How 'The Baby-Sitters Club' Came to Netflix in 2020, Landline and All

Rachel Shukert tells The Hollywood Reporter how she rebooted Ann M. Martin's novels for the 21st century while maintaining the story's retro charm.
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Rachel Shukert was just getting back to work on Netflix's wrestling dramedy GLOW after having a baby when she got an email asking whether she'd read The Baby-Sitters Club as a kid. The answer, like many Gen X and millennial women, was a resounding yes. But it had been years since she revisited the iconic '80s and '90s book series about a group of suburban Connecticut pre-teens who start a hotline for local parents to call and book them as babysitters.

Once she began discussing the idea of rebooting Ann M. Martin's series for Gen Z, however, "everything came rushing back to me in this insane way," Shukert tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I remembered everything about the books. I remembered every cover. I remembered all their handwriting. I remembered outfits and I remembered everybody's names and all the families they baby sat for. It was just, like, all there in the hard drive. And I was like, 'This is my lizard brain. One day I won't remember who I am and I will know that Kristy's middle name is Amanda.'"

Two years after that first meeting, Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Stacey and Dawn are making their streaming debut July 3 in an adaptation that is both extremely faithful to the original books — storylines in the 10-episode season are pulled directly from the novels — and updated for 2020 — smartphones are very much involved in the story (though the girls still have a landline for their business).

The main characteristics of each girl are the same — Kristy (Sophie Grace) is a tomboy, Mary-Anne (Malia Baker) is a shy bookworm, Stacey (Shay Rudolph) is a sophisticated city girl with diabetes, Claudia (Momona Tamada) is an artistic free spirit, and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) is a new-age California transplant. Claudia, as she was in the books, is Japanese American, but the club is more racially diverse with the casting of Gomez as Dawn and Baker as Mary-Anne.

Below, Shukert discusses how she updated the series for 2020, making the show appeal to both adults and kids, and what she's planning for season two (and beyond — there are hundreds of novels to use as inspiration, after all).

The series is updated for 2020 — Stacey has an electronic insulin pump, a viral video plays a major part in one storyline, and everyone has cellphones. But the girls still use a landline for the Club. How did you figure out how to modernize the series but still stay so true to the books?

That was the breakthrough of it all, the landline. I feel like it works because none of us are really living only fully in the time period that we're in. If they made a movie of you in 2020, you wouldn't only talk about movies that came out this year, or songs that came out this year. Everybody's references are from their entire lives and it was something that we thought about a lot, actually, on GLOW, because that's a show where everybody's living in the '80s. So many shows are all '80s references but all of these characters on it that are living in the '80s grew up in the '50s and '60s so they're also kind of living in the '60s. So if I'm thinking about the parents, for example, who are probably in their late 30s, early 40s and grew up in the generation that first read these books when these books came out, there's a lot of time going on at once. That was something we kept in mind a lot.

I know that sounds sort of New-Agey or something, but it makes sense to me. But with the landline and all of that, when I first attached to the show I had just had a baby, so I had just been introduced to this wonderful world of trying to find quality, affordable, reliable childcare constantly. One thing that occurred to me — and this was the breakthrough, a-ha moment — was all of these tools that we have now that are supposed to make it easier to make these things happen are actually making it harder. There's all of these websites that you have to belong to and pay a membership fee and have a password and put a description of you and your family on the website, and then there's 700 steps that you have to go through before you even get to a babysitter. You can text six people at one time, and then none of them answer the phone and then they call you back and it's too late you already found somebody else — you're just putting out all these feelers all the time and it's totally stressful. It's like you're casting a net into the sea and just seeing if anything comes back because there's too many possibilities.

What is so appealing about the Baby-Sitters Club is that it's such a throwback in the way that it's structured. And if you told me that I could just call this landline number at this time three times a week, and somebody would for sure answer and in 30 seconds I would be guaranteed a really nice babysitter who I knew, whose parents I knew, who could come to my house for sure and watch the baby for two hours while I went to get a haircut or whatever, that would just be a revelation. It's kind of the idea that it wasn't broken. The throwback of it is its appeal. It would be appealing, I think, for Gen X and millennial moms who grew up with that, who grew up with landlines and who grew up with girls in the neighborhood that babysat, and that that would be attractive, and how the business could work and how it's different.

But at the same time they live in the present day, so yeah, they all text each other. They're all varying degrees interested in social media and things like that. But I also think that this generation, I noticed that the actresses on the show, who are all really the age that the girls are supposed to be, they have their phones and they're on the phones but they're not totally consumed by them. And I think it's because they're a generation where all this stuff has just always existed their whole life. When I was growing up, obviously we had a television, but I wasn't constantly obsessed with interacting with the television. It was there when I wanted it. And I think it's a little more of a backdrop. They live a little more in real life, maybe.

The series hinges on casting these five girls just right. How long did that process take?

We knew that finding the right girls was going to be a little bit of lightning in a bottle. These characters are so iconic, and everybody has such a really clear idea of what they're like — sort of energetically, what they look like, how they sound — we all read these books. So not only did we need to find actresses that were those people already, but they also needed to have this chemistry with each other that would really make them feel like a club with a really cohesive group of friends who love each other and have fun together and match each other's energy and just go together.

