It’s the golden era for television, there’s no doubt about it. From vampire love triangles to dragon-riding queens, there’s something for everyone and a zillion ways to watch. Each week fans invest an evening (or two, or three) to watching their favorite shows, with a ritual centered around its significance. Whether its boxed wine and pizza with friends or a bottle of red and yourself (I won’t judge either way), our favorite TV show provides a special kind of comfort. We invest our feelings in the characters on screen, yell when they piss us off, sob when they lose a loved one, and scream with joy when they get their happy ending.
Carina Adly MacKenzie is one of the writers responsible for those yells, sobs, and screams of joy. You may know her from her days as a TV journalist, where she geeked out over shows like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries. Today, she has the resume of writing and working for some of the most popular shows in the sci-fi teen drama genre: The Originals, The Flash, The Vampire Diaries. Having said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries’ final season earlier this year and just recently wrapped filming for its spinoff The Originals, Carina takes on a new venture of rebooting the hit sci-fi show Roswell.
I chatted with Carina about her journey into writing for television and how important fandom is to her writing and fans. She shares her candid advice for aspiring writers, as well as provides thoughtful transparency into the behind-the-scenes of putting her stories on paper.
PURE FANDOM: Let’s start off with an easy question! You’ve written for TV shows that are some of our FAVORITES here at Pure Fandom. What are some of your all-time favorite TV shows that you can’t help but rewatch and geek out over?
CARINA MACKENZIE: Supernatural is probably the one I’m geekiest about. When I was a journalist I was always asking the show runners questions like “Dean didn’t REALLY throw his Sam necklace away, right? Right?!?” with this wild-eyed look of panic on my face. I started watching that show when I was 18 and super into horror movies, so it was right up my alley. I can’t watch horror anymore — one of the many things my anxiety has stolen from me — but I still love Supernatural. I haven’t watched this season yet, which goes to show how busy I am. I used to rewatch the first season of The OC, the first three seasons of Dawson’s Creek, and all of Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls over again all the time. The only show I still re-watch these days, in its entirety, is Sports Night. I love Aaron Sorkin’s rhythms so much.
On Twitter, someone asked “Who is a person (not counting family) that opened doors for you in your career when they didn’t have to?” You responded that you were Twitter friends with Julie Plec, and she and Kevin Williamson took you out to sushi and “your whole life started.” First off, that dinner sounds amazing! What about that dinner helped you take the next step into writing for TV? Had you wanted to be a TV writer at that time?
At the end of that dinner, Julie said, “You’re a good storyteller.” It meant so much to me. But to be honest, the thing that was most important about it was that I could hang. Like, here were these two people I absolutely idolized, just revered, and the three of us had a great time [over] a couple bottles of sake and talking about life and gossiping and people-watching. It sounds weird, but I was a shy kid. I always felt too awkward and too loud and like my jokes fell flat. At that time, just the simple reminder that I had something to contribute to the universe went a long way. It also kicked off an enduring friendship that turned into a mentorship. It wasn’t for another four years that I actively looked into TV writing, but that dinner opened doors for me as a journalist and made me a part of the TVD family, which has been my anchor in Los Angeles ever since. Everything I have, I have because Julie showed me a door and gave me space to push it open or kick it down. We’re at the point now where I can return the favor in certain (comparatively small) ways. Our brains work a little differently, just differently enough that we can help each other, but I think she really values my input now, so I’m grateful I can repay her little by little.
Your career began as a TV journalist writing recaps for one of my all-time favorite shows, The Vampire Diaries. To many, this show kicked off a new whole new meaning of “fandom”. It launched a community fans could geek out over week over week on social media, at comic cons, and it also made us fans of the behind-the-scenes stars like yourself, Julie Plec, and so many more. Why do you think this show was so different than others in that way?
