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Office Drop-By: Our series in which Hollywood's creative greats in entertainment show us around their workspaces.
Over the past few years, Julie Plec's name has become synonymous with television's teenage fantasy worlds. Since co-creating the now iconic "Vampire Diaries" with Kevin Williamson, Plec has assumed the solo reins of that show and gone on to launch a spinoff, "The Originals," and an entirely different series, "The Tomorrow People," all on The CW.
So how does one person ride herd over three dramatic, complicated shows — filming in different cities, across different time zones — with scripts, sets, costumes, dangling plotlines, casting, network notes, and all the rest to tend to?
To find out, we dropped by Plec's Hollywood offices. By the standards of modern TV auteurs, who often carry themselves like august despots atop the police states of their own productions, Plec was disarmingly vivacious, open, and gushing with a fan's enthusiasm about her shows and the people who create them. While giving a tour of the workspace, she shared her rules for staying atop the multidimensional, constantly revolving empire of her three shows.
Know Your Rhythms and Currents
"The intensity of the story breaking on 'Vampire' has never been easy. Every week you're starting with a blank board and trying to make a new movie. There's no formula; there's no franchise to hang your hat on. It's basically just creating a new movie, and for four years that was one of the hardest things, just handling the one show to do. But in that four years, we found a group of writers, specifically Caroline Dries, who came up underneath both Kevin and then myself, who latched into the rhythm of the storytelling."
Let Great Characters Guide Your Stories
"The way that 'Vampire' was born was over a lunch. We got asked to do the show. A week later, we were hired. A week later, we were writing it. The minute we handed it in, it was ordered. The minute we shot it, it was picked up. Then we started working. There was never any, like, OK, here's what this show is... we had to figure it out as we went.
'The Originals,' in a weird way, had the same issue. We were doing a spinoff pilot while we were shooting 'The Vampire Diaries,' and then it got picked up right away, but I still had to finish 'The Vampire Diaries' for the year.
There really wasn't that time either to be, like, 'Oh, let's take nice, long, languid days and just blissfully talk about story.' We just dove in, and fortunately, rather than diving in again with a blank slate, we were diving in with three very fairly cemented characters that we knew intimately. We knew their voices. We knew their patterns. So it made it a bit easier to just get started breaking story."
Think 20 Moves Ahead
"It's terrifying. There's been a shift in the fundamental process of breaking story. For television, it has shifted quite a lot over the last decade. It used to be — a lot of the writers I met who came out of 'The X-Files' would say, 'Oh, this really cool thing happens at the end, and then you'd say, 'Where does it go?' and they'd say, 'Doesn't matter. We'll figure it out,'' but there was no rewatch. There was no ability to watch the show again and again and again. There was no DVD market. There was no perpetuity. The show was aired and then maybe in five years it might air again in repeats, but there wasn't the ability to scrutinize every detail and to track story.
You really have to be really specific about the choices you make. When I watch other shows, and I can smell it a mile away, I'm like, 'Those f---ers. They just threw that in to make a cool act or a cool cliffhanger, but they have no idea where that goes.' As a fan and as a writer, I get really annoyed by that, because I think that they are taking their cues from the way television used to be constructed, and you just can't do that anymore.
So you live in constant fear that a thread that you place will fall apart before you can deliver on it, but also I don't let people put in threads unless they know exactly where they're going and what they mean. Sometimes they can take a left turn and collapse on you anyway, and then you just clean it up as well as you can and chalk it up to a mistake, and you wish you could have done better, and you move on."
Find Your Groove
"Every day is different, and it's because I bounce back and forth between a lot of shows, a lot of places. But if I were to talk about this week, for example: I'm usually up writing late, so my base work begins the night before; that's the best way to start it. Whatever I'm doing the night before determines when I start my actual workday, because if I'm writing, or editing notes, or anything, like I'm in the groove at 8 o'clock or 10 o'clock, up until 6 in the morning sometimes, that impacts when I start my day.
I begin with my creative stuff when I'm alone, and it's quiet, and I've got my headphones on, and I'm writing or I'm watching the cuts and taking notes — that's at night. Then I wake up about seven to eight hours after I go to bed."
Know When to Dive In and When to Hang Back
"Every night I will write until I'm done. Until my eyes are burning and tearing, and I can't see the computer screen anymore, till I finish the script, till I get to the point where I'm happy stopping, till I get everything off my plate, because I hate going to bed with a full plate. It makes me very neurotic. Whenever that night ends, the next day begins. I get up, and I come in here. Often what I'll do is sit with the writers of 'The Originals' because in Season 1 you want to be a part of every beat and every piece of the story that they're breaking. I spend most of the day with them. I pop into 'The Vampire Diaries,' but for the most part, if I need to spend story time with 'Vampires,' I carve it out and say, 'OK, this half a day is just with them.' But most of the work I do for 'The Vampire Diaries' is at night, when I'm reading their scripts, or helping with a rewrite, or going through their cuts and stuff like that.
If I walk into the editing room, it's six hours lost. I'm massaging frames. I'm, like, 'Oh, take six frames off that shot. Hit the music cue right there.' I will drive everybody crazy if left to my own devices in that room. So I try to do everything I can by staying out of the way."
