Vp Issue 8: “Now It’s Our Party: Profile, Ilene Chaiken”

[Originally published in issue 8, 2005, by Ramiy Rosenduft and photos by Angela Jimenez]

[Originally published in issue 8, 2005, by Ramiy Rosenduft and photos by Angela Jimenez]

It is just after 7 am and Ilene Chaiken is walking on a Vancouver beach. She is clad in baggy carpenter jeans, a white long-sleeved t-shirt layered underneath a blue sleeveless shell, and a pair of snakeskin boots. Holding a mug with both hands, she is staring reflectively out at the horizon. Chaiken, the creator/executive producer of the landmark Showtime series The L Word, is a petite woman with piercing blue eyes and a Cheshire cat grin.

I am surprised, as this is hardly the image I had conjured for a woman at the epicenter of a pop culture zeitgeist. Inside her rented beach house, Chaiken has two identical pots of coffee on the stove – one caffeinated, the other decaf. She assures me that she also has tea and yerba maté, just in case. Plain coffee is just fine for me, though all that extra effort creates a feeling of comfort that stays with me throughout the day, and reveals a certain maternal energy that seems to permeate all of Chaiken’s interactions. She brings this same nurturing quality to the show, which seems to be the most demanding of all of her proverbial babes. “The L Word is fairly all-consuming at the moment,” she tells me over the kitchen island. She laughs about the idea of future projects. “I have other things on the back burner, and I’m trying so hard to find room on the stove.”

Labor of Love
Chaiken and The L Word staff have been in Vancouver since the summer filming 13 episodes for the show’s second season, which premieres February 20. (Showtime’s groundbreaking primetime drama centers around a group of mostly lesbian women living in Los Angeles. These women run the gamut from professional tennis player to ex-drug addict street kid turned posh hairdresser. It seems a deliberately motley crew, but part of the show’s central theme is proving the eventual inter-relatedness of all social circles and each character’s individuality further emphasizes this point. Chaiken won’t reveal too many details about the upcoming season. Enthusiastic fans trade show secrets and leak spoilers or plot lines through weblogs, unofficial websites, and gossip circles, but the show staff works hard to maintain the element of surprise. Still, Chaiken has a few secrets she’ll let out. One change is that the vignettes shown before the opening credits will vary next season. “In the first season, they had a very, very specific pattern,” says Chaiken, “and we’ve opened them up a little bit this season.

They still work in much the same way, but sometimes they’re less abstract than they were in the first season.” Many of the openings in the first season showed events from a character’s past that were then explained in the action of the episode. For example, one showed a woman posing for a sexually charged nude photo shoot. Later in the episode, one of the characters meets a high-society philanthropist who has recently added the same photo to her collection. The random acts have been based on the premise of the chart that Alice (Leisha Hailey), the bisexual journalist, created to show the sexual connections of the women in her community. “The premise of Alice’s chart,” says Chaiken, “was the interconnectedness of us all, and particularly among lesbians – the fact that our circle is somewhat more proscribed and, therefore, the connections between us are closer.

The connections among us, and so the random acts, were all about how anybody who has ever slept with anybody can be linked into our universe of sexual connections.” With characters and exposition behind them, the extraordinary team behind the phenomenon is poised to bring the second season to darker, more complex, and more water-cooler-worthy levels. This year The L Word season finale will be written, directed, and produced by Chaiken, who has yet to add the role of director to her long list of achievements. There are some new and old faces on the roster of high-profile actors, writers, and directors. Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) is a writer and story editor; A.M. Homes, author of The Safety of Objects a collection of short stories, is a new staff writer; directors Rose Troche (Go Fish) and Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) continue their work this season; and actors Sandra Bernhard and Camryn Manheim (The Practice) will appear as characters on the show.

The band BETTY has written a new theme song and band member Elizabeth Ziff is the program’s new composer. For Chaiken, the creative process comes down to the adage of “Write what you know.” It should be no surprise that Chaiken, who wrote the show’s pilot and writes most episodes, creates characters who are amalgams of people in her social universe. Because Chaiken identifies herself as a writer above all else – she proclaims it like some women proclaim themselves as lesbian – her work is sometimes very personal. In her L Word writing, she channels her personal experiences mostly through two characters: Jenny and Bette. Jenny Schecter, played by Mia Kirshner, is the young fiction writer who moves to Los Angeles to be with her boyfriend, Tim Haspel (Eric Mabius), but quickly starts questioning her sexuality and her love for him. Bette Porter, played by Jennifer Beals, is a type-A personality museum director whose life unraveled before her eyes last season as her seven-year relationship with Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman) came to a stunning conclusion in the season finale. While the character of Jenny is fueled by Chaiken’s post-college experience of moving to L.A. as a young writer and discovering her sexual self, the character of Bette is more like Chaiken’s adult self, juggling a committed relationship with the demanding schedule of a high-powered career.


