Huge Writer Savannah Dooley Talks Teen TV, Fat Camp & Queers


What happened when 25-year-old Savannah Dooley — writer of ABC Family‘s weight-loss camp drama, Huge, and the daughter of My So-Called Life‘s Winnie Holzman — emailed us to say that Jezebel was her favorite blog?

We were shocked and delighted, since Huge was our favorite summer show! She agreed to a Q & A, and the gushing could not be stopped.

Dodai: I think what our readers want to know — and what I want to know — is: Will Huge return?
Savannah Dooley: I wish I knew the answer. We still don’t know, but hopefully soon!

Let’s talk about what drew you to the project, or how it came to you.
ABC Family had pitched this as a TV movie, and they brought the concept of this book into it. Just hearing the concept — two girls at weight loss camp — I completely flipped out. It was like someone had looked into my dreams of the perfect fantasy project! I was getting increasingly angry about our beauty standards… and getting all angry and feminist-y and bitterer by the minute. I also spent my teen years dealing with a lot of body image shit. So that was something that was really close to me. Also, my teen years were spent at a camp that really changed my life — not a weight loss camp, an arts camp. But I had such vivid and meaningful memories from this camp — it was such a self-discovery for me. And it had a lot to do with body image issues at the time, so a lot of it comes from personal experience.

Were you involved in the casting process?
Hell to the yeah! It was awesome.

What was it like being on the lookout for plus-size or overweight actors? And what was it like to have people audition?
It was super intense. It was certainly a challenge to find plus-size actors in Hollywood. We did not have a lot of people coming in. And sometimes people would come in, and we’d be like, they’re just too small! We didn’t want to do the Hollywood version of chubby — so little!

It was really inspiring seeing the actors we found — because it’s such a different kind of pool, looking specifically at plus size actors, we have a lot of people who are kind of unknown on the show. And I really loved meeting someone, almost discovering that person and bringing their talent to the world.

It’s weird, though, because on the reality show side, you’ve got ‘Dance Your Ass Off,’ and ‘The Biggest Loser’ and ‘More To Love’… But in terms of a scripted look at body issues? It’s rare!
Yeah, and I was thinking the other day about how confused people have been about the concept of this show. A lot of people who have just heard of the show are really positive that it’s a reality show. No on could figure out, when it was first being promoted, if it was real. And people are really confused, asking, “Are the actors going to lose weight? Are they at a real camp?”

It’s interesting that the only place we’ve realized that we can see overweight people on TV is in a reality show. Because this hasn’t really been seen before — not in a big group like this.

How much did the characters change from the book?
Any person who’s read the book will tell you that the book is wildly different. The things that are the same are the basic concept: It focuses on two girls, who are very different, who meet at a weight loss camp. But the only two characters who really exist in some form in the book are Will — and there’s a girl named April in the book, who has some things in common with Amber. We used the book as a jumping-off point, but I was eager to fill up a background of more characters, to make it more of an ensemble show.

As you were drawing out these personalities, and sketching them, did you feel a responsibility toward overweight people in general?
Yeah, I certainly felt a responsibility towards people who struggle with their weight. Not that I don’t count myself among those people — because I’ve struggled, but not to the degree that others have. But it’s funny, I am usually the kind of person who is mad when an adaptation doesn’t stay true to the original! But from the beginning, at the time that I got the job, they said don’t feel at all like you have to stick with the book, so I felt liberated by that.

Some of the characters are really specific types. Becca and Alistair are basically like someone you know, or someone you’ve encountered. I think everyone knows a bookish, super smart person… She’s clearly brilliant, yet quiet, and maybe angry at herself for feeling so quiet. What was the inspiration behind that character?
Becca is a lot like me when I was that age. Although I guess I’m a little more like Will now, in terms of body acceptance. Back then, I was definitely the Becca archetype. I admired girls who were more bold than I was, who were outgoing, who could speak their minds. Because I was paralyzed by shyness. I also was a huge reader, from the time I could read until like age 15. I was the kid who would read a book at recess.

What about Alistair, because he’s especially unique — a very odd teenage boy with open ideas about his sexuality — there is no other character on TV like that!
Alistair was a case in which the actor informed the character. For some characters, we had a better idea of their arc from the very beginning. And other characters — it just depends on the chemistry of the actor and the part. Sometimes the actor’s natural personality will come forward more, and mesh with the fabric of the character.

[Actor Harvey Guillen] came in, and he made every one in the audition room cry. And he did it every time we called him back. He made us all cry. I’d written a monologue just for his audition — that we then used in the episode where he says, “I’m excited to lose weight… I think. I just don’t know if it will change anything.” We never planned to use it, but because he knocked it out of the park, we ended up using it. Harvey is so special. the way that people react to him – -even from the pilot, where all you see is one line that he does — people grabbed on! They were like, “Who was that kid?!” He has so much charisma. With Alistair, I let Harvey inform who that character became. But we always imagined someone very innocent, very eager to please, and just unabashedly different.

‘My So-Called Life’ has inspired a lot of fandom, what’s your experience with it?
I had to learn to be a huge fan of My So-Called Life, because I grew up with it, and I didn’t really understand most of it when I was a kid, because it just sort of got woven into the fabric of what I experienced, of what I had seen. But I didn’t quite understand the meaning of it, until I rewatched it as a teenager myself. Then I was like, oh my god, how did my mom predict the exact kind of fights we would constantly have? Obviously when she’s writing, you know, Patty and Angela, she’s writing two sides of herself, and, in a sense, her and her mom when she was a teenager. But then when I actually became a teenager, we would have these fights that were exactly the same. Like the one about the cotton swab? We had that a million times.

If could work on your dream project — assuming Huge isn’t it — what would you want to do next?
Huge is certainly one of my dream projects. Right now I am working on a feature, that I am trying to get made; it’s about two best friends in high school, at the edge of leaving for college, and it’s queer, because everything I write is queer. But my dream project? I was reading a message board one time, which I should never do, because people write some really stupid things, but someone was like, “I don’t like the title Huge, I think it’s offensive. That’s like having a show with a bunch of gay kids and callling it Queer.” And I’m like, I WOULD WRITE THAT SHOW! That literally is the show that I would write, and that would be my dream project. I’m not kidding. Not kidding even a little.

It’s certainly underrepresented. It’s weird that there’s nothing you can watch that’s like that, that’s got a sense of humor, that’s direct. In a good way. Where gay is the focus instead of the sidekick. That’s what I want to do. That fictional show Queer, about a gay camp. Maybe it’s across the lake. Like a spin-off.

Earlier: Huge & The Future Of Fat On TV
Huge: How Your Weight Affects Your Family Dynamic
Huge: Eating Disorders, Ribs And Recovery
Huge: When Losing Weight Doesn’t Feel Like A Victory
Shrooms, Gender-Bending, Dumpster-Diving & Spirit Quests On Huge
Finding Humor In Swimsuits & Love Handles
Telling The Weird Kid He Smells Bad On Huge
Uterus-Control Issues On Huge
Fat-Camp Striptease & Snack Lust On Huge

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