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‘One Tree Hill’s’ Schwahn on Getting to Season Six

Sep 21, 2008  •  Post A Comment

TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi recently interviewed “One Tree Hill” creator and executive producer Mark Schwahn as he was about to fly east to Wilmington, N.C., where his series is shot, to work on an episode that would involve a USO concert for an audience full of Marines and Marine families.
Much of the conversation was about the numerous reasons Mr. Schwahn thinks “Hill” is in its sixth season and still striving to challenge its cast, crew and audience; how he fended off studio and network suits who wanted to nudge the series toward a lower common denominator; and how he learned to embrace the “soap” label while aiming for drama.
TelevisionWeek: You fast-forwarded your cast through four years last season. Do you have to slow down a little bit as you think through your story arcs for this season? It doesn’t seem like it so far.
Mark Schwahn: We actually slowed down in season two. We were on with some other shows that were positioned as being similar to us, and they were going really fast and we were going pretty fast in season one as well, in terms of storylines. But when I went in to pitch season two, I said, ‘This isn’t going to sound glamorous or sexy to you, but we’re going to slow down. We want the little moments to be the big moments.”
Everybody looked, you know, disturbed. But I said, ‘We have to slow down because if we don’t, Lucas is going to have to go to the moon soon. We’ll burn through everything.” Even then, in early stages of the show, I had thought about skipping through college, because our kids’ behavior in high school, we were going to do one of everything in high school.
TVWeek: They were doing post-graduate behavioral stuff.
Mr. Schwahn: Exactly. But I took the long way around to answer your question because I think that decision in season two is why we’re in season six. I think that slowing down then allowed us to really find an audience that was invested in these characters and the nuances of their lives by trying to make the smaller things the bigger things, and still doing big, soapy storylines as well. I think that people who love the show, that audience has been rabid and has been supportive.
It doesn’t matter if we go against “American Idol,” which we have, which is like going against the Super Bowl—our number is pretty consistent.
There are other reasons, too. It’s lightning in a bottle. We have the right cast playing the right characters. We have a great crew. We have good writers. Everybody tries to capture it, but it’s rare.
I also think the jump ahead, which no one had ever done before, was risky, but it wasn’t really a risk because I didn’t see the show any other way.
The good news is that the audience, again a very faithful audience, took the jump with us. While maybe we lost some younger audience, we also gained some older audience. It actually revitalized the show.
TVWeek: This might not seem apropos to our conversation, but I remember in Fox’s early years, I never was a “90210” fan but I was very much addicted to “Melrose Place.” I would find myself wishing they had allowed “Melrose” to age with its audience.
Mr. Schwahn: People would position those shows as the same, just as they would position us as similar to a lot of other shows we have nothing to do with, other than we have a young, attractive cast. I always say that we’re the quiet version of those shows. The longevity that you’re seeing with our show is because of that. We would be dismissed at face value as being the same. But somebody who takes a closer look, it’s not the same.
One of the things I’m most proud of, having gotten to season six, I’m proud that we never let the show become lowest common denominator, and trust me, there was a lot of interest and pressure to do so. But we never went there, and I always felt like if the show got canceled, I’d be fine with it because I made the show I wanted to make. If the show had gotten canceled and I had really made a show because I was pandering to ratings or trying to make it something I never wanted it to be, that would have haunted me. I think by making those choices is how you succeed eventually,
TVWeek: What was your killer argument as you got into conversations where clearly somebody wanted you to go a little lower? How did you win those arguments?
Mr. Schwahn: My knee-jerk reaction and answer would be that we won those arguments two ways. One was we were never a show that was going to get someone fired. We were never the show that they had spent all their promotional dollars on. We were never that gem any year. The first year, “Tarzan” was that show. They spent a fortune on that show. Then “The Mountain” was that show. There’s always been that show. We’ve never been that show. That makes it easier for me to say no rather than, “Fine, be stubborn, do what you want to do,” because nobody’s job is riding on it.
The second answer would be that it is my show. I said, “Look, love me or hate me, get mad at me, call me names, but it’s my show and I’m going to write the show that I want to write.” I always felt, and this may sound a little arrogant, that nobody knew what my audience wanted better than me. And look, some have had great ideas and had great counsel and been very supportive and have steered me in directions, subtly, that they wanted me to go. Rare, but some have.
But when I was facing a lot of blinking eyes of people who had these great ideas because it was working for some other show that had nothing to do with us, it was easy for me to just say, “Well, look, you guys own the show. You can make it without me, but it’s not going to work. I feel like I know my audience better than you. I spend a lot more time with them. I spend 80 hours a week thinking about this show. I’m the only one on the planet that’s doing that, and this is the direction my instincts are telling me to go.” I was very ‘umble about it—it doesn’t sound like it. I really do believe that William Goldman was right when he said, “Nobody knows nothin’ about show business.” I agree with that. We don’t know. We never know. That’s why 90% of the pilots this year are going to fail.
