'Soundtrack' Creator on Netflix Move, the Longevity of 'Smash' and Rebooting 'Gossip Girl'

Soundtrack - Publicity still - Joshua Safran showrunner - Getty - Inset - H 2019
Parrish Lewis/Netflix; Getty Images

There's plenty of musical talent in Netflix's Soundtrack, the latest musical TV series from former Smash showrunner Joshua Safran, yet they don't perform any original music. Whenever a character in the relationship drama is going through a particularly emotional moment, they'll break out into an elaborate musical fantasy — but instead of singing a cover, they'll lip-sync to a popular artist.

Creator Safran knows it's a little more of a leap to understand than a traditional musical, but he's hoping audiences will follow his lead and immerse themselves in the new series, which stars Callie Hernandez and Paul James as star-crossed lovers Nellie and Sam, Madeleine Stowe and Campbell Scott as Nellie's parents, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Jahmil French as Sam's aunt and cousin and Jenna Dewan as another key figure in their lives.

Soundtrack was originally developed at Fox (where it was known as Mixtape) before moving to Netflix after it no longer fit with the network post-Disney merger.

Below, Safran discusses the biggest differences between the broadcast and streaming versions of Soundtrack (streaming Dec. 18), talks about how big his music budget was and gives updates on his Gossip Girl reboot and whether he'd want to reboot his most recent popular musical TV series, Smash.

You originally developed this show for Fox. What are the biggest differences between what a Fox version of the show would have looked like and the Netflix version?

I really wanted to do a new type of TV musical, and Fox really did break a new version of the TV musical with Glee. I felt like that would be a good marriage, and they were very into it. They bought it immediately in the room. They also let me do things that they were a little uncomfortable with, meaning we had a cable director in Jesse Peretz, cable designers, the lip-syncing. They even said to me they were uncomfortable with the lip-synching. They went back and forth — they kind of wanted it to be covers, but they were willing to trust me.

There was a great partnership with them, and they said, "We trust you; do the lip-syncing, but we reserve the right after it's done if we want to pick up the series and we felt the lip-synching didn't work that we shoot it with covers." And I was like, "Fine with me," because they were at least letting me prove whether it would work or not. They were great every step of the way.

I think ultimately when this show came in, it came in very strange. Also it played far better and faster at 55 minutes than it did in 44 minutes [the running time for a broadcast show to accommodate ad breaks]. When you take some things out, sometimes it can play more jagged and feel longer when it is shorter.

They let us do something they don't really do, which is immediately take it out to Netflix. Netflix watched it and picked it up within a week, which was crazy. And then nothing changed except for recasting the lead, which totally made sense.

By the way, had Fox picked it up, the same thing would have happened. The reason for that recast was — Raul [Castillo] is an amazing actor — it's just that he is in his 40s and Callie is not. In the pilot they share only one scene together, but in the story moving forward … it just never looked like they were contemporaries.

Did you cast with the possibility that they would have to sing covers instead of lip-sync?

Callie is a musician. She plays cello, and she sings and writes music. Raul can play instruments, because Sam had to play instruments, and so can Paul. So I cast with that in mind, but I never heard them sing because it was never going to happen. The best thing I think that could have happened for the show is that I had a year between it being picked up by Fox and having to work on it for Netflix. Not a year, but we shot the pilot in February and shot the rest of the season the following March, so that allowed me to get to know all the actors individually. They came to the writers room. I spent a lot of time with them, so I could write to Callie. I could write to Jenna, to Megan [Ferguson, who plays Nellie's BFF, Gigi]. So we really fashioned that around them, which was really lovely.

What was the biggest difference in the notes you got from Fox versus Netflix?

On Netflix, you only have your team. Your team handles everything, so you are only talking to one unit — you're not talking to creative and the music department and the post team. Really, you just have these two or three people that are your dedicated people that can answer any question any time. I'd never had that before. I've only ever done broadcast. If I had an issue, I didn't have to wait for 10 people to talk about it together and then come to me. Notes were immediate. They weren't like, "We have to circle the wagons. We're going to be late because everyone's getting getting their notes together." There was a lot more clarity.

Were there more notes or fewer than you typically get from a broadcast network, where you also have to contend with feedback from the studio too?

Much less. The first four or five scripts that were sent in — and we shot out of order so they were out of order — they were like, "We'd like you to consider this," and I would do it because I'm used to broadcast, where you have to do it. It took me a while to realize no, they actually meant when they said if you disagree, you don't have to. That was revolutionary to me.

I mean, they were good with notes, but other times I'd be like, "Actually, that's not my intention, and I believe when you see it you'll feel otherwise." There are some compromises I can still see because I didn't know yet that I could say no — or not no but, like, "This is why I did it." I would talk back. So that was really great.

