You may remember our interview with Chasing Life showrunner Patrick Sean Smith from back in August, when we chatted about his creative process, the difference between writing and producing, and what exactly a showrunner does. We caught up with him again in the wake of the Chasing Life Christmas special to discuss the episode and what’s coming up in season 1B!
Read on for our interview with Patrick Sean Smith.
The Chasing Life holiday episode aired yesterday as part of ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas. A lot of the shows played with that a little bit: The Fosters did a flashback, Melissa & Joey featured a different time period and Switched at Birth explored an alternate universe. What factors went into your decision to keep the Chasing Life episode part of the regular universe and continue with the existing storylines rather than jumping around to a different universe or going backward or forward in time?
Patrick Sean Smith: Good question! I feel like we were in the unique opportunity of still being early enough in the show that we could explore an element of the holidays in the existing timeline that we had. The network ordered the holiday episode, and we were so excited about the opportunity mainly because we had aired 10 episodes, we knew we’d be back in January, so it seemed like an opportunity to bring new viewers to our show during the holidays. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel like a one-off. We didn’t want it to feel separate from what we had done and because we’d already established that we would jump four months after our first 10 episodes into our second 10 episodes, it gave us the opportunity to look at those four months and find the story that we wanted to tell that could be tied to the holidays, which is what resulted in last night’s episode.
We’d never planned on seeing [April] lose her hair, and when we start 1B, it’s growing back but it’s not growing back well. [Chasing Life 1×12] sort of explores April’s vanity, specifically in the workplace. We established that she was wearing a wig in the premiere, but then we started talking about how we could do April losing her hair differently that we hadn’t seen before and it always seemed like it had that inevitable scene of empowerment, of the character cutting their hair in the mirror and confronting everything, and we saw this moment for April and Leo to share that together as he’s been kind of the one who is sort of her guardian angel while she’s been dealing with her diagnosis and everything that is resulting from it. When we thought about Beth being the one to cut her hair and that she could do it in stages and have all these different looks, [that] made it feel a little more fun. The challenge of our show is always trying to lean toward the fun if we can avoid the depressing, and that seemed like a really fun opportunity that I hadn’t seen before in a movie or on a TV show, so it was really a bit of a challenge but it was something that we kind of looked at as a holiday gift to us and we didn’t want to squander it, so that was last night’s episode.
Obviously there were some really emotional and intense moments between April and Leo in the holiday episode, and a lot of the show’s fans are very behind that pairing as well as the Grenna pairing. When you were working on those story arcs, did you have any concept of how enthusiastically and loyally fans would react to those relationships?
I mean, in my experience – and I created and ran Greek, which ran on ABC Family for four years – I learned a lot about how I want to tell triangles and how I want fans to speak to it all. I really kind of feel like we are as much fans of the relationships as anybody watching the show, so we hope that everybody will feel the same way that we do, which is excited about the April-and-Leo relationship and excited about the April-and-Dominic relationship. I think in 1B, we really explore the April-and-Dominic relationship more than we did in the first 10 because we were establishing the relationship with Leo. I think what we have in 1B, which is exciting, is more time to tell these stories in a deeper way and really, I think in 1B, people will get to know Dominic a lot better. They’ll understand why he had such a strong reaction to April’s betrayal, which I think is specific to his experience – it’s not just him being a scorned ex-boyfriend, but he has his own issues on the subject. So I think it’s an awesome feeling that we’re in line with our fans and we always want to be sure to respect that but also, you know, keep things dynamic and keep things twisting and turning and surprises happening to keep people watching the show.
Related to that, how much influence do viewer reactions have on your creative decisions? If an overwhelming majority, for example, hated Leo, would you be more inclined to kill him off?
I think it depends. I want to be confident in the stories that we’re telling and it’s hard to have too much influence from viewers because it’s always hard to tell where they’re coming from. You know, if I’m reading something on Twitter that somebody posted about how much they hate Leo and April, is that coming from true hatred or did they have a bad day? You don’t want to chase people to make sure you’re doing what they want you to do; it’s more telling stories that you’re excited to tell and hoping that those are stories that they want to hear.
With regard to Brenna, the holiday episode dealt with her coming out to her paternal grandparents and struggling to get them and her maternal grandmother to see the nuance between being a lesbian and being bisexual. It was cool that you went there in terms of tackling bisexual erasure, because a lot of shows tend to focus on the black and the white, so either you’re gay or you’re straight and there’s no middle ground. What motivated you to place that emphasis on Brenna’s identity?
Well, it seemed like Emma has been so supportive of her granddaughter, which is amazing, but it’s not always completely realistic, unfortunately, and a lot of kids – or adults, even – have harder coming-out stories. We wanted to see the flip side with Brenna and her paternal grandparents and see the struggle that she would have in that, especially in the conversation that she had with April about how telling your grandparents how you identify your sexual orientation results in them thinking about you having sex, which is, you know, true. You don’t want your grandparents to think about you having sex any more than you want to think of them having sex, but it’s still a part of your identity and something that you can’t hide because that only breeds shame and Brenna’s not a character that is shameful. So, it was fun to see how she was handling it and that we could handle it in a much lighter way than it being too heavy/depressing of a coming-out story. Having Ed Asner, who is in his 80s, speaking to his granddaughter’s bisexuality just seemed funny and seemed fresh and seemed like a great opportunity, and I think the scene played out really well.
Chasing Life was adapted from the Mexican show Terminales, so the characters and the dynamics between them already existed before you gained any kind of creative control or input, so how do you go about deciding which elements to keep and which to change when there’s already a base line?
The pilot was developed by my fellow executive producers Joni Lefkowitz and Susanna Fogel, so they came to the format first and kind of picked and chose the relationships that they were excited about and the world that they were excited about, which they took some liberties with. Terminales only ran 13 episodes and at this point we’ve shot 21, so we’re already starting to pass what that original source material was. I think we’ve taken moments that we really enjoyed in the original series and brought them to the show when it benefited our show, but I don’t think we’ve necessarily felt beholden to stay true to what the show did originally. The thing I will say that has been pretty consistent is the spirit of that show – that it felt young, it felt alive, it wasn’t dark, it wasn’t depressing, and I think being able to capture that tone in a show on this subject matter has been a great reason for our success.
Lastly, congratulations on getting picked up for season 2! We’ve only seen half of the first season thus far, so what can we expect from 1B?
Thank you! In 1B, it’s definitely just going to be a deepening of storytelling, it’s looking deeper into these characters who we really only barely got to know in the first 10, so we’re going to explore the April/Dominic relationship a lot deeper, we’re gonna explore Brenna and Greer’s relationship more, we’re going to see some twists and turns with Sara and George’s relationship, and see some fun. We start in remission, so [April’s] had the first 10 to cope with the denial and the acceptance of her diagnosis. Once she’s in remission, she’s not out of the woods but it’s definitely her trying to be a happy, healthy 20-something, and so much of what she’s doing in this next 10 is trying to give herself a normal life. The question and the conflict is: Is she ever going to have that and does she even really want that anymore?
Follow Patrick Sean Smith on Twitter (@SEANSMITH74) and don’t miss the Chasing Life season 1B premiere Monday, Jan. 19, at 9/8c on ABC Family.