Monarch Producer Jason Owen on the Shows Music and Melodrama, Susan Sarandons Future and Why He Sought Wynonna Judds Approval
When Fox’s “Monarch” premiered to strong ratings following an NFL game on Sept. 11, there was a big sort-of-maybe cliffhanger: Can the Susan Sarandon character, touted as a series lead, really be as dead as she appeared to be at the end of the pilot? But there were other questions, too. Like: Will this be a series in which the characters are portrayed as having originated a lot of the big hits of country and pop, from “Family Tradition” to “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” to “Born This Way”? Will the middle American audience be completely down with a story that has an out lesbian character vying to become a country superstar? Do parallels with Naomi Judd’s story feel as eerie as we think they do? And did the pilot make all those millions of viewers want to come back when there’s no NFL lead-in?
Here with the answers to — or at least hints about — all of those questions is Nashville-based executive producer Jason Owen. He’s best known as one of country music’s uber-managers, guiding the careers of present or past clients including Kacey Musgraves, Shania Twain, Kelsea Ballerini, Dan + Shay, Faith Hill and Little Big Town, with occasional forays into TV. He’s made a more wholesale leap into the medium with the country-themed drama that became Fox’s most-watched fall scripted premiere in three years when it first bowed. Can the show keep it up? If not, it won’t be for a lack of melodrama, as Owen — a fan of and even former employee of the Aaron Spelling school of soapiness — strongly indicates the series has jaw-dropping developments in store, along with a soundtrack of country classics and more Music City star cameos.
Have you gotten feedback from your music-biz friends about the premiere?
The response has been great. A lot of it’s been funny because people are trying to figure out, “Is that about Shania? Is that about Kacey? Is that about when you worked at the record label?” It’s been fun to let people sort it out, or at least create that in their head.
But as far as this taking place in the country music milieu you know so well… it doesn’t feel like the show is going for exact and total verisimilitude.
No, I agree with that. [He laughs heartily.] I agree with that, dead-on.
So how much did you feel like you wanted the show to get down in the weeds reflecting real-life music industry situations, versus just going, “This is melodrama. This is fun. We don’t have to pretend that everything here has a real-life corollary”?
That (the latter) is honestly the way I felt. Look, I grew up with the Spelling-esque dramas, and I worked there when I was much younger. I love that kind of television, that soapy, over-the-top escape from reality. And I think the things that I feel responsible for inside “Monarch” are some of the things that are sort of really over the top. Melissa London Hilfers, who created the show and is the writer, who’s brilliant, agreed; we wanted the mix of soap and the fun. I always felt like “Desperate Housewives” did a great job of that.
There were things that we try to keep a lot of authenticity to. In an upcoming episode, there’s a lot of conversations about touring, and about how things are recorded, and stories about people buying out other people’s masters, things that happen all the time in our industry that probably people in Hollywood don’t really understand, that we sort of brought to brought to the top. So I think that while there is a lot of reality, it’s an over-the-top reality.
When did you work for Aaron Spelling?
In 1998, right out of college, I worked for Spelling, specifically on “90210” in talent relations. I knew him pretty well, and he was amazing, just a gem of a human. But his brain was sort of all centered around this extravagance, and it was just awesome to watch, and we don’t have (those anymore). I mean, we obviously have primetime soaps, but the “Dynastys” and the “Dallases.” That’s what makes this a little different — or a lot different — this than “Nashville.” Because it feels more in that (Spelling-esque) world than “Nashville.” Wouldn’t you agree? It certainly will as the episodes continue.
Is it fair to think that, somewhere along the way, Fox looked at the initial success of “Nashville” and saw there was an appetite for a country music-themed drama, done right, even if interest in that series waned over time? And how did you get involved?
It started with Fox having a conversation with Gail Berman, who ran Fox in the day of “Glee,” “American Idol,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and all those huge shows. The conversation with her started with, “We’re thinking about getting into this space. Why don’t you look at developing a country music scripted show?” She really knew nothing about country music, other than a long time ago, I think she worked with Sandy Gallin when he was managing Dolly. But she has been a fan. She reached out to Bryan Lourde at CAA and said, “Who would be my partner on this?” And Bryan said, “Hands down, it’s Jason Owen.” We had a really great, boozy dinner and fell in love with each other, and the rest is history.
But to your point about “Nashville,” they were certainly looking… I think they realize very well who their audience is, which is primarily middle America, outside of the coasts. And they realize that music programming — whether it’s “Empire” or “Glee” or “Idol” — those tentpoles have really worked tremendously well for Fox in the past, and they were looking for that again.
Years ago you started getting into TV and talked about feeling like a big part of the country was underserved.
I feel like there was a really missed opportunity specifically in the South. One person who I admire a lot from a producing standpoint is Tyler Perry, because he realized there was certainly an audience that wasn’t being talked to, and look at the empire he created. So as a huge fan of television and film, and someone that worked in it a long, long time ago, I really felt like there was a missing opportunity, especially the IP and the content creation and the stories that really come out of the South.
