It’s been eight years since Jenji Kohan introduced the world to devoted pot dealer Nancy Botwin, the widow and resident MILF on Showtime’s Weeds. As writing for season eight of the show begins, Chicago native and Northwestern graduate Dave Holstein marks his fourth year with the show. When Holstein was not working as a script coordinator and staff writer at Weeds, he’s written a drama-filled show for tweens (TeenNick’s Gigantic) and a dozen plays, including Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2010 production of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Holstein spoke to The A.V. Club about theater, Weeds, and what doesn’t make it on television.
The A.V. Club: You’ve written for different media, namely theater and television. How have those projects influenced one another?
Dave Holstein: I think that TV is a natural extension of theater, just because it is dialog driven and character driven. I think that writing for theater really makes you appreciate the structure of television. But television really makes you appreciate the creative freedom you have with theater. It’s sort of a cycle of encouragement.
AVC: Is there a medium you prefer writing for more than any other? Is there something one medium offers that the other doesn’t?
DH: I prefer writing a good play more than I prefer writing a good TV show. I just think I take more pride, personally, in writing something that’s a great piece of theater. TV is such a team effort. I find it more personally satisfying to write a great play—but, at the same time, it’s certainly satisfying on many levels to write a good TV show. It’s just that you’re writing part of a bigger story.
AVC: You’re working on Weeds, but you’ve also worked on the TeenNick show Gigantic. How did you balance those worlds?
DH: They hired me on Gigantic to write similar stuff [as Weeds] for a teen network. They wanted it to be edgy and have some sort of darker work than what they normally do. I did it between two seasons [of Weeds]. It was fun because they said we could push the envelope. There was me and another writer named Bert Royal—a great writer who wrote the film Easy A and a play called Dog Sees God. It was just the two of us, and we kept trying to make them regret hiring us. It was exciting to try to scare the executives at a teen network.
AVC: Apart from some show content, how does working for the separate networks differ?
DH: Usually when you write on the premium cable channels, you have a lot more creative freedom. There’s less you can’t say. It’s really exciting to write for premium cable, because you can write anything you want, pretty much. And on cable, they leave you alone a little bit, which is also exciting. You have more things that you can’t say. We couldn’t say the word “iPod” on TeenNick because it’s a product, I guess, and they didn’t want it to seem like we were selling something.
On TeenNick, we couldn’t really say product names [at all], which is weird because teens are so product-oriented. It sounds weird to say, “Hey, can you pass me that mp3 player?” If we got product placement, we could say the names of really weird products that nobody would ever use, except people that seem to be using them quite regularly. But on Showtime, we can say whatever we want. Sometimes we’ll still get product placement, but we don’t have to use it. On TeenNick, you sort of have to use some. On Showtime, once, we had a call from Hoover, the vacuum company, and they wanted us to feature the vacuum, but we said only if we can use it for an abortion. They wouldn’t let us do that. [Laughs.] So the worlds differ a little bit.
AVC: There was a lot of speculation after the seventh season ended that Weeds wouldn’t be renewed, specifically because of how the finale closed. As an insider, what were you thinking?
DH: We sort of thought we had another year. We thought it was more likely than not that we’d get another season. We wrote the finale thinking we’d come back. I think we all would have been disappointed if that was the last episode of the series, for a lot of reasons. We were prepared for a season eight, and were building up to it.
We didn’t know until after we were gone if we’re coming back, so we wanted to write something where literally, based on a sound effect, we could come back or not. [Laughs.] Which is the gunshot. We thought if we don’t come back maybe… I’ll tell you the secret. The gunshot wasn’t in the original script.
We definitely talked about it, and we knew we could add it at the last second, if we wanted to. We had a big e-mail conversation after the season wrapped with all the writers saying what the last moment should be. Everyone had different versions of what you eventually saw, between the laser pointer and the gunshot.
Also, we know who the shooter is, and we always did. That wasn’t something we wanted to make it seem like, [that] we had no idea what we were doing and we’re just figuring it out next season. We definitely knew who the shooter was, and we wanted to open up season eight with an episode about that, who the shooter is.
AVC: When writing an episode, do you keep the entire season in mind? Is it looked at season to season, or is there an overall big picture?
DH: We really try to have an overall big picture. If not that, there’s definitely a lot of stuff you discover on the fly, which is fun. We definitely have a sense of where we’re going, or what the last episode is going to be. Within that, we’re writing seasons usually broken up into three sections. You’re really focused on where you are in that section of a show.
