"Jane the Virgin" is that show everyone is talking about. Maybe you've heard of it? Yeah, the one based on accidental artificial insemination. If you wrote it off based on that premise, you'd be justified, considering it's about a pregnant virgin. Except, that absurd log line turned out to be a huge component of its unlikely charm.
A wildly positive critical reception has turned "Jane the Virgin" into one of the standout new shows of the season and easily the best to air on The CW. HuffPost Entertainment spoke to show runner Jennie Snyder Urman about how she adapted Venezuelan telenovela "Juana la Virgen" into the stunningly absurd yet authentic masterpiece that her show has become, and what we can expect after the mid-season finale next week.
The tone is so nuanced. How did you set out to balance the soapy absurdity with such heartfelt authenticity?
There’s a level of absurdity right away with the premise. So I knew right away that we had to find a way to embrace that. When you have a show built around a girl who gets artificially inseminated, you’re already on the edge of something. I wanted to "I could feel the audience wasn't going to know how to watch the show.'"find a tone that could fit the inciting incident, so our show could embrace bigger things. Then the premise wouldn’t even be the craziest thing that happened. By the time you got through all of the stories, you would look back and think, “Gosh, out of all the things that happened, that was actually not the craziest." The way that we balance it is that we always make sure we understand how characters are reacting and that it feels honest to us on an emotional level.
You take all of the characters seriously. What was the basis for that grounding factor?
We try to take a path through each character’s point of view just right from the beginning, to make sure that I know they’re not just saying a line to service the main plot. There’s something coming out of their own history that’s informing everything that they do. Especially with the first couple episodes I would say, “Okay, now I’m going to read this script from Rafael's perspective. I’m going read this script from Petra’s point of view.” They might not make decisions that we’re on board with or that we would agree with, but if I can understand where it’s coming from then I can get behind it as a character development and as a plot point.
Do you think the absurdity works because the characters react to it in a way that feels real?
No matter how crazy our characters, the people who we’re seeing the stories through remain grounded and behave in a way that we would recognize. That’s always the most important thing: protecting our characters amidst the madness. We’ll never do a joke that will sell out the character in some way. We have to really understand what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, where they’re coming from. I feel that if we ground those reactions, the plot can take on more outrageous and absurd elements. It’s about always making sure that the majority of our drama goes through Jane and affects her in some way or complicates her life in some way. As long as we have that rooting center then I feel like we can spin out into more fun areas.
Another element is the narrator along with the typing (and emojis) on screen. A lot of that seems to tell the audience how to watch the show. What made you realize it needed that?
The narrator I already had when we went to pilot. I always knew we were going to shoot it with a frame and eventually, as we continued our journey, we got to it so that the narrator would link up with that in interesting ways. That was always an "One piece of typing literally took us 18 hours. '"idea that I had going in, but after we filmed the pilot, all of the performances were so good and there was a level of it that was so beautiful, but it felt a little too earnest. I could feel that the audience wasn’t going to know how to watch the show, because it is such an unusual, super different tone. So, we just started typing in the editing room, freezing the grandma and typing out the things that were important to her, and then doing the same with Jane and doing the same with her mom. Out of that first scene experimenting grew that style of freezing.
What do you think the narrative elements give the show that it was maybe missing with the first version of the pilot?
It gives the audience permission to get into it and also understand that we understand that it’s a crazy situation. As an audience member you feel respected. You don’t feel like, “Wait, I’m just supposed to buy all this?" There’s connection between the storyteller and the audience. You want the audience to trust you, so that they go on all these flights of fancy. I think stopping typing and typing and giving a frame let’s the audience know we understand, we’re on the same side here. We’re not quite in reality and you all understand that. So, adjust your expectations a little. It shows you how to watch the show. That was really what happened in the first edit of the pilot. Once I unlocked that, for me, the tone kind of all fell into place.
How hard is it to find the balance there? Does it come with the scripts or is most added later in editing?
We put a lot in the script and then new stuff always comes out in editing. I remember for the second episode, spending 18 hours typing out the Quinceañera "To Do" list -– one piece of typing literally took us 18 hours. When it would play and when the music would hit. Luckily, we’ve all gotten faster since then! I would say about 70 or 80 percent of the narration and type is on the page now, and about 20 percent I find in the edit. I’ll say, “You know what? We don’t need this scene. We can have the narrator give us a short-hand version of it and move over to the next plot point” or “This is too crazy, the narrator needs to stop and comment on it, so don’t the audience doesn’t worry about it.” A lot of that is what I feel, when I’m watching the show, what I need as a viewer, and then we add those in editing. This show is the most labor-intensive edits that I have experienced my career. I spend so much time in editing with this show.
