If Shonda Rhimes has created a land and Greg Berlanti has created a universe, then Julie Plec has created a family.
As showrunner of three CW shows — The Vampire Diaries (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET), The Originals (Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), and Containment(Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET) — Plec is making her mark on TV by creating characters and stories that generate some of the most passionate fandoms around. With one plot twist, Plec has the power to break hearts or inspire hope in fans across the world. Over the years, she’s done both.
When it comes to crafting those pivotal moments, Plec relies on her fellow writers, her producers, and perhaps just as importantly, her favorite Italian restaurant in the heart of Atlanta, where all three shows film. When she’s in town, Plec can be found at Sotto Sotto roughly three nights a week. The owner knows her name. The bartender knows her wine (and meal) of choice (strozzapreti and a Chianti). And with her headphones on, Plec writes the words that will affect millions.
As Plec continues to expand her family with her newest entry,Containment, EW sat down at that very restaurant with stars from all three shows — Paul Wesley (The Vampire Diaries), Daniel Gillies (The Originals), David Gyasi (Containment), and Chris Wood (The Vampire Diaries, Containment) — along with Plec herself to talk about the world she’s created. To talk about the family she’s created.
On the actor-showrunner relationship
PAUL WESLEY: My experience has been one of safety. I feel like I can come to you and I can talk to you about anything and be as blunt as possible. I feel like there’s this beautiful bond that I don’t know if I’ll ever experience in my lifetime again.
JULIE PLEC: We probably never will. That’s what I keep realizing.
WESLEY: But you’ve worked on shows for a lengthy period of time, what is it ordinarily like?
After working as Wes Craven’s development executive, Plec got her start on the producing side, working on Scream 2 and Scream 3, among other films. Her first writing credit came in 2006 on ABC Family’s Kyle XY, three years before the launch of The Vampire Diaries.
PLEC: There are so many rules that one can tell you to follow — you have to be the boss, you have to keep yourself removed so you don’t let personal relationships impact your storytelling. There are great rules that I’ve just completely s–t on probably. I wouldn’t want to work this hard if I didn’t have a personal connection with the people I work with.
DAVID GYASI: Julie said something to me when we were discussing whether I should come and play, she said, “All I can tell you is we’re going to have a lot of fun, we’re going to work hard, and it will be like a family.” When I go in to meet someone and they’re talking about family and togetherness but also ambition — for me, that’s golden.
WESLEY: TV is a really weird thing because you could potentially be together for six, seven years.
PLEC: In five minutes you’re making this choice.
WESLEY: I think that people are foolish to not embrace the family-like environment because I think it enables people to feel comfortable and safe and be more artistic. Fear is generally a repressive quality. The other thing that’s great about Julie is work ethic. So I can email Julie and I can expect a response within a very, very short amount of time.
CHRIS WOOD: Especially between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
WESLEY: I can email her about literally the smallest minutia of a detail in a script and I know she’ll know what I’m talking about because she’s read it, even though there are three scripts coming in every week. That’s pretty amazing. I know a lot of producers and showrunners that are 9-to-5ers.
PLEC: That’s the thing that I think for better for worse defines me, which is I am crazy ambitious. I’m a totally wildly barely functional workaholic, which benefits everybody in that way because this [gestures to the table] is me. This table is one third of my life.
WOOD: Ian’s [Somerhalder] not here, so that’s …
WESLEY: He’s the other two thirds.
DANIEL GILLIES: Of all of our lives.
WOOD: Of everyone here, really. [Everyone laughs]
PLEC: In a weird way, it’s availability, accessibility, presence, and commitment, because people work very hard so that they can close their doors at 6:30 and go home. And I fully applaud people who can figure that out. I work very hard so that I can be present all the time for what I do and then carve out little pockets of time as I desire for my personal life. But a lot of times the personal life overlaps. I have a deep-rooted personal life with all these people here.
GILLIES: Yeah but I know doctors who work less hard than you.
WESLEY: Oh my god, yeah.
WOOD: You’re also smart about surrounding yourself with people that you trust. You know when there’s something that you need to address, and when there’s something that someone else can be designated to address.
PLEC: It’s been really easy to delegate on Containment because the show is so real-world.
WOOD: There’s no mythology.
PLEC: There’s no mythology that you have to really worry about f–king up, so I can say to these writers who I completely respect and think are quite good, “Whatever you come up with will be great. It doesn’t have to have my signature on it for it to be good.” Most of these scripts on Containment don’t have my signature on it, and I love it.
GILLIES: Are you getting better at delegating?
PLEC: 100 percent, because the show allows for it. There are people in our writers’ room who know more about medicine than I ever will. But in a vampire universe, like who knows more? [Laughs]
WOOD: The answer’s nobody.
PLEC: That’s the thing. You’re making it all up, right? So you’re relying on people’s creativity to be limitless, and everything you like or don’t like is so subjective, which is what makes writing these shows sohard. Powerfully good, but hard. You have no idea if this is going to be the witchy hijinks move that sends us leaping over the edge of tonal credibility. You second-guess everything, whereas in a medical virus show, it’s medically accurate or it’s not.
WESLEY: The problem with supernatural shows in general is that you enter the world of normalcy and then you sprinkle little bits of supernatural, but then by season 7 of 22 episodes, you’ve done all that. So the mystery’s gone. You have to continue trying to find new storylines.
PLEC: You’re struggling against either trying to one up yourselves to a fault — that’s how you jump the shark — or if you try to scale it way back and cement it back in the real world, people are like, “Oh that’s boring.” It’s hard to find the balance.
On the struggle with ratings
GILLIES: That brings us into a whole other territory, which might be a little raw. I feel like we’re doing the best season of the show [The Originals] that we’ve ever done right now. What do you feel when you get hammered with ratings?
PLEC: The problem with ratings is that you can give yourself a million reasons why they are what they are. When I’m feeling like giving myself the reasons to feel okay — “It’s a night move that nobody knew about,” “It’s a premiere that nobody knew about.” So I can make that excuse all day long, or I could say nobody’s watching live TV. But that’s true for everybody so you can’t really target that as the reason for a ratings decline.
WESLEY: Or you could look at, and maybe this is a little raw, the vampire thing. Vampire Diaries was huge success when it first premiered. It was massive, the biggest premiere for the CW. But also,Twilight was really popular and it was a very zeitgeisty thing. And now,True Blood has ended. I don’t think they’re making anymore Twilightmovies, and I think that, regardless of how good Originals is on its own merit, it unfortunately has that generalization.
PLEC: But for Vampire, I would say there’s way too many places and other ways to watch TV and most 22-year-olds that you meet don’t own a television. Second is I think some genre and long-running series fatigue that is to be expected. That’s also one of the great things about working on the CW. Obviously they have to care about ratings to a certain degree …
WOOD: But they’ve proven that that’s not how they make decisions.
PLEC: They keep shows on in spite of ratings because they want the shows to live on. So we do get that freedom. I don’t think I’ve had anybody ever say to me, “Well, what are you doing for sweeps?” Every episode’s sweeps, you know? You don’t write better s–t because it’s November, because nobody’s watching it in November, they’re watching it on Netflix.