Selective Hearing: Mark Schwahn

Lengthy interning, countless volunteer hours, and a bit of luck landed One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn his big break. He devoted the show's 187 episodes to giving new musicians theirs.

Had Mark Schwahn made it in music, there’d be no One Tree Hill. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in radio, TV, and film, the future series creator moved to LA in 1990 to get his music career off the ground. While there, he landed an internship with Doug Wick, a producer whose credits include Working Girl, Gladiator, Wolf, and Stuart Little, for the princely sum of $5 per day.

… all of the interns got jobs. They would get jobs in the industry as assistants or whatever, and they would all leave, and I was the guy who was there the longest,” Schwahn said. “I was the guy that they were all like, ‘What’s going to become of that guy? He doesn’t have a chance in hell in working in this business.’ In fact, one of the interns left and came back as my boss, and I was still there interning. I really was the Fredo of the group.”

As his music career (and bank account) slowly grinded to a halt, Schwahn began to focus his energy on writing scripts, making network contacts, and searching for a way into the film industry. It wasn’t until a chance meeting six years after first moving to LA that Schwahn got his opportunity. Since then, he’s written screenplays for The Perfect Score and Coach Carter, created one of The CW’s longest-running series, and carefully curated One Tree Hill’s budding-artist-rich soundtrack.

Get In Media: After moving to LA and interning, how did you actually break in?
Mark Schwahn: I volunteered at the Sundance Film Festival, and I went to a screening of a film by Nicole Holofcener called Walking and Talking. I was on my way home; I had worked all day as a volunteer, and I passed [Ogden Peery’s] Egyptian Theater, and one of the other volunteers was out front … and he said, “Do you want to come in?” And I remember that I was tired. It had been a long day, but it was a film that I wanted to see, and I thought, “You know what? That’s what I’m here.” So, I ended up going to that movie, and after the movie, the house lights came up, and the guy sitting next to me introduced himself and asked me how I liked the film. I said I really liked it, and he did, too, and we started to talk, and eventually he [said he] worked for a producer in Chicago, and I said to him, “Is it all right if I send you my script?” That producer ended up buying my script, kind of hiring me to direct it for a very small amount of money, but I got that film [35 Miles From Normal] into Sundance the next year as a writer/director. That sort of started my career trajectory.

… I think about that moment a lot because you always hear that luck is the residue of design, and I was very lucky, but I had positioned myself to be lucky. I was at a festival because I knew I would meet people, and I had worked on a script for a long time and gotten to the point where if I did meet someone who was willing to read it, I had something to give them. I think people have to do things without asking for anything. They have to do it first. A lot of people come to me and ask if I can help them or help their children or open the door or whatever, but they don’t really have anything to show for themselves. It’s so much easier when someone comes up to me and says, “Would you take a look at my script? I feel like it’s ready to be read” or “Here’s my demo. I worked on these songs,” as opposed to “I’m a musician, what can you do for me?”

 I remember saying in 1997, which is a long time ago now, “There’s no excuse for having bad music in your movie or your TV show anymore.” I remember saying, “The only excuse is if you’re a fan of bad music.”

… I would get hired to rewrite stuff, and everything seemed to get made. Whatever It Takes got made, and I got a film credit on it. The Perfect Score got made. I did a rewrite of Urban Legends, which got made, and then Coach Carter opened number one … at the time, I had another basketball script, which was called An Unkindness of Ravens … I was starting to write it as a novel because I couldn’t quite get it sold as a movie. It would get close to getting sold as a movie, and it wouldn’t quite get there.

Anyway, we [Remote Control producer Joe Davola and Coach Carter producers Brian Robbins and Michael Tollin] went down to LA and worked up a pitch for it [One Tree Hill] … the first place that we pitched it was Fox, and they hated it. They called it depressing, and they were mean, and it was a disaster of a meeting. I don’t know if it’s because they had The O.C., and they just wanted to intimidate me into silence, or they didn’t see the merits in the pitch, I don’t know, but they were complete assholes. I remember leaving that meeting and telling Joe and Mike and Brian, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I hate these people. This is terrible.” Eventually, we tried again, and NBC was nicer, and ABC was really nice, but it wasn’t big enough for those networks. They kept saying, “We love this material, but what’s the great big hook?”…So we pitched it to The WB, and it was the last pitch that they bought. It was the last script they ordered for pilot. It was the last pilot they ordered for series. It was supposed to be a mid-season series. It got accelerated to fall when a Jerry Bruckheimer show fell through. It was the lowest rated debut show on any network. Cut to 187 episodes.

