The Girl Next Door
'Dawson's Creek' Turns 20: Kevin Williamson Reveals the Teen Drama's Deepest Secrets
Josh Jackson as Dawson, Katie Holmes' moving pre-audition request and a deeply personal coming-out story: The creator of the series that made stars of its cast and launched a genre opens up on the 20th anniversary of its premiere.
by Lesley Goldberg
Dawson. Joey. Pacey. Jen. Michelle Williams. Katie Holmes. Josh Jackson. James Van Der Beek.
Each of those actors and character names are synonymous with the former WB Network's Dawson's Creek, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its series premiere on Jan. 20. When the series launched in 1998, creator Kevin Williamson had already sold hot spec script Scream and was taking meetings around town before the now horror classic began production. In what would be his first TV meeting, Williamson — on the spot when asked if he had ideas for the small screen — threw out a random idea based on his childhood growing up near a creek as an aspiring filmmaker who worshiped Steven Spielberg. That would become The WB Network's teen drama that ran for six seasons and more than 120 episodes and launched the careers of stars Van Der Beek (Dawson, the aspiring filmmaker with eyes for the girl across the creek), Holmes (Joey, the deeply driven girl torn between two friends), Williams (Jen, the city girl who shook up the creek) and Jackson (Pacey, the lovable and smart slacker).
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Dawson's Creek series premiere, Williamson speaks exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about the origins of the show (Fox famously passed and he got a dog and named it Dawson), near-miss castings (Selma Blair as Joey, Jackson as Dawson), Jack's (Kerr Smith) coming out and the show's equally star-studded writer's room that launched the careers of showrunners including Greg Berlanti and Julie Plec.
Looking back, what do you recall about the original conversations for the show?
I had sold Scream and they hadn't made it yet. It was a spec script, and everyone was reading it. It got me a lot of meet-and-greets. I was still starting out and at a smaller agency at the time and they had said there was this TV producer named Paul Stupin who wanted to meet with me. I had only been meeting feature film producers. At this stage, I was an assistant who had just sold a big script and I didn't know how to navigate my way through Hollywood. He asked if I had ideas for TV and, in the moment, I started making up a show. I had no idea! I started talking about growing up in North Carolina on a creek with my video camera, filming movies in the backyard and wishing to be Steven Spielberg. I just kept talking: it was about me and my friends. Paul said, "I like that. When you work that out, come back and pitch that to me." I went home and stayed up all night long and wrote this 20-page outline.
What happened when you went back to pitch?
Paul asked me to come back the next day and pitch to the studio, Columbia TriStar. I was like, holy shit! I thought I'd gotten myself into a pickle and had better come up with something great. I came up with Dawson's Creek and pitched it. I remember their only note was to move it out of North Carolina and put it in Boston. I set it outside of Boston, in Capeside. Then I went to Fox and pitched it — and they bought it. I was excited and wrote the script and then Fox passed on it. It was when Party of Five was struggling and Fox wondered if they needed another teen drama. They were putting their support into that and they didn't know if Dawson's was going to be a headache. It went away and my life was over. I went and got a dog and named him Dawson. I thought that would be my only memory of this script. The script sat there for the longest time and out of the blue I got a call from TriStar, who told me about The WB Network. They said, "I don't know if you've watched Buffy, but they just started and were looking for scripts. We sent them Dawson's Creek and they really want to meet you." I went for a meeting with [then-chief programmer] Garth Ancier and [entertainment president] Susanne Daniels. We just clicked and that was it.
Did they have any early notes?
They all loved it and said all the things I wanted to hear. I wasn't sure if they were just trying to woo me. I was like, "Guys, no one else wants this script! If you want it, it's yours!" One of my agents at the time said the script wasn't a "real script" because people didn't talk the way the characters did in it: "It sounds like all these kids are psychology majors; it doesn't ring true." I admitted that it was a little stylized in the way they talk but I thought an ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words. It was all about the behavior, what they're trying to say. I never thought anything was going to come of it.
Twenty years after its premiere, when you think about the show, what do you think its legacy is?
