Jason Katims on Rise and the Tricky Art of Adaptation

Photo: Sean Zanni/PMC/Patrick McMullan

The latest series from Jason Katims, Rise, debuts tonight on NBC, and it’s already being compared to the first series Katims oversaw for NBC, Friday Night Lights. Katims is fine with that.

The writer-producer, who also was responsible for NBC’s Parenthood, admits that while he was creating Rise — a loose adaptation of the book Drama High, which tells the story of Lou Volpe, the Pennsylvania drama director who elevated his high school’s theater program to one of the best in the nation — he was thinking about the kids from Dillon, Texas, too. But he was also figuring out how to take the numerous themes and issues raised in the book and make them resonate with a network audience, one he hopes will continue watching when Rise slides into the This Is Us time slot after this week’s premiere.

Last week, Katims took some time to talk about his adaptation process; the response to his decision to make Lou Mazzuchelli a straight character, even though Volpe is gay; how sexual identity is handled on the series; and how Rise both echoes and departs from Friday Night Lights.

The concept for Rise was brought to you by your co-producers and by Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, because they had read Drama High and thought of you. Tell me about that conversation.
Bob essentially told me the one-line description of what the book was about and about Lou Volpe, who is the person that inspired the book and inspired the show. I was honestly, even before I read the book, drawn to the story. I was inspired by the idea of this person who took over this drama department and taught there for 44 years and really changed the lives of so many of the students and, really, changed the community.

Friday Night Lights wasn’t far from my mind as I was thinking of it, because I did think there was connective tissue between the two shows. Obviously, [these are] very different worlds between a small town in Pennsylvania and a Texas high-school football town and between football and high-school drama work, but the idea of these shows, of both ultimately being about community and family and relationships — I leaned into that as I started to write the pilot. I leaned into wanting to make it an ensemble drama. While the core of the show is this high-school drama program, I didn’t want to get stuck there. I wanted to go into the homes of not only Lou, but all of the students and meet their families and see what makes them tick and what makes life hard for them.

You said the world of theater and the world of football are different, and they are. But one of the things I like about the show is this idea that there are athletes who are interested in doing theater and have to juggle those two things. I think a lot of high-school-focused film and TV tends to divide people into cliques, and there are good reasons for that. But I know I went to high school with kids who played sports and also really liked to do theater.
One of the things that really drew me to the source material was that Lou’s theater became, over time, a very, I would say, democratic theater. Everyone in the school wanted to be in those plays and those shows as the reputation for the program grew. People would try out from every corner of the school. It wasn’t just the people who were in the quote, unquote drama club or kids who went to the drama classes.

In terms of adapting the book: Obviously the real Lou Volpe is gay and the Lou in the series is not. When you were asked about that at TCAs, you said something to the effect of, “I really felt like I needed to make it kind of my own story,” and then you went on to talk about the way that homosexuality and gender issues are actually dealt with on the show. As you already know, a lot of people took that statement to mean that you, as a straight person, needed to make the character straight. I wanted to ask if you could understand why people interpreted it that way and clarify what you meant when you said that.
I think I’ve already kind of responded to that. That story was definitely a misinterpretation of what the show is and I feel like I’ve already responded to that, and my fellow producers Jeffrey Sellers and Flody Suarez [already did]. I feel like it was a real miscommunication, and I’m excited now that the show is premiering and people will see the show and be able to see that this is a show that celebrates inclusivity, certainly as much as any show I’ve ever worked on.

I finally read the book over the weekend, and certainly Lou’s homosexuality is in the book but it’s not as central as I expected it was going to be. When you were working on this, did you have conversations with Michael Sokolove or Lou Volpe himself about the direction you were taking it in?
My conversations with Lou were wonderful and they were really about me getting to meet this incredibly inspiring person who is everything that Michael Sokolove wrote about in his beautiful book and more. That was really the focus of our conversations. It really wasn’t talking about the specifics of what my story was going to be, other than I made it very clear to him and Michael and everybody that this was an inspiration and a jumping-off point for a show and it wasn’t going to be a literal adaptation. Lou read the script, when I felt brave enough to show him the script, and I can tell you he was incredibly moved by the story we were telling, and that the subject of Lou’s sexuality never came up in my conversations with Lou Volpe.

