We recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Mark Schwahn, the creative mastermind behind One Tree Hill, the hit teen drama on The CW. Another interview in BuddyTV’s series of sit-downs with the TV industry’s biggest names, Mark Schwahn talked to us about the origin of One Tree Hill, on-set trials, the uncertainty of getting renewed and his exciting plans for season five of One Tree Hill. One Tree Hill airs on The CW every Wednesday at 9PM ET/PT.
How did you get into the world of television?
You know, I had a major in radio/TV/Film from the University of Maryland, but I was a musician at the time and wasn’t ever planning on using that major. But when I moved out to L.A. I was in a band, and the band all sort of turned tail and ran and I was still here and I had a girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I wanted to stay and I found myself sort of without a music career in a city that makes a lot of TV and film. So I started working for Sundance, and I worked for Doug Wick, who was making “Wolf” at the time, so it was kind of this cool balance between independent film, when independent film was blowing up, and studio films and I didn’t know anyone, so I interned and worked for free, and I got to learn everything from the ground floor on up.
So, I did a lot of reading and wrote a lot of script coverage and I sort of arrogantly believed that I could do better. I was seeing things that were being sold for a lot of money, and I was seeing things at Sundance that were being championed as really cutting edge and indie, so I think it was very healthy for me to see both sides of the spectrum, the show and the business, and that ultimately convinced me that I should be writing too. Fortunately, I was surrounded by good people and I ended up writing a film that I directed which got back into the Sundance film festival a year later and then I had my foot in the door.
I wrote several films after that, I had this great run where everything I was writing was getting made which doesn’t mean they were all good movies, some of them aren’t, but getting movies made was really difficult in this town and when you’re a young writer and a new writer, and its nice to have a reputation of A) being easy to work with, and B) you get movies made. So “The Perfect Score” got made, “Whatever it Takes” got made, “Coach Carter” got made, and I wrote One Tree Hill as a feature, and I would get to the President of the studio, and they would kill it because they didn’t feel like it was big enough in scope, and that sort of said to me TV, because it was character driven and it was situational and it wasn’t this great big movie, it was sort of this quiet movie about people.
So I was on set of “The Perfect Score”, and Brian Robins was directing it, and he’s the producer of our show now, and he said why don’t we go down and pitch it as a TV show and if somebody buys it great, and if they don’t buy it you still got your movie. So we did just that, and the WB bought it, and it was the last script they bought, it was the last script they ordered to pilot, it was the last pilot they picked up, and they picked it up for mid-season and then a Bruckheimer thing fell through, this thing called “Fearless”, so they accelerated us to Fall and it was the lowest rated show to debut on any network, but for like eight weeks straight it was the only show on any network that actually grew every week and I think in part it was because we started so poorly but also in part because when people found the show, because we had no advance press because we were rushed to Fall, when they found the show they stayed with it, and a few more people came every week, and by Christmas we were solid. We were working and we were sort of sniffing around the fringes of being a hit and then we got a nice promotional push over the holiday season and we were safe. And then every year we are not safe, and then we squeak through again, and we find ourselves shooting, like, episode 77 now.
A lot of your work (“Coach Carter”, “The Perfect Score”, One Tree Hill) involves basketball? Were you a fan growing up? Did you play?
Yeah I was a big fan, I was a pretty small kid so I never played organized ball, but like Mouth, I was probably closer to the character of Mouth, I loved the game and I hung around with a lot of the athletes and I played a lot of streetball like Lucas, and by the time I got to college I had a really good game and I ended up at the University of Maryland and I would play a lot on campus and got to know a lot of the guys on the team, and always been a big fan and now that I’m out here, I was a Cubs fan growing up and so I became a Clippers fan when I got to Los Angeles instead of a Lakers fan and have been a season ticket holder for a bunch of years and was thrilled to get Darius in “The Perfect Score”, because he was a Clipper then. I think with sports, we’ve seen it time and time again, there’s been some great sports movies made, it’s a great arena for telling stories about human character.
John Wooden had this really cool quote, he said that people say that losing builds character, but he used to say that losing defines character, reveals character. I think he’s right. When you put people in the sports arena, even in this day and age, a lot of the other stuff goes away and you find out what people are made of. Will they be gracious in the face of adversity? Will they rise above themselves and discover something about themselves? In this upcoming episode, Mouth has a little monologue, the Ravens are going to the state championship and Mouth has this really cool monologue that I wrote for him that sort of encapsulates what I think sports can be and what they mean and why we watch in this day and age when there’s so many prima donna athletes and it’s so corporate, yet it still reminds us that we can rise above ourselves and we still have greatness within us and I think that’s why I’ve always been so sports obsessed.
Are there any other teen shows that inspired you?
