"Gossip Girl" boss: "It's class warfare with one dictator … I could write this show every 15 years"

On "Salon Talks," the veteran of the old and new "Gossip Girl" spills on what makes the reboot modern

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 12, 2021 5:55PM (EDT)

Jordan Alexander in "Gossip Girl" (Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max)
Jordan Alexander in "Gossip Girl" (Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max)

Nine years after she said her last "XOXO," "Gossip Girl" returned this summer to wreak havoc on a whole new generation of Upper East Siders in a fizzy, topical series reboot.

Joshua Safran was an executive producer on the original CW series, as well as being a writer and showrunner on shows like "Quantico" and" Smash." And now he is the creator, the showrunner, a writer and executive producer on HBO Max's continuation of "Gossip Girl." He joined us recently for a "Salon Talks" about adapting the "Gossip Girl" universe for Gen Z, shooting a "post-COVID" series at the height of the pandemic and the essential drama of teendom.

Check out Safran's interview on "Salon Talks" here or read a transcript below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A lot of us, when we first heard about this show, were thinking, "Gossip Girl," didn't that just end?" But it didn't just end. You've done so many things in the interim. What made you want to come back to this world?

Initially I didn't. When Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage came to me, they said, "We've tried to think about ways of redoing the show and we haven't found a way in. If you find a way in, let's do it. If you don't, let's all walk away." I was in the middle of my writers' room from my last show, "Soundtrack." I was like, "I don't have time to think about this." But I grew up on the Upper East Side. I live in New York, and I have friends who are teachers in private schools in the city. I talked to them a bunch over the years and I had this idea in my head of writing something about teachers at these schools at some point.

As I left that meeting with Josh and Stephanie, I was like, "Wait, maybe, actually this is a chance to explore that." Because "Gossip Girl" always was looking at power and privilege from these young entitled people in this world. I knew I wanted to look at the flip side of that a little bit. I couldn't let it go. The idea really did keep me up at night. I kept writing down more thoughts about it. I kept going to Josh and Stephanie with these ideas, and they were like, "We really think there's something there." There's no reason to do another show unless you're going to excavate through it and find something new. And this was that thing.

That leads to the reveal very early on, that the thing that was the big central mystery of the first version of "Gossip Girl" does not exist. We see who Gossip Girl is and we see that process of becoming Gossip Girl. What was behind that choice? 

The idea of redoing the show would have made no sense to me if we were just going to do the same thing. The audience, when they watched the first show, knew sometimes we would play with telling you, "Hey, maybe we'll reveal Gossip Girl now." But they knew that we weren't going to. As the show went on, they were like, "Oh, they'll get to it at some point."

The premise of the show from the top was just this anonymous person. Only as the show progressed did you think about it. Now you know it was Dan, and now some people feel like Dan didn't make the most sense. You'd watch the show being like, "Who is it? Who is it? Maybe it's that person. Maybe it's that person." It would take over the viewing. For me, it was like, let's just be done with that from the top. That was one reason.

The other reason was the idea of seeing Dan do all those horrible things. The show never showed you that. They did not show him going on a date with Serena and then leaving to go to the bathroom to write something terrible about her to post on Gossip Girl. That's what a psychopath does.

You never got to see that. We should show the pain and the trauma and the immorality and the amorality of being Gossip Girl. That's an entire thing we never looked at. There's so much there. We have 12 episodes this season and we've only begun to scratch the surface of what that is. I just couldn't pass that up. That's the reason to do the show in my mind.

There is so much that people loved about the original in this show. There are so many iconic callbacks to it, but it is also such a different world than 2007. The culture for Gen Z is so different. What did you want to explore? What were the big imperatives?

What's really fascinating right now is there's clearly a disparity between the critics and the audience. Just even watching my Twitter feed yesterday, the audience, which is primarily Gen Z and millennials, are feeling very seen by the show and feeling it reflects their world. I felt like my goal was to not try to make a show that played on the nostalgia of us, the original audience. People like to say it's the millennials now. But the reality is the original audience was Gen X. The median age for the show when it was on The CW was 31, and now those people are in their mid-40s. The goal was, "Let's not do that," because in my mind, and in Josh and Stephanie's minds, that audience was going to come watch the show anyway. They may not stay with the show, but they'd be like, "That was the show that I watched. I will check out the new one."

