ATX Television Festival: THE O.C. And BIG Pilot Script Readings

Tate Donovan, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage dissected THE O.C. and Kevin Biegel introduced us to the BIG show that almost was.

Follow the rest of this year's ATX coverage here

My favorite part of ATX Television Festival is a rather new addition: pilot script readings. It started last year with Dawson's Creek, an enormous highlight of the festival, and the budding tradition continued this year with two pilot script readings: Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce's ill-fated small screen adaptation of Penny Marshall's Big, and the pilot of The O.C., featuring a host of stars from other shows and The O.C.'s own Tate Donovan, with stage directions read by creator Josh Schwartz. 

First up: Big. The event was hosted by Friends producer Andrew Reich of the Dead Pilots Society, and the cast was made up of Mad Men and Silicon Valley's Ben Feldman as Will, Ugly Betty's Ana Ortiz as Phoebe, ATX Ambassador Mae Whitman as Norma, Parks and Recreation and Rooster Teeth's Colton Dunn as Kyle, Enlisted's Angelique Cabral as Trisha, Beloved Actor in Everything Michael Ian Black as Dr. Paul, The West Wing's Dulé Hill as Zoltar and the narrator and Suits' Patrick J. Adams as Trevor. 

It's a charming script, a very clever modernization of the Tom Hanks vehicle that addresses bullying and Dr. Phil-style televised hack psychology. It includes jokes about faking adulthood by talking about "wine, spreadsheets, and how great The Wire is" and stage directions like "It's the perfect picture of youth, except one of them is a thirty-year-old man." The audience laughed plenty, and I really connected to the characters in our brief introduction to them. Will's best friends are Norma and Kyle, and all three of them made wishes through Zoltar, though only one of those wishes was made manifest in the first episode. We learned from Royce that the way to sustain a Big series is to make it something of an anthology, with the kids taking temporary turns as superheroes, the President, etc - "It's almost like American Horror Story but for comedy," Royce explained. I love that idea, and I hate that we never saw it come to fruition!

And the festival closed with my most-anticipated panel: The O.C. creatives reunion and pilot script reading. First we had the creatives reunion, moderated by Alan Sepinwall and including creator Josh Schwartz, executive producer Stephanie Savage, writer Leila Gerstein and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. This was an extremely juicy panel for fans of The O.C., with tons of behind-the-scenes scoop revealed. 

Some highlights: 

Schwartz, who was 27 when The O.C. first went on the air, talked about attending USC: "And that is where I met the species named 'water polo player'." He acknowledged that a teen prime time soap focused on guys instead of girls was rare, but that he was too young to realize that he was breaking the rules. "That's what I wanted to write about at the time: brothers, fathers and sons." In fact, many of the things that make The O.C. stand out from comparable shows at the time were because Schwartz was new to the industry, and didn't realize how things were done. "Wisdom is great, knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss." 

Another rule he accidentally broke is by telling a story centered around a teenaged neurotic Jew. When asked how comfortable Fox was with "the neurotic Jew of it all," Savage laughed, "They were medium comfortable." Schwartz added, "The Cohens were originally named the Needlemans. They got a little less Jewish."

Of Marissa, Savage pointed out that in the pilot's stage direction, Marissa's described as "so beautiful she was actually kind of embarrassed by it," and Savage acknowledged her fear in finding the right person to cast in that role. The role came down to Mischa Barton or Olivia Wilde, but Schwartz said, "Marissa was a character that Ryan needed to save in some ways, and Olivia needed no saving. She's pretty tough." Of course Olivia ended up being cast in Season 2 as a much tougher character, and a future love interest for Marissa. 

Schwartz joked that they always talk about The O.C. like it aired in the Stone Age, but keeping in mind that there was no iTunes, Hulu, Netflix or Tivo, he feels very lucky that The O.C.'s first season aired in the summer. The pilot ratings were okay, but Fox re-aired every episode multiple times during the week, because they had the network space to do that, and "the ratings just went up and up and up....We knew it was all building toward Tijuana, and we were pretty sure we were going to get canceled after that episode." The TJ ep had terrific ratings, and The O.C. went on for three more seasons. 