TVWeek: And that’s among the actual pilots that are actually being made.
Mr. Schwahn: Yeah. More like 98%. Nobody sets out to fail. Nobody casts a lead that they think is going to suck. But we don’t know.
So I would always say to them: “Guys, I can’t tell you if this four-year jump is going to work. I can’t tell you that Nathan and Haley getting married is going to work.” Every step of the way I was like, “I don’t know if it’s going to work, but my instincts say this is the way to go.”
Fortunately, like I said, you win that by being very defiant in the face of the pressure and also by never really being that show that is going to make or break them
TVWeek: You used a variation on the word soap. Is there a line between a drama and a soap that you feel like you tread carefully?
Mr. Schwahn: I used to really bristle at the word soap, but I realized that people are going to label in the way that they feel comfortable with. We have soapy situations, you know. When I was a little kid and I would go to kindergarten, I had older brothers in grade school, so their day was longer than mine. My mom would pick me up first and we would watch “Days of Our Lives,” because that was her show. We’d also watch “Dark Shadows,” which I remember scaring the hell out of me. Something about “Dark Shadows” and “Days of Our Lives” has framed what I do now, in a way.
So “soap” doesn’t bother me, but we try to be a drama. I consider the show a 20-something drama. That maybe is dismissive toward the good work that the adult characters like Paul Johansson are doing..
But we’re not a teen show anymore, that’s for sure. I mean, we have a teen fan base, but the actors are in their 20s now, and their stories are about being in your 20s. We’ve seen the median age of the show go up, which is great. The more the merrier. We still have very rabid 14-year-old fans, and that’s fine, too.
But I would say we try to make a drama. We’ve never tried to be a guilty pleasure. As a matter of fact, I guess there’s an ad that’s running now from The CW that says “two of your guilty pleasures” or something, and it’s us and “Gossip Girl.” That’s fine. It’s nice to have some promotion. But we don’t really don’t consider it a guilty pleasure. Whoever want to watch the show for whatever reason is welcome.
I do think we tread a line. The Nanny Kerry storyline this year to me is soapy, but the storyline about Nathan and Haley trying to pursue their careers and their ambitions while still trying to be a family is drama.
I love the show when it’s quiet—to me that’s when the show’s at its best—but I also make choices to include soapier, louder storylines, because I think that balance is important.
TVWeek: You have some emotionally high-impact moments that you’ve written. How many times can you reach in and pull the hearts out of your viewers without reaching in one day and finding that their hearts have grown cold?
Mr. Schwahn: That’s a balance and that’s a fine line we tread. The Quentin storyline, for instance: [The Sept. 8] episode was, I think, one of our 10 best episodes, maybe one of our five best episodes. Was it sad? Sure. Was it tragic? Sure. Does it wear you out as an audience member? Absolutely. You can’t do it every week. I’m aware of that, And I also don’t make these choices lightly.
When you kill off a character, I mean, Quentin was an important character. He was an ancillary character. He wasn’t on the poster. But he was an important character. I don’t make those choices lightly, just as I didn’t the choice lightly when Dan shot Keith, which was a watershed episode for us and I think our most important episode—and I think the episode that got us picked up by the new network. That was a handgun-at-school episode that had a lot to do with a kid who was suicidal.
TVWeek: What was the straw that got you your pickup?
Mr. Schwahn: There were many executives and associates around this show, even producers in Wilmington, who begged me not to write and make that show, because it was about a kid who was suffering with a handgun in a high school. I said to them, “What about me and the show that I’ve written for the last three years scares you? Why do you assume it’s going to be ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and not something that’s going to help someone somewhere?” I always knew that the show I was setting out to make was very risky. They said things to me like, “God forbid a kid walks into a school after the show airs and pulls out a gun.” And I said, “Well, that’s going to happen. It won’t happen tomorrow, I hope. And it won’t be because of our show. But that’s why we’re making the show, because it’s happening everywhere and it’s happening all the time.”
But Dawn Ostroff can sit down and watch that show knowing nothing about “One Tree Hill,” which she didn’t, other than that we were adversarial to “Veronica Mars,” which was on her network [UPN], she can sit down, and she did, and watch that show from beginning to end and watch a great hour of drama, a show that was Emmy-worthy, without knowing any of the players. I know in hindsight and I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve talked to the executives about it, that’s exactly what she did.
We were on set making that show when [UPN and The WB] merged, and a lot of Web sites and entertainment shows were ranking what shows had a chance of making it to the new network, because now half as many slots were available. MSNBC said, “When’s the last time you saw an important episode of ‘One Tree Hill’?” The odds on our show on all of these places were that we didn’t have a chance of making it to the new network. I looked at Greg Prange, who was directing the episode, and said, “Well, we’re making it right now, aren’t we?” It was a show that people had literally begged me not to make, and it’s the reason why we got picked up and served as a catalyst to now we’re in season six and episode 110. It was risky. It was very risky television. It challenges our audience, but instinctually I felt like it was the right show to do and our proudest moment.
