'Sex and the City' creator Darren Star: Hollywood looking to Israel for ideas
Star, 47, sat down to speak with Haaretz last week at the end of a brief but intense visit to Israel.
"The TV business is a tough business right now," said Darren Star, the creator of "Sex and the City" and numerous other successful television series, during breakfast on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the Tel Aviv beach. "Audiences are shrinking. It's hard to capture people's attention - interest - for a TV series right away, so they try different things, such as remakes of old series."
It was recently announced that there will be a remake of "Melrose Place," one of his hit television series, as there already was for "Beverly Hills, 90210," which will air this winter on Hot under its new name, "90210."
"Like in the movie business they're trying to grab an audience with remakes, and the curiosity factor, how are they going to make it relevant for today and I think that they're looking at titles to cut through those offered by hundreds of channels. I'm not actively producing it . For me, it's not something that I would choose to do. It's more the network coming to me saying we'd like to do it. I'd like to think more about what's next than go back. And doing something I did again, I'd rather leave that to other people."
His veiled criticism of American network television is stated more directly later on and is also interesting in the context of what is happening with commercial television in Israel. Star, 47, sat down to speak with Haaretz last week at the end of a brief but intense visit to Israel (his second, he first came here when he was 16).
He came with a group of Jewish producers and writers from Hollywood.
"Writers, directors, producers, we're all Jewish," Star said. "It's a few years in a row by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, conceived by David Lonner, who is a very important agent at William Morris, wants to share his love and passion of Israel."
During their short stay in Israel they visited a family in the Golan Heights, toured an anti-terrorism military base and the Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv, which the children of refugees and foreign workers attend. At the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, Star and other Hollywood producers took part in a joint conference with Israeli filmmakers.
He is not well versed in Israeli cinema but saw "The Band's Visit" and enjoys the American version of the Israeli series "Betipul," which is known there as "In Treatment."
"I like that there is consciousness about Israel as a community and business, as a place where ideas are percolating on our radar in Hollywood. And people are also looking at Israel for ideas," he said.
Star created some hugely successful, and even era-defining, series, such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place," which aired in the 1990s, and "Sex and the City," which lasted into the 2000s. He also had a hand in series including "Grosse Point," a satire of a show like "Beverly Hills," "Central Park West" and "Miss Match," which were canceled after a short time.
"None of the shows I did were big hits in week one, week two, week three; they took a while.," he said. "[Even 'Sex and the City'] took a while - word of mouth. The critics - certainly the men - were put off by these sexually self-confident, powerful women, they were threatened by it. Hadn't seen women like that before. Television is a medium where the audience creates a relationship with the characters, and that doesn't happen in one week. What you need is a network that is very sympathetic to leaving your show on the air, promoting it. I think that networks have become very trigger happy in terms of if they're not getting the ratings they want they're just canceling the shows, even the ones they love."
"I think the audiences themselves become gun shy even watching the shows, they don't want to become attached. Most shows, whether they're good or bad are yanked after a few episodes. The networks' eyes are just on the bottom line and that is making money, and most of that money comes from reality television."
"There are shows I had done that should have become hits, like "Grosse Point," for instance, "Miss Match" with Alicia Silverstone, that should have been nurtured; even "The Street" had an amazing cast with Jennifer Connelly, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Goldberg. We were doing the right thing at the right time; in fact we were poised to be there before 9/11 and to be there at Wall Street post-9/11, an amazing thing, but the series was dropped."
"Every time you make a show you hope that it will be a hit, but the odds are that it won't be. It's not always whether the show is good or not; it's whether they can find an audience. But the nice thing with DVDs is that, while once when a show went off the air, it just disappeared, today you can find "Grosse Point" on DVD. That's kind of a nice consolation prize."
Star considers "Sex and the City" to be "a reaction to network television."
"When I brought the series to HBO, I didn't intend it to be a commercial show but more of an independent movie," he said. "The criterion of this cable television channel wasn't that it was going to be a hit, but rather that it was going to be good, because they weren't looking to make a hit, they were looking for something unique. The success of that show and many others changed the perception of what television can be."
The popularity of the show and of the film based on it reinforces what he said about things taking time.
"I have a special attachment to the first season of Sex because we filmed all the episodes before the show aired, and so we weren't responding to the audience, we were doing our thing," he said. "We knew that we were doing something new and potentially groundbreaking but didn't know how it was going to be received."
The change in perception on television is also reflected, he said, in the way it was watched.
"I was very aware that people with remotes don't care what channels things are on," Star said. "There was that mindset at that time, that if you're not on a major network than you don't count. Today, with the DVRs, even more so. Today I go to what network is more supportive rather than what network will give me the biggest audience. The executives at cable TV stand behind their products, if you do a show it will be on for the entire season."
All of which begs the question of why he went back to a major network with "Cashmere Mafia," a show about independent women in their 40s in New York, that went off the air after just seven episodes, instead of staying on cable with it.
"Cashmere Mafia really came out of a desire of ABC coming to me, they had a writer that wanted me to do it; it's not something I wrote. More like a business decision," he said. "I think, again, that we had a great cast, but then there was the strike."
The show "Lipstick Jungle," a sort of parallel to the series, created by "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell, stayed on the air a little longer, but last week its cancellation was also announced.
"Networks are really fickle," Star said. "They want something one day and they don't want it the other. In that sense it was a lesson for me: don't do a show which the network is asking you because they want it, because if it's their desire to want it, they can desire not to want it three weeks later."
Yet he stresses that, "the world of powerful women in New York is certainly a valid concept but I think that big television networks can't be trusted as stewards of good creative material."
He considers exploring the lives of call girls another acceptable concept. He was supposed to air "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" on HBO this year, but it has been pulled because another cable channel already has its own British version of the show, which aired on Yes here.
"Showtime didn't remake it, they just bought the British show in a way to prevent HBO from doing mine. So it's really doubtful that my show is going to go forward on HBO, and my show had a much different attitude than the English version. Much more comedic, a window into American culture in a sense through the lives of American call girls."
Star is occasionally asked about his ability to write for women. But at least in "Sex and the City," it seems he actually writes one of his women's roles, Samantha, as if she were a homosexual man.
"I know that people say that, but for me "Sex and the City" was always about trying to look at women from a comedic place, and to me Samantha is an exaggerated comic character," he said. "I think people project what they want on her, but to say that Samantha isn't a woman is demeaning to her. I mean why can't a woman be like that; a woman that has that sort of libido exists, women who are alpha women. The fact that people identify with her, gay men, women, anyone can say 'I'm a Samantha' is great."