It has been weeks since we've had a fresh episode of "Jane the Virgin," which aired its last installment in mid-February, but the wait is over: "Jane the Virgin" is back on Monday night.
At times, the gloriously versatile show -- which stars Gina Rodriguez as the accidentally pregnant Jane Villanueva -- is quite serious, but it's also known for its flights of fancy. All things considered, Monday's funny but emotionally grounded chapter is a nice balance of the show's many different modes.
"[If there is] a classic version of our show, Episode 15 is that. I really love it. It’s very romantic," Jennie Snyder Urman, the show's executive producer, said in a recent interview in her Los Angeles office. "It has, I think, some of Gina’s funniest comedy, both physical and just sort of small [moments]."
Without giving away too much, Urman said she and Rodriguez got to talking about one of the actress' past jobs, and Urman said she just had to find a way to incorporate that skill set into the show.
In the episode, Jane's favorite romance writer is in town, which leads to a few enjoyably surreal moments. In one of them, viewers get a glimpse of Juana and Rafe, a lusty, fantasy version of Jane and her boyfriend/father of her child Rafael (Justin Baldoni).
Jane is "working on her book and when she’s writing these romance novels, she turns into this romance-writing alter ego," Urman said. Not only will viewers get to see Rafe and Juana's shaggy, epic-romance hair, there's also a glimpse of Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil) on the set at his new job, where he plays an outer-space detective (and here are a couple of pictures of these stellar moments).
Though Rafe and Juana may enjoy a passionate romance, for Jane and Rafael, things are a little bit rockier. Urman is certainly not the type of showrunner to toss around major spoilers, but she did offer some hints about where the rest of the show's first season will go.
"People aren’t only one thing," Urman noted, "but for a while, it's been easy to see Rafael as this fantasy. That’s what Jane is seeing in him and the audience [sees that too]. He’s got to get more real, and their relationship's not going to always be on this fantasy level." Also, by the end of the season, we'll see Jane encounter the "cult of new mommyhood, which is quite overwhelming with what you should be doing."
The good news is that the show's narrator is in top form when the show returns: Though the "Jane the Virgin" cast is wonderful, I may have missed the Latin Lover Narrator most of all. Urman talks about the key role of the narrator, the show's ambitious shooting structure and its unusual directing roster in the Q&A below (and by the way, I'll have much more from the rest of the cast in coming weeks). This interview edited and condensed: an expanded version of my conversation with Urman is available in podcast form.
It feels to me like "Jane" is doing things different, in that the way that you’re presenting information to the audience is actually fairly complex. You’ve got the narrator, the on-screen information, the way that you frame and edit things, and then what’s happening in the stories themselves. Am I making too grandiose a claim by saying that this is kind of a new thing on television?
You know, I hope it is. I was really inspired by the books of Martin Amis and where they do things like that. Where you take the form of TV and [it's about watching TV] and at the same time you’re following the story internally. I wanted it to be an homage to the telenovela, so it always had that meta-telenovela build into its bones.
To me, part of the narration and the text on screen is the storyteller vibe that I wanted you to get. So much of life now is -- we’re constantly on our screens, we’re constantly checking. It’s such an intertextual kind of place, so I was trying to do some of that for TV.
And my dad told me after my last project ["Emily Owns MD"], "No, it was really good, but I was thinking you should do something a little more original next time." He goes, "How about '24'? That was so new." I was like, "Oh, thanks."
It’s parental encouragement like that that keeps so many writers going.
[Laughing] I was like, "It's really hard to get a show on the air."
Not to side with your dad, but I do think "24" was doing something really interesting. Alan Sepinwall did a whole chapter on that in his book. They were had multiple cameras shooting a scene at once, and then because of the editing technology that was around then, they could have split screens. You could have characters different places and how they dealt with each other was actually different from the norm at that time when you experienced the story.
Totally. And my dad, [he watches] the Top 10 shows on the air. He’s right in the pocket. For him, "24" was high adrenaline and exciting. So when he watched “Emily Owens,” I think he felt like, "This is nice, but I’ve seen a medical show done really well and that’s 'Grey’s Anatomy.'"
It did really sit with me -- when that show was cancelled, I just thought, I want to do something different. You don’t know where it’ll end up, but that’s what sort of inspired me about “Jane” -- that it would be a different kind of world.
There’s this of wave of shows that play with the fact that you know that you’re watching a TV show. There are these meta layers. But sometimes those are used for kind of distancing reasons, or with an ironic stance, whereas your show is very much immersing the viewer in emotional states and in the stories that are swirling around. Does that make it even harder?
Yeah. I didn’t want distance. Our show has so many crazy things to it -- you have to connect to the characters, emotionally connect to them. Otherwise I feel like it would just be a sketch. So for me, the narrator is guiding us through the story, but he’s also the audience in a lot of ways, and will mimic their reactions. To me, it’s just sort of embracing the form that we’re all watching it together, but I want the narrator to have that sense of [acknowledging], "I know this is crazy. I’m going to remark on it too, so that the audience doesn’t feel like disrespected or that we’re just supposed to buy this."
