Amy Sherman-Palladino grew up thinking she’d be a dancer. When she got her first offer to write for a show — TV’s No. 1 comedy at the time, Roseanne — she had also gotten a callback to dance in a bus-and-truck tour of Cats, but TV won out in this Sophie’s Choice. Years later, she’s finally married her two worlds in Bunheads, a new ABC Family drama (which premieres tonight at 9 p.m.) starring Broadway’s Sutton Foster as Michelle, a classically trained ballerina turned washed-up showgirl who finds a way out when she impulsively marries an amorous fan and flees her Vegas life to join him in his small hometown. The show bears all the hallmarks of Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls: the smart, speedy dialogue, the small-town eccentrics, and even Kelly Bishop is back as Michelle’s mother-in-law, who shares Emily Gilmore’s constant sense of exasperation if not her tax bracket. Sherman-Palladino sat down with Vulture in her Sunset Gower Studios office, which she painted tutu pink and framed with jet-black accents, for an extensive talk about her return to television, what she learned from the Gilmore Girls blow-up that saw her leave the show before its final season, and why she’s against Aaron Sorkin’s sweatpants.
You exited Gilmore Girls before its final season and The Return of Jezebel James lasted only three episodes. How eager were you — or not — to come back to television?
Well, I wasn’t necessarily looking to do another series, because I’m 100 now and all I want to do is go to the Grove and see bad movies for hours and hours and hours. That’s the happiest I ever am. But, I don’t know? Sutton Foster and these four little girls who play our ballerinas are so great and I’m working with Kelly again, so it’s just been a chance to work with my friends. ABC Family is literally like, “Go ahead. Here are the keys. Don’t fuck it up.” They’re letting me do my thing. They’re not micromanaging. I have to call them after table reads and say, “You guys are cool, right?” Now, once they’re unhappy with it, it will be completely different.
I worked with [ABC Family executive vice-president] Kate Juergens on Gilmore. She was in the room when I pitched it. She’s very well-schooled in the insanity that is the Palladino world. She knows I’m going to fight for every single thing relentlessly and exhaustively. There’s a lot of rock-paper-scissors on who has to call me back, I know that. The thing about Kate is she just likes telling good stories, and because ABC Family is small, and because they give you two dollars and a stick of gum to do everything with, the tradeoff is that if they like it they’ll just do it. They’re kind of what the WB was in the very beginning when they had Dawson’s Creek and Felicity and Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven and Buffy. They had the interesting, young, story-driven shows.
What did you take away from the failed negotiations in 2006 that resulted in your leaving Gilmore Girls? You were very forthcoming at the time about what happened; does it affect the way that you deal with Bunheads?
Well, everything I took away from that I can’t have here because I’ve got even less money and resources. All that is out the window. [Laughs.] It was a botched negotiation. It really was about the fact that I was working too much. I was going to be the crazy person who was locked in my house and never came out. I heard a lot of “Amy doesn’t need a writing staff because she and [her husband] Dan Palladino write everything!” I thought, That’s a great mentality on your part, but if you want to keep the show going for two more years, let me hire more writers. By the way, all this shit we asked for? They had to do anyway when we left. They hired this big writing staff and a producer-director onstage. That’s what bugged me the most. They wound up having to do what we asked for anyway, and I wasn’t there.
It is what it is and I’ve moved on. And I’m very happy about my time there. I was bummed that I didn’t get to go back and do the last episode. They didn’t ask me. I sort of felt like, “I’m sitting right here. Really?” I put a lot of work into that show. I felt it really groomed me for war because the amount of work we did … there’s not an aspect of working on a show that I don’t know too intimately.
Your Bunheads is not an adaptation of the young-adult book of the same name that just came out, written by former New York City Ballet dancer Sophie Flack*, who’s also the girlfriend of The Good Wife’s Josh Charles, right? I’ve seen some confusion about that online.
I didn’t even know about that book until we shot the pilot. It had been delivered to the network, and then my husband comes in and goes, “You know there’s a book called Bunheads?” and I went “Whaaaat?” It is about ballerinas, isn’t it?
It’s about a ballerina in Manhattan who meets a musician—
[Interrupts.] Did you ever read the Flowers in the Attic series? Porn for teenage girls! Remember those kids living in the attic for years. [Laughs.] The brother and sister are having sex. It was just the dirtiest! The older sister got put in the attic when she was 13 and when she got out she was like 16 or 17, and apparently she had taught herself to be a ballet dancer in the attic! So when they escaped, the next book is like they’re in New York and she’s in a dance company. She was in an attic for years! That’s just not possible! I don’t know why I thought about that. That whole next book was all about ballet and being a ballerina. I’m sorry, go on.