It’s kind of like the three acts. If you’re writing episode three, you’re at the end of act one of the season. You’re focusing on, “How can I make sure that this feels like the episode where she is getting into newer territory than she was in the first episodes?” That way you open up a whole new story for the next four episodes. You’re definitely aware of yourself as part of a bigger arc.
AVC: The character Stevie is a new maternal outlet for Nancy. Was that a conscious editorial effort from the get-go?
DH: To make the baby a maternal outlet? Yeah, I think so. We wanted to see if a woman, who at this point had fucked up her kids so much, given a second chance, would she do it again? And the answer is probably yes. We wanted to say that.
AVC: There are such accomplished actors on Weeds—Kevin Nealon, Mary-Louise Parker, and so on. How does that influence the way their characters have developed over time? Or does it?
DH: I think it does. We’re very lucky to get to write for some of the best actors, I think, that anyone can write for. Between Mary-Louise [Parker] and Justin Kirk, especially—Justin Kirk is really brilliant. And Kevin [Nealon] is so funny that, a lot of time, you’ll get to set and you really want to hear what they think. We definitely bring the actors into the process as much as we can. I think that helps shape their characters. They’ll let you know when something is working for them or not.
Most importantly, you start to learn [details], like Justin is really good as a coward, so you’ll find humor there. What if there’s a whole episode where he takes somebody hostage, just breaks, and starts firing a nail gun everywhere? It’s fun to see the actor in certain situations, and you write to that a little more. With Kevin, you just want to have as much fun as possible, because he will always bring it. He’s very funny.
AVC: The show follows the core Botwin family, and other minor characters flow in and out throughout the seasons. But then there’s Nealon’s character, Doug. Why can’t the family seem to shake him?
DH: We definitely surpassed logic as to why he’s still part of their crew. He’s Kevin Nealon! That’s the thing with the show, which some people like and some people don’t: Every year we’ll lose major characters, or we’ll keep some characters on who really shouldn’t be there. It’s just this weird, makeshift family that is the show. At some point, you have to realize that Doug Wilson [Nealon’s character] is so sad. [Laughs.] He’s lost everything three times. His life’s a toilet and, really, he has no other people. He would follow them to the ends of the earth, if nothing else because he can’t go home.
AVC: When does the new season of Weeds start? Is it in production?
DH: We started writing on Monday [February 13]. We start shooting the first of May. Usually, I would say, we’d start airing about two to three weeks after we started airing last year. Whenever that was. [The seventh season of Weeds opened June 27. The première date of season eight was recently announced as July 1. —ed.]
AVC: What professional experiences have been most beneficial to your career as a writer?
DH: That’s a great question. I’m trying to give you a good answer. I think Chicago. [Laughs.] It did a lot for me as a writer. It may be because of the people I met at school, and doing plays a lot in Chicago. Writing was first something that was about hanging out with your friends. It became something more when I moved out here, [to L.A.]. I think Chicago, and college, and getting to do theater. Getting to do theater at Chicago Shakespeare a couple summers ago was so fun. I wasn’t, like, hit by a car or anything, and had my life flash before my eyes, thinking, “I should be a writer.” Nothing like that.
AVC: Originally I was going to ask how Chicago influenced your writing.
DH: Oh, there you go. I think the answer to that… there’s two answers to that. One is that college influenced my writing because I was a film major [at Northwestern], and films just don’t really get made, so I just started writing plays. Chicago is this lovely place where all these writers come from. When you want inspiration, you don’t have to go far. There are so many theaters. There are so many authors that come out of Chicago. Have you ever read the Time Traveler’s Wife? I love that book. It’s such a great Chicago book.
AVC: Of your work, what makes you most proud?
DH: I’m really proud of this play I wrote called The B-Team. It’s about a bunch of terrorists who work in Buffalo, New York. It was a comedy. It was really dark, and it scared a lot of theaters. No theater would do it. I kind of love how scared of it people were. It’s published now. It had three productions that got consecutively worse. Atlanta was the première that was really good. I had the most fun, in an Andy Kaufman kind of way. I didn’t really care if the audience was laughing or offended.
What makes me most proud about writing in general? I think just being able to write for TV, and being part of a national conversation. In some way, it’s really cool. People who watch the show either love it or hate it. It’s cool to meet someone you’ve never met before and have a strong, heated conversation about what you do for a living. That’s very fun.