Not to “actually” you, but actually… The Vampire Diaries is part of a very long tradition of genre television shows that inspire that kind of fervent passion in fans. Obviously it was really special to me, but if you dig into genre — that is, supernatural, superhero, or sci-fi — you’ll find a lot of that. I’m not sure why it’s so specific to those types of shows, but they’ve been building communities for a really long time. I think shows like Star Trek really kicked it off. People used to make fan-centric magazines and send them to each other decades ago. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that genre TV has an escapist quality to it that appeals to people who are looking for something in their lives. Companionship, or connection, or something to ease their anxiety. I was a pretty casual TV fan until I was like nineteen and I went through a pretty deep depression, and I started to consume genre TV obsessively. When I was in college I watched five or six TV shows every night, downloading them from torrent sites, which I would never ever do now, but at the time I didn’t have a DVR so it was the only way to watch everything and I was obsessed. Luckily for me I was able to parlay that interest into a career, but I think it also could’ve driven me into a pretty deep hole of loneliness. Fandom culture can be beautiful and inclusive, but it can also be toxic and embattling, and navigating the thin line between those things can sometimes be hard.
Your passion is your job, and that’s truly inspiring. You write stories that give all of us fans “feels” week over week. While there are so many great moments we have you to thank for, have you ever looked back on any episode (of any TV show you’ve worked on) and regretted a scene or storyline?
I’m not sure that I’d say my passion is my job, honestly. I’m definitely passionate about my job, but my real passion is people. Civil rights, equality, feminism -— that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I want to make art that reflects those values, and my job doesn’t always afford that opportunity. Sometimes it does. I dream about working in TV just long enough to make enough money to vanish to a cabin in the woods with a bunch of dogs and someone I love and I’ll just hole up there and write a giant novel that’s super progressive and reflects all my values and passions. And maybe some people will read, or maybe they won’t, but that’s my passion more than my job is.
Yeah, there are storylines I regret. For sure. I don’t want to call any of them out publicly, because TV is a collaborative medium so nothing that ended up on the screen was entirely mine, and I don’t want to offend the other writers that I work with. We work under extraordinary time constraints, budget constraints—there are a lot of personalities involved. We are going to make missteps. There were directions we went that in retrospect didn’t end up paying off. There’s one TV episode I’ve written that I regret, because I kind of didn’t have a strong creative grasp on it, and I don’t think that it reflects my heart or my ability. For the most part, though, I’m proud of my work. Even when it doesn’t end up being what I hoped it would be, I know all the personal and professional battles—and there are always battles—that went into it, so I’m usually just proud that something made it to the screen.
You’ve built an incredible brand. You provide transparency into your day-to-day, and it adds another layer of excitement and intrigue when it comes to geeking out over our favorite shows and the people behind (and in) them. You’ve talked a lot about how social media has been a blessing and a curse. In today’s world and how social media has evolved, how important is it still to your job?
It’s not as important to my job as you might think. I mean, obviously, Twitter is how I met Julie Plec, so it was beneficial to me then, but after that it’s sort of been a weight on my shoulders. I was talking to an actor friend of mine last night about how a person’s Instagram follower count can have an impact on their job opportunities in this industry, but I think that applies to actors and musicians much more than it applies to writers. In fact, I think that people want writers to fade into the background and be quiet, so having the kind of social media presence that I have might actually hurt my job prospects in the future. That said, when I was a journalist I needed social media to share my stories and keep my click count high, so I cultivated a following then and I sort of became addicted to it. I really value social media because it has helped me maintain friendships from afar. [Obviously], I’m really vocal about my politics so in this day and age I’m grateful to have a platform, so I don’t feel like I’m screaming into the void. But, it’s also a distraction and can sometimes be really vile and abusive… so I don’t know, it all comes out in the wash. I don’t really think that the shows with writers who are active on Twitter are better for it or worse for it. But I love Twitter, and I love Instagram. Despite how unhealthy they can be… I mean, I love a lot of things that are unhealthy.
You’ve said that “TV writing is a creative business and a social business. Chemistry matters. Real connection matters.” Who are some of your absolute favorite people to write/work with and what makes that relationship so special?
