Written by Lainie Strouse
When asked how they balance work and family, writing and producing, Savannah Dooley and Winnie Holzman answer in unison, “We don’t. Work is family.” That is certainly the case with Huge, a new series on ABC Family adapted from the book of the same name by Sasha Paley. The mother and daughter team write and produce the show, Dooley’s father (and Holzman’s husband of 26 years) Emmy-nominated actor Paul Dooley is part of the cast and Holzman’s brother, Ernest, is the show’s director of photography.
The show is an exception to almost every Hollywood rule. “There are so few women in this business already,” Dooley notes. Holzman adds, “That is why, as we sit here, it is pretty amazing.” In addition to the mother-daughter writing team, Huge, which observes the psychological toll our culture’s obsession with being thin takes on the lives of seven teens at a weight-loss camp, features a mostly overweight cast headed by Nikki Blonsky and Hayley Hasselhoff.
A close friend of Holzman’s is credited with masterminding the pairing. “Robin Schiff (Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion) called me up my junior year of college and said ABC Family had this concept from a book they wanted to turn into an original movie,” says Dooley. The project was put on a back burner and Dooley resigned herself to the likelihood that it would never get made, until she heard that the head of the network wanted to make Huge into a series. With only one previous TV writing credit to her name, ABC Family wanted an experienced showrunner to work with her. Although they had always fantasized and discussed projects they would work on together “someday,” Holzman didn’t even think of stepping in. “I sort of felt like, ‘This isn't my business. I shouldn't get involved,” she recalls. “Robin woke me up and said, ‘Wait, are you sure you don't want to do this with her?’ I suddenly went, ‘Wait, I do want to do this!’”
Ten episodes were promptly ordered and the rush to make the premiere date was on. “I got very excited,” says Holzman, “and then I got very nervous because I knew it was a short amount of time.” To their relief, they had just turned in the eighth episode when we met at Dooley’s home and spoke of their intense ride together on Huge.
Savannah, was writing something you knew you wanted to do at a young age?
Savannah Dooley: I definitely had this fantasy that I would be the world's youngest screenwriter from age 11. My mom wrote a movie that had gotten into theaters, and I was like, “Wow! That would be amazing.” I discovered I had an aptitude for fiction writing and poetry so I went to camp for that. A lot of my writing for this has been based on that experience. So that is what I immersed myself in, and I went to college for screenwriting and video making. I've grown up reading a lot of screenplays.
Photo: © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Harvey Guillen, Nikki Blonsky, and Raven Goodwin in Huge.
Winnie Holzman: She was always writing a lot.
Savannah Dooley: If Winnie, being in this business, hadn't been opening up doors for me in terms of screenwriting; I probably would have been a YA author or a writer of magical short stories. I got a job writing one episode of a teen show that paid. It was an amazing credit and got me into the Guild. At that point, it was something that paid the bills, but I never dreamed, because it happens so rarely, that I would be able to do something that means so much to me, creatively, as my job.
Winnie Holzman: What I can't believe, seriously, it is hard to even describe, at her age that she is just a natural at this. It's really incredible.
In L.A., with everyone trying to be as skinny as possible, how was the casting process for this show?
Winnie Holzman: For eight to 10 weeks I was saying in casting, “That person is not fat enough.”
Savannah Dooley: Casting this show was a big challenge. It was a terrifying process. I was horrified. I am a critical person. I obviously have strong feelings about how fatness is portrayed in the media. So when I hear about a show like this, in my mind I'm already thinking, how skinny are these “fat kids” going to be? We can't half-ass this. We have to have someone who is big enough. We have to have people who look like real people.
Winnie Holzman: Yes, exactly, full-assed (laughs). We did end up finding them in L.A.
Savannah Dooley: It means so much more being able to give actors this [chance] because of the limitations Hollywood is already going to be putting on them.
Winnie Holzman: We felt it. We felt right away this feeling of gratitude that we could be a part of something that would give opportunity to kids.
Savannah Dooley: Something that has frustrated us, for my whole time growing up, was the token fat character that was always a joke.
Winnie Holzman: That is a big, inspirational part of our show. We are busting through that. That is a lot of what the show is about. It is about these people who are outsiders who are finally finding a place for themselves in the world. They are feeling themselves for the first time as themselves and not just as the fat person.
