Ilene Chaiken on the 'Grittier' Evolution of 'The Real L Word'
The executive producer talks with THR about wanting to tell a story about communities where being openly gay isn't safe and do something with an impact.
Ilene Chaiken knows about staying power. After 10 years, Showtime's The L Word franchise is now morphing into its third incarnation at the premium cable network. The show that started off as a scripted drama about a group of lesbians living and working in Los Angeles evolved into a reality series about real-life lesbians doing the same on both coasts.
Now, as The L Word marks the 10th year since its creation, Chaiken is prepping a new story -- a documentary spotlighting a new, more dramatic story than she's ever told before. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the executive producer to get the details on The Real L Word's new format.
THR: It's been 10 years since The L Word was first conceived. What does the longevity of the franchise say about the need for lesbian-themed programming on TV?
Chaiken: It says many things. The saddest thing it says is there's still a dearth of representation. The L Word franchise still seems to have a powerful resonance. There seems to be a powerful wish for there to be more stories told under that banner. The upside of it is that we tapped into something that's beloved.
THR: The show has evolved from scripted drama to unscripted docuseries to now a documentary. How will this incarnation be different?
Chaiken: It's going to be quite different in tone and ambition. I have been feeling this for a while and [producers] Magical Elves and Showtime felt compelled to look in this direction. It's going to be different in that it's going to be grittier, less glamorous and a story about different facets of gayness. We all know, especially those of us who are gay, that there are challenges and hardships and that there are a lot of places in the world, in this country, where it isn't easy to be a lesbian or to be gay. That part of the story gets touched upon in The L Word and in three seasons of The Real L Word in Los Angeles and New York, but we're really going to look at what that is and explore it now in a more unvarnished way.
THR: Is it only a one-off? Is this the end to the franchise?
Chaiken: I'm going to go with what [Showtime entertainment president] David Nevins said: It's a documentary, maybe two. We're approaching it as a single documentary. We may find that there's a compelling reason to do either two separate ones or a two-part documentary. In this documentary process, you don't know what the story is going to do until you start telling it.
THR: A recent casting notice indicated you might be looking for Middle-America where non-acceptance is still the norm. True?
Chaiken: Without wanting to have a presumption about anybody's life, yes, that's what we're looking for. We're looking for stories about people who live in communities where they may be closeted, who feel it's not safe to be out or may not feel welcomed in their communities or are closeted in one facet of their life but not all. To be broad about it, they face some discrimination for being gay.
THR: Is this something you wish you'd done earlier on The Real L Word?
Chaiken: No. It's something I've always wanted to do and am happy to do now. Being gay is not a monolithic proposition. We've lived so many different lives in so many different communities, with so many different experiences. I want to tell stories that are specific to being gay but reflect a lot of different realities of gay life. We were telling one story in The Real L Word in L.A. and Brooklyn with a group of women we were following. This is a very different story, and it didn't really belong in that story. I don't feel that we missed something. I'm thrilled we have the opportunity to explore this aspect of our lives and hopefully lifting some of the veil.
THR: Will there be a narrator? Will it be told through the lens of a camera crew?
Chaiken: We haven't figured out all those details. Although it's not going to look like The Real L Word, the style of filmmaking where we send a small and unobtrusive crew to spend time with the people whose stories we're telling, to be in their lives and capture as much as possible -- the reality and texture is what we're going to do. We may decide it calls for narration. We don't know yet. We want to let the people tell their own stories.
THR: Will there be any familiar faces?
Chaiken: It's not our intention to look at those stories. These are stand-alone stories.
THR: What was the pitch meeting with Nevins like for this? What were his marching orders?
Chaiken: He was excited and moved by the idea of taking our franchise in new territory. We talked about where the moments in television are and that the last election was a good one for gay Americans. We made incredible gains, and the world seems to be moving in our direction and embracing us in ways it hasn't before. We recognized that it doesn't change the world instantaneously. Even if, for example, the Supreme Court case goes the way that many of us hope it will, it's not going to change the hardship for gay Americans in the communities and circumstances we're talking about. We don't want to forget or assume that everything is fine; we want to make sure we're taking opportunity to say, "This doesn't end when the civil-rights laws change." There are still people struggling. We want to look at what life is like for those people. We've told the story of women living in Los Angeles and New York, and the fairly glamorous milieu was something we've shown and something I set out to talk about in the scripted L Word. We've shown that lesbians can be many things that most people don't assume we are. I'm not saying we've done it or [are the] only ones who have done it, but we haven't touched on this other powerful story. We want to do something with an impact.
THR: You're reuniting with Jennifer Beals on ABC drama pilot Westside. How did that come to pass. Did you discuss boarding together?
Chaiken: I'm beyond thrilled to be working with Jennifer again, but I'm not at liberty to talk about.
What do you think about the new format of The Real L Word? Are you intrigued? Hit the comments with your thoughts. For more on casting, go to www.realLwordDocumentary.com.