Another thing that’s very different from “Nashville” is that you’re using a lot of existing star catalog material, versus trying to create a body of original songs. You do have an original theme song, but for the most part, this is in a universe where Trace Adkins’ character had a hit with “Family Tradition,” instead of Hank Williams Jr. And you establish in the pilot that we’re in a slightly alternate universe when Shania Twain makes a cameo, and complains that Susan Sarandon’s character stole what should have been her sure-fire hit, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”
That’s exactly right. One of the things that Melissa and Gail and I were always trying to accomplish was that we wanted the Roman family to be believable in a way that they they interact with the people that are known stars in country music. So, we wanted the feeling that Dottie, played by Susan, would have had a rivalry with Shania. And you’ll see a lot more of that as the season progresses — a lot more cameos and a lot more of that interaction between the two. That was really important to me, because to be honest, that added the fun. I didn’t want to see Shania playing another character when everyone knows who Shania is.
And then to answer your question on the covers versus originals, yeah, we have probably 90% catalog, and big songs. I was actually a big fan of “Nashville,” the TV show, but sometimes I felt like the original music got lost. And I just felt like, sometimes, some of the songs that were being used — not all of them, but some — were (existing) songs that didn’t make records for a reason. Although those soundtracks did pretty well, I never did connect with them the same way I did with “Glee.” And that’s one thing that I really loved about “Glee” and how genius that was. It’s a different kind of show, but a similar use of music. And so that’s why I really fought for us to use cover songs, basically, for the music.
Putting my old record label hat on and putting on sort of where I live in this universe now, I know how important catalog is for the business. And there’s so much amazing music that we all sometimes go, “Oh, I forgot about that song — holy shit, I love that song.” Those were the kind of songs that we really wanted to pick, with the big hits that everyone knows, scattered from the ‘70s to the present day. So that was the idea. And then there were a couple versions throughout this season of pop songs, like (Lady Gaga’s) “Born This Way” and (Harry Styles’) “Watermelon Sugar,” that are made country… countrified.
When you bring in those pop songs, are they presented as being original country songs in this other universe, or is it, “Yes, it’s a pop hit within this world, but we’re seeing someone adapt it for country”?
A little bit of both. Coming up in episode two, there is a cover of “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran that Trace sings with Iñigo Pascual, who is the younger actor who plays his grandson, and it’s incredible and it feels like their song. I mean, he’s not saying “This is my song,” but they’re working up new music. That song is written like a country song, almost, and so that’s an example of it.
Can you think of an example where country songs were chosen that you felt were worthy of being revived that maybe are not on the level of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”?
Yeah, I really fought hard, for “Country Boy Can Survive” for our first promo. You can imagine, that song lyrically, playing that for the executives at Fox — like, “What are you talking about?” [The 1981 Hank Williams Jr. hit is a deeply macho expression of rural superiority over urban lifestyles.] We had this huge spot airing when we were going to air last January [before the show was delayed] in the big NFL championship game. That was gonna be the first look at “Monarch,” and I know who the audience is for those games, and Hank Jr. played a big part in the NFL with the theme songs for all those years. That song just sort of struck me as very Trace and very badass and what I had hoped this show was going to be. I didn’t want it to be something generic, so I really, really fought hard for that, and thankfully, they listened. So that would be a good example of a song that you wouldn’t think nowadays would get a lot of license, I guess, on network television. [Laughs.]
Most people reading at this point will have seen the pilot — for those who have not: premiere spoilers ahead — and know that Susan’s character Dottie dies at the end of the first episode. Although that was obviously always part of the plan, to have that happen so early, do you think it’s hard in any way for the show to go forward after the loss of that character, when maybe people were set up to have her be an ongoing lead?
Well, you don’t lose that character. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not a bait-and-switch. Susan is very prevalent throughout the series moving forward, or Dottie is, I should say. You don’t ever think about Susan feeling Southern, but then when you really start to think about some of the roles she’s played, it fits so perfectly, you know? Like her voice and her moxie, it’s like the epitome of a badass Southern woman. And so it was very important for us to continue to figure out how to keep her in the right way. You’re gonna see. I mean… [He pauses and laughs.]
Lots of flashbacks?
There will be some, but there are some other things that happen towards the end (of the season). You know how soaps are: Who’s really dead and who’s really not? I mean, look at “Dynasty.” … And I don’t want to speak for her, but Susan had such a great time and really enjoyed playing that character… She was my date at the CMAs this last year, when we were gonna premiere in January. This is when they had tables in the front, and she and I walked to the table and it’s like the Red Sea parted. I knew people loved her, but I didn’t know that she would get that kind of reaction in the room. She’s so awesome.