The goal was, "Let's look around at younger millennials and Gen Z and talk about their issues." It's like this conversation recently about "a woke Gossip Girl" and kids being aware of their privilege. Spend five minutes with somebody who is Gen Z. That is what they are talking about. They are actually talking about, "Hey, what you just did hurt me. Let's investigate our feelings." That is the world. The imperative was much like Cecily [von Ziegesar] did the first time around in doing her research, because she was older than private school age when she wrote those books. She had grown up in New York. She went back, she did her research and she looked at the world. I went back, I did my research and I looked at Gen Z. What are they thinking about? What are they talking about? What are the things they're not talking about? How are they presenting themselves to social media versus how they are in real life?

I am of the age where I have a lot of friends who have Gen Z kids. It was spending time with those kids, talking to them, watching them speaking to the parents, hearing what they tell the parents. Because I'm a gay man with no kids, my friend's kids, I'm in their social media accounts because I'm their friend uncle. I'm not their parent. I actually see what they're really doing versus what they tell their parents. I also have that perspective.

The goal was just really truly to look at what's happening there and then wrap it up in the DNA that exists already of the show, which is, "Everyone's going to look amazing. They're all going to stab each other in the back. They're all going to end up at a party where everything's going to blow up and they're all going to actually try to change and grow while somebody is surveilling them."

This is a generation whose parents have put them on social media from the time that they were little, that has been media stars themselves, that has been running their own social media from before they even understood it. I think this is the first show, Joshua, that explores the generation gap between millennials and Gen Z.

We didn't set out to do that on purpose, except for the fact that the writers were millennials and Gen X. The thing I find so funny is how when you have kids, a lot of people register social media accounts now for their children because they're afraid the names are going to be taken. That is a very new world. So we talked about in the writers' room that Davis registered Julien's Instagram, Julien's Gmail, when she was born. She grew up in an expectation that she would have to present a false life to the world. That is how kids are being born these days. There's a lot there to unpack, and I'm glad we have an hour every episode to do it because I don't think we could have done it in 42 minutes.

Watching it, there are these simultaneous and seemingly dichotomous tracks of consumption, wealth, glamour, but also the recognition of privilege, the recognition of social issues. You see this generation of very privileged kids trying to figure out where they are in that in a way that is not simply, "I'm rich, but I'm guilty about it." That's so front and center in the show.

Totally. I think some people who want the show to be more like the old show don't quite understand that the first show wasn't intended to be a fantasy. I understand any broadcast show that has to make 22, 24, 25 episodes a year is going to have craziness in it. If you look at Season 1 of the original "Gossip Girl," it's actually more realistic than you would think. It's not the twisty, crazy, plot turn-y version it becomes in later seasons when we simply were like, "We need to tell stories. We need to tell stories. What are we going to do?"

That first season is very much about being lost in a world that expects you to have everything. If you have everything, how can you be lost? That is what's in there. That's this show too. It's just different generationally. To make the version of "Gossip Girl" that people remember most would have made characters you didn't relate to. We tried very hard to look at Season 1 of the original and go, "You really felt for Blair. You felt for her problems. You felt how bad she felt that Serena had slept with her boyfriend. You felt for Serena." You felt like the pain of real teenage problems, even in this world. We were just like, "Okay, what are the real teenage problems?" And one of those real problems is knowing now how much money you have.

One of the Jenners during the pandemic posted that she bought a $3 million car. Her fans said, "You shouldn't boast about that," and she said, "Oh, I'll take the post down." They were like, "Don't take the post down because we know how much money you have. Just don't boast about the price tag." That was a very apocryphal story in the writers room, because the idea is that the world understands the money that people have now. It's okay that you have that money provided you don't flaunt it. It's an odd nuance.

