Schwartz uses youth to his advantage…A look behind The O.C.

By MOLLY SHALGOS

Most juniors in college haven’t started thinking seriously about what happens after college ends. There’s still almost two years left before the Real World invades, the job market starts calling, and nonstop party time comes to a halt. When you’re still in college, you might as well enjoy the life of a student and worry about that whole pesky career thing later on.

If you were Josh Schwartz, however, you were busy already jumping right into that whole pesky career thing and selling your first screenplay for $500,000. You could drop out before your senior year and have very little to worry about.

At 26, Schwartz created the hit show, The O.C., and became the youngest person in network history to develop an hour long television series. The O.C. has become one of the most critically acclaimed and buzzworthy new shows of the season. It’s been dubbed as the 90210 of our generation, only with a few important differences - it has legitimate, quality writing; fully developed characters; and not a Shannen Doherty in sight.

The show centers around 17 year old Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), a boy growing up the less prosperous community of Chino, California. He accompanies his brother in a little real life game of Grand Theft Auto and ends up in a juvenile detention center. Ryan piques the interest of Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a public defender who sees too much of himself in Ryan. Sandy brings Ryan home with him, and Ryan enters the wealthy, privileged world of Newport Beach.

The script that started it all, however, was that $500,000 one that Josh penned during his sophomore year at the University of Southern California. "It was called ‘Providence’, now it’s called ‘June, July, and August’, and it’s sort of autobiographically based on my senior year in high school. It’s all about when you meet the love of your life, right when your life is about to begin," he explains, sounding much like he’s pitching the script to an executive.

When I ask him if he met the love of his own life that year, though, his tone turns mischievous. "Eh…well, you know, when you’re in high school, you think…" he tells me, and it’s impossible not to laugh.

‘June, July, and August’ won the prestigious Nicholson Award at USC, but the award was later taken away due to age specifications. "I dropped it in a box – I was a sophomore. And I got a call over the summer saying I’d won, and I’d won five thousand dollars. I was like, "This is awesome!" Then they called back, like, the next day and said you had to be a junior to enter and not a sophomore, so they were rescinding it," he tells me. "I was pretty pissed."

As a USC student, I get indignant about the unfairness, and he’s quick to reassure me, "It was still cool to win. It was a good reason to have them take the award away, you know what I mean? There was some solace in that." And when I still have a hard time letting go of my bitterness on his behalf, he jokes, "Hey, at least they didn’t say ‘you’re too old’."

Josh’s age, however, is one of the things that keeps The O.C.’s dialogue as refreshing and true to life as it is. He’s young enough to know how teenagers really talk and old enough to make the adults true to form. When developing the idea for The O.C. during pilot season a year and a half ago, he kept his own college experience at USC in mind. "Having gone to USC, I’m sure you know a lot of Newport Beach kids," he tells me. "And, well, the show is about them. But it’s about you, too!"

I remind him that I come from Chicago, to which he responds, "Right! And I was a Rhode Island-er. And, you know, Sandy’s from the Bronx, Ryan’s from Chino. We bring people together!"

Josh counts writer-director Cameron Crowe and Nick Hornby among his influences in writing those scripts that bring people together. "I wanted to do a show that was sort of relationship driven, that wasn’t franchise driven, but that guys could get into. I’m a big Cameron Crowe fan, big Nick Hornby fan, and those are sort of, relationship driven things that don’t you don’t have to be embarrassed that you like," he says. "So how could we do something like that, but that guys could get into?"

Tying the threads of ‘something guys could get into’ and ‘the world of Newport Beach’ sounds like a tall order, but the key to it lay in the characters. "I wanted to do something about Newport Beach from an outsider’s perspective, and I went ahead and had a meeting with McG’s company. He’s from Newport Beach, and we just sort of gelled. I went off and came up with some characters, and came back, and we pitched it to Warner Brothers and Fox."

And do the constant comparisons of 90210 bother him? "At first, they did. You know? At first I was like, "Uhhh…" But, I get it. You know? And if we have half the run that show had, and have half the passion you know the audience of that show had, we’re in good shape. I mean, I understand it, from a very superficial - you know, on the surface, they’re both shows set in the Southern California, So Cal, beautiful people, rich. But it was never my goal to do another 90210. I never watched that show."

Josh has referred to the characters on The O.C. as his Trojan horses. The glamorous world of Southern California is easy enough to sell to a network, but it’s the character development on the show that makes The O.C. more than just another brainless teen drama. Brainless, violent jock Luke Ward (Chris Carmack) struck up a tentative friendship with Ryan after a family crisis. Loveable outcast Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) has begun to ease out of his shell over the course of the season, while his shallow, bitchy girlfriend Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) made a natural transition from spoiled, irritating princess to the show’s second most reliable source of comic relief - and from one of the most hated characters to one of the most beloved. "The idea is to try to get you to like everyone you don’t think you’re gonna like. I don’t know if we’ll get there with Oliver," Josh chuckles, referencing the six-episode stint character who shook things up between Ryan and Marissa (Mischa Barton) in a past arc.

