It's hard to believe that this is my fifth year covering the Vancouver International Film Festival as a member of the press. It's even harder to believe that in those 5 years, with my love of movies in just about every conceivable way from the business to the creative, I up until this year hadn't even attended one session at the "Film and TV Forum", a series of industry sessions that run over the first few days of the festival at the Vancity Theatre. There had been sessions in the past that had interested me but for whatever reason it always took a back seat. However, that would all change this year when during the festival's opening press conference it was announced that the mastermind of one of my favorite current television programs would be a keynote speaker, someone whose name I would not have even known 6 months back but boy do I know it now.
It was the lazy days of summer and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I decided to rent some DVDs of a show called Weeds, a series I had heard nothing but good things about but which failed to capture my interest when it originally started airing a few years back. Well, a long story short and a few sleepless nights later, I was caught up to the premiere of Season 4 and it was one of my must-watch shows. Event television in the biggest way.
Creator, writer, director and executive producer Jenji Kohan's world of a suburban house wife dealing with the death of her husband and managing her kids, all the while entering the business of selling pot was and is a well-written piece of modern television the likes of which you won't find on the broadcast networks. So when I heard she was coming to town, it was priority 1 to secure a ticket to the panel discussion and priority 2 to see if she could find some time in her busy schedule to chat about the series, the characters, the future, and just what makes the show tick. Luckily, I was successful on both counts, and I had the opportunity to talk with Ms Kohan on the phone from Los Angeles in advance of her visit. Here is that conversation!
Mark McLeod: The reason we're talking this afternoon is because you're coming to Vancouver on Friday to speak at the Vancouver International Film and TV Forum on a panel about Celebrating TV's Bad Guys.
Jenji Kohan: Well more like "outlaws". I'm not going to say bad guys.
MM: Now Nancy is kind of an outlaw, but really, if you ask me, I think she's just made some bad choices. Starting with Nancy, how have you been able to write such a strong character?
JK: Wow. I just write it. You know, I really love writing and watching flawed characters. I love people who make mistakes and keep trying. It's just so human and so relatable. It's just what I like writing.
MM: Just as a viewer and in watching it, it's surprising how many bad decisions continue to be made.
JK: Yeah, but think of all the bad decisions that you and I make. People make bad decisions. I think we're just so used to seeing characters on television who always do the right thing and never make the wrong decisions. They are clear cut heroes or villains. I think that really everyone tends to fall somewhere in the middle of that. We really need to be represented on TV and people make huge mistakes, really bad choices, and life goes on and they suffer the consequences or they find something new -- learn or don't learn. It's just such a human condition.
MM: I think that's very true. I know I myself have made a series of bad decisions and have kept moving on from that and dealing with the ramifications of my actions. Now with such a well-written show, how important is the relationship between the writers and the actors? Do the actors often come to you with ideas on where to take their characters?
JK: The actors, at least on Weeds, tend to be reactive and not proactive. I mean, Mary-Louise (Parker) really inhabits Nancy and she has all sorts of ideas on who Nancy is and how she is playing her and what motivates her. We basically present the scripts and then we have a discussion and sometimes she'll come back and say, 'I don't think she'd do that and this is why' and I'll say, 'Maybe she would' and it's really like raising a child together. We're both parents to the character of Nancy Botwin.
MM: Now, Season 4 has just recently ended in the U.S., but with this season you sort of rebooted the storyline and took it out of that suburban California town. Did you feel that after three seasons you had to make a change?
JK: Absolutely. I think that my writers' room was just getting tired of the same sort of environment and everyone was thinking about the things they were going to write in the off-season. So I panicked because I don't want my writers writing their best material when we're not working on Weeds. I basically asked, 'What's it going to take to reinvigorate everyone and make you excited about writing the show again?' and the answer was change. So we went out and changed everything.
MM: Just for me anyway, I felt that the third season sort of fell into a rut compared to the first two -- like you got stuck.