That's where the show traffics in now. To have done a version of the show where the kids are just like, "Ooh, here's my black card," and, "Let me buy shoes for everybody; these shoes look great, " would have rung so false. I as a viewer would have tuned out because there are shows that do that. That's never what "Gossip Girl" did. "Gossip Girl" did, "I could buy the shoes. I have the black card, but you still slept with my boyfriend and I'm destroyed inside and I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know who to talk to if I don't have my best friend." The reason why the show works for all the years and the reason why people still watch it is because the basis was truth. So the basis here is true, and that was our one goal.

This show is representing different kinds of teenagers. It's really expansive in its exploration of race and of gender and of class in a way that we haven't seen, while still taking place in this super glamorous Upper East Side world. That seems like that was also important.

Yes. We also talked a lot about where race and class intersect, and that Julien sort of walks through the world with a level of privilege that is different than Zoya, because Zoya is a black woman not from money and Julien is a biracial woman from money. We talked a lot in the writer's room about sort of Beyoncé pre-"Lemonade" and Beyoncé post-"Lemonade," and how Julien's journey through Zoya is to actually come to understand how class covered over race for her in her life. That is something that we explore throughout the show. Those conversations are conversations that I don't know other shows are having. It's not the top layer of the show, because again, the show is "Gossip Girl," and it's about people screwing over people and somebody pointing it out and all of it going to hell, but it's definitely something in the show. We talked about it repeatedly, because it's true.

There aren't a lot of shows – "Elite," "Riverdale," "Euphoria," those shows actually aren't about class at all. And "Gossip Girl's" about class first and foremost. We had that conversation pretty much week one of this writer's room. "What is this show most about? It is most about class." Gossip Girl is a class disruptor from the first one to now. Whether it was Dan or Anonymous, doesn't even matter. That's what she was. She was a disruptor and she is like, "I am going to shake your golden cages until you fall out of them." That is the goal of Gossip Girl. It's class warfare with one dictator, and it's been really fun to get back into that world. I could write this show every 15 years. As a country, we are starting to deal with these things, but it's the very nascent stages. There's just a lot there.

The show acknowledges the pandemic. That, I'm sure, was a very tricky thing to do, both logistically and as a showrunner creating this world within New York City at this moment.

Aged five years from it. But yes.

How did you introduce that into a storyline? 2020 was a difficult time to be young.  

All the scripts were written because we were supposed to go into production two weeks before the shutdown. The post COVID-ness of the show is a thing that happened very quickly. During the beginning of COVID, there was a lot of conversation about, "Should the show be actually pre-COVID?" This was the prevailing theory, not by me, but by other parties for a brief moment because no one knew how long COVID was going to go. If the show was going to come out and we were still under lockdown or if we had lived like this the rest of our lives, wouldn't it be better to basically watch a show that was like before the fall of Rome but you know the fall is coming? That was a thought for awhile.

I was always pushing to set it post-COVID or not acknowledge COVID, which I think would have been a mistake. Other heads prevailed on that one. My big worry during the beginning of the pandemic — besides would everybody survive and the health of our country and the world — my work thought was, will people now want to see a show about glamorous people fighting over their positions in life and people they're in love with and stabbing each other in the back during such a hard time? I had to really let go of that. That was very hard for me. I was in a panic state for a very long time. It was like, is this the right time to do the show? Should we even do the show? Should we pull the plug on the show? Should we wait? It was a whole thing.

Meanwhile, production-wise, it was, "Should we shoot the show in London?" London wasn't under lockdown yet. They were actually doing better than us for a moment. We were like, "Okay, let's go look at stages in London virtually and just decide. We'll do it there. Will we shoot London for London? Will Constance have a sister school in London? Will it be London for New York?" There was so much going on the whole time. Ultimately it was like, "No, let's set it post-COVID because if you're a kid and you're at home and you're still stuck there, you're going to want to dream about a future where this is happening." Part of the fantasy buy-in of "Gossip Girl" is it's a world you're not a part of anyway and you're seeing inside of it. So why don't we set this post-COVID, which is a world none of us are a part of, and we'll just hope we'll be there?

Tragically and oddly, it's the right show at the right time, watching these kids come out of COVID when we're all coming out of COVID, the idea that it's Hot Guy, Hot Girl, Hot Gay Summer for everybody right now in New York. That's what the show is. I watched the show last night with 25 people who I don't know. Three of the writers are in town from LA. They're young writers in their 20s and they had their 20something friends over. It was very weird. I definitely felt like a babysitter. Watching them watch the show was interesting because it really does hit where they're at right now. They're all out in New York and they're unmasked and they're doing the things that they're doing and the show feels like them.