I have really close relationships with almost all of the writers on The Originals. We’re a family. We just had our final goodbye dinner, and I cried. Everyone gave speeches. We laughed about tensions we’ve had with each other—we’re in a room together eight hours a day, we’re going to have tensions—but honestly I’d take a bullet for any of those people. Is that melodramatic? This is America, there are bullets! I don’t know that I’ll ever feel that way about a writer’s room again in my life; but honestly, I love those people so much. And I think we were at our best, as a team, when we were able to be vulnerable and messy and raw with each other, when the chemistry in the room made us feel safe and able to do that. I did an episode of a TV show where the writer’s room didn’t have that feeling because one person at the top was someone who did not make people feel safe, and I think the material suffered for it. I really do. Building a writer’s room is the first step in building your world. It should be diverse and people should be comfortable disagreeing, otherwise your world doesn’t reflect any kind of truth.
The big question: To ship, or not to ship?! “Shipping” can be extremely passionate and amazing and allow fans to find a community to cling on to. On the other end, it’s no question it can bring A LOT of negativity into a fandom. How do you handle it when fans get aggressive towards you? What do you say to those fans who may go overboard?
Look, it’s cool that people are passionate, whatever form that takes. But there are a couple things that bother me about shipping. It seems that when you’re an avid shipper—and maybe I’m wrong about this, but this is how it feels as an outsider looking in—that you’re sort of obsessive about the end of the show, or the book, or the film series. It’s like people who bet on horse races. It doesn’t really matter what happens along the way, because in the end, all that matters is the quote unquote endgame. Who won? But that’s not what we want you to think about when you’re watching TV, as a writer. I want you to be along for the ride. I want you to be thinking about the stumble in the middle because right now I’m writing about the stumble in the middle, not because it might influence who wins at the end of the race. Romance isn’t about a win-or-lose situation in real life, so when it becomes about that for the audience, it’s kind of frustrating for me as a writer. Like, if all you care about is the very last episode, why am I crying my eyeballs out and losing sleep and sacrificing my personal life to write episode 207 and 220 and 302 and 411? I think there’s this idea that writers like to stoke the ship wars, and that’s just not true. We want you to sit up and pay attention, but we don’t want you to take our work and use it as ammunition against other fans. If you’re rooting for a couple because you love them, that’s great. If you’re rooting for a couple because you want the fans of the other couple to eat crow, that’s not fun for me as a writer to watch. It’s alarming.
Here’s what it comes down to, for me: Love what you love. Do not worry about what other people love. Do not tell them that what they love is wrong. What they love is not wrong. It’s fiction, it doesn’t matter—so long as they’re feeling love and not hate. You’re all fans of the same show. Hang out, watch TV, have a laugh over your different opinions, go to a convention and wear different t-shirts. But don’t tear somebody down, don’t tell them what they love is something ugly, don’t root for what they love to fail. What they love might be the only thing getting them out of bed in the morning. You don’t know.
One of the biggest pieces of advice you’ve offered your followers is to never stop writing. In your blog you’ve said that, “Sometimes the idea of coming home after a long day of work and writing is absolutely exhausting, but just do it anyway.” Are there any writing exercises you’d recommend to keep the wheels going?
I write song lyrics a lot. Finding poignant ways to rhyme words, finding new metaphors I’ve never seen before, that’s what lights the fires in my brain. I haven’t written a whole entire song in a while, but I have a notebook I keep with me when I can, and I have a notes file on my phone where I just write little snippets that pop into my head while I’m driving or whatever. I’m hoping that someday someone with more musical talent than I have will be able to turn them into something better… I’m going to work with my friends Travis Atreo and Colton Haynes on a song soon. I write letters to people I never send—hand writing things sometimes helps me, because I don’t like how things look when they’re crossed out, so I never cross things out, I just move forward. I once was mad at an ex and I wrote, like, 20 pages of reasons I shouldn’t want to be with him. But to be honest, if I’m supposed to be writing a script, I go home, and I write the script. If you’re feeling tired or blocked or uninspired, write the bad version of it. It’s easier to fix a bad version of something than it is to start with a blank page. Every time, it’s easier.
ROSWELL, GIRL! I can’t tell you how excited I am for this. Were you a fan of the original show, and what are you excited to bring to the reboot? What’s been your biggest challenge so far in balancing honoring the original show and bringing new life into the reboot?
