In the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, we speak to the women behind the shows we love, and that includes The Vampire Diaries’ exec producer Julie Plec, who weaves an epic tale of vampire romance – and loneliness – with twists that make us gasp, swoon, and sob. Here, Plec, 40, shares how she went from TV fan to showrunner, where she gets her inspiration, who is her secret weapon, what she and Kevin Williamson were doing when they “met and fell in love,” and when they decided how TVD would ultimately end.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first moved to LA, what did you set out to do?
JULIE PLEC: I embarrass myself repeatedly when I say this, because I find it to be so terribly shallow. I wish I could say, “Oh, having read Shakespeare, I just really wanted to be a storyteller.” No. I wanted to work in Hollywood. I was captivated by it. I read Premiere magazine, and Movieline magazine, and Us before it was a weekly magazine. I read Tiger Beat and Bop from the time I was 9, 10, 11 years old. I loved movies. I saw E.T. seven times. I used to yell at people who called me when L.A. Law was on because they should know better. So I just have been so in love with the business of Hollywood since I can remember. And I just sorta said, “Well, I ‘m gonna go. I’m gonna do something.” And what’s hilarious is that I was a film major at Northwestern, and I transferred out of the film program halfway through because I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a director, and I can’t write, and producers are only into the money, so I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do.” I ended up with an interdepartmental major where I did a lot of theater, a lot of communications, and some film work. I learned more about who I am, and how to be a great worker, and a great artistic worker, from doing student theater. I was a stage manager, I was an assistant stage manager, I was on the running crew. I did probably 25 shows at Northwestern, all musicals of course. [Laughs]
Your first job was as the second assistant to agent Susan Smith.
A mentor friend of mine gave me a piece of advice: He said, “When you get out there and you interview for a job, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, you tell them you want to do what they do.” So I sat in the interview with her, and she said, “What do you want to do as your career?” And I said, very confidently, “I want to be an agent.” Then three months later, I got offered another job, and I left her. And she was so lovely to me. I felt so terrible, but I’m telling you, it’s still the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. I always say two things to people when they’re coming to Hollywood, and I’m giving them advice: 1.) I repeat the advice I was given. And 2.) If you have an opportunity to work at an agency desk as you’re coming up in the business, it’s the smartest thing you can do, because it’s the one place where you get access to all the information in the world, and you can’t learn that any other way.
You were poached by your friend Lisa Harrison, who’d been promoted at Wes Craven’s company and needed to replace herself. (Harrison later became Plec’s agent.) That’s how you and Kevin Williamson met. But how did you bond?
Scream was the first thing he’d ever written that had gotten made, and I’d been in Hollywood for less than two years. We were both kids in a candy store. So there was that, combined with the last month of the movie being all night shoots, so there was a lot of work that meant I didn’t need to do a thing. My job was to sit there and make sure Wes is happy, but Wes is just generally happy all the time and didn’t really need me. [Laughs] And so Kevin and I would sit in his rental car and turn the heat on, because it was freezing cold, and we’d find an old radio station, which was inevitably country, and we’d sing Kenny Rogers songs together. And then we’d sing Broadway musicals to each other. And it was just sort of meant to be. And then one night, he said, “Hey, so, I’m writing this pilot. I’d love you to take a look at it. It’s about my life growing up in North Carolina on a creek.” So our creative partnership was sort of born in that car, on that set.
