Veronica Mars Creator Rob Thomas Explains His Cultural Influences

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Getty

A year after being funded (and then some) through its successful Kickstarter campaign, the movie sequel to the beloved teen-detective TV drama Veronica Mars finally hits theaters and VOD tomorrow. As a companion to our interview with creator Rob Thomas (who also directs the film), we asked him to discuss the movies, TV shows, books, and musicians that shaped Veronica Mars and its many beloved characters.

I spent five years teaching high school journalism, as kids were putting out the school paper and the yearbook. So I got five years of hearing teenagers talk, particularly on the yearbook staff where it’s always 95 percent female. I got the crash course in what teenage girls are interested in. While I don’t try to sort of mimic the dialogue, I do feel like I am somehow in tune — I know what concerns them. And I try to put it on the page in a way that I suppose feels interesting to hear and would seem interesting to an adult audience. It’s why I like those Pixar movies. They’re very conscious of the kids, but there’s always something thematically working for adults at the same time. So it just helped to define a philosophy for me on how I was going to approach teen characters, and those movies and that book are pretty good examples of things that I think have done that well.

Youth in Revolt
Again, this is an example of something that knocked me out. I was writing young adult novels, and this sort of made me want to throw away everything I’d done, because I loved it so much. Reading Youth in Revolt might have ruined my career, because suddenly I wanted to abandon all the emotional truth of something and just go out far on a literary limb with completely implausible things that relied completely on voice and humor. And what saved me is realizing that I couldn’t do that very well. After toying with that for a while, I returned to what I do well, or better.

Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks was my favorite show when it was on, by a wide measure. And that’s the show I wanted to do. I noodled with the idea of doing a show about teenagers that told small stories, small moments of personal growth. Freaks and Geeks came on and did that, and then got canceled in a year. So the lesson I learned was that if you’re going to try to get a teen show on television, give them something high-concept, something that they can market. So I tried approaching my teen character piece through a high-concept idea. Like, I can get a teen show on the air if I sell it as a teenage private eye, and then I can still somehow get some of these small story show ideas in there.

Twin Peaks
I loved that show, but I feel like it taught me one of the most important lessons, when they didn’t solve anything. When you realized they were jerking you around, that’s when it fell off. That’s a very valuable lesson — solve the case! Give the audience the satisfaction. Let them know you are going somewhere and that their investment in the show will be rewarded.

The Cowboys
Thematically, there is a pretty direct correlation between The Cowboys and Veronica Mars — kids robbed of their innocence too soon, you know? In that movie, all these young boys, from 10 to 19, go on a cattle drive led by John Wayne, and at the midpoint of the movie, Bruce Dern shoots and kills John Wayne, and these kids become in charge. That’s where I started with Veronica the character. Originally she was supposed to be my next young adult novel for Simon & Schuster, the main character was a teenage boy named Keith Mars. What interested me was the sort of idea of loss of innocence, the idea that kids today, as opposed to kids of my generation, are exposed to so much more information. When I was teaching high school, I felt like they were prematurely jaded, they know too much — whether that’s a copy of a Playboy, which in my day was hidden out in the woods and was a small miracle. Now kids have access to hardcore pornography if they get their hands on a computer. And so the idea of making this teenage character at the heart of my detective show was an example of this loss of innocence, it became more interesting to me, more powerful to me, when I changed that male character to a female one. Somehow that was more poignant to do a series about a girl who had her childhood ripped away from her too young.

Double Indemnity
Whenever we’re thinking of noir plots, it’s like trying to put Heathers on a noir plot. And the great plotting of Double Indemnity — the reveals, the twists — is what we’re trying to do in the writers’ room. In noir movies, it’s usually, the core of it is usually murder. And on Veronica Mars, in the weekly episodes, we tried to limit that to what are the high stakes issues for a teenager? So it’s like, “My boyfriend took dirty pictures of me. Veronica, can you get them back?” Like that feels like the high school version of Chinatown.

Heathers was the first screenplay I ever bought. I’ve had people tell me over the years that, for Veronica Mars, we write like teenagers talk, and I think, That’s crazy! No, we don’t. We write this stylized sort of dialogue. Friday Night Lights writes like teenagers talk, you know? It’s so naturalistic, and they do it beautifully. But we let teenagers say what they would have said if they got to think about it for 45 minutes. Like, we always give them the quip, the sharp line.

In Cold Blood
Before Veronica Mars, I was not, and probably am still not, much of a crime reader. My mom left out a copy of Helter Skelter when I was 10 and I secretly read it, and then I spent all my teenage years afraid of hippies. I kept away from crime books for like ten years. On Veronica Mars, I hired all these writers who could do snarky, funny, vibrant Heathers-like dialogue, and then we all kind of looked at each other when we were breaking detective cases in season one and realizing that none of us knew how to do it. We had all these snarky, funny writers who would take two weeks to break crime stories, and I had so little crime reading in my background, In Cold Blood was one of the only things that I could call back on, so I felt like I was referencing back to it all the time.

Encyclopedia Brown books
I still don’t think I’ve ever read a Nancy Drew book; I probably read three or four Hardy Boys books, when I was 10, 11, 12, and I didn’t love them at the time. Even then, they felt dated to me, like the word chum — “my chum and I.” However, the Encyclopedia Brown books, I read all of them. Those were like crack to me, as a 10-year-old. I don’t remember a lot of the stories, but I can still even remember the occasional reveal — there was ice under his feet, and the ice melted! I remember those, but not the actual stories. It’s like knowing the punch line to the joke, but not knowing the joke.

The Big Lebowski
Hardcore Veronica Mars fans might know that we were trying to sneak all of The Big Lebowski into Veronica Mars. Our favorites lines all eventually made their way in. I remember in the graduation, the principal says, à la Maude Lebowski, “and proud we are of all of them.” We were just going line by line. Like, blank “is the preferred nomenclature.”

Blood Simple
I think the Coens may actually sue us. There’s an action sequence in the climax of the Veronica Mars movie that takes a couple Coen brothers staples. So we may not have stolen from The Big Lebowski, but we did steal from the Coen brothers in this movie, without a doubt. We were looking at it like, what did those guys do when they didn’t have any money? What was the action sequence they could afford to shoot? Blood Simple you’re going to see in the movie in a big way.

Chrissie Hynde
Chrissie Hynde was my definition of badass chick. And there’s a lot of that in Veronica. If Veronica has a defining characteristic, it’s “I don’t give a fuck what you think.” And I think every bit of Chrissie Hynde screams that.

Rob Thomas Explains His Cultural Influences