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So What Do You Do, Ilene Chaiken, Creator/Exec. Producer Of The L Word?

As this TV writer's signature series comes to a close, she speaks out on what's next

- February 4, 2009
Last month, The L Word premiered its final season to its strongest numbers since season one. The irony isn't lost on Ilene Chaiken, the creator of the groundbreaking Showtime series: Its exit comes at a time when issues like gay marriage have ratcheted up the rhetoric against the gay community and energized the extreme right. "The L Word is ending at the right time creatively for our show," says Chaiken. "But I certainly am a little sad that it's going off the air at a moment where our representation in popular culture just couldn't be more important."

As an open lesbian for 25 years, Chaiken never sought to politicize her writing but, she says, simply "wanted to tell compelling stories." Still, since her finding her greatest professional success with The L Word, she has been recognized as one of Power Up's "Top Ten Lesbians in Hollywood" and made Out magazine's list of the "100 Most Powerful Gay People in Hollywood." As a testament to her creative and cultural clout, last month at the Television Critic's Association Press Tour, Showtime announced the network's plans to shoot the pilot of a spinoff of The L Word, set in a women's prison starring L Word's Leisha Hailey, Laurie Metcalf and Oscar nominee Melissa Leo. "It's not a continuation of this world of lesbian relationships and commerce," says Chaiken. "It's a very different kind of show."

The woman who broke into the business as part of the team that brought The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to television and learned about the importance of editing from Aaron Spelling talks about writing about what you know (and working with people who know about the same things) and why she finds pitching ideas to television executives the most "horrifying" part of her job.


Name: Ilene Chaiken
Position: Creator/executive producer of Showtime's The L Word
Resume: Brought The L Word to Showtime, which premiered in January 2004 and is currently in its final season; is currently working on a spinoff of the show for the network. Before landing her own show, Chaiken worked as a writer for Showtime, with credits that include the Golden Globe-winning Dirty Pictures. Prior to her writing career, she worked as a television executive for Aaron Spelling and Quincy Jones.
Birthdate: June 30
Hometown: Elkins Park, Pa.
Education: Rhode Island School of Design
Marital status: "I never did get married, never was officially domestic partners, but [I] had a relationship of 20 years and during that time had two children in that relationship."
Favorite television show: "I don't watch that much television these days – not because I'm not interested -- but because I don't have time. When my mind jumps to the days when I did watch television, I'd have to say Bewitched."
Guilty pleasure: "Who has time for guilty pleasures?"
Last book read: "I could tell you the last book I tried to read and was on my bedside all though production. I read about a page a night -- the same page -- and fell asleep. It was The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein."

How would you say being an openly gay woman in Hollywood impacted your career?
I would say it had relatively little impact up until the time I did The L Word. I've been out for most of my career. I've been out since it was not that comfortable to be out. I was never militant. I don't think people assumed I was gay, but if it was appropriate to clarify, I never pretended that I wasn't. I was in a relationship, and then we had children. Occasionally, I felt excluded -- once or twice openly and offensively -- I wouldn't say discriminated against, but insulted in the way that people do in Hollywood. But it happened very, very rarely.

"It's no easier to get a gay character or a gay themed story on television now than it was when I first sold this idea to Showtime seven or eight years ago."

I never made career choices based on being gay. I didn't particularly tell gay stories. It wasn't a mission for me. I did often look to find gay characters in non-gay stories I was telling because I had a sense we should be included in the pantheon of human representation. But then I had the idea to do this television show. It wasn't a mission -- it was, 'This is a good idea.' That radically changed my relationship to my work.

This is the final season of The L Word. Why end it now? Did you feel like the story had come to an organic close?
This was serialized drama, and in serialized drama, life goes on. I wanted to end with a sense that life goes on. Of course, I also wanted to wrap up the stories in a satisfying way, but not in an artificial way.

