Interview: ‘Orange Is The New Black’ creator Jenji Kohan talks prison, Netflix and Jodie Foster

As HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall says in his review, Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” is one of the pleasant surprises of the summer.
Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, “Orange” is a very dark comedy about the penal system as seen through the eyes a Brooklynite who checks herself into a federal prison on a year-plus sentence for a drug crime she committed a decade earlier.
Really, there’s no reason why “Orange Is The New Black” should be a surprise. With its blend of character-driven humor, sharp sociological critique and occasional unblinking murkiness, “Orange” feels like a missing season of Showtime’s “Weeds,” the elided episodes focusing on Nancy Botwin’s prison term. And that makes total sense since “Orange Is The New Black” was created by “Weeds” mastermind Jenji Kohan.
A couple weeks back, I chatted with Kohan about “Orange Is The New Black” as a companion piece to “Weeds.” We discussed her new star Taylor Schilling, the challenges of adapting to an hour-long format and her approach to both the darkness and light of prison. We also talked about Jodie Foster, who directed the season’s third episode.
“Orange Is The New Black” premieres in its entirety at midnight tonight on Netflix. The show has already been renewed for a second season, though this conversation too place shortly before that pick-up.
Click through for the full Q&A…
HitFix: One of the biggest failings in the War on Drugs has always been tied to a broken justice system and the penal system. Do you view this as a an ideological companion of sorts to “Weeds”?
Jenji Kohan: Absolutely. Absolutely. The prison-industrial complex is deeply flawed and f***ed up and half of the inmates are there on drug offenses, which I think is stupid, but it’s its own monster and I’d love to continue that conversation and provoke conversation and dissension and see what happens.
HitFix: In a case like this, was this an example of you seeking out another project in this vein? Or does the book come to you and you respond with “Well this seems like the right thing for me”?
Jenji Kohan: A little of both. Someone sent me the book and I loved it from a purely character-driven point-of-view. I thought the stories were great. I loved the world. And then when I pulled back and I started thinking about making a show, it’s a great vehicle for a lot of tales and a lot of agendas and interesting things.
HitFix: When Nancy Botwin had her prison experience on “Weeds,” you guys transitioned basically from the arrest to the release between seasons. Had you known that this was a world that you wanted to go back to someday?
Jenji Kohan: Yes. And I think I was dipping my toe in a little bit and I pulled my foot out, because I thought, “I really want to go all-in on this.” So I didn’t do it in “Weeds.” I was sorta saving it for its own thing.
HitFix: So how much of this is from the book and what additional research did you do outside of it?
Jenji Kohan: You know, the book was really a launching point for us. We stuck to the book a little bit in the beginning, both for our creative process and Piper Kerman’s comfort, and the fact that the book is relatively conflict-free, we took off from there and it became its own animal. It’s not the book. It’s its own entity and we’ve just been following our characters and our stories after starting in the book. But it was an amazing entree into this world. You took the blonde, blue-eyed girl-next-door and you put her into this world and, you know, you’re not gonna go into a network and say, “I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.” You need a guide. You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.
HitFix: Piper’s character, she seems to require a wide range of skills. Sometimes she’s doing straight-up comedy, but sometimes it’s very, very dark what she’s doing. How hard was that role to cast?
Jenji Kohan: That’s the genius of Taylor Schilling. She’s a hot girl who can play comedy. She’s a unicorn. She’s just really, really talented and she had that range. We looked for a long time, because you wanted a certain look, but at the same time you need her to be more than you necessarily associate with that look. And Taylor was it.
HitFix: Had you have previous assumptions about her based on earlier work? Or were you somewhat a blank tablet when it came to her?
Jenji Kohan: I really was not familiar with her work at all, so once she came in and she had so much more depth than first impressions would indicate, it was Christmas.
HitFix: Had there been things that other actresses maybe hadn’t necessarily got about the character she nailed right off?
Jenji Kohan: Just to be shallow, it was a combination of wanting sorta that cool shiksa in appearance and, at the same time, someone who got it and was the right age and she was all those things.