Where did the idea for your Bunheads come from?
It was me and Kate trying to find something to do together. She said they had been trying to launch their own version of Glee, but it never really worked. I said I’m not interested in doing Glee because there is Glee, you can watch it. I was writing a play at the time about my ballet experience when I was a kid. It had four girls in ballet class and then their mothers on the outside watching through the glass. So I told her I could do something like this in the ballet arena, I’ve got these four girl characters. Then I pitched the idea of Michelle, who Sutton Foster plays, a dancer who’s hit a wall, a dancer who should have been a ballerina but was a wild child, sort of based on Heather Watts. Heather Watts was this prima ballerina, one of the last Balanchine picks. She was big shit in my world because she had trained at my school. When she was in the New York City Ballet, she would go out and party and miss class and at one point Balanchine came to her and said, “Are you going to do this or not? If you’re not going to shape up, pack up your shit and leave now.” She turned it around. She became one of their principals and one of the last Balanchine-trained dancers, but it was precarious there for a while. I’ve always liked that character, someone who doesn’t really appreciate what they have. Michelle is like what if Heather had gone the other route.
There are a lot of similarities between Bunheads and Gilmore Girls. You’ve got Kelly Bishop. It’s set in a sleepy town full of eccentrics. Michelle is funny and talks just as fast as Lorelai. Was that a deliberate choice or did it just sort of wind up that way?
I think I would be making a mistake to actively try and just do everything completely different from Gilmore Girls. That is not the way you create a show. I like a certain style of show, I like a certain pace, I like a rhythm, I like a lot of comedy in with my drama. For me, it makes drama more kick-you-in-the-nuts if you’ve been having a good time until then. I like shooting things a certain way, walk-and-talks, movement, air, so stylistically whether I actively tried to do Gilmore or not, I think it still would have that same feel, that same engine and chug.
I was concerned about Sutton and an older woman in terms of Lorelai and Emily. The biggest talk was about Kelly Bishop, because as I wrote this, I kept saying, “ … you know, like Kelly Bishop” and finally I went, “Why am I saying ‘like Kelly Bishop’? This is Kelly Bishop. I’ve written a part for Kelly Bishop and I’m pretending I have not.” I understand that could invite comparisons where people could get snarky and go, she’s just doing Gilmore Girls again.
Do you care if they say that?
Well, I don’t know if they will eventually. The character of Michelle, for example, is different at her core. Lorelai was so centered on Rory and family and this town. She had plans. She was somebody who was very deeply into her life. Michelle is someone who lives outside of her life. Michelle is in complete denial about her life; [she] runs from reality. Lorelai’s humor was her guard and her deflection and what kept her strong. It was her Wonder Woman cuffs. Michelle has no deflection, no guard. She’ll walk into the dumbest thing in the world and then turn around and go, “Jesus Christ, that was the dumbest fucking thing in the world.” And I’m picking her up at a very different point in her life. Lorelai in the [GG] pilot wanted Rory to get into this school and her need was financial, which forced her to deal with parents she had shunned and pushed away for many years, so it was about a reconnection of the family. We’re picking up Michelle where she literally has turned around and realized, holy shit, everything I thought I was going to be at this point, I’m not only not, I have no way of getting there. I got nothing.
My hope is that there’s a comfort level for people who like Gilmore, so it’s a gateway drug. But once they get into Bunheads, I think they’ll find the stories are different. And Sutton is just a very engaging person to watch. She’s baggy pants, Barney Fife one minute, statuesque showgirl the next, hair-in-a-ponytail Mary Tyler Moore the next. And Kelly’s playing Fanny, who is nothing like Emily. Fanny is very diva, grande dame, big fish in small pond. A woman who has made similar mistakes as Michelle, veered off a similar path; I liken them less to Lorelai and Emily than to Lucy and Ethel. Theirs is an uneasy friendship. Kelly’s playing is closer to who she is as a person. Kelly’s like a real broad! She’s not a dainty, prim, rules. She’s the broad you sit down with and you have a couple of martinis and you trash people.
The town of Paradise does remind me of Stars Hollow. You’ve got some fun weirdos running around already.
