'Chuck' vs. the Retrospective Interview, Part 1
Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz talk about the show's origins and that truncated first season
"Chuck" ends its improbable 5-season run with back-to-back episodes this Friday at 8 & 9 p.m. on NBC. This will be, by my count, at least the sixth different time that creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz have had to conclude the series, but where all the previous finales were followed by unexpected renewals or extensions, this one's the absolute, no doubt about it finish.
When I was in California earlier this month for press tour, I went over to the Warner Bros. lot to interview Fedak and Schwartz (and then just Fedak after a certain point, since Schwartz has responsibilities to a bunch of shows at the moment) and look back over the life of one of my favorite series. It's a very long interview — the transcript is about 16,000 words — so I'm breaking it up into five parts, roughly covering one season each day. (Though as you'll see, we bounce back and forth in time a lot.) Today, we're covering the show's origins through the abrupt end of the first season when the writers strike shut down production.
So buckle up, and let's head back to those very early days when Schwartz was still running "The O.C.," Yvonne Strahovski's last name was still spelled Strzechowski, and the fan community believed Adam Baldwin would always be the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne. (Some still believe this, by the way, and that's okay.)
So let’s go back all the way, way in the beginning. When is the first time you guys had a conversation about this idea?
Josh Schwartz Chris and I knew each other in college. We were in film school. He was one year my elder. He was kind of like the cool upper classman. So I always remembered Chris as this super talented writer who I remember very distinctly wrote this script about gladiators. We were all in film school at USC and it was a small coterie of nerddom over there and Fedak, King Fedak, the elder would stand and say, “I'm telling you guys: gladiator movies are going to happen.” And he wrote this great script and sure enough a couple of years later "Gladiator" happened.
Chris Fedak: Except I didn’t write that script.
Josh Schwartz And he didn’t write that one.
Chris Fedak: I wrote another script that wasn’t made.
Josh Schwartz But in the back of my head I was like, "Fedak, maybe he knows something." So fast forward, I don’t know how many years from then, and I remember very simply when we sat down because we were just getting ready to start shooting the last season of "The OC." I literally had just come from coffee with Ben McKenzie to talk about that season, and then I went from where I met Ben two doors down to meet Chris and we sat down, caught up and I said, “You got any ideas?” And that’s how we started.
And where was the idea from?
Chris Fedak: It's funny, because at the time I was watching "The Office" in its second season. But what I liked to write was action stuff: "24," "Alias." That stuff is my obsession, but I love comedy as well and I started to think about well what would happen if Jack Bauer ambled into "The Office" and took Jim along on some type of adventure. You’d be terrified because you care about all those people in "The Office" and you know that they’re the people that get killed in action movies, so that was the weird very beginning core part of the idea. And by the time Josh and I sat down, we knew essentially, there was an email. It was full of all these secrets and there was a guy racing out of a government facility and he gets shot, but just before he dies he sends the secrets to the wrong person, his old friend from college, who turned out to be Chuck.
Josh Schwartz And he worked at like a—
Chris Fedak: It was like a corporate entity, some type of connection to the government. That was always in the show and there was always a best friend named Morgan. If you go back to our original documents, there was always Morgan and there was always a job. The open was pretty much the same and then as we started talking about it, and the amazing thing with Josh was that Josh he knew how to make a TV show. Like, I knew how to write a movie, but Josh knew that like one of the great things about a TV show is that you’re not closing doors. You’re opening doors. You’re actually looking for opportunities for more story and so from that when we started talking, and things like the Buy More came out of that. The show became the show.
Josh Schwartz Yeah and I think we started out because I knew Chris was super into action and he probably thought I was just like into stuff that teen girls liked and we started off where a lot of our conversations were creative and were about the show and whatnot, but also there was a lot of like, “What are your favorite movies?” “What are the things that you regret?”
Chris Fedak: Lists.
Josh Schwartz There was like a lot of lists and a lot of movie and we found that we had a lot of common ground and a lot of stuff that we both got excited about. Fedak always took more of the Hitchcock side and "North by Northwest"was a major thing. I think at the time I was probably tilting more towards like the "Singles," you know Cameron Crowe side at the time and then very quickly it was like, "Well, fuck I'm going to go watch 'North by Northwest' again and get super immersed in his world."