When he got “superfamous,” he asked me if I’d come work with him as an executive and as a producing partner. So I did. One of my first jobs was to sit in on Dawson’s Creek season 2, because Kevin was directing his first movie [Teaching Mrs. Tingle]. He just wanted me to go over there and make sure everything that was happening was in the spirit of what he would do, because I knew his voice so well. And I fell madly and deeply in love with Dawson’s Creek and basically spent the better part of that year actually working on the show, and when Kevin was finished with his movie, working with Kevin. And I had been able to get my friend from college Greg Berlanti and Kevin introduced to each other, right before the season started, and Kevin hired Greg as a staff writer on the show. So the three of us were kind of like this crazy insane, overworked, exhausted, stressed out and highly dysfunctional trio that muddled our way through season 2 of Dawson’s Creek together. And I wasn’t writing at the time, but I would help. I would help lay out scenes, because we were always so behind and so busy. That was my first taste of writing. And I never thought I was a writer, ever. I was always the one who helped the writers. I was the soundboard, the muse, the one who had the energy to sit in the room with them ‘til four in the morning and help them rebreak a story. I thought that was always gonna be my job, which is to be a producer. And then a long series of shifts between that moment and [ABC Family’s] Kyle XY, but basically, I was producing that show, and we lost our only female writer, Liz Tigelaar, who had been, funnily enough, the post-production intern on season 2 of Dawson’s Creek and used to deliver cuts to my house at 10 o’clock at night. David Himelfarb, who was the executive producer of Kyle XY, looked at me and said, “I think you know the show as well as anybody, why don’t you write a script?” And it was literally that easy. They asked me to do another one, and then another one.
When did you know TV was your home instead of film?
I had a moment, and this is again before I knew I was a writer, when I had just gotten my first TiVo, and I was watching Buffy, Angel, Once and Again, Ally McBeal, The Practice, and The West Wing religiously and realized, you know, I haven’t seen a movie I liked in, like, six months, but every single night I’m watching one, two, sometimes three shows that deliver emotionally every single week. And if there’s a bad episode of your favorite show, you know the next week is probably gonna go right back to being great. And I had this sort of epiphany as a fan, and as someone who loves other people’s storytelling, that really television was where it was at and what I should be doing. I blame David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon. [Laughs]
Was there ever a moment when you almost gave up?
For someone who’s been as blessed and as nurtured and well-treated as I have by the people who have done so well by me, I did sort of have a moment that took a lot out of me. I was celebrating my 30th birthday with Greg – he and I were born two days apart – and we were having a big party to ring in our thirties as he was about to go start doing both Dawson’s Creek and Everwood. And I had just found out that week that I had made an enemy of a very important person who had basically made it clear that I would not be welcome working with them, near them, or around them. And this person was important enough that it hit me very hard in the heart, and it also set me back personally, emotionally, and professionally for a good couple years. And I had to not so much work it out with that person, because it ultimately didn’t matter, but with myself, because it made me feel like I couldn’t trust my own sense of self. When all was said and done, it was a very valuable professional lesson and a very valuable life lesson, but it took a lot of years to rebuild a true confidence and be comfortable with my personality, with my work ethic, with my passion, with my creativity, and with who I was.
If you had a time machine, what would you do differently?
I have developed a pathological self-awareness over 17 years in this business, so rarely does it surprise me to get a critique or bad news or a note. I’ve usually thought through every single scenario. But early in my career, I was less self-aware and wasn’t really thinking of consequences of what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. In my mind, I was operating from a place of passion and enthusiasm. But when all is said and done, it was just kind of impolitic and a little bit naïve. So, while nobody should have to play politics too hard, because that takes away your sense of spontaneity and being true to yourself, there is a line that you should learn young [Laughs] because it can bite you in the ass pretty hard if you’re not at least aware that that line exists.
Where do you draw inspiration from today?
I draw from books and other people’s television shows. I read a lot. On vacation, I make a point of trying to read at least one or two books a day because when you read other people’s words, it awakens and energizes your own brain. Your brain can get really stale when you’re the only person coming up with ideas or talking to yourself. So that’s a big thing for me, to just constantly be filling my mind with other people’s storytelling. And then the other thing is, I’m a big people person. I love to sit around and drink wine and have five-hour dinners and chat. Hearing other people’s stories and trying to understand what makes people do what they do and say what they say, I can then take that into shaping of characters that I write for. Then I feel like I’ve got a context for human behavior as a result of just being genuinely interested and connected to people.
Do you write ideas down in a book?
