Interview: JOSIE MCGIBBON & SARA PARRIOTT from The Starter Wife

Josie McGibbon, Sara Parriott

Back during our set visit of USA’s original series, THE STARTER WIFE, which airs on Fridays at 10pm, we got to speak with the creators of the show, JOSIE MCGIBBON & SARA PARRIOTT.

(You can also read the interviews with Debra Messing and Hart Bochner, Chris Diamontopoulos, Danielle Nicolet, Daniel Gerroll, and Reggie Austin.)

Here is what they had to say.

How you’re making the series lighter, funnier and tighter than the miniseries?

Sara Parriott: Well, the other one was, like, a six hour movie and this one we really had to figure out a way to make it into a series more and what people expect more of a series and—which is, more, as you said, tighter. Trying to, even though it’s serialized over the ten episodes, still having themes within each one and having complete stories within the one, with cliff hangers at the end.

Josie McGibbon: We’re just getting better, we’re a year older. And also there is certainly a concerted effort to bring more men into the audience and, as we were trying with the miniseries with humor, we are, again, very much so with this. And also have more sort of guys-guys than we did in the other one. You know, that our romantic lead in the last—in the miniseries was more a romance novel type guy. He was the mysterious, homeless guy and here we have just more layers and it’s really, again, it’s sort of our experience. Nothing against the actor who played Sam last year, but it’s more, you know, we need to live with these people now. It’s not just a movie.

Sara Parriott: Yeah, the love interest part, played by Hart Bochner is just more like a real guy and he’s really flawed and I think we’re having the comedy out of that and the mistakes people make. And hopefully things that everybody can identify with. Which we tried to do with the miniseries say, okay, they live in this really rich, exalted world, but it’s still about a woman that’s been dumped and has tied up her identity with a man and now has to find herself. And so we’re just—always try to find the themes that any divorced, single mom would find. You know, dating, how complicated that is, dating other people that are divorced. All that stuff that it’s more fun to watch when everybody’s really rich, but it’s the same thing, it’s the same problems, hopefully, that we all have.

Can you talk a little bit about at what point you found out you’d be able to take it into a regular show?

Sara Parriott: As late as they possibly could, my gosh. When we started the miniseries and cast Debra [Messing], she did not want to commit to a series and so it really was, this is just going to be a six-hour miniseries. After it did so well and she had such a good time doing it and realized we were all made for each other. But that still was a long process of the network deciding to do it. They took so long we couldn’t even believe it, you know. But anyway, they finally decided and then it took a long time figuring out how to make it work for everybody and so—and then here we were. So it kind of was, I guess, the end of the summer just about. Or something like that, July maybe, July or so when they decided that it would go.
And then of course the next thing that happened was the writer’s strike. So that put a—you know, we had our staff, Sara and I took about a month picking a staff. We only have four other writers and we all got together on a Thursday and all got together on a Friday and then all packed our offices and went home and, you know, struck for three months and it was very sad. And then we just hit the ground running in February.

Josie McGibbon: And because they didn’t know it was going to go into series, we lost a lot of—you know, we lost a few of the actors that were, like, our original husband, Kenny, and so there were choices to be made. Do we just recast him? We knew we had to recast the husband and just have the old, you know, Bewitched, Darren switch, you know. Or do we, you know, when we lost Miranda Otto so we couldn’t have Cricket. And just trying to think, well, let’s not make another, let’s not recast Cricket. Let’s make new friends coming in and all those decisions had to made and we were so happy still to get, like, really the basic three. Chris Diamantopoulos and Judy Davis and Debra Messing, of course, that those three were just so crucial in that. And that, I think it’ll carry through so everybody feels like they’re still getting the miniseries without that—a real bump with a new husband. He’s great, David Alan Bashe is great too, so we’re happy.

Sara Parriott: Yes, and Peter Jacobsen is doing wonderfully on House, so he had the happy ending, just not with us.

You mentioned that you were feature writers and obviously writing for television is a whole different discipline. Can you give an idea of what your week is like when you present a script and how many hands it goes through?