I see him as our eyes in, as well as our storyteller guide. And the hope is that these things don’t take you away from Jane but will be different ways to kind of get you inside the character.
It’s so funny that you say that, because that’s one of my questions. The narrator is our entry point. He’s kind of sitting on the couch with us.
Isn’t that another form of experiencing the story? It's like the narrator is our co-conspirator. And that makes for more of a sense of warmth and connection, I think.
That’s what I want the show to do at the bottom -- you feel like it’s this very warm place. You feel like there are all these flights of fantasy, but the real wish fulfillment is with the Villanueva’s house and it's Jane and her mom and her grandmother, and with the narrator to some extent. The audience should identify with them and often feels the same way he feels. "That’s crazy. How is that happening? What did I miss?"
But you also get the sense that he’s pulling for them. Sometimes he gives voice to whatever emotional states or reactions you might be having.
And I think that helps us to navigate. We go from somebody impaled on an ice sculpture to a sweet scene on a porch, and it’s hard to go through all these things. I feel that his through line helps us, and helps the audience not get whiplash.
Another reason the show is so fun is because the typical "eat your vegetables" parts of the story -- exposition, explanation, plot mechanics -- "Jane the Virgin" makes that fun. You’ve got the "Previously" at the start, you’ve got the narrator and the flashbacks and the bits of text on screen. You’ve somehow found a way to take that boring exposition stuff and, like, turn it into candy.
That's what it's supposed to be, so it's like, "You’ll remember this thing you have to remember right now but we’ll do it in a fun way."
When I was on set, Jaime brought up something: that the scripts can be in the range of 56 pages. [Most TV scripts for hourlong shows are shorter than that, usually by several pages.]
Yes. Ours are often closer to 59. They can be 56 to 59. The craziest part of our show is how many scenes we do per episode. Normally you’re probably around 30 [scenes] for a 60-minute show. I would say 30 to 35 [scenes is the norm for an hourlong show]. And we are anywhere from 45 to 80 [scenes].
I’ve done 80. Everyone panics because it’s not really how much of the page count you do on set a day. It’s how many different setups you have. We have a lot and it’s a really fast-moving show. And I always tell the directors, "Don’t get attached to any camera moves if people aren’t speaking, because if people aren’t speaking I’m going to be cutting in right then." Anything that you want to see on screen has to be tied into the things that they’re saying, or else it won’t make it on the screen just because we move so quickly.
Jaime was saying sometimes things that are in the script get cut, but when I was talking with the some of the writers, they were saying, "We don’t really cut scenes per se. Parts of scenes might be trimmed."
Yeah. Maybe I’ve taken out one or two scenes, but that’s pretty unusual. Usually [a show will] drop a few scenes, and I usually don’t. But I’m really tight in the edit, and I go from point to point to point. If it’s a joke and I feel like it’s slowing down the movement, I cut it. [The line] has to do something else besides just be funny -– it has to move us forward. The pace is something I really just feel internally in my gut. Like, "We’ve got to move."
I’ve always said this -- I want the audience chasing after the plot. I felt like with a lot of TV, all of the emotional stuff is so labored and all of the comedy is really highlighted. I wanted a canvas where you might get everything and you might not get everything.
Sometimes a show slows down the pace and that's it's way of telling you what to feel. Like, "Now is the emotional time."
And then it counts more.
Right. But if the show hasn’t done the work of making me care, then slowing things down doesn’t necessarily work. It's like, "Now it’s slow and I’m bored."
Right. When we pause, it’s very deliberate. You know, things get cut. They just have to, because we pack in so much plot an episode. But hopefully each show has its own kind of balance and I try to keep all the things that I love the most.
I want to return to the number of scenes. How do you get that done without having the crew quit en masse?
I know! We have a great crew and they’re just so quick. Right from the beginning, that was what we talked about what the show would be, and I talked to the [director of photography] about that it was going to be a show with a lot of [scenes] and we were going to be moving and we were going do fairly straightforward coverage. Then [we would] take our [bigger] moments to do something more special. Sometimes for us, it’s about the character, so you’re in close with them and they’re talking and it’s the emotional connection of the plot movement.
You know, it’s a very still show. There’s not a ton of walking around and blocking. There is some, but that’s partly because I like to edit and I like to cut and if we get too tied into someone pouring an orange juice then I have trouble matching [the shots]. So we just keep everything kind of contained and we really go point to point.
But it’s a lot. It’s definitely a lot. But the crew does it. We rarely go over. We don’t do steadicam. We do everything on the dolly, because I like it to be a smooth fairytale, and I don’t want you to feel the camera that much. I want you to just feel immersed in this world like that has a little magic of its own. But we move fast.