Use Your Characters to Break Past the Blank White Board
"Let's just say today we're starting to break a new episode, which means we are in the process of finishing the one that precedes it. We make a list, we look at a blank board, and we make [another] list, and we say, 'OK. Where did we end the previous episode? What do we owe from all the episodes we've done?' Make that list. Make sure there're no threads dangling, characters that haven't been seen for a while.
What do we owe? We make a list. We spend a day sort of thinking, Gosh, what do we want to see? It's been a long time since Elijah smiled. How can we create a story that makes him happy or where he can have a little fun? Hey, it's been a while since there's been a full moon, and we have a werewolf storyline, so should this be a full moon episode? What's the big shocking reveal? What's the big romantic wow? If you were going to say what you wanted this episode to be and mean, what would you call it? What would you say?
We just keep talking like that in really broad strokes. What we want to see our characters doing. What we want to see happen supernaturally. Then, in those big talks, myself or [Michael] Narducci, whoever's kind of in charge at the moment, will start to whittle all those big thoughts into more clear, precise, beats, story ideas, pitches and you just keep whittling until you land on a concept for the episode."
Say Goodbye to Procrastination
"What's hilarious is, my entire life I have been the worst procrastinator. I have been like if a high school paper's due, I start at 9 o'clock the night before; same with college papers. I would do anything and everything to avoid getting started, because I was terrified of getting started and would get panic attacks, and stomach pains, and I would cry because I knew it was going to come, then I'd finally run out of time, sit down, and do it, and I could always do it. That was always my process.
Even in the early 'Vampire Diaries' [days] when I had to write, I would do anything and everything except start the script, and then cry, and freak out, and then it would always turn out. I kept waiting for the day when it wouldn't come, you know? Like that dream you have.
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Now I can't do that, because pretty much I have to attack each project as it comes up, as it needs to be dealt with. There's always something to be dealt with, so there's always a cut awaiting my notes, or a script that I need to weigh in on, or a rewrite that I have due, or a production call that I need to be on, and whatever else comes your way."
Find Good People and Empower Them
"Kevin and I, when we started 'Vampire Diaries,' built ourselves into this protected, into this little accidental fortress where we thought, 'Well, we're in this together, and we are getting it done. We just have to keep doing it until it's done.' As a result, a lot of writers and a lot of the people we worked with were almost excluded from the process.
Then, when Kevin stepped off the show in the middle of Season 2, I was doing it the only way I know how to do it, which is the way he and I had done it together, and I hit a wall early in Season 3, where I realized if I can't fix this, if I don't know what to do here, we're out of time, and I've spent no time teaching anybody how to do it. Sure, they'd figure it out, but there was no team in place.
I had this epiphany as I was crying over a draft that I didn't know how to fix, literally crying, where I thought, This isn't a job that one person can do; it's not a job that two people can do. I mean, we survived, but it was brutal. It's really not a job that 10 people can do. It's a job that everybody has to bring something to the table and if you're not teaching them how to do it or embracing what they bring, then you are failing. The show might be good, the work might be good, but you as a leader, and as a boss, and as a show writer are failing.
My dad, as a career, worked in human resources, and he used to, in his retirement years, get hired to go into companies — or once a church, or other places — to evaluate the management structure and interview everybody from the person on the ground, the janitor even, all the way up through the middle management, all the way up to the top. He would assess the workflow, the communication, and then diagnose where the problems were. So I turned that on myself, and I just started asking myself as if I were taking a look at every single piece of the puzzle and how I could fix it."
"I realized the first thing that I needed to do was empower people to believe in and to own their own work. Instead of sitting down and saying, 'I've got this' or 'I'll fix it,' [it's more] like walking them down the path so that they could do it for themselves. It was an instantaneous shift. It was unbelievable. The writers that we were working with suddenly went from being, like, 'All right. Here you go. I know you're going to change everything' to really taking ownership over their material and delivering some really fantastic material.
With that, when the writer owns their own words, then they're going to fight harder in prep, and they're going to defend it better on the set, and they are going to be more adaptive in understanding what they need in post. It's just a trickle-down effect that starts taking the workload off of me and shifting it onto them."
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May
"I find my happiest moments in this show, in any show, are when I see a cut — whether it's the way it comes out of the editing room the first time or after we've worked on it a bit — where I say, 'My God, that's a good episode of television.' I try not to miss the sound mix playbacks for that reason, because it's the only time I get to see it on a big screen with full sound and all the different channels, and you get to watch your show like a movie. It's like your own little premiere for one. It's thrilling, because when you watch it on broadcast, you hate the way it looks. It's either too bright, the sound's too compressed, your TV settings are wrong. That usually puts me into a depressed spiral watching our shows on broadcast. But that one moment when you're in the sound mix and you're watching your movie and it sounds great and it looks great and it's done, that's the one moment of joy. And you get to have that 22 episodes a year, too. So in terms of feeling good about your work, that's about it."
"The Vampire Diaries" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on The CW; "The Originals" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW; and "The Tomorrow People" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.