With it’s blend of thoughtful personal stories wrapped up in a fantastical mystery, it’s four smart, talented and stunning stars and its spot-on supporting cast, ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars has found a recipe for success that holds appeal far beyond the core teen demographic it depicts, and showrunner and creator Marlene King is a key player in that success.
No stranger to writing about teen girls, King penned 1995’s coming-of-age crowd-pleaser Now and Then, produced by Demi Moore and starring Cristina Ricci. While teen material may appear to be King’s raison d'être, she also tackled writing about the weighty subject of abortion throughout the decades in HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk, which Moore also produced.
Based on Sara Shepard’s teen novels of the same name, King wrote the pilot for Pretty Little Liars that brought Aria, Hanna, Spencer and Emily life on the small screen. Since the pilot premiered in 2010 the show has become a juggernaut of a success teeming with pop culture touchstones – including plenty of Hitchcock references – and compassionate personal stories of the four pretty little liars’ friendships, loves and losses. Not to mention that King and the gang have managed to turn the mystery of “Who is A?” into watercooler, Twitter and Facebook conversation. It’s just the cherry on top that Pretty Little Liars features a compassionately told coming out story for the show’s lesbian character Emily that has garnered accolades and awards throughout the LGBT community.
King chatted with SheWired about Emily’s status as Rosewood’s lady killer, the show’s amazing Hitchcock homages, just who’ll be returning for the back side of Season 2 and Pretty Little Liars / Revenge viewing parties.
Thanks so much for chatting with me. Can you talk about your professional trajectory? How did you become the queen of teen material?
Marlene King: I got into the business just by writing. I went to college at Pepperdine out here in Malibu, California. I didn’t major in film or writing. I was a broadcast major, and I just realized I loved writing. I had a great teacher, a great broadcast/writing teacher and I started writing screenplays and I met Demi Moore. She produced Now and Then and she sort of gave me my first big break. After that, I did several movies for her and really this was my first television project.
How did the Pretty Little Liars material come to you?
I had a general meeting with the folks at ABC Family because they loved Now and Then, and it seemed like we had very similar sensibilities. They developed programs for the target audience that I really seemed to have a lot of fun writing with and for... I left that meeting and the very next day they called and said “Hey, we have a book for you to take a look at.” It was Pretty Little Liars.
So, what was your response after reading that book?
I loved it! I read it in one sitting and called and said, “Can I have the next book please? And when can I come in and talk about the television show?”
What were the challenges in trying to take that book from book form to the television show?
The challenge…it was actually really fun for me. It wasn’t extremely challenging or taxing. I remember writing the pilot with a smile on my face the whole time. The book was so much fun. The pilot was based on the very first Pretty Little Liars book. It’s a very literal adaptation of the book. The Executive Producer of the pilot with me was Bob Levy, and I remember calling him everyday and say “Bob this is so much fun, I cant wait for you to read it.” He was like, “Stop calling! You’re getting my hopes up to high.” It was just a lot of fun.
Judging by the show’s almost cult-like status your having paid off for everyone. What do you think of the devotion so many fans have to the show?
It’s really exciting for all of us who work on the show because we really do work hard and try to create something that feels special, that people are satisfied while they watch and talk about after they watch… So to get this kind of reaction really makes it all worth it. We work so many hours here so we feel like were a family. We’re definitely a Pretty Little Liars family and people are understanding what were doing and liking it and appreciating it and wanting us to do it more.
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I’m continually amazed by how the show continually manages to depict very human, authentic stories within a fantastic mystery and that equal weight is given to both.
I personally think that’s what makes this show so special. It’s not just a hard-driving mystery. It’s a hard-driving mystery with characters that we’ve all fallen in love with. I fell in love with them when I was writing the pilot, and now feel more invested and more in love with them then I every have been.
I love watching their stories unfold. I love watching these girls make some good choices and bad choices and then have to deal with the consequences to everything they do. The characters are very well drawn in the book and I think we succeeded in bringing that to the screen. For all of us here who work on the show, as much as we love those jump-off-the-couch moments, those very fun ‘aha’ mystery moments, we love watching these characters go through their emotional journeys.
There is that great balance but sometimes I watch and think the girls must be exhausted from dealing with A’s machinations. Will they ever get a mini-break where they just focus on their personal lives?
Well, it’s definitely payback time. Our mantra for writing this season is “no victims please.”
Love it. Emily’s coming out story has been especially important and really wonderful since her mom also began to accept Emily’s being gay. How has her story impacted you?