Regarding the music of the show - probably The O.C.'s most lasting legacy, after the vision of Ben McKenzie in a wife-beater - Schwartz said that he started the series playing the music that he loves, indie rock that wasn't like what was being played on any other series at the time. "We wanted music to illuminate the interior lives of these characters, and would become sort of a character in and of itself...Then by episode 7, I'd run out of all the music on my iPod, so I brought on the great Alexandra Patsavas." Patsavas said, "I think you'd already defined the kind of music you wanted, and I just needed to find more of it." So she started scouring bands touring colleges and playing university radio stations, and bringing on bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, The Walkmen and The Killers to play the fictional venue, The Bait Shop, that made an appearance in Season 2. Soon, huge bands like The Beastie Boys and Coldplay were asking to debut their music on the show. And who's the one band they chased but never got on The O.C.? Arcade Fire.

What were each of the creatives' favorite musical moments on The O.C.

Patsavas: Finley Quaye's "Dice" during Ryan and Marissa's New Year's Eve kiss in "The Countdown"

Gerstein: Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" during the montage of Season One's finale, "The Ties That Bind"

Savage: Patrick Park's "Something Pretty" during Seth and Summer's coffee cart kiss in "The Telenovela"

Schwartz: Matt Pond PA's "Champagne Supernova" cover during Seth and Summer's Spider-Man kiss in "The Rainy Day Women" (that gets my vote!)

About Chrismukkah: that was Savage's first episode, and it was about bringing families and traditions together, in light of welcoming Ryan to the family. The terrible sweater Seth wears in that episode actually belonged to Schwartz, and the yamaclaus that appeared in Season 2 were conceived of by Schwartz, "but I completely failed to monetize them in any real way."

On my all-time favorite character Taylor Townsend, Gerstein said: "The writers loved writing Taylor Townsend. She was so annoying and smart and devious and wily. We knew we had to keep her around. She just excited us." Amen!

A few more: 

And then we had the pilot script reading! Schwartz stuck around to read the stage directions, which were EXCELLENT, and Tate Donovan surprised and delighted the audience by appearing as Jimmy. The rest of the cast was assigned thusly: Friday Night Lights' Katherine Willis read for a bunch of ancillary characters, stuntman Nick Benseman read for Kaitlin and Trey, Bunheads and FNL's Stacey Oristano was Julie Cooper, Roswell and Revenge's Nick Wechsler was Luke, Kingdom and FNL's Matt Lauria was Summer, Suits' Patrick J. Adams was Marissa, Perfect Genius Mae Whitman was a spot-on Seth Cohen, Hell on Wheels' Anson Mount was Kirsten, The Jim Gaffigan Show's Ashley Williams was Sandy and Ballers' Arielle Kebbel was Ryan.

Schwartz's stage directions were amazing, especially the moment that he read Dawn Atwood's really depressing description and realized it now applies to him: "Late 30s - oh my god, I'm Dawn Atwood's age now - once an attractive woman, but life hasn't been kind." (For what it's worth: Josh Schwartz is still a very attractive man.)

He describes Seth Cohen as "a little too much Peter Parker without enough Spider-Man." (We know what episode will cure him of that problem!)

Tate Donovan cracked up at the catty description of Julie Cooper as "fake everything," and when Jimmy's described as "devastatingly handsome," the room erupted in applause and he smiled bashfully. 

We learn that Summer was originally conceived of as an even bigger partier than Marissa: "Summer's a lot like Marissa, just...more." She's doing coke in one of the scenes in the pilot, which, as we know, was toned down to a glass of champagne by the time it made the air.

At the fashion show, Seth's described as, "sitting with all of the younger siblings of the cool kids." Aww, Seth!

And when we got to Luke's iconic line, Wechsler threw the audience a bone by shouting, "Welcome to the ATX, bitch! This is how it's done in Austin, Texas." We were very pleased. 

If you're a fan of The O.C., Britt and I did a rewatch of it at Forever Young Adult. We're currently doing Dawson's Creek, and I did Gilmore Girls a couple of years ago.