'Jane By Design' Creator on John Hughes' Influence, Retooling Characters and the Teen Drama Surge (Q&A)
April Blair, screenwriter of teen effort "Monte Carlo," reveals to THR that main character Jane initially had an out-of-work father who would have served as the motivation for her job search.
ABC Family continues its winter rollout with freshman drama Jane By Design.
Created by first-time showrunner April Blair, writer of teen flicks Monte Carlo and Disney Channel's Lemonade Mouth, the hourlong series centers on stylish high school outsider Jane Quimby (Erica Dasher), who goes on an aggressive job search in the fashion world after her brother Ben (David Rogers) fails to land a job to pay the rent. The parentless teen lands a gig as an assistant to the powerful Gray Chandler Murray (Andie MacDowell), a big gun at a top fashion house, after being mistaken for an adult. Add on an equally uncool, supportive best friend Billy (Nicholas Roux) with his own double life and that's the crux of the drama.
Jane By Design is familiar territory for the exuberant Blair, who told The Hollywood Reporter that a big influence for the series, which also filmed on location in Paris and New York, was director John Hughes' seminal 1980s films (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club). "I wanted it to be Molly Ringwald and Ducky," Blair said of the dynamic between Jane and Billy.
Blair discussed the process of bringing Jane By Design from inception to air, changes made to the premise and why she keeps coming back to the teen genre.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was the process like to get Jane By Design started?
April Blair: Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gilmore Girls), who is the other executive producer, called me and he had the beginning of an idea: a workplace dramedy about a girl, kind of like Devil Wears Prada. I sat with it for a week and I’m obsessed with John Hughes, Devil Wears Prada and Working Girl, and the idea began to evolve. It became something fun, empowering for girls and has a good message about the things that you’re not embraced for in high school could be strengths later and how to navigate those worlds.
THR: Exactly how long did the process take?
Blair: It wasn’t terrible. We pitched it to ABC Family in April, I developed the script for a few months and turned it in. Very quickly from the time we turned it in, we went to pilot and after it was picked up, figuring out where we were going with it in the writers’ room took a couple of months. It wasn’t a protracted development process at all.
THR: Were there aspects of the original concept that were modified or changed when it was picked up to series?
Blair: Definitely in the beginning some things changed. In the pilot, Jane had a father who was out of work and that was the motivation [for her to seek an internship]. There were reasons that it didn’t work in terms of Jane’s story. In keeping the series going, we asked was the dad character in the way and how would he be sympathetic or relatable to people? We ended up recasting with David Rogers and rewrote it as a brother, which was a godsend. Also in the pilot, it is very Jane-specific and she’s definitely the lead of the show, but even after the second episode, it starts to grow into an ensemble. The Andie MacDowell character has more of a presence in the office, relationships and a life you can relate more to. As we developed the series, we realized we needed to not focus entirely on Jane and her antics.
THR: What were the challenges that you faced during the first season as showrunner?
Blair: I come from features and I think that when you’re writing a feature, you finish [the script], you turn it in and nine months later, someone invites you to a sreening and you see the completed work. In television, this is really my first experience, to be able to executive your vision is rewarding and challening. Making decisions about casting, wadrobe and set design, it was a lot – and the amount of rewriting. You have a staff of writers so you think, “I wont have to do a lot of rewriting,” but the amount of rewriting that you do is quite massive but I loved it. Much more rewarding than features have been for me.
THR: You have a lot of expertise in the young adult space. What about that genre speaks to you and why do you keep going back?
Blair: Emotional immaturity. [Laughs] I had a lot of challenges in high school. I was an odd kid and I wanted to write. I was a little bit of an ugly duckling and around 17, grew into myself and was embraced more for who I was. It was a transformative time for me. Even as an adult, I’ve been moved by those movies about those speific times in your life when you’re defining who you are. I’m not 100 percent sure why I keep going back to it, but it is a genre I enjoy and watch.
THR: Did you have to have specific characters set up, for instance Jane’s best friend Billy, also an outsider?
Blair: They gave me free reign. I felt like she needed the best friend and needed someone she could bounce things off of. I wanted it to be Molly Ringwald and Ducky. There were no guidelines, I went with what worked for the story. I definitely tried to, in the high school world and the work world, create parallels. There’s a mean girl in high school and the one at work, the cute boy in high school and the one at work. The struggles Jane has in high school, that helps her deal with the mean girl at work. It’s done in a microcosm of her living in those two worlds at the same time.
Jane By Design launches Tuesday, Jan. 3 at 9 p.m. on ABC Family following the return of Switched at Birth.
Sundance: On the Scene