Originally published in Script magazine July/August 2007
Debra Eckerling is a professional writer with expertise in feature articles, communications, public speaking, social media, and live networking. A project catalyst, she works with individuals and small businesses to strategize, set goals and manage their projects. Visit Deb's site, Write On Online and Twitter: @WriteOnOnline.
“I pitched a one-liner to Showtime: suburban, widowed, pot-dealing mom,” explains Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, “and they told me to run with it. [Showtime] had a mandate at the time to make noise ... because they had wanted to come out from under the shadow of HBO. I guess this was noisy enough for them.”
Jenji Kohan became an “overnight sensation” after 17 years in the entertainment industry. She has written episodes for series including Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls and Will & Grace, which her brother David Kohan co-created. Throughout her career, Kohan wrote a pilot or two every year, hoping one would take.
“[Weeds was] my 16th or 17th pilot. And it was like winning the lottery. I think there were shows I wrote earlier that were as good as or better than Weeds, but the stars didn’t align. For some reason, the stars aligned on this one.
“I had been working in network where everything was sort of black and white,” explains Kohan. “I wanted to do my outlaw show where everything functioned in a gray area. So I needed to come up with an outlaw and a crime.”
Between articles about the drug dealer next door and the medical marijuana initiative, Kohan didn’t have to look too far to find the right crime.
“[Pot] was something that was illegal but wasn’t taken that seriously. It was sort of like the gay thing for Will & Grace—there’s one in every family: a pot smoker. So, it just kind of worked out.
“I really wanted to write about characters who weren’t heroes or villains but somewhere in between, like most of us are,” Kohan explains.
Weeds debuted in 2005. The phenomenal cast—led by Mary-Louise Parker (as aforementioned pot-dealing mom, Nancy Botwin) with an ensemble including Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk—more than does it justice. The brilliantly executed concept and the situations these flawed, complex characters get themselves into—and out of—is what keeps the audience talking and coming back for more.
“I think the key is... relatability,” she says. “There are certain standards that are set for people by their community, or by their spouses, or by themselves, that no one’s living up to. So on a certain level, we all feel like we’re failing, but we’re trying our best. And I wanted characters who reflected that feeling.”
Kohan also wanted freedom as a writer.
“In television, if you want more freedom, you go to cable,” she explains. “You sacrifice money, but you get to do more of what you want. You don’t have to worry about advertisers and you don’t have to worry about as many layers of executives.”
Once Kohan got the “go” order from Showtime, they told her to find a studio to shoot the pilot.
“They were excited,” she recalls. “So I went to Lionsgate, and they signed on. They had wanted to get into the television business.”
In terms of casting, Kohan explains, finding the right leading lady was key. Once Mary-Louise Parker came on board, the other roles were cast—and everything fell into place.
“We shot the pilot in August in Calabasas and Stephenson Ranch [in California] in the sweltering heat with everyone melting,” Kohan remembers. “Then we waited and waited, and around December, I think, they picked us up for nine more episodes, at which point I found out that I was pregnant.
“So it was like, ‘Congratulations, you have a show, and you’re going to have a baby.’ I already had two kids. But things get thrown in your lap, and you deal with them. I got a bed in my office, and we did the nine episodes. The baby was born on premiere night. It all worked out.”
“ I think you need to learn your craft, but I think a lot of it is also talent. What makes my staff so incredible is that they’re just great writers. And I guess if you know that you’re good, just write a lot.”
Just Add Water
Weeds takes place in the fictional town of Agrestic—a “just add water” residential area outside the “valley” in Los Angeles. According to Kohan, the town is based on the housing developments that have exploded over the past 20 years.
“I understand why people move there,” the L.A. native explains. “There is this promise of peace and beauty and good schools and safe streets and all that stuff . But these [developments] are put up so quickly with no sense of a common thread, there’s no ‘there’ there. You have to work really hard to make your life interesting... when there’s no history or culture, when it’s all prefabricated and presented all at once. There’s no sense of where you came from. When you have no sense of where you are, you really have to figure out who you are.”
“Jenji created an amazing universe here. She’s got such a unique voice and it’s so of this time,” explains writer and co-executive producer Roberto Benabib, who came on board after the pilot. When he first met Kohan, they hit it off right away. “It was one of those things where you’re in the meeting and you’re clicking so much, you basically feel you’ve just been hired.” And then he was.
Benabib has written for shows including Herman’s Head and Ally McBeal, which he also produced. He also adapted the libretto for Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohème on Broadway.
“When I broke into the business, everyone came to Los Angeles to write for and be in the movie business,” he explains, “and television was sort of a consolation prize. It’s terrific now. You’ve got The Sopranos and The Shield and Nip/Tuck. And then the networks are getting back into the quality game, too. It’s a really exciting time to be in television.
“I think one of the interesting things is a lot of dramedies try not to go too far in either direction, so they can constantly bring it back. They try not to get too dramatic because they know they have to get comical again. They try not to get too broad comically, because then they know they have to get dramatic again.
“At Weeds, we push both ends. We will go so far in the drama department, and we won’t care about bringing it back to comedy until the time comes. There’s kind of a fearless quality about us going to one extreme or the other.”
According to Benabib, many network executives find the episode that worked best, and they want you to do that over and over again.
"[You are] encouraged to find your groove. You understand why they do this,” he elaborates, “and that’s a way to go.”
At Weeds, he says, “We find the episode that worked best, and then we want to find another episode that works equally well, but for different reasons. This show is different in the sense that it grows and changes. What started out as a small, sort of intimate, story of a housewife dealing dime bags to her neighbors grew into what Bob Greenblatt at Showtime called a major opera. So, if you look at where it started, it really changed. Nancy changed; what she did for a living changed. The story got grander, the multiple characters came in; it turned a little dangerous, it turned a little violent, it morphed.”
