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Interview: Josh Schwartz of "Gossip Girl" and "Chuck"

Interview: Josh Schwartz of "Gossip Girl" and "Chuck"

Right now, Josh Schwartz is one of the busiest guys in television. The creator of "The OC" has two must-watch shows on the air this fall, "Gossip Girl" on the CW and "Chuck" on NBC. At the TCA press tour this summer, he took some time to talk with me about teen shows, James Bond and the wonders of Rachel Bilson.

So, big year for you.
Yeah, it's been a big year. The end of "The OC" and two new shows — it's been a pretty exciting and emotional year.

Let's take "Gossip Girl" first. How did the idea come about to grab those books and work with them?
Those books were at the CW. And then from the CW, I got a call about them, and I read the first one, and I said, "You know, this could be something really great." And I called Stephanie [Savage, his co-creator and former "OC" writer/producer] and I said — I was already developing "Chuck" at the time — and I said, "If you'll do this with me, I'm all in." And so she was down. So I read the books. They have this crazy following, and it seemed like a great opportunity. And I also liked the idea of doing a show like this at the CW, at a time where there weren't a lot of these kind of shows out there. It reminded me of the glory days of the WB when I was in college.

Is there a heritage that you see for where "Gossip Girl" came from?
Definitely — those early years of "Dawson's," "Felicity," "Buffy," that whole period of stuff. "The OC" was definitely a part of that tradition as well.

Where did "Chuck" come from?
Chris Fedak, whom I co-created the show with, we went to film school together at USC. He pitched me the concept, the idea of an average guy getting secrets downloaded into his brain. I thought it was a really cool idea, and I thought it could also be really funny. And I had been wanting to do something that had some genre elements to it after "The OC." The first stories I ever wrote as a kid were, like, James Bond stories in my journals in summer camp, so I've always loved that world. I also really wanted to write about people in their 20s and what they're going through, but it's really hard to do a show about people in their 20s. It becomes a lot of navel-gazing, people complaining about their lives. But if a guy in his 20s is complaining about his life because he was almost killed by a ninja the night before, now you've got something.

Lots more from Schwartz, so

How is it that you manage to find these people who America might not have known before and America just falls in love with? My office is obsessed with Rachel Bilson —
Well, Rachel's pretty damn adorable.

Yes, and it continues! There's Zachary Levi [of "Chuck"], there's these girls [of "Gossip Girl,"] it's through all of your stuff.
Well, first of all I work with great casting directors — Patrick Rush cast "The OC," he cast "Chuck," he recommended the casting directors for us for "Gossip Girl." I've got a type, what can I tell you, and I've just been really fortunate to find people who — when you know, you know. When they walk in the room and they bring it to life in a way you never imagined, it's really an exciting moment. I take it really seriously, because with TV, it's everything. I love writing for the actor and tailoring the part for them and letting that evolve.

For "Gossip Girl" and "The OC," what is it that got you into this glamour-soaked, alcohol-filled teen world?
I don't know, because I am not that guy at all. I'm like, Providence, Rhode Island, you know, bar mitzva-ed at Temple Beth El. I don't know how I got here. But you know, I remember being a teenager extremely vividly, and the emotional traits of being a teenager are universal regardless of where you grew up or how much money you had. And so it's an opportunity to continue to tell those stories, get to relive those years for myself and maybe make amends or do things I didn't have the cojones to do at the time. But also, I love writing for this audience. They're so passionate. When you're a teenager and you connect with something, you connect with it in such a profound way. As you get older, you have shows, you like them, you watch them, but you don't live for them the way this audience can live for these shows, so it's a blast. And these worlds, whether it's Newport Beach or the Upper East Side of New York, are heightened enough that I think they bring in people who wouldn't necessarily just watch a show about teenagers hanging out. It adds some stakes and some fantasy to that world as well.

And then is "Chuck" more you, more your experience?
Yeah, it's similar in the same way Seth Cohen was my way into "The OC." It was a real collaboration with me and Chris, but in my head, it was like, "What if I became James Bond?"

A big part of "Gossip Girl" is: How do we stay true to the books and what people love about the books but also find our way into the world as well? Dan Humphrey, Penn Badgley's character, and the whole Humphrey family is a big part of that for me. But I also wanted to figure out how to write for women characters as lead characters. "The OC" was so principally about these two brothers in Seth and Ryan, and Sandy and Ryan. and the chance to write really complicated young women at the heart of the show was something I really wanted to do as well.

You mentioned staying true with "Gossip Girl." We've already gotten readers saying, "That looks really good, but Jenny is not supposed to be blonde." Are you prepared for that level of scrutiny with that show?
We are. We work really closely with the Alloy people, and Cecily [Von Ziegesar] who wrote the books, and she's given us her blessing. Not everything is going to be literal, but hopefully the spirit of the book, people will feel has been faithfully rendered in television.

How are you managing your time with the two shows?
I work with really great people, and I know what my real responsibilities are, and I try to make sure I'm available for that. But right now, both shows work on such different parts of my brain that it really isn't like I'm burning out on doing it because jumping from one to the other is jumping into two different worlds, two different tones.

Is it sort of like, girl show, boy show?
You mean, am I cross-dressing?

Yes, that's exactly what I meant.
[laughs] I mean, they're two very different shows, and I think they could appeal to different audiences. They're both shows that I would watch, so I'm hoping that they're both shows that a lot of people would watch, even though they seem very different. When "The OC" came on, people said, "You know, guys don't watch these kinds of shows." And I was like, "Well, I would watch it!" And guys did watch. In this case, the word "girl" is in the title, which might be at first a little bit of a roadblock for some guys, but you know, part of my job is to make sure that the male characters feel dimensionalized enough that there is something for them — besides, of course, the very lovely ladies. Which, you know, doesn't hurt.

Because clearly you have a lot of free time right now, what else are you working on?
I'm supposed to be rewriting this movie to direct for Paramount called Looking for Alaska, which is a young adult novel about teens in boarding school. I've got to get back to that, as soon as I can find some time.

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