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Skins Co-creator Bryan Elsley on Adapting His Show for MTV

In last week's magazine, some dude compared MTV's version of Skins, premiering tonight, to the beloved original. During our interviews with the cast and staff, original Skins co-creator Bryan Elsley (he's also running the remake) was kind enough to give us more quotes than we could use for the piece, so we've pulled them together here in the traditional Q&A format. (Side note: Vulture attended this 16-plus Skins premiere party Friday night expecting hordes of teens obnoxiously hopped up on whatever awesome new drug Miley Cyrus is doing right now, but, at least indoors, they were surprisingly well-behaved. Hope for the future!)

When did the adaptation process start?
It goes back a bit. Probably at least eighteen months, maybe even towards two years. I think the initial approach came back from Liz Gatelely and Tony DiSanto, who have both recently left the channel. And they asked about the show, and at that moment I don't think we felt necessarily that an American format would work. And so we kind of bumbled along in the conversation for a while, and it gradually dawned on me that Liz in particular was deadly serious about this. And at that moment several other candidates showed up because the show was doing well in the U.K. Some network, some cable channels, and so we went and met all of them. And at that end of that time it seemed clear that MTV had the clearest vision.

What was it the other networks were missing?
They were missing a commitment to the core values of the show. Which is to say that MTV is clearly taking a risk with this show and they were prepared to take that risk. Others were basically saying, "We love the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and can we have all that without the sex, drugs, and rock and roll?" — in a way that only television executives can, you know. MTV was saying, "Look, this is where the issues are going to be, here and here. We can't do anything about that. But the rest of it we really want to achieve." They have been as good as their word, and we feel that MTV is an exciting place to work. I think that it's a channel that's changing; I think there are some incredibly creative people to work with. I don't think this is any criticism: It's a channel that can deal with a little bit of anarchism.

Were you surprised you didn't end up on cable, considering there you would have enjoyed laxer standards?
That's obviously available on the pay cable channels, but pay cable channels are paid for by middle-aged people. And by "middle-aged," I mean people over the age of 25. Kids don't control those setups. MTV is ideally placed to access the markets that we're interested in, which is young people.

You co-created the show with your son, Jamie Brittain, but he's not involved in the U.S. version.
He's pretty much running the show in the U.K. That was the decision. The U.K. show now is really run by young people. Jamie and his friend Toby, who are both 24, have been appointed joint producers on the show. I think they have three writers under the age of 20. The average age is about 21. One of the writers is the winner of the original Skins screenwriting competition.

Jamie wrote you into the original as Sid's dad.
Yeah, that inarticulate Scotsman — that's me. Very realistic. [As played by] Peter Capaldi — he's better-looking and he's got better timing. But, yeah, Jamie took me apart. Jamie is Sid, so I got my own back. All the characters in the first series of Skins are actual people we knew. They are my sons and my daughters and their friends in Bristol, roundabout 2006.

You're doing ten episodes this season. How did you land on that number?
We wouldn't want to do more than ten because they're very difficult to do. We're working with writers who are learning to write, actors who are learning to act, and show-runners who are learning to be in the United States. Ten's enough.

Skins obviously has no problem starting over with all-new casts. Did you think of creating all new characters for the American version?
Yeah, that thought was there. The main reason we didn't do that was when a television channel buys your show, they do like to think they've actually bought something. And, also, as in all things, time [is an issue]: They say they want the show, and what they actually mean is that they want it six months from now. We went this kind of half-and-half route, which I felt was sustainable. 'Cause we don't hire in six to ten of Hollywood top guns to write our show. Our writers haven't written anything.

How does the process with your teen advisers work?
Thursday is teen day. They hang out with us, we read the scripts around the room, we do whatever we think. We eat pizza and talk about stuff. And the kids are all incredibly articulate … clever, actually. Not all necessarily the kind of kids you'd expect, 'cause we don't just want a bunch of incredibly well-motivated, artistic-leaning, middle-class kids. It involves being told off by youngsters a lot. Just, "Are you kidding, Bryan? We don't say spliff. Don't you even know that?” And the group changes; people come and go, people have exams and disappear for a while and come back. And then out of that group emerge potential writers. Skins has a tradition of having professional writers under the age of 20. There's always one on our team in the U.K., someone who we've invested in for two or three years. I think the next year, if we do it, I think Skins will have a writer under the age of 20. The average of the writers' room is about 27, and we would prefer that to be younger. Obviously I kind of skew it.

How involved were you in the marketing for the show?
MTV are incredibly collaborative. And we're not embarrassed about marketing. That's one of the great things about coming to America, actually — people are unembarrassed to be seen to be trying. That is felt to be slightly embarrassing in the U.K. It's great.

Any news on the Skins movie?
The Skins movie is always a possibility. It's always being worked on.

Do you think there is something inherently British about the original? Or is it more of a universal adolescent experience that's being reflected?
There is something inherently British about the original Skins because it was written by young British writers. The American Skins is written by young American writers. There are probably a couple of transitional episodes in there, namely the ones written by me — that echo might be there. It's the small specifics that give the thing its national character. When people settle into the show, they'll find that teenagers, across the world — they're pretty much interested in the same thing.

Photo: Martin McNeil/WireImage