Though she doesn’t remember it, Stephanie Savage’s desire to write began at the age of 3. Determined to send a letter to her grandmother in Calgary, Canada, she insisted that her mother teach her how to spell each word as she struggled to put them on paper. “My grandmother still has the letter,” says Savage.
That drive has landed the Canadian writer in Hollywood, where her latest gig is as co-creator of the CW’s teen drama Gossip Girl, about young socialites growing up on New York’s Upper East Side. The show is based on Cecily von Ziegesar’s young-adult book series of the same name. The first post-strike episode premieres tonight.
“For a writer, working in television is an incredibly rewarding medium. You’re in charge of all aspects of production and get to see your vision come to life every week,” says Savage.
In addition to Gossip Girl, Savage is penning an adaptation of another young-adult book series, The Au Pairs, for the big screen.
Savage, 38, initially went to Los Angeles to research her Ph.D. in film history and theory while studying at the University of Iowa. But a development position for Drew Barrymore’s then-fledgling production company, Flower Films, came along in 1995, and she opted to take it rather than finish her dissertation. There, the TV junkie turned intellectual dabbled in scriptwriting, handling production rewrites for Charlie’s Angels. She also met the film’s director, McG, with whom — after five years at Flower Films — she formed production company Wonderland Vision and Sound in 2001. More writing opportunities emerged, including additional rewrites for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
The youthful scriptwriter has since carved a niche in the teen genre. While still at Wonderland, the 90210 and Melrose Place fan began writing for Fox’s The O.C., which ran from 2003-07. Savage’s first contribution was the “Chrismukkah” episode about an interfaith holiday celebration. The term assumed a place in pop culture, and Savage switched to writing full time, leaving Wonderland in 2005.
“I love telling teen stories where the characters are experiencing things for the first time — the stakes feel really high,” she says. “I’ll write teen stories as long as people will let me. I’ll also be excited for the day when I’m told I can no longer write teen stories.”
That day nearly arrived when the writers’ strike began in November 2007 and concluded 100 days later. The strike gave Savage the chance to contemplate an alternative career. “I think I would move in more of an entrepreneurial direction. One of the things I love about doing television is that I don’t feel like I’m just purely a writer,” she says, referring to her involvement in online and consumer products and music. (Gossip Girl is readying a soundtrack album.) “I like all of the opportunities television affords to kind of build a brand that can work across platforms, so I’m not just solely at my computer in my pajamas all day.”
Now back to work on Gossip Girl, Savage says it’s the only new show on any network shooting additional episodes this spring, though the strike meant there will be five, not nine, episodes. “I actually think this will be a good thing for fans, because they’ll find the stories will move really quickly,” says Savage.
Season two will involve contests that can only be entered by watching the show in real time. “It’s almost like making a scripted show like a reality show, with regards to its level of interactivity,” says the executive producer.
Online, the show is doing exceedingly well. Although Nielsen TV ratings placed the show at No. 214, Optimedia Content Power Ratings, a report created by media agency Optimedia U.S., ranked it at 15 due to viewers watching online and on mobile devices.
“In some regards, our show is kind of ‘from the future,'” Savage says. “Our viewers are early adopters of new technologies, so doing things like downloading episodes on iTunes or watching them through streaming video on Web sites are second nature to them.”
Background: Born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1969, but grew up mainly in Calgary, Canada.
Education: Incomplete Ph.D. in film history and theory, University of Iowa, 1995; M.A. in film history and theory, University of Iowa, 1993; B.A. in English and cinema studies, University of Toronto, 1990.
Credits TV: Gossip Girl, co-creator, executive producer, 2007-present; The O.C., executive producer, 2003-07; The Mountain, executive producer, 2004-05; Fastlane, producer, 2002-03. Film: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, associate producer, 2003; The Au Pairs, writer, in development.
Honors: Named one of the top “35 under 35” by The Hollywood Reporter, 2003; named to a list of power women by Glamour magazine, 2005.