You’ve got seven regular cast members and many other characters in orbit. And you’ve got to keep story arcs for all them going, and have those be emotionally grounded and throw in twists and turns. Is that an incredibly difficult challenge?
Yeah, it’s hard. We start from two places. What’s our comic set piece going to be? Because we want it to have that lightness of tone. And also, what’s Jane’s emotional story? That's the beginning of it, and the trick of this is that, if you’re on a procedural, you kind of know what every episode feels like. In this show, I feel like [the nature of the episode is] really defined by the quality of Jane’s emotional arc. That's what the tone of the episode is going to be. So they can be much wilder and funnier [when she's on an even keel but] when she’s afraid something’s wrong with the baby, it’s going to be a more serious tone.
So I don’t really have a template, and that makes it tricky in editing, because each episode has its own tone that’s dictated by where she’s at and how big our soap twists are. And I try to take a pass at each episode from each character’s point of view. I can go really crazy, as long as I know, "Okay, she’s doing this because she loves him and, you know, Petra’s the hero in her story. And this is what she’s trying to do to get what she wants." I try to just get at it from each character’s point of view.
The easiest thing for you to do to make it easier for yourself and your writers would be to make Petra just a villain? To give them a dimensionality or to give them multiple facets -- it’s making life harder.
It’s making life harder, yeah. I also get bored with certain dynamics quickly. I’ll always say to the writers, "Okay, we’ve done that four times, you know. I want the flashbacks to work in a different way in this episode," or "I want the opening to not be this." So my boredom is a big part of that too.
For you is the story of the show Jane figuring out how to do all of the things she wants to do -- writer, teacher, mother -- how to be all the parts of her that she wants to be?
I think underneath, fundamentally, there are two choices. There is, is she going to be a teacher, which for her is a safer option because that’s what she’s pursued and she knows it comes with a summer break and all the practical things? Versus is she going to be a writer -- is she going to take a chance and do that? Obviously I relate to that. I waitressed all the way through as I was trying to get writing jobs, so I connect to that.
I think the larger [idea] underneath it all is, this is a 23, now 24-year-old woman who was not planning to have kids anytime soon, and how do you keep a sense of identity when you become a mom? That’s hugely important in my life and a big question and something that I struggle with. People are saying, "Well, what happens when she has a baby?" I think there are infinitely so many more interesting stories once she has a baby, because I don’t think you become less interesting when you become a mom. I think things become harder, and you have to figure that out, but you’re still romantic. You still have dreams. You’re still trying to get [somewhere]. I struggle with that all the time.
If anything, what you want to accomplish as your own person becomes more important.
More important and more central. And then you have this conflict of, "Can I do that? Am I selfish?" So those are the real emotional things that are going to continue to drive Jane and I hope ground her as a person, things that we can relate to while these more soapy telenovela twists are going around.
Jane is the kind of person who would make her child such a priority, and she wants to fulfill her dreams. But she’s very practical, as you said.
Exactly. She wants the child to be grown up and loved. She felt surrounded by love, and I think that’s such a part of who she is and why she’s confident. And she wants all that but she’s going to be really conflicted because she was not planning this. Even I’m conflicted and I planned for kids. It’s going to be just a real struggle for her that I’m excited [to see] how she can do everything and be everything but not lose herself. [It's figuring out] who Jane’s identity is as a writer and as a creative person and also as somebody who loves lists and plans and schedules. That feels like just a good rich emotional underpinning. And then you can do all the fun crazy stuff -- the stalkers and twins and this and that. But you know what she wants.
For your first 12 episodes, there were 11 directors and eight of them were women. Three were women of color. I would assume that that was a conscious decision on your part?
You know, it is and it isn’t. I didn’t know that we [had] more women. I hire people I connect to and relate to. So I’m a woman and I connect a lot with women, and also I feel like this is a show that has a female gaze. It has a female protagonist that you don’t want to be objectified.
It’s just a sort of connection -- you meet with all these people, and you hire the people that you connect with the most and that you feel are speaking the same language of the show. And in my interviews there just probably were more women, but that’s kind of my experience and that’s probably why there’s not a lot of women [directing television]. If there are too many men in power, you’re going to hire people that remind you of your college roommate or your frat buddy or whatever. Whereas, if I’m sitting with you, I’m like, "Oh, she’s a mom. She understands that balance. We can talk." Do you know what I mean? There’s just a sense of connection and especially a connection to the subject matter.
Not that [only women can have that]. I mean, our pilot director, Brad Silberling, who’s done three of our episodes –- no one could understand Jane like he does. He understands it so intuitively. But a lot of the people I sat down with and that were really speaking passionately about the show and the subject and understood the tone were women, so I hired them.
The longer, podcast version of this conversation is on the Talking TV site, on iTunes and below.