Adapting a telenovela with Jane The Virgin showrunner Jennie Urman

Adapting a telenovela with Jane The Virgin showrunner Jennie Urman

Dive into the development of this season’s brilliant new dramedy

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

One of this year’s biggest TV success stories is The CW’s Jane The Virgin, a series that has taken an absurd concept and used it to build an incredibly emotional and engaging story. Loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen, the new dramedy follows a 23-year-old virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine check-up at the gynecologist, an event that sends shockwaves through the lives of Jane and everyone connected to her. The series successfully juggles a lot of tones as it explores Jane’s romantic drama and the comedy of being caught in such a crazy situation, and offers a surprisingly nuanced take on sexuality, class, and religion while providing the big plot twists associated with the telenovela genre. To learn how the show balances all these different elements, The A.V. Club spoke with showrunner Jennie Urman about the development process of adapting a telenovela for U.S. network television.

The A.V. Club: When you were first getting started on Jane The Virgin, what attracted you to the telenovela genre?

Jennie Urman: My last show [Emily Owens, M.D.] was just off the air, canceled, and I was thinking about what my next project would be. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to do something really different. I loved my last show, but I felt like I made a lot of safe choices on it. So I had that in my mind—that I wanted to do something very different. Ben Silverman [CEO of the entertainment studio Electus] brought a bunch of telenovela titles to The CW. They all liked the idea of Jane The Virgin, so they came to me and asked me if I wanted to adapt it.

When I heard the log line, I thought, “That’s crazy. No.” But I said I’d think about it over the weekend because once you hear, “Girl gets accidentally inseminated,” you just sort of think, “What?” I thought about it over the weekend. It became a little bit fairy-tale-like in my head, about fate and destiny and how one small choice could really explode your whole life. I started to think about if I could find a way to make that moment work. It offered an opportunity to do something totally different, especially because it was coming from a telenovela. I thought I could take that premise and also take what people love about telenovelas and create some sort of frame for it, and then it started to capture my imagination in that way.

I started to think about who this girl was who is 23, who hasn’t had sex, and that started me thinking about the person her mom was, and her grandmother, and it started to come together as this intergenerational story. I started to get excited about it as something different and as something that I could take risks with and use the genre to have a more free style of storytelling. Telenovelas can have such big sweeps of humor and drama and all of those different things. I got excited about the idea from there.

AVC: Did you revisit the original Venezuelan Juana La Virgen show during the adaptation process?

JU: I watched the original pilot. Then I read over a hundred episode synopses, just so I would know what the show was. But I knew there were two things: One was that the original was about a 17-year-old girl, and a 17-year-old virgin is a very, very different creature from a 23-year-old virgin. Hopefully. Hopefully there’s still some high schoolers—it became a different character. It became more about a choice and not where she was in her life as a 17-year-old. And I really wanted to be sure to know what the original was so we could take what worked from it and put it over into our world and also create something new, because if we did the same telenovela that they did, there’s no need—because they already did it and they did it really well. I wanted to make sure that if we were going to adapt it, it would become something else.

AVC: Were there any big challenges that came up in adapting the series for American television?

JU: Yes, and for me, it was how to balance the tones because I wanted to do a whole bunch of different things with the tone. Usually, you outline a script and then you hand it in and it gets approved, or they give you notes and then it gets approved, and you start off on your script. For this one, I handed them an outline and it would get approved, and I would be like, “You know, I’m not happy yet.” And I’d give them another outline. I did that about three times, which is very strange because you’re usually just waiting for them to say, “Okay! Go off and write.” And they kept saying to me, “Okay! Go off and write,” and I kept saying, “Wait! I don’t think I have it yet.” It was in that third and final draft that I decided to put the frame on with the narrator and have a bit of a meta-telenovela happening at the same time. Once I did that, I felt like it unlocked for me, tone-wise.

There’s a big part of figuring out the tone that comes in editing, and I made some big choices in that first edit of the pilot, in the way we shot it. I had the narrator; I had all of that. But I didn’t have any of the typing. I didn’t have any of the phrases. What I realized when I got into the edit was that it was beautifully acted and all the beats were landing, but I had to show people how to watch it. I had to give them permission to watch it with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek but still give them permission to get into the story. I feel like I discovered a level of the work in editing.

