A CONVERSATION WITH ILENE CHAIKEN
Ilene Chaiken is the co-creator and executive producer of Showtime's the L word, whose tag-line is "Same sex. Different City." Showtime hopes to fill the void left by HBO's Sex and the City, whose final episodes are about to air. Freelance writer, Deidre Strohm sat down to interview Chaiken in her publicist's office in Beverly Hills on January 22, 2004, days after
the L word premiered and moments before Showtime announced it was picking up the frosh drama for a second season.
Deidre Strohm: I know that you are being inundated with interviews because of the show, but for the POWER UP QUARTERLY, we're interested in you. But, maybe you're kinda sick of all these interviews...?
Ilene Chaiken: Not sick of it, no. Not sick of it.
DS: How do you like all of the attention?
IC: The attention makes me really uneasy, but I am thrilled by the way the show has been received for the most part. And really just grateful for the effort Showtime's put behind it.
DS: So, you have two daughters, Tallulah and Augusta, they are twins.
IC: Yes. My partner gave birth to them.
DS: They are 8?
IC: Eight and a half.
DS: That half is very important to them.
IC: (with a laugh) Very important.
DS: How long have you and your partner [Miggi Hood] been together?
IC: This summer is our 20 year anniversary.
DS: Wow. That's pretty amazing. So, you've got what, a good 15-20 years of show in you?
IC: Easily. Easily.
DS: Twenty years. I'm sorry, but I am just flabbergasted by that. That is not something that is very typical, in this day and age, heterosexual...
IC: Yeah, straight couples, either.
DS: Having a relationship that is that longstanding...
IC: Among my close friends, I'm just talking about my close friends, there is one lesbian couple and one gay couple, who've been together longer than we have.
DS: That's great. And, did you and your partner go to Vermont and get married when that was possible?
IC: We haven't done any of that. We, long ago, did very elaborate estate planning, at a time when that was the only thing that was available to us, to protect ourselves in any eventuality. Although I firmly believe in gay marriage, and if it were to become the law of the land, we might get married, I don't know, we don't feel we need anything more to affirm our commitment.
DS: How did you and Miggi meet?
IC: (coyly) We met at a party in Malibu.
IC: We met because we were both young, out lesbians looking for love. And we were doing the things that women did at that time. And probably actually still do.
DS: Was Miggi in the Hollywood business as well?
IC: No, she was a sculptor at that time. She's now and architect.
DS: Is she a working architect?
IC: She was working for a very long time, but when we had children she, over the course of a couple of years, decided she was going to devote herself to looking after them. She's done quite a few interesting jobs before, and I think she was satisfied.
DS: To be a mom?
DS: Well, you guys were together for a very long time before you decided to have kids. I mean, did you decide to have kids earlier?
IC: We'd been talking about it for years... It took three years. She always wanted to give birth. She was getting inseminated month after month and nothing happened. Finally on the premise that two wombs are better than one, I started trying, too. And I couldn't conceive either. And then just the end of one summer, I think probably because we were so relaxed, we'd been in Greece for the month of August, we got back to L.A., we just kind of went for it. We thought if it doesn't happen soon, we better look into it. Then she got pregnant.
DS: Through an insemination.
IC: Yes, through insemination.
DS: Did you have other friends who were having children at the time?
IC: At that time, no. I knew a few women who had children. They weren't close friends. It was a little bit before "every lesbian you know is having a baby."
DS: So, you guys are trend setters, too.
IC: I don't know if we're trend setters. We're just a little ahead of the curve.
DS: I was actually at The L Word premiere, and heard you say in front of the group of people, the thing that caught my attention was that you had been away for nine months. You'd been in another country (Canada) for nine months. Was your family here all that time?
IC: No, we have a 10-day rule. So, every ten days, I go there or they come here. 10 days is still a long time.
DS: Very long.
IC: It was over the summer. So they came and spent little chunks of time with me. We usually go to Europe over the summer. The last few summers, I haven't been able to go because I've been working on The L Word. My partner's English, so I had to insist that they go on without me.
DS: Oh wow. To go see her family?
IC: Family and friends. And just to keep that connection going for her and for our children.
DS: So, how was that?
