Amy Sherman-Palladino’s ABC Family series Bunheads, which premiered last summer, was a slow burn with the channel’s young female audience. It is, after all, a show about an adult woman, played by Broadway star Sutton Foster, more than it is about its teen cast. Nevertheless, by the time its first 10 episodes all aired – unfolding the story of Michelle’s (Foster) move to a beach town north of Los Angeles, where the talented dancer who has squandered her career in Las Vegas takes over a ballet school – it was doing nicely in the ratings, and was picked up for more. Thank God. Because it’s great.
As anyone who ever watched Sherman-Palladino’s beloved mother-daughter drama Gilmore Girls knows, her characters talk fast. And so does she. So I’m keeping this introduction short except to add these explanations: 1) When Sherman-Palladino mentions “Kate,” she means ABC Family executive Kate Juergens (not me!). 2) When she says “Dan,” she means her husband and collaborator, Daniel Palladino. 3) Bunheads returns for eight new episodes beginning Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.
Sherman-Palladino and I discussed Sutton Foster, missing Gilmore Girls, and how small the Bunheads budget is, which she brought up charmingly and repeatedly.
KA: Bunheads! I’m not going to lie, I love it. You’ve had all sorts of experiences making television. What’s this one been like?
AS-P: It’s really interesting, because it’s a frustrating process making TV always, but I have to tell you, working with Sutton Foster and this group of kids – it’s actually a shame, because I’m so spoiled now that I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever work with anyone again, ever. Which I’ve told Sutton. She’s so extraordinarily talented, which is, you know, fine, whatever. Yeah, you can do everything, blah blah blah. But her professionalism and her spirit and her, like, “Whatever it takes! We’re gonna get it done!” is an attitude that’s very rare for someone who’s been in the business as long as she has.
TV is very pressured and anxious. Especially in this sort of situation where you’re going piece by piece, and you don’t know if they’re going to pick up the next batch, and it’s when a lot of ego weirdness could take over, and there’s literally none of that. It’s all about let’s do the show, let’s band together and do this, we know it’s hard, we know it’s work – but it always seems like it’s fun. It’s a very damaging experience to have. I keep telling myself, the next one isn’t going to be like this! You have to remember that!
ABC Family are lovely people to deal with, they’re very supportive of the show, but there’s literally two cents and a pack of gum to make the show with. I was always complaining about money on Gilmore Girls, and now I’m looking at Gilmore Girls as the halcyon days — remember when we had money for water? Remember the days when we could actually buy a bagel? I look at old Gilmores, and I’m, like, look at that set we could afford! We were so fancy back then. But you know what, we do it, and our show is about the words and these amazing people, and there’s a lot of tutus. So there you go.
AS-P: And by the way, tutus are very expensive!
KA: You have a particular fast-talking style. Is it harder for you to find actors who can be good on your shows? Especially the children?
AS-P: Yes. It’s very hard. Pace is like an internal clock; it’s a rhythm, and you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have that internal clock, it doesn’t mean they’re not good, it just means they don’t have that metronome in their stomach. And, you know, kids, their mouths are still growing. Forming words that quickly — the energy is there, and the desire to speak fast is there, but it’s not just speaking fast. It’s speaking fast, speaking clearly, and understanding what you’re saying. And acting at the same time. I’ve been very lucky to work with people like Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop and now the queen of this, Sutton Foster. Jesus Christ. That girl. Did I mention how incredibly lucky I am? Because I want to keep saying that, because I know it will never happen again. I just want to keep saying it over and over again, so that I remember that it will never happen again.
KA: I will note that. Do you write differently for the ABC Family audience? It is for the Youngs.
AS-P: No. Actually, not at all. This show is what it is. We break stories that we want to see. The big discussion I had with ABC Family when we wanted to do this, Kate and I sat down and I pitched it to her, I just said, I know you have a very strong teen audience, and I love that teen audience. That was a big component of our Gilmore audience was the teen audience — we had a very strong teen following even though, in many ways, Gilmore was a very adult show. I said that’s the model I want to follow. I’ve got my teen girls, and I want them to have lives and interests and loves and heartbreaks and drama — but this show is about Sutton Foster. This show is about Michelle. This show is about a woman in her mid-30s going through a life transition. And it always will be. That was my big thing. I didn’t want to write a show where Sutton’s relegated to going, “Who got pregnant THIS week?” I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in exploring her life, and what her entrance into this world means to everyone around her. And they were, like, “Yeah, that’s what we want too.”