Sara Parriott: Well, I have to—this system with the cable, which I think is a lot easier from what I hear from network writers, and because we proved ourselves with the miniseries, it’s not too onerous. So we present our—you know, everybody writes their script. Then it’s just amongst the writers and we’ll rewrite and punch up and then Josie and I will take a pass at it, if it’s not one of our scripts and then we turn it into the studio. Now USA and UMS [ph] have combined. So now it’s—just recently, you just turn it in once and the studio and network get it at the same time and then we’ll get their notes and address them and maybe address them again. And then once it goes to the table read, we see other flaws and take notes. But it’s not been bad.

Josie McGibbon: What’s different too is that when we did the miniseries, you know, and for features, you write the whole thing, then it’s made, then you post the whole thing. And of course, you know, this is our first experience of juggling all the balls at the same time. So while you’re getting a phone call in the morning from the network about their notes on the script, you’re getting one in the afternoon about their notes on the cut they just saw. You know, and so when you’re picking the music queues from the one in the middle and you’re casting the one that’s coming up, you know, so it’s just—I mean, we have just found this to be the most exciting, fun, interesting job we’ve ever had and we’re exhausted. But really great fun.

Who has the final say on the notes though? Like, you as writers and the creators, if you disagree with something.

Josie McGibbon: But that’s the beauty of it. I mean, that is the beauty. It’s almost like—I mean, it’s almost like a good marriage. I mean, because where you just don’t say, you know, he does or she does. I mean, we kind of take turns. Often because at this point, we all have respect for each other and honestly, we’re happy to go on the record, these guy’s notes make it better. They are typically very smart, you know. But therefore, because they trust us, if we say, really, really no, they say, okay. You know, but if they say really, really yes, we’ll go, okay.

Sara Parriott: Then we try to accommodate it. But they’ll usually—they’ll make it maybe a general note and they’ll let us address it in our own way. So we make it ours, it’s not just like do this and then we do it. It’ll be, this is causing us trouble and then we figure out a way to make us both happy.

Josie McGibbon: And they also trust us—like, in the cuts, you know, like, if they say, do X, try X and all we have to do later is say, we tried it, it wasn’t as good and they don’t even—they don’t even ask to see it, they just believe us.

How much freedom do you have with the fantasy sequences?

Sara Parriott: All the freedom in the world.

Do you ever get a note that says, “We can’t do this, sorry.”

Josie McGibbon: No, and you know what’s fun is, it’s an embarrassment of riches and the hardest thing is that every cast member and now even crew member, come and say, “You should do this.” And Debra and Chris are saying, “Can we be Astaire and Rogers?” And we’re thinking, if it fits. You know, and Debra was just telling us, “I want to be Lillian Gish in a silent movie.”

Sara Parriott: The hardest part, of course, is thinking, well, what fits? What’s the context? I mean, you know, the first one, which is always—it’s always a movie, it’s, like, reflecting where her head is. Since what happened the last time and where she’s waking up or what her first scene is and so—

Josie McGibbon: It’s always a great jump start to the episode and telling us where she is and that’s an area that often, when we go back and write, we say, “Oh, that was a fun fantasy. It absolutely has nothing to do with where we are right now,” and then we just, like, well, let’s put it in a file for somewhere else and switch it out.

Sara Parriott: We have some of the best—I don’t know, have you heard what some of them are this year? I don’t know what clips you’ve seen.

Your cinematographer does a great job of getting the shots and it’s very cinematic, for a TV show. Can you talk about your feelings about your favorite department heads that shape the show and collaborate with you?

Josie McGibbon: We love—I mean, we were careful when we hired everyone that we would really like these people, knowing that we just like their personalities, they’re great, easy going people and Kenny Zunder just makes—we looked for the person who could make women gorgeous no matter what. And especially, you know, in HD, it can be difficult and he’s just, you know, you walk in front of that camera and you look on the teleprompter. Anybody that walks in front of it looks gorgeous and he’s wonderful.

Sara Parriott: I think, you know, the maybe unsung hero is Dan Learner, he’s our producer, director and he’s our third us. He’s everywhere. He directed the first hour and he’s directing the tenth, the last one. He’s just everywhere and that was a real important hire for us and we don’t know people in the TV business because we weren’t in the TV business. And again, it was personality, but also his body of work and he’s so—he’s such a fantastic collaborator. He’s fantastic in the editing room, he shapes every episode, he’s on the set when we can’t be.

