Hypable’s exclusive interview with Jenni Powell, producer of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Get the inside scoop on the casting process and more.It’s time to get more of those behind-the-scenes details, this time straight from Jenni Powell, Producer of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. We are totally hooked on this modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so much so that we need to know every detail about it, from both the cast and the crew.
Jenni Powell is no stranger to the world of web series. She first became involved as a fan of hit show lonelygirl15: “I started making my own parody series called lonelyjew15, which was me being Anne Frank, vlogging to the camera.” She went on to work on the final season of lonelygirl, then as Felicia Day’s assistant on The Guild, and then with Hank Green on online video convention Vidcon, amongst other projects.
Hypable: To start us off, can you describe your role in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?
Jenni Powell: Ah, how long do you have?
I am the producer of the show. What a producer’s job is basically the hub that keeps everything else running. I’ve been friends with Hank Green [co-creator and executive producer] since about 2006, and I’ve know Bernie [Su, co-creator, executive producer, directer and head writer] for about as long. When they connected (because they actually didn’t know each other – they both knew me and then separately connected) the three of us were like “Well, the three of us should do it. That makes the most sense.” Because Hank isn’t in L.A. it makes my job doubly important, because I’m his eyes and ears out here.
I help run the set, I also did the casting, so I was involved with that from the very beginning, and I do everything from find the location to make sure everybody eats on set, I actually cook lunch almost every time because we’re a small crew and I can get away with that. We shot the majority of the show in my apartment, because Lizzie’s bedroom is my old room in my apartment. So all of that stuff, making sure everybody gets paid, making sure everyone is getting stuff done and just generally just making sure the ship is moving forward.
Hank’s original idea was to do The Diary of Anne Frank, which you did with lonelyjew15. In hindsight, how do you think that would have gone? Do you think it would have been as well received as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?
No, and ultimately that it probably one of the big reasons we didn’t do it. I had actually talked to Hank about it being Diary of Anne Frank years before we actually got to the point where it became Lizzie Bennet, and one of the reasons he talked to me about it is because I somehow was able to do lonelyjew15 and have it stay respectful, and I never really got a lot of flack for it.
Everyone once in a while a troll would come by and be like, “Oh my god, this is ridiculous, why are you making fun of her,” but either the other people watching the show or I would take the time to say “This is just me getting to be somebody that I admire, and trying to bring her to you in a modern day.” So Hank saw that and was like, “Well you were able to do it.” And there was a couple reasons why I did it – one, it was comedy, and I was never trying to make it dramatic and I made sure to say “This is parody, this is me not trying to be disrespectful.”
I also never had to do the thing – there’s an Anne Frank Foundation. Her image, and anytime you want to do anything mainstream media (or bigger than a little fan video which is what I was doing) everything has to be cleared by the foundation, and they didn’t really understand what we were trying to do. They didn’t understand, “Oh wait, she’s video blogging, what is that?” Originally [Hank] was like, “Well we should try another book as a proof of concept to show them what we are trying to do.”
When we first started it, he hadn’t yet given up the idea of trying to do it at some point. But then obviously Lizzie Bennet took off and we went in a different direction. Ultimately it was the combination of one, trying to get the rights would have been crazy and two, how do you take that situation and put it on a modern day context where it even comes anywhere close to what she actually went through? How do you modernize it? There’s nothing any of us will ever experience that comes close to what she experienced.
There’s no equivalent. And Pride and Prejudice has a lot of the lighter material as well. What was your experience with Pride and Prejudice prior to this project?
I had read it in high school and I remember reading it but I don’t remember it making a lasting impression on me. I was more of a Shakespeare tragedy girl. And we’re talking the really bloody, like “Everyone’s dead at the end, yes!”
Hamlet, Titus Andronicus is actually my favourite Shakespeare play. And it’s awful, girls getting their hands and tongues cut off, I was a dark child. But I did read it and I remember reading it, but it wasn’t until we starting working on this that I dived into it a little deeper, and because technically my job is not on the creative side, I didn’t dig as deep as the writers had to, to really dig into that world.
You said you didn’t have a lot of input on the adaptation choices, were there any of those decisions that you have been involved in, or did you leave those up to Bernie and the writers?
Well, the biggest creative part of it that I had to play was the casting, because I was there from day one. I love working with actors and talent, that’s my real passion, so I said “Instead of hiring an outside casting director, let me just do it, let me just do it myself and I would love to be a part of that.”
I did have a lot of say in, “I really want to bring this person back,” or there were a couple times when I went, “Maybe this isn’t your first choice but just trust me and bring her in, I just want you to see her” type of stuff, because I actually know a lot of actors in L.A. I had seen Mary Kate prior to when we brought her in, she was one of those: “We definitely need to see this girl, she is amazing,” and then she ended up being perfect.
You’ve obviously gone for diversity, it’s modern day and not everyone is Caucasian, which is great, but I wouldn’t say that was the biggest decision that has gone into casting. Tell us about the overall process.
