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Creating TV That’s Forever Young

Stephanie Savage, the creative mind behind The CW’s Gossip Girl and former writer and executive producer of Fox’s The O.C., loves telling teen stories. “Teenagers are in a time in their lives where they feel that everything is the most important thing in the world,” she says. “It’s really fun to write; everything is heightened; it feels very dramatic. And at the same time, you can write really flawed characters and you still root for them because they’re young and you hope that they’re going to learn and find their way.”

Savage first found her way into the entertainment business in 1995, when the aspiring film history professor came to Los Angeles to research a Ph.D. dissertation and landed a development job at Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films. While working there, the time line ran out on her dissertation, and she wasn’t prepared to quit her job to finish it. “I really did kind of get swept away,” she says. “It was never about turning my back on something so much as being really excited about what was in front of me.”

While working on Flower Films’ Charlie’s Angels in 2000, Savage met director McG and the two decided to form their own company, Wonderland Sound and Vision. This got Savage into the TV business for the first time, producing Fastlane on Fox and The Mountain on The WB. In 2003, she started working on the McG-produced Fox teen soap The O.C., where creator Josh Schwartz offered her a first chance at writing an episode for television.

In 2005, she left Wonderland to focus on writing, and did so full-time on The O.C. for two years, eventually becoming an executive producer. “She’s kind of like a muse in that you can share any idea with her and she’ll find what’s good about it, even if it’s a terrible idea,” says Schwartz of Savage’s writing talent.

When The O.C. ended in 2007, Savage and Schwartz partnered to create Gossip Girl, based on the book series of the same name about a group of privileged prep school teens living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While the show, whose fourth season premieres Sept. 13, hasn’t always been a ratings winner for The CW, Savage credits the network for viewing it as a great network branding opportunity. Gossip Girl averages a 1.4 rating/3 share in adults 18-49 and a 3.3/8 in women 18-34, the show’s core audience.

“They’ve been very forward-thinking in terms of factoring in other forms of measurement in trying to gauge the success of the show, and understanding the power of having something that people seem to be talking about,” Savage says.

Savage’s own upbringing was a far cry from the high society so central to the worlds of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. She grew up in Calgary, Alberta, mostly with a single mother and her sister, exposed to that hyper-affluent life only through shows like Beverly Hills, 90210. “I think that actually helps someone to write about those worlds, to have that outsider perspective,” she says. “And that’s something Josh and I bonded about early on, that even when we’re writing about these worlds, there are always those characters who are outsiders.”

As a showrunner on Gossip Girl, Savage enjoys that her role allows her to wear all hats, whether that’s being in the editing room, working with art direction or forging new partnerships.

“One of the things I love most about working in television as a writer is that you really do get to be a part of everything,” she says. And pieces of Savage find their way into the episodes of her shows, whether it’s a song on her iPod winding up on the soundtrack or her sense of style rubbing off on character fashions. “I think a lot of women would be jealous of her closet,” Schwartz says. “It’s no accident the characters on Gossip Girl have such good style.”

When she’s not flying from her home in L.A. to New York to film episodes of Gossip Girl, Savage loves to travel for pleasure, escaping the city to Palm Springs or Santa Barbara on the weekends. She names Paris as one of her favorite cities and tries to visit as often as she can, which she did this summer when Gossip Girl filmed its first two episodes of the new season there.

Savage describes the Paris shoot as a “oncein- a-lifetime experience,” but it was a tall order for Warner Bros. and The CW because of the expense. It also presented its own set of roadblocks in finding a production partner, setting a budget and getting integration collaborators to help offset the cost. That Savage found a way to make it work is, according to Schwartz, characteristic of her. “She’s the best peer producer I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “She doesn’t take no for an answer, she’s incredibly resourceful, and she’s determined to realize the vision of whatever it is we’re working on.”

Thinking long-term, Savage and Schwartz partnered again this June, starting the multimedia company Fake Empire, which has a TV deal at Warner Bros. and a features deal at Paramount Pictures.

“It’s really fun doing development this year with Fake Empire, being able to come up with concepts for shows that Josh and I aren’t necessarily going to write,” Savage says. “As we get older, our characters are likely to age up a little bit as well. But I think that’s probably a good thing.”

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