It’s all filed in my mind. I call it my insomnia diary. When I’m really having a hard time falling asleep, which is often if I’m stressed out about a deadline or life stuff, I’ll page through the insomnia diary, and think, “Oh god, remember that idea I had five years ago. I wonder what I could do with that story?” And just the act of trying to break and craft a new story usually puts me to sleep promptly. [Laughs] So it never develops into anything brilliant, but it’s a really good sleep aid.
Who do you turn to when you do get stuck creatively?
I have what I call my Cosmo Girls, which is Liz Tigelaar and Marguerite MacIntyre, who plays Sheriff Forbes on The Vampire Diaries and was also on Kyle XY and who is an exceptional writer. She is our secret weapon. Liz and I, each struggling to break our own story or just dealing with plotting or creative frustrations, will talk it through with each other and talk it through with Marguerite, and inevitably, Marguerite will be the one to come up with the solution. [Laughs] So she could make a living being the writer muse. My favorite thing to do when Liz was working briefly on Melrose Place, was to pitch her ideas over dinner. Because I was just so excited to be thinking about anything other than the Vampire Diaries scripts that we were really behind on at the time.
Who do you think is the smartest woman making TV right now?
Bar none, Shonda Rhimes. I’ve loved Grey’s Anatomy since the beginning, but Scandal is blowing my mind. It is some of the most thrilling storytelling. I think her shows are impeccably cast. The production value is magnificent. I love the cinematography of Scandal, the music. And she’s not afraid of pace, which scares off a lot of people who say, “Oh, people talk too fast.” I LOVE IT. I love that the energy on that show is just crackling. Those are all decisions that she makes and dictates. She’s definitely an inspiration, for sure. Although my goal in life is to get her to follow me on Twitter. She doesn’t follow me, and it makes me feel very sad and insecure on a daily basis. [Laughs] [Update: goal achieved.]
Before Vampire Diaries’ second season, you, Kevin, and I talked about your show’s pacing. Every episode feels like a big episode. What’s your secret?
We try to break a season down into a series of chapters, so that four times a year, basically, you’re getting a season finale, and four times a year you’re getting a premiere. Then there’s always something really big moving the story forward, and if somebody doesn’t like something, odds are good we’re going to be moving on from it within a month. So it keeps the audience guessing, it keeps the story itself feeling energized, and it makes it infinitely easier to break a season if you’re not looking at a big, daunting, 22-episode mountain. You’re looking at a series of mini-mountains.
You’re using an April episode of The Vampire Diaries as a backdoor pilot for a spinoff centered on the Originals. Do you have a grand plan for Vampire Diaries in terms of how many seasons it will go and how it will end?
Kevin and I, early in season 2 in fact, were sitting in a mall in Atlanta drinking Diet Coke, missing a deadline, and writing in the public area because it had Internet, and we came up with the way we see the series ending. I think the question in a show like The Vampire Diaries is really how Damon, Elena, and Stefan’s journey ends. We know how we want Elena’s journey to end as it relates to both her character and her relationship with the two brothers, and how we want the brothers’ relationship with each other to end. So that could come in year 6, if [the actors] decided they were ready to move on, or it could come in year 10, you never know.
The CW also just ordered a pilot of the show you’re developing with Greg, an adaptation of the ’70s British sci-fi series The Tomorrow People. How did that come about?
He and I both watched it on Nickelodeon when we were kids, because they aired that right before You Can’t Do That on Television. [Laughs] And I could never find another person who had ever even heard of it, except for Greg in college once, so we were kindred spirits from the get-go. He calls up and he said, “Remember that show that you and I talked about all the time, and how nobody else that we knew had ever seen it, but we always said we wanted to make it into a TV show?” And I said, “Yep.” And he said, “I just got the rights, and you’re a producer now.” And I said, “Well, that’s the easiest job I’ve ever got in my life, so thank you very much.” It’s so great. He’s been so busy for the last seven, eight years, and I’ve been so busy for the last seven, eight years that we haven’t had a chance to do what we used to do, which is sit around over a bowl of Chinese food and talk about stories. It’s been really fun to get to play with him a little bit again.
For more with Plec and other Women Who Run TV, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands February 1.