‘The O.C.,’ 10 Years Later: Josh Schwartz Looks Back, Part 1

In 2013, TV critic Alan Sepinwall spoke with Josh Schwartz, the creator of ‘The O.C.’ to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the show’s premiere with a two-part interview on the show’s run. We’re re-running that now in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the show’s final episode.

Ten years ago Monday night, FOX debuted a primetime soap called “The O.C.” It was a genre that had mostly disappeared from network TV, starring a bunch of unknown young actors and Peter Gallagher”s eyebrows, from a 26-year-old creator named Josh Schwartz who had no real experience in television. And it turned out, for a while, to be a phenomenon and a delight: funny and self-aware, and yet capable of being a sincere, well-constructed teen melodrama. It introduced the world to the concept of Chrismukkah and to many of Schwartz”s favorite indie rock bands. Later seasons were bumpy (though the barely-watched final season was a funny and touching return to form), but that first year was something to behold.

In honor of the 10th anniversary, I sat down with Schwartz to revisit exactly how things were done in Orange County. It’s a very long interview, so I’m splitting it up into two parts (and several pages among each part, to avoid breaking the site). In part 1, Schwartz and I discuss the show’s origins, casting the characters, the music and more. You can read part 2 here, focusing on some of the bumpier spots like Oliver and Johnny’s knee. And later Monday, I’ll also have a shorter interview with longtime “The O.C.” writer J.J. Philbin, who was one of the minds behind Taylor Townsend, Ché, “Je Pense” and a lot of the wackier moments from that weird, lovely final season.

Where did this come from?

Josh Schwartz: I had done a couple pilots that had gotten made but had not gotten on the air. Everybody was like, “You need to work with a big producer who can kind of help you get it over the top.” And so I was told to go meet at McG’s company. So I went in for a general meeting with McG’s company, that’s where I met Stephanie Savage. And the world of Orange County came up, that’s where McG is from. And I think in his head it was originally to do something little more action-oriented, but as Steph and I started talking, it was really, for me, very much tied to the experiences I had had coming to USC as a Jewish kid from Providence. And that was part of the story that was interesting to me versus the action.

So I went off and started cooking up some characters and came back and then we pitched very late in the season. We pitched on a Saturday to Fox, which was unusual. And they were really looking to do summer programming. They were looking to change it up and be aggressive; they also put on “American Juniors” that summer. I basically pitched the whole pilot in the room to them. And they said, “Just go to script,” I didn’t have to go to outline first, and that if they wanted to make the pilot, ultimately we should start hiring writers at the same time and start moving as if we were going to series while we’re going to pilot. So it was a very kind of exciting, aggressive, unusual experience.

And you were 26 or 27 then?

Josh Schwartz: I was 26 then. I was probably 25 when we sold it, but I was 26 basically at that time.

Was there talk about pairing you with an experienced show runner?

Josh Schwartz: For sure.

So how’d you get out of that?

Josh Schwartz: Well, I didn’t get out of it so much as we didn’t find the right person while we were making the pilot. So we met with a bunch of people. Stephanie was a more experienced producer than I was and had worked with McG on the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, and they had a new show called “Fastlane” coming out that year. And so she did a lot of those meetings with me and she was like, “If you hire that person, they will kill you and take over the show.” And there was a lot of people who were like “I can’t wait to kind of get this kid out of here and take over the show’ energy.” So we kept pushing it off and we hired other writers; we hired guys like Allan Heinberg at a co-EP level, Melissa Rosenberg, people who have gone on to have really nice careers, Debra Fisher and Erica Messer. We had a staff; we just didn’t have that (veteran) person.

