At around 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 17, things were looking a little dicey for the cast and crew of the new and much-buzzed-over CW show Gossip Girl. It was a typical suffocating humid August afternoon in Central Park, just up the steps from the Bethesda Fountain, and the day’s schedule was running a little late. Thunderclouds were gathering ominously overhead—a production assistant ran back and forth to the producer and director to report the status of the approaching storm—and a sound check from SummerStage boomed, drowning out the dialogue being recorded. Curious tourists flashed pictures (prompting a harried-looking crew member to plead, “No flashes, please. It ruins our film”); bored-looking kids milled about and did jumping jacks trying to catch the camera’s eye; a banker-y fella with his loafers off pretended to read the Financial Times while gawking at the bright lights; and a tiny bride—fully decked out in lace and veil—sat alone on a nearby rail, watching intently.
It’s unlikely that any of these observers realized that they were watching a scene from what is sure to be a monstrous, prepare-yourself-for-an-all-things-Gossip-Girl-blitz megahit this fall. From the frighteningly fertile young mind of The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, 31, and fellow O.C. writer-producer Stephanie Savage (who places her age as “older than Josh”), Gossip Girl, which will premiere on September 19 after eternal-sensation America’s Next Top Model, has all the same elements that made The O.C. must-see TV: a young, attractive cast of as-yet mostly unknowns, a unique universe of privilege, wealth, social-striving and exclusivity (trading the sandy shores of Orange County for the limestone-and-Town-Cars enclave of the Upper East Side), a pounding musical score of of-the-moment music—Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse, Peter, Bjorn and John, and Lily Allen—and campy over-the-top drama involving sex, scandal and betrayal, all set in the inherent tragedy of private high schools. (For those who don’t have teenage girls in the house, the show is based on the best-selling series by Cecily von Ziegesar.)
“The Upper East Side is its own strange world,” said Mr. Schwartz, via phone with Ms. Savage from Los Angeles last week. “I probably knew a little bit more about this world than I did about Orange County. It’s a world you really have to be born into to understand. It’s one of the challenges we had in adapting the book. How do you take a world that feels so exclusive and open it up so that even if you’re not from that world, you still understand it?”
GOSSIP GIRL IS NARRATED BY, well, Gossip Girl (voiced by Veronica Mars’ Kristin Bell), who keeps an anonymous blog (called, you got it, Gossip Girl) that reports on all the doings of the city’s privately schooled elite. Of most interest in that mysterious ironclad caste system are the chosen golden few that hold the attention of everyone else. Their every move is deemed worthy of a post or instant text message. (For some celebrity Web-stalker types, this trope is painfully familiar!) The pilot, penned by Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Savage, opens with former queen bee Serena van der Woodsen, that effortlessly beautiful and popular blonde, returning from a year away at boarding school. As Serena (played by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ Blake Lively) strides through Grand Central Terminal, text messages instantly start pinging with Serena sightings all over the Upper East Side. It’s a new reality for viewers only a decade or so older than the main characters. “In the pilot of The O.C. Ryan is on a pay phone,” laughed Mr. Schwartz. “I don’t think any of our kids know how a pay phone even works. You might as well be inscribing on a stone tablet.”
The show takes some of the typical issues of high school—the backstabbing best friend, the pretty freshman girl who gets plied with liquor and taken advantage of by an upper-classman, the friction between angst-filled teenagers and parents dealing with divorce—and places them in a universe inhabited by a privileged few. The heady combination of the familiar mixed with the lusted-after moneyed unknown is intoxicating, fantastical and utterly riveting (helped along by the razor-sharp and almost absurd dialogue that made Mr. Schwartz famous: “You’ll never be more beautiful or thin or happy than you are right now. I just want you to make the most of it,” says one of the Gossip Girl’s mothers. A school dance demands couture; an after-school snack is a rustled up, off-menu grilled cheese with truffle oil. Parents are just as beautiful as their children, even if their private lives are elegant disasters. (“So my dad left her for another man,” shrugs one character. “She lost 15 pounds and got an eye-lift. It’s good for her.”) Instead of sneaking beers, the kids of Gossip Girl drink martinis at the New York Palace Hotel bar, like when Serena (who is living there while her town house is being renovated) and former bestie-turned-nemesis Blair meet to attempt a rapprochement (“I miss you. I just want things to go back the way they used to be. You know: walking to school together, dancing on tables at Bungalow, night-swimming at your mom’s country house”). Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Ms. Savage said, was an inspiration for the lush look and feel of the show.
Unlike Gossip Girl’s great-aunt Beverly Hills, 90210, there’s no morality play at work (in other words, no Brandon Walsh drinking and crashing!): They do drugs, have sex, plot how to get into the Ivy League and seem tiredly resigned to, well, life.
“Do you ever feel like our whole lives are planned out for us?” one boy asks another, as they stroll through Central Park sharing a joint. “Aren’t we entitled to be happy?”
“What we’re entitled to is a trust fund,” his friend replies. “Maybe a house in the Hamptons and a prescription drug problem. … But happiness? Does not seem to be on the menu. … So smoke up, and seal the deal with Blair, ’cause you are entitled to tap that ass.”