I was a fan of the original. I watched it while I was in college—I think I literally Netflixed the DVDs, back when Netflix would send you like two or three discs at once, so you had no choice but to slow down your binge. Then Amblin and Warner Bros came to me this year and asked if I’d be interested in reviving it. I was pretty intimidated by the prospect—Jason Katims is one of my all-time heroes, you know—but I’m not basing my version on his show. I rewatched a few episodes of it, but I didn’t do a deep dive. I am basing my version on the book characters, not the show, so Liz is Liz Ortecho, not Liz Parker. There will be LGBT characters prominently featured. It’s a really, really loose interpretation of the source, but hopefully a respectful and even reverent one. I basically took the defining characteristics of the characters, the things I truly loved about them, and thought, “what if these people were 10 years older, and the 10 years between high school and now didn’t go awesomely for everybody? And what if these people were 28, living in a red state, in 2017, with everything we’re dealing with in the world today?” It’s still a romance at heart, obviously. Liz and Max and their epic love is the kicker. But it’s also about what it feels like to be an outsider in America right now, and the different versions of being an outsider—the way that Trump voters felt like outsiders, and immigrants feel like outsiders, and Muslim people feel like outsiders, and women feel like outsiders. How can we all be on the outside? Who is on the inside? I really used my experience growing up with a Muslim family in the wake of 9/11 as an emotional anchor for it. I’m still writing it right now, and the biggest challenge has been balancing the sci-fi stuff, which isn’t my area of expertise, with the small town tension and love story, which is. I am having a great time writing it and learning a lot as I go. We’ll see if the network likes it!
THE ORIGINALS! Ugh, this show will #alwaysandforever have my heart. Have you been an emotional roller coaster saying goodbye to TVD and now The Originals? The Vampire Diaries ending was definitely bittersweet—can we expect the same for The Originals? Bittersweet, yes. It’s weird, because I said my goodbyes to TVD last year with all of you. I went to their wrap party, I spent a couple days on set watching Julie direct the final episode. I openly sobbed when we all got together at Kevin Williamson’s house to watch the finale, to the point where it was super embarrassing and I was like, hiding my face from Matt and Zach because I’m a grown-ass woman, and I don’t need people watching me cry over an imaginary dead guy at a party, OK? But I think I sort of wrung myself out emotionally last year, so this year, saying goodbye to The Originals has been a little easier. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I cried this week, as everything ended. But I learned a bit from the TVD goodbye. I mean, I was so sad to say goodbye to those people, but I haven’t missed them, because I haven’t had to. Nina and I see each other all the time, I check in with Paul all the time. Obviously, Candice and I still work together, but we’re also friends, so we get wine and pasta and girl talk in. The goodbye wasn’t a goodbye after all. The people I am going to miss from The Originals aren’t the fictional ones, they’re the real people, and so many of them are people who are going to stay in my life despite the show. Phoebe Tonkin has been my partner in this from the start. I loved Hayley, so much, and I loved working with Phoebe. I think she’s extraordinarily talented. We have a friendship that’s so important to me, and she’s someone I’ll look to for advice on future projects, for sure. Charles Michael Davis, who directed one of my episodes, is so close to my heart. Steven Krueger is like one of my favorite human beings on earth. Colin Woodell was on our show for only like a handful of episodes, and he became like family to me; he’s coming to my sister’s wedding with me next month. Danielle Campbell and I are throwing a dinner party for our friends this weekend. They’re family. Working with these people has been an absolute privilege and I’m sad to see it end, but the family endures, so the goodbye isn’t as painful as you might imagine. I’m honestly so excited to move forward and try something new, to make something that’s mine. I’m going to miss the safety net, for sure, but I think I’m ready to cast it off. And I’ll still have Julie to call when I’m like “oh, shit, I don’t have an act four, help!” because that’s family.
Follow Carina on Twitter, and get your TVD nostalgia on our The Vampire Diaries page. Catch up on news for The Originals here.
Featured image: The CW/Twitter