The man behind Veronica

Rob Thomas, creator of "Veronica Mars," talks about how he created his teen noir -- and its future.

Published March 29, 2005 9:21PM (EST)

Rob Thomas, the creator of "Veronica Mars," sat down with Salon recently and discussed casting a girl as the star of his teen noir, the pros and cons of writing for "Dawson's Creek," and whether Veronica will be back for season No. 2.

You mentioned at the Museum of Television and Radio's Paley Television Festival presentation that "Veronica Mars" actually started as a book. How did that happen?

I was under contract for a series of young adult novels for Simon & Schuster. I just started with a vague idea of taking the noir genre and sticking teenagers into it. It was one of the first projects I started thinking of visually rather than [in terms of] internalized protagonist dialogue. I started with this idea of sitting outside of a seedy motel with sort of neon-lit, black asphalt, wet, and hearing the voice of a sort of Sam Spade-ish character, and then cutting inside the car where the surveillance was going on, and realizing that you were dealing with a teenager rather than an adult. And interestingly, we shot that for the pilot. And I'm sure when the DVD comes out I'm going to insist that we reinstate our original opening of the show. One of the things that UPN did with our pilot was decide that, well, it was a high school show, we should start at the high school. And so this whole image that I started with got cut before it was ever aired.

Did you come up with that image when you were developing it into a show or when you were writing the novel itself?

You know, I never wrote the novel. I wrote a treatment for the novel, which Simon & Schuster bought. So the novel was never written. It was an idea that was probably in my head for five years before I wrote it.

Were your other novels mysteries?

The first one, which is probably the best known, is a book called "Rats Saw God." It came out in '96. I wrote it when I was 28, and though it was about an 18-year-old, I really kind of wrote it for an audience of my peers so, given the sex and the drugs and the language, I really didn't think anyone would buy it as a young adult novel, but Simon & Schuster did and, after that, I was under contract for several more.

You mentioned at the Paley Festival that your original idea for the noir novel involved a male protagonist. When you decided to make the protagonist a girl, did that change the story and if so, how?

At some point in there, I started really thinking about the big picture, like if I'm going to try to tap into any kind of zeitgeist, what is that? I had what I thought was a cool notion about placing teens in a noir universe, but what am I saying, what does that mean? This idea that I was attracted to, and had been thinking about since I taught high school, was this vague notion about teenagers being desensitized and jaded and sexualized so much earlier than I feel like even my generation 15, 20 years before had been. That seemed like a perfect thing to try to shine a spotlight on. [That concept] was interesting to me when the protagonist was a boy, but when I started thinking in terms of a girl who had seen too much and experienced too much at too young of an age, it became even more potent to me. It just seemed that much edgier and more difficult to swallow, in a good way. So, I can't remember exactly when I shifted, but that was why I shifted.

It's fun to watch a character who kind of feels like she's above high school.

The thing that I like about her is that she's been stripped of all of the teen girl insecurities that weigh so heavily on girls who are 14, 15, 16: how they dress and who they're seen with. I taught high school journalism for five years and was the yearbook advisor, so I was around so many teenage girls. And I thought, Well, wouldn't it be interesting if somebody had gotten so far down that she just didn't give a fuck anymore, that that sort of pressure didn't mean much to her?

Did you worry about making Veronica believable in the early stages of writing the show?

Yeah, particularly as a private detective. I didn't want to give her any sort of superpowers, any things that I didn't believe she could possess. I started with this notion that her dad was out trying to make a living, but he's got one too many cases, so he tells Veronica, "Just sit right here, and take a picture of whoever comes out of that room." And that's how it starts. And because she's such a pariah at school, she doesn't have friends, she's only close to this one person in her life, she just starts hanging out at the detective agency and she just picks things up and picks things up and becomes valuable to her father there. There's a bit of a buy -- you wonder when she's doing her homework and other things -- but I wanted to make it as believable as possible. Most of the back story is there in order to create a world in which you believe this 17-year-old girl hangs out at her dad's job and learns the real tricks of this trade.