Yeah, I think most people you talk to will talk about “My So-Called Life”, which was a show that I really liked and thought was very human. I think it was extremely ambitious and the cool thing about it was it didn’t try to be hip or edgy, it was very true to itself. The Claire Danes character was so aching and so adolescent and I always say to my staff I wish we did a better job of that and I wish we let the small moments be the big moments. It’s what we always preached and it’s what we always planned to do, and if you look at the history of our show, you see less of that then you see car crashes and huge moments. But, at the spine of the show, they’re rarely about those huge things. It’s usually about something that’s a little more human and quiet, but I learned that from “My So-Called Life”, and I thought they did a great job of it. I loved “Freaks and Geeks”. I thought it was steeped with texture, but at the same time I knew that it wouldn’t find its way because it was titled “Freaks and Geeks” which was referencing a time that would make sense to adults more than kids.
Last year you had to weather the separation of stars Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush. Did that affect the on-set morale? How is it now?
You know what, they were really professional about it. Last year, I didn’t want to talk about it because it wasn’t any of my business and it really didn’t have anything to do with the show. We never, ever catered a story line to them, and we just can’t. I actually told them, and I have said this publicly, I told them when they were dating and when they were engaged that I hope you guys are happy forever, but if you’re not and something goes wrong, this is a business. We’re making a TV show and I can’t cater the story lines to your romances. We just can’t. We have this huge ensemble cast and once they had their troubles they were very professional about it. I know it was rumored that they didn’t want to work together and whatever, but they never approached me, their people never approached me, everybody just did their job. Now, I’m not in Wilmington everyday. I’m in L.A. most of the time, so I’m sure they had their moments on set. You have your moments anywhere in any workplace environment where you’re going through a breakup with somebody.
This year it’s so funny, I talked to Chad before the season started and he talked about wanting it to be very stress-free and I think what happens is when you get to the fourth season of a show it’s real. It’s not going anywhere. The first season you wonder if it’s going to find its way and if you’re going to be back. Then, second season the kids are buying houses and settling into Wilmington, and once you get to fourth season, this is what you do and you’re going to be doing it everyday and you need to find a way to make it fun and enjoy your work. I think people get a little restless, and even actors and producers and writers like myself…it’s kind of a nomadic existence where you go from project to project, especially in features, it’s like you go to summer camp and you’re with this group of people for a year and then you go to the next camp. With TV it’s more of a marathon than a sprint, and I think all of the actors have realized that this is what they do and Wilmington is their home now and, at least for now, they should learn to have fun with it because hit shows are so rare. So, when I’m there, it seems we have a lot of fun. We have our daily dramas, every show does, and if someone tells you they don’t, they’re lying. It’s an emotional craft; there aren’t any wrong or right answers. It’s not medicine, it’s not law. You can’t look in a book and say this is the answer. They’ll have their opinions, and I’ll have my opinions, and sometimes it gets a little heated, but I love them for the passion, even when I disagree with someone about something. And I hope that they respect me because I’m here 80 hours a week making One Tree Hill, it’s all I do now. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been great for me.
You have an interesting time slot. You have a great lead-in with America’s Next Top Model, but you’re up against a couple of big dogs like Lost and Criminal Minds. What was your reaction when CW announced their schedule?
Yeah, you know what, it’s a great question and I was thrilled to be included anywhere they were going to put us on the schedule. I would have been really disappointed if we didn’t get to complete the senior year of high school and finish some stories. I directed last season’s finale and we left with huge cliffhangers and it really would have disappointed me to not finish at least those story lines. I always said that if they gave us a fourth season, they’d want a fifth, and I still think that’s true. You can look at the numbers and spin them any way that you want. I can spin the numbers and tell you what’s really great about them and you can spin them and tell me what’s really bad about them and we’ll both be right. I wish our household number was better, it’s been better, it was better second season. Our demos are really good, but they could be better, and our retention of Top Model: nobody has ever retained more of that audience than we do.
I never worry about Lost or Criminal Minds or any of those shows. When I was on the WB, I worried about UPN because it felt equitable to me. Lost doesn’t feel equitable to me. I’m never going to win the battle. We’ll beat them in a demo or two, we’ll get more teen girls than they will, but in terms of households and stuff, everybody’s got it tough. Fans like to think that there’s competition between us and Veronica Mars, but it used to be us and The OC, then it was us and somebody else. I think that’s fodder for the fans, but I have nothing but love and praise for the guys that make their shows because I know how hard it is. No matter where they put us, we were going to run into somebody. At least I’m not against a Grey’s Anatomy or a show that’s really skewing to girls and women in a big way. I love Top Model as a lead in. I think they’re the biggest and the best in terms of what The CW has to offer. When they go down, we go down. That’s how it works, so I was happy to be included and I was happy with Top Model.
Paul Johansson (who plays Dan Scott on One Tree Hill) has begun to direct some episodes. Is it different having a cast member behind the camera?
Moira Kelly is directing this next one, she starts tomorrow, and she’s directed one other for us. Paul’s really good. He really understands the craft in terms of acting and he’s a really good director. Moira is just finding her way and she will always put the actor craft first. Like for her, she’ll go to the actors first and ask “What are you trying to do in this scene?”, “What do you want to feel in this scene?”, and that will dictate how she directs the scene. I think Paul will approach it more as a director saying “Here’s what I need from you in this scene,” even though he’s an actor. I’ve written and directed, and now acted a little bit. I did a small cameo in episode 10, so in a couple weeks will be the first time I’ve been on camera. But, as a director, it’s funny because I’m coming to it having written the episode first, so I try to envision everything from a directorial standpoint when I’m writing. Then I’ll go to the actors and try not to be too rigid while also conveying exactly what I saw in my head. I think when actors direct, they’re a little more free form and they’re a little more respective of the acting craft.