While growing up in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, with “strongly Jewish-identified” parents and two brothers, Chaiken developed an affinity for subculture. She ditched her high school prom to go to a porn festival with one of her classmates. She began studying graphic design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, but changed her major to film in her junior year. At this highly regarded institution that boasts an impressive list of alumni, including Talking Heads front man David Byrne and glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, the majority of students and professors set their sights on installations at the Museum of Modern Art – not on Hollywood. But Chaiken had stories she needed to tell. After graduation, she worked in London and New York until finally settling in Los Angeles where she began as an agent trainee at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). In the early 80’s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to gain acceptance into the male-dominated trainee program at CAA.

She began as a reader and worked her way up to an assistant for one of the partners. In the mid 80’s, then head of CAA Michael Ovitz placed her as a “D-Girl” (Development Girl) for producers Armyan Bernstein and Alan Greisman. She stayed with them for three years. When the pair split, Chaiken followed Greisman to Aaron Spelling Productions and became the senior creative executive by the age of 28. In an interview for Power Up, a publication of The Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment, she said, “We did a bunch of shows that didn’t go anywhere. It was the era in which Stephen Bochco (NYPD Blue; L.A. Law) had just redefined television, and it was a hard moment for Aaron Spelling.

Television was moving away from what he did. Now it’s moved back.” Chaiken is particularly proud of the work she did on David Lynch’s successful Twin Peaks and on ABC’s short-lived medical series Heartbeat, the first television series with a regular lesbian character, played by Gail Strickland. From there, Chaiken went on to facilitate joint ventures between Quincy Jones Productions and Warner Brothers. After a few successful years as a top executive and coordinating producer for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, things started to crumble around her as business relationships shifted. Knowing that she was about to get fired in a power tango, she accompanied some friends on a ski trip to Telluride.

Angry and frustrated, Chaiken locked herself in a cabin for a weekend while the others went skiing and wrote a screenplay – it was an angry girl action movie that she describes as a “futuristic homage to The Seventh Samurai.” She returned to Hollywood and got fired, as expected. The film was optioned, but never “set up”; however, this landed her a gig writing a script for Hollywood Pictures. In the late 1990’s, Showtime passed on Chaiken’s pilot for Earthlings, a show centered on the lives of lesbians in Los Angeles. So, our storyteller turned to another significant story, one that would pave the way for The L Word. Chaiken had penned a script called Dirty Pictures about the Cincinnati museum director who went on trial in 1990 for exhibiting sadomasochistic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. “That was the first time I wrote about art and censorship and it’s a subject that’s particularly significant to me,” says Chaiken. “The idea that in a dramatic television series – that I could tell that story and elaborate on it—was just irresistible.” Chaiken returned to this theme of censorship in art last season on The L Word when Bette tried to bring the “Provocations” show to the fictitious California Arts Center (CAC). Chaiken says the story line for that episode was directly inspired by the British touring art show “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” that sparked months of religious and anti-censorship demonstrations when it opened at the London Royal Academy of the Arts in 1997 and the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Dirty Pictures scored a Golden Globe in 2001 for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV. It was on the night of the awards ceremony that Jerry Offsay, then president of Showtime Entertainment – probably bolstered by Chaiken’s acclaim and the recent success of the network’s Queer as Folk – said to her, “I think we’re going to do that lesbian show with you.”Then, shortly after The L Word premiere, the network ordered a second season. It was the fastest renewal of a series in Showtime’s history.

There are many women who complain that there isn’t a fleece-wearing diesel dyke in sight on The L Word. Toward the end of the first season we were introduced to Candice (Ion Overman), a soft but nonetheless butch woman and Ivan (Kelly Lynch), a trans-man who’s got the hots for Bette’s half-sister Kit (Pam Grier). Chaiken is quick to respond to questions about gender diversity: “As we go forward and we continue to tell our stories, more people will see themselves represented,” she says. “There will be a broader spectrum of women represented because our lives invariably touch many lives as our circle broadens… I think that people who maybe felt underrepresented in the first season, some of those people are liable to feel more represented. Not that I am striving to represent anybody – I’m striving to tell stories, and these are characters that simply populate our universe.”Chaiken says that her primary responsibility as a writer is to the story. “Of course I feel a responsibility to lesbians,” she says, “but that’s not my first responsibility. My first responsibility is to the storytelling, to the characters who I am writing about in the story and the stories I’m telling. To be as real and deep and thorough as I can be.” She continues, “There are two simultaneous dominant themes. The first one is the universality of that experience that love is gender-less, and that relationship and emotional experience is gender-less, that we all share so much in common. Having said that, and making that point repeatedly, we then go on to say that there is a particular anthropology to our lives that also hasn’t been known by the world at large. And we want to let you in on those details.” “This is why people read. This is why people watch television. It’s so fundamental to our humanity to want to peruse stories about people who are different from us and learn about things that we didn’t previously know. That enriches us beyond probably any experience.”

