As showrunner of The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, and the upcoming Containment — which follows the citizens of Atlanta during a deadly viral outbreak (debuting April 19 at 9 p.m. ET) — Julie Plec, 43, knows how to spin TV gold. As a pop culture junkie, The CW’s not-so-secret weapon tells us about the books, music, and shows that shaped her identity.
“Because I was such a student of pop culture growing up, I love that on the list of things that I got to work on in my first years out of college were Scream and Dawson’s Creek and ultimately now The Vampire Diaries, which generations below me grew up on and can quote,” Plec says. “I love that. I think that is the coolest thing in the world.”
Read on for the things that shaped her pop culture identity.
The book that made me want to become a writer
Of every movie that I’ve seen multiple times, of every TV show that I was obsessed with, I don’t think I was ever obsessed with anything more than Flowers in the Attic, which I read 13 times between fourth grade and senior year. And of course all the subsequent sequels, which I read at least five plus. Then now that I think about it, probably the equally accurate answer is General Hospital, which I watched without permission from the time I was about 8 years old on.
How General Hospital influences the way I write
General Hospital [was] something that [Vampire Diaries co-creator] Kevin [Williamson] and I used to talk about all the time when we were doing Vampire Diaries in the beginning because we culled so many of our greatest hits from wonderful soap opera twist and turns. Specifically, General Hospital and soap operas in general had a way of taking a despicable, horrific, nasty, nasty character and making you, over the course of time with some really clever choices, fall in love with them. One of the fun things about watching a soap is how much you love to hate your favorite characters, how much you love to find small ways to see them as sympathetic, and really the root of the bad boy that a woman can change, that fallacy that we all love so much, originates in soap opera storytelling.
The couple I shipped the hardest
It’s going to be a theme, but Jagger and Karen on General Hospital and Robert and Holly Scorpio, and Anna Devane and Duke Lavery. But in the non-General Hospital, I mean my God, who could not love Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano from My So-Called Life? And I will admit I shipped, now that I understand what it means, Brenda and Dylan on the original 90210. And I’ll never forget because part of the fun of shipping is that people will latch onto the tiniest little moment and make a decision that that partnership is something that they support. And I remember that happening to me as a semi-grown-up watching Once and Again when Grace started staring longingly at her step-brother Eli. [Laughs] And I loved them. I was devastated that the show got canceled without being able to play into that crush more because I loved that. I thought that was fantastic.
Also, I did truly ship Buffy and Spike. I actually resented how much the character had to struggle with the fact that she cared for him because I didn’t understand the problem. [Laughs] I felt like Buffy was slightly too apologetic for the fact that she wanted to have sex with Spike.
The song I want played at my funeral
At my funeral?! I have never thought about that before. It’s looking more and more like I’m never going to get married and play my favorite song at my wedding. I would say we’re going to go with the optimistic, the most widely used wedding music which is “Pachelbel Canon” in D, which has always been my favorite. George Winston specifically off his December album, his rendition of “Pachelbel Canon” in D. In fact if he’s still alive, if he wouldn’t mind coming to play, I’d really appreciate it.
The movie that made me fall in love with horror
I think falling in love is stretching the term a bit because as I was a kid, I really hated it. I was a child of the ’80s so at slumber parties, we watched all of them and I really believe it was A Nightmare on Elm Street, and that’s why it was so strange and wonderful to end up working for Wes [Craven] 15 years later when I was right out of college. “I’m your boyfriend now” is the line said right before Freddy Krueger’s tongue comes out of a phone receiver and licks Heather Langenkamp’s face. When you are 12 years old, there’s nothing that gets much better than that.
What I learned from working with Wes Craven
What I learned about horror specifically from Wes is that you don’t just accidentally trip into being a great tension filmmaker. There are a set of scientific strategies in the way that you have to shoot your stuff. You can’t just point the camera and scare people. It’s all in the rhythm of the editing, it’s in the careful choice of music, it’s in the layering of sound, it’s in the way that you lead and follow a character, it’s the way that you pop out wide to show that no one’s there before you pop in tight to have someone jump into frame. There’s such a beautiful poetry to creating a good suspense sequence and Wes was quite good at that, and it was a real pleasure watching him work.
The show I wish I could’ve written for
Absolutely, without fail, Friday Night Lights is always going to top that list for me till the day I die. But I do remember when I first moved [to L.A.] right out of college, my friends and I used to gather to watch Party of Five. I would’ve loved, loved, loved to have had a chance to work on that show. I would’ve let Julia have her goddamn abortion on screen.
The TV death that made me cry the hardest
On General Hospital, Dominique had a brain tumor, and the most villainous a–hole, Scotty Baldwin, was completely irredeemable — and had been for years if not decades — when he fell in love with her. My college friends and I sat in our apartment for an entire year watching Dominique die. It was the most drawn-out and wonderful, cathartic, devastating year of television. And by the end of it, damned if we all weren’t madly in love with Scotty Baldwin because of the grace he showed in the face of the death of the woman that he loved. And that is where I learned that trick.
The album I know every word to
I have five! Prince’s Purple Rain, The Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, Sinéad O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra, and the soundtrack to Rent. Yeah, that sums me up.
The writer who unexpectedly had a big impact on me
I talk all the time about how much I read growing up and how much I love Stephen King and how he impacted my work from a genre perspective, but Pat Conroy wrote some of the most magnificent stories about characters who had to deal with dysfunctional families and try to find a place of honor in their own world and the pain of loss. The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline. If I’m circling back to the first question, I should’ve said that along with Flowers in the Attic, because I read those books so many times as a teenager and loved them so dearly. He could make you angry; he could make you cry; he explored mental illness and wildly deeply dysfunctional families. He was a really beautiful storyteller and I loved his stuff.
My favorite heroine
When I’m going back and making a list of the female characters that had impact on me growing up, it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. It’s Nancy Drew. It’s Molly Ringwald. She was the seminal actress of my teen years, and her characters were wonderful, so I’d say Molly Ringwald/John Hughes. And we’ll throw Trixie Belden on there. They are strong but imperfect. I love real women that don’t have to be saints, who can be selfish and act out against their parents or like the wrong guy, because that’s life. That’s my life at least.
My favorite on-screen kiss
I can partner with shipping. I loved Dave and Maddie from Moonlighting. It made me so happy. I remember their kiss, because if I’m not mistaken they kissed and then she slapped him. I could be wrong. I sort of loved that.
The movie I’ve seen the most times
I might have to do a list here too but this defines my entire childhood, this list: Footloose, The Breakfast Club, Titanic, Jerry Maguire, and The Princess Bride. Those are all movies that I can quote regularly. And E.T. needs to be added to my favorite list because that’s the other one.