'The O.C.,' 10 years later: Josh Schwartz looks back, part 1
Olivia Wilde as Marissa? Garrett Hedlund as Ryan? And whose idea was Rooney?
Ten years ago Monday night, FOX debuted a primetime soap called “The O.C.” It was a genre that had mostly disappeared from network TV, starring a bunch of unknown young actors and Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows, from a 26-year-old creator named Josh Schwartz who had no real experience in television. And it turned out, for a while, to be a phenomenon and a delight: funny and self-aware, and yet capable of being a sincere, well-constructed teen melodrama. It introduced the world to the concept of Chrismukkah and to many of Schwartz’s favorite indie rock bands. Later seasons were bumpy (though the barely-watched final season was a funny and touching return to form), but that first year was something to behold.
In honor of the 10th anniversary, I sat down with Schwartz to revisit exactly how things were done in Orange County. It's a very long interview, so I'm splitting it up into two parts (and several pages among each part, to avoid breaking the site). In part 1, Schwartz and I discuss the show's origins, casting the characters, the music and more. Look for part 2 tomorrow, focusing on some of the bumpier spots like Oliver and Johnny's knee. And later Monday, I'll also have a shorter interview with longtime "The O.C." writer J.J. Philbin, who was one of the minds behind Taylor Townsend, Ché, "Je Pense" and a lot of the wackier moments from that weird, lovely final season.
Where did this come from?
Josh Schwartz: I had done a couple pilots that had gotten made but had not gotten on the air. Everybody was like, “You need to work with a big producer who can kind of help you get it over the top.” And so I was told to go meet at McG's company. So I went in for a general meeting with McG's company, that's where I met Stephanie Savage. And the world of Orange County came up, that's where McG is from. And I think in his head it was originally to do something little more action-oriented, but as Steph and I started talking, it was really, for me, very much tied to the experiences I had had coming to USC as a Jewish kid from Providence. And that was part of the story that was interesting to me versus the action.
So I went off and started cooking up some characters and came back and then we pitched very late in the season. We pitched on a Saturday to Fox, which was unusual. And they were really looking to do summer programming. They were looking to change it up and be aggressive; they also put on “American Juniors” that summer. I basically pitched the whole pilot in the room to them. And they said, “Just go to script,” I didn't have to go to outline first, and that if they wanted to make the pilot, ultimately we should start hiring writers at the same time and start moving as if we were going to series while we're going to pilot. So it was a very kind of exciting, aggressive, unusual experience.
And you were 26 or 27 then?
Josh Schwartz: I was 26 then. I was probably 25 when we sold it, but I was 26 basically at that time.
Was there talk about pairing you with an experienced show runner?
Josh Schwartz: For sure.
So how'd you get out of that?
Josh Schwartz: Well, I didn't get out of it so much as we didn't find the right person while we were making the pilot. So we met with a bunch of people. Stephanie was a more experienced producer than I was and had worked with McG on the “Charlie's Angels” movies, and they had a new show called “Fastlane” coming out that year. And so she did a lot of those meetings with me and she was like, “If you hire that person, they will kill you and take over the show.” And there was a lot of people who were like “I can't wait to kind of get this kid out of here and take over the show' energy.” So we kept pushing it off and we hired other writers; we hired guys like Allan Heinberg at a co-EP level, Melissa Rosenberg, people who have gone on to have really nice careers, Debra Fisher and Erica Messer. We had a staff; we just didn't have that (veteran) person.
And we had an extra little wrinkle: it was always designed that McG was going to direct the pilot. And then he got called in to do some “Charlie's Angels” sequel re-shoots and couldn't. And that sent the whole process into a tailspin because we're moving so quickly. I was like, “Let's go to someone like Lisa Cholodenko.” And they were like, “What are you talking about?” Doug Liman was somebody who was on the short list, and somebody I loved. “Go” was one of my favorite movies. So he read it and dug it and actually ended up being the perfect guy to direct the pilot. So there was so much chaos and so much going on there just wasn't time to find that show runner. But there was no version of them letting me do this alone once the series went. We jumped ahead, I guess.
Then after the pilot, I met Bob DeLaurentis, a very smart and good guy, who taught me a ton — about showrunning and about balancing life and work.
It's obvious where Seth came from. Where did Ryan come from?
Josh Schwartz: Me with my shirt off; me in a wife beater. No. The show is always going to be about outsiders; we were going to take you inside the most exclusive new money place in the country, and the dirty little secret of that is that everybody who's there doesn't feel like they belong. And I think nobody in life really feels like they belong. Everybody feels like an outsider. And we were really trying to make that the guiding thematic idea of the show. And obviously the best way to do that is through a very literal outsider, and we wanted to have a character who was going to shake up that world, but at the end of the day was also a kid who was worth giving a second chance to. He wasn't a serial killer that they were unwittingly letting in. Sandy Cohen was going to be the smartest guy on the show. And so he believed in this kid, the audience needed to believe that there was some value to this kid as well. And also, there was this idea of these two brothers; like if you're Seth you wake up and suddenly you've been given the coolest guy in the world as a brother. There’s sort of a “My Bodyguard” shape to reference, an Adam Baldwin joint.
Teen soap operas, for the most part, are female-oriented. Yet you've got the guys at the center of the show.
Josh Schwartz: The two driving dynamics of the pilot and for a lot of the series were the father/son dynamic and the two brother dynamic. And that was accidental. That wasn't like a conscious like, “Oh, every teen soap has been done it this way, let's do it that way.” It was just how I could feel my way into the show. That's why when it was time to do “Gossip Girl,” I said to Stephanie, "We need to do this together."