Julie Plec recently spoke with Inside TV
When did you know TV was your home instead of film?
I had a moment, and this is again before I knew I was a writer, when I had just gotten my first TiVo, and I was watching Buffy, Angel, Once and Again, Ally McBeal, The Practice, and The West Wing religiously and realized, you know, I haven’t seen a movie I liked in, like, six months, but every single night I’m watching one, two, sometimes three shows that deliver emotionally every single week. And if there’s a bad episode of your favorite show, you know the next week is probably gonna go right back to being great. And I had this sort of epiphany as a fan, and as someone who loves other people’s storytelling, that really television was where it was at and what I should be doing. I blame David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon. [Laughs]
Was there ever a moment when you almost gave up?
For someone who’s been as blessed and as nurtured and well-treated as I have by the people who have done so well by me, I did sort of have a moment that took a lot out of me. I was celebrating my 30th birthday with Greg — he and I were born two days apart — and we were having a big party to ring in our thirties as he was about to go start doing both Dawson’s Creek and Everwood. And I had just found out that week that I had made an enemy of a very important person who had basically made it clear that I would not be welcome working with them, near them, or around them. And this person was important enough that it hit me very hard in the heart, and it also set me back personally, emotionally, and professionally for a good couple years. And I had to not so much work it out with that person, because it ultimately didn’t matter, but with myself, because it made me feel like I couldn’t trust my own sense of self. When all was said and done, it was a very valuable professional lesson and a very valuable life lesson, but it took a lot of years to rebuild a true confidence and be comfortable with my personality, with my work ethic, with my passion, with my creativity, and with who I was.
If you had a time machine, what would you do differently?
I have developed a pathological self-awareness over 17 years in this business, so rarely does it surprise me to get a critique or bad news or a note. I’ve usually thought through every single scenario. But early in my career, I was less self-aware and wasn’t really thinking of consequences of what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. In my mind, I was operating from a place of passion and enthusiasm. But when all is said and done, it was just kind of impolitic and a little bit naïve. So, while nobody should have to play politics too hard, because that takes away your sense of spontaneity and being true to yourself, there is a line that you should learn young [Laughs] because it can bite you in the ass pretty hard if you’re not at least aware that that line exists.
Where do you draw inspiration from today?
I draw from books and other people’s television shows. I read a lot. On vacation, I make a point of trying to read at least one or two books a day because when you read other people’s words, it awakens and energizes your own brain. Your brain can get really stale when you’re the only person coming up with ideas or talking to yourself. So that’s a big thing for me, to just constantly be filling my mind with other people’s storytelling. And then the other thing is, I’m a big people person. I love to sit around and drink wine and have five-hour dinners and chat. Hearing other people’s stories and trying to understand what makes people do what they do and say what they say, I can then take that into shaping of characters that I write for. Then I feel like I’ve got a context for human behavior as a result of just being genuinely interested and connected to people.
Do you write ideas down in a book?
It’s all filed in my mind. I call it my insomnia diary. When I’m really having a hard time falling asleep, which is often if I’m stressed out about a deadline or life stuff, I’ll page through the insomnia diary, and think, “Oh god, remember that idea I had five years ago. I wonder what I could do with that story?” And just the act of trying to break and craft a new story usually puts me to sleep promptly. [Laughs] So it never develops into anything brilliant, but it’s a really good sleep aid.
Who do you turn to when you do get stuck creatively?
I have what I call my Cosmo Girls, which is Liz Tigelaar and Marguerite MacIntyre, who plays Sheriff Forbes on The Vampire Diaries and was also on Kyle XY and who is an exceptional writer. She is our secret weapon. Liz and I, each struggling to break our own story or just dealing with plotting or creative frustrations, will talk it through with each other and talk it through with Marguerite, and inevitably, Marguerite will be the one to come up with the solution. [Laughs] So she could make a living being the writer muse. My favorite thing to do when Liz was working briefly on Melrose Place, was to do pitch her ideas over dinner. Because I was just so excited to be thinking about anything other than The Vampire Diaries scripts that we were really behind on at the time.
Before Vampire Diaries‘ second season, you, Kevin, and I talked about your show’s pacing. Every episode feels like a big episode. What’s your secret?
We try to break a season down into a series of chapters, so that four times a year, basically, you’re getting a season finale, and four times a year you’re getting a premiere. Then there’s always something really big moving the story forward, and if somebody doesn’t like something, odds are good we’re going to be moving on from it within a month. So it keeps the audience guessing, it keeps the story itself feeling energized, and it makes it infinitely easier to break a season if you’re not looking at a big, daunting, 22-episode mountain. You’re looking at a series of mini-mountains.
You’re using an April episode of The Vampire Diaries as a backdoor pilot for a spinoff centered on the Originals. Do you have a grand plan for Vampire Diaries in terms of how many season it will go and how it will end?
Kevin and I, early in season 2 in fact, were sitting in a mall in Atlanta drinking Diet Coke, missing a deadline, and writing in the public area because it had Internet, and we came up with the way we see the series ending. I think the question in a show like The Vampire Diaries is really how Damon, Elena, and Stefan’s journey ends. We know how we want Elena’s journey to end as it relates to both her character and her relationship with the two brothers, and how we want the brothers’ relationship with each other to end. So that could come in year 6, if [the actors] decided they were ready to move on, or it could come in year 10, you never know.
The CW also just ordered a pilot of the show you’re developing with Greg, an adaptation of the ’70s British sci-fi series The Tomorrow People. How did that come about?
He and I both watched it on Nickelodeon when we were kids, because they aired that right before You Can’t Do That on Television. [Laughs] And I could never find another person who had ever even heard of it, except for Greg in college once, so we were kindred spirits from the get-go. He calls up and he said, “Remember that show that you and I talked about all the time, and how nobody else that we knew had ever seen it, but we always said we wanted to make it into a TV show?” And I said, “Yep.” And he said, “I just got the rights, and you’re a producer now.” And I said, “Well, that’s the easiest job I’ve ever got in my life, so thank you very much.” It’s so great. He’s been so busy for the last seven, eight years, and I’ve been so busy for the last seven, eight years that we haven’t had a chance to do what we used to do, which is sit around over a bowl of Chinese food and talk about stories. It’s been really fun to get to play with him a little bit again.
For more with Plec and other Women Who Run TV, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands February 1.