Gossip Girl returns with a new diverse class of high school social elites, who navigate new terrains of social cliques, sexuality, and the new age of communication, all with their smartphone in hand.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Joshua Safran, the creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer of the much-anticipated reimagining of Gossip Girl. We take a deep dive into the beginning of his writing career to landing the original Gossip Girl, and his personal connection to the characters. Plus, Josh shares practical advice for writers who want to break into a writer's room.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity and does contain spoilers.
Sadie Dean: I really enjoyed this revamp of Gossip Girl and the new direction you’ve taken it. But first, I want to talk about you and your writing journey, especially in the TV world. What sparked your interest in becoming a TV writer?
Joshua Safran: Well, I was writing pilots for a long period in the early 2000s. And I’d written a bunch of them and I would sell them but they wouldn't get made. And I was writing features at the time then that also sort of which got made but my name wasn’t on them, or there was a bunch of rewrites. And then at a certain point there, the feature world just sort of felt like, you were lucky if you saw a project all the way through. Usually, there were like 10 writers on a movie or whatever. But if you were a pilot writer it was yours, so I started to really gravitate towards TV. And that was before there was like 500 shows on the air. It was a shallower pool, so it was a bit harder. I had this thing of like, “always a bridesmaid never a bride.”
I think at that point, I had written seven pilots that hadn’t been made. I think my seventh was greenlit, it was actually the last pilot greenlit by the WB, they ended up folding five days later. And then ended up also then becoming one of the first pilots greenlit by the CW, because that was newly formed in the weeks right after. And that was based on a book that even though it was greenlit and was going to get made, it turned out in the end that the negotiations for the rights to the book to television had never been properly closed or fulfilled, which is crazy. And so, the project died. But that was going to be my first pilot shot and everything. And so that was really hard for me. Luckily, Dawn at the CW and Peter Roth at Warner Brothers, both of which were involved in that project, were like, “Well, we have this show called Gossip Girl that we're doing, we would really love it if you would like to maybe be on staff on that show.” I didn't want to be on staff at that time, because I was really enjoying writing pilots and features from the comfort of my own home. And I had never been on staff before. But I knew Stephanie Savage from when she was a development executive and then a producer for Drew Barrymore’s company, and then at the McG’s company. And I really liked Stephanie. And so, I joined Gossip Girl as a consulting producer on season one, which is a kind of a three-day-a-week job they tell you, but it really is a five-day-a-week job. And then from that point forward, that was my life.
Sadie: What a whirlwind for your emotional state.
Joshua: Yeah, it was really tricky. I really believed in that pilot and it took me probably a good five years like I kept thinking, ‘maybe it will happen again.’ And then it never did, it just got to be greenlit by two separate entities. [laughs] It was hard.
Sadie: Now going back into this new version of Gossip Girl, what was it like revisiting this world and introducing a new cast of characters?
Joshua: It was really interesting. T do something that was once an adaptation as something kind of new, meaning the first time around all the leads were based on characters in the books and the writer's room of season one of the original Gossip Girl read the books, even though we weren't trying to be incredibly faithful because there weren't as many books as there were episodes, for instance, we still had things we could pull a really deep character well. In terms of like Nate Archibald’s family, there was a lot about his family in the books and a lot about Serena’s family. We didn't take all the details, it was really truly from scratch, with the exception of the narrator herself. And that was really interesting. I’ve done pilots adaptations, and then I've done pilot’s that are original, it felt more like an original pilot because there was no other than the school and like the setting in New York, and rich people, they were all new. So, it's really fun to create those characters.
[Editor’s Note: Episode one spoiler ahead]
Sadie: It’s such a great cast of characters, too. What was the idea to flip who the Gossip Girl was?
Joshua: Yes, I felt like in order to do the show again, there had to be something different. Otherwise, we should have just done this show with the original cast like 10 years later, which we aren't going to do because now that time has really passed. I could maybe do a movie with those characters within the series, but they all have careers and their own families, they're not necessarily looking to be on this series again. Because it was going to be new, it really just gave this like, ‘OK, where in the world did we not go the first time?’ Really, a very primary thing was why you learned that Dan was the Gossip Girl at the end of the series, you actually never saw in all I think 122 episodes, or however many there were, what it was like to actually post a post on Gossip Girl, what it was like to be on a date, and then actually go to the bathroom and post something about your date Serena and then come back to the table and see how it affected her, that this thing just came out online and know that you were the one who did it. And so, the ability to actually bring that new piece to this version, I think is the reason to do it, is to actually see what being the Gossip Girl means and see the toll that it takes on you. You see the issues of morality that you're playing with, the pain that you are causing, how it also corrupts and destroys you as well.