To bring something heavy into it… it is hard to watch the pilot and then not think about the Judds a little bit. That’s maybe unfortunate timing, with the show having been scheduled for January, and then being delayed till now, coming on the heels of a situation where we’ve just been thinking about a matriarch who died by suicide. Since you are so close to the Judds, personally and professionally, and you were producing what was to be their reunion tour, how do you feel about that coincidence now?
It really bothered me, to be honest. We shot scenes for the pilot and the second episode in September of last year, and the situation with Dottie’s character was just part of the drama. In the situation with Dottie’s character, as far as suicide is concerned, she was needing her daughter to assist her. With most soaps, there’s always these kinds of events, so obviously it didn’t cross anyone’s mind then when we were supposed to premiere in January. It got moved because of COVID, because we were stuck and we couldn’t finish production in time to deliver the whole season. So we moved to fall, which was ultimately the best decision for the show.
And so after the tragic events with Naomi, I’m very close with the family and was very close to the situation, but I didn’t connect the dots on it until after Naomi’s funeral, which I also produced (as a live broadcast), as you know. I was at home a week or two later, watching all my episodes because they were just getting finished with the music and the graphics in, and I sat down one night to watch the first three episodes back to back — and it really hit me hard. I was like, oh my God, this is such a sad and strange coincidence. “Coincidence” doesn’t give it the weight I’m trying to give it. It really bothered me. It still bothers me, to be honest, just because I love those women so much.
Obviously I talked to Wynonna a lot about it, just to make sure that she knew, and she was awesome, as she always is. She was like, “That’s just art imitating life, life imitating art, unfortunately.” I talked to Greg Hill, who was Naomi’s manager, who’s running her side of the estate, just to make sure that Larry (Strickland, Naomi’s husband) and Ashley knew. I was just very transparent through it, and they know how much I love them. It was weird. I mean, there’s nothing else I can say about it. And it has absolutely kept me up at night and bothered me. But it does make me feel better knowing, especially with Wy, considering how close she and I are, that she understood.
It’s such a crucial plot point that it’s not something you could’ve gone in to readjust without redoing the series from scratch, probably.
Well, no. And if it would’ve been a different reaction (from the family), of course I would’ve done everything I could to do it now. I think the comparisons really lie in the first two episodes, though, and after that, honestly, it doesn’t feel like anywhere close to anything related to the Judds’ story. But given the circumstances that happened, it’s an obvious like, whoa — is this sort of ripped from the headlines? Which obviously it wasn’t. So that’s a fair question, for sure.
You have a gay woman character, played by Beth Ditto (formerly of the Arkansas-based indie-rock band the Gossip), as one of the principal family characters. That may not be universally embraced with every single potential member of the audience. I’ve already seen one conservative-minded country blog go, “Well this, this was obviously done for wokeness. They’re just gunning for Emmys by putting in a gay character.”
Of course not. I mean, look, I find it always important, as much as possible, as a gay man, to have a gay character. And as you and I have talked about in interviews in the past, I have always felt extremely welcomed — minus the CMA situation a few years ago. [In 2019, anti-gay-marriage activist Mike Huckabee was appointed to the CMA Foundation board, then quit after Owen and others registered protests.] But I’ve felt very, very welcome and accepted and have had no real issue with being a gay man in our format. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, in country music, and now, especially when you have so many women and men that are out, it’s becoming less and less of a thing.
And in regards to Beth — or Gigi, which is the character’s name — we were looking for someone that had that energy and that sort of bullish “I am who I am and I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.” And when we auditioned Beth Ditto, of course, as we all know her from the Gossip [the alternative group she formerly fronted], we knew that immediately that’s who she is, and so it all made sense. She was the best person for that character. But I will say this, to Melissa’s credit, and all of ours, it was very to have a gay character reflected in this format. Because it’s the truth, you know?
How do you feel about the eight-month delay in getting the show on the air, looking back now? Did you feel like you were able to nail anything creatively that otherwise would have been difficult?
Oh, 100% … especially in the last half of the season. Because we kept having to shut down as actors and and crew were getting COVID. I think Fox has mentioned this before, which is the truth, that we were goinh to be able to premiere the first few episodes, but then we were going to have to take blocks of breaks from airing to edit and get them in. And obviously that’s death in network. So it was a really, really smart decision by Charlie Collier, who’s the CEO of Fox — to push this to the fall. We were we like [agonizingly] “Uhhhhh!,” because we’d all been working on this for three years. But obviously he was right; the ratings show it. And it also allowed Fox to have even a longer platform to promote, because they never really stopped promoting in pushing it to the fall. It was hard even to think about it, though. They were giving up (the spot after) the NFL championship game, which is, outside of the Super Bowl, the best place to launch a TV series, and they didn’t have anything to put in that spot.
It was a big risk, but I think it’s gonna be a bigger reward. Obviously the next few episodes are really important, because now we move into our normal Tuesday night time slot, and we have to take that audience with us.
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