You've had a long run. How much would you say has changed in terms of television's receptivity towards gay characters and their representation since you started?
So much less than I would have liked. Receptivity, yes, there is tremendous receptivity in the culture. Audiences are interested in gay characters and welcome and embrace gay characters and gay stories if they're good. But it's no easier to get a gay character or a gay themed story on television now than it was when I first sold this idea to Showtime seven or eight years ago.

"There are limits to how sexualized a character can be on broadcast television, but with gay characters in particular, the idea is still largely taboo and met with horror."

How long did you shop it around?
I never shopped the idea. I had written a movie for Showtime called Dirty Pictures, and I had a great experience working with them. They just seemed to me to be a really smart and receptive company to work with. I just had this idea, and I thought that Showtime was a place that might actually be ready to take on this subject. I knew that I would never sell it at a network, and I didn't say to myself or my agents, 'I've got to do this. Set up a bunch of meetings for me.' I said, 'I'm going to see if Showtime wants to do it.' I pitched it to a couple of women at a VP level that I had worked with before. They smiled politely and said, 'It's just not going to happen.' One of them actually said, 'We could never sell it to that guy down in the corner office.'

It never went anywhere. They might have mentioned it at their weekly staff meeting because they're obliged to. They probably said, "Ilene pitched us an idea to do a lesbian ensemble drama and of course we're never going to do that.' I just let it go. I was working on other things, writing other movies for Showtime, and I didn't really think that I wanted to do it any place other than Showtime. A year later, Showtime had Queer as Folk on the air. They bought the English format and revamped it as an American show. It was quite successful for them. I thought, 'Now, this is silly. There really is no good argument against it.' I went back, and the movie I had written for them was nominated for a Golden Globe, so things had progressed.

I pitched to a more senior-level executive -- Mark Zakarin -- and he took the pitch, stood up at the end and said, 'This is great. We've got to do this. A few days later Jerry [Offsay] walked up to me and said, 'We're going to do it.'

Cable has always been able to break new ground terms of character and plot. In your view, how has broadcast done in terms of representing gay characters? Are the characters primarily token characters or are they fully formed?
My impression is that they are largely token characters. There have been some exceptions, but for the most part, gay people are underrepresented on broadcast television or represented in a token way. Characters are still not sexualized -- there are limits to how sexualized a character can be on broadcast television, but with gay characters in particular, the idea there might be a kiss or anything that suggests more sexual intimacy is still largely taboo and met with horror. One hears all kinds of stories about why this or that gay character goes away. We really don't exist on broadcast television in any measurable way. In fact, across the board we're less well-represented than we were five years ago.

Why do you think that is?
I don't really know. It's just a sad statistic.

With Prop 8 passing in California, do you feel you want to do something creatively to address it in some way?
I've never done anything creatively with a political agenda in mind. Certainly, in my personal life, I'm working hard to overturn Prop 8 with some great coalitions. I wouldn't characterize the passage of that proposition in any positive way, but it has galvanized our community.

Why do you feel gay marriage is such a hot button issue, particularly in this climate of inclusiveness?
I don't think that I have the best answer for this -- there are probably scholars who have given it much more thought, but it just seems to be the issue that the biblical right is clinging to. There is a religious component to it, and for some reason it does push people's buttons -- 'They can have this, this, and this, but they can't be like us in this way.' It's not rational.

"When I'm working on something and it's really cooking, I can write anywhere from five to 15 hours in the course of the day."

Let's change channels -- you said you don't really spend time watching television, but do you keep up with what's going on in the cable world?
I'm always planning to watch more television. I watch -- not regularly -- all of the Showtime and HBO shows, and the some of the shows on FX. There are shows I know I would enjoy that I haven't really watched extensively. I'm interested in broadcast television, too. There's been some great, great television.

Where do you get your best ideas?
I find that ideas come from all over. I keep a little catalog of ideas that I've always wanted to do, and in the rare moments when I have downtime, I go back to them and look them over. Every once in a while, I wind up pursuing one, but I usually find myself distracted by something that came out of nowhere.

