HitFix Interview: Julie Plec talks 'Vampire Diaries'
Love triangles, finale scope and classroom attendance talk from the series co-creator
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I've been a big supporter of The CW's "Vampire Diaries" for a while now.
"Vampire Diaries" made my end-of-the-year Top 10 lists for both 2010 and 2011.
I've referred to "The Vampire Diaries" as the best drama on network TV and I've meant it.
Somehow, though, I've never done a real 1-on-1 interview with either Julie Plec or Kevin Williamson, the show's co-creators. And it's not like I haven't had questions that needed answering.
Consider that situation rectified here.
The story of high schooler Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and the two vampire brothers (Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder) who love her started off twisty and has just become twistier in a third season that has introduced vampire-werewolf hybrids, expanded deeper into the world of witchcraft and introduced an expanding mythology that spans centuries and spans the globe.
Although "The Vampire Diaries" delivers the sort of jaw-dropping shocks that most shows save for finales and sweeps periods on a weekly basis, this season's finale is expected to be particularly epic, or at least that's what the stars have been telling folks.
I got on the phone with Julie Plec on Thursday to talk about this May's finale, resolving love triangles and whether or not anybody has been attending classes this year.
We also discussed Plec's Monday (April 16) appearance at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, where she will be chatting about the show's distinctive cinematography.
Click through for the full conversation.
HitFix: The actors are all talking about what a HUGE, big, massive finale y'all have coming. How big is it going to be?
Julie Plec: Well, I tell you that it was huge, big, massive endeavor to shoot and I think it'll probably end up on the screen sorta like, "Oh. What's the big deal? What's the fuss?" No, but we had an underwater unit, a movie-sized underwater unit. We had massive, massive stunts involving an automobile. We have a huge fight sequence. We have a huge horror sequence. And then we have probably the biggest and most substantial series of emotional moments that the entire season has had. So it has definitely paid off a long journey for all these characters and hopefully -- I haven't seen it yet, so it's too soon to tell -- but hopefully it won't disappoint.
HitFix: The actors are also all talking about this as a "full circle" finale. Do you feel like all finales are, to some degree, ideally full circle finales? Or did this feel feel like a particularly good time to bring the full journey around?
Julie Plec: Certainly if you're thinking it through, you always want your beginning to have led directly to your ending. We try really hard at the beginning of the season, even in the limited amount of time that we have, to make sure that we know exactly where we're going, so that every choice we make is getting us there and that we're not just making up as we go along, which is, by the way, easy to do. When you're doing 22 episodes, it's really easy to just make it up as you go along. This particular episode, we started this year, it was senior year, it's still senior year and we've got our human character, Elena, who at the end of last season lost her guardian. She's lost her parents. She's a girl who has been struggling with her own innocence and growing up and turning 18 and wondering if her parents would be OK with her, with who she is and if they'd be proud of her, in spite of the fact that she's fallen for not one, but two vampires. As she's really reflecting on this kind of dreadful and horrible emotional year that she's had, we take her back to a time when life was just a lot simpler, when her parents were alive and she was a cheerleader dating the quarterback. Everything we've been doing all season with Elena's journey has been leading up to this episode and leading up to this choice that she has to make between these two brothers.
HitFix: Before I get to my next real question... Has Elena been doing homework this year?
Julie Plec: She's actually got an IQ of 140 and she doesn't need to study.
HitFix: But she has been attending classes at least semi-regularly?
Julie Plec: Yes. She has been attending classes. Her guardian is a history teacher, so she's got someone on the inside looking out for her and her current non-boyfriends are vampires who can compel and get good grades. I'm sure there's a little bit of trickery going on there, but yes, our kids, they go to school and they've got surprisingly good attendance records. It's just that we don't show them in school very often, because it's not as interesting, frankly, as the other stuff they get themselves into.