Did anything else about the show or the concept change between your pitch and the finished product?

I pitched the show to Fox with the idea that every episode would focus on two different characters, like it does. I didn't think that they would ever actually let me do it. They told me every episode had to have either Sam or Nellie, so it could be Nellie and her mom, Sam and his aunt, but it couldn't be his aunt and Callie's mom. So that would have had to shift, but the stories really were exactly the same. Nothing really changed.

This show is the most personal thing I've ever done. There's a ton of my life in it, which I think only people who really know me can see that. But because of that, there were certain things that were never going to shift. I mean it is truly like it could be a biography and people would never know.

How so?

My dad went to jail for fraud and embezzlement and then got out and answers phones at AAA. That's just one piece, but so much of it [is]. I helped him when he got out. He ended up getting together with a therapist in Studio City who he's now married to — that's just one area where it is my life, but I'd say in every character there is that. Dante is my brother, and that is my mother. Margo is my aunt, Nellie is me, Sam is a little bit me, but there's all these tiny details that just add up to my life.

This is your first time on streaming. Did you change anything in terms of knowing that you'd have a binge release versus a weekly release?

My biggest fear actually is that we didn't change enough to make it a binge release. There are two cliffhangers in this show, but other than that, every episode kind of has a beginning, middle and end.

My big fear is that people are going to be like, "Oh, I watched a little movie and now I'm done, and maybe I'll watch the next one a week from now," kind of like [Amazon's episodic anthology] Modern Love. I think I probably should have put more, like, you-must-watch-right-away [cliffhangers].

But I didn't want to. Since it was my first time streaming, I loved that I can make these little jewel boxes. I was really inspired by James Brooks, early Cameron Crowe, John Singleton — I really wanted to make every episode a different type of one of their movies.

There's a timeline twist in the first episode. How did that come about?

I felt like I needed that to sell it. When I first came up with the idea, that wasn't in it. And that was the concession I made to get it made.

Do you see the series as closed-ended, or do you want to make more seasons?

Oh yeah, there's definitely more. When you get to the end [you'll see]. I did close it though because it is a big swing and it's weird and I didn't want to leave an audience in the lurch.

What was your music budget like?

I had the most money that I'd ever had with music. But what ended up happening was the mashups, it turned out, basically took up half the budget. Because you pay for each of those songs, and then you have to pay again, the same amount, to make a new song. That I did not know until we did it in the pilot, and then that took a big chunk.

Episode six only has one song because I had to end up cutting five songs from that episode for the budget. We got a Taylor Swift song, like, I can't believe she let me have it. It was an amazing sequence, and we didn't shoot it. We didn't shoot Jenna doing Janelle Monae's "Tightrope." We cut a Post Malone song that Dante sang. Those were cut only because the story worked without them, and my deal was if the story worked without [we'd cut].

The budget was high, a certain amount of millions. The one thing that Netflix allowed me to do that Fox would not — and I think this really saved the show in a way — was they were like, "You have, let's say, 10 dollars. You can use your 10 dollars any way you like. That's all you have for the whole season." Fox would have been like, "You have 1 dollar an episode. You cannot take from episode three if you want more songs in episode two." That's the way it works.

I looked at it holistically with my music supervisor, and that allowed us to get the bigger songs. We'd be like, "OK, well, this Lauryn Hill is in episode nine, so this one has to go in episode two." We would be able to portion the money out the way that we saw fit, and that was amazing. I came in under budget, which is crazy. I don't know how that happened.

There are certain artists that we couldn't afford it all, that were just a nonstarter: Drake, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Rolling Stones — whether they were either more money than we could afford, or whether their approvals process would take too long, or they just weren't approving anything at that time. So the hope is people get to see the show, and then they're more amenable to season two.

Do you envision all the characters coming back for season two?

Yes. Definitely. I'm ridiculously blessed by these actors. I don't even know how I got to work with them. … There's so much more I want to do with these people. And they're also so invested.

What are the biggest culture differences at a streamer versus a broadcast network?

I think the show actually touches on race and class in a way that maybe it would have had to be a little more overt. … It allowed us to get into more subtle conversations, I think, than we would have otherwise. Also, you know, cursing. The animated music sequence, the idea that they let us do that. I mean, Portishead. That's the other thing — at Fox, they really were like, "What's every song? We have to vet them." At Netflix they were like, "We trust you; you choose all the music." There was never a "We don't think the song is right." Never.

What are your thoughts on reboot culture? Obviously the Gossip Girl reboot is a prime example of that.

