The new ABC Family series "Huge" is being developed by mother-daughter writing team Winnie Holzman ("Wicked," "My So-Called Life," "Once and Again") and Savannah Dooley, starring Nikki Blonsky from "Hairspray." Based on the book of the same name by Sasha Paley, the show takes place at a weight-loss camp and follows seven teens as they struggle with both weight and non-weight related issues. I spoke to Winnie and Savannah on the phone to hear about the project, what it's like working together, and what they hope to accomplish. They both feel strongly about the message they're trying to send with the show, pushing boundaries and reaching out to overweight individuals in a way that's never been done before. They seemed bubbly and giggly, both interrupting and finishing one another's sentences. Savannah does most of the talking and you can tell that Winnie is really excited to let her daughter shine.
"Huge" premieres tonight on ABC Family at 9pm EST.
So tell me about "Huge."
SD: It's a show that takes place at a weight-loss camp, but it's about a lot more than weight loss. First, this is about creating a strong character-driven ensemble drama that is also funny that feels really real. It's all about internal change and these relationships that these people at the camp have with each other and how they all grow and realize who they are from that. We're doing a lot of stuff that is not necessarily specific to a weight loss camp, but that happens at any camp: falling in love, having a crush on someone who doesn't know you exist, having an enemy in your bunk, finding an unexpected friend.
What made you want to base a show on this novel Huge?
SD: My moms friend Robin Schiff who's also a screenwriter/director had been working with ABC Family for a while and they were asking her to write and direct a made-for-TV movie about ["Huge"]. She wanted to direct it but she approached me to try to write it- I was still in college at the time [...] After about two years they decide to make it as a show. At that point Robin Schiff was running their show "10 Things I Hate About You," so they were looking for someone to step up and helm the project, and it could've been anybody. I had thought it was an idea that my mom might maybe want to, but I also knew she had reservations about getting back into TV. I wasn't expecting it, but she ended up deciding that because it was such an interesting subject, because it would be a good chance for us to work together that she wanted to come, and that's how we ended up in this position.
What's it like working together?
WH: It's kind of like a little bit of everything. [Giggling] It's really wonderful, and it can be horrible at moments, but I would say overall, we love it.
SD: I have to say, even though we've fought--we've fought a little bit--I can't imagine a writing partner team not fighting, but as writing partners I think we are so ideally suited because we have extremely similar taste and style. We find ourselves not remembering even who thought of an idea or we'll think of it at the same time. We're so on the same page that we work very well together. We argue more as mother and daughter than we do as co-writers.
I read that you've always identified with the gay teenagers in your mother's work. Are you planning on taking any of these characters in that direction?
SD: I have always admired Winnie so much. Before I realized I was gay, she was really doing some groundbreaking stuff with gay teenagers and just to come out in a house that is that accepting that it was so not a big deal was amazing for me, and you know as a queer person, I am really interested in writing queer stories, but you'll have to wait to wait and see if that happens.
The show has been described as "Glee"-meets-"Ugly Betty" and obviously Nikki is an amazing singer, is music going to play a big role?
SD: I gotta be honest, the "Glee"-meets-"Ugly Betty" thing, that was sort of just a way to get people to understand the feeling of the show. The way in which our show is like those shows is really in that it's a show about outsiders, it's not really relevant in terms of the tone of the show. Those are both great shows, but they're very stylized. This is a show that's much more stripped down, its much more like "My So-Called Life" in tone. We're going for a feeling that is raw and very real. It will have some musical moments, but they're not stylized like a musical, it's incorporated very organically into it.
What kind of audience are you trying to reach?
SD: We want to make sure people get that the show is not just about teenagers, and not just for teenagers. In the way that "My So Called Life" was about teenagers and adults but it still created the teenagers in a way that adults could relate to--we're trying to make this a smart show that everyone can relate to. We feel like this show could reach a very broad audience and especially an audience who is hungry, not so to speak, --Winnie and I have always been hungry for a more real, and complicated and not offensive portrayal of people of different sizes because we've both struggled with our weight throughout our lives. We're really making the kind of show that we felt like we wanted to watch.
Struggling with your weight, did you ever attend a weight loss camp?
SD: I didn't actually--a lot of where this is coming from emotionally, writing this, is from my experience at arts camp where I went for writing. I was chubby as a kid but I did not ever actually go to weight loss camp but I have met several people who have been there in researching this story and its really interesting--it's an interesting environment to be in and to set a story in.
Is there a message you're trying to send with the show?
SD: The thing I really want to stress about the show, it's really--we're not doing this show because we are passionate about a story where at the end everyone loses weight and their whole lives are nice. We're trying to get at the heart of, not the journey of the before-body to the after-body, just the fact that this is an endless journey of these people living their lives. Whether their bodies end up changing or not, their inner changes are what we're really focused on. People are used to seeing some kind of a clear message--
WH: an easy answer--
SD: --an easy answer at the end. Like "Oh, the chubby girl had a sassy makeover and now really she feels good about herself and her problems are over," or you know--
WH: We're asking questions.
SD: What we want to do is, instead of giving easy answers, to raise questions, to challenge people to think about how they relate to their own bodies and challenge them to look at how culturally we view weight and body image.
To help inspire real teens dealing with weight issues?
SD: I think just to see someone who looks like yourself on screen, to see someone who has a full life as a real full character and not just a sidekick who's overweight is such a big deal--for me I wish I had that when I was younger.
WH: Yeah, that's probably one of the things that we're most touched about. When these young actors started coming in an auditioning we would look at each other with tears in our eyes because we began to realize that we were going to put together a cast that just didn't look like any other cast on television and that that was gonna maybe really be interesting.
And that's saying, about seeing yourself on TV, that's such a powerful thing. It means a lot to people. It means a lot to people when they don't see themselves on TV. It really crushes people's spirits, actually, to be left out.
SD: And you may not even realize the extent to which it's affecting you, the extent to which the culture around us affects us.
WH: It's crushing, it's crushing. I mean--I really learned that when I got into television, I really learned the power, how deeply it affects people to see themselves on television, to see something that they can relate to, that they feel is like them in some way, people feel validated. Its not a little thing, it really means a lot to people. It actually can change people.
Tune in tonight to see how this all plays out. ABC Family TONIGHT at 9pm EST.