There are so many ways to approach that answer. I was trying to get a career off the ground because I was so broke and remember having a professor tell me that writing has to be personal. I looked around and said, "What is the show I want to watch? What's not being made?" That's why I wrote Scream, because nobody was making a horror movie that I wanted to see. And when Paul approached me about TV, the shows that meant something to me were Beverly Hills, 90210, James at 15 and Little House on the Prairie. I remember how Charles (Michael Landon) and [his daughter] Half Pint (Laura, played by Melissa Gilbert) would have all their emotional moments at the end of an episode and it would always be some revelation of the human condition even in its most simple form. I remember watching and studying the pilot for My So-Called Life because it was so beautiful. I tried to write something that was personal to me. I did grow up on a creek and all those characters [in Dawson's Creek] I knew. A lot of them were pieces of me that I turned into real people. I wanted to make the teen drama of the 1990s; to create my version of 90210, James at 15 and Little House of the Prairie. I wanted it to speak to the teenage audience of the day.
If you could change one thing from the pilot today, what would you do differently?
It wouldn't be one thing because I'm a different storyteller now. I would rewrite the whole thing and probably destroy it. I don't think I would change anything.
So, no regrets about Pacey sleeping with his teacher, Mrs. Jacobs?
No! (Laughs.) The only flak we ever got was for that storyline. Jamie Kellner, who was the president of The WB at that time, didn't say we couldn't do it but he was the father figure who would come in and ask, "How long is this storyline going to last?" (Laughs.) We told him six episodes and he responded: "OK, that'd be a good thing." (Laughs.) There was a lot of criticism about that storyline and he was having to take all the flak for it. But no, I wouldn't change it because it served its purpose and it was based on a storyline from my own childhood. If I was writing the show today I probably would not have it in the story.
Dawson's launched the careers of James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams and Josh Jackson. What do you recall about those early casting sessions?
I remember when Michelle Williams walked in and auditioned for Jen. I had always envisioned her as the girl from the wrong side of the creek who at 15 comes to the creek with a checkered past and disrupts its flow. When she came in — she auditioned with when Jen goes in and sees her grandfather laying in the bed — she got really quiet and just sat there for a really long time as if this grandfather was sitting in front of her. She played it as if she were really broken. I saw Jen as this fallen angel, a broken bird, and Michelle tapped into that. She transformed herself into this broken child who just needed to be fixed. I knew I'd found Jen Lindley.
What about casting for Joey? Was it always Katie?
Joe was written to be a tomboy and everyone was coming in being very much a tomboy. We were very close to going with Selma Blair, who was amazing. She read it very tough, with a lot of heart. The casting director came in with this tape from Ohio and wanted to show it to me. It was Katie Holmes in the basement of her home, reading with her mom as Dawson. She was sitting in a chair with her hair all around her and all you saw were these two big eyes. I just went holy shit, who is this?! What are those eyes?! Is this how they grow them in Toledo?! Can we get her on a plane today? I remember that she couldn't come, and I got her on the phone and said, "You don't know me but can you please come to L.A. because I think you're Joey Potter and I really want to meet you." She told me she was in the middle of doing her high school play, Damn Yankees, and said she had a big part in it and they wouldn't be able to do it if she came to L.A. She said the show closed in two weeks. She wouldn't let her classmates down. I didn't know if she was even going to get the part, but we waited. When she walked in, she was all that and more.
Was it equally hard to cast Dawson?
There were 20 people in this room [during casting] and they all had their opinion of who Dawson was. There was a whole conversation about Josh Jackson being Dawson. When you go back and look at the script, Dawson was the underdog, the nerd, the video geek. In what high school do you see the video geek being the hot guy? I fell in love with Josh Jackson because he could read any role, Dawson or Pacey. But something wasn't complete and that's when the network said they didn't see Josh as Dawson, and rightfully so. So, I went, "OK, he's Pacey," because I knew I wanted him in the show no matter what. We had to go back and find a Dawson. We started exploring New York and James was going to college and had done some work there. A casting director sent a video of him and we put him on a plane to L.A. In the early days, James had this quality where he was very cerebral and internal. He had that nervousness that made it seem like he was pre-thinking and over-thinking and over-compensating constantly like he was insecure. And we said, "There's Dawson." This confident guy who is not confident at all. This kid who everyone thinks has all the answers has no answers whatsoever, he's totally confused about everything. And I said, there's Dawson.
At what point did you realize that the chemistry between Josh and Katie was so unavoidable that Joey and Pacey could have a future — more than Dawson and Joey?
During season one's "Science Project." Joey and Pacey were paired to do the science project and they had to go and collect samples. They got wet and had to take their clothes off in the truck and there was that very uncomfortable moment where you could just see how she peeked at him and he peeked at her. They were so nervous with each other. They had instant chemistry. [Laughs.] We all saw that and we were like, "OK, uh, [do we pair them up in] season three? Season two?!" The show was about the soul mate question of Dawson and Joey. We saw that chemistry between Katie and Josh and decided it would be the thing that breaks up Dawson and Joey and that it would come between Dawson and Pacey's friendship. We wanted to be very careful not to sacrifice our characters. If the audience had turned against Joey or Pacey, I would have died. We had to be careful about when we did it.