Chris Fedak: I did nothing on his end
Josh Schwartz Chris did nothing on my end because that's for teen girls.
Yvonne could be a Hitchcock blonde.
Chris Fedak: Certainly.
Josh Schwartz Sure. And "The 39 Steps" and stuff like that that Chris was really into and were big influences for him, so I wanted to kind of get inside his head and anyway, we started with these long lists of like what are your favorite movies and what are you favorite and that was like a simultaneous kind of track that was being laid while we were also going back and forth about the show.
At one stage in development there was another female character. What happened with that?
Josh Schwartz That was probably my fault. That was probably my teen girl stuff.
Chris Fedak: Well she started out very differently. We both loved "Almost Famous" and we had a character in there that was named Kayla. She was the girl that Chuck was always kind of pining for and she actually played a really incredible part in the original story, especially in the pitch, like she was the framing device. You know it was almost all about Chuck getting ready to ask this girl out on a date. And we even filmed it. But what happened is that once you put Zach and Yvonne together, it was all over. You could bring in other people, but you knew that they were going to be the heart of the show.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, he was pining for Jill like in the first moment of the show, his ex-girlfriend and that had kind of had been the thing that had sent him off track and High Fidelity was another big thing I was obsessed with that we talked about at the time, like that girl Charlie who had kind of sent him off the rails in college. That was in the back of my head, but it was like, "he had that girl and then he had this new girl," and the third girl was kind of like, "How many girls does this guy need?" So that got eliminated.
Chris Fedak: When you’re working on a pilot, you’re also in theory working on the bible for the show, which is where the show is going to go in the future. And the more we worked on each day of the shoot, Josh would look over and we would start talking about future episodes. It was harder to talk about the Kayla character because you were watching what was happening with Yvonne and Zach. You just felt like there was a magnet for the show and it was the two of them together.
Well, you had your people who were there, the regular contracted cast at that point, but also Jeff and Lester and Big Mike and…
Josh Schwartz But those guys were very small in the pilot and you never know how that stuff is going to work out. They didn’t have a lot to do in the pilot. To me it was sort of similar to when we cast Rachel (Bilson) in "The OC" pilot. She had like two lines. She was a guest star. You didn’t know if you were ever going to see that person again. And Jeff had a moment in the pilot of "Chuck "where he winks at Chuck with both eyes and it’s so creepy weird and we’re like, "That guy has got to be in the series." There wasn’t a lot for those guys to do, but Vik is really great at improvising and he was just riffing even within the small amount of screen time that he had. I don’t think that there was room for it in the final cut, but we were laughing our asses off on set going, "Oh, there is a real future for these guys and this is a really fun working space."
Chris Fedak: We actually had more of them in the original version of the pilot before we test screened it and it was really, really funny. But people were confused.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, people thought they were the actual bad guys. They were like, “So when do we find out that they work for the government?”
I haven’t watched the pilot in awhile, but my recollection is Harry gets more to do than any of the people that are still are part of the cast.
Josh Schwartz Harry Tang would have been a huge part of the series had it not been for "Dexter." Chris was great with character, but he also was great with ideas and great set pieces, and coming off of doing a serialized drama I was so desperate find something to do that would have great kind of story and plot architecture to it as well. So when he first pitched me that initial idea I got really excited and was like, "This could be something unlike anything I've ever done before." I totally trusted him and his creative ability and idea to do something that was going to feel very, very different from the show I’d just done. It was also really exciting.
And who was it who decided it’s not just going to be the nerd and the girl, it’s also going to be the big scary guy?
Josh Schwartz Casey was always part of Chris’ initial pitch.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, there was always a Casey. I don’t know if he was called Casey, but there was always a guy, the bad guy chasing after them and I think it was actually in talking to Josh that we came up with the "My Two Spies," or "My Two Parents" kind of dynamic.
Josh Schwartz I always lock in on, I don’t want to say "hacky," but things that could make some people cringe like, "Oh, I get it, it’s like 'My Two Dads,' but it’s 'My Two Spies.'"