It’s gonna be fun, but it’s gonna be a different vibe because it’s more West Coast, Topanga Canyon, Birkenstock, crunchy granola, iffy bathing habits …
You know, if you walk around Topanga Canyon on a ripe day, I’m just saying there are some smells. It’s that feel as opposed to the kind of pristine back east. It’s a different quirk, equally fun to populate with people. Half our time we’re shooting in Calamigos, which is “Malibu.” [Whispers.] Calabasas. It’s big and woodsy and gives you that Rustic Canyon feel.
Paradise will also host a number of festivals, just like in Stars Hollow. My favorite from Gilmore Girls was the Festival of Living Art.
We also get to do these ballets during them. We just shot one for a spring flower festival that was called the Death of Nature: Paper vs. Plastic. One of the girls was a checkout cashier, one person was paper, one person was plastic, there was an epic battle with the canvas tote. It’s fuckin’ lunacy. These girls can dance, so it’s a real ballet en pointe about a tote bag fighting paper and plastic. We’ll do more mental stuff. Our tenth episode is going to be some twisted Nutcracker. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s like, “Everybody learn The Nutcracker because we’re going to fuck this up somehow.”
Any part of you wish this was going to air on a broadcast network where, in theory, more people would see your fucked-up Nutcracker?
No, they’d never let me do that. If I want to do the kind of shit I want to do, I can’t do it on the networks. They’re not interested. But I try! [Laughs.] I try every year. This year I wrote a pilot for ABC. I did The Wyoming Project pilot for the CW, which I knew they would never do. I kept saying, “It’s on a horse farm, which means jeans and cowboys.” They’re like, “Yeah … but could the horse farm be near a city?” Well, yeah, it can be near a city but they’re never going to the city. And then they got the pilot and they’re going, “It’s on a fucking horse farm.” But every year I try. I don’t think the CW would buy Gilmore Girls now.
But with less resources, I imagine you’re working more now than you did on Gilmore Girls, which was a problem in the end.
It’s worse. Seven days, 74 pages, that’s more than ten pages a day. On Gilmore, we had eight days and 75 to 80 pages. We’re shooting more pages now in less time. It can only happen because Sutton is such a trooper. Like, you can’t kill her. I was trying to keep the page count in the 60s but I can’t. We’ve been coming in way too short. But you know everyone still has that “we’re making something good, we’re in it together” feeling. That feeling wears off after a little while [laughs], but I’m gonna ride it as long as I can and then find ways to alleviate some of that pressure later.
You and Aaron Sorkin — also returning to series television this summer with HBO’s The Newsroom — could compete for who can fit more pages into an episode.
Ha! Yes. When you want action to happen at that pace, the pages just shrink up. You can have a ten-page scene, and it’s not ten minutes. It’s so less than ten minutes. Newsroom shoots here at Sunset Gower, too. The writers are two floors down.
Have you seen him around?
I saw him walking in sweatpants once, which was like, dude. You can’t wear sweatpants to work. You’re an Oscar winner. You’re from theater. I did not approve. No one in my writers’ room can wear sweatpants. The boys cannot wear shorts — I don’t like the men-in-shorts look — and no open-toe shoes. It’s too upsetting.
When did you go from aspiring dancer to TV writer?
I got a callback for Cats, but it was fraught with peril because I lied and said I could do gymnastics, which I could not do. I had no idea what I was going to do because I’m sure they would have said, “Let us see some gymnastics,” to which I would have done a cartwheel. I had a writing partner at the time who called me and screamed, “We got the Roseanne job!” and I literally replied, “But what if I get Cats?” It was the first thing out of my mouth. She said, “You don’t take it.” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a gypsy. I don’t go to work at ten every day. My world isn’t blue jeans and white button-up shirts.” I was literally an asshole for the first year I was on Roseanne!
Once I accepted my fate, which my mother still has not, I much prefer where it’s led me. The being able to put all the pieces together is really fun. Acting and performing is just so hard. The mental pressure alone, which has nothing to do with the work or the character or the scene … and I can’t eat that much chicken and mushroom sauce.
Chicken and mushroom sauce?
It’s all you eat at these events. How many times can you sit and eat chicken and mushroom sauce and Wolfgang Puck has made, like, a chocolate hat. I’ve been to the Emmys twice. Once I was nominated [for an episode of Roseanne] and I lost within the first five minutes and then you realize, Oh my God, I’m here for twelve hours and there’s no bar and I can’t leave. What the fuck. I would never go to the Emmys without a flask again.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from your time on Roseanne? You spent several years there and it was just the beginning of your career.