AVC: Were there any concerns from The CW that you had to take into consideration? It sounds like the network was looking for a telenovela-based project. Was there anything that they wanted you to specifically do?

JU: No, the only things that they said were that they didn’t want to do a high school show, [like] the original, with the teenager. There was a little bit of concern—not too much, in truth, they’ve loved the project as it came through—but when we went to shoot it, we did cover Alba’s [Jane’s grandma] lines in English, just to make sure. We were all 99 percent sure that we were going to air it in Spanish, but they did ask me to cover it once in English. And to their credit, once they saw it, I never showed them any other takes. I showed them the first cut of the show, in Spanish; no one brought it up after that.

That was an important thing for me. Everybody was on board, but they’d never aired anything that had some Spanish language in it. You want to make sure, especially since that’s how they open the show, with her grandmother talking to her. Right away, you’re talking in a different language and the audience is getting acclimated—what kind of show is this? We did it to be safe, but we did one pass-through of her lines in English and five takes in Spanish because that was always the intention.

AVC: The show has covered so much material in just eight episodes. What is the philosophy of the writers’ room regarding narrative development? How much of it is inspired by those big sweeps that a telenovela is capable of?

JU: We spent two weeks at the beginning, when the writers’ room got together, and we plotted really meticulously all the stuff in the show: the murder and all the more outrageous things you need in a plot. When we got into the actual story-breaking, we could focus on the characters and we could make sure that we’re still telling grounded stories with Jane. We’re really investigating her emotional life, we’re investigating all the reasons, all the ways that this one instance of accidental insemination has been an earthquake in the lives of all of our characters. We did a lot of plotting at the beginning and then, for me, it’s all about how, as long as my characters relate to all these outrageous twists and turns as we’d relate, as a person would relate and say, “Oh my God, I’m accidentally inseminated! That’s fucking crazy!”—shocked, in disbelief—as long as they’re reacting to the crazy in a relatable way, then I feel like you can do both tones. The audience can attach to our characters and understand it’s crazy for them, too. It gives an entry point to all the more outrageous stuff.

Telenovelas are the most popular genre in the world, and there’s a reason for that: They have so much drama and such huge stakes all of the time. I wanted to capture that. I wanted to capture it in the way that also let our characters stay grounded amidst all the crazy. And we have different levels of crazy and grounded in our show. I always talk about the show in terms of the three really distinct worlds: We have the most grounded world being Jane and her mother and her grandmother, the Villanueva household. They’re really of our world. Then you have the step up from that in terms of fantasy: Rafael and Petra and the hotel. To Jane, that’s a rarified world.

The broadest one, of course, is the telenovela within our telenovela. We try to keep track of those three worlds all the time and do little things that people probably don’t notice. We had a leopard motif in [“Chapter 2”]: The leopards are on the loose, so Jane is wearing a very light leopard shirt on the bus at some point. I think there’s leopard slippers. We try to find a way to trace little things through the three worlds to connect them and then take all the stories through Jane. That’s how we juggle the tone.

We have a real “let’s go for it” attitude with our storytelling. We’ll have a secret, but then we’ll have people telling it. I think it’s interesting what happens after things come out as much as hiding them is. On our show, we don’t hold things too long. When I was pitching the show, I said a lot: “It’s going to be like a carnival, where you have a ton of different things going on at once. You have a lot of plates spinning in the air at the same time, but there’s one overall connector. They’re all under the same tent.” The tent is our narrator. He connects everything for us. Those are a few of the things that go into our philosophy of storytelling.

AVC: Because the show operates on these different levels, you need a cast that can function on those levels and switch between them. What were you looking for in the actors during the casting process?

JU: In each one, there were different qualities that I was looking for. Jane was obviously the first character that we focused on because the whole show relies on the audience falling in love with Jane and going with her through this journey. Gina [Rodriguez] was literally the third person that came in. The audition that she gave on that day is pretty much the exact same performance that you see in the pilot. She just came in with it. I had her do three scenes: I had her do that first scene where they’re making out and she tells him to stop. Then I had her do the scene with her mom on the bus, which is a more comic scene, where they’re talking about how her friend got new boobs and all that kind of stuff. I wanted someone that can do comedy and romance. Then I had her do that last speech from the pilot, where she proposes to Michael, where you can feel the emotion. She knocked everything out of the park. After I had her, I realized she gives me the most freedom as a writer: I can write anything. She can do drama, she can do comedy, she can do small moments and big moments. That’s fun for me. I have this great actor, she has this huge range—let’s use it all. That was Gina.

