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July 22, 2015

Her-story of the Space Race

With The Astronauts Wives Club on ABC this summer, Gossip Girl creator Stephanie Savage reveals the lively history of pioneering NASA spouses’ female bonding

Larry Nemecek
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Imagine the female side of The Right Stuff, drawn for TV from an equally landmark book and helmed by Gossip Girl's showrunner—all decked out in vivid Mad Men mid-century glory.

That’s why executive producer Stephanie Savage is thrilled to be launching Lily Koppel’s amazing true-life The Astronaut Wives Club bestseller—the firsthand tales of the original Mercury Seven astronauts’ wives well into the Apollo era— as a 10-episode ABC miniseries this summer.

From her own fan base of The O.C. and Gossip Girl to NASA space buffs, to sentimentalists of the 60s, to anyone glad to see an almost sweetly subversive project headlined by so many women, Savage is excited that The Astronaut Wives Club is the next hefty creative challenge of her career.

Savage took a moment to speak exclusively with writer Larry Nemecek during the show’s early weeks to reflect on it all.

Q: Coming from your hits, your background— Gossip Girl and The O.C., for starters—what brought you to this project, and Lily’s book?

A: Well, it’s a period that I’ve always loved, and it’s exciting to be able do something in that space for a broadcast network—because, for such a long time, it felt like the networks weren’t really touching period stuff. So that’s been really exciting.

And it’s just another opportunity to tell a story about women’s friendships, and relationships, and marriage, through the context of this historical time period.

My agents were actually repping the book, and they brought it to my attention early, when it was still in galleys. And even when I heard the title of it, y’know, I was waiting to get the email so I could start reading it!

Q: You already had a great cast of true-life characters, all ready to run with. And you have them involved in all that was untold and unknown behind the NASA PR gloss—the real stories. 

A: Yeah, I think for me that was something that was exciting:  that it’s the idea that it’s this story that we all feel like we know, but we’ve never seen it, from this perspective. Yes, I love The Right Stuff; I think that’s an amazing movie, but three of the wives didn’t even have speaking roles. So their stories have yet to be told.

Q: We recall those cinematic spouse moments a bit from The Right Stuff: Annie Glenn’s stutter, Betty Grissom’s losing her White House visit when Gus “screwed the pooch,” and the feeling that the Coopers’ marriage was really on the edge there—not to mention all the “female temptations” in play while the wives were back home. It’s all such fertile ground, it’s a natural.

A: Yes! Lily Kopell, who wrote the book, did an incredible oral history—because one of the reasons that the story’s never been told is because it wasn’t really known.

Lily traveled around the whole country and sat with these women in their kitchens and wrote down their stories, and wrote them into a book that became a national best-seller which has now made its way to ABC this summer.

I think that often happens in women’s stories:  that they don’t become a part of the official historical record, and unless someone goes and seeks them out, they never do become a part of history.

Q.  What was the challenge of adapting a book? You’d had the experience of that with Gossip Girl, but what were the unique points in dealing with actual history? You had to deal with real people—some of whom are still alive.

A: Well, it is a mini-series, so there’s 10 episodes—and that was part of what I really wanted to do; I didn’t want to have this endless stretch of road to come up with stories to fill, largely because they are based on real people and I wanted to stick to things that do have some basis in Lily’s research. 

It was my original pitch that we would tell the whole story—that we would go from ‘59 to ‘71, that the Shepards would more or less bookend the whole series, with Alan Shepard’s Mercury launch in the first episode and then end the series with Apollo 14, when Alan went into space.

So that was probably part of the biggest challenge, because there were seven women—which is a lot of women!

And making sure that each of them is distinct and has their own voice, and their own point of view, and their own relationship dynamics. And that’s making sure that each of those seven women had their own dynamic with the six other women, and their own husbands, and the larger space program infrastructure.

It required a lot of conversation and pre-thinking before I even sat down to write something.

Q:  Were you able to meet with any of the real-life counterparts?

A: Actually, JoAnn Garcia and I went to meet Betty Grissom in Houston, which was a huge pleasure.

Q: After your initial meetings about her book, did Lily have a further role on the show during production?

A:  Lily was a consultant on the show, so we would shoot her questions when we had them, and she would share a lot of her materials with us—so that was great. She did come to set. And she’s coming to our viewing party this week—she’s normally New York-based.

Q: The wives here are all in their 20s and 30s, in contrast to the more “teen angst” shows of your career to date—was that an attraction for you, the “growing” of your subjects?

A: Well, I am obviously very much in touch with my “inner teenager” (laughs) and I never hope to lose that connectedness to that time in my life!  But I myself am no longer a teenager, so it’s been very interesting to be able to “age up” my storytelling and tell these stories of marriage, and the friendships of adult women.

And I think that is a very fertile, underserviced territory today in television. 

Even the actresses themselves all commented on how lucky they felt they were to have so many scenes with other women, and to be driving their own stories—and not just playing girlfriends or wives in the sense that they were just there to support the male actors’ story, but that they really were their own story, and that their stories were with other women.

Which, in 2015, seems astonishing that they almost all had that same kind of view.

Q: Well, I know a lot of your own fans are going to come along— plus the