Sadie: Those instant ramifications. In the original Gossip Girl, blogging was in full swing, and now that's not really the “thing” anymore. Now there’s social media, and I feel like, especially as a teenager in high school, when you're going through hormonal changes, puberty, all of that, and then add social media to the mix. It sounds terrible. I don't think I would have been able to survive high school with social media. What were you tapping into, being a little bit older now, were you layering in some kind of fears into these characters or even the teachers of what you think would happen to you? Or how you would react to these situations?
Joshua: [laughs] I mean, all writing I think it has to come from yourself, otherwise it doesn't work, right? The show is incredibly autobiographical. I just know where those details are. As regards to navigating social media, it's hard for me to really say because I was a part of the first Gossip Girl, it was blogging, and it was sort of like the nascent stages of social media, because there was like a Gawker stalker type that happened. There were pieces pulled off the internet. But because I did that show, my view on social media, from in the last 14 years since Gossip Girl started, is filtered through always, what would Gossip Girl do about this? Even when I was done with that show in 2012, up until 2019, when I started again, I can't think of social media without thinking about Gossip Girl. I was like, ‘OK, how would I think Gossip Girl would navigate it?’ Like, what's one of the ways in which I navigated it was simply, it's in my bones. Like, her point of view is in my bones, how she would use it is in my bones.
With the way that we drove a lot of story the first time around is that we had to deal with Verizon, and they would bring us prototypes of phones that were coming up. They would come to the writer's room, and we all would look at the phones, and we'd all look at the different capabilities the phones had, that you didn't even know yet like, texting. Truly, things that had not even quite come to market yet. And we were like, “OK, we can use this, let's build a plot around it.” Now it's pretty much the same thing, except it's what can Instagram do? What can TikTok do? What can FaceTime do or Zoom? That could actually impact plot. I think I come to social media more from the plot brain and less from like, here are my fears. Here's how I live my life. Here's what I see.
Sadie: When putting the new class together for your writer’s room, what were you looking for in a writer to bring to these new characters?
Joshua: Basically, I was really hoping to obviously represent the sort of diversity of the characters in the room. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just all young people, because I think the first Gossip Girl writer’s room, we were definitely older, it's not as if the first time around, we were young and now we’re older. I was like, in my 30s and now I'm in my 40s. It’s not like I was in my 20s when the first one happened. [laughs] So we had a really good mix. What was so odd to me was in the world, a lot of people have seen the show, but we had some writers who actually hadn’t - they saw the pilot, or maybe like half of the first season - but they hadn't actually seen the show. And I realized early on in staffing that I actually kind of liked that. I didn't want people who just had the facility of infinity for the show, because I had been there for the first 111 episodes. I had the Immaculate recall. We didn't need that, really. One of the requirements was that you had to be on social media, I'm just thinking back, it's been so long, it was pre-COVID. That room was, started in, I want to say September 2019, it’s so long ago, almost two years to this point. But knowing social media, being on social media - I think we only had one writer out of nine or 10, that was not on social media, or had it but hadn’t really used it - and that was really important.
And also, I'm the one who kind of has all the pop culture references. That's something that I care a lot about. And I research a lot. And I spend a lot of my downtime just knowing the world. And again, I think when Gossip Girl came along, that was the best use of my brain.
In the first writer’s room, in version one, it’s very much like group therapy, we really bare our souls. Any great writer’s room will tell you that - you'll hear that a lot. I think in a show like this when you were a teen, that dealt very much about the first time you were betrayed, and the time that you lost your virginity, or when your parents did something to you that you'll never forget, you would talk about all those details. And the great stories would come from that, and I think that’s what elevated Gossip Girl -was that we were all pulling from reality inside ourselves. But I think this room, I said, “you’re going to have to make this group therapy. If you're somebody who doesn't always feel like they are safe and comfortable in a room, baring your soul, this may not be the job for you. Because other people will be baring their souls.” I walked people through that. We had one or two people who weren't that - that isn't just how they felt the most comfortable, but they were very comfortable with the people around those baring their souls and their souls came out there through their scripts, they weren't contributing to a story of when “did you lie to somebody the first time and they found out about it?” - maybe they didn't tell that story, but it was there in their script.
Sadie: In terms of characters, especially from either the original show or even this new one, are there any characters that you really resonate with or that you've put a lot of yourself into?
Joshua: I mean, really, truly, they are all pieces of me. Like, when I look at Audrey and Aki, I grew up on the Upper East Side, my grandmother was very much like, Chanel dress and pearls and you dress for dinner, and everything was plastic and perfect and you had impeccable table manners and all of that stuff. [laughs] But then I also my brother is Aki, a skateboarder, he dropped out of high school, he moved to Hawaii, so there's like pieces of everybody like Zoya – I grew up on the Upper East Side, but I grew up around exorbitant wealth. And while we didn't have money, we didn't have the money that other people had - I had to take the subway to school, people were being driven in their BMWs and Bentley's, I was taking a bag lunch, so I had a little bit of Dan Humphrey and Zoya. I just look at everybody, including the parents, like everybody has a bit of me, they're Gideon and Roy who plays Max's dads, there’s a conversation there in terms of sort of masculinity and femininity, in cisgender gay men, and that's something that I think about in terms of how I grew up with gay shame towards femininity, because I was told, “don't be gay, don't be gay,” like, and I'm exploring that in that storyline. I just feel like I can really point to pretty much any character and tell you where they connect to me. I feel very deeply embedded in the show in a way that I think that most people wouldn’t notice, and that's fine. It's for them to notice, just for me to write authentically for myself.