HitFix: Excellent. Now back to the real questions! When you approach a "big" finale, obviously viewers will be waiting for some characters to live, some characters to die, etc. How hard is it for you guys to create stakes -- pun, unfortunately intended, I guess -- for characters on show where anyone who's dead can return if the circumstances are right?
Julie Plec: It's a question that we debate a lot in the writers' room. There's the argument to be made of, "Seal up the other side, never go back to ghosts, never have flashbacks with older characters," because you want the stakes of death to be that powerful. But then there's something so emotional and profound about revisiting a character that you love and I think that there's something so bittersweet about seeing them again, knowing that they're never gonna be part of the day-to-day life of our heros, but that they're still out there somewhere. Certainly there will be stakes attached to the end of this season wherein there are characters that we might not see again when all is said and done. That will always be true.
HitFix: When you think back on characters from the show's past, how many would you describe as "Totally off-limits, off-the-table, never-coming-back, definitely really dead"?
Julie Plec: That's a good question. I think that any human who's ever died, we won't see again. Our rules of the other side are strictly about supernatural beings. Who else? Well, we'll get a little clue into Aunt Jenna's whereabouts in the next couple episodes and then, of course, we'll see Sarah Canning in the finale, just in a nice little flashback, back when everybody was normal and human. So... Yeah.
HitFix: I think that last question was really just my veiled way of asking what it's gonna take to have Vicki come back...
Julie Plec: [Laughter.] You know what? We almost put Vicki in the finale because we love Kayla Ewell so much. She's part of our family. Half the time, I've gotta be honest, the struggle is: Do we stick to our guns, creatively, and say, "That character will never be seen again?" or do we really want these wonderful members of our "Vampire Diaries" family to get to be able to come back and play with us a little bit every now and then? Kayla, I don't think we'll ever see Vicki again. We brought her back. She played her storyline and she said good-bye. She moved on. Matt said good-bye to her, so he closed that door. So I can't definitively say "never," but surely no plans to.
HitFix: You're gonna make me write fan-fiction about this, aren't you?
Julie Plec: Yes! Yes, I think you should! Absolutely.
HitFix: You talked about charting out your course at the beginning of the season and knowing where you're going at the end. But how much do you guys let yourselves be steered by discovering supporting or guest actors you simply want to work with more than you had expected to? Like if you have somebody like a Joseph Morgan or a Claire Holt and you see how well they mesh with things, how much can you let the story move and adapt around them?
Julie Plec: A lot. We definitely have learned great lessons and hard lessons. I won't tell you who the hard lessons were, but I will tell you who the great lessons are. Daniel Gillies is, for sure, the perfect example. That's a character that was introduced strictly with the intention of just bridging the season between the mention of Klaus and the introduction of Klaus. He was never meant to be an Original brother. He was never meant to be anything other than a lackey of Klaus'. But Daniel characterized Elijah with such magnificence and grace that he has become deeply, deeply embedded in our canon and, really, us wanting to keep Daniel Gillies as Elijah is what led us to the immortality of the Originals, the fact that they could not be killed, but for the stake from the white oak, all of these things that were never part of our original Klaus mythology. The entire Original family originated from Daniel Gillies being so good at his job.
HitFix: What was the original concept for Klaus?
Julie Plec: Well, Klaus was a villain in the books, so we were borrowing from that. We knew that he was going to come in and be this figure that nobody had ever met and nobody knew if he was real. He was going to have a Keyser Soze vibe and we would believe him to be the oldest living vampire, but in fact he would be a hybrid. He was going to be flying solo. It wasn't until we fell in love with Elijah that we came up with the idea that he had a family and that everything he did was, in its own way, either to punish or to rescue the people in his family.
HitFix: So then it just kinda happened that you were able to have the Originals as this kind of ultimate dysfunctional family this year to make us see how hypothetically functional Damon and Stefan could be if things got bad enough?
Julie Plec: Yeah. It's a nice counterpoint to the Salvatores. We thought they had problems, but they are totally functional in comparison.