And we had an extra little wrinkle: it was always designed that McG was going to direct the pilot. And then he got called in to do some “Charlie’s Angels” sequel re-shoots and couldn’t. And that sent the whole process into a tailspin because we’re moving so quickly. I was like, “Let’s go to someone like Lisa Cholodenko.” And they were like, “What are you talking about?” Doug Liman was somebody who was on the short list, and somebody I loved. “Go” was one of my favorite movies. So he read it and dug it and actually ended up being the perfect guy to direct the pilot. So there was so much chaos and so much going on there just wasn’t time to find that show runner. But there was no version of them letting me do this alone once the series went. We jumped ahead, I guess.

Then after the pilot, I met Bob DeLaurentis, a very smart and good guy, who taught me a ton – about showrunning and about balancing life and work.

It’s obvious where Seth came from. Where did Ryan come from?

Josh Schwartz: Me with my shirt off; me in a wife beater. No. The show is always going to be about outsiders; we were going to take you inside the most exclusive new money place in the country, and the dirty little secret of that is that everybody who’s there doesn’t feel like they belong. And I think nobody in life really feels like they belong. Everybody feels like an outsider. And we were really trying to make that the guiding thematic idea of the show. And obviously the best way to do that is through a very literal outsider, and we wanted to have a character who was going to shake up that world, but at the end of the day was also a kid who was worth giving a second chance to. He wasn’t a serial killer that they were unwittingly letting in. Sandy Cohen was going to be the smartest guy on the show. And so he believed in this kid, the audience needed to believe that there was some value to this kid as well. And also, there was this idea of these two brothers; like if you’re Seth you wake up and suddenly you’ve been given the coolest guy in the world as a brother. There”s sort of a “My Bodyguard” shape to reference, an Adam Baldwin joint.

<Teen soap operas, for the most part, are female-oriented. Yet you’ve got the guys at the center of the show.

Josh Schwartz: The two driving dynamics of the pilot and for a lot of the series were the father/son dynamic and the two brother dynamic. And that was accidental. That wasn’t like a conscious like, “Oh, every teen soap has been done it this way, let’s do it that way.” It was just how I could feel my way into the show. That’s why when it was time to do “Gossip Girl,” I said to Stephanie, “We need to do this together.”

Let’s talk about casting. Which parts got filled quickly?

Josh Schwartz: Peter Gallagher was first. When I first wrote the script the Cohens were the Needlemans.

Too Jew-y?

Josh Schwartz: Too Jew-y. I was like, “Jeff Goldblum in a wetsuit!” I was disabused of that notion. And we heard Peter was looking to do series TV and I still remember the first time we met him, him running through the lines with us. And it was incredibly exciting because I never had an actor of his caliber read anything that I’d done before. And we wanted to send a very clear message that this was a show as much about the parents as it was about the kids, and we had this acclaimed film and stage actor in the lead role, heartthrob himself. And somebody who was a terrific actor who was going to ground the adult world with a lot of credibility.

I don’t really remember the exact order moving forward, but we struggled casting the kids. Rachel (Bilson) was easy to cast ’cause she was a guest star, so she didn’t needed to be approved; she had three lines. The two finalists for Marissa were Mischa (Barton) and Olivia Wilde. And we loved Olivia. She had just moved here I think from D.C. and she was brand-new, but she was obviously beautiful but also really good. The thing with Olivia is she’s so strong. She’s such a tough smart strong girl. That was a version of Marissa that did not need saving. And we had in mind a character with a little more of a doe-like energy and somebody who was lost and trapped and needed someone like Ryan to come in and help them be free – the princess in the tower. But with Olivia, we always knew we had to find something else for her to do.

And fortunately, “Skin” got canceled.

