The precocious mind behind The O.C., Gossip Girl, and Chuck talks about his bold new web series, Rockville, CA, the Gossip Girl prequel, and why his actors always seem to fall in love off-screen.
Anyone who's watched one of Josh Schwartz's shows ( The O.C., Gossip Girl, Chuck) knows he has an affinity for two things: quippy beyond-their-years teens racked with angst and an indie-music soundtrack that rivals anything else on television. Along with music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, Schwartz was credited with breaking bands like Death Cab for Cutie and The Killers on The O.C.
Now, the pair is teaming up on the new web-only series, Rockville, CA, which debuted on TheWB.com last week. The show chronicles a night in the life of an LA-area rock club, where a cute-but-nerdy A&R rep and a dorky-but-funny music blogger come every night to see the latest bands and try to work out their issues. The series features live performances from acts well-known to the indie community (like the Kaiser Chiefs) and those that are just gaining attention, like Passion Pit.
"You come to work, you have an incredibly attractive co-star, you’re asked to make out with them all day. I mean, you do the math."
The 32-year-old Schwartz also keeps busy executive producing Gossip Girl and Chuck, and developing the much-buzzed about Gossip Girl spinoff/prequel about a younger, more raucous Lily van der Woodsen in 1980s Los Angeles. The fearless creator-producer talked with The Daily Beast about his favorite bands, Chevy Chase’s upcoming cameo on Chuck, and love on the set of Gossip Girl.
You built quite the reputation for discovering and promoting bands on The O.C. a few years ago—what inspired Rockville, CA?
Before The O.C., I actually wrote a pilot about the music industry. We shot it but it never got to air—still, it was always something I was interested in. Warner Bros. had been hard at work at this TheWB.com thing even before the [writer’s] strike, so I got approached about redoing the pilot as a web series. I went to Alex [Patsavas, one of my music supervisors on The O.C., Gossip Girl, and Chuck] immediately and said, ‘Would you want to do this with me?’ And she got really excited about it.
We wanted an array of bands—some bigger known bands, newer bands, local bands… During The O.C. we were really able to build a relationship with the music industry that was helpful to them, but very much respectful, with the band’s best interest. The really cool thing about Rockville, CA is that the bands play live on the show. When The Killers and Death Cab for Cutie came on The O.C., they were lip syncing to their own playback; here all the bands perform live. It brings a whole energy to their performance and to the show, we have all these unique-to-the-show live performances.
Rockville, CA is the first live-music-focused web series of its kind. Is this the way forward for the music industry?
The music industry has changed—it’s more fragmented than it was. And you know it’s so hard for bands now to get their music out there. The radio format has become so consolidated; MTV obviously doesn’t even play videos anymore. There are not a lot of opportunities for bands to get heard. The Internet has been amazing for music but it’s also overwhelming for the average music listener to sort through all of it. If we can provide a little clarity and point you in the direction of 20 good bands, then mission accomplished.
Any bands in particular you’d like to see break out?
The White Lies. Their record is coming out now and they’re really great on the show and feature on the season finale. The Duke Spirit are pretty undeniable on the stage. Lykke Li is pretty fun. I don’t know, I kind of root for all of them.
You’re also in the midst of developing the pilot for a Gossip Girl spinoff about young Lily. How much can we expect the spinoff to overlap with the original show?
There’s a Serena/Lily story that’s sort of triggering for Lily reflections on a certain rebellious time in her life. We know she’s this Upper East Side matriarchal figure who’s certainly been married a number of times and has become accustomed to a high-level life, but we also know that at one point she was a rock photographer groupie living in the back of the bus with Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. So there’s this interesting dichotomy to her character, and you’ll get to really understand what made Lily who she is today.
I hear No Doubt will be making an appearance on the May 11 backdoor pilot…
Yeah, they are playing sort of an indie ‘80s band called Snowed Out. They’ve recorded a cover for us of Adam & the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver.” They reached out to us about wanting to be on Gossip Girl as a way of kicking off their comeback tour and we were in the middle of breaking this pilot and we were like, ‘What if they could play an ‘80s band?’ They came back to us with three songs and we picked this one. We were just blown away. We were incredibly honored.
There’s been a lot of buzz about what’s going to happen to the Gossip Girl characters once they go off to college.
We talked about it a lot, like, do we extend high school another year? But the thing with our show is that our characters have never really felt like high schoolers, they’ve always felt like young adults. So I don’t think you’re going to feel like the storytelling changes that much.
So will they all wind up at the same place?
No, everybody’s going to have a different path ahead of them. But New York is really much more than the franchise of the show than high school was.
Between Rockville, CA, Gossip Girl, Chuck, and the Gossip Girl spinoff, you obviously have your hands full. You’ve also said in the past that one of the mistakes you made with The O.C. was taking on too much at once. So how do you manage it all?
I learned a lot during The O.C. experience. Some of it was spreading myself too thin, some of it was from never having done it before, some of it was just the nature of doing a teen drama which tends to burn out a little faster than your average cop procedural. I didn’t really know yet how to play some of the network notes. One of the things I learned was that if I was going to be able to do multiple things at once, which is just sort of in my nature, I really needed to have the right infrastructure and surround myself with the right people. So with Chuck and with Gossip Girl I co-created both shows so that I felt like I was really involved but also had creative partners in each show (Stephanie Savage on Gossip Girl and Chris Fedak on Chuck).
I spend most of my time now truthfully editing. I kind of check in, give my input—reading, giving notes, rewriting stuff. On set, I’m kind of worthless. I’m a big believer that if you work with talented people and you’re on the same page creatively then give them all the room to do what they do so well.
What can we expect for Chuck the remainder of this season?
It’s awesome. We’ve got Chevy Chase coming on in a role you’ve never seen before. He’s playing more of a bad guy for three episodes. Scott Bakula plays Chuck’s dad, he’s great. Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica’s coming on. So we have a bunch of great guest stars and the storylines are going to get—we’re leaving it all on the table. It’s really exciting and pretty epic, the last two episodes especially. Certainly the mythology of the show is really going to deepen. It’s cliffhanger after cliffhanger, two weddings, somebody dies. It’s going to be nuts.
I have to ask—first Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson dated on The O.C., now Penn Badgley and Blake Lively from Gossip Girl are dating in real life, too. What is it about your shows that bring couples together?
I don’t like to comment on what goes on with the real life of the cast but I suppose you could discern that info. It’s the nature of these shows that at some point everybody dates everybody. You come to work, you have an incredibly attractive co-star, you’re asked to make out with them all day. I mean, you do the math. But luckily the actors that we work with have been incredibly professional and I’ve never seen it affect the work.
You often say you enjoy writing high-school shows because it’s such a painful time in life.
I guess I’m probably reliving some …trying to undo some traumatic stuff that happened to me at parties where I was rejected. I write a lot about kids who feel like outsiders no matter what world they’re in and that’s certainly something I’ve always felt like, this notion of being part of the cool crowd or the cool scene, figuring out the values that are important. And these are all things that I’m still working out. It only takes one really painful moment in your adolescence to stay with you forever. [Laughs.]
So what was your most painful high-school moment?
I’ve got to save that for my therapist.
Joel Keller is the editor in chief of the AOL blog TV Squad. His writing about pop culture, food, and travel has appeared in the New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Cinematical, and Radar Online. Even after writing about TV for five years, he still hasn't figured out how to write off a 50" plasma TV on his taxes.