HitFix: OK, so I desperately don't want to ask you to insult the shippers here, but how overly cautious have you had to get about the central love triangle? And has it become sorta a more delicate creature over three seasons than you might have originally planned or hoped for it to be?
Julie Plec: You know, it's funny. I think the answer is "Yes and No," weirdly. I can't lie and say that we aren't completely embedded in the shipper culture, just by nature of being on social media and being Twitter whores ourselves and not being able to tear ourselves away. So there's an influence and a passion that gets directed at us very, very aggressively that you can't ignore. But in a way it makes our jobs a little bit harder because we have to try to separate: Are these our creative instincts? Are these the instincts that are right for these characters? Or are we being influenced without even realizing it? So it makes us think more. It makes us really dig deeper into character more, which is a good thing. And then when we make decisions that we know are not going to be popular, we just sit in the writers' room and stare at each other in horror knowing what's in store, knowing that certain things are not going to go over very well with certain people and that we just might need to stay off Twitter and avoid the death threats for a while.
HitFix: You've talked about how there's a big choice that Elena has to make in the finale. How totally are you guys bracing yourselves for what's going to come from certain circles when we get to May?
Julie Plec: I might have to leave the country. [She laughs.] No, the choice that Elena has to make and the choice that she does make, for us it's really, really important that we took a good, strong look at Elena, at her character, at her wants and her needs, where she is in her life and that the way that she makes the decision after everything she's been through and the way that she expresses that decision to others, that it's honest and pure and real. Hopefully people who are fans of the show and fans of Elena and fans of real human behavior will understand and respect the choice that she makes, in spite of a percentage being very sad and another percentage being happy, it's where she is right now in her life and it's where we've been leading to all year for her. So we shall see, but it is not going to be pretty, I'll tell you that.
HitFix: The phrase you used a couple times there, "where she is in her life" implies that you don't view where she is in the finale as being necessarily the endgame, right?
Julie Plec: No, absolutely not! Here's the thing: This show can, and probably will, go on for many more years. This show is a journey of a teenage girl finding her way back to life through the love of one vampire and discovering maybe other elements of life through the love of another vampire, growing up, graduating high school, moving on. There's a whole road for her still to travel and our brothers are in the middle of their journey as well. For us to say that this is the one and only choice and no other choice will ever be made would be premature. We're just in the middle of our journey and I hope ultimately that people who ship one way or the other can understand. In the same way that we had to convince Ian Somerhalder that Damon being a good guy was part of a long road that he was traveling and that it was OK, you want to convince the fans that this is the midpoint of the story.
HitFix: Back to the nuts-and-boltsy stuff for a second: Are these guys going to college next year?
Julie Plec: No, not next year. Next year will be the completion of their senior year. We like to drag things out over in our world.
HitFix: You like to drag some stuff out, but as many of us have observed, the show burns through plot at a rather ridiculous rate. Does that ever concern you guys? Or at this point, are you convinced that you can go at this pace for ever and ever?
Julie Plec: When Kevin [Williamson] and I first started the show, we didn't have any time to think globally about the series. We just dove in and started. When you have six act breaks and a teaser -- which amount to seven act breaks over 41 minutes -- you've gotta burn through story, because you've got impress and you've gotta wow and you've gotta shock the audience with twists and turns every four-and-a-half minutes. I think that it was TV Guide who, in the middle of our season said, "We'd give this show an 'A,' except there's no way they can keep this up, so therefore they get an 'A-.'" We sorta looked at it and we were like, 'Hmmm. Well, that's a challenge." And every year we think, "Oh God, there's nowhere to go" and then we start... I've just been in the writers' room for Season 4 for the last three weeks with a small group of writers and we had this moment, the other day, when we looked around after two weeks of talking and realized that we have more emotional stuff, character stuff and mythology stuff going down in Season 4 than maybe we've ever had. And then, in talking Season 4, we said, "Oh no. That's gotta wait for Season 5." So suddenly it's an embarrassment of riches. For whatever reason, this genre and our characters and this world, it keeps organically creating more stories. Thank God!