Josh Schwartz: That was the first time Fox saw her, when she read for “The O.C.” And when Mischa ultimately got the part, they put her in “Skin.” The first chance we had to get her, we created that part for her. With Seth, we saw a lot of kids. Some that we referred to as “bar mitzvah Josh” because they were like the too real version. The version that felt too much like what I was like in high school – nobody wanted to see that kid losing his virginity. And Adam, when he first came in, he was auditioning probably for 10 or 12 pilots a day, didn’t bother to learn basically any of the lines for his audition scene. I was even like, “What scene is he doing; is this from our show? What is he doing? I hate this kid; get him out of here.” And then we couldn’t find Seth and our casting director, Patrick Rush, was like, “We should bring back Adam Brody. I’m telling you, there’s something special about that kid.” He came back in and did a really great job. The challenge with that part was always when we were putting the pilot together and given the series Fox very much had the “90210” model in their head. I had never really seen “90210.” So Stephanie knows every episode by heart, but I hadn’t really seen it. So they kept saying, “Well, if Ryan’s Luke Perry, who is Jason Priestley?” And I was like, “That’s not our show.” And they’re (worried about) this Jewish kid who reads comics and plays with plastic horses. Though he didn”t have Captain Oats at that time.

Ryan originally was going to be Garrett Hedlund. And he was gonna go in and test for the studio, and then he got “Troy,” and was suddenly not available and off to have a movie career. And we couldn’t find Ryan. We couldn’t find the guy who felt smart and soulful but also brought enough of that bad boy energy to the role. And Ben (McKenzie) had just auditioned for like the sixth lead of a UPN show, and we got a call from one of those casting it saying, “We saw this kid; we think he’s really interesting. You should have him come in and read.” And we saw the chemistry between he and Mischa and him and Adam that was really critical to the show and they had that magic.

Kelly Rowan was somebody who was a terrific actress who came in and, even though she was Canadian, she fulfilled that Orange County shiksa goddess quality. And then Melinda (Clarke), our worry was that she was really young to play Julie. But we were like, “She’s so funny, she’s going to bite into this role and give it everything but can we make her feel like she’s old enough to have had a teenage daughter?” which hair and make-up allowed us to do. And then Tate Donovan we knew and we loved how likable he was. And I was single at the time and was hoping he would teach me about the birds and the bees.

And Shailene Woodley as Kaitlin Cooper.

You had Shailene Woodley as Kaitlin, and then you replaced her as Kaitlin. What happened?

Josh Schwartz: The thing you have to remember is Shailene was really little when she did the show. And she was hilarious; we loved her. She would come in with her like riding helmet on and talk about China the pony and China’s alopecia. And she nailed everything, like she would see Luke at the door and give him the right look. But she was so young, it was hard to kind of keep her folded into the storyline. So we sort of moved her out and when we were looking to bring that character back having aged a little bit more quickly than was probably biologically possible for Kaitlin Cooper. We wanted somebody who could more readily kind of fold into those stores. So she was still just a bit young.

Shailene was too young to be going on dates with Chris Brown.

Josh Schwartz: Pretty much.(*) So obviously now thrilled for her and she’s become a terrific actress. And Stephanie has a very funny drawing that Shailene sent us. She drew us like a picture of her and China the horse and we sill have it. But Willa Holland was the perfect person to play that version of Kaitlin at that age.

(*) After the interview, I actually looked up the respective ages, and Holland is only five months older than Woodley. Reached for comment, Schwartz insisted, “Well, she felt older. Five months is a lifetime at that age.”

Tell me about the origin of the show”s most famous line: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch. This is how it’s done in Orange County!”

Josh Schwartz: Saturday night working on the script. I think we were already underway casting it and I said to Stephanie, “I feel like we have to get the words ‘The O.C.” into the show.” It was that craving: what’s the commercial going to be? In part because of calling it “The O.C.” At the time, people were not happy about that. People from Orange County who heard there was a show being filmed about Orange County, they’re like, “Nobody calls it the O.C. Why are you doing that? It’s just O.C.” When I was in college, all these kids from Orange County, they’d be like, “I”m from the O.C.,” as if they are from the L.B.C. and it was the ‘hood. And I always found that very funny even if it was unintentional on their part. If anyone was going to deliver that line it was going to have to be Luke. And he was going to have to throw a bitch on the end of it because, you know, he was kicking the crap out of Ryan, “Karate Kid”-style on the beach.