What surprised you about how big that love triangle became?
I never saw it coming; it blew my mind. It was awesome and it was horrible and it was terrifying. We played around with little moments of Joey and Pacey's chemistry in season two because we had this whole big Andie (Meredith Monroe) storyline with Pacey that was sort of an Officer and a Gentleman storyline where the show really became Pacey's Pond a bit. He started to care about himself and made an effort to be a better person for the love of a good woman and ultimately for himself. We wanted that storyline first. And then I stepped away after the second season and [exec producer/writer] Greg Berlanti and his team, I thought, chose a beautiful moment at which to launch Pacey and Joey [in season three]. It was right when the show needed it and that was the juice that launched us into the second wave of the show.
Did the network have any trepidation about breaking up the show's then-central couple of Dawson and Joey?
I remember Susanne and [former WB Network chief] Jordan Levin were supportive. They just said to not sacrifice the character and make sure viewers understand their decisions and their attraction. Everyone talked about their feelings a lot, almost excessively, and we knew that when this triangle erupted that there would be a lot of conversation and that we be able to be responsible to our characters and not lose viewers. I think it ultimately worked because at the root of this whole show they all loved each other.
What about when you introduced Jack (Kerr Smith) — was it always the plan to tell a coming-out storyline? Did the execs have any feedback to what would become broadcast TV's first same-sex kiss?
Even before we brought Jack onto the show, it was always designed to have him come out of the closet and be gay. I didn't share it with everyone because I was scared as a gay writer in Hollywood that that storyline would be rejected. I told Paul and we strategized on how to get the network on board and what happens if they said no to it. I pitched it to Susanne Daniels as this guy who comes between Joey and Dawson. We wanted to bring in all these tentacles to expand the show and complicate the relationships. Jack came onto the show with the sole purpose of coming between Dawson and Joey. I didn't want the audience to hate Jack for being the disrupter so it was a balancing act. I told Susanne that we wanted Jack to come out. She called me back the next day and said she thought it was going to be a special storyline. She had one request: not to ignore Joey's point of view and her reaction to it.
That was such a powerful scene.
That was Susanne. She said she'd known too many girls who had that experience and wanted that reflected. It was easy to say yes to because that was the one thing that brought Joey and Dawson back together, briefly, and we were already pitching Jack coming out to his sister, the Pacey part of it and Jack's dad's reaction to it.
And at the same time that you delivered this powerful coming-out storyline, you brought the Dawson and Joey back together, so it advanced their journey, too.
He was there for her. Their friendship re-emerged and you realized that their relationship was deeper than anyone thought. And more than they thought. Every little moment in this show was hopefully just to strengthen the friendships.
You said at the ATX TV Festival's writer's room reunion a couple years ago that you always envisioned Joey ending up with Dawson. How much did you struggle writing how things ultimately would end with them?
It was agonizing! And painful! I actually wrote the ending with them together and then something was troubling me about it. I wanted to honor the show and what you start with. But where you end is just never in the same place. If I told you how I envisioned The Vampire Diaries ending, that's not quite how it actually ended. But it kind of is how it ended in a weird way. The facts are just different; the storylines are a little different but the feeling is all there. So that's what we did. This story was always a coming-of-age story in which I tried to break the mold and do a different version of 90210 and to do things differently. So why can't we redefine or at least show another side of what soul mates are? That's what I wanted to do. Ask me today who my soul mate is and I'll tell you that I have a best friend and there's no romantic connection and that best friend is my soul mate.
And Dawson and Joey are soul mates, while Joey and Pacey are the romantic version of that connection.
Soul mates are not always your romantic love. The way that I see it, Dawson and Joey ended up together. They're soul mates forever. And they have that deep bond of friendship that will never, ever go away. But her romantic love for Pacey was who she wanted to be with and share her life with. And in a weird way they're all soul mates. Dawson and Pacey were always going to be best friends.
And that reunion between Dawson and Pacey in the series finale was sparked by Jen's death.
Dealing with the death of one of their own was the final thing that thrust them into adulthood forever. Dawson's Creek was a coming-of-age story and that was the idea behind that ending. That's why we killed Jen, because I wanted them to deal with a death of one their own as that final lesson. That's what forced Joey to make a decision.
I watched this show when it originally aired and have always been in the minority who wanted to see Dawson end up with Joey romantically.