I don't know what the show would have felt like if COVID hadn't happened. Would it have felt more like a retread of the original? Would it have felt like it was a shadow self? Or is it partially the fact that we all went through this global nightmare that took away a year of our youth, that took away our agency, that took away our lives, that took away people that we loved, and now that we're coming out of it, all we want to do is party and forget our problems are still with us? Our problems actually aren't just still with us, they were magnified by that pandemic, because it was a war whether we want to look at it that way or not. We are returning from war and none of us are the same.

That I feel adds to the show because these kids think everything's going to be great. Everything's going to be back to normal. It's going to be like 2020 didn't happen. Then here is Gossip Girl there to take them down.

Another thing I have to ask you about is the New Yorkness and the incredibly granular detail of this show and this world. Most people don't live in Manhattan. Most people don't know how incredibly detailed this is. Why is that so important?

Well, I'm from here, as you know. My cousin Liz is a filmmaker in her own right, she co-wrote and produced the movie "Obvious Child," among many other things. She unearthed an email from 2007 — because she was at Dalton at that time — where I emailed her and I was like, "I'm working on this show. No one's heard of it. Can you just ask your friends at Dalton what are some specific things?" Of course only like two people responded to the email.

The specificity started back then. We weren't able to do as much because the CW is a broadcast network and there's certain things you can't say. For instance, we couldn't show them drinking. There were rules about brands, because also what advertisers advertise on your network dictates what you can show the characters doing. All of us wanted more specificity. We just couldn't do it because you couldn't name check Apple if your deal was with Verizon.

But kids are branded. The world is branded. If you're a New Yorker and somebody asks, "Where should we go for coffee?" I'm like, "Well, if you want a flat white, you're going to go here. If you want an Americano, you're going to go here. If you want the best cold brew, it's here." We all know these things here because we're all researchers. I brought that into the show. Whether people know it or not doesn't matter. What matters is the characters know it. Your characters should be as specific as possible. Some people who aren't writers probably think this is crazy, but every time I write, I sit down and I write what all of my characters eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I come up with playlists for them. I talk about the movies or the books. I have dossiers on them that tell me who they are.

Then I hand those to the writers and the writers add because they'll have experiences that I don't have. They'll be like, "I think Julien would actually listen to this. I think Zoya is reading this." Those documents continue throughout the course of our season. Then those documents get handed to some department heads. For instance, there's a dossier of books these characters would read. And as more books come out, we add to them and props has them and props clears them. That's very specific. Audrey reading Eve Babitz. Audrey reading "Silence" and "The Pilot," Zoya reading "Slave Play."

Those things are very important. It's important not just to me that all the characters be specific, but it's important to the actors. I mean, Whitney had not read "Slave Play" because Whitney lives in Canada and "Slave Play" was not on in Canada. Whitney came to the show and I was like, "You need to read 'Slave Play.'" And she read "Slave Play" and it blew her mind and she is now friends with Jeremy O. Harris. And Jeremy plays himself in the show. Jeremy O. Harris is in the world of the show, so I got Jeremy.

That specificity only is going to make a show better. When you see a show that is not specific, in my mind, it's very disposable. It kind of goes in one ear, out the other. I think about "Maisel" all the time. Whatever your feelings are about "Maisel," the specificity of "Maisel" is why we love that world. You want to be in that succession. You want to be in those rooms with those people because every detail is correct, and I am obsessive and crazy down to the shoes. Eric Damon, our costume designer, is brilliant. So I tell every director, "You better get a wide shot that shows a full body on these clothes, because these clothes tell a story. They're not just beautiful fashion plates." Most often in TV you're shooting this or you maybe shooting sort of what they call "cowboy," which is waist up. I'm like, "No, they're on the Met steps. Get far back. Show me all those shoes." If Julien and Monet and Luna are walking down a hallway, full body. All of those details matter.

The new "Gossip Girl" streams on HBO Max.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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