Not as other people see them.
Winnie Holzman: Exactly.
Savannah Dooley: That is a huge part of what draws people to these camps. The idea that it is a safe space where no one is going to give you a bunch of shit for being overweight because everyone has been through that.
Winnie Holzman: Where you don't have to be constantly ashamed.
Savannah Dooley: It is so much about the sense of community. For me, having been to a regular camp, a lot of the series is just about stuff that could happen at any camp. You form these intense intimacies and rivalries because you are so close to each other. You become a little family.
It is like being on set for a long time.
Savannah Dooley: It’s exactly like being on set. We are all getting so close to each other.
Winnie Holzman: It’s a world within a world. There is the world we are creating. It becomes a little mini world that becomes more real to you than the outside world.
Is there a type of project that you seek out, excites you or a certain story you want to tell?
Savannah Dooley: We like really complicated stories, protagonists that are outsiders and people finding unexpected connections; things that feel very real with characters that are flawed.
I love working with her. I could never ask for a better partner. This sounds lame, but she is another me, but better at this. We want to write about the same things and like the same kind of subtle moments. We are really on the same page.
Winnie Holzman: We are frighteningly alike.
Savannah Dooley: We ARE frighteningly alike.
One of the themes of the show seems to be everyone carries their own weight and insecurity…
Savannah Dooley: Their own insecurity or secret feeling that I don't belong. Something about me isn't right. No one escapes that, especially when you are a teenager.
Winnie Holzman: That is the focus of our writing. There is a Jewish prayer that I was told about a year ago that has stuck with me. I don't remember the exact wording of it, but it is a prayer for when you are in public places when you are surrounded by others – “I remember, God, that every single one of these people carries a secret burden.”
Savannah Dooley: We should use that in an episode.
Winnie Holzman: That is my credo for writing. I don't want to write a character that doesn't have a secret burden because every single human has that. God forbid that we should forget when we look upon someone no matter what they weigh or what their life is like. Something we see in movies and TV that annoys us is when a person is portrayed as if they don't have any [burdens]. Everyone has something. That is so important. That is what I think the show is about.
Winnie Holzman: Our focus is on inner transformation and self-acceptance.
Savannah Dooley: There is all this talk in the media about how to combat the obesity crisis. Physical health begins with mental health. The way to get people to really eat healthy and exercise is not in this culture of fear of being fat. People are trying desperately to lose weight, not to pursue health. I find myself saying to my friends I want to lose 10 pounds, and I feel pressure to say that it is just to be healthy, but for me that is bullshit. Our culture values looks 10 times more than health. That is something I want to explore. How different people feel.
Winnie Holzman: What we are really doing is raising the questions. We don't have answers. What is interesting about this project is that these are questions not put into dramas very often.
Savannah Dooley: I overate in my childhood at a time when I was feeling most desperate about being trapped in this chubby body. The saddest thing is that I look back at pictures of myself then and I looked so normal. Why was I so hard on myself?
Winnie Holzman: That is the most heartbreaking thing – when it is us doing that to ourselves. We can't change the world doing it, but we can be an instrument of change about doing it to ourselves.
It is so ingrained in us that we don't really even realize we are doing it.
Winnie Holzman: Let's face it. It is the voice within. It is the punitive, punishing voice that really breaks our own heart. It seems like it’s what other people think or say, but the truth is that we lash out and hate ourselves. It's hard, but it is all about becoming conscious of it, of this harsh, brutal way of speaking to ourselves. You can change it if you become aware of it. Would you say that to your best friend? Would you say to your best friend, “You look so fat”?
Savannah Dooley: This totally became a therapy session, this is awesome.
What is the best writing advice you have been given?
Savannah Dooley: Write the bad version to get it out so you don't have that mental hurdle to jump over. We have to remind ourselves about that because we are both perfectionists. Forget about it being perfect, especially when you are working at this schedule. You have to work on the next episodes. Advice that we tend to give each other is to not hold ourselves to too high of a standard. You will make yourself creatively miserable. What I have picked up from her scripts is how to make a subtle moment happen, how to feather in a theme that works through the story.
How do you do that?
Savannah Dooley: Do less, be more spare. I like how [Winnie] doesn't spell things out. I like how she has characters talking about something, but really talking about something else. She doesn't often have people say exactly what they mean. Those are the best moments.