For her mom [Xiomara], what I was really looking for was somebody that could take a character—I just didn’t want anything that felt caricature-y and stereotypical. Her mom is a more free-spirited person. She’s got a more liberated attitude toward sex and all those things. I didn’t want her to fall into something that—I wanted her to also be a character that we could understand and empathize with. Andrea [Navedo] came in and she was the only person we took to test at the network because, to me, she came in and she could play the fun of Xo, but she also had this real pride and this real emotional vulnerability under that pride that made me respond to her immediately. We took Andrea to the network and she read with Gina and that was done.

For Jane’s father, for Rogelio, I always wanted to find a telenovela star to play that part, in keeping with our crossing through genres. The casting director had brought Jaime [Camil] to my attention—Ben Silverman had brought him to my attention, actually—and I saw Pulling Strings, which was an English-language film he did, as well as a lot of telenovela stuff. He’s a big star, so he did not audition. I offered him the part. We had a great Skype session first. It’s a small part in the pilot, her father, so I wrote him scenes from future episodes so that he could see where the character was going to go. That scene where Jane and her father meet for the first time is the scene I’ve been waiting for since the pilot—that was written at the pilot stage just so I could get the kind of actor I wanted for it. If you read the pilot, he has one line and a few telenovela scenes. But it’s a really important part of our story—Jane’s relationship with the father she didn’t know, and their slow-building love story. So I gave that to Jaime and we had a nice Skype session. Luckily for me, he took it. He had a few offers.

Brett [Dier], who plays Michael, was someone I had known. I had tested him for a different role on Emily Owens and we didn’t end up going with him, but I love him as an actor, so I brought him back as a guest actor in that show, and then he was on Ravenswood and they were just finishing. They had just heard it was getting canceled. I really wanted him to come in, and at first, he wasn’t sure if he was going to because he was feeling the pain. Getting canceled is hard. You put your whole life into it. Luckily, he sent me an audition [tape], and I thought he’d be able to play sweet and sensitive and hiding something and a little goofy—and he had all the qualities. I was thrilled with him.

Ivonne [Coll] came in, she plays Alba—she was one of the first actors who came in. I felt like she could play it with restraint and emotion, because we were trying to keep everybody grounded in this world. She was one of the earliest: We couldn’t get her out of our heads.

Yael [Grobglas], who plays Petra—I had seen a ton of girls. I had worked with her; she had come into Reign and I had been consulting on Reign the year before. She did a great job and she was in my episode. So I had her in my head. I wanted someone for Petra that wasn’t the stock, bitchy—I wanted someone where you could develop something underneath, where she wasn’t entirely readable, who you never quite knew. It was a really hard part to find. Yael initially wasn’t sure about this part for her, then I was like, “Please, please, please come in.” I remember pulling over to the side of the highway and calling her and saying, “I really think that you’re going to like what we’re doing with the character. You’re not going to be a one-note villain. I have your mother in there for a very specific reason.” She’s our broadest character, [Petra’s] mother. “If she’s crazy and kind of mean to you, even if you’re doing other things, the audience is going to feel for you.” We had a long meeting and I was very glad that she decided to come in after all to audition. She was always my first choice for that role.

The last person we cast was Justin [Baldoni]. We were having a lot of trouble with [Rafael] and we couldn’t figure it out. He had to be that kind of—you look at him and you need to understand the fantasy right away. He had to be that to Jane, but he also had to be deep enough and interesting enough and play himself in the past where he wasn’t so good. It was a really tricky role to get. Justin came in at the 11th hour when I was close to being panicked. He came in and I thought he was great. We brought him in to test, and he got the role, and I ran outside, like, “You just got it!” Then everyone else came outside and was like, “You want to tell him that he got it?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll tell him!” I’d just told him. So he did his second acting performance of the day and pretended to be surprised when they told him. That was our casting process.

AVC: Was there anything from the telenovela aesthetic that you wanted to carry over into the design for Jane? Things like the costuming, lighting, sets, music, etc.