It’s really the icing on the cake for us. When I very first read the book, and just in theory, you see the poster for pretty girls -- a show about pretty girls who lie. Who would have thought that we could also have this fantastic positive impact on young people, and I will just say, all people who watch this show? We want to make the sexuality somewhat irrelevant in our world. Emily is just another Pretty Little Liar and that’s the stance we took from the beginning, and it’s the stance we continue to take.
Was there a conscience decision - or was it because Shay is so lovely, sweet, and charming – that Emily became such a lady-killer?
(Laughs) Well, there was a conscience decision to make sure she was a ‘Pretty Little Liar’ just like the other three.
Shay is stunningly beautiful both inside and out, and there wasn’t a type we were looking for physically with Emily. Emily was the last character we cast in the show and we met with so many people, wonderful talented actors… But really, once we got Shay we felt like, “Ok. This is the pretty outside Emily and inside that we had been looking for.”
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I read that Lindsey Shaw is coming back?
Lindsey is coming back and we love her, she is such a quality human being everybody is excited to have her back on the show.
Will she be picking up the mantle of coming out or can’t you tell me?
I think it not giving too much away to say the character of Paige has grown immensely since the last time we saw her and she does attribute a lot of that to her relationship with Emily. So, it’s a really a lovely story line.
Regarding Emily and her many loves we know that Maya’s back but will we see Samara again?
Samara is not coming back in season two. I’m not sure if that precludes her from future seasons, but we don’t see her for he rest of this season. Emily’s got enough on her plate. (laughs)
She sure does, she is a busy Little Liar.
She is a busy Little Liar and now she is leading the charge to discover A’s identity. So she is in major proactive mode.
Do you know who A is?
Have you always known?
From the pilot on we’ve known who A was.
The show has such a wide appeal but were you aware that it’s also a cult favorite for gay men? I have gay guy friends who have Pretty Little Liars and Revenge viewing parties, so it’s very highly esteemed.
We have some gay men who follow us wholeheartedly on twitter so were starting to get a sense of that. But I didn’t know there were Pretty Little Liars / Revenge parties. I love that! I want to go to one!
Well, we will invite you!
I really love the pop culture, literary and film references in the show. The whole recent bit with Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as the text in which Spencer communicates with Emily was brilliant. How did that get into the show?
The writer of that episode, his name is Joe Dougherty - that was Joes’s idea and Joe is just a tremendous asset to this show. He comes up with a lot of those brilliant ideas; I’ve got to give him full credit for that.
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You have paid homage to Hitchcock several times. I forget now if it’s you or Oliver Goldstick (executive producer) who is the Hitchcock fan.
Well, I think we’ve all become Hitchcock fans but I came into this show with the thought that we should pay as much homage to Hitchcock as possible. We try to honor Hitchcock’s work heavily, at least in every finale.
I’m going to have to pay more attention to that because I have seen Vertigo and Rear Window in the show.
You should see Psycho before you see the Season 2 finale.
I love that you’re planning to reference Psycho. Do we think we might get to Rebecca or Notorious at some point?
Oh, wouldn’t that be fun? I hope so.
The mentor / friendship that has developed between Emily and Hanna’s mom Mrs. Marin is really sweet. How did that storyline come to be?
I think that Laura Leighton brings so much to that character of Ashley Marin, we all love writing for Laura and that character. First of all, Hanna and her mom just have this unique code of sisterhood that I just love. They bend the rules, the break rules but they have each other’s back constantly, and who wouldn’t want a relationship like that with their mother? She is such a lovely drawn character that it just felt like a lot of fun to put Emily in that house and say, “What would the dynamics of these two be? What would be their dynamic?” They really have some lovely moments and lovely scenes together in the rest of the season so it’s a lot of fun to watch.
As someone who had a crush on Annabeth Gish back in her Mystic Pizza days I have to ask if Annabeth Gish’s Dr. Sullivan will be returning.
Annabeth will be back, and I’ll just say Annabeth’s character does know who A is. As a human being she, Annabeth, is so lovely. We are thrilled to have her part of our world.
I thought it was genius casting considering Annabeth had her own life as a teen star.
She’s a dear, I just love her. And I love Dr. Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan played such a great influence on the girls’ lives in the first half of the season, and now we will get to see her before the end of the season.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about what we can expect from Pretty Little Liars?
It’s just a very exciting time for us because we feel this season is the end of a sort of two-year journey for us. We started telling the story (of A) two years ago and it’s really exciting for us to finally get to share with the audience the conclusion of that part of Pretty Little Liars.
Well, I really appreciate you taking the time. I love the show. I’m a bit of a geek / nerd about it.
So you’re at the Pretty Little Liars/ Revenge parties?
I’ll let my gay guy friends know that you’d like an invite.
Good. Great. I’ll hold you to it.
Image Credit: ABC Family