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Dawson. Joey. Pacey. Jen. Michelle Williams. Katie Holmes. Josh Jackson. James Van Der Beek.
Each of those actors and character names are synonymous with the former WB Network’s Dawson’s Creek, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its series premiere on Jan. 20. When the series launched in 1998, creator Kevin Williamson had already sold hot spec script Scream and was taking meetings around town before the now horror classic began production. In what would be his first TV meeting, Williamson — on the spot when asked if he had ideas for the small screen — threw out a random idea based on his childhood growing up near a creek as an aspiring filmmaker who worshiped Steven Spielberg. That would become The WB Network’s teen drama that ran for six seasons and more than 120 episodes and launched the careers of stars Van Der Beek (Dawson, the aspiring filmmaker with eyes for the girl across the creek), Holmes (Joey, the deeply driven girl torn between two friends), Williams (Jen, the city girl who shook up the creek) and Jackson (Pacey, the lovable and smart slacker).
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Dawson’s Creek series premiere, Williamson speaks exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about the origins of the show (Fox famously passed and he got a dog and named it Dawson), near-miss castings (Selma Blair as Joey, Jackson as Dawson), Jack’s (Kerr Smith) coming out and the show’s equally star-studded writer’s room that launched the careers of showrunners including Greg Berlanti and Julie Plec.
Looking back, what do you recall about the original conversations for the show?
I had sold Scream and they hadn’t made it yet. It was a spec script, and everyone was reading it. It got me a lot of meet-and-greets. I was still starting out and at a smaller agency at the time and they had said there was this TV producer named Paul Stupin who wanted to meet with me. I had only been meeting feature film producers. At this stage, I was an assistant who had just sold a big script and I didn’t know how to navigate my way through Hollywood. He asked if I had ideas for TV and, in the moment, I started making up a show. I had no idea! I started talking about growing up in North Carolina on a creek with my video camera, filming movies in the backyard and wishing to be Steven Spielberg. I just kept talking: it was about me and my friends. Paul said, “I like that. When you work that out, come back and pitch that to me.” I went home and stayed up all night long and wrote this 20-page outline.
What happened when you went back to pitch?
Paul asked me to come back the next day and pitch to the studio, Columbia TriStar. I was like, holy shit! I thought I’d gotten myself into a pickle and had better come up with something great. I came up with Dawson’s Creek and pitched it. I remember their only note was to move it out of North Carolina and put it in Boston. I set it outside of Boston, in Capeside. Then I went to Fox and pitched it — and they bought it. I was excited and wrote the script and then Fox passed on it. It was when Party of Five was struggling and Fox wondered if they needed another teen drama. They were putting their support into that and they didn’t know if Dawson’s was going to be a headache. It went away and my life was over. I went and got a dog and named him Dawson. I thought that would be my only memory of this script. The script sat there for the longest time and out of the blue I got a call from TriStar, who told me about The WB Network. They said, “I don’t know if you’ve watched Buffy, but they just started and were looking for scripts. We sent them Dawson’s Creek and they really want to meet you.” I went for a meeting with [then-chief programmer] Garth Ancier and [entertainment president] Susanne Daniels. We just clicked and that was it.
Did they have any early notes?
They all loved it and said all the things I wanted to hear. I wasn’t sure if they were just trying to woo me. I was like, “Guys, no one else wants this script! If you want it, it’s yours!” One of my agents at the time said the script wasn’t a “real script” because people didn’t talk the way the characters did in it: “It sounds like all these kids are psychology majors; it doesn’t ring true.” I admitted that it was a little stylized in the way they talk but I thought an ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words. It was all about the behavior, what they’re trying to say. I never thought anything was going to come of it.
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