As a tween, I used to go to sleepovers where Now & Then was constantly on repeat – in particular, that Devon Sawa skinny dipping scene. I’d always wondered who was responsible for this slice of cinematic history, so imagine my surprise when I learnt that the screenwriter of this coming-of-age classic was none other than I. Marlene King, creator of my current guilty pleasure, Pretty Little Liars. You can try and deny it, but the chances are you watch – and love – the ABC Family drama-mystery-comedy (dramterdy?), affectionately known by fans as PLL. Eschewing the typical teen soap opera mould, the series keeps viewers on the edge of their seats with cliffhangers every ad break. With the series 3 premiere just around the corner, I was privileged to chat with Marlene about what makes the show so special (to teens, parents, grandparents and your favourite auntie).
I like to describe Pretty Little Liars as a teenage Twin Peaks – partly because it makes me feel better about watching a teen show but also because the resemblance is undeniable! Did you watch a lot of Twin Peaks before writing the show?
I did love the first season of Twin Peaks, I was very into that show. The director of the Pretty Little Liars pilot, Lesli Linka Glatter, was also a director on numerous episodes of Twin Peaks, so she brought a lot of her sensibilities to the show.
Do you have a clear picture of what will play out in the series or is it constantly changing and developing with time?
Well, we definitely have a clear picture in terms of what the ending of the series will be but we’re flexible – if new characters come in and surprise us, are fun and bring a new dynamic to a relationship, then we go with it.
Can you give us an example of that happening?
Definitely with the character of Toby. Originally, he was probably going to be this dark, brooding guy that was going to go away in season 1 but we fell in love with him and decided to bring him back and redeem him. We made him less of a Boo Radley and more of an honest, moral compass to the show.
What’s easier to write – comedy or suspense? I feel like the show does both very well.
I think they both have their own rewards, actually. The mystery is really fun with writing episodes that keep people on the edge of their seats, but there’s nothing more rewarding than to hear an audience laugh at something you have written, so to be able to do both is just the perfect combination.
I feel like the comedic element is probably very important for the younger viewers?
We had many meetings around town before we made the pilot for PLL and one of the constants we talked about was getting the balance right – the mystery and the soapiness of the show, and the comedy. At work we describe the trio as ‘the deliciousness of Pretty Little Liars’ because it’s what I think makes this show so unique – the recipe of the three.
I love the casting of the show –these girls actually look like teenagers, which is quite unusual! Were you involved with that process?
Very much. Bob Levy cast the pilot with me, he works for Alloy who published the books and we cast the show together. We also have a great casting director, Gayle Pillsbury. We all work together and I feel like it is such an important part of the show. We got very lucky – the girls are professional and they embrace what they’re doing and we have a great time. In addition to that, I can’t imagine these characters being any other actresses than who they are.
PLL has an overwhelming social media presence and following – are you and your team ever influenced by what you read from fans online?
We are actually. I love to be on Twitter when the show airs to see what people are saying about the characters and the relationships. The fans thoughts don’t play into the mystery but more into the relationships and soap story. I love to see what they like – who loves who, what couples they’re loving…that’s really fun to let the fans participate in.
After watching Season 2, I am a big fan of Spencer and Wren (Spen? Wrencer?). Please tell me there’s more to come of these two (and drunk Spencer)?
Drunk Spencer was hilarious – she was so good; she was slutty! Troian had fun with that. Wren is going to be part of an interesting sort of love triangle and I am not going to tell you who the other characters are because it will ruin it, but I can tell you it is fun and it is juicy!
I’m sure I’m not the first one to tell you that I love Hanna’s one-liners. What’s new for my favourite deadpanner this season?
She is so much fun to write for, she really is. Ashley’s awesome – she’s really funny in real life too. Hanna has really had it easy last year, she hasn’t been a target of A’s and we’ll find out in season 3 that we haven’t heard the last from A even though Mona is in a ‘sanitarium for the criminally insane’ – which I just love saying! A is going to put her sights on Hanna pretty quickly as we get into season 3.
Norman Buckley recently posted a pretty racy pick of Hanna and Toby on his Twitter – comments?
Spencer loans Toby out for a dance because Hanna needs a gentleman to go to a dance with so it’s really a friendly gesture but it’s a lot of fun to see those two together.
I am very suspicious of Spencer’s parents…can you cough or nod or wink or something if I’m right?!
Definitely, you’re going to find out more – the Hastings are still hiding a lot. They haven’t been completely honest with Spencer about a lot of different things.
You were inundated with pink plea pens from fans of Emily and Maya after Maya’s death was revealed at the end of last season. What’s the strangest (or sweetest) PLL fan mail you’ve received to date?
Now we have purple pens to match the pink pens! That was a reference to Now and Then and Emaya – which is the couples name for Emily and Maya – so now I have a thousand of those! It’s a lot of fun and we get fan mail from people all the time asking us to give up information and asking who A is, which obviously I’m not going to tell them!
I suspected Maya was dead all along (perhaps the only thing I got right!) – am I also right in concluding that this was partly set up so that the girls have a new mystery to solve?
It definitely does form a new part of the mystery and you’ll see the season premiere is called ‘It Happened That Night’ and along with the death of Maya a new mystery is launched and we really dive into that head first in the first episode back.
Is there anything you’ve done with the show that you’ve regretted?
Well, it’s always sad to kill a character. I feel like we made the right choice with Maya’s death but I know it was very difficult for the fans and that made me feel terrible but I feel like in terms of good storytelling we made the right decision.
Are the rumours of a PLL movie true?
I hope so! It would be really fun to do it after the show runs it course on TV. I know the girls are really excited about that and so am I.
Can you give us (ok, me) a teaser ahead of the premiere?
A is locked away in season 3 but the girls have not heard the last from A. This new A or ‘this A’ as the girls call them feels a lot more threatening and a lot more dangerous than the original A.
Oh, no. Give those poor girls a break!
(Chuckles) I know, I don’t know why they don’t just leave Rosewood!
Your next film project – The Mortal Instruments – is also based on a book franchise. Were you asked to do this off the back of PLL’s success, or do you just have a thing for young adult fiction?!
No, I had worked with the producer a few years ago and with the success of PLL I was one of the first people he thought of to come in and help out on the script so I had a lot of fun with that, and I think the movie’s getting made this summer.
Will you be on set for that or will you be tied up with PLL?
I’m going to be in Rosewood, of course!
Have you thought about writing your own original young adult book series?
I have thought about it and if the time comes where I actually have the time to do it I would love to.
I see from close inspection of your IMDB profile that you also wrote a TV series called Saving Graces with none other than two of my favourite TV alumni – Busy Phillips and Lauren Ambrose – why haven’t I heard of this until now and where can I get my greedy paws on it?!
We made the pilot and we were picked up for a day and then cancelled! But I’m working with a lot of those people now on this show – Bryce Johnson who plays Darren Wilden on our show was one of the leads on Saving Graces. He’s awesome.
Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Very simple – write. People ask me all the time, ‘What do I do if I want to be a screenwriter?’ and I just say write, write, write. The more you write, the better you get. And write what you know and what’s exciting to you.
Frankie Mathieson lives in London and writes for sites like AnOther, i-D Online, Hint Magazine and Refinery29. She is frequently told by others that she reminds them of someone they know, or Minnie Driver. When she’s not watching re-runs of Gilmore Girls she can often be found having a dance party in her room to the Save the Last Dance soundtrack. If you want to know what she watched last night, read today or plans on doing tomorrow, chances are you can find out @frankiewrites