I got so spoiled, actually, because Roseanne was such a good show and I got there at the primo time. They had the first two tumultuous years — I mean, every year was tumultuous, but the first two were really bad. She was breaking up with her husband and really fighting with the network and studio and firing all the executive producers because no one really knew what they had yet. I still think the most brilliant Roseanne episodes happened in the first two years, but they were very inconsistent — there was the dream sequence where Dan dies in a vat of cream corn, Darlene getting her period, Becky farting.
I got there when she was kind of happy and calmed down, and she let us do our shit and we really just worked like a normal staff — except there was no studio and no network because they were banned. For four years, I never got a note, never saw them at table reads. The only person who came to shows was the standards and practices guy. My first job after that I thought, Who the fuck are all these people sitting around the table and why are we talking to them? I couldn’t believe, when we had work to do after a table read, that we were going to spend an hour talking to these bozos. Big, cold bucket of water on my head.
Did you see that Roseanne lost her bid for president.
No, Jill Stein beat her for the Green Party nomination.
You know, a friend of ours just did her NBC pilot, Downwardly Mobile, which in my opinion, I don’t care what it turned out to be, you put that shit on. I think America would tune in just to see her and John Goodman on the same screen again. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but I will. Our friend worked on the original Roseanne, and he’s been trying to re-create that experience. And he did! He got back with Roseanne, he got John, he hired almost the entire old crew, a ton of the writers who wrote on it. The whole thing was a real flashback. There’s no blue collar on television. Even when they put “blue collar” on television, it’s really not. I say put these two crazy fucking people in a trailer park on television and see if someone will watch it. To me, that’s thirteen on the air. It’s as viable as any of this other shit they’re putting on.
Would you have tried making the show elsewhere if ABC Family had only wanted a teen-centric show?
I think I would have gone back to the dance world, maybe finished the play. The dance world was a big part of my growing up. I like the backdrop it gives you. It’s not a show about ballet, but there’s ballet in the show. I didn’t want to do a show that only ballet people can like because [yawns loudly]. “Oh, a whole scene about lambs’ wool!” No. No one cares about that. There’s always been an element of it in everything I’ve done. Even in Gilmore Girls there was Miss Patty’s school.
You always said you knew the four words that were going to end the last Gilmore Girls episode, and you obviously never got to have them said. Any chance you’d share them now?
To me, because I didn’t have control of that last year and [whispers] I still haven’t seen the last year … Here’s the deal. All the people who ran the last year, David Rosenthal, I hired him, he’s good people, he’s a good writer, I really like him. I don’t think he thought Dan and I were going to leave. We didn’t think we were going to leave. Everyone was caught unaware. It was literally a situation of bad negotiating. Our interests were in staying and keeping the show going. Once the CW bought it, we called Warner Bros. and said the CW is going to need this show to launch new product for the next couple of years. You don’t want the show to go down this year. We instigated that. When the negotiations got so crazy we thought, Maybe we’re high? Maybe they don’t want it for the next couple of years. But by not having control of that, it shifts the focus of what my last words would have been. I was also holding on to it for a long time because I was thinking if we did do a movie, I would be able to use it there. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen so, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll eventually say the four words. I feel like now I’ll let people down because it’s been so built up. “Really? That’s what we waited all these twelve years for? Well, thanks so much.”
Have you ever been tempted to watch the final season?
It was raw for a while. It’s not now. Every now and then, because it’s on ABC Family, I’ve seen a couple of scenes. The only reason I would watch them is because they were unfamiliar to me, and I’d think, I don’t remember this. Then it’s, oh! Because I had nothing to do with that. So I’ve seen spots here and there. But if it’s better than what I did, I would feel like shit. If it’s worse than what I did, I’ll feel like shit. So, really what’s the point? There are many ways for me to feel like shit.
I’m sure you know a very grown-up Alexis Bledel was on Mad Men a few weeks ago.
We have a place in Brooklyn and she lives right around the corner from us. I have to say she is taking a very thoughtful, interesting approach to her career post-Gilmore. She’s being very particular. I think it’s very smart. She’s not rushing. I applaud it. She did have her shirt open, however, and her boobs hanging out. I was behind. I’m behind on everything that’s not Game of Thrones. And then I read some headline that said, “Most Boring Mad Men Ever Except for Rory Gilmore Getting Naked!” I thought, Holy shit, is she naked? She wasn’t. She had a fur and some underwear. When you’re young and your boobs look like that? Why not?
* This post originally left out the name of Sophie Flack, who wrote the book Bunheads, and, well, that was just plain rude.