This summer at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas I had the honor of interviewing Julie Plec is the Co-Developer/Executive Producer and lead writer of “The Vampire Diaries.”
Mike: So, we are coming up on the fourth season of “The Vampire Diaries.” And, last season was a rather bumpy ride with a lot of changes, especially with character growth. A lot of the characters seemed to figure out what their place is in this strange world of Mystic Falls. Which characters changed the most this past season?
Julie: Well, hopefully everybody changed because everyone is on a journey that is continually changing and shifting. We especially saw a tremendous growth in Alaric’s character who reluctantly took on the world’s authority at the very beginning of the season and by the end of the season was the most powerful guardian but also the most powerful villain in the show – a man that ultimately succumbed to his villainy.
I also thought that Tyler had an arc of many, many layers – from the all-powerful, vicious, uncompromising villain to a very layered character who had some very deep rooted issues about abandonment, mistrust and loyalty. Plus, we saw that he had a little crush on a girl. Damon displayed growth in his trajectory from villain to hero. And, Stefan’s fall from grace this past season – where he went from hero to villain. All that made it a big season of shifts.
When you started the show, movies such as “Twilight” were already out, and this show was based on an already established book series. Have the fans of the book series been supportive of the changes you made to the characters in the show, some of which are different from what is portrayed in the books?
Julie: Yes, we have been incredibly lucky in that our fan base that began from the book world was very open-minded in the beginning and very supportive of the show. They jumped on board with the show and became very supportive of the changes we made, not just with the little things like hair color, but also with the big changes that we made, like Elena having a brother instead of a sister, like it is in the book.
They also supported us with even bigger changes, like having Caroline turn into a vampire and the characterizing of Klaus as a main character and not just a supporting villain. We have been very blessed from the feedback of the fans of the books. But, they do let us know when they think we have made mistakes, and we hear that, sometimes using that feedback to make changes in the show. The fans of the books for the most part have been able to use the show as a companion to the book series, letting us know how much they love the show.
In your cast you have Nina Dobrev, who, at times plays two different characters, the heroine Elena and the evil vampire Katherine, where she plays a part and sometimes changes from one character to the other in a matter of seconds. When writing the show, do you keep in mind that she has that type of range?
Julie: When we are writing the parts of Elena and Katherine, we keep in mind the beauty of Nina’s talents, and we look at the parts as two separate characters. We think of Katherine as her own separate entity, sometimes to the detriment of Nina Dobrev, the actress, because sometimes we will put her in twice, where she is in every scene. Sometimes we have to pull ourselves back a bit because we don’t want to overtax her. But, the fun of it is her versatility and how she is willing to get into the part with full gusto, making each role seem so completely different.
One of the things I love about the show is how Caroline has gone from the ditzy self-centered airhead to a really strong, vibrant, kick-butt, take charge person that is a total transformation from what she was at the beginning of the show in the first season. That must be fun to write for a character that has developed so much.
Julie: That was such a delightful outcome of a bold choice to take her character and turn her into a vampire that early in the show. I like to say that Caroline didn’t find herself until she lost her life. Caroline is just at the beginning, and there is so much great stuff that we can do with her character. There still is that strange, perverse fascination with Klaus that she has that is lingering about. There is also her deep, deep love for Tyler that is ill-fated and epic at the same time. There is her friendship with Stefan and then there is college, where she could become a sorority girl. We have so much fun playing with her character. We always hope that when we put a character on a journey, that it will turn out well and that makes it gratifying.
I think the fans are ready for the cast to leave high school behind and get into the college life. That transition is coming soon, right?
Yes, this season will be the end of high school for us. We are heading for high school graduation.
Because with Stefan, it seems as though he has been in high school since the Civil War, so it’s time for him to go to college.
Julie: Yes, exactly. We have to get him graduated.
So, “The Vampire Diaries” is famous for killing off major characters, almost from day. For instance, the character of the vampire Lexi, whom everyone really liked from the moment that she appeared on screen, and you killed her off in the same episode. Was the series designed from the start to be the kind of series where the viewers can’t take you for granted?
Julie: Yes, Kevin Williamson, who in my opinion, could teach a master class in storytelling, very strongly believes that you have to tell your audience that anything can happen at any time. And you have to pull the rug out from under them at a time that they would never see coming. It’s a way to tell your audience, hey, by the way, you better keep watching because you don’t know what’s to come. So it’s actually like a one, two punch. For instance, killing Vicki Donovan in the 6th episode of the first season was shocking to the audience because she was a series regular and we had just started the show, and, then we follow that with the appearance of Lexi and her sudden death. We tell the audience that every rule that you know about the show can be broken, that the audience is going to have to just watch and see what happens next.
It’s not all doom and gloom on the show. You do have certain characters that exhibit a bit of humor, Damon especially. It that a tool that you use in the storytelling?
Julie: Yes, for sure. The way that the show evolved pretty quickly is the show is pretty sad, with a lot of deaths, a lot of grief and lot of loss. The show contains a lot of conflict, sorrow, and even a lot of the love is tragic. So, we look to find some levity, to allow our characters to crack a smile, to have a good time. We let them experience joy for a small amount of time, so at least for a small amount of time they have a good time. Damon, especially, is a character that allows us to give the audience that experience, with just a wink or a smirk. Damon gives us a chance for his character to give off a one liner or a snarky comeback.
But it gets harder and harder to show the characters on the show just having fun because the stakes are so high in the world around them. That’s one of the hardest things about writing for the show. It’s tough to figure out who we can show our characters having some fun even though danger is lurking just around the corner. So it’s kind of like our characters say, oh, it’s decade dance again and that never goes well. But, hey, let’s all have fun until it all goes to hell.
What’s it like shooting the show in Atlanta?
Julie: I have nothing but amazing things to say about our experiences in Atlanta. What we have been able to do is double our production value from what it would be if we were shooting in Los Angeles. We have been able to take several warehouses for studios. Our production office has acres and acres of woods off the parking lot where we can go and shoot. So much of where we shoot has become our own, mini world where we can do anything we want. So we have been able to build a Viking village and a cemetery and a church ruins, all that in our backyard. Our production office itself is our high school in the show. Almost everything that we shoot is right there on our property. And then, within 20 minutes, any way you go, you’ve got glorious, rambling old mansions and quaint, small towns. For instance, you have the town of Covington, Georgia, with its perfect town square. Everywhere we go, it’s just been beautiful, beautiful locations where we can shoot.
And the crew base has been growing with all the shows that are shot in Atlanta, so you are getting some really great craftsmen and artists that are now local and available for the shows. They are as good as anyone you work with in California, so it’s been a really good experience for us. Plus, with our cast, a bunch of twenty-something’s getting famous, it makes it nice that they aren’t in LA, where they could get into god knows what. What makes it great by being in Atlanta is we all hang-out together, going out to dinner at Bones or have coffee at some small coffee house. We even go play Boche Ball in Decatur, so it’s kind of a great little world that we have created there in Atlanta.
Yes, just following you and your cast’s Twitter accounts I see that you guys get together quite a bit. It seems Kat Graham does quite a bit of the organizing of the troops. It shows that the cast gets along really well and that comes off in the show.
Julie: Yeah, the camaraderie of the cast started from day one of shooting the pilot. You know, when you are away from your home and you are shooting in a new town, your co-workers become your family and your friends. So it’s really important to a show that everyone likes each other, so it’s important to have family dinners and organized outings like going out after work to have a beer. We’ve even had wine tastings at people’s houses, where the cast and crew bring wine and we just hang out and enjoy each other’s company. It’s a great way to build that family atmosphere.
On “The Vampire Diaries,” characters do die but we’ve seen that they also can comeback. I think it’s one of the things that the fans like about the show, that even if a favorite character has died, there is always a chance that they can come back. If there a character that you regret killing off?
Julie: I don’t regret doing this because it was a good story line but personally and professionally, I regret killing Alaric because that character was very dear to me. And Matthew Davis is very dear to me, and it is sad that he won’t be part of the day to day world anymore. But as far as his character, you couldn’t ask for a better beginning, middle and end. His character had an amazing journey and creatively, it worked out really well for us, but personally it was a little bittersweet. I think that Bonnie’s Grams character could have served more of a purpose on a human level before she left, so that was a little bit of a regret. The characters that are tough to kill are the human ones, because we know we won’t see them on the other side.
The Vampire Diaries premieres on Thursday Oct 11th at 8 pm on CW69.