JU: Costuming and sets and lighting—it wasn’t so much telenovela, although telenovela comes into the telenovela within the story. I wanted this very specific thing from this aesthetic. There’s so many things I watched that were snooping around in my brain when I was writing this. One of them is Amélie. It did that fairy-tale thing so beautifully. When I had my first meeting with Brad Silberling—who directed [the pilot], who I cannot say enough great things about—I had been meeting with directors, and he came with a script and with a picture of Amélie right on the cover and was like, “It made me think of this.” I was like, “That’s exactly right.” That’s where we took, strangely enough, a lot of our design. They have a very restricted palette—it’s greens and reds.

Brad and I always wanted the show to have a fairy-tale feel—“lowercase f,” as he says, so it’s not hitting you over the head. Everything is composed in a certain way. We were very specific in our early designs about the world and the colors. Characters have very specific palettes that I don’t think you’re conscious of when you’re watching it, but I’m conscious of it in terms of creating that fairy-tale world. That was a big inspiration. There’s no red in our show. Jane’s in a lot of blues, and we keep her world in that warm, rusty—it’s a little bit of a Cuban inspiration, even though our family’s not Cuban, there’s a lot of that inspiration in Florida.

Then, in Rafael’s world, I was looking at the Fontainebleau and the Viceroy and all those. Soho Beach House in particular inspired a lot of the inside design of the hotel. That’s where you get the more saturated blues. I feel like in so much of TV, there’s so much darkness. TV is so dark. This show is going to be a lighter, brighter show, and I wanted to feel that visually. I wanted a hotel that—probably because I was so overworked at the time—I wanted the hotel to be a place you wanted to go and feel the warmth and the sunlight and relax.

Then we had Rogelio’s, which, we used our most saturated colors in that world. We gave him his signature color, lavender, which Rogelio believes is the most manly of purples. His lavender is everything to me, his signature color. Once in a while, you’ll see a little lavender on other people, but that’s Rogelio’s color. We try to be specific. Petra wears deeper pastels and a lot of shorts. I want you to feel Florida, even if we don’t do a ton of exteriors. I like to keep it slightly contained so you feel the fairy tale. You know they’re in Miami, but they’re also in their own world. Those are all the things that went into the design.

AVC: And then there’s the musical element. You get a lot of emotion through the score, especially that gentle guitar riff that you hear when Jane has romantic feelings.

JU: We call it “Tender Guitar.” Brad Silberling is a genius with music. Just amazing. He had chosen a few key central themes when I came in. The director gets to do their first cut, then I come in. I got my pass, and when I came in, he had a few amazing themes that really set the tone for the show. One of them was the “Tender Guitar” cue. That’s composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. He had found these beautiful cues. Gustavo’s got Academy Awards and Brokeback Mountain and Babel and is an amazing musician. We so loved the music we used in the pilot that we asked him to compose a set of cues for us, and our other composer, Kevin Kiner, works on scoring them to that moment and adding more. We got a library of work from Gustavo, which lets every character have their theme. We have that “Tender Guitar” when Jane’s falling in love. It’s with Michael and it’s with Jane and Rafael because it’s about Jane, not the guys that she’s with. Xo has her own, and it’s all from this amazing library of music that we had Gustavo compose for us.

AVC: Telenovelas tend to have very expansive casts. The pilot of the Venezuelan Jane The Virgin had considerably more characters than the American version. Can we expect to see that kind of expansion on this show?

JU: You have to grow it slowly, but we’re constantly—it’s funny that you say [that], because on our side, on production, everything is like, “Oh my God, you have so many people!” We have a lot, and we are continuing to add. We added slowly—you saw Rogelio’s ex-wife and the twin daughters. He has another ex-wife who’s going to show up. He has a mother who’ll show up. Rafael’s mother is a question mark. It’s too big a question mark not to get into at some point. Jane goes through her arc at the Catholic school in our first 13 [episodes], then we take her to a new, fun place and introduce more characters. We want to introduce characters not just for the sake of characters, but for a character who’s going to come in in some interesting way and eventually come in with a big plot thrust, that they’re going to spin this off into a new direction and to a new place. I love the amount of characters you can do in a telenovela, that you can really create these worlds. But then it ends up feeling, strangely, more real, because a telenovela is so populated. There are so many people that you know and recognize.