Did you expect it to have the life that it had?

Josh Schwartz: No, no way. But I started hearing stories from friends who were working as like day traders on the floor in New York and when they would close a sale they’d be like, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” And throw the money at each other. There was that kind of anecdotal evidence that that line was permeating in a way that people were remembering it. So that was cool.

On “Arrested Development,” they did some jokes about how no one in Orange County calls it “The O.C.”

We debuted in the same season on FOX, and Mitch Hurwitz asked if our actors could come on his show to play themselves as the stars of “The O.C.” I was worried that was one layer of meta too many, so I said no.

You talked about how Fox wanted “90210” to be the model. On “90210,” the parents were so marginal so quickly. You wanted the adults to be maybe not equal but maybe 60/40 part of the show. And you were able to do that, at least in the first season. How tough was that? Was Fox for or against that part of it?

Josh Schwartz: Oh, they were for it. And again it wasn’t like, “Here’s the tweak on the soap formula that no one has thought about before.” It was just very natural that Sandy was Ryan’s way into the show. Therefore, that relationship was going to be really important. And, you know, the Cohen family and Kirsten and then her history with Jimmy living next door and then obviously Ryan’s relationship with Marissa and how that was going to play out with Julie and Jimmy. So it very organically allowed for this bimodal approach. But bimodal was not a word I even knew existed; it may not even technically exist but it does in terms of television talk. And so that was kind of organic and pretty natural in the first couple of years of the show to have that be part of it. As the kids start to grow older, obviously it becomes a little bit more challenging.

I was not really the target demo for the show. I was 28 or 29 at the time. I liked the Cohens. Did you get a sense that the teen audience was into the Sandy and Kirsten stuff?

Josh Schwartz: Again, I didn’t really watch soaps. For me, I love shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and Stephanie was obsessed with “My So-Called Life.” By the way, it’s no accident that what are considered the two best teen dramas of all times only had a run for one season. But that being said, those kind of shows were one season and out, as good as they were. And so you can’t go up to Fox and be like, “Okay, what I really want to do is ‘Freaks and Geeks.”” That’s not going to fly. So for us it was like, “Well, we have the beaches and we have kids in bikinis and we’re giving you all this stuff, the sizzle,” but it’s a Trojan horse theory. And hopefully once we get inside, our characters can be a little quirkier, tone can be a little bit more offbeat. We’ll still deliver the melodrama and the cliffhangers, but hopefully we can do it in a way that feels surprising.

So we always knew that the kids, hopefully teenagers would watch because of all the parties and all the bad behavior. But one of the things very early on that we realized was that the biggest wish fulfillment aspect of the show wasn’t the big houses and it wasn’t the cool cars or clothes, it was this idea of the Cohen family and having Sandy as a father. There were so many kids out there that would love to have been adopted by a family like the Cohens. And would love to have a father figure in their life like Sandy. And so that became such an important part of the show for kids.

The other balance thing is between the melodrama and the comedy. It was a funny show, self-aware show. You did a lot of meta-stuff.

Josh Schwartz: Yeah. We fully deconstructed the show by the end of season 1.

How did you balance Marissa overdosing in Tijuana with them running into Collin Hanks as the star of “The Valley”?

Josh Schwartz: Well, those that didn’t happen simultaneously.

I know, but it”s a show that could encompass both of those things and have Seth analyzing the show as he’s in the show.

Josh Schwartz: When it worked, it was really exciting and fun, and I think when we tilted too far to one side, usually we tilted too far to the melodrama side probably. In season 4, we really wanted to go hard back at the stuff that we felt we had gotten away from in the show. So season 4 is relatively light on melodrama. And instead it’s, you know, Ché and Seth, and Ché falling in love with Seth’s spirit animal. On a vision quest.

And “Je Pense.”