HitFix: With that burn rate, are there any storylines that you think back on from the first two or two-and-a-half seasons that you really wish you could have spent more time on?
Julie Plec: I'd have to go back and really dissect it to be able to answer that. I think that there are things that may have worn out their welcome, ironically, a little bit. I think that there are stories that we meant to make more of that we pulled the plug on for various reasons. Again, I can't really say, because it would be rude. I think that it would have been really nice to explore more of the Bonnie and Grams relationship before we killed Grams, because that was untapped. One of the reasons that it was so nice to bring Grams back this year in the ghost episode was to give Bonnie another glimpse of that mentor figure in her life and that paved the way to Bonnie's storyline with her mother, which is still in line. So I have no regrets, for sure. I think we have a weird sense of rhythm where we kind of know when a story needs to come to an end.
HitFix: Do you ever look back at those first handful episodes and do you ever miss the crows and the fog and the vampire football?
Julie Plec: [Laughter.] No, we don't miss the crows and the fog, for sure. It's funny, because in hindsight, Kevin and I have both read a lot of people in the press and bloggers and fans alike who say that the show didn't really click in for them til about episode six. Yet for us and the actors, we always look back at the first five episodes of the series and say, "Gosh, that was a time when things were simple and clean and very, very based in tension and mystery and character and didn't have to rely so much on frills and action and stunts and visual effects and witch craft." We get very sentimental, as storytellers, for those early episodes. But then I remind everybody that nobody actually liked them very much, so it's OK that we've moved on.
HitFix: You mentioned how simple and clean things once were. Who's the person in the writers' room who keeps track of what everybody's supernatural status is, of whose parents and grandparents we've met, of who has what secret talisman?
Julie Plec: We have our PA Amy and our script coordinator Jeane [Wong], they keep the show bible, which is updated on episodic basis with family trees, with props and magical talismans. But mostly everything's right now in my head. One of the biggest struggles of the second half of Season 3 is I realized that my head is full and if I'm the only one that knows all this stuff that well, then we're screwed. So we started delegating and trying to pay more attention to the details. There's nothing worse than making a mistake and not realizing until a fan point points it out that a mistake has been made. That is a devastating occurrence.
HitFix: And I know that you're going to be speaking at the NAB Show in Las Vegas on Monday (April 16). What are you going to be talking about and what drew you to that event?
Julie Plec: Dave Perkal has been our DP this year and he's a great guy and very cool and he and I get along famously and he came up to me a month ago and he said, "Hey, you want to go to Vegas? And talk? In front of a bunch of people?" And I said, "Talk? People? Vegas? Yes! I'm in." Our show, we strive very, very, very hard to make it look like a movie on a weekly basis. Our DP is as important of a storyteller as any of our writers and as any of directors and as any of our editors. We push each other really hard to get as much beauty and cinematic quality as we possibly can every episode and we fight a lot, in good ways, and we inspire each other a lot. So this is an opportunity to just kinda show some examples of different risks we've taken, different choices we've made in the storytelling process, visually, and to show off some of our work. So we're excited.
HitFix: Has that mandate changed since those early fog-and-crows episodes? How you've wanted to make the show look?
Julie Plec: No, when [director] Marcos Siega and [DP] Paul Sommers started the series, they said that they didn't want it to look like any other show on The CW or, frankly, any other show on network television. So it was just about finding our way into that, which includes a lot of long lens, really long lens, dropping the camera back 100 yards, when you can, to get a great long scope shot. Paul Sommers had a bunch of tricks-of-the-trade to make it not look like video. And then the better the cameras get, the sharper and more pristine the images get and the more television starts to look like a soap opera from another country, so we're combating that. We're combating technology.
"The Vampire Diaries" returns with a new episode next Thursday (April 19).
Julie Plec's NAB Show panel, "Two Minds, One Vision," will be Monday.