HitFix: With the supporting characters, you have Laura Prepon, who people know and have sorta have “That ’70s Show”-based assumptions about and you have a few “Weeds” veterans and other familiar co-stars. But then there are an awful lot of entirely unfamiliar faces her. What was the strategy in populating this universe?
Jenji Kohan: You know, it was an embarrassment of riches. You have this huge talent pool that is generally tapped for very limited visibility roles, but they’re so good and to be able to let them flex and shine is just so exciting. I would get these audition tapes and it was just one after the other, so good. So we started creating more characters because we wanted to use more of the girls we saw in the audition tapes. There were just so many great Latina actress and black actress that hadn’t had the opportunity to really do this thing, especially in New York, which was a fresh pool for me in terms of faces and talent. Like I said, it was an embarrassment of riches and we really got amazing people.
HitFix: When you’re crafting characters like this, is there a balance that you need to strike between “OK, we want these actresses you’ve never seen before to have great exposure,” but then also the reality of, “OK, but they *are* playing prison inmates, criminals.” You don’t want to employ them just to go down certain stereotypical paths, so how do you find the right and necessary balance?
Jenji Kohan: Right. Well, it all comes from character. You start with character. You don’t start with, you know, “Black Inmate #3.” You say, “This is this person. This what she likes. This what she did. This is why. This is what she has for breakfast.” And you craft characters. You don’t throw lines at Black Actress #3. You know who she is, so she becomes an individual and person and fully fleshed out human being.
HitFix: You worked on “Gilmore Girls” back in the day, but most of your work has been in the half-hour format. Did this have to be an hour in your mind, from the beginning?
Jenji Kohan: I wanted a little more time to tell these stories. I wanted to do a show with a large ensemble and it was hard to stuff them all into 30 minutes. I don’t subscribe to that, “A half-hour is this kinda of show and an hour is that kinda show,” so I just sorta extended what I feel like I was already doing, but I had more time to unfold these tales.
HitFix: But regardless of whether we sorta think that a half-hour means that it has to be a certain kind of comedy and an hour has to be a certain kind of drama, simply put, it still is twice the length. Were there challenges to adapting to the different length?
Jenji Kohan: Yes! It all takes twice as long. [She laughs.] I’d sit down to do a rewrite and I used to be able to knock it off in a certain amount of time and it took twice as long. And when I’m sitting in post, I’m there twice as long. It’s just everything is attenuated. But in terms of tone and how we approach scenes and how we approach the show, the length didn’t really make a difference. It was just more.
HitFix: In terms of tone, “Weeds” was a show that started off bright and suburban and then went darker and darker and darker. With this, the light period is very brief. It’s about 10 minutes and then… prison. Was your inclination to get to the darkness as quickly as possible?
Jenji Kohan: Well, I wanted to establish this character and what she was leaving, but I don’t necessarily see prison as “the darkness.” I think there’s a lot of humor there. I think humor is what you use to survive a situation like that. I still think there’s a lot of light in that situation and those moments of levity really highlight the more dramatic and painful and dark elements of the show. I think it’s a good balance. I tend to think that dramas that are only dramatic are a lie, because life isn’t just a drama and if you’re reflecting reality, part of it should be humorous. When you have just a dry hour, I don’t think it’s reality.
HitFix: The structure to this, with each episode giving us flashbacks to the lives of individual inmates, it’s a very useful structuring device. How quickly did you strike upon that as being the way to build this show?
Jenji Kohan: Very very early and part of it was self-defense. When we started talking about prisons and visiting prisons, I knew right way. This my life too, as I’m writing it, and I did not want to spend my life in prison the entire time. I couldn’t bear it, as just someone making this. So we needed those blue skies and we needed those backstories as a relief in the writing process as well as in the show. I think it just would have gotten way too oppressive to be in prison 24-7, for the most part, as both the person behind-the-scenes and as a viewer. But beyond that, I think a big part of the show is “Who are we in different contexts?” and this allows allows us to get to know the different faces of these characters and I think it makes them richer and more whole. You see what they were like in their outsides lives versus their inside lives and it informs your opinion of and knowledge of these people.
