'Astronaut Wives Club's' Stephanie Savage on the Challenges of Going Period, "Coming of Age at Any Age"

The Astronaut Wives Club S01E01 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of ABC

The Astronaut Wives Club S01E01 Still - H 2015

For years, Stephanie Savage helped set the zeitgeist writing for shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Now she's going back in time as the executive producer of ABC's new miniseries Astronaut Wives Club, which premieres Thursday at 8 p.m.

Based on Lily Koppel's book of the same name, the 10-episode series documents the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts picked to help pioneer the U.S. space program going from 1959 to 1971.

"I loved the idea of doing something that was period," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It felt interesting to look at not just the space program and the women's perspective, but also to examine female friendships and gender equality inside marriage and a lot of things that are really relevant today through the lens of the past."

Savage spoke with THR about the women's journey, their modern-day equivalents (kind of) and the challenges of doing a period series.

These women get new cars, they appear on the cover of Life magazine – it's hard to quantify the kind of celebrity they have in present day terms. Who would you compare this group to today?

The closest thing we have is reality stars today. Except that they had no reference for that. There was no one helping them guide that process or giving them media training in terms of how to do that, and the stakes were very high as opposed to now. I'm not really sure what the stakes are now (Laughs). …  Back then they really were representing America to the world. They were representing the free world to the entire planet and so they were under a lot of scrutiny and if they messed something up, there could be huge repercussions not just for themselves but for the country.

You touch on media training and there's this journalist from Life magazine the starts covering the ladies from the beginning. Why did you think he was an important addition to the show?

Max Kaplan, our reporter, is an invented character, but he's very much inspired by the real Life reporters who spent hundreds of hours with these families. All of them have talked about how surprised they were, how caught off guard they were that they became so invested in these families and these women's lives. If you think about it, they're going through these intense emotional experiences with the family, of course they're going to become close to them and it wasn't really something they anticipated. They had this sense that they were reporting something as outsiders, but they actually became a part of the family just because it was so intense.

The ladies start out on a semi-adversarial note with one another. How will those relationships evolve over the course of these 10 episodes?

These women don’t necessarily know each other or have anything in common other than the fact that all of their husbands have been chosen for this program. So it was great to start them in a place where there wasn't necessarily a deep sense of trust or community and then show how those ties were forged over the course of the space program.

What other kind of research did you do for the project?

We read everything we could in terms of materials from the time including all of the Life magazine. I spent many hours online watching YouTube videos of astronauts. There are obviously a lot of great documentaries that have been made about the space program and things that were going on more generally in culture because a lot of stuff that touched the women's lives hasn't really been documented as a part of the space program.

When you were doing this research, was there one thing that stood out to you or surprised you about the women?

I think one thing that was interesting that Lily certainly touches upon in her book is the level of autonomy that these women had. They were so independent. They had to think so much without their husbands around the house and their husbands really respected them and trusted them. They weren't just in charge of kids and the cooking, but really running the household was entirely their responsibility. The husbands really respected them for that.

On your other shows you covered characters coming into their 20s and just starting their adult lives. What was it like writing for these women who were already married, and mothers, and taking care of so much?

As much as I cherish my inner teenager, I'm not a teenager anymore so it was actually fun and rewarding to write characters that were a little further along in life and dealing with different issues. One of the things that [executive producer] Josh Schwartz talked about a lot was coming of age at any age. I think this is ultimately for these women a coming of age story even though they may be coming of age as mothers and wives. There's still a sense of self-discovery and going on a journey with each other. Which I think is reflected in other things that we've worked on.

How was it going into a project where you know the concrete beginning and end of the show's run as opposed to other series you've worked on?

It was actually really fun. It was challenging because we’re packing a lot of events into a small number of episodes, but it was also extremely rewarding because we were driving towards something that was in sight. Whereas having that uncertainty of how many episodes are we doing, and how many twists and turns do we need to have in this story to be able to see the finish line, as opposed to driving to it in a really forceful way.

What was it like working on a period drama production-wise, particularly in terms of the fashions and the sets?

It was for sure one of the most rewarding aspects. It was really challenging because we wanted to do something that felt authentic to the period and that also had a real sense of scope to it. …. Every place that we went to had to be completely dressed with period interiors, period cars, with the right license plate, with extras that had all gone through hair and makeup so that was really challenging but really fun. Our costumer designer Eric Daman did Gossip Girl with us and Sex and the City before that, so he's great with contemporary styling but he's also extremely educated and understands everything about the history of fashion, about how fabrics changed and how silhouettes changed. That was great fun to not only establish those looks, but then march our ladies through time going from '59 to '71. They felt like themselves the whole time but we also saw the history of fashion flashing before our eyes.

With this kind of show, where there is such an ambitious push production-wise, was there ever a question of doing this on cable or streaming?

That was definitely one of our earliest discussions, what was it better suited for cable, but I like the idea of having it on broadcast. I'm hoping that it can reach a multi-generational audience. That the space program is something that is a universal story that invites everybody in. It's well suited for broadcast.

Astronaut Wives Club premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC.