Liz Tigelaar is a writer/producer who has worked on television shows, such as “Brothers & Sisters,” “Melrose Place,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Revenge” and “Nashville.” Tigelaar created the much loved CW show, “Life Unexpected” and has just announced that she has had a drama pilot picked up by Bravo network called “The Joneses.” I talked to Tigelaar last summer at the 2012 ATX Television Festival in Austin, TX.
Hi Liz, I’m from the CW station in Atlanta. I just want to say that we all loved your show “Life Unexpected” that aired on the CW network for two seasons. We still have fans that ask about that show.
Oh, how nice.
Let’s talk about “Life Unexpected” and what the experience was creating that show and how long it took you to get it on the network, because I know even getting the pilot made was tough.
Well, we started developing it back in 2007 when I came up with the idea. There was a director named Gary Fleder, who I joined forces with to come up with the idea of the show. We then worked together to figure out the pitch. We first pitched the show to ABC Studios, then we ended up selling it to the CW. But then the writers’ strike happened; which meant that we had to put everything on hold for a while. By then we had gone through what seemed like a billion outlines. After the strike ended, I completed a script and handed it in, but the CW didn’t really like that script; they wanted it to be different. So I kind of went into a crisis mode, thinking I was going to have to make a lot of changes. But one of the executives from the network came down and said, you don’t have to make a bunch of changes, just a few. I made the changes, handed it in April, was supposed to hear back from the network by July.
I didn’t think it had gotten picked up but in September they told me that it had. But then the economy crashed and ABC studios told us they didn’t want to do the show. So we had a network but no place to do the show at. So we had to find another studio to be involved and finally CBS studios said yes. We shot the pilot in January 2009. Now we were supposed to just shoot a presentation, which is about half a pilot. But we decided to shoot the whole pilot with the same amount of money and shot it in seven days. So we were the first pilot shot and the last pilot to be picked up. We started shooting in the fall of 2009 and we started airing on the CW network in 2010, with almost our entire series airing in 2010.
When casting for the part of Cate, was Shiri Appleby your first choice to play the role?
No, I didn’t create the character with her in mind. We did want her very early on. We were very excited to have her in the role but she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it and had a bunch of roles that might be coming up for her. So we had to kind of start looking elsewhere. But the CW really wanted a big name, someone the public knew. So we approached Brittany Murphy, Mena Suvari, and a few others. It was such an eclectic list of actors. But finally Sheri called us up and said she had thought about it and was interested. So we ended up actually casting her last for the major characters.
I remember already prepping for the pilot when they took her in for network testing. I was so freaked out about our casting for Cate that I was literally under the covers in my bed in the fetal position while they were in the session, waiting for phone. I just couldn’t do anything until I heard. I kept saying to myself in bed, is this going to happen? And then I found out we got Shiri and I was really, really happy.
Well, you couldn’t have picked a better person for that part.
No, absolutely not. I mean as enthusiastic as I was for her casting at the start, as the show continued, it only grew. And it really became her role.
As you were writing and producing the show, what character surprised you the most? As the characters developed throughout the show, which one surprised you?
In think something about Baze surprised me. I think his character could do no wrong because he was the most beloved character on the show. I never anticipated that would be that case. I was surprised and excited on how much his character popped as Kris Polaha developed his role. Kris had already gone through the being a star on the WB and having his character of Baze take off was fun to watch. I talk to Kris a lot and I know, through talking with him that he had the most affinity for his character and he is the one who misses his character the most.
I follow you and bunch of the cast on Twitter and it is very evident that you had a great bunch of people in the cast and crew that really enjoy, still to this day, being around each other. Good example is the turnout of the cast to the ATX Festival, including Ksenai Solo (Lux’s best friend Natasha), who came here at the last minute. It shows what a great atmosphere you created on the set.
Yeah, I always wanted it to feel like a family. I always hoped that people would feel invested in it as a project where we were all in it together. The camaraderie and the atmosphere created, and it wasn’t just created by me but by everyone, was really important. I can look back at the show and say that while there were things I could have done better, but that one thing, the family atmosphere on the set was done really, really well. And it’s really stuck. I mean, we all see each other, in some way or form, at least once a month. Everyone’s in touch and having dinners with each other. We all root for each other and we genuinely close which makes it nice because it was hard enough to give up characters, but it’s nice that we don’t have to give up the people who made those characters.
Now, obviously, you would have liked to have seen the show go on for 5 or 6 years. But at least you were given the opportunity to wrap things up. While it was faster than you wanted it to be, were you still happy with how things ended up in the series, like who ended up with who, how the characters ended up at the end of the finale?
Yes I was most happy with the fact that we were able to give it and ending. And even though I feel that the jump forward was a bit of a cop out, we just didn’t have any other option to wrap the series up but to do it. I was really happy with the idea of wrapping it up and when I watched that episode it really felt like the end of the series to me. I get emotional when I think about the end of the episode because it really felt like an ending.
There is one little nagging debate that I had, which was did Lux or Natasha end up with Jones. I wanted it to be Natasha, which we argued about it quite a bit in the writers room, because I wanted her to have a win, but on the other hand I wanted it to be Lux because I wanted to show that Lux could make a healthy relationship choice; which I felt it was important for us to see there at the end. I felt that Tasha got screwed at the expense of Lux but because that last scene, Natasha is taking the picture, I’m thinking that she’s over it and is happy for them.
Well last season you wrote scripts on a couple of shows that were very successful, “Once Upon a Time” and “Revenge.” Those are two very different shows. One is a fantasy that has fun with fairy tales and the other is a heavy drama with a lot of intrigue and backstabbing. What’s it like switching off between the two shows that are quite different, though I will say, you do have back stabbers in both.
I had done it one other time when I was doing “Brothers & Sisters” and I left to do an episode of “Dirty, Sexy, Money” and then came back to” Brothers & Sisters.” So I had done it before. It’s always fun to shake it up and it’s nice, say at the half way point of a season, to go over and switch gears to tackle something else. It was a lot of fun. “Once Upon a Time” appealed to me because, thematically, it was a show that was very similar to “Life Unexpected,” although it’s a totally different show and much more genre based. I felt it is a show about family, women, lost identity, trying to find out where you belong, adoption versus biological, the family of origin versus the family you create; so it was very appealing to me thematically. But is genre stuff my specialty, no.
Now “Revenge” tapped into soapiness and fun. I love Emily VanCamp, having worked with her on “Brothers & Sisters” and I think she just does such an amazing job on “Revenge.” It is just so much fun to write. It’s an easier show for me to write. The writing just flowed, almost effortlessly. It was great to write for that show and it was a great writing staff. I was a fan of Mike Kelly’s work from “Swingtown” and liked the way his mind worked. It’s always fun to work with new show runners, to see how they approach things. So with both shows, I was able to pick up some new things, seeing maybe a different way to deal with stuff; which made it a great learning experience. And now I am off to work on the ABC network show “Nashville,” so that will be a fun, new experience.
Wow, that will be a great show with Connie Britton, who is loved here in Austin for doing “Friday Night Lights!”
Yes, I am excited to be working on “Nashville.” Callie Khouri who created “Nashville,” wrote one of the all-time best movies in “Thelma & Louise.” She’s just such a great presence. I’ve never worked for a female show runner before, so I am excited to be working for Callie. I feel that I am going to learn a lot because she is such a wealth of knowledge. There is an incredible world that she has created inside of her head. When she speaks about her characters, she speaks with the same passion that I speak about the characters that I have created.
Speaking as a woman that works in an industry that is male dominated – although it is getting better with more female directors, writers and show runners every year – what advice can you give a female that wants to work in this industry, especially if they want to be a writer?
The first piece of advice is just write. You have to be writing all the time. To get into the field you have to have a combination of having the material and being in the right place at the right time. Make sure to network; meet as many people in the industry as you can. With women, it is important to be confident in yourself and your work. You have to be confident to succeed in a male dominated workplace. You have to stand up and be heard. Don’t fall back on the “I’m just a girl” mentality. Don’t perpetuate it. Speak up and be a strong woman. Those are things that I have had to do and overcome. Being a show runner really helps with that, because you have to take charge and make decisions, you can’t cower in the background, you have to step up and handle things. Stand up and speak up but do it as someone who has confidence but also compassion.
To end our talk, I always like to ask people in the industry what shows they watch, what shows ore on their TIVO or which shows do they watch over and over. What are yours?
Well, “Friday Night Lights” is my all-time favorite show, I love it more than anything. I never missed an episode and watch all the episodes at least twice. It was just perfection. Right now, I would say “Homeland,” “Enlightened” and “Girls.” Those shows all appeal to me because at the center of the show is a flawed, really messy woman and aren’t like your packaged woman on typical TV, they are real.
Well, thank you Liz and I wish you much success with Nashville and your future projects.
Thank you so much. This was fun.
ATX Television Festival: ATX Television Festival Website