It isn't every day that a popular scripted dramatic series finds a second life in the reality genre but that is exactly what writer/producer Ilene Chaiken has made happen by taking the foundation of her popular lesbian scripted drama "The L Word" and spin it into a new reality series. After a six-year run on Showtime that ended in early 2009, Chaiken clearly wasn't finished telling stories of lesbians in LA so she paired with reality powerhouse producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz of Magical Elves (the company that also produces Bravo's "Top Chef" and the new "Work of Art") and sold the show to Showtime. "The Real L Word," which premieres this Sunday, turns cameras on the real lives of six Los Angeles-based lesbians in both personal and professional arenas and proves that real life is just as surprising, sexy and dramatic as fiction.
Our Jim Halterman talked with Cutforth and Lipsitz earlier this week about the genesis of the new show, whether the label "Lesbian Real Housewives" is a compliment or insult and how they aren't concerned about the straight audience being just as drawn in as the gay audience.
Jim Halterman: How did Magical Elves pair up with creator Ilene Chaiken?
Jane Lipsitz: Ilene came in for a general meeting with us since we'd been dabbling in the scripted world and she was talking about being interested in going to Showtime and she wanted to take the reality version of "The L Word" out. We had been looking into doing a similar show with a group of lesbians in New York City so when she said that we said we'd love to work with her on it so that's how it all came to pass.
JH: So Los Angeles was the best place for this show to happen?
Dan Cutforth: Since the original "L Word" was set in LA, it was also a big part of how the original show had come about in the first place. From what Ilene has told us, it was inspired by her own life and experiences living in LA so it seemed like the obvious place to begin.
JH: There's a very different mix in terms of types of women on "The Real L Word." How did you approach casting?
DC: The lesbian community is a relatively small world in LA. When word got out that Ilene was doing this... 'The L Word' is a show that pretty much everyone in the lesbian community knows of and they loved the show so there was an enormous amount of interest. The minute the show was announced, we got an email within 10 minutes from someone who actually ended up on the show.
JL: At first we thought we wanted to get a group of friends and people who knew each other. We started seeing people and meeting with people and it just became clear that the people we were meeting were the best characters and they didn't know each other but we thought it would be great to tell a bigger cross-section of story in Los Angeles. It's really about these women and their lives but hopefully inspirational women and their day-to-day of what everyone deals with.
JH: If the show is referred to as the "Lesbian Real Housewives," is that a compliment or not so much?
JL: I don't think that was our goal but we work very closely with Bravo and if we get half the success of "The Housewives," we'll take it. We didn't set out to make a show that has a political message but there are definitely issues that the gay community deals with that we tried to tackle in our show in terms of bringing up the issues of gay marriage and rights. I think that what's important to us is that we set out to make an entertainment show but there is a little bit more depth to this series.
JH: Since this could be considered a gay-centric series, do you think the straight audience will show up to watch?
DC: It's interesting. We had a little event last week to celebrate a few of our shows coming up [and] we showed some footage from each of the shows and I'd say there was a fair amount of straight male interest in "The Real L Word" based on what people saw. We're both straight and we really enjoy watching the show and it's definitely not aiming to be a show that is trying to appeal to just the gay community though we hope people see it as a great representation. I don't feel comfortable speaking on behalf of lesbians everywhere, for obvious reasons, but from my own perspective I think it's a really entertaining show and I believe it will be appreciated by anyone who watches it.
JH: Was there much adjustment for the cast in their comfort levels with the cameras coming into their homes and workspaces?
JL: They were great about it. Some were more themselves than others but they definitely welcomed this into their lives and I think that hopefully shows up on the show where it seems real and organic and more fly-on-the-wall.
DC: I think a lot of shows of this kind that are referred to as "docu-soaps." I think a lot of other companies really try to manage and produce the reality that they're presenting and they set stuff up and they have people kind of play up certain situations. What we really tried to do was be a fly-on-the-wall in these people's lives and show what happens in their lives rather than try to make things happen. For us, there is a big difference and you can see that in the end results. I think there is an authenticity and a truthfulness to that that you can't really just create.
JH: Was Showtime the only place where you were going to set this up? I would suspect with the language and situations that it would have to be on cable.
JL: It didn't have to be on cable but doing this for a premium cable outlet is really an amazing opportunity because you can speak much more freely and you can actually show some pretty sexy scenes. Showtime obviously had a strong relationship with "The L Word" so we went there first.
JH: Were you surprised at the stories that developed while you were shooting?
JL: That's why we love doing this because you're always surprised. It's real life and truth is stranger than fiction and we're like viewers because we get to see what happens in their lives. We'd have story meetings every Friday to see what was going on in everyone's lives and it was like "Oh my God! This is so great!" I think that was the experience with Ilene who has been so used to crafting the stories. I think she really enjoyed the surprises that you couldn't predict day to day.
"The Real L Word" premieres this Sunday at 10:00/9:00c on Showtime.