IC: That was hard. That was the longest I was away from them.
DS: So, what does it look like for you, I mean if the show goes well...
IC: If all goes well, then I'm not going to have a summer holiday for awhile.
DS: Okay. Because you guys are shooting in the summer?
IC: Yeah. Because we shoot in Vancouver, it's critical that we shoot during the summer months because that's the only time that we get weather that can remotely replicate Los Angeles.
DS: How does your family feel about that?
IC: They love the show, and believe in it, they want it to succeed, but all that said, it's hard on them. My daughters particularly, they love the cast. They feel very connected and even proprietary about the show. But there have been moments when each of them has said, 'I hate The L Word!' because I have to go away.
DS: Because The L Word is kind of like your other family...
IC: (hesitates) Kind of...I mean, I wouldn't equate anything with family. You know how people always say starting a project, or rather bringing a project to fruition is like giving birth? No. Not possible.
DS: (I check to see if she is serious. She is.) Good. I'm glad to hear you say that. So...
where are you from?
IC: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia...I went to art school...the Rhode Island School of Design and realized in the course of being there that I wasn't a visual artist, that all I ever wanted to do was tell stories and I switched majors...I had been a graphic design major, and I changed to film making in the last two years of my matriculation. I remember that I was making films, narrative films, and at RISD that was not the thing to do. RISD was an art school and people who made films at RISD made films that were meant to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art, which is what my professors did. I remember editing my student film and getting ready for my thesis review and had a couple of the visiting profs stand behind me and with utter disdain say, "oh, you're gonna go to Hollywood."
DS: And, you thought...
DS: And, so you did?
IC: The summer I graduated I got a job as an assistant to a producer working on a film in London. It was a movie that nobody remembers, but it starred Burt Reynolds and Don Siegal directed it (Rough Cut, 1980) and then I went back to New York for a little while, and before the year was up I realized I had to move to L.A.
DS: Is that when you met your partner (Miggi Hood)?
IC: Uh huh, although I wasn't out when I moved to L.A. I lived with a boyfriend for the first year and a half.
DS: Is that where Jenny in the show [ The L Word] comes in?
IC: Jenny, although not me, certainly reflects a little bit of my life experience. Jenny the writer who comes to L.A. and then discovers, or reckons with her sexual identity. I think that's a story that I relate to a lot.
DS: So, then you came out here and you just started getting jobs...
IC: My first job, my legitimate job, in Hollywood was as a trainee at Creative Artists (CAA).
DS: To be an agent?
IC: To be an agent trainee. At the time, I just needed a job. I was a 21 year old kid who needed a job and the job I got offered was as a reader. I was the first full time reader that CAA hired, and when they hired me, they didn't accept women in the training program. That's who long ago it was. No women. The trainee program was exclusively for men.
IC: It was still acceptable to do that in 1980.
DS: That just seems unreal, doesn't it?
IC: Isn't that wild? It was a big deal. There were several women agents, but no women in the trainee program. It was an actual policy decision to allow women into the trainee program. So, I had started as a reader, I then became the assistant to one of the agents, in fact, one of the partners in the company. They made a policy decision. The very first woman they let into the trainee program was Judy Hofflund...a very successful manager and sometime producer. A couple of weeks after they let Judy into the program, they also made me a trainee.
DS: And how long did you last at CAA?
IC: Until 1983.
DS: That's pretty long. [Hollywood years are like dog years. You work one and it counts for seven.]
IC: I most definitely learned the business being a trainee at CAA.
DS: And you went to work from there...
IC: For a couple of CAA clients. It was pretty clear I wasn't cut out to be an agent. And Mike Ovitz actually placed me with Armyan Bernstein and Alan Greisman. They had a producing deal at Warner Brothers, and I went over to be their "D-Girl."
DS: How long did you stay with them?
IC: I stayed with them for a couple of years...and then...I don't know they split up, and then I went with Alan to Aaron Spelling.
DS: What made you decide to leave development and...