What's the secret of a good pitch?
I find pitching to be the most horrifying activity. The secret of a good pitch is to have a good story, to know your character, and to be very, very clear. Beyond that, it's this really unfair exercise in which being a good performer is the secret to a good pitch -- and writers aren't traditionally good performers.

What's your routine when you're writing for a regular gig like the show?
With production there's never any structure to the writing, because you're working around everything else that comes at you. When I'm not in production, my writing day starts in the morning. I get up very, very early -- usually by five a.m. I try to be writing by 5:30. This was seriously altered when I had children, but now that my children are getting older, I'm back to it again. I'm not somebody who'll say, 'I'm going to write for the first six hours of the day, and now I'm done.' I write all day long. When I'm working on something and it's really cooking, I can write anywhere from five to 15 hours in the course of the day. I get my work done when I'm sitting at the computer. I'm not one of those people who says, I'm going to go for a long walk and go shopping, and then I come back and it's done. The work gets done when I'm sitting there, and I'm focused.

How did you break into television?
I was an executive before I started to make my living as a writer. First I was a movie executive. I started as a trainee at CAA. I then got a development job working for two producers with an overall deal at Warner Brothers. I went with one of them, Alan Greisman, when he went to make movies for Aaron Spelling. I was his director of development. I met Aaron Spelling in a couple of meetings talking about the movie business, and he asked, 'Are you interested in television?' I wound up working for him running his television department.

That must have been a trip.
It was fascinating. (Laughs) I'll leave it at that.

And you worked for Quincy Jones.
Yes, I left Aaron and went to work for one of the 'young Turks' who started the Fox Network. He hired me to start a company for Quincy Jones -- he had a joint venture with Warner Brothers and we were doing films and television. We put together The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was during that executive job that I crashed and burned as an executive and said, 'If I don't do this, I'm never going to do it.' And I started writing. For about three or four years, I made my living writing movies. I was constantly employed, but over the course of that time only had one movie actually produced -- Barb Wire. I wound up getting a job writing a movie for Showtime, Dirty Pictures, which was sort of a crossover into television. I still thought of myself as a movie writer. I never thought about getting into television.

How do your personal interests shape what you do?
As a writer, before I did The L Word, my answer would have been: I like learning about a new world and one of my favorite things was --- and still is – a project that's really research-intensive that compels me to delve into the sociology of another world. Doing The L Word brought me much closer to my own experience, and I enjoyed that. For me, it's whatever is compelling in the moment.

Having done both, how do you feel about the old adage 'Write what you know?'
It can be good. There are some projects like a television show where people who know the world are, for the most part, the ones who are qualified to write about it. I found that with The L Word. I started out a little idealistic thinking we should have very mixed set of writers -- straight men, gay men, and straight women. I found that I would never exclude people for one thing or another, but I found the people that were able to really help me craft these stories were mostly lesbians.

What did you learn in your first job in television that still holds true today?
I certainly learned the television business working for Aaron Spelling. Here's the specific thing I learned: how important the editing room is. I never knew before the extent to which a story gets made in the editing room, and that so many things can be compensated for. It really is a storytelling venue, and it's very like writing for me. I was sometimes baffled by how it all came together back then, and I watched Aaron and saw that he always was in the editing room and made it happen in there.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
The L Word

Biggest disappointment?
That I didn't write it better -- not necessarily The L Word, but anything that I could have spent more time on and rewritten.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
Mostly by steadiness and dogged determination. Not a pit bull-like determination, but a quiet, focused unwillingness to not ever back down.

Do you have a motto?
I don't have a motto. One of the reasons I don't is because at my job at CAA, I was the assistant to the head of a department, and he had a motto taped above my desk. He said, 'This is your motto. Live by it.' It was, 'When I assume, it makes an ass of you and me.' (Laughs) I was so horrified by that I promised myself I'd never have a motto.


Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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