Secrets of The O.C. pilot, straight from the creator
Welcome back to The O.C., bitch!
The year 2003 saw the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek, and therefore, the end of an era of not just teen dramas but teen phenomena. Suddenly, there was a hole in network television, and it was one O.C. creator Josh Schwartz would fill. “This was a space that Fox really wanted aggressively to get into,” Schwartz says. “It was definitely in the air that it felt like there hadn’t been a new show like this in a while.” Enter Ryan Atwood, the handsome outsider from the wrong side of the tracks. His journey from grainy Chino to shiny Orange County introduced him (and viewers) to a world filled with secrets, McMansions, and Cohen-y Cohenisms. Over the course of its 27-episode first season, The O.C. became a teen phenomenon of its own. And it all began with one heck of a pilot.
The Geek Who Made It Chic
With a comic book-loving Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) at the center of the story, The O.C. introduced a new kind of male lead.
SCHWARTZ: "At first, if you can believe it, [Seth] was even nerdier. He had a little bit more Freaks and Geeks energy. But the biggest change was when we found Adam Brody. He added a confidence in his insecurity and obviously he was also very appealing to women so he really helped sell that character. The model had always been: You get your Luke Perry and you get your Jason Priestley. It wasn't: You get your Luke Perry and then a nerdy Jewish kid who has a plastic horse that he talks to."
The Outside Observer
The Luke Perry to Brody's reinvented Priestley was Ben McKenzie, whose Ryan Atwood served as the (very expressive) eyes through which the audience viewed Orange County.
SCHWARTZ: "The trick with Ryan was that he was not passive but that he's an observer. He was kind of like a stray puppy in a way. Hopefully the audience would understand that he was a good kid who just needed somebody to believe in him. But the trickiest part with Ryan was really how, for a while, he was just going to be taking things in and being the audience surrogate for us."
Guiding both young men through life was the very wise — just check out those brows! — Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a New York transplant with a love of bagels and a lifelong desire to help the little guy.
SCHWARTZ: "Steve Schwartz would say that there's a lot of inspiration for Sandy Cohen in his sardonic matter. He's from the Bronx and so is Sandy, so there's that. But also we loved the idea of this Jewish liberal from New York who had kind of settled into the California dream with the shiksa goddess whose family could not be richer or WASPier, but that he was still trying to hold onto his values and be a voice of good and a conscience in a place that wasn't known for that. That was just a really fun character and something that Peter [Gallagher] really ran with. He was the first person we cast for the show."
California, Here We Come
In the midst of writing the pilot, Schwartz and company were also putting together a trailer to show executives. It was during that process that they found the theme song, Phantom Planet’s “California.”
SCHWARTZ: "We were worried that that song had been overplayed but we thought it would be effective for the trailer. What we came to realize was a lot of people hadn’t heard the song when it first came out. So it became the obvious choice for the main title song."
It’s never a given that a pilot is going to work, but Schwartz recalls a number of scenes that made them feel like they were onto something. (Remember Chester?)
SCHWARTZ: "The first time Ryan and Seth met, we were laughing and enjoying ourselves. Then there’s a scene at Marissa’s [Mischa Barton] fashion show and Ryan and Seth sit with the little kids and Chester, who’s the one kid who goes to sailing lessons for Seth. Seeing those two guys sitting at a table of kids and there’s Luke [Chris Carmack] and his water polo posse, and Marissa’s coming out on the catwalk. That was a moment I remember feeling like, 'This feels exciting and fun.'"
Little Help From Mother Nature
No teen drama is complete without a will-they-won’t-they couple, and for The O.C., that was Ryan Atwood, the bad boy with a big heart (and even bigger biceps), and Marissa Cooper, the girl next door with a love of Chanel (and vodka).
SCHWARTZ: "The other scene that we felt really good about was when Ryan and Marissa first meet in the driveway. A wind picked up when we were shooting it, but only on Mischa’s coverage. You know how some actors can always find the light? Mischa found the wind. It was also the first and only time we had a teenager smoking a cigarette on network television. The deal with the network was: It’s a moment of Marissa showing a little bit of rebellion and after this, Ryan will never smoke again. We were able to get it through that way. They had us actually go back and try to reshoot his side of the scene for commercials because they couldn't use the cigarette in the commercials but it was never the same."
Despite being Marissa's best friend — and the object of Seth's affection — Summer (Rachel Bilson) was only a guest star in the pilot. But that didn't stop her from stealing the scene with an "ew."
SCHWARTZ" "[The ew] was a scripted line and we talked early on like, 'Let's make this your catchphrase' in a fun way. Summer wasn't a series regular in the pilot and she had three lines and one of them was, 'I have to pee, do you have to pee?' But she really sold that line and got it in all of its complexity. [Laughs] And then over the course of the first six episodes, the more we gave her to do, the more she was really knocking it out of the park, so after the Tijuana episode, she was made a series regular."
An Unforgettable Welcome
All fans know the line. On the beach at Holly’s party, Luke punches Ryan before telling him, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” But what would become a catchphrase for the series started as Schwartz’s way simply to get the series title into the episode.
SCHWARTZ: "People from Orange County were like, 'No one calls it The O.C.' But I had gone to USC with kids from Orange County who would refer to it as The O.C. as if it were like The LBC. It gave some people from Orange County pause, but I think they've surrendered now."
The First Music Moment
The O.C. would become known for its musical choices, which started in the pilot when Schwartz wrote Joseph Arthur's "Honey and the Moon" into the episode's final moments.
SCHWARTZ: "That Joseph Arthur song was always in there. Doug Liman shot the pilot and there was a scene where Ryan's backing out of the driveway and leaving Marissa behind. The sun was setting and we weren't going to get the shot and all of the sudden, Doug jumped into the car with the camera and got this shot from Ryan's point of view of Marissa just as the sun's flaring out and going down and it was this really incredible moment that he found and really helped sell the scene. But that song was always scripted to play there; it was always how we wanted the end of the show to feel before even knowing what exactly the end of the show was going to be."