HitFix: And how did Jodie Foster come to direct the third episode?
Jenji Kohan: Truthfully, Jodie got a project at Showtime and realized that she’d never done television before and, to her credit, wanted to say, “Lemme try this to see how this goes before I go do my own thing.” And when Jodie Foster says, “I wanna do this,” you say, “Yes.” So she came to us and I think we were sort of her dry-run for when she does her television thing.
HitFix: And based on what you saw, how do you think she’ll do?
Jenji Kohan: Look, I think she’s super-smart and really good. Movie directing is different from TV directing and I think some things were like a culture shock for her because, in way, you know the director’s not the king in TV. It’s more collaborative with the writers than she’s used to. I hope she has a lot of power on her show [She laughs] so she can really do it all her way. That said? She was incredibly collaborative and really game and came in saying, “I haven’t done this before. It’s a learning curve.” She was just delightful and she’s really, really smart and really talented. And fast!
HitFix: And how was the Netflix working experience different from your past couple cable and network collaborations?
Jenji Kohan: Netflix has been great and they’re really respectful and they’re really enthusiastic and they’re genuinely hands-off, which I love. But honestly so was Showtime, so it’s not that different, in that I was given the gift of autonomy in my last show and I was sorta given that again. It’s night and day from network and other experiences I’ve had, but it really nice to go from one free situation to another relatively free situation.
HitFix: Does it feel different, though, to be almost on the ground floor or at least in the first wave of Netflix’s original programming situation?
Jenji Kohan: Yeah, it’s totally exciting to be on the new frontier and it’s really, really fun to be out in front and I love how enthusiastic they are and I love how streamlined they are. There’s just not a lot of them. I love how they’re willing to say, “You know, we haven’t done this yet and you have, so show us how you do it.” That faith is extraordinary, because so much of television is a culture of fear and they’ve got huge, swinging balls. They’re not afraid. They’re just like, “Let’s try it.” They’re generous and they’re lovely.
HitFix: And what are your thoughts on the Netflix dump-everything-at-once distribution model, particularly as it relates to “Orange Is The New Black”?
Jenji Kohan: I’m of two minds on this: As a glutton, the idea of instant gratification is very satisfying, but I do miss that sense of anticipation for the next one. As a creator, you spend a year of your life doing this and someone watches it all in a night and it’s like, “Gulp. It’s all gone. Are you gonna make more?” But I really think this is the future. This is actually the present for my children. This is how people watch TV and will do so more in the future. I think it’s hard on the production schedule, because you’ve gotta get everything finished at once, but this is how my kids watch TV and this is how I watch TV more and more and it’s great to be making it in this format, because this is the way it’s going to be.
HitFix: Do you as an author, though, have a sense of a preferred way, from your point of view, of watching these episodes?
Jenji Kohan: No! I just have to wrap my head around doing it a little differently, just knowing that someone’s going to be watching all at once, I can take my time with some storylines, I need to plant seeds earlier and let them grow. I’m still playing with the form myself. The first year is you throw everything at the wall and you see what sticks. It’s a learning curve, but it’s been really, really exciting and more and more possibilities with this form are occurring to me. If we have a second season, I’d love to stretch a little more and see how we can take advantage of it. Going in, I just sorta was making my shows like I always do and then you realize that people are gonna watch it as a whole and maybe we could take some different approaches.
HitFix: And when would you expect to be able to ramp up writing on a second season if you’re renewed? [Reminder: “Orange” was renewed several days after this interview.]
Jenji Kohan: We’re all noodling already. I know I am and my writers are. That’s a question for Netflix.
HitFix: It’s always a mystery, because there aren’t the same statistics you’d get on a network for viewership and whatnot.
Jenji Kohan: Right, but truthfully, I never wanted to hear it anyway. I can’t. It makes me too crazy. So it’s fine. Let them be cloak-and-dagger with all their info. I don’t wanna know!
“Orange Is The New Black” goes up on Netflix at midnight Pacific time.