Seth, however, is the character that Josh admits to being most similar to - during college, at least. "You come to college and it’s, like, all these Newport Beach, tall, blonde, water polo players. Where are all the pasty, pickly people?" he wonders.

When I ask if his girlfriend of choice was a Marissa, Summer, Anna, or Marissa’s mother Julie, he laughs and promises that, even with the recent storyline Julie has taken, she was a little out of his age bracket. He sounds a little embarrassed when he admits, "I have a propensity for falling for the Marissas of the world." I can’t help but groan a little, and he quickly adds, "But, you know, Anna’s also very appealing! I’m a fan!"

Josh is also a fan of music, in a wide variety of bands and singers. The music on the show is often praised for its diversity and for giving deserved exposure to bands like Spoon and Death Cab. There’s also the fact that it’s just plain good. "It’s all stuff that I like. You know, for awhile there, we didn’t really have a music supervisor for like, all the episodes over the summer," Josh says. "So I was just basically dropping stuff in from my iPod."

Before I can request to, um, borrow said iPod, for research and most definitely not just because I really want one, he adds, "Then we got a music supervisor. And she’ll make comp CDs, and send me new stuff that I can listen to. I’ll either have a song that I know that I want to use for a scene, or I’ll have a scene where I can’t write it until I find the perfect song. So you know, you’ll call her up and go ‘Okay, here’s the scene, and I need the perfect song’."

The O.C. has also been responsible for spotlighting bands. Josh enthuses about the cover of OMD’s ‘If You Leave’, performed by Nada Surf exclusively for the episode ‘The Goodbye Girl’. Earlier in the season, California band Rooney performed live for a club scene, although when I ask Josh if he’s a big Rooney fan, he diplomatically answers, "Errrmm…they were good for the show," which makes me laugh.

Josh admits that he’s not a big comic book fan, either, although the character Seth is a self professed comics geek. "That’s Allan Heinberg, who’s a co- E.P on the show. Heinberg is a comic book fanatic, it’s been fun for the character," he says.

Although comics don’t seem to be Josh’s thing, plenty of other personal touches make it into the scripts, all of which go through his computer at the end of the day. "I have often professed my sheer terror for the legend of the Cabbage Patch Kids," he says, in a reference to the January 14th episode ‘The Links’. "Oh, and Smurfs. The Golden Girls. We’re getting all the references in there."

And about the so called prank wars between the guys and girls of the cast? "They try. They’re all kind of lame." He’s not even a little sad that he’s not in on it? "No. No, I’m Switzerland. I’m a safe haven. And it’s more fun than having actors mad at you for putting dead frogs in their handbags. Or whatever they do."

I ask if there are any other amusing behind-the-scenes stories he can share, and he pauses for a moment before laughing. "Ben just got knocked out and punched in the Cohen family pool last night. Heh. That was so fun to watch," he chuckles. "Oh! Actually, when we were shooting ‘The Model Home’, that was especially great. It was only our second episode, and we were shooting in a room full of fire, and Ben was supposed to get thrown into a wall, but he actually got thrown out of a window. That was a very auspicious debut for the show."

The future of the show will be as auspicious as the beginning, if Josh has anything to say about it. I ask if he’s got anything he’s holding back, that he’d really love to do with the show, and he very enthusiastically replies, "Oh, we’re doing it. I mean, we get through the rest of the season, we have a really good run of stories, and I’m real excited about where we’re heading this season. And then next year will be…a lot of these shows are as much about the new characters you introduce and how they come and shake up that world."

I manage to stick my foot in my mouth by asking if he’s got any "bigger" projects in the works, to which he teases, "Bigger?! Oh, TV’s not good enough? You got something you’re trying to tell me?" When I finally stop apologizing and laughing, he honestly answers, "TV as a medium for writers is actually unbelievably fulfilling. You get to not only write the scripts, I mean, especially, executive producer of a show, you get to write as much as you want. You get to cast the shows, you get to be up in editing, you get to pick the music, you know, all that. Work with the actors, work with directors, be on set when you want to be on the set, it’s great. It’s totally everything that writing features isn’t. That being said, yeah. At some point, I’d like to get to that."

It’s clearly the answer of a man who loves his job. He adds, "I’d like to get back to being treated like I’m a low man on the totem pole."

The sarcastic, bitter screenwriter in me is choking in envy, but the rest of me wishes him good luck with that desire. Josh Schwartz’s star is going to be rising for a long, long time.

© 2004 Lumino Magazine