Jennie Snyder Urman is a television screenwriter best known for creating the CW series “Jane the Virgin,” a show that is somewhat of a classic telenovela and somewhat of a vehicle to explore societal plights through the lens of three Latina women. The show garnered critical acclaim earlier this year when its lead star, Gina Rodriguez, won the 2015 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Comedy. Snyder has written and produced nearly a dozen works in her career, including “Gilmore Girls,” “Something Borrowed” and “90210.” She is a sprightly and shrewd woman, immersed as much in the realities she creates as she is grounded in real-world happenings. She spoke recently with the Weekender about “Jane,” romance and the screenwriting process.
The Daily Californian: I remember you saying how much you love “Gone With the Wind” — which depicts, in many ways, a very fantastical romance. Do you find yourself leaning on other cinematic and literary works when drafting character relations and when formulating romantic relationships?
Jennie Snyder Urman: In (“Jane the Virgin”), Jane is a romance writer. So we lean a lot on romance tropes like “meant to be” and “instant connection” and “how you do know the person is the right person.” I feel like romance writing as a genre is so popular but not as respected. But we have a character who just loves it, and that allows us to do romantic, over-the-top things in our show that celebrate romance.
DC: It must be hard to keep things realistic, at the same time.
JSU: It’s hard to keep things realistic, but we have an element of magical realism in the show that lets you become over the top in the trappings of romance. Then we keep all the characters really grounded in real feelings so that it can be both heightened and grounded at the same time.
DC: All onscreen characters are a product of their interactions. Is there ever a sense that you’re completely lost when you’re writing? Like the characters have outsmarted you in some way?
JSU: No, because the process of writing is so disciplined that it’s not a free-writing kind of feeling. (There is) such little time to write that by the time I’m writing, I know exactly what’s going to happen in the scene. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to write, but I know what plot points I need to hit and what emotional notes I need to write.
DC: My understanding is that screenwriting is a very collaborative endeavor.
JSU: Much more so television writing than film writing.
DC: What’s it like to construct a specifically romantic relationship in a group? Because I assume that when you write, you bring a lot of your own understandings of what that is.
JSU: I think what happens is that we all as a group come up with the (romantic) arc. In the writers room, a lot of time people will talk about their personal experiences — everything like that goes into the story. Then I will decide what the story is from the collaboration. So I will hear a ton of stuff and then find the strand that speaks to me most and that feels most real for the characters. You have certain people who are more romantic in the writers room — if we propose a big romantic gesture, there are two or three people who will come out right away with great pitches because they are more romantic. Other people are comedy writers. The alchemy of the writers room is very specific, and you want all different kinds of elements so that when you’re writing, you can draw on everybody’s tools.
DC: As a woman in screenwriting, do you ever feel as though there is pressure for you to play a certain role in that collaborative process? Do collaborators ever lean on you to provide a certain viewpoint?
JSU: Yes and no. I try to have a pretty warm community. That said, you have to also be really decisive because there’s no time to think too much in television: You have to make decisions and keep moving. The other difference is that I hire a ton of women because I like being around women. I like seeing strong women onscreen. Over half of my directors are women. I had an actress the other day who said that in her 10-year career she hasn’t been directed by as many women as she has during one season of “Jane the Virgin.” (Women) are the people that I’m listening to and that I feel that understand the point of view of the show and are not going to objectify Jane, but rather are going to get into her emotional life.
DC: I think a lot of people view the medium of popular entertainment as simple pleasure. But you actually have a lot of power to disseminate certain viewpoints. Do you ever consciously use your work as a platform to express any agenda or the transcend certain stereotypes?
JSU: I think you’re always, always conscious of that in writing. The way to combat stereotypes is to be specific and to make people specific. Once they have specific quirks and specific fears, they do not become stereotypical because they become people. And beyond that, I’m very conscious that this story (in “Jane the Virgin”) is one that is primarily being told about three Latino women and their relationship and their family. That experience is really important and we have touched on immigration and immigration reform many times. It is important to me, but it is also important to the community that I feel we are representing. I think that every TV show has a point of view. We are a little bit more overt about it, but every TV show you watch has a point of view. I like to exploit the specificity of our characters and our point of view. I hope that people attach to the character and then when (political) issues arise they become less politicized and more personal. I think that then enables people to think about those issues in a different way and to attach real people to them.
DC: Sure, and the relationships that you’ve crafted have run the gamut from very authentic, like in “Gilmore Girls,” to crazed in its own sexuality, like in “Lipstick Jungle.”
JSU: I like mother-daughter relationships. I feel like there’s a lot to unpack there.
DC: Are there elements that you have seen have worked consistently in crafting a believable relationship?
JSU: That’s tricky. I think every situation and every script is different. Scripts and drama and comedic drama is just about conflict. As a writer, I think you’re always writing things that speak to you. I refer to a bunch of themes that I can relate to, which include mother-daughter issues because those are my experiences and I feel like it is an area that is universally understandable. But beyond that, it becomes so specific to the character and to the backstory that you have created and the complications within that backstory.
DC: Are there devices that help you transcend the barrier between onscreen characters and the audience without knowing exactly who your audience is? How do you overcome that barrier?
JSU: I think you have to be your audience, and you have to really trust your gut. You have to assume your audience is smart and can get things. In (“Jane the Virgin”), we have a narrator that connects the audience to the show and sometimes voices their confusion or clears things up for them. And that relationship between the audience and the story is important in this show. I think that as a whole, it is a lot of gut. It is a lot of asking “How am I responding to this?” That is what the editing process is … and I sort of calibrate it to my own emotions, because that is all I have so that we have a consistent voice and a consistent vision. And then the audience will come to understand the point of view that the show is being told through.
Zoe Kleinfeld is an associate editor for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]