Chris Fedak: That dynamic became something we discovered because when you’re thinking about it from a movie perspective, it’s like this is the bad guy, he comes after him, maybe they team up at the very end. You don’t see going forward that you’re going to have two spies that would various kind of orders and rules governing them and a big important part of like what made the show a show going forward is that you had that dynamic of Casey and Sarah.
Josh Schwartz And we did that episode after the pilot, which we refer to as "Chuck Vs. the Helicopter," and then we shudder, and we go, "Oh, there is no harder episode of a show to do than the one after the pilot," but they were enemies. Casey and Sarah tried to kill each other in that and very quickly we were like, "People don’t want to see that show." We thought of how cool it would be to have the battle in the Wienerlicious and we’ll use the sticks that you stick in the hot dogs and no one has ever seen an action scene involving corn dogs before or hot dogs on a stick before - maybe for a reason - but people didn’t want that version of the show. They wanted the team versus the other guy, so in the next episode, "Chuck Vs. the Tango," the architecture of the series was really in place at that point. It just was a little bit of a transitional episode for us out of the pilot.
Chris Fedak: That was definitely a realization, like learning with Chuck and Sarah that this show was a romance as opposed to simply a fish out of water show. It was the Chuck, Sarah relationship. It was the idea that we were quite past that story.
Josh Schwartz That’s the comic book that comes out between when the pilot airs and the second episode. One of the other things that I should say just to go back to that list of references and emails of our favorite movies and TV shows and whatever growing up is they were all over the place in terms of everything from "North by Northwest" on the spy side to "Spies Like Us," from "Fletch" to young James Bond obviously was a huge one. So I think what also really excited us was our two sensibilities coming together and finding common ground, but also that the show would really be a product of that and be this mash up of a lot of different genres and tones as well.
We were told very early when we pitched the show - Kevin Reilly, who was the president of NBC at the time, said to us, “Okay guys, you’ve got a very, very small target to hit. If you hit the target it’s going to be a great show. But it’s a very small target because if it goes too dark it’s too dark. If it gets too light it gets goofy." I think for us that tightrope and how are we going from the scene where Chuck and Sarah are being tortured to Lester spinning the Wheel of Misfortune at the Buy More as the new tyrant or the like—that excited us: that idea like you’re making a different show, a different genre almost within the same show multiple times.
Chris Fedak: It’s a hybrid. It makes each episode kind of a difficult thing in the sense that if you fall off the tightrope it’s going to get weird.
It’s fun to think about it now because the fans love him so much, but nobody liked Morgan back in the first season.
Josh Schwartz Well he was a very different character. He was the one character that probably benefited the most from the writer’s strike because there was an opportunity - too much opportunity, too many months of waiting - to look back on that first season and ask what really worked. And I think we all knew that Gomez was really talented and funny and loveable and that if Morgan wasn’t connecting with people that was on us and it was because he was in the way. It was like everyone wanted to watch Chuck have this adventure and it was always Morgan showing up to fuck it up. He was always putting Chuck’s life in danger or what have you and as amusing as that may have been to us, for people it was frustrating, so once we kind of figured out how to make Morgan — especially from season three on, it really became a buddy show and Josh and Zach’s natural chemistry we really were able to capture onscreen.
Chris Fedak: I think it’s all about finding extra gears for a show as you go along and that Gomez was something that we were struggling to find that extra gear. And also, when do you bring people into the spy world? That seems to be something that we wrestled with like the interesting stuff for us growing up is that you don’t put the girl and guy together and you don’t tell people about the spy life because nobody should know about Batman. Those are the rules.
Josh Schwartz Unless you think you’re getting cancelled every week.
Chris Fedak: Unless you think you’re getting cancelled and then you do all of that stuff.
Josh Schwartz As quickly as possible.
Chris Fedak: So by giving Gomez the opportunity to become part of the spy world, he become the fish out of water.
Josh Schwartz But it was challenging too because Chuck was kind of the dipshit in the beginning. He was the guy bungling into the case. He was the guy that was in over his head and waiting in the car and hiding as people were shooting and dropping the important piece of whatever. So with Morgan that had to be one more dipshit greater than Chuck.