KA: I was a huge Gilmore Girls fan, and I miss it to this day. When you look back at Gilmore Girls — which obviously was years of your life, had its ups and downs, and you ultimately left the show before what turned out to be the final season — what are your main memories of it?
AS-P: Gilmore was a gift. It was a real gift. I miss Gilmore every day. Even with Bunheads, I will always miss Gilmore. Gilmore was an incredible world that took years to build — working with wonderful actors, you felt a little like Orson Welles showing up with his players there, you know? Our own little weird fiefdom.
And I loved that relationship: I loved Lorelai and Rory. I loved Luke and Lorelai. I miss writing for certain situations. I miss those dinner table scenes. I miss my sets! I had such great sets on Gilmore Girls back when we had money for bagels and water! Every job has to end, and has to push you into something else. It’s interesting that Bunheads has given me — it’s not Gilmore, it’s nothing like Gilmore, and yet it’s feeding a similar creative itch that was missing.
KA: Yes, back to Bunheads! You mentioned the ABC Family way of scheduling things, stopping and starting, doing 10 episodes, then eight, blah blah. Did you get a break in between when you could think about how you wanted to do things based on what you’d learned about the story, the actors?
AS-P: It’s an interesting story-breaking process to figure out how to not make this show feel internal, claustrophobic. Because the money is the money. You can bitch about it all you want, it ain’t gonna get any bigger. Here’s your pot of gold, kids: If you want to stay on the air, if you want to stay in the ABC Family world, you can have all the lofty dreams of artistic endeavors you want — if you don’t do it for the bottom line, they don’t give a shit. They’ll just get two more hot young things and put them in hot pants and have them walk around and get pregnant every week. They said, go do the show you want, do your insanity, do what you will — but you’ve got to do it for our money.
And you don’t want to kill your cast. When you’re shooting 77 pages in seven days, and Sutton Foster is in every scene, by the end of the week, her eyes are getting bigger and bigger and bigger. The thing with Sutton, if you walk up to her and say, how are you doing?, she’s going to say GREAT. She’s never going to say, you’re killing me, you’re a horrible woman, I hate you, I have a knife handbag and if you come near me, I’m going to stab you in the neck. So it’s up to me to figure out, how do I not kill Sutton Foster?
The one thing this show has is we have that dance outlet. And that dance outlet opens the show up in the same way a location does in a weird way. Because being able to use the classes in stories, being able to have these wonderful dances because of this incredible choreographer who’s joined our crazy squad, Marguerite Derricks. A woman I can call on a Sunday and go, “We’re short on the show. Grab three girls, put ‘em all in black, smudge their makeup, put their hair down, I’m going to send you a piece of music, we need a dance tomorrow.” And we come up with “Istanbul.”
The first 10, there was also a lot of emotional stuff going on, my father was very sick, he passed away in the middle of the first 10. These eight are more focused. We went into this eight saying, these kids now, they’re adorable and we love them – they need lives. They need boyfriends, they need families, they need trauma at home. It can’t all be them saying, “I’ve got a blister! Who’s got a Band Aid?”
KA: You mentioned “Istanbul” in particular. I picked seven moments from TV last year that made me cry, and that was one of them. That dance came about because you literally needed to fill time?
AS-P: That was the show when my father passed away. He passed away two days before we started shooting that show, because I was still writing scenes while I was sitting at Forest Lawn [Cemetery]. I was not there on set to oversee everything. When I got into the editing room, we were incredibly short. How we were that short — it’s one of the world’s great mysteries to me. It’s a greater mystery than the Pyramids or anything else. How the hell we were that short on that goddamn show that was 78 pages — we were about five minutes short. I simply didn’t have the footage to put the show together that they could air it. That “Istanbul” song, I love that song, I love They Might Be Giants. Long before I did a show with dance in it, you know I come from the dance world, and I always thought this song would make a really crazy ballet about dark, evil ballerinas dancing to this song. That show sort of kicks off Sasha’s deep anger and rebellion against her parents; it just felt, let’s express it in there, because I can’t shoot another scene. I called Marguerite, I said, I want it to express Sasha’s — and it’s weird, because it’s not an angry song? It’s a goofy song. But there’s something about that song with the look and the feel, it just — all the stars aligned, and it absolutely worked. It was one of things that when I put it in, Dan and I were standing there, and I’m looking at him going, “Is this insane? Is this Fonzie jumping the shark? Are we jumping the shark in Episode 6?” He was like, “I don’t know!” We think it’s cool; I don’t know if anyone else is going to think it’s cool. Luckily, people took it in the spirit with which it’s intended.
This interview has been condensed.