IC: Oh, I had a crash and burn job. My last job was as an executive with Quincy Jones. I was involved in putting together Quincy Jones Entertainment. By that point, I was a fairly senior executive, and I helped put together the Quincy Jones/Warner Brothers joint venture. And wound up as the senior executive in the company. Reported to a board of directors and had a very "heady" Hollywood experience. We put together The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, of which I was the coordinating producer for the first year. I was having a fabulous time for a couple of years, and then it got nasty in the way those Hollywood jobs do. There came a Christmas time when I just knew I was going to be fired. It had come to that. A lot of back biting among the executives, and a lot of people swirling around. And I knew that I was the one who was going down. And I was really angry about it. I went away for Christmas with a group of friends to a cabin in Telluride, and while they were all out skiing, I locked myself in a cabin and wrote a script.
DS: Really? What did you write?
IC: I wrote a ...little kind of angry, girl action movie. It was a little before that was the thing, girl action movies, nobody was really doing it. It was a futuristic homage to The Seventh Samurai. And I came back from the Christmas vacation with a complete script, sat down in my office and waited to get fired, which happened very quickly.
Knowing, heavy laughter.
IC: Got my script to an agent, got representation. Script was optioned, but never set up, and very quickly got a job writing a movie for Hollywood Pictures, and just never looked back.
DS: That's a pretty amazing story.
IC: I just got lucky. I got out.
DS: You got out of the exec shuffle?
IC Yeah. I don't think that I was ever really suited for it. I'm glad that I did it because it gave me great skills and information, but it wasn't what I was meant to do. And I am very happy doing what I do. This is what I was meant to do.
DS: To what? To write?
IC: Primarily I think of myself as a writer. I love producing my own work for television, but I always, no matter what I do, even if I direct, I will always think of myself first as a writer.
DS: And will you direct?
IC: I think so.
DS: But you still think primarily, in your mind, you would be a writer?
IC: I think that I would identify as a writer. It's kind of like sexual identity. I identify first as a writer. I don't think it would make me any less a director. But I still would identify first as a writer. It's just how I approach the world.
DS: How has it been, with all these things, because the world you're in, I think it's fair to say, is still pretty male dominated...
DS: Not only is it male dominated, you're one of the first women agent trainees at CAA and then here you are a lesbian. And then how did that affect your experience? In this whole world? Did you have to pass?
IC: Do you know, I never did. I was out for about a year and then I met my partner. Once we were together, I just never was in the closet. We went everywhere together. And sometimes it was a little awkward and uncomfortable, it was still the early 80's, but it wasn't like this whole political statement, it just was what we did.
DS: Have you run a television show before?
IC: No. I've been a television executive. Before I started writing, I was an executive for quite a few years. For five of those years, I worked for and ultimately ran Aaron Spelling Television.
DS: (need clarification) You ran Aaron Spelling...
IC: I was the senior creative executive.
DS: And what shows were you involved with?
IC: You don't want to know.
IC: (not wanting to sell herself short) But those five years were the most fallow time in Aaron Spelling's television history. [Note: Aaron Spelling Television brought us Charlie's Angels, Love Boat, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed to name a few.] We did a bunch of shows that didn't go anywhere. It was the era in which Stephen Bochco had just redefined television, and it was a hard moment for Aaron Spelling. Television was moving away from what he did. Now it's moved back. ...But just before I left, we did Twin Peaks. Well, no one really did Twin Peaks but David Lynch, but I was proud to have been involved in it. (and then she remembers)Well, actually, there was one show that I was involved with that I am actually proud of. One of the television series which I was involved with on ABC, had the first series regular lesbian character...
DS: Was that Heartbeat?
IC: Yeah. That was my show.
DS: That was a big deal. I was living in Kansas at the time...
IC: ...it was a big deal. And Gail Strickland, who was cast to play that character decided to research her character by hanging out with me and my partner...(almost an aside) I felt like a Guinea pig.
DS: Well, now what do you feel like? You're more than a Guinea pig now...or not...?
IC: Now, I'm telling my stories. It's different. I'm not being scrutinized from outside by somebody who treats us as a curiosity...not that Gail treated us in that way...but now I just feel privileged to be getting to tell my stores...and our stories, too, to some extent.
DS: How long ago did you sell this show to Showtime?