Look, we make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But we’ve been right more than we’ve been wrong. If you’re not, you won’t get to season six.
TVWeek: I’ve heard you describe the challenges, this season being one of challenges and challenging the audience. Can you put just a little more meat on that bone, because some of your characters have been through nonstop hell.
Mr. Schwahn: Yeah, it’s good drama. I had an executive say to me years ago, when I had first gotten into the business, “Conflict is drama.” I said, “Sometimes conflict is just conflict. Sometimes it’s not good drama.”
When I say challenging the audience I had in mind the Quentin storyline at first. I knew that was on the horizon. A lot of people have said, “Why did you kill Q? I liked Q.” I wanted them to like Q. If you kill a character nobody likes, nobody really cares that much.
When you put Nanny Kerry and Dan in this “Misery”-esque storyline, it challenges them, because they’re quintessentially two villains. But I think viewers want to root for somebody, so which one are they going to root for of the two reprehensible characters?
TVWeek: That’s the secret of “The Shield.” You really only ever root for Mackey when he’s up against a great villain, whether cop or criminal.
Mr. Schwahn: That’s right. And wouldn’t you say “The Shield” is challenging material? That’s what I mean. I don’t think it takes the easy way out. I don’t necessarily mean we’re going to beat up our characters. I do believe, and I think we all know, the audience has to win, the characters have to win sometimes too, or otherwise it’s just miserable. Right now, the Deb-Skills storyline, not a lot of people are immersed in it or invested in them as a couple, but I think it’s fun, and I think you have to have a light-hearted side to the show. I think Jamie’s storylines are fun. More often than not, he’s a character who’s going to allow us to take a breath and be amused. But he made a cape for Quentin and his friend died. What does that mean for a 5-year-old boy? That was more dramatic.
I don’t want to be in season six and be just cashing a check. I don’t want to stick around and make those shows. I want the audience to feel we’re still a forward-thinking show, that we’re still making great episodes and still pushing the envelope of what a “One Tree Hill” episode can be.
TVWeek: I saw notes about SlamBall practice on the wall of the production office. What can you say about the arc that will feature SlamBall, which sounds as rough as rugby, but with breaks? Does the arc flow from executive producer Mike Tollin’s interests in bringing the sport to TV?
Mr. Schwahn: Actually, Nathan’s comeback via SlamBall was my idea. James [Lafferty] and I had taken an interest in the sport and, rather than find a gym in the area that we haven’t shot in the last six years, which is hard to do, I decided to bring the gym to us. We had the specialized floor shipped in and built it inside one of our soundstages, which was more controllable in terms of pre-rigging of lights and camera plots, etc.  It’s a very cinematic, acrobatic game and fit our storyline for Nathan perfectly.
TVWeek: How invaluable has it been that there’s a vital community in Wilmington but it’s off the beaten Hollywood-tabloid-media-blog path?
Mr. Schwahn: We have not had the drama that shows have when the ensemble is young. We’ve had our moments. All shows do, but we don’t really have an actor in our cast who doesn’t want to be there. A lot of shows run into that.
We have some actors who I think wonder what else is out there, because when you’ve been in the same place for six years, and you’re young and you’ve been successful, you’re bound to think that way. That’s how they got this job.
But we don’t have anybody who doesn’t want to be there, and that makes it so much easier to reward them and give them things and let them out to do movies when you know they enjoy making the show.
It was great for us early on. Now our actors own houses and they’ve settled into their jobs. They’ve been there longer than they were in high school.
But in the early days, publicity-wise it was challenging for us, because we couldn’t walk them down a red carpet, like you could for other shows, because they weren’t in Los Angeles.
Our executive producer Joe Davola also produces “Smallville,” and he talks about how it was great for them to have Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum and the girls and everybody in a remote little town in Canada, because when that show blew up, and it blew up a lot bigger than ours did, it was nice to have them just doing their work off the beaten path. That also worked in our favor.
Our kids were more tabloid-present in the early days because they were younger. But I always say I would challenge you to find gossip or dirt on my cast for the last three seasons, because they’ve been in Wilmington doing their jobs.
That’s probably another reason why we’re in season six.

2 Comments

  1. i love love love this show and its my fave show ever!!!
    i appriciate everyone for the great work theyve done bc we love this show and ur characters!!!!
    ii love love love this show and its my fave show ever!!!
    i appriciate everyone for the great work theyve done bc we love this show and ur characters!!!!
    i

  2. It’s rare to find a showwriter that invested in a show. Mark puts his heart in OTH and that’s what makes it work. After three years of watching the show, and seeing the six seasons many times, I still can’t get enough of these characters, THAT’S good writing. I love the show, and I hate to see it end, because it truely is one of the few shows left on tv that has a heart.

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