Even the way you just said it was a jumping-off point, one of the things I was thinking about as I was reading …
I don’t want to answer any more questions on this subject. I responded to it. I would like to talk about the show. I don’t want to get more into the subject.

I was going to ask about the students.
Okay, great.

It seemed to me that those characters were based on themes and issues that were raised in the book, but it’s not like this character A from the book is this character B in the show.
No, that’s absolutely true. Look, I feel like I have had experience with doing adaptations, from Friday Night Lights and from Parenthood and other adaptations that I’ve done, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in those things, in telling those stories is that television shows are their own kind of animal, their own kind of thing, and you really need to make it your own. I remember when I first pitched the idea of doing a television show about Parenthood to Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, I told them what I wanted to do, and Ron Howard, his response to me was like, “Oh, I’m really interested in this, but I have to tell you, the things that I’m most interested in are things that were not in the movie.”

So, you know, my job in doing this is sort of structuring it into a television show where we have characters that are going to be full, rich, complex, three-dimensional, compelling characters, not for a 60-minute pilot, but for hopefully five seasons or more of television. That’s my goal. And in doing so, I let myself be inspired by the stories of Lou and Tracey [Gatte, who took over Volpe’s job after he retired] and the students, but didn’t want to literally take any of their stories, any of them, including Lou and Tracey’s. I felt like it was about making it my own.

You know, the story of Michael, the transgender character, is a very important character to me. It’s really important to me that we’re telling that story in the show. That was not a story that was told in the book. All of the characters in the show — their stories, their family stories, their relationships with each other — are fictional because that allows me and the other writers and actors and directors to lean into telling stories that will continue to grow and get richer over time. If I were doing a movie of that book, my approach would be completely different and I would very much tell a more biographical account of Lou’s life. You know, maybe one day there will be a movie of that story. But I didn’t feel like that was my job as a creator.

The music is such an important part of Rise, and it really heightens the emotions in a lot of the scenes. They do Spring Awakening in the book, but did you ever consider doing another show in the series?
I was really inspired to do Spring Awakening for a few reasons. I had seen a high-school production and I had actually gotten a DVD of Lou’s high-school production, but I’d never seen the original New York production. And so I got to see a recording of that with Steven Sater and got to meet Steven Sater and hear more about what inspired him, and Duncan Sheik, to create that show. And it really spoke to me and felt to me that this would be this great story to launch the show. The subject of the show was teenagers who were living in a world where their lives were very difficult. I thought there was going to be a lot of interesting overlap and the songs just felt so deeply emotional and personal. I wanted it also to be a show that’s going to be somewhat provocative.

There was a high-school production in Los Angeles of Spring Awakening when I was writing the show that I went to see and I talked to the director of the show after, and she said she had all of these big battles that she had to fight with the administration about aspects of the show and language and other aspects of it. And this is in Los Angeles, you know a community that’s pretty …

Pretty liberal.
Yeah. Liberal, and is all about movies and theater and drama and all that stuff. And it was still a very edgy thing for them to put on, and you know, all that made me think this would be really interesting.

This is a story of Lou having a vision for this theater being something more challenging and provocative and meaningful than how people thought of the theater before he came there, and I just thought that journey was so fascinating, and it was what Lou ultimately did. Obviously, this is not a literal translation of his story, but it is ultimately the story of what he did. That felt like the right show to do. And the exciting thing to think about now is, should I get lucky enough to get a second season, okay, what’s going to be next? What’s the next show that we’re going to do and how is that going to be related to the the stories of our characters?

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Jason Katims on Rise and the Tricky Art of Adaptation