Josh Schwartz: “Je Pense,” yeah, and some of the nuttier notions. But hey, we knew it was the last season, but we enjoyed it. But I think season 1 was very organic. It was just very reflective of how I could do a show like this, the audience was responding to it. You know, Seth was very self-referential was kind of the Greek chorus of the show, and we had “The Valley” be something that the kids watched. But like anything, you’re walking a real tightrope and you’re going to fall off. But I think what we were most proud of was those moments where all that stuff was really working seamlessly.

Music is one of your passions and was one of the fundamental part of the show. Did you know going in that it was going to be wall-to-wall with your favorite stuff?

Josh Schwartz: Yeah, that part I knew. There were songs written into the script of the pilot. That Joseph Arthur song at the end of the pilot, I heard that, and was like, “Okay, this is how the end of the show is going to feel,” and that allowed me to write well. The first six or seven episodes was really literally stuff off of my iPod.

So you knew the Phantom Planet song. That wasn’t given to you?

Josh Schwartz: That wasn’t given to us but it’s funny, because we thought about the Phantom Planet song and then we’re like, “Well, everybody knows that song already.” It had already been on the radio. And so we thought we can’t use that song; it’s already out there. But we had to show the network something before we finished the pilot. So we cut a sizzle reel, that would show what we had shot. And that they were going to order the series or not based off of that. So we put the Phantom Planet song in there because we thought it was instantly recognizable, everybody knows this song, and that will give the suits something to hook into. And what we found was nobody really knew the song; everybody’s like, “What’s that song? That song is incredible.” And we realized that just because me and Steph and some of the writers had known that song, that song didn’t really get played that much outside of L.A. and KROQ or whatever at the time. So we’re like, “Okay, people don’t really know that song,” and then it became a kind of an outright hit in its own right, but that was its second life after the show went on the air.

So a lot of the music was stuff that was coming off of the iPod and going to Amoeba Records, listening to a bunch of CDs, bring it in for the show. And then very quickly I’d sort of like exhausted my iPod. I knew I had saved Huey Lewis for “Chuck” several years later. So, out of music. So we brought in (music supervisor) Alex Patsavas, and she was a great resource in turning us on to all kinds of stuff. It’s funny now, it feels like I’m talking about something that took place in the 1800s, but this was a time where there was no iTunes and satellite radio I don’t really think was in existence, and MTV was not playing music videos, and terrestrial FM radio was like the same eight songs per hour, and “Hey Ya!” ever hour on the hour. Some of the bands that we reached out to were these indie rock bands, and that was all we could afford. But a lot of these bands probably would have had deeper reservations about having their music debut on a Fox teen soap, but there was no other way to get their music out. And I think once artists started to see how we were using their music and the kind of music we were using, they started to feel much better about it and safer about it. And the labels were very into it, because we would mention Death Cab for Cutie on the show and sales would, you know, go up. Even Rooney, we artificially inflated their sales for a couple of weeks.

Whose idea was the Rooney episode?

Josh Schwartz: I’ll take responsibility if you’re looking to cast blame. “Shakin’” was a very catchy song. But they saw a crazy, like 200 percent increase the week after. And then it built to a place where we got a call that the Beastie Boys would like to world premiere their song on your show. U2 would like to world premiere a song on the show. Coldplay had a new album, and I was told to come to Capitol Records, listen to the album and pick a song, and they”d set it aside for me. I heard “Fix You,” and said that could work great for the show. So, you know, there was a lot of great opportunities and then we had some artists cover stuff for us like “Champagne Supernova” or “If You Leave.”

Now with season 2, you had The Bait Shop, where you could basically do the Rooney episode every week. Do you feel ultimately that was a successful venue for the show?

Josh Schwartz: We drove a lot of story through it. It was probably a less organic way of bringing music into the show. It was a little more in your face. It was successful for a lot of those bands. I mean, it certainly was successful for The Killers. I think my appetite for seeing bands lip sync their playback on a fake set may have been greater than some of our audience members but, hey. It was fun. When else was I going to get that chance?


Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com