'Bunheads' Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino on 'Gilmore Girls,' Failed Projects and 'Panicked' Networks (Q&A)
Sherman-Palladino tells THR of the difference between TV now vs. years prior: "When you go into a pitch, everybody is there for the same reason: Everyone wants to put on a great show. But there are so many levels that get chipped away, and it's an awful lot to overcome."
Amy Sherman-Palladino is back.
This time around, the Gilmore Girls creator is exploring the world of ballet with ABC Family's Bunheads, but viewers unsure of whether the Sherman-Palladino voice will resonate as strongly as it did on Gilmore Girls needn't worry. Centered on Michelle (theater vet Sutton Foster), a Las Vegas showgirl who moves to a sleepy coastal town (where there's literally nothing to do) after impulsively marrying a man (Alan Ruck) and taking on a new role as a teacher in her mother-in-law Fannie's (Kelly Bishop) dance school, the drama has hints of her DNA sprinkled throughout.
For Sherman-Palladino, Bunheads hits closer to home than Gilmore Girls and the world of Stars Hollow. "I had trained to be a dancer, and I was working on a play at the time that was based on my ballet school when I was young," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, "so I conceived this story about a 35-year-old dancer who was supposed to have gone down one path and because of immaturity and being a wild child took a left turn and 10 years down the road, realizes, 'Holy shit, I’ve thrown away everything.' "
Sherman-Palladino talks to THR about her failed projects, what has changed the most from when she began in television and the challenges in making sure Bunheads wasn't a Gilmore Girls retread.
The Hollywood Reporter: What did you learn from the projects post-Gilmore Girls (i.e. a Wyoming pilot at the CW, The Return of Jezebel James at Fox) that didn't last that led up to Bunheads?
Amy Sherman-Palladino: The business is the business. People build whole careers and never stumble into a Gilmore Girls. The bottom line is: For a show to work all stars need to be aligned. If any one of those things is even slightly off, chances are it’s not going to work. They’re very, very, very fragile things. They were all projects that I loved. Either we got picked up by Fox and then the guy that picked us up got fired and the new guy came in. Or we tried to do a sitcom and there were many things about the multi-cam process that to me don’t work anymore. The whole multi-cam process is a very tortured one right now because people say that they want it, but I don’t know if they really want it. I would never do [multi-cam] again. That was crazy. So you know it was just not — both those things were great experiences. I enjoyed it on a creative level but it was just not the time or moment for either of them.
THR: How has television changed since you began?
Sherman-Palladino: The studios and networks are much more panicked now. When you hear old stories about the Charles brothers' pitch for Cheers was, "Hey, we just kind of want to do a show in a bar" and they all went, "OK, here's some money to go do that," you know there was a trust level there. Now everything is so scrutinized and micro-managed and there are so many eyes, it's as if there’s not that trust level that somebody’s gonna come in and give you something great. I think that’s a problem because when you’ve got too many people pounding away at an idea; it's sure hard on a writer. Too many voices, too many cooks in the kitchen, which yields a professionally done but middle of the road [result]. You don’t get those great highs or great lows that you used to. When you go into a pitch, everybody is there for the same reason, everyone wants to put on a great show, but there are so many levels that get chipped away and it's an awful lot to overcome. People break through and put good stuff out. Cable’s doing some good stuff. That’s where you need to go, you got to hook a cable outlet.
THR: Why was it important for you to go with Bunheads?
Sherman-Palladino: When you're writing, there's got to be something about a project that keeps burrowing in your head. The dialogue comes to you. You can see potential two, three, four years down the road. When that happens, that’s the project you’ve got to chase. I wasn’t interested in doing a show that was just about teenagers because there was no teenage show that was in my brain at the moment. [ABC Family exec Kate Juergens and I] were talking about the idea of ballet and ballet school. I had trained to be a dancer and, and I was working on a play at the time that was based on my ballet school when I was young, so I conceived this story about a 35-year-old dancer who was supposed to have gone down one path and because of immaturity and being a wild child took a left turn and 10 years down the road, realizes, "Holy shit, I’ve thrown away everything."
THR: Did you face challenges in making sure that this wasn’t Gilmore Girls 2.0?
Sherman-Palladino: You never want to be accused of repeating yourself, but I have a style of writing and I have things that I like. I like a fast pace, I like a loose feeling, I like a lot of things done in one shot and walk and talks. There’s stylistic things that are just sort of me. Sutton Foster brings her energy to the package. It could never be Gilmore Girls with Sutton Foster just because she’s so clearly her own person. Then, the very fact that it’s not a mother daughter story. Michelle is not a maternal sort of gal. She’s gonna get involved with these girls lives and is more like a fifth Beatle than a mom. She’s almost more childish than them. It’s different people and different stories so it feels like a comfort zone but a completely different experience.
THR: Are there certain lines that you wont cross with show story-wise?
Sherman-Palladino: No, because our stories are driven by our character, not by any mandates. ABC Family hasn’t given any mandates. They haven’t said, "Don’t do the naked cannibal guy on the freeway story" so of course season two will be the naked guy on the freeway story. When we did Gilmore Girls, we were funded by [a] family-friendly [group] and I didn’t even know about it until I read about it in the Wall Street Journal. [Even so,] our stories were our own and we never had limits or anything. I want to make sure the show does not become preachy. I’m not interested in teaching anyone a lesson. I don’t want you to learn anything from me; I am absolutely the wrong person to take any sort of life guidance from. We do our stories purely out of "what would this character do in this particular situation?" as long as I keep the schmaltz level down, make sure there’s not too many fluffy kittens and unicorns running around and make sure Michelle keeps her edge.
THR: Have you noticed a similarity between how the WB and ABC Family operate?
Sherman-Palladino: Kate knew me from Gilmore Girls. She knew the good, bad and the ugly. She knew what comes with the Palladino package. You're going to get a lot of passion, a lot of work. And there are a lot of things that I believe in strongly and will fight for to the death because I want what I want. That somebody understands how much thought, how much work, how much debating, how many hours you sit in the editing room wondering is it one frame off or two frames off. It’s a very all-encompassing thing and not a lot of people understand. Our unspoken agreement was I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and I hope that it works for them and I hope that it works for their audience but if it doesn’t, we'll have a cocktail and we'll go our separate ways and well come together when something else comes along. It’s been a very smooth transition for me.
THR: We will see Kelly Bishop in a recurring capacity, but will you be bringing back any more people from Gilmore Girls?
Sherman-Palladino: The thing about Kelly Bishop is that Emily [on Gilmore Girls] was such a wonderful character and I love her to death, but Kelly as a person is much more like Fannie in real life than she is like Emily Gilmore. Kelly is a broad, she’s a gypsy. She’s the original Sheila in Chorus Line. She is through and through this person, so when it came to the right person to fit this mold, there is no right person because it is Kelly Bishop. Is there a little bit of like, "You're just going after your Gilmore cast?" So what? I really do feel like if you’ve worked with great people, you can't not want to work with great people again just because they’ve worked on another show with you. When you find people that click with you and understand the rhythm that you're going for and their voice is something you can write for, that’s what has to be preserved. I feel strongly about that.
Bunheads premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.
Sundance: On the Scene