The nice thing about Kristen Bell is that she sells it so well. It's easy to buy that she's confident enough to reject high school and pursue these other, absurdly ambitious extracurricular activities.

Yeah, and the show wouldn't work if you didn't buy that. As proud as I am of that pilot script, if we hadn't cast it well, it would've flopped. We never would've gotten ordered if it hadn't worked as well as it did with her.

Enrico Colantoni in particular is a really interesting choice, and maybe the strangest, most original dad ever cast on a teen show. How did you decide that he was right for the role?

What I think Rico does is, he gives you a different line reading than you expect. I remember seeing Rico years and years ago on a sitcom called "Hope & Glory," when it first came out. It wasn't by any means my favorite sitcom, but -- and this was before I was in the business, this was when I was a high school teacher in Texas -- watching the show, I remember thinking, Wow, who is that? He's really good.

There's really a lot of humor on the show. How conscious of a choice is that?

That was a struggle, because it's such a weird balance on the show. I think my favorite description on the show was by the Village Voice, who called us the first show to ever try to blend "Heathers" and "Chinatown." And that's pretty dead-on. The dialogue on the show is pretty stylized. I adored "Freaks & Geeks," and that's a show where the dialogue is not stylized, where those kids sound absolutely like teenagers all the time. They were never allowed to say anything pithier or wordier or more out-there than you'd expect a 16- or 17-year-old to say. We give it a little more freedom in terms of, OK, we're going to give Veronica the line that, if you had a day to think about it, you would get.

But when you have a murder in the backdrop, a rape in the backdrop, a missing mother in the backdrop ... I was nervous about tone and how well we could blend the comedy and the wordiness with the real sort of drama at its core. It's a learning process. I ended up cutting a lot of lines out of the pilot that I just felt like were too self-conscious, too much an attempt to go for the joke, so much that it took away from scenes.

It almost seems like there's more comedy in the show as you become more comfortable with the fact that the tone works. Did you hire comedy writers at all?

None of the writers here have ever worked on a half-hour [i.e., a comedy] before, but that said, when I read scripts, I was looking for funny drama writers. It's kind of the school that I come out of, having done "Cupid." I like the rhythm of comedy in dramas, if that makes sense. In other words, I don't want to write setup, punch, setup, punch, where the joke dictates the scene, I want to find comedy in which the drama is actually driving the moment in the scene.

Are you a big fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

I didn't watch a lot of "Buffy." I have so many friends who I respect who love "Buffy," and when I would watch "Buffy," I always thought, Oh, there's a well-written show! But I just never got into it and followed the mythology. I would catch an episode here and an episode there. But I knew, certainly, going into this that it would be the show that we would be compared to most, and it was a comparison that I welcomed. "Buffy," in town, among writers, is a show that writers wanted to be on. It was a show where you got to be smart and fun. A good friend of mine was one of the executive producers, and I actually call her for info on writers all the time.

But no, I've probably seen six or seven "Buffys" in my life.

What did you learn from your first job writing on "Dawson's Creek"?

There are a few things I try to avoid. On "Dawson's Creek," those kids were supposed to be outsider kids -- you know, wrong-side-of-the-track kids, weirdo kids. And I just felt like there's no universe out there where Katie Holmes isn't the prom queen, hottest girl in school. And the same could be true of Kristen Bell unless you really service the story, unless you really explain, unless you make it very clear and keep reinforcing why this person is a pariah, and give that some depth and some weight. So that was one thing I pulled away.

Also, "Dawson's Creek" was never a happy work environment. Lots of infighting, lots of upheaval at the top, so I've really tried to make the shows that I've done happy places to come to work.

Something that bothered people about "Dawson's Creek" but as a writer, I kind of dug: writing those kids as though they were college grad students. It was fun and liberating and made for a true sort of writer's show. It was a fun year for me, because I got to get out of debt with my first TV job, and I learned a ton.

You wrote for "Snoops" and then left the show. What was the issue there?