Me too. It's hard for me to express that but I am Team Dawson. Even though I wrote it the other way, 100 percent, if you asked me, I'm Team Dawson.
As in Joey should have wound up with Dawson romantically?
It ended the way it was supposed to end — but I am Team Dawson. It's always Dawson and Joey forever. And in the same way — and I hate to say this and no one gets it — but in my heart of hearts it's Stefan and Elena forever [on The Vampire Diaries]. What Stefan did for Elena was the ultimate act of love. How can it not be Stefan and Elena?! It's tragic love, but it's love. Life and afterlife is not easy! [Laughs.]
Let's go back to Jack's coming out. What do you recall about crafting that story?
Greg Berlanti wrote part one and I wrote part two, if memory serves, and we shared the two-parter credit. The storyline about writing that poem and Pacey spitting in the teacher's face was based on something that happened in Greg's high school years.
One of the things that happened with this show was when we sat down in the writer's room in season one, it turned into a therapy session of what happened in our high school days. We were a bunch of nerds and theater majors who were bullied and made fun of our whole lives so we tried to take all of those feelings and emotions and storylines and put them in a show. I could go through every episode and I can tell you Dawson read Joey's journal? That happened to me. I can tell you where every moment came from and if it was rooted in a real story that a writer came into the room with. Greg had that storyline about writing a poem and being outed through the adjectives that he used in it. That was what launched that storyline because we wanted to make sure Pacey had a part in that storyline. And the father's reaction came from other people's personal experiences. When we actually aired it, it was really important to me because it was the first time I got to write that side of myself and express all my feelings and emotions about growing up in a small town and being scared to be honest about myself and tell people about myself.
How did your family respond to it?
My family got really uncomfortable because I had just come out to them a year before. But it was no secret. Everyone in my life knew I was gay; I had just never said it out loud and I thought I had to. My mom was a little uncomfortable with the show because she would watch every episode and see herself in it because some of the storylines maybe weren't as disguised as they could have been. I always tried to be respectful, but worried about what my parents would think. When we wrote those [coming out] storylines I would say I was worried about what my mom and dad were going to think.
The show also has an incredible behind-the-scenes legacy, having launched the careers of some incredible TV writers — Berlanti, Julie Plec, Rob Thomas, Anna Fricke and Jenny Bicks among them. What was it about Dawson's that so many writers popped from that room?
There was no other show out there like it at the time. The actors worked and it was charming and endearing and a lot of young writers saw that and were all growing up at the same time and wanted to do the show. Julie was working with me after Scream [for his production company] and was very involved in season two. She's the one who introduced me to Greg. I've made so many great relationships from that show: Katie, Josh, James and Michelle. But all those writers! I see Rob Thomas at the office, he's downstairs in the old The Following office with iZombie. And look at Greg. And Julie, who is just awesome. That's my family.
You were deeply involved for the first two seasons and famously returned for the series finale. Was there ever a storyline that you wanted to do but never did?
I had Scream in first position over the show and always wanted to participate more than I did. I hated stepping away. I hated that I was struggling at the time with an abundance of riches and I didn't get to participate in some of the great storylines that wanted to be a part of. I wish I could have written some of the college years. I watched those on the air. I was sad to leave. That's why it was so great to come back.
What's your greatest point of pride from Dawson's Creek?
I believe my greatest point of pride was me, Greg and Julie sitting in a room and breaking the coming-out episodes. That was a very meaningful storyline, personally. Then I would say those first 13 episodes. And that season finale. Trying to earn that kiss between Dawson and Joey at the window. We wanted the audience to go, "Oh my God! I can't wait. It's over?! I want to see the next episode!" And then they had to wait an entire season. That's what you want. And if you can accomplish that then your show is working.
Is there a storyline you regret?
I didn't like the ones I wasn't a part of! [Laughs.] I don't want to dismiss anyone's work but if we're being blatantly honest I wasn't a big fan of Eve (Brittany Daniel) in season three. And I wasn't thrilled with the way Andie left the show because I really loved that character when she first came on. And by the time she left, everyone hated her. I didn't think the audience needed to turn against her the way they did. That's why I wanted to bring her back for the series finale and we did — we just ran long and had to cut it.
Burning question time: Where did the character names of Dawson, Pacey and Joey come from?