Sadie: I'm sure it's a great form of therapy for you as well.
Joshua: Totally, that’s my group therapy! [laughs]
Sadie: Knowing your background and what you've gone through and trying to get shows picked up and being tossed around - what kind of advice would you give a TV writer looking to get into a writer’s room? Is there something they should look out for or have in their toolkit once they’re going on that journey?
Joshua: Totally. For me, I often go to Twitter when I'm staffing because I don't want to rely just on the agency submissions - following showrunners, following producers and writers on Twitter, and starting conversations, or Instagram, wherever you prefer to DM people, get into conversations. And then also, I think most showrunners and EPs will tell you the amount, the sheer amount of scripts they get, I speak for myself, why I'd love to be able to read everybody's scripts, really I can't. I will always give somebody a full first act. If that first act is a teaser and it's only three pages, I will go to page 20. That's sort of my thing. And if by page 20 I’m hooked, I'll keep going. And if I'm not I put it down or prioritize it in a different way. I think that really showing your skill set out of the gate, whatever that skill set is because some writers are plot writers, some writers are character writers, some writers are dialogue writers, some writers are everything - when you're staffing, you're actually not looking for somebody who has it all in every area. Sometimes you are looking for somebody who's great at plot, who's going to really help you move that plot along. And it's OK, maybe their dialogue skills or their character skills aren't as deep yet, especially if you're looking at newer writers. There's no shame in that. It's just whatever your skillset is, making sure that those first 15 to 20 pages really have that I think is important.
And then also, I think the other biggest thing is, know the show you're going out for. Whether you're going to follow me on Twitter and talk to me - if you're going to approach me, you should like my shows, don't approach me in the hopes that I'm a gateway to some other showrunner on a show that you like. We can have sort of a Twitter relationship that way. But when it comes to staffing, because this happens a lot, somebody will send me their sample and their sample for Gossip Girl, for instance, will be like horror – sci-fi, and they won't say in their email or letter, “Hey, I know this sample isn't right for Gossip Girl, but I'm hoping you could take a look at how I plotted it because I really love Gossip Girl. And I would love to do something, just haven't gotten the chance.” It'll just simply be like, “Hey, I'd love a job in television. And here's my sample.” I kind of feel like when that happens, there's not a personal connection. If there's not a reason why, because there are so many writers out there who do have a reason why who say, “I want to write teen soaps” or “I want to write YA stuff for you” or “I want to write in the streaming world hour-longs that are character-based” - you do get enough of what you're looking for and so if there are newer writers, and they're trying to break in, my hope is there that will really fuse, they are material-driven in this piece speaks to them. That’s all I can say.
Sadie: I think that's stellar advice and noted that you're not the matchmaker, so don’t go after you for that.
Joshua: Right. But after you know me and we've been talking, let's say you submitted to me and it wasn't for us or I didn't have enough room and you see that I have a friend that's doing a show. Totally. Like, that's just not for the opening intro. [laughs] Once we get to know each other, for sure. I do like matchmaking, but I want to really know the person. I try to help them whenever possible. And I do promote from within. So that's the other thing. This whole idea of being a script coordinator, writer’s assistant, or PA isn't a gateway, it really is a gateway now more than ever, because there are so many shows and so many opportunities. And I always promote from within. No job is too small. Be an assistant, be a PA if you want to be a writer, more often than not showrunners and EPs and other writers are great. I’ve been on zoom for a while but they're coming back to life in reality, and I bring in the PAs to the room during lunch or after lunch, I bring my assistants in. I just feel like that's such a good way to get great experience.
Sadie: Oh, 100%. That's amazing that you do that, because not a lot of shows give those kinds of opportunities. I even saw that one of your previous PAs is now a writer on your show.
Sadie: Speaks a lot to your character as well. Well, Josh, thank you so much for your time. I’m a fan of the new iteration of the show. I'm definitely on the teacher's side of things.
Sadie: Best of luck with the show and I look forward to anything else you do in the future.
Josh: Thank you so much.
The HBO Max Original series Gossip Girl debuts Part One of its 12-episode first season with six episodes premiering weekly, beginning on Thursday, July 8 (12:01am PT/3:01am ET). Part Two's six episodes will follow this fall.