TV’s a weird beast in the fact that we have so many freelance directors come in. Out of 21 episodes this year, we’ll probably have 15 different directors, so what’s weird is you’re dealing with actors who are on their 80th episode of the show who inhabit those characters in a great way and know those characters really well, and then you’re bringing in a director whose going to direct them whose maybe done one before, maybe a couple before, maybe none. And there has to be a trust factor between the two of them. So I think having the actors direct, the ones that aspire to do it and will obviously be good at it, I always felt Moira would be good at it, I think that shorthand and that trust factor between them and the cast is a little stronger than it might be even with someone like me.
One Tree Hill has employed a creative chronology (two TV seasons per school year). Was this to simply maximize the hoops season, or were there other reasons?
It was partly that. In the second TV season we didn’t play any basketball, which was the rest of their junior year, and I felt that the show suffered a little bit. A lot of times the basketball games for us are like the crimes, or it’s the courtroom, the police precinct, or the medical operating arena – it was like our home turf. And while in all those other shows, they’re rarely about the actual case or medical issue they’re dealing with, it’s more about the people. For us, that’s what basketball was. It was never about playing basketball, but it was about what was happening to the people when this game or tournament was approaching. So, I did it for that reason. Plus, our kids are pretty accelerated, there aren’t a lot of adults around, so I wanted them driving cars and doing things upperclassmen would be doing. Lucas and Nathan were important players on the team, the most important, and I just couldn’t see that happening to freshman. And, I also wanted to keep them in high school longer. I know a lot of the shows that we started with, the kids are out of high school now and into college and what have you, and I always thought that there was a loss of energy when that happened. It’s hard to have everyone go to the same college and everyone stay together for whatever reason, or you lose some of your principles.
Last question. After this year, your High school characters will be going off to college. How will you make the transition into your 5th season?
I want to do something that’s unprecedented. And, maybe it’s unprecedented because it’s a bad idea, or maybe it’s unprecedented like the Nathan and Hailey marriage: just because nobody’s ever done it and it’s actually a very good idea. I want to skip college. And what I would do is graduate them at the end of season four and then we’ll pick them up five years later to start season five. The reason that this compels me is, first of all, I can drop into a world that feels new and, yet, familiar. What I mean by that is this: you know the characters and you’ve been with them for four years, but you don’t know what happened for the last four, and you can drop the audience into new situations. The kids can play closer to their age, and we’ve done a lot of what we would do in college in high school, in terms of that accelerated behavior. The other cool thing it does, and this was not by design, I’m not smart enough to design it this way, but the fact that Lucas and his mom and his dad, Dan, the fact that there was history, that we can always reach back and grab a piece of something over the last four years, like what happened with Dan and Karen, what happened before Lucas joined the team, etc. Like we dropped the audience into this world, but there was so much life before that, that you could always go back and grab a piece when you needed it. If Lucas is with a girl that we’ve never met, or with Peyton, or with Brooke, or living with Hailey and Nathan or whatever, how did that happen and what choices framed that? So, while you’re advancing and learning about his new career and what he’s doing after college, you’re also allowed to go back and pick out that night in college when it could have gone either way and the decision he made that night and how it frames where he’s at now. And I haven’t ever seen anyone do it, but I think it’s a great idea and, as a storyteller, the adrenaline I had in season one is increasingly difficult to find, but as a storyteller, to drop into a new world with all these characters that I love and tell new stories and yet be able to bounce back once in a while, it’s incredibly invigorating for me and I would think it would be for an audience too, as opposed to skipping ahead to college and doing the same old stuff.
It makes a hell of a lot of sense, college never works on high school shows.
I agree with you. I’m a guy that’s apt to tell you when I screwed up and when I’m wrong or what I could have done better, and try to learn from it. I really try to check my ego at the door, but I’ve got to tell you, jumping five years ahead, I think, is a great idea, and I’ll be the first one to tell you if I was wrong about it. But when we, when I, step into my writer’s room, we know when we feel the buzz of a great arc. When we wrote Psycho Derek, and talked about it as a group, we knew that it was a really cool storyline and that it was going to do great things for Peyton and make some great episodes and give us the flexibility to shake things up a little bit with her, and there’s a buzz that you feel. There’s a buzz that you feel when you write a great moment or when you come up with a great idea, you realize how it will inform all the characters in their journeys. And that’s what this idea does for me and does for the writer’s room. So, I’m hopeful we get the fifth season and, if we do, that’s what I’m going to present to my studio and my network because I think it’s the best thing for the show and for the actors that have been here for 90 episodes. I think it will be fun for them too.
Thank you. I really appreciate you guys. And, by the way, tomorrow night’s episode is the biggest episode we’ve ever made. It’s great and I’m very proud of it. And then we have one more before we go into our hiatus, it’s amazing too. So, the next two episodes, I’m as proud of them as any other episodes that we’ve made.