Dawson came from a real place called Dawson's Creek where we all hung out as kids and partied. It's a very fond place from my childhood and a nice memory. Pacey came from a friend of a friend named Pacey and I'd never met anyone with that name and thought it was a cool name. Joey was a tomboy so I wanted Josephine as a very girly name that could easily turn into a tomboy name like Joey. The character of Joey was based on a combo platter of me and a few other people that inspired me — namely my high school girlfriend — I came out much later — who would sail her little Sunfish sailboat to my house. Our homes were closer by water than road. It took five minutes by boat and an hour by foot. She would crawl through my bedroom window because it was a faster entry. We would watch TV all night and she'd sleep over ... and, well, you know the rest. I named them two guy names as a personal shout-out to my sexuality.
So it would sound like Dawson (or Pacey) was dating "Joey," as in another guy?
That was me just sitting home and writing at my kitchen counter thinking that I was never going to be able to write a story about me as a gay man. And sure enough, in season two we did it [with Jack]. But I didn't know we'd be able to do anything like that at the time. At the time, I was writing a love story between Dawson and Joey, a boy and a girl, but I did give them two boys' names just so I could have a private little wink and no one would ever know. I grew up in a small town in the closet and that was my closeted way of naming characters. [Laughs.]
What's your first thought when you hear Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait"?
My first thought is that I hope she doesn't ask me for the lyrics because I never knew them, ever. I know the title credit refrain of that song and that's it. Do you know what the original theme song was?
Was it Jann Arden ["Run Like Mad"]?
Nope, that was the international version.
Then it was Alanis Morrisette's "Hand in My Pocket" …
Yes! That was what the [pilot] presentation [opening credits song] was and we couldn't get the rights to it.
Do you think a show like this could exist today?
No. It's a different time and different place. The moment dictates what shows work or you make the show and that becomes the moment. It's either/or. If you look at what's working today, it's not Dawson's Creek. You have to either design the show for the moment or create something that is not out there and it will become the moment. You can't do Dawson's Creek today; you'd have to revamp it, reboot it or come up with something else and why would you do that? Just write a show about four teenagers and speak to the moment. Why does it have to be called Dawson's Creek?
Have you and the cast ever thought about or discussed doing a reunion special?
[Laughs] No, but a lot of people have asked us.
What would it take for you guys to do that?
What would we do?! One of the reasons we did the finale five years in the future was to put a button on it. What would a reunion be? What would that look like? Why would you? I don't see it and I don't feel it. The finale was such a beautiful moment in time and the show was always meant to be a nostalgia piece. Let it stay there and live in its nostalgia and its nostalgic universe.
How would you feel if somebody else were to tackle Dawson's Creek?
I'd love it. All for it. Absolutely. It's so rewarding to see it live on in some form or another.
Would you ever want to do that?
There is the next generation: Dawson's sister, Joey's nephew, Jen's daughter being raised by Jack and Doug (Dylan Neal)…
You could do the 2.0 version, I guess. But I don't want to do it. But I'm all for it if somebody wants to do it. I'd love to watch it. If I can help in any way, let me know, but I don't know if it's something that with where I am right now in my life that I would want to wake up and throw my heart and soul into.
Where do you think Dawson, Pacey and Joey are today?
I think they're still best friends. I don't think they see enough of each other and they really wish they could. I think that they probably text each other a lot (laughs). I think Pacey and Joey are very much still together and have kids. I think they have had some ups and downs that have only enriched their relationship and made them stronger. And they're rich in character and deeply rooting for Dawson in Hollywood, who has taken a roller coaster of a ride both professionally and personally. He struggled to find love, he struggled to find success, he's been knocked down, he's gotten up. And I think that they're rooting for him and ultimately he's in a very good place.
What about Jack, Doug and Jen's daughter, Amy?
I don't know if they're still in Capeside but I feel like Doug is someone that we don't recognize because he has grown so much. And they are probably still together with their beautiful daughter. And if they're not together, they're best friends. And they've raised an amazing daughter. I think Jack is a star in life. He's the favorite teacher in school 10 years in a row or the star employee in whatever job he's working at. He's just a star in live and people love him.
You're working on Tell Me a Story for CBS All Access, which is your first show outside of your longtime home at Warner Bros. Television. What is the appeal for you?
I wanted to move away from a network sensibility. I don't know if I've always been compatible with it. I've struggled in recent years with the story I want to tell and the ones I end up telling. I wanted a break from network television and thought a short season streaming where I could maybe do a few things a little bit differently with the story and structure and sensibility. I've also been working on a couple of other shows and a couple movie projects. That's something I haven't been able to do with an overall TV deal so I'm getting to go back and do some movies now.
Dawson's Creek episodes are currently streaming on Hulu.