When audiences last saw our “hero,” Nancy, she was in a bit of a jam. Caught in their growhouse kitchen, facing the barrels of guns of rival drug dealers, as well as a rap artist who decided to steal her pot instead of paying for it, Nancy and her business partner Conrad discovered the marijuana was missing; it was stolen by—and in the car of—Nancy’s teenage son Silas, who wanted into the family business. Silas was about to be arrested for stealing the “Drug-Free Zone” signs and cameras installed by newly appointed city councilwoman Celia Hodes, a “friend” of Nancy’s. Meanwhile, Nancy’s younger son, Shane, got semi-kidnapped by the wacky girlfriend of brother-in-law Andy, who was the one who (off -camera pre-pilot) connected Nancy with Heylia (her mentor and original dealer).
“In season two we knew we were going to get Nancy in that growhouse with all those guns pointed at her at the same time that Celia was going to have Silas arrested,” Benabib says. “That’s what we were working toward [all season], and damn if we didn’t get there.”
“I like to view the season finales as the pilots for the next season,” Kohan explains. “I don’t want to do the same show over and over. My attention span isn’t that long. So we look at the last episode as a pilot. All those threads that were left hanging will be the threads that we do in the next season, which should feel different from the second season, which should feel different from the first season. And there’s also a directorial theme to every season finale. The first year was your Godfather ending, and second year was [Quentin] Tarantino. The third season there’s some discussion of a Hal Ashby feel, but we’ll see.”
A Weed to Grow
Kohan and the writers at Weeds met at the beginning of each season and figured out the entire season in the room. They started by deciding where they want the season to go, what they want to say, and how to make it better than the previous one(s). Then, the room zeroes-in on plot points and stories they want to tell, as well as on character developments.
“As a room, we also break all the episodes— rough outlines,” Kohan elaborates. “Once we’ve gone through everything together as sort of mega-brain-group-think, people are assigned individual scripts, and they go off and write.”
“It’s a great room because, thanks to Jenji, it’s a room where there’s no ego, and the best idea is king, always. It doesn’t matter who it comes from,” Benabib adds.
“Then the [scripts] come back, and they’re rewritten and changed according to what’s needed,” he continues. “Jenji will take a pass through a lot of the scripts to make sure the voices are right. Then if a plotline needs to be adjusted—because we write these scripts so far ahead of time, we find a dynamic between two actors is either working better than we thought or not as well as we thought—we do so.”
One of the arc changes, Benabib says, had to do with the character of Silas.
“What we realized in the course of writing [second season] was that Silas was going to know what [Nancy] did for a living and want in on it. And it became more and more apparent to us as the season progressed.
“It’s almost like the character of Silas spoke to us and told us what he wanted and where he was going. We started to retrofit episodes so that he wanted to get more and more involved in the business, and his frustration at not being allowed to was one of the key factors that led us to our ending for season two. But if you had asked us at the beginning of the year what part will Silas play in that, we would have told you no part.”
Although they’ve had a few changes in staff, Kohan had the same core team of writers since the beginning. In addition to supervising producer Mark Burley, director Craig Zisk and Benabib, the core group consisted of writers Devon Shepard, Rolin Jones and Matthew Salsberg. (As a side note: Kohan executive produced the pilot for Salsberg’s Me & Lee? “I’m there to help him any way I can,” she says.)
“The rest of the staff switched a little, but those are my guys,” Kohan says. “They make my life possible. [Season three] I hired Blair Singer. I also hired two awesome chicks— Christina Booth and Victoria Morrow— because I did feel like I needed more ladies in the room. They turned out to be great.”
According to Kohan, the gender of the writers is not the issue. They are all talented.
“At the end of the day, it’s my show and I’m a woman. So, I’m sort of screaming the loudest,” she explains. “I think a good part of the reason Christina and Victoria are there is because I wanted a little more fortification. But just like I would never want anyone to tell me I couldn’t write male characters because I have a vagina, I think excluding them because of gender would be a terrible affront to my guys because they write the shit out of those ladies. They’re really good. As much as gender can inform your writing, I don’t think it’s everything because it’s about being a good writer, and I think I have really good writers.”
Kohan and Benabib agree that writing good material is the best way to get started in this business.
“There’s definitely a certain amount of craft involved,” Kohan explains, “and I think you need to learn your craft, but I think a lot of it is also talent. What makes my staff so incredible is that they’re just great writers. And I guess if you know that you’re good, just write a lot.”
“As a writer, your calling card is your material,” Benabib adds. “If your material is first class, it will find its way into a room because somebody will give it to somebody who’ll give it to somebody, and it will just float to the surface. The work to be done is as a writer, not as a networker.
“Everything is a learning experience. You work for Witt Thomas, [the company] that produced Herman’s Head, and they teach you how to edit comedy. Then you work for David E. Kelley, and he teaches you how to write drama and how to do both at the same time. Every person you work for that has talent, hopefully you learn a little something from.
“Every show is basically an exaggeration and a manifestation of its showrunner,” Benabib adds. “To have a show like Weeds that’s as good as it is, and to have someone like Jenji who’s just so wonderful and so collaborative and so devoid of ego and so talented, is pretty great.”
Jenji Kohan is just happy to be living her dream—to be able to write what she wants and to pay her bills.
“I can’t imagine doing much else,” she says.
“There are stories behind all of [the episodes],” Kohan continues. “I really have deep love and pain from all of them. It is very much like having a child. They’re all parts of a whole that I’m very grateful to be part of.”
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