Chris Fedak: This is an algorithm he’s talking about.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, we had a formula because then obviously with Jeff and Lester you’ve reached the outer perimeter of dipshit. So once Chuck also became more capable and started to mature into it and grow up a little bit that allowed us some room for Morgan to come in and occupy that space that Chuck had occupied, but I know we’re getting ahead of where you wanted to.
Chris raises an interesting point, which is you had to make a lot of decisions over the years because you assumed the show was going to end in five seconds from now and some of those work out really well, like Morgan being at Spy World. Chuck and Sarah together have worked out really well. In hindsight, is there anything you might have done sooner having realized how well it worked?
Josh Schwartz Oh gosh, sooner? I don’t think sooner. Because I think we did everything pretty fast. I mean we were going to do Chuck knows kung fu at the end of season one if it hadn’t been for the strike.
Interesting. I didn’t know that.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, that was the big plan. We got very excited about that.
Chris Fedak: If you think back to season one, Chuck didn’t want to be a spy. He just wanted his life back. There had to be a point where our hero decided that this is for him or this was his choice, so at the end of season one it was going to be that moment from the end of season two of sitting there at the computer: "Save the day"/"Run away." He had to become a normal person.
Josh Schwartz Red button, green button? Red button, green button.
Chris Fedak: And so that was always kind of there in the background of season one and then definitely season two.
Josh Schwartz But once the strike happened we had to reboot and that led to a lot of good stuff. I love all the seasons of the show. Season two was the moment where creatively the show really found its rhythm and we had the money.
Chris Fedak: We had the most money.
Josh Schwartz Because there had been a lot of great ideas and things and characters and new characters and new plot developments and what have you through the years, but we never had the money like we had in season two.
Before we get to season two, just a couple more in season one.
Josh Schwartz Do you remember the money Chris?
Chris Fedak: That was so wonderful.
Josh Schwartz We used to smoke twenties at lunch!
Chris Fedak: Our furniture was made of money!
Josh Schwartz Remember that episode, "Chuck versus the Million Dollar Bill"?
Chris Fedak: We got a real million dollar bill and we blew it up.
Josh Schwartz It was great.
When did you guys abandon the idea that Awesome was going to be a villain? Because I know that was something you had discussed at the very beginning.
Josh Schwartz That’s the beauty of casting and that’s all the fun of a series. Chris had pitched that to me and I thought that was a going to be a great, shocking moment in the show and was a great idea. And then everybody just fell in love with Ryan at a certain point, and we were like, "We can’t make this guy a bad guy. He’s so lovable."
Chris Fedak: He had three lines in the pilot. In three lines you fell in love with him.
Josh Schwartz I remember when we took the show to Comic-Con and we screened the pilot. We didn’t know if anybody was going to show up or how it was going to play and what have you and there was a moment where he goes, “Way to go, Chuck. That’s awesome," and people cheered. People laughed and they were like, "Oh, his name is Captain Awesome, he thinks everything is awesome." McPartlin embodies that to a tee. People just got it and we’re like, "we can’t fuck this guy up."
The other thing is you were just finding your legs really when the strike happened and you had to rush those last couple of months. Of the 13 that you made was there one you were sort of single out and say like this was closest to what we really wanted to be doing?
Josh Schwartz Yeah, the one Chris wrote I think. I think the one you wrote for Thanksgiving.
Chris Fedak: "Nemesis"?
Josh Schwartz With Bryce coming back and they kiss over the you know as the—is that the same episode?
Chris Fedak: I think yeah, that was "Nemesis."
Josh Schwartz The bit with the pineapple, and then all of the sudden you realize it’s Bryce and they think they’re going to blow up and they kiss. That’s all the same episode, right?
Chris Fedak: No, it’s seven and eight.
Josh Schwartz Seven and eight.
Chris Fedak: Seven and eight work together.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, seven and eight were great. "Tango" for us-
Chris Fedak: That was the first time we figured out what-
Josh Schwartz What a standalone episode of the show could be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
COMING UP TOMORROW: Fedak and Schwartz talk about season 2, when they had the guest stars, the stories and, yes, the money, to make "Chuck" at its absolute best.