The cast (who seem perfectly poised to step into Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson, Benjamin McKenzie and Adam Brody’s shoes) play characters with fittingly posh names: Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Nate Archibald, Dan Humphrey (funnily enough, the actors portraying them boast equally mind-bending monikers: In addition to Blake Lively, there’s Leighton Meester, Chace Crawford and Penn Badgley). Mr. Badgley’s character, Dan Humphrey, is the requisite outsider trying to break in—the one who’s standing in for us. Dan’s father is a former 90’s rock star, and his family lives in (gasp) Brooklyn (judging from the confusing exterior shots, a loft that is in both Carroll Gardens and Dumbo at the same time!).
“In the book Dan lived on the Upper West Side, which I felt was a little subtle for the rest of the world,” said Mr. Schwartz. “We moved him to Brooklyn, which is apparently our new Chino.” Well, since he brought up Chino … was he worried at all about this show just being dismissed as The O.C. on the Upper East Side? “We always say we should be so lucky as to have the same run as The O.C. had,” he said. “But they’re very different shows. Orange County is kind of a bubble. It’s a very sort of staid suburban enclave with a lot of new money. While these kids on the Upper East Side are incredibly well-traveled, well-read, worried about competing for their futures from the time they could get into the elite nursery school. There’s just a different level of pressure and focus on the future.”
From early on in the show’s inception, Mr. Schwartz was determined to keep film production in the city, and the pilot serves up sumptuous images of tony Madison Avenue addresses, Henri Bendel, the New York Palace Hotel, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where girls from the fictional school Constance Dillard (an amalgam of various private schools, though Ms. Savage pointed out that Ms. Von Ziegesar, author of the series, attended Nightingale-Bamford) meet for lunch. “We loved the idea that the Met is this place that people from all over the world come to visit, but for our girls it’s just another place to eat their yogurt.”
“We were going to walk away from the show if they didn’t let us shoot in New York,” said Mr. Schwartz. “For us, to do another teen drama and to get excited about it was that this is the most exciting time in these kids’ lives in the most exciting city in the world. To try to fake that in Burbank or Canada just felt like it would be lacking that thing you get from shooting in New York. It’s a character in the show.”
Back in Central Park, that character was not cooperating. The rain arrived in force, and the next scene, a dramatic and emotional moment between the best friends-turned-enemies, was supposed to happen while the girls fed ducks in the Bethesda Fountain. The crew quickly packed up and switched locations to the Bethesda Terrace Arcade with its pretty Minton tile ceiling and arched entrance.
It turned out also to be a favorite spot for Thoth, a street performer famous in his own right (and the subject of an Academy Award–winning short documentary), decked out in a gold loincloth, red feather headdress and not much else, who plays violin, sings falsetto soprano and shakes the bells around his ankles. An assistant director quietly spoke into his ear while Thoth sat on his knees, unyielding. In the darker corners of the underpass various homeless people slept on the concrete benches, untroubled.
“Why does it suddenly seem like we’re shooting a Fellini movie,” laughed producer Amy J. Kaufman, who seemed remarkably calm, given the circumstances. “When you work in New York you get used to the fact that things can change on you very suddenly, very dramatically, and there are some crazy parameters.” As if to illustrate her point, Thoth rose to his feet and took advantage of the crowd taking shelter from the storm and began a new performance. Ms. Kaufman sighed. “We have made an arrangement with … Thoth … he’s promised he’ll go away in 20 minutes. We’ve made other arrangements with the various people sleeping in various corners,” she said. “I think it’s actually a perfect example of the New York working spirit. It can end up being a fantastically beautiful scene—maybe even better than we originally conceived. Either way, it will be a great story to tell.”
If the actors knew that they might be merely weeks away from teen superstardom, they didn’t act like it. Mr. Crawford, light-eyed with impeccable bone structure, snapped his fingers and sang under his breath while waiting next to his TV dad. Not too far away at the makeup and hair trailer, Ms. Lively—a blonde who resembles a combination of a young Ellen Barkin and Kate Hudson with legs that go on to infinity—sat reading the script of her upcoming scene. Her dog, a caramel curly-haired ball of fluff wearing a collar dotted with rhinestone dog bones, ran wildly about dragging its leash behind him. “Mom,” Ms. Lively yelled in pitch-perfect teenager to her startlingly similar-looking mother. “Do you have the dog?”
“She’s been keeping me up nights,” faux-sighed her beaming-with-pride mother minutes later, explaining that the young actress had been anxious about shooting. Ms. Lively was the name Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Savage kept reading on fan sites talking about who they thought should play Serena; “Ninety-five percent of the time they’d say Blake Lively,” he said.
“Apparently I’m the only actress with long blond hair,” laughed Ms. Lively, now ready for her scene and clad in skinny lavender jeans and a somewhat questionable hat as she walked from trailer to set, a P.A. carefully holding an umbrella overhead. Next to her was Leighton Meester, decked out in pearls and red lipstick. The girls joked back and forth, breaking into song and teasing each other, acting both their and their characters’ ages. As they rounded the steps leading down to the fountain Ms. Lively stopped. “What is this? This is gorgeous!” She smiled at Ms. Meester and threw her arms wide as if to embrace the landscape. “Look at where we work!”
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