I’d say, “The One Tree Hill people are going to know this theme, what this moment is about.” Liam is the son who wasn’t groomed to be the heir, nor was Lucas. Ophelia’s mother, we don’t meet her because she died before we met her, so did Peyton’s. There are similar things. Obviously, One Tree Hill was its own thing, and a wonderful thing, and we’re not chasing that. But I think when you’re telling stories about underdogs or about young people and identity, and Faustian bargains that you’re willing or not willing to make, we’re just doing it on a high wire whereas One Tree Hill was a little more grounded.
On the One Tree Hill note, what was the number one thing you learned from that show that you brought to The Royals?
I believe that the quiet moments and the small moments and the personal moments are what create someone’s favorite show—and I think that’s the glue for a serialized show that keeps people compelled and connected to the world and to the characters. Now, we never promote those moments. We always promote loud and sexy and dastardly and sexual. And that’s okay, because that’s a big part of the show, too. But I think if that’s all you have, if all you have is one volume and one speed, I think your show becomes kind of bland or your stories become kind of disconnected and boring.
So in One Tree Hill, we went for nine years and 187 episodes. And I can tell you that many executives whose day to day job, essentially, was to work on One Tree Hill or for One Tree Hill would say to me, year after year, “We just don’t know why it works. We just don’t know why it’s successful.” William Goldman once said when it comes to entertainment, nobody knows nothing, and he was right. Because a lot of pilots will miss this year, and many, many series fail—many more than succeed. We’ve been doing it for so long with a lot of smart people, so why did they fail? If that was your track record, and you built automobiles or made shoes or something, you’d be out of business.
So it’s because we don’t know. It’s lightning in a bottle. You get the right casting. You get the right topics or zeitgeist-y issues, or whatever. You connect, you have great music at the right time, who knows. Nobody knows. But my theory, and one that I think I learned and practiced and believed in for so long on One Tree Hill, was that if you balance the loud with the quiet and if you let your characters have vulnerable human moments amidst big, otherworldly situations—if you can balance comedy and drama and romance and soap with quiet and legitimate and real and something that somebody that’s not royal or not from Tree Hill or whatever connects to, that’ll never be the moment that they’ll promote. But it will be the moment that brings somebody back and makes them very protective of your show.
Speaking of human moments, it was pretty crazy to kill someone off within six minutes of the Royals premiere. It was a dark plot point. Were you afraid at all of turning people off with that?
There were some that asked that same question. I’m compelled by Liam. It was always, to me, about Liam, and it was about the kid who was not groomed to be the next king of England to sit on a throne and rule the people in the ways that contemporary kings do. To be a leader and kind of visionary, he was not groomed for the spotlight. So I was compelled by how you could suddenly thrust him into that spotlight. And I felt like since we hadn’t met Robert, that that was fair game.
And it’s also not just for Liam. It’s important to Liam that he be thrust into that spotlight, but in addition, that’s the catalyst for the entire institution to be thrown into upheaval. And it forces the king to question, should the monarchy continue, or should he abolish it. It forces Cyrus and the queen and others to grow very protective of the institution and their world and the trappings of their world, and it really affects Eleanor because she’s defiant and a bit angry—but she was very connected to Robert and loved Robert and was loved by Robert. And to fracture her in that way was compelling in that way too. So for all of the characters that we would know and we would meet, I thought it was a really good choice. For the entire season, that loss is felt and relevant and prominent, and I think that makes for good storytelling.
The Royals airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on E!.