The full-scale sets of The L Word are built to replicate a West Hollywood neighborhood. Some exterior scenes are shot in Los Angeles but, for the most part, everything is done in-house in Vancouver. Standing on the set provides a false sense of reality as the homes on set have running water. After lounging in Bette and Tina’s backyard by the pool, you emerge from the front door into the fluorescent light of a warehouse instead of the California sunshine. As a glamorized version of the urban lesbian experience, The L Word set is more than a working television set—It’s a gallery. Today on the set, art director Cheryl Marion is scoping for a space to hang a Lisa Yuskavage reproduction painting in Bette and Tina’s home. Chaiken is an art enthusiast who encourages decorating the set with work by fine artists. The show has displayed works by Cathy Opie, Julia Sher, Nicole Esienman, and others, with plans to exhibit artists such as Yuskavage and Sam Taylor-Wood in the future. “It’s like having a museum, which sort of makes sense given that Bette is a museum director,” says Chaiken. In regard to art, she says “I’m informally knowledgeable about what’s really going on, but I have a lot of good friends whom I go to, and say, ‘What should I be doing?’”

On the walls of a small hallway linking the production offices to the set there is a different kind of installation. A set of collages made of Polaroids and fashion magazine clippings depicting fashion influences for each character hang on the wall. A New York Times article featuring a photo of resident heartthrob Katherine Moenning beside a Paris runway model hangs on the bulletin board. One quote reads: “Far from being frumps doomed to Manolo Blahnik deficiency, lesbians are a powerful presence in fashion, in both predictable and unexpected ways.”

Characters wear the latest designer fashions showing individual style and establishing each character in her socio-economic class. The costuming is integral to the story. Lesbian stereotypes are reinterpreted. For example, the career dyke on The L Word is not wearing a man’s suit. She is wearing a tailored, couture woman’s suit. The set is quiet today. Laurel Holloman, Pam Grier, and Katherine Moenning have the day off. Mia Kirshner is supposed to fly home to Los Angeles today, but sticks around to participate in our photo shoot. The Canadian native, who studied Russian Literature at McGill University, has spoken with Chaiken extensively about her character, Jenny Schecter. Actors on the show talk freely and openly with Chaiken about themselves and their characters.

Chaiken says, “I’ve spoken extensively with all the actresses about their families.” This season, Jenny will explore her identity as a Jew and as a writer, as well as her place in the lesbian community. The 29-year-old Kirshner has grandparents who are Holocaust survivors. How do they feel about her being on the show? “They don’t approve of it,” she says. Lunchtime arrives. Chaiken emerges from wardrobe in a form-fitting, black, button-down shirt and a tight black skirt with black chunky boots, now resembling a stereotypical Hollywood producer. She is winding her way through the set, finally reaching the abundant craft service accommodations that suggests one reason why cast and crew are happy working on The L-Word: they’re well fed. And this crew seems to actually love coming to work. Chaiken boasts about her staff, “I am just continually moved by the extent to which people seem to give us their all and really care deeply about the work they’re doing.”


So what are the challenges now that The L Word is a cultural success? “The biggest challenge for me,” says Chaiken, “is always to continue to do better work. The second season has to be better than the first season, and I think that I will stop doing it when I no longer feel that we can get better.” Sitting outside of her trailer smoking a cigarette, Mia Kirshner agrees, “I think the second season will be better than the first season.” In an era of reality-based television when you can watch husbands swap their wives, their children, and their jobs, when bachelors and bachelorettes rely on the savvy of a manipulating producer to determine their future spouses, and when couples eat maggots and cow entrails in hopes of winning a hefty prize, we have to wonder where this leaves original programming.

New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley wrote in “The TV Watch: Old-Time Sexism Suffuses Season” (October, 2004), “Political correctness has left the building.” There is a backlash against strong women on new shows like ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Boston Legal, argues Stanley, which is casting a “retro glow on women at home and in the workplace, leaving little to look for in strong women.” Can this help The L Word? If women are looking for strong female characters will they tune in? “I don’t think it will help anybody,” says Chaiken. “I’m going to look at it in terms of my being grateful that women who are angry or dismayed that there is indeed this retro trend, this regressive trend, can still feel that there’s a place to go where they’re dignified and respected.” Regarding the future of alternative programming, Chaiken says, “I am confident that the culture is evolving and that [lesbians] are becoming more of an acknowledged part of it. We’ve always been a marginalized and ignored and suppressed part of the culture. We’ve been very much a cultural influence, but marginalized and denied—and I think that’s changing.

It’s changed significantly in the last couple of years with the advent of so much gay-themed television and with the presence of gay people in the arts and politics in a way that we’ve never been present and acknowledged before. And I have no doubt that that’s going to continue to evolve.” There are definitely signs of progress: the success of shows like Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and Ellen have paved the way for shows like The L Word to exist. And Viacom, the company that owns Showtime, will launch the LOGO Network, an “alternative” network, just five days before the second season premiere of The L Word. You can’t stop evolution. Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet, “The story of the ways in which gayness has been defined in American film is the story of the ways in which we have been defined in America. We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility, and now the party is over.” That his book is now regarded as an historical document is a testament to progress. Chaiken, the woman who is changing the face of television for generations to come, responds to Russo’s statement with her own perspective. She says, “I think that he is saying that we’re done. I believe we’re done playing by their rules, but the party is not over. Now it’s our party.”

Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 8 (Winter 2005), 18-27. Written by Raimy Rosenduft / Photos by Angela Jimenez