Jane works within three different worlds -- her home life, the hotel and the telenovela -- how do you weave them together, while still working with the specificities at each level?
They are different levels of grounded. Look at the way that fantasy element rides through all three worlds. For Jane, it feels like the fantasy is Rafael’s world or the telenovela world. What’s underneath it all and what I want you to feel is that the fantasy really lies with Jane in some way. She doesn’t have all the money and privilege that comes from Rafael, but she has the familial and support and strength. As a character, she’s coming from two women who really believe in her. They have really different points of view but they really believe in her. She’s a character that’s a product of that, and that’s what I like about the show. The other worlds might be more aspirational, but they’re really not at the center of it all. The places you would want to go as an audience member is the Villanueva house, to have them sitting around talking to you and joking. That bit of warmth, I think, translates out. For me the thing in that world, even though it’s our most grounded and realistic, with the fantasy of the mother-daughter best friend, that's real. There are people that know you really well and it’s just really real and that’s how Jane becomes a fully realized character. In my mind she’s a product of that and that family.
There are clear stylistic ties to "Ugly Betty," but these realms are so much less stratified than Betty's home and work life. Was the intersection important to you from the start?
I think it’s about having really synced worlds. Each of our worlds is not so extreme as that. It’s not like the fashion business with Wilhelmina Slater. That’s the most extreme. We’re in a hotel. And in a hotel there are all different kinds of people. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs. It’s a place where people come to escape and relax. That environment I think lends itself to a little bit more ... I don’t want to say nuance, because "Ugly Betty" had its own nuance, but it’s not as stark. It’s not the fashion world and then a house in Queens. I think also because we try to move other people through that world, too. You’re gonna see Jane’s mother in a quite natural way. She’s going to be singing, and that’s the big moment for her. She gets to perform in the hotel. We try to find the bleed through between those two worlds in terms of the characters passing through them.
That was always the concept -- to use the hotel as hub?
I said from the beginning that I wanted it to almost surprise you that it became a hotel show. It becomes a hotel show not from establishing the hotel and then doing crazy hotel stories. That would be more inside-out. This more becomes one from the outside in. It’s all these different elements moving towards the hotel, and the hotel being the hub. And I think by virtue of having people that own the hotel and people that work for the hotel, you’re going to feel differences within that.
There are so many intricacies in the plot points. How do you work through those? Do you ever worry you will run out of high-stakes telenovela elements to incorporate? So much has happened already.
I don’t worry about it yet, because we have so many ideas coming up, and we have so much to get through, and we haven’t gotten into that yet. I kind of have it mapped through what the mid-season twist would be in the second season, if we got that far. You kind of have to think far ahead in this show, so that you’re setting up enough things and the audience feels "What I want you to feel is that the fantasy really lies with Jane in some way. "rewarded enough, so that questions get answered just as new questions are being asked. I didn’t want to drag out one question for seven seasons. I think as long as we’re going with Jane and her journey, I don’t think we’ll run out, because we’ll have real problems, and those are going to be different once she becomes a mom. Her problems then will be how do you maintain your sense of self and be a good mother. Her real, grounded, emotional currents are going to constantly evolve. I feel like what other people do in reaction to that, and different decisions, different moments of bad behavior from other characters is going to evolve as the stories evolve. So, I hope we won’t run out.
What is the strategy with setting all of that up moving forward?
We did two really intense weeks. I asked for a little bit longer pre-production, so we could do just really intense plotting at the beginning of the show, so that once we got into the actual story breaking, we didn’t have worry about things like, “Oh shoot, we have to set up a letter and it has to be seen in Episode 5, so it can pay off in Episode 9.” We’d done all that at the beginning. Then we could actually break stories as a room, based on character and emotion and comic set pieces and all of those things. So the plotting is almost the math of the episode. It’s all the things that have to take place and what you’re trying to get it. It’s not all what I love the most. What I love the most is character moments and relationships. So, separating that out, really taking the plot and moving through that. I mean, our board is like crazy. It is so detailed. And then when we get into each episode, we try to find those moments that give the show tinier specificity.
What can we expect when you come back for the second half of this season?
There are going to be two really big events that happen in our mid-season finale next week. So those events are going to have ramifications throughout our back half. We will definitely learn who Sin Rostro by Episode 12. That doesn’t mean that that mystery will end, but you’ll know who it is. So that’s something to look forward to. And we’ll continue to develop and complicate the love triangle between Jane and Rafael and Michael. You’ll also start to see Jane’s pregnancy progress in a real way, and you’ll see, in addition to the soapy turns (like “Who is Sin Rostro?”) you’ll get some smaller more emotional turns about Jane and her pregnancy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.