Talking to Darren Star is a little like talking to God. While this claim may strike some as sacrilegious and others as just plain absurd, those of us who grew up watching such prime-time soaps and dramas as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex and the City - all series that Star created, produced and/or wrote most of the episodes for - it makes perfect sense.
Star was visiting Israel last week as part of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Master Class program sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and also run by the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and HOT cable. So at last, I had the opportunity to ask those questions that only he could answer, some of which have nagged at me for more than 10 years: Why didn't Dylan and Brenda ever get back together and why did so many high schoolers in the 90210 area code look 35? (Beverly Hills); how could a head injury make someone as crazy and evil as Dr. Kimberly Shaw (Melrose Place); and why was Carrie obsessed with Mr. Big for so many years, when he treated her like dirt most of the time (Sex and the City)?
But facing Star across a table at an Asian restaurant in Tel Aviv, I got cold feet. Our time was limited, and I had so many questions I couldn't begin to choose. And he seemed so normal, so calm (as opposed to so many of his more memorable characters). So I decided to sound him out about his gift for telling stories that are incredibly compelling, even when they get a little soapy and over the top (OK, sometimes very soapy and over the top).
Starting with the HBO series Sex and the City, his crowning achievement to date, I asked about the changes in tone he made from the original Sex source material, a column by Candace Bushnell in the New York Observer. Bushnell's column was more bitter and pessimistic than the series (and the top-grossing film) it inspired.
"The column was just a jumping-off point," he said. "It gave me a great way in. I loved the idea of a character writing a column about her life. And it was a great title. But I wanted to give her a softer, more romantic side, although she was still a tough, New York person."
Fair enough. But how did he pull it off, creating characters we wanted to spend time with, week after week, on so many different shows? "You have to respect the intelligence of your audience," he said. "The story can't drive your characters. Good stories come from good characters. The believability of the characters creates a sense of identification in the audience... Even with the wackiest of the Melrose characters, you believed in them, in their motivations. You just saw how crazy they can be to get what they want. That's sort of what it's like to be in your 20s."
THAT'S THE age that Star, who comes from a middle-class Maryland family - his father was an orthodontist and his mother a journalist - was when he first started working in the entertainment industry. Just 48 now, he sold his first script, Doin' Time on Planet Earth, about a teen who thinks he is an alien prince, a few years after he graduated from college. It may surprise his admirers to learn that he was not accepted to UCLA film school, but he did go to UCLA as a regular undergraduate, where he studied English and took as many film courses as he could.
Speaking about Melrose Place, he said, "We were having a blast. When you have a good time writing a show, it translates onto the screen."
The grueling pace wasn't easy though: He and his staff wrote 32 episodes a season, which were sometimes filmed two at a time.
Given the runaway success of the full-length 2008 Sex and the City film, is Star ever tempted to abandon the fast-paced world of television for the big screen? "TV has given me great opportunities," he said. "And it's suited for the continuing storylines" that Star is a master at writing.
But he said he would write in whatever format best suited the story he was trying to tell. "Now that people are watching DVDs so much, I think the distinction between film and television series has gotten blurred a bit."
He has worked on the revamped versions of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 and is currently writing an HBO pilot he declined to describe.
"Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't," he said cautiously, since he has had his share of failed series along with the spectacular successes.
One aspect of the business he was clear about was his preference for the cable networks rather than traditional networks. "The support for shows is much more meaningful on cable," he said. "With the networks, now a show has one week to perform. There is no real commitment to it. A show has to be a hit right out of the gate."
In the past, network television shows were often tinkered with a great deal in the first season. "The smartest people aren't watching a new show the first week," said Star. "But now the networks aren't giving a chance for word of mouth to build about new shows."
That said, he headed off to teach a class on television series pilots to the Master Class participants. "I'm going to show the pilot for Sex and the City," he said.
Coming to Israel, which he visited for the first time as an adult last fall, "is a nice way to procrastinate." While on the previous trip he saw much of the country, this time, he was looking forward to spending a week in Tel Aviv and getting to know the place many consider Israel's sexiest city.
As Star walked away, I thought less about the mysteries I still hadn't learned the answer to - like why Melrose Place's Amanda (Heather Locklear) never found a hair colorist who could conceal her dark roots - and more about the mystery of the new series he was working on.
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