The thing with Gossip Girl was I didn't want to do it, because it was five years of my life. I didn't do the last season. Josh and Stephanie came to me, and they were basically saying, "We'll only do it if you do it. And if you don't want to do it, we're not going to do it. Somebody else will do it without us." And that was a lot of pressure because I really like Josh and Stephanie.

I was like, "You know what, I'd like to do some things we were unable to do the first time around." And that's what kept me up at night — a more inclusive show, a more queer show, looking at how social media has changed in the 12 years since the original Gossip Girl — and then I couldn't get that out of my head. There is actually a very different concept this time around, but we're not telling you. And that made me be like,"Sure, it's 10 episodes." Maybe that's all it'll be, but I'm really glad to look at it in a new way. It's different than most reboots.

The L Word reboot is similarly looking at things like that with a new lens.

Things have changed, even in the queer community of which I am a member, so to see how it's changed, to be able to look at that, I think it's really important. I hope it's sort of like the Marvel Universe — it's not really a reboot, or a sequel, or a continuation. It's just simply that the concept of how social media imprisons us or follows us is a concept that's constantly growing and changing, so we should grow and change with it and see what happens. Just like with The L Word, what it means to be queer, how the world treats queer people, is just updating, changing, still in turmoil. How do you look at that in a new way now? So that's what's going be fun about this.

able to have the hindsight that I have and ... go, 'What are some things that people liked, and what are some things that people didn't?'" he tells THR."]

Another show that has had amazing longevity is Smash.

That will be the thing that I will think about the most until the day that I die probably, probably more than my own children —should I have any. I just think the fact that it even existed at all is insane and the types of people that were involved in it, the amount of people that were involved with it. I just love that it's still out there.

I feel bad for Theresa, because I think the show is bigger than any one person, and it sort of chewed people up. If there had been a season three, I don't think I would have still been there. I think it would have chewed me up as well, and I think it would have chewed up whoever came in to run season three. That is just the nature of Smash, and something about that is kind of what keeps it going, because behind the scenes was just as dramatic as onscreen. It truly was, and so I live with that forever.

I'm just very grateful to still be close with most of the cast. I mean, Jeremy [Jordan], Krysta [Rodriguez] and Andy [Mientus] — I see them all the time; they are among my closest friends. They came to the screening on Monday. Kat [McPhee] I text. I just love that we're all still connected. But I also still had a pitch for season three that I did pitch to Bob Greenblatt at the time that I wish we would have been able to do. Maybe somebody else will do it in some way.

Would you revive that?

It wouldn't be me. There has to be a new person. Smash is Game of Thrones. In every season there's a Red Wedding, and there'll be new people, and that's the way it is.

Not to get too far ahead of things, but would you want to do another musical TV show for your next project?

I have an idea in my head for a more traditional musical series, which I will do — I'll do every other one, because music takes a lot of you. You really are producing, choreographing the concept on top of already running a show, which is characters and making the machine work. But yeah, I want to do musicals forever.

I have so much of this I want to do, because there's so many songs we didn't get to do. So hopefully there'll be more, but if there isn't, I'm really grateful for the opportunity to do this.

Do you pick the songs based on what you know is happening in the plot, or do you pick the songs and write to them?

The songs came first. I found the songs. The songs then told me who the characters were. I made playlists for each of the characters. I brought those playlists into the writers room. There were note cards on all of the walls, so like Margot's playlist would be one whole wall. Before we would start that episode, I would look at the wall because I knew the songs really well, and I'd be like, "Can it be these songs?" I put them up on the board, and we wrote around them.

What's the biggest thing you learned while writing the season?

This was the greatest creative experience I've ever had, and being with these people every day was such a joy. The crew in Chicago was an incredible crew that rose to any challenge thrown at them. So frankly I think what I learned was I could dream big and it would be supported by an incredible cast and crew. They allowed me to be able to do things that I don't think I would have ever been able to do anywhere else.

You filmed exteriors in Los Angeles, right?

We shot the pilot in L.A., and then we came back to L.A. for a week at the end, so there's stuff throughout many episodes. I made sure to choose sequences ahead of time that I knew had to be in L.A.

What are you looking forward to doing in a potential second season?

I just want to keep pairing characters in new ways. Also, when we thought it was for Fox, we thought it would be 13 episodes. When we had to reduce it to 10, I'm sad that Troy, Robbie Fairchild, was going to have half of an episode, and we had a story for him. Leah, played by Juliet James, who is Dante's sister, had half of an episode. You see a little bit of her story toward the end coming out. We were really interested in pairing those two characters, telling that story. And we also wanted Barry to have his own half of an episode. Those things I'd love to see in the future. Also we had a really beautiful [pairing] for Jenna and Callie. They were going to have another connection, which we at some point would love to show.