Sure, it was a very long process, especially for the first four girls. We really took our time with it, I know with Ashley – I had started to read one of her interviews and she was like, “Yeah, I came in for my audition and didn’t hear anything for a month so I assumed I didn’t get it,” and that was just because it literally took us that long with going back over – we taped every audition, we actually ran two series of auditions after we did the first batch.
Ashley came in in the first batch, and so did Laura and so did Mary Kate. I remember seeing the three of them and making a note that these three will go through, I do remember that. I even remember seeing Ashley’s headshot, because she let me a note. The casting program that I use is all done online to save some trees, so people aren’t sending in their headshots, and there’s a spot where you can leave a note.
A lot of times people just do a generic, “I would love to read for you,” but every once in a while you’ll get someone who actually puts some thought into their note, and Ashley was one of those people, she was like, “I love Pride and Prejudice, I’ve read every Jane Austen novel, it would be great just to come in and read for you,” and I was like “Alright, you took a little extra time, that’s great.”
After her group came through, Hank actually wanted to see more, because this was his first experience doing anything like this, he had never touched scripted at all, so he was like, “So, I want to see more,” and we said, “Okay great, we’ll see more.” I think maybe two or three people in the second batch we ended up calling back, but the majority of the people came from the first batch.
Then we held a callback, we picked our top 3-5 in each of the four roles. I do my callbacks in, it’s considered, a more theatre style, because when you audition in the theatre in the callbacks you all come back and you’re in a room all together, and they pair you up and you’re basically acting in front of your peers. With theatre the reason they do that is because you will be performing in front of a live audience, but I find it is useful in any kind of casting because when you’re being watched by your peers it kind of ups your game, or it destroys you.
Especially with the way we were going to be shooting, which was a lot of pages really quickly, we needed them to be able to do that. You have to be able to be ready, no matter who’s in the room, you gotta up your game, so that was something I felt would help with the auditions, which I think everyone agreed because we found who we needed so it worked out.
After the callbacks, Hank and Bernie took a long time, and we went through a lot of discussions on how it would go. The four girls that we chose, I wanted those four, so I felt really good about it and I was kind of just waiting for them to go through the process of figuring out how they felt.
There was actually talk about being nervous about casting them as redheads, because we didn’t want people to think that it was an homage to Felicia Day, basically. But you have to go with first, the girls who look like each other – they have to look like they’re going to be sisters, and so the lynchpin was Mary Kate. We knew we wanted to go with Mary Kate, we did know that with Mary Kate we could get away with, if we wanted to go the brunette or blonde route, we could say that Mary Kate dyed her hair red – because she actually does. But at the end of the day, Ashley was just perfect. That was how it went. And hey, if people think it’s an homage to Felicia Day, that’s fine, I love Felicia Day, we all do.
There are worse people.
If that is what people think, that’s fine.
Do you have a favourite character, the one who you most enjoy the direction that they have gone?
Probably Fitz. I love how we chose to do Fitz, I love that it’s Craig Frank. Both Bernie and I have known Craig for years, I have worked with Craig before. It was just such a fun direction to take it and it grew into something even larger over time, because originally Fitz wasn’t supposed to be part of the ‘Gigi Darcy saving the day’. That grew out of the transmedia team having Fitz and Gigi have this fun little banter back and forth online, which grew into Team Figi.
It’s funny that it grew into that, not that I’m saying Craig playing Fitz was not a part of that, because people loved the way he played it and so they wanted to see more of him, but it’s also a credit to the transmedia team for taking that initiative for continuing to grow that character out simply through social media. I think that’s really amazing.
How closely do you follow the discussions in the fandom?
Probably Tumblr mostly, I’m on Tumblr a lot because that’s where the majority of the discussions happen. I try to follow them without it getting to the point where it’s distracting, but obviously I love to know how the fandom is feeling, and what their thoughts are. Again for me, I know some of the writers stay away from it because they don’t want it to influence them, because at the end of the day it’s about the story that the creative team wants to tell and whether the fans guess it or not is a different thing.
But because I’m not sitting there in the writers room influencing that, I can kind of dive in a little bit more and not feel like I’m going to change anything. I kind of like that, I kind of feel like I’m a fan with my theories as well. Even though I do read the scripts ahead of time and I’m there when they’re filming, it’s still fun to be like “Oh where’s it gonna go?”
Link to Part 2 of the Interview.
[Sorry for not doing this the first time, Mods.]
The series will end on March 28th on its 100th episode.
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I don't know how many people watch this show, but occasionally-questionable acting aside, I think what the producers have done with the online content has been pretty spectacular in terms of utilising YouTube,Twitter, and even Tumblr to create an immersing narrative.
I've bolded the bits that generally begin an important topic in the interview, so use those as your guides if you're interested in the content of the interview itself. It's pretty interesting if you're interested in online media.
Otherwise, anyone have any thoughts on the writing of the adaptation itself and how well the writers have translated 'Pride and Prejudice' into a contemporary narrative?