'The Originals': Showrunner Julie Plec's do's and don'ts of launching a spinoff

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Image Credit: Mathieu Young/The CW

We’re one week away from the premiere of The Originals, the CW’s Vampire Diaries spinoff built around Original siblings Elijah (Daniel Gillies), Klaus (Joseph Morgan), and Rebekah (Claire Holt). We asked exec producer Julie Plec for the rules of launching a spinoff. Here, expanded from EW’s Fall TV preview issue, she shares seven of them:

• Establish a new heartbeat — if romance drives TVD, family drives The Originals. “People are always asking how will it be different, and why should I care about watching two versions of the same world. And that is the key: You just can’t retell the same story with different players in a different location,” Plec says. While The Vampire Diaries is best known for Damon and Stefan battling for Elena’s heart, the war in The Originals is over control of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Marcel (Charles Michael Davis), a former protégé of vicious vampire-werewolf hybrid Klaus, has created a community where vampires rule by exiling the werewolves and oppressing the witches. When the witches demand that Klaus do their bidding against Marcel, noble Elijah sees a chance to reunite his bickering family in a town they used to call home. “The Originals want it because they helped build it. Marcel wants it because he’s developed a community of vampires who can run around without a lot of restrictions. The witches can’t leave without giving up access to all their ancestral magic. And the humans are like, ‘Hands off, everybody. We’ve been here just as long as you have. It’s still a human’s town,’” Plec says. “Everybody’s fighting for a home to call their own and a place to plant their roots for themselves and for their family.”

• Respect the old fans, but welcome new ones — introduce the characters as if we’ve never met them before. “If you are telling a story as though only the people who’ve spent the last five years watching your other show are tuning in, then you’re doing it wrong. But I will tell you, creatively it is one of the hardest things to execute. The audience could be somebody who’s seen one episode of The Vampire Diaries, zero episodes of The Vampire Diaries, or 89 episodes of The Vampire Diaries but can’t remember anything — how do you introduce these people and this world in a way that is exciting and understandable and palatable to a new audience when, specifically in our case of the fractured Original family, they’re hateful little minxes?” That’s particularly tricky with Klaus, who had two-plus seasons to earn goodwill among TVD fans, but who’ll be presented in the premiere as Elijah’s “potentially psychopathic brother,” Plec says. “You’ve got to find a way to say to the audience, ‘You need to care about Klaus because Elijah cares about Klaus’ — because Klaus is about to do some really nasty stuff, like be told he’s about to have a baby [with Phoebe Tonkin's werewolf, Hayley] and say, ‘Kill it. I don’t care.’ That’s not a hero move in the first episode of a TV show.”

• Honor the history — we’re not erasing the impact of people like Katherine, Caroline, and the legendary Matt Donovan. “It would be unfair to get an audience so invested in couplings and relationships and the histories of these characters that we’re taking to their own world and act as though they never happened,” Plec says. “So the goal is to, without alienating a new audience who has no clue who these people are, still be respectful. If we were just breaking this first episode clean without all the history, there would be romance in it for Klaus. But because there’s still unfinished business with Caroline. Even if he doesn’t mention her by name in the first episode or two, he is by no means going to be jumping into any kind of romantic relationship in the very beginning. So we’ve had to find romance and passion and those beautiful moments that I love so much in other ways.” Rebekah and Matt, who’ll have spent a steamy summer abroad, agreed their time together was finite. And Elijah, Plec says, “has a long history of sacrificing his own happiness in pursuit of salvation or redemption for his brother and efforts to bring the family closer together. Katherine was the latest in a long line of those kind of situations.” Translation: They’re single and could be ready to mingle.

• Always be open to crossover potential: “There are sub rules to the crossover,” Plec says, “which is don’t do it to be stunty. Don’t do it for publicity reasons. Don’t do it to be too clever for your own good. Do it because it feels right for story and it feels right for character.” Also, don’t do it too soon: “First, you’ve got to make sure you get all these characters that you’re serving firmly planted.”

• Know the rules of your original mythology. Then be willing to bend or break them. “That’s one of my favorites,” Plec says. “We want to learn from our mistakes and make things simpler or easier to execute or just from a mythological point of view, not as complicated. So we’ll make small changes here and there, like when the Originals used to desiccate on The Vampire Diaries, every single shot was a digital effect and every single shot was thousands of dollars. We don’t have to match it the way we used to. We can create our new version of it. If somebody on Twitter starts screaming about how it doesn’t match, then okay. You don’t want to get those comments, but most people won’t notice,” she says. “It’s about deciding what works for us, what doesn’t work for us, what can we live without, what can we pretend never existed, and where do we really need to be loyal and respectful of the mythology that was built so carefully on the other show.”

• Keep production’s home base close to the mothership’s. This is a personal rule for Plec, who considers herself a workaholic and her coworkers her family. “The idea of walking away from one family to build a new family is not the way I wanted to do this. I wanted to make sure that both families could live under the same roof,” she says, laughing. “So, in LA, it’s kinda like The Brady Brunch where we’ve got The Vampire Diaries [writing staff] on one side of the office, and The Originals‘ on the other. We blew out all the walls in between and made a massive community kitchen so that inevitably you’re going to cross paths when you get a cup of coffee. So we’re all under the same roof, and our editors are all under the same roof, so it truly does feel like one unit working and dividing tasks. You want everybody to know that you care about [both shows] equally.”

• Viewers can sense a cash grab. There has to be a thematic reason to do another series. Some fans have asked Plec why she’d take the Originals away from The Vampire Diaries. “‘They’re so amazing on The Vampire Diaries. Why would you hurt The Vampire Diaries by deleting them?’ My point is, the Originals, as phenomenal as they were on The Vampire Diaries, were actually hurting the show in the long run because there were too many hero stories to tell. The minute Klaus ceased to be the true day-to-day villain, we had not one, not two, not three heroes, we had a redundancy of heroes that, in our opinion, actually made the storytelling very difficult although it was delicious to watch. For me, it’s the idea of like getting a two-hour episode every week. It’s like if Glee made two shows — one in New York and one in high school.” On a more personal note, Plec adds, “TV is really, really, really hard work. You sacrifice a lot of your personal life, a lot of your sanity, just to do one show. Don’t do another show just because someone thinks that there’s a dollar to be earned there. Do it because you love the characters, and you love the world, and you really truly feel both the fans and you as a storyteller can benefit from having the second show.”

The Originals premieres Thursday, Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. ET on The CW, before moving to its regular time, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET.

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