You know, I left before the season even started, really. I was supposed to be the show runner, and it was going to be the first show where David Kelley handed over a show to someone else, and he didn't write all the episodes and make all the decisions, and we just never -- he and I didn't get on the same page about what this detective show was going to be. And you know, in an article that came out at the time, when I left the show, I thought he was really fair about it. He told Entertainment Weekly, "Rob really wanted a sort of a comedy and character-driven show, and I really wanted a plotted, drama-driven show." Which is sort of accurate -- I did think that the show needed to wink. I felt like, you know, you've got three sexy women wearing a nipple cam, David, I think we have to play to the comedy a little bit. I had them making quips on the way to a rescue in an early episode, and he said, "Rob, that takes all of the drama out of it."

I felt like we were going to be closer to "Moonlighting," and he wanted, I suppose, to be closer to "Rockford Files" or something -- which still had a degree of comedy and was certainly a warm show. So that was a creative difference we couldn't get past. I will say that I'm actually happy that I got my female P.I. show on, because I'll put mine against his.

Well, that's the ultimate revenge, I guess.

Yeah, but it makes me feel like a small person to say it out loud.

We're all small people, I think. You said at the Paley presentation that you read Television Without Pity regularly. Have you ever taken a suggestion from its readers?

I haven't taken a plot idea, but we certainly react to what they're responding to. I mean, it does influence what we do here, without a doubt. We try to be really careful with our continuity and with our clues. They catch everything. So part of it is just that voice in the back of the head, when you could have a lazy TV moment, and you realize, "No, no, the fans notice." So it's good that they're there for that. And also, who are they reacting to? Who do they like? Who do they not like? It does make a difference. And certainly if they say something like, "This character's boring me," I notice. For me, it's like, well, we better give him something cool to do.

But it doesn't always have an effect. They've been pretty negative about Deputy Leo, and my belief is they're down on Deputy Leo because they want Veronica with somebody on the show -- they want her with Logan, they want her with Duncan. So they see Leo as delaying their satisfaction. And I think that's really the resentment, because I find him to be just an amazingly charming, fun great actor and great presence on the show.

Yeah, I love Leo.

Oh, well good. And so just because the viewers aren't raving about him, you know, I'm not going to write him out [of the show] just for that, because I think he's good, I think he makes the show better. I think it'll make a moment when Veronica does move on that much more satisfying.

Are we going to solve the mystery of Lilly Kane's murder by the end of this season?

Absolutely. It's shooting now. Actually, we're in the last couple days of shooting the second to last episode, in which we will find out what happened the night Veronica was raped. Then in the season finale, we find out who killed Lilly Kane. In these last seven [episodes], I think we're going to have three or four truly great episodes. And none of them are weak, but I think there are going to be a couple in here that blow people's minds.

Do you have an idea for the main mystery for the next season?

Yeah! It was a trick to find something that we felt would make Veronica as emotionally invested as she was with Lilly Kane, and to feel like something new and fresh that didn't feel like Season 1, and we think we've got it.

Would you say that the season-long narrative arc is one of the hardest things about doing a show like this?

Yeah. I can't imagine that any other TV show right now is harder to break than our show. Maybe "24"? But that would be the only one, and I even think ours may be harder, because we have two things going on. Detective shows are harder to break than any other kind of show in the first place. We want to do this in a way that the viewer gets access to the same clues as Veronica over the course of the episode. Unlike a lot of shows, we don't introduce you to the bad guy at the beginning and tell you whodunit, and in those shows the fun is catching them. In our show you find clue A, clue B, clue C, you meet people who might be a red herring, might be a suspect, might be a witness. You have to lay out the facts and the beats very carefully. We always want Veronica to do something very new and fresh and clever to get to this information, and that's always a challenge. So just doing the enclosed episode, that's one challenge that's hard.

How much of an idea do you have about whether or not the show will be brought back?

Um, I'm really confident -- I mean, I'm really confident, I have to say. I think we're coming back. I would be willing to wager a bunch that we're coming back. Even if the numbers don't warrant it, I think UPN is incredibly proud of the show. I think for them, it's a signal to other television writers, producers, actors, that they can do quality TV on that network.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------