Have any or your own Hollywood experiences kind of filtered into the story telling here?

Sara Parriott: Occasionally. We have a writer who lives more of that life than we do and there’s a funny birthday party scene where—and this happened to Connie, our writer. Where when she got to the birthday party, she saw that her gift was the party favor. And so in real life, she made her husband run out—well, you know, she calls him at home, “Quick, get another gift.” In ours, you know, Molly does something different.

Josie McGibbon: She lives in the Pacific Palisades and she has a wild group of women and do Bunco, which I don’t know, is some card game and they get drunk and everybody—and wild, wild stories that we can’t even put in. Because, like, her next door neighbor, you know, assaulted her husband with, like, a Manolo Blahnik and it stuck in his head and she’s watching him being hauled off, you know, those type of things. She’s a wealth, in fact, we hired her from a phone conversation. She was off doing another show and we just hired her on the spot, just because she started reeling off these stores with sort of a voice like this. And we didn’t—we just knew, well, we have to have her.

What’s the name of this Hollywood [wife] writer that you have?

Josie McGibbon: Connie Burge and she’s a—she’s been around, she’s been on TV—

Sara Parriott: She created the show Charmed.

Josie McGibbon: Yeah, she’s very experienced, very lovely lady and she’s happy because it’s the first time she’s done a show that’s, like, ‘for me’, you know.

How much input has Debra had in suggesting ideas?

Sara Parriott: She’s not so much in suggesting ideas, but she’s very react—you know, she’s very smart about reacting to ideas, you know, and especially after a table read, she’ll come up to us and talk about what she thinks works or doesn’t work and why would her character do this or, you know. So she’s great at that.

Josie McGibbon: And she loves the fantasies, so she puts in fantasies that she wants, what she should be wearing and how it should be done. But she is so fabulously gifted and can do anything. We often give her, like, big, huge speeches. Honking speeches that nobody else could pull off and sometimes she’ll say, “Well, that was a bit much,” you know.

Sara Parriott: We feel like we’re just shooting at her feet, [now] dance.

Josie McGibbon: Let’s see if you can do this.
By the way, in terms of another head of a department would be the costume designer, because she’s done a fantastic job. Agata [Maszkiewicz], whose last name I can’t pronounce or spell but it’s—but Andrea can. She’s wonderful, I mean, she wasn’t as experienced as a lot of the other ones, but what she brought in was so exciting and she was so forward thinking about fashion.

What’s the most annoying Hollywood wife thing that you observe as writers and people that live here and live in this world?

Sara Parriott: Well, we’re not—I’ll tell you one thing that’s annoying. I’m now divorced but our husbands, both not in the business, is the amount that they’re dismissed by people who are. I mean, you know, to bring your very viable, lovely husband to something and it’s just, like, “And what do you do? Oh.” You know and that’s it and it doesn’t matter, they could be a neurosurgeon, it’s, like, “Oh”.

Josie McGibbon: Unless they need surgery, then there is interest. [laughs]

Sara Parriott: I mean, because we were talking recently about—that maybe is the genre or the phenomenon that hasn’t been explored as much and which we’re getting into a little with the Molly/Zach relationship. Which again, as she’s a little bit on the ascent or his wife passed him, you know, it’s like—it’s not the unsuccessful husband, but it’s the husband who is marginalized and how you know, we all know about the ‘wife of’, as said in the book and in our show. But what about the ‘husband of’?

Josie McGibbon: Gigi [Levangie] was always great at—I mean, she really was the Hollywood wife and we’re just, like, working old wives, you know. [laughs] We’re just like housewives who write, and she was more the glamorous, the one all in that whole world and knows more of what’s annoying. She said she used to be annoyed because she’d be sitting around with all her girlfriends at the house and Brian [Grazer] would walk through and they’d all go, “Oooh!” you know, and sort of chase after Brian. Because he was [by now] because he was attractive, you understand. Because he was powerful.