Our casting directors saw I think over 2,000 auditions and then we, the producers, saw like 1,000. We wanted the girls to feel fresh and natural, and not necessarily the most polished child actors, ones who felt really for the part and could bring themselves to the part. There was some trial and error to how old they needed to be. At first we were like, maybe we'll cast them a little younger than they're supposed to be and then they can get older and grow into the role. And then we would see 11-year-olds and we were like, no, that's a tiny child. But then we would see girls that were 16 or 18, so much older than 13-year-old girls. So we were like, they all need to be the same age.

They're such great kids. The girls are just unbelievable and they're all so lovely to be around and they really have formed a strong friendship with each other. They're all on a group text and they love each other and it's been awesome to see that develop. So I think we picked right.

The little girl who plays Kristy's stepsister Karen (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) is also really great.

She does a Hamlet monologue at one point, and she did it in one take. It's unbelievable. She's kind of a prodigy. The other thing that is so great about working with kids is that they're not self-conscious yet. They don't know to be nervous. They're just like, "I got the part so I'm just going to do the part!" and they're amazing. They don't have some of the same stuff that adult actors sometimes have, just baggage from being older. I don't think it ever occurred to her that delivering a Shakespeare monologue in one take would be something that she couldn't do.

The show gives the parents a bit more agency than they have in the books. In the books, the kids have all of the power and the parents are in their way. Did you consciously choose to make them more active characters in the story? Or did that come naturally after casting people like Alicia Silverstone, Mark Feuerstein and Marc Evan Jackson?

The books are quite episodic and contained, but what big story arcs there are mostly have to do with the parents. They have to do with Kristy's mom getting remarried or Mary-Anne's dad and Dawn's mom finding each other and realizing, "Oh my God, my high school sweetheart is single again and living in the town I'm living in," and slowly starting the relationship. The things that carry over from episode to episode, a lot of them really have to do with the parents.

And at that age, your parents are a huge part of your life. I mean, they just are, for good or for worse. One of the things that was always nice about the books is that the parents were not the ones hanging over the club. They didn't really have anything to do with the club's operation. That was all the girls. No one was telling them how to do it or giving them advice or anything. That was all them. But it does feel like kids are sort of friends with their parents now in a way that I think they maybe weren't in the '80s and '90s. The relationship is a little more informal. I felt like it made sense to have them be a little more active and also, just generationally bringing it into the present day, I was like, well, the parents are supposed to be in their late 30s, early 40s, mid 40s. Those are the people that I know that are parents of young children now. So that's my generation of people. Liz Thomas, who's Kristy's mother, in the books is supposed to be 37 years old. That's my age, and she has a teenager. So who is that now? She's a different person than a mom from 1986. And also because I'm identifying with them now, I really wanted them to feel interesting and fun and funny in their own right and not just these blank, interchangeable parental figures. And then of course we have these wonderful actors to play them, so why not use them?

How did you strike a balance between making the show speak to kids but also still entertaining enough for adults?

You just have to write what you think is good. As you start trying to like say, "It's this demographic" I feel like that disconnects you from your own work a little bit. But it was important to me and to Lucia [Aniello, EP and director] to make something for girls that was really genuinely funny and for them. I feel like there's not a lot of stuff like that for girls that can be funny and knowing and they're not just the one girl and the group of boys. Girls' dynamics, the way they talk to each other, are very specific. And they're very complicated. And because they're complicated, I think they're interesting for adults. I'd been working on GLOW and Lucia had worked on Broad City, and I thought about these characters the same way that I would write the characters on these other shows that I'd worked on. Who are they? How do they interact with one another? I really felt if we could create them as these real, grounded, emotionally complex characters it would appeal to grown-ups and to kids. Kids are not strangers to big feelings. Kids are not strangers to, like, genuine jokes. Kids are really funny and smart. So I just tried to think about what I was like at that age and how I talked to my parents.

I knew that the girls would put their own spin on it and make it feel real, because you also don't want to veer too far in the other direction, where all of the teenagers talk like 37-year-old copywriters in Los Angeles. So they're not that either. So where do you find that line? And I think we really did find it. There's so much there already with the books. The characters are so well-drawn. They just felt so real to me. You really know who everyone is. We felt, if we're really true to the characters, the audience will get that and it will feel smart and it will feel specific and it will feel like it's really made for kids but it's really something that families can watch together, but you also have the books to enjoy. There's a big cross-section of people that this can appeal to.

Season one is pretty much one-to-one with the books. Do you want to do the same thing with future seasons?

The first 10 books, which is really what the first season is based on, are very canonical. It's also where a lot of the things that carry through the entire series — through all 131 books or whatever there are — it's where a lot of it gets set up. Kristy's mom getting remarried and Kristy moving across town to Watson's house. Dawn and Mary-Anne's parents getting together and Dawn moving to Stonybrooke, finding out about Stacey's diabetes, all of that stuff is in those first books. We hewed as close as we could. We really wanted the adaptation to be faithful. I think that moving forward we'll definitely take inspiration from individual books, but I think it will get a little looser, the way that the books do, as well, because they're just a little more episodic the longer the series goes on. There's mysteries and super-specials and things like that, that are a little more contained. So I think as we move forward, it becomes a little more like, this [story] from this [book]. We're kind of hanging them on individual books but they'll be a little bit less like [in order] this book, this book, this book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.