JK: I think we did get stuck a little bit during the season, but also I think we were overwhelmed because there were a couple more episodes than we had done in a season and there were no breaks. It was just a hard season to put together.
MM: More and more, TV creators are coming out and saying that they have an end game for their series, like Lost in a couple more seasons. Is the end of the series already planned out and we're just working our way there?
JK: Not at all. We're really flying by the seat of our pants. What we always say is that the finale for the previous season is the pilot for the next season. But really that's only as far as we're thinking right now.
MM: Especially with the finales of your show more than, say, most others, they are certainly amongst the most gripping episodes of the season. They are really huge cliffhangers. How do you write such strong finales, because when I started watching the show over the summer before the latest season started, I managed to get hooked on all 3 seasons over the course of a weekend and I really only stopped to change discs.
JK: That's so nice to hear that you got into it that way. It's just sort of what we do, and we've developed a tone and a language for the show, and that's really how we pull it out of our asses every year.
MM: The show originally took place in a small community and you've opened it up a bit with the Mexican elements. Is the show really just about doing/selling weed and the subculture of the drug, or is there more going on here?
JK: Oh no, I don't think it's about someone selling or doing weed at all. It's an outlaw show. It's someone who's operating outside of society's moral code and is trying to create her own and seeing what that looks like. It's really a show about the grey areas and coping and surviving and finding what you're good at and love to do. I think marijuana is the armature we hang it on, but I'd like to believe that it's so much more.
MM: To me there's a lot about family in the show as well, and how people's choices affect themselves and the people that surround them. I've touched on the finales a bit already, but in this season's finale which recently aired in the States and will soon air up here in Canada, you do bring back a character from the first season – Quinn -- who everyone probably thought was left for dead somewhere.
MM: And you've had a lot of characters that have come in and done very strong supporting arcs.
MM: Are we going to see any of these people in the future?
JK: I'm not sure yet. We like to bring people in and out of the show because I think in life people come in and out of your life, and we're trying to reflect that on the show to a certain degree. We don't have a plan for who is staying or who's going. I think when the writers reconvene in January, we'll probably sit down and say, 'What do we do now?'
MM: I mentioned earlier that I picked up the series on DVD. Have the sales of the DVD sets really helped the show go forward and find an audience?
JK: I think so. You're only going to reach so many people on Showtime when you have a subscriber base and people have a lot of different feelings about subscribing to pay cable. I think people have developed a DVD habit, and when they hear about something they'll Netflix it or buy it, and I think we've been able to reach a much broader audience that way.
MM: Is there anything you can tell me about Season 5?
JK: No idea, really. I think if we had plans for where we're headed, the audience would be ahead of us. If we were clearly leading in a direction, it would stand to reason that the fans would know. So when we sit down to write a season, we have no idea. There are probably lots of theories out there, but the truth is we really don't know yet.
MM: I always like to ask people to describe themselves in one word...
JK: Oh my gosh. I don't think I'd reduce myself to a single word. I think so much of what the show is, is to talk about how complex people are, and I think it goes against everything I believe in to reduce someone to a single word.
MM: Very good point, and a perfect answer to wrap up on. Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me this afternoon.
JK: You're very welcome.
Jenji Kohan appeared on Friday, September 26th, 2008 as part of a panel discussion on "Celebrating TV Outlaws". Her co-panelist was James Manos, Jr., a screenwriter whose past credits include Dexter, The Shield, and The Sopranos. Both were in town as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival's newly renamed Film and TV Forum, a point humorously brought forward by forum moderator Helen Du Toit explaining the confusion surrounding the new name. The 4th season of Weeds has recently wrapped up in the U.S. on Showtime and is currently airing on Showcase in Canada.
For more information on the Film and TV Forum and to register for updates regarding next year's panels, please visit www.viff.org/forum.
Special thanks to Jenji Kohan, her assistant and everyone at Jenji Kohan's office, and Shelley Grainger.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.