Catching Up With Jenji Kohan

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Creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan is back. Weeds, Kohan’s series which ended last year, took viewers inside the life of an upper-middle class woman who turns to a life of drug dealing after her husband dies. In Orange is the New Black, Kohan explores what happens when Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle class woman, ends up serving 15 months for a drug trafficking crime she committed 10 years ago. All 13 episodes of the series, which is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, premiered today at 12:01 AM PDT on Netflix.

Kohan recently talked to reporters about adapting a real-life story, what surprised her about prison, and why she’s so fascinated with white women committing crimes.

What motivated you to adopt Piper Kerman’s memoir?
Kohan: [Prison] is one of those places where you can juxtapose all sorts of groups and the experiences and force them to deal with one another. I’m always looking for crossroads like that. I love that our way in was this kind of yuppie white girl story. Because if you go to a network and you say, “I want to talk about Latinos and blacks and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty,” it’s not going to be a big sell. But you can kind of ride in on Piper and then expand the world and tell everyone’s story. It’s a great Trojan horse to a certain extent. And I just fell in love with the characters in the book. I felt this is such a rich world inhabited by real people with great stories.

How involved is Piper in the making of the series?
Kohan: You know, Piper reads the scripts and we e-mail a lot. Most of her comments [are] more technical—this wouldn’t happen, this is against the rules, this and that. She’s been extremely respectful of our taking her story and then veering left with it and taking it in its own direction. Aside from Piper and her immediate family, most of the characters are creations of the [writer’s] room and not from the book. But you know, I always want her involved because she’s the mother of all this.

What kind of research did you do before you began the project?
Kohan: We did tons of research. We went to visit a prison. We had speakers. We have read tons of supplementary material, books, articles. We are constantly e-mailing articles. We have dipped ourselves in prison culture and lore and media, and the experience. We really want to be as informed as possible.

What surprised you about prison?
Kohan: Just the oppression of it, just the sense of helplessness and really being part of a system and a bureaucracy that is arbitrary. I never thought of the depth of losing your freedom and what that meant. And I was surprised and delighted by ways people maintain their humanity and try to survive.

Do you seem similarities between Nancy Botwin on Weeds and Piper Chapman?
Kohan: I mean I think that certainly [they’re both] from a similar socioeconomic background. They’re both hot. They both have that sort of adventure junkie dream in them where they pursue danger. What attracts me is how they walked that line and the push-pull between those sides of them—the side to be the good girl and the part of them that wants to be the rebel and feel that excitement and escape their stereotype.

Have you always been fascinated by women who break the law?
Kohan: It’s not necessarily women who break the law. I’m deeply fascinated by flawed characters. And, you know, the more deeply flawed, the better. I think underground economies are a great place to find them. And I think we all have the bad girl or bad boy in us, and it’s fascinating to me how it’s handled.

The show has already been picked up for a second season. How long do you envision the show going for?
Kohan: Four hundred years. It’s going on forever. As long as they’ll have us, I feel confident that we can stretch this shit out forever. As long as we’re interested in these characters and the stories, it’s prison. We can make the rules.

Did knowing that all the episodes of the first season would be available simultaneously change the way you approached the narrative of the series?
Kohan: It didn’t for season [one] because we were just sort of trying to craft our episodes and have it done. I’d like to think about it a little more in season two, but not too much because it seemed to work the first time around. I think a good story well told is a good story well told whether you’re watching them all in a row or not. However, it might be fun to take a closer look at how the previous episode ends and how that end relates to the beginning of the next episode. We’re also talking a lot in the [writer’s] room about planting seeds that can grow over the course of the season knowing that people might be watching them in bulk, sort of bury some Easter eggs and let people find them later on.

How do you think people should watch the show? All at once or take their time?
Kohan: I think people should watch however they want. It’s their experience, and they should choose how to have it.

How did the Regina Spektor theme song come about?
Kohan: I begged her to write a song, and she said “yes.” I am a huge, huge Regina Spektor fan. I think she’s a genius and just a lovely soul, and I wanted her voice on it. And she agreed, which is just the coolest thing ever, and knocked it out of the park. I like an opening credit sequence. It sort of sets up the audience, you know, and lets them settle in and get ready for the show. I’m also really proud of this opening sequence that we did—all the women in the opening title sequence are former inmates.