In choosing to enrol in Innis College, the impressive list of accomplished alumni currently working in the film and television industry assured me that as a youth filmmaker, I would be in an exceptional position. I have since had the wonderful pleasure of meeting and gaining valuable insights from Innis alumni such as Degrassi creator, Linda Schuyler; Canadian screenwriter Tassie Cameron; Canadian television personality, Jessi Cruickshank and now, Canadian screenwriter and producer, Stephanie Savage, co-creator of the Gossip Girl series.
When I was notified that Stephanie was coming to Innis College, I was one of the first to register for the “Savage Sisters Event” that took place at Innis Residence on September 22nd. I sat front row for the Q&A event where Stephanie Savage and her sister, Erika Savage, discussed their experiences in the entertainment industry.
Fortunately, I fell into a rare opportunity to interview Stephanie over the phone from her studio in Los Angeles. As a BA graduate of Innis College in the Cinema Studies program, she was thrilled to offer her advice to the Innis community and to reflect on her journey to date.
Stephanie grew up in Calgary where she excelled in science and math during her high school years. She enjoyed creative writing, however, ironically enough, she did not envision a career in creative pursuits. In fact, following high school, she applied to the Marine Biology Co-op program at the University of Victoria. Although she did not have her mother’s full approval, she also applied to the University of Toronto, interested in the possibility of studying Cinema studies.
“I was 16 when I finished high school so my mom liked the idea of me going to Victoria because we lived in Calgary and that was relatively close…but I had a bunch of material around the house that I was looking through. And when I saw that the University of Toronto had a Cinema Studies program, I thought, that also sounds interesting to me.”
Stephanie made the final decision to steer her academic career towards cinema studies and moved to Toronto to pursue her interests. During her time in the Cinema Studies program, Stephanie particularly enjoyed learning how images are perceived with reference to psychoanalysis, semiotics, structuralism and feminism. She feels that an extensive background in the study of film created an opportunity to watch movies and understand how they work on a deeper level in terms of character development and structure.
“While I was taking my classes, I really came to love Cinema Studies. I loved film theory.”
Stephanie considered becoming a professor of film, as having a role in the television or film industry was an idea that she rarely gave a second thought. At the time, the production industry was in its infancy in Toronto and working in production did not seem to be within her reach. Rather than someone who would create film productions, Stephanie says she more so thought of herself as someone who would comment on them. She therefore went on to pursue her MA and PhD in film at the University of Iowa and, through her fellowship, moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to work on her dissertation.
Connecting with Drew Barrymore at Flower Films
In searching for a job to support herself beyond the fellowship she was given, Stephanie went to the Margaret Herrick Research Library, located in Beverly Hills, California, dedicated to the history and development of the motion picture. Unaware of business practices in the entertainment industry, Stephanie was determined to understand the dynamics involved during her research.
“I didn’t know what studios still existed. I didn’t know anything about the talent agency. I had no clue about how movies and television got made in the contemporary context.”
In 1994, Stephanie came across an article on Flower Films, a company founded in 1995 by Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen. The projects that the company was working on greatly appealed to Stephanie, such as the true story of the murder of a transgender teenager in Nebraska.
Stephanie found it inspiring that, as a young woman of only 21 years old, Drew Barrymore refused to wait for roles to be offered to her and instead, created work for herself. She wrote a letter to Flower Films detailing her previous work experience. A few weeks later, she received a call from the company asking if she was interested in becoming an unpaid intern. Although this was not her original plan, she knew she would “never get a better opportunity” and took a leap of faith.
“I just loved it. I loved reading, I loved doing notes and making lists of directors and actors. The whole process behind bringing a project to life was really exciting.”
As an academic, Stephanie stood out to Drew. Barrymore herself was somewhat of a film scholar who had watched many classical, silent and french films, and spoke passionately about film theory. Stephanie discussed her research with Drew and, as she was highly familiar with the 1970s Charlie’s Angels show, she was asked to work on the Charlie’s Angels film sets starring Barrymore.
“I was really comfortable expressing myself and taking criticism from other people or responding in the moment. That definitely helped make them feel like I was someone who, when given a task, can take it seriously and complete it at a high level.”
Stephanie spent hours photocopying documents and she says that she never felt like the work she was given was beneath her. She would take the chance to read every paper in front of her and made a mental note of how different documents were presented. Amusingly, one of her first jobs as an intern was to wash dishes in the women’s restroom as the office had no kitchen, however, she made sure that she did the best possible job on those dishes.
“I think that feeling like you’re overqualified is a real detriment to any opportunities that you’re given.”
Flower Films created a paid position specifically for Stephanie once her summer internship ended. Through the impact she had on Drew Barrymore, Stephanie was able to play a role in the development of feature films such as Never Been Kissed and was later the Associate Producer for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
“By presenting the kind of attitude that I was there to help and that no task was too small…I think helped create that context for getting that first job.”
Creating Gossip Girl
Through the opportunities presented from working at Flower Films, Stephanie met screenwriter, Josh Schwartz, and they developed the television series, The OC, together and then began working on the Gossip Girl series. Josh and Stephanie decided to make the partnership official by collaborating to create Fake Empire Productions in 2010. They would still be able to develop projects separately but, as producers, they could count on each other for support during the processes.
Gossip Girl was the first show that The CW Television Network had developed on its own to target women aged 18 to 34. This was an unusual target audience for network television at the time, yet it reflected the agenda of the new boss. This meant that there was a lot of pressure on Stephanie and Josh because without the success of Gossip Girl, there might not have been a CW Television Network at all.
Stephanie describes her passion for Gossip Girl as having originated from her obsession with the ”world of New York and the Upper East Side”. The romanticism of New York City had been apparent in Sex And The City which had gone off the air. The Gossip Girl show became a unique idea that emerged at an opportune time for television, and particularly for the CW Network.
“There wasn’t anything on TV at that time that had that kind of beautiful, romantic version of New York.”
Stephanie appreciates the importance that entertaining television holds in its ability to present ideas and images to people who may not otherwise have the chance to experience them in real life. She describes the power of the Gossip Girl show to be “emotionally realistic” in connecting the audience to the characters through their emotional experiences. She explains that writers were not concerned with who “Gossip Girl” was, yet the decision was made in the last 10 episodes of season 6 to reveal the character. Although the thought was not consciously presented throughout the show’s entirety, they had an idea of who it could be, which they based on the reaction of the pilot’s first test screening that they re-edited to avoid the audience focusing on who it could be.
“Entertainment is about providing escape and wish fulfilment…I think it’s very powerful to be able to show people versions of the world that they don’t have access to.”
Advice to students
“This may sound like a cliché but follow your passion…When I look at the decision tree of my life, it’s always been when I’ve chosen what’s more exciting to me.”
Looking back on the decisions she has made, Stephanie says that she has always chosen the options that appealed to her the most, regardless of any doubts about what it may mean for her future. She says that in choosing Cinema Studies over Marine Biology, Cinema Studies over English Studies, graduate school over an immediate job, and interning for Drew Barrymore over a paying job, she was able to create a path toward a fulfilling career. As a second year student in the Cinema Studies program who aspires to work behind the scenes of film production, I found this conversation to be an affirmation that my dreams may not be as crazy as they may seem, as long as I too forge an exciting path towards my goals.
“Following those instincts is what is going to lead you down a good path to do exactly what you want to do”.