GIM: After going to film school, what pieces of school did you really find useful and what wasn’t in the real world?
MS: I kind of think that you go to college to experience life and to experience different cultures and different ways of life and to be around people and to struggle a little bit. To learn the responsibility of doing your work without someone looking over your shoulder. Writing, you get hired for a job, and they say, “We’ll see you in a month” or three months or whatever. It’s like college—there’s going to be a midterm and a final, and those are going to be your drafts. And it’s up to you. You can screw off all day and do it all in the last week, and if that’s the best way you work, then fine, but it may show up in the final product. I think that’s what college was for me … I can’t tell you how many characters and how many lines of dialogues I used from those days, from people I was around that had such interesting points of view that I never would have known had I not gone to college … I learned some practical things. I shot some silent 8 mm stuff. I made a few small films, but once I sat in the director’s chair on my feature that went to Sundance, that’s when my tutorial began. I knew enough of the language from having gone to school, but I really felt like college, for me at least, was just about life, as opposed to [about] making movies.

GIM: For a show that runs nine seasons, how do you keep, not only the show evolving, but the audience evolving along with it?
MS: … I just looked at my genre and realized that shows that were based in high school, when they go to college, never get better. The ratings never go up, creatively they never get better. Sometimes, they hang around for a long time … but they don’t really get creatively better. Everyone goes to bullshit university, and they all live in the same dorm, and they do the same stuff, and my show was a lot about who people wanted to be. What am I going to be some day? And so I just figured, you know what? The genre is flawed. [One Tree Hill] is about “We’re all going to be friends. We’re going to stay friends for a long time, and this is what we all want to do with our lives.” I figured that college was kind of the place that you go to acquire that information, and I felt like if we jumped the show ahead four years, we’d have a nice bit of mystery. We could kind of erase the chalkboard.

… I had to go in and pitch season four, which was their senior year, their graduation year … Dawn Ostroff, who had been at UPN and had created Veronica Mars, wanted do away with One Tree Hill because we were competition at the time. [She] said, “I don’t know, those kids are getting pretty old,” and everybody laughed … and I said “I have a fix for that. We’re going to skip college, and then the actors are all going to be playing their ages, and we’re going to reface the show as a 20-something show, and it’s going to age with our audience … whoever falls out along the way, maybe the very young end of the spectrum. We’re going to pick up the Grey’s Anatomy people who are a little older.” And I remember the room fell silent because they had never considered it. It had never been done before … Fortunately, it was a contract year for me, which always helps. They could have taken the show to college, but I wasn’t that interested in doing it. I probably would not have done it. They would have had to have done it with someone else, which they are happy to do, but I think they believed in me and my passion for that idea. They took a leap of faith with us, and we ended up making more shows out of high school than we did in. We made like 99 shows with our characters in their 20s, and we made, I think, 88 in high school. It was risky, but it was forward-thinking, and I think that’s another way you get to season nine.

If you went in and pitched them The Wonder Years, they would look at you like you were crazy, and I think that’s a shame. They want to know what the hook is. They’re like, “OK, it’s The Wonder Years, but there’s a Martian that lives in the neighborhood right?”

GIM: With One Tree Hill, it seems like for several years, there was always buzz about when the show was going to end. How do you deal with not knowing if funding is going to come through?
MS: I had a pretty good instinct for it from year to year. There’s X amount of people in the studio and network who can kind of just tell you instinctually what they think might happen, but nobody will really. It’s amazing … I would usually find out if we were getting picked up after the Internet found out. The Internet would find out, my phone would blow up, and then 20 minutes later, the network would call and say, “We’re picking up the show”… it was nice in season nine, knowing that there wouldn’t be a season 10, because we knew that before we even wrote “Fade In,” before we started planning the season, we knew it was our last, and we knew it was 13 episodes. We could write to that, and that was a really nice luxury to have.

… I was a guy who stayed with my show all nine years because I liked it and because I got less notes every year, and I was paid more every year, and I enjoyed the people I was working with, the stories we were telling. It was rare. Most people get a show up and running, they leave and try to get another show up and running, but I enjoyed what I was doing, and I stayed, and I think that’s one of the reasons we got to 187 episodes. But when you are in it, you have three episodes in the pipeline at one time and actually, probably five episodes if you looked at the pipeline in the writer’s room. We have three editors who are working on different cuts … We had a show that was being made 3,000 miles away, so I have to get on the phone with the first [assistant director] and the director of the episode and do a tone meeting that takes three hours, and we talk about every scene. We go scene by scene and how many extras do you want? And what do you want her wearing? Is she still in her pajamas? And what should we do with hair and makeup? If there’s a stunt, if there’s any of that stuff, can we know in advance? And then you go in the writers’ room, and … we’re talking about what comes next, and who’s going to be doing that, and I have a script waiting on my desk, a script that’s been written that needs my approval, and I have to get on the phone with the network and the studio and go over the script, and we’re going to have cut notes on the cut. Your days, it’s amazing that it gets done the way it gets done. I used to say, before I worked in television, that I wondered why they made so much bad television and now, once I’ve worked in television, I’m amazed that they make any good television because having seen how it’s done, it’s just insane. All of those things that I just told you doesn’t count the fact that I wrote seven to 10 episodes a year in script … I’m doing all of those things, and I’m going to write half of the episodes, one-third to half of the episodes each year, and when’s that going to get done? You just do it … I always felt like, when opportunity smiles on you, you have to do the work.