IC: I'm very bad at dates and I get really confused, but the thing that I know, is that at the Golden Globes Ceremony at which another movie I wrote, Dirty Pictures, won for best picture, Jerry Offsay (then President of Showtime Entertainment) said to me that night, "I think we're going to do that lesbian show with you."
DS: It is my understanding that you actually took [The L Word] to Showtime before Queer as Folk (was at Showtime).
IC: Yes, not formally. Showtime never officially passed in an earlier incarnation. I had the idea, and it was just, it was almost a lark. I was struck by the notion that television was the perfect medium to tell lesbian stories because there are so many stories to tell. Because it's not good enough to have just one character who is a lesbian in someone else's story, or even just a single character show because it's time to talk about the fact that we are many. And, so an ensemble drama seemed to be the perfect medium. So, I just kind of brought it up. I had notes, I had stories I was cataloging. I brought it up informally with a couple of Showtime executives, with whom I'd worked with a lot, two women. They were intrigued by it, they loved it, but we all knew that it was kind of a radical notion at that time. And I think we all knew instinctively that it wasn't time yet. But, I knew that time would most definitely come. I don't know if they knew. They were two straight women. But I think I just felt fairly secure in my convictions that there would be a time when we could put a lesbian show on television.
DS: And, who else did you take it to?
IC: I love working with Showtime. They've been so good to me. And had they said no, I would have probably tried it elsewhere, but I never had to.
DS: Now are you a member of POWER UP?
IC: No, I am not. I haven't had time.
DS: You haven't had time.
IC: The moment I even became aware of POWER UP, we were in production, and I just haven't had a moment to alight and think about what else I might like to do in my life.
DS: POWER UP is a network for women helping other women in entertainment, what advice do you have for any young lesbians, old lesbians, middle-aged lesbians out there who are wanting to get into this business? That's a really broad question...
IC: Such a broad question, I really wouldn't know where to begin. (she thinks about it). Um, just to be passionate about something and not to give up until you get it done.
DS: I think that's great advice...Do you like the show?
IC: My show?
DS: Uh huh. Do you love the show?
IC: I love making it. Every facet of doing it from the writing the script to making the show. Editing, post production is a revelation to me. I've never done that. The writers don't usually get invited to stick around through all that. I had no idea how creative it was and also how one gets to tell the story yet again.
DS: Do you have time to read? (Right here she thinks I am going to ask her to read my script, so she hesitates as I clarify.) Like are you reading novels?
IC: (relieved) Oh, not as much as I'd like, but yes. Piecemeal, the book I am reading right now is called The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins about evolutionary biology, it's about Darwinism.
DS: Interesting. Is this non-fiction?
IC: Nods yes.
DS: Do you prefer non-fiction?
IC: I wish that I had more time to read fiction because I love it. But, when you're reading piecemeal, non-fiction is easier. I love essays.
DS: One of the reasons why I asked you that question is because you seem like a very bright, well read woman. The answers that you give are well thought out...which indicates that there's a depth about you.
IC: Thank you. That's nice.
DS: That gives me hope that the show will continue and that there will be a depth about it.
IC: I certainly hope so.
DS: Now, one of the things related to the depth of the show, and being in a network situation, how much does the show change from how you conceive it, or perceive it, to what we actually see on the screen?
IC: It never changes because I change along with it. I am so integrally connected to whole process that I don't feel as if I started over here and somehow I wound up over here. I am on the ride with it.
DS: Interesting. Because as a former executive you know something you get at the beginning ends up very different at the end.
IC: I think that this is an unusual experience. I wouldn't say that it's unique, but it's not common. This is the truest realization from me, of my conception as a writer.
DS: Now, see, that's pretty sweet.
IC: Yeah, it's very sweet.
DS: Because one of the things you said at the premiere is that you looked forward, that you liked the [network] notes.
IC: (as if she knows better) I love getting network notes!
DS: much laughter.
IC: I know that's perverse, but I do.
DS: Do you have anything else that you'd like to make sure the folks in POWER UP land know about you?
IC: No...this was nice...a nice conversation.
DS: Good. I'm glad.
IC: Thank you.
You can catch The L Word on Showtime at 10 p.m. Sunday nights. Check local listings for repeat showings.