The Evolution of Julie Plec: From Development to Directing 'The Vampire Diaries'

Julie Plec Vampire Diaries - H 2015
The CW

Julie Plec Vampire Diaries - H 2015

Julie Plec has become one of the more prolific showrunner/producers during the past few years: With two shows currently on the air (The CW's The Vampire Diaries and spinoff The Originals), a pilot in development (The CW's Cordon), and the 2013 version of The Tomorrow People under her belt, Plec's had her hands full.

And now, with Thursday's hour of The Vampire Diaries, "Let Her Go," Plec is adding another title to her list: director.

Plec kicks off her directing career with a big hour for the series: following the death of Caroline's (Candice Accola) mother, she and her friends struggle to find a way to say goodbye to Sheriff Forbes (Marguerite MacIntyre, who happens to be one of Plec's closest friends).

Read more 'The Vampire Diaries' Postmortem: Producers, Star on the Heartbreaking Death

But this wasn't always something Plec had designs on doing. In fact, she started her entertainment career on an entirely different path. Here, Plec talks with The Hollywood Reporter about her career evolution as well as her first time directing.

You've been passionate about your love of television on social media, but what are your first memories of really loving shows?

I used to sneak General Hospital when I was a kid. My cousin was my babysitter, and she watched it, so I got hooked on it. I wasn't supposed to be watching it, but I was so obsessed with it that I'd find ways, even as an 8-year-old, to get into that. Growing up, I remember watching Little House on the Prairie and L.A. Law, and being so obsessed with it. Back in the day, we didn't have answering machines, so if the phone rang, you had to answer it. And if my phone rang in the hours between 9 and 10 p.m. when L.A. Law was on, I would yell at my friends and be like, "What's wrong with you?" I've always been a super-fan of television storytelling. It took me a while to figure that out in a career capacity, but certainly in a life capacity, I've been an avid viewer of television for decades.

You started off in the development world. How did that experience help shape where you ultimately wanted your career to go?

I worked for Wes Craven as his director of development. I then went and was Kevin [Williamson]'s producing partner for a while, and we did movies. I worked on Dawson's Creek, but we were also doing movies. It took me some time to realize television, for someone like me, was the perfect medium. I like to produce, I like to be detail-orientated, I like to be in charge of a lot of things, and I like to be a storyteller. It's kind of the perfect gig for someone like me.

What lessons did you take from the development world that you've used as a showrunner/writer? And how did your time in development help you with the occasionally tricky showrunner/executive relationships?

It 100 percent prepared me to be the kind of showrunner who can roll with and adapt and have compassion for the relationship with executives and writers because I've been on both sides. I've been so annoyed with a writer that I can barely give them notes because I hate what they've done so much. I know the tricks and the language when you're trying to be complimentary, even though you don't mean it. The worst part of it is when someone gets on the phone and says, "Thanks for all your great work!" I die a little inside, because i know that's code for, "We're not really that into it, but we're trying to be nice." (Laughs.) I also know how to gauge genuine enthusiasm, and that's the best thing in the world. And one of the things I tell the writers: network executives and studio executives will not fake being happy. If they're really happy, you know, and it's the best feeling in the world. When they're really unhappy, you know. Even if you think they're crazy and don't know what the heck they're talking about, you have to understand the note is coming from a place of not connecting to your story, and you've got to figure out why. And it's 99 percent of the time not that they didn't read it carefully enough — it's legit, and it's pure. You may not like the solution, and you may not like the note itself, but the note exists for a reason. And if you can figure that out, you can fix it, and it'll be good, and everyone will be happy. Because if you don't fix it, you'll be sitting here in a month and a half, watching your cut, realizing, "Oh, my God, they were right. They were right, and I dismissed them, and I hate myself." (Laughs.) So, it's been good for me to have been on both sides.

As you moved into showrunning, you've worked on anywhere from one to three shows at a time. How has your showrunning process evolved as the number of shows you're working on varies?

It's a completely different experience. Seasons one and two of Vampire [Diaries] was Kevin and me, kind of isolating ourselves, putting ourselves in a cocoon, and trying to do it all. And when he moved on to do [CW's short-lived] Secret Circle, I tried to keep that going, because that was the only way I knew. So I was still trying to write every word and make every decision, and be part of every move that was made on the show. And I hit about eight episodes deep, and I thought, "Oh, God, I'm going to die. This job is going to kill me, either mentally or physically or both. I'm not going to come out of this a normal, whole person."

I realized the only way you could survive a TV show as a showrunner of just one show is you have to build your team. And your team has to like their job, like you, like the show, and if you're working with a bunch of people who aren't passionate, you have to find people who are. And if you're working with people who have skills, you have to lean into those skills, and build them up to empower them so they feel they can do it on their own. And that became an adventure of basically taking [The Vampire Diaries'] Caroline [Dries] and [The Originals' Michael] Narducci and targeting their gifts — which they have many, many gifts — [and] building up their confidence so they didn't feel like they were living in the shadow of my approval or disapproval.

Two shows, strangely, is almost easier than one, because you can't do everything, therefore you do have to delegate, you do have to trust. And once you learn how to trust, it's the most beautiful thing, because then you just get to watch these people you believe in and you've hand-picked, you get to watch them shine. And they're both shining so brightly, and that makes me so proud. I told Narducci the other day, "You being so good at your job has made my job so much easier, and your job so much harder. And that's just where you are right now." (Laughs.)

And now you've taken the step to direct for the first time. What was that experience on The Vampire Diaries like?

The greatest thing in the world was realizing that I'm the one at the monitor saying, "Yes. No. Go again. Do this differently." If I miss something, if I mess something up, it's on me and me alone. Instead of sitting behind the directly and timidly — or aggressively, depends on the case — being "Hey, can you grab that?" Or, "We missed that. Can you go closer on that?" Or "Can you tell them to say that differently?" Not having to navigate the politics of the showrunner-director relationship is so freeing, and so great.

Conversely, I'm now in it, and it's all on me. All of these things for years [where I've said], "I can't believe they missed that!" Now I'm going to be the one sitting in the editing room going, "How could you have missed that? You're so dumb!" I think my greatest challenge and biggest fear is sitting down in editorial and realizing everything I thought I have and don't have. That's my great panic.

What went into the decision to direct Vampire Diaries vs. Originals?

For me, it was no question, because I know the team at Vampire Diaries so intimately after six years. I knew there was no margin of failure. I knew if I showed up and said nothing, they would still make the episode look good and be beautiful. It was a safe choice.

Now that you've directed once, do you think you'll do it again?

I loved doing it because I get to think of one thing, and one thing only. I get to focus on one show, and I get to be completely immersed in it. But it definitely has a domino effect. Even Vampire doesn't get to move forward as much without me. And Originals was moving ahead, but they were wishing I was there. So I feel it would be a little selfish to be like, "Hey, guys, I'm doing episode 19 now, because I love it so much!" I think I'll very slowly dabble in it, and try not to shirk my responsibility as a showrunner, and leave the filmmaking dreams for the future.

Plec's Vampire Diaries directing debut airs on Thursday at 8 p.m. on The CW. Will you be watching?

Twitter: @marisaroffman