If the show would have failed, that would have been fine. Your show is going to end at some point. If you take the job, you know you’re just going to get canceled at some point, and if it would have been canceled sooner rather than later, I would have tried to have learned from that, but had I woken up some night and realized I could have worked harder and maybe kept the show on the air, that would have really haunted me. You have to do the work, and fortunately, I found something that I enjoyed doing, but some days are very ambitious. That’s for sure.

GIM: You were also very involved in the show’s soundtrack. How did music casting factor in with showrunning and writing responsibilities?
MS: I was such a music fan; I remember season one thinking, “I now have a legitimate vehicle where I can reach out to the bands and the artists that I love and make contact with them”… Lindsay [Wolfington, One Tree Hill music supervisor and head of Lone Wolf Music Supervision], she was our secret weapon … She fosters really good relationships. That’s what a music supervisor does for you. They get their hands on independent music. They get their hands on the latest releases, and they get their hands on tickets for you, which is awesome … .

Those were really fun days when you’re in editing, and you find the right music, and you place the right song. It’s really painful when you don’t find the right song … it’s amazing to me how a scene with exactly the same edit, the same dialogue, the same everything. The picture’s locked, and you play a song that’s too slow, and all of a sudden, the scene seems so slow. And you play a song that’s too fast, and all of a sudden they’re talking too fast, and why are they rushing? And it’s the exact same picture lock. Then, you find the right piece of music, there’s a note or a melody or the sweep of a chorus that hits at the right time, and all of a sudden, the scene is perfect. Music can make your writing so much better. It can make your show so much better when you find the right piece of music.

GIM: How does it work in terms of negotiating with artists?
MS: … We have a music budget, and all the music budgets are different. I think by the end of our run, we had a pretty good music budget. In the beginning, we had nothing. [Lindsay] would try to find a lot of independent artists and artists that needed the visibility. [The show] would get a bit of a discount if the artist took the ad card at the end of the episode, because The WB and The CW, at the end of the episode, they’ll say, “Tonight you heard music from,” and I always thought that was really smart, and the proof is in the pudding in that. If you took the ad card, your iTunes numbers, your street team numbers, all that would go straight through the roof … .

There’s so much good music out there, and a lot of artists now do their own publishing. They’re doing it themselves, and you don’t have to wade through the red tape of big labels and things of that nature. I remember saying in 1997, which is a long time ago now, “There’s no excuse for having bad music in your movie or your TV show anymore.” I remember saying, “The only excuse is if you’re a fan of bad music”… there’s so much music out there, and you can get your hands on it, and then, your music supervisor has to negotiate and get them to sign their contracts. When we started, there was a time when [studios and networks] weren’t worried about DVD and perpetuity and all that because there wasn’t a big market for it … I know Buffy struggled with that. They had to replace all the music, I think. The Wonder Years had all this great music that they didn’t have the rights to. That really held up a lot of shows. When they made the transition, they either had to go back and change out all the music or pay for it, but we were very forward-thinking. I’m sure there’s some technology that we haven’t thought of that will pop up, but for the most part, we tried to cover all our bases.

GIM: What’s coming up for you?
MS: There’s a couple of books I like that they may develop into television … it’s a really strange time to be in television because they want great big hooks. They want basically what they want from movies. I feel like they’ve ruined movies, and … now, they’re taking hooky ideas to television. They want to be able to see the poster and hook you in one sentence, and I feel like TV is still about people. It’s still about characters, and if you care about the people, you’ll show up every week … If you went in and pitched them The Wonder Years, they would look at you like you were crazy, and I think that’s a shame. They want to know what the hook is. They’re like, “OK, it’s The Wonder Years, but there’s a Martian that lives in the neighborhood right?”

I feel like, historically, if you look at shows that are successful, I think the hook gets old after like three episodes, and then what do you have? Do you have some people of substance? Do you have something that’s compelling? The Mad Mens and Breaking Bads, they’re not asking those questions. They’re committing to characters in a world that’s very textured and specific, and they’re also not asking questions of “How can we save the world with this TV show?” There’s a lot of that in our business. We have these agendas where we want to make sure we can save everybody, make sure nobody makes a misstep, make sure that this is going to make the world a better place … I don’t think they’re asking those questions over at Breaking Bad right now. I don’t think they’re asking that question over at Dexter. They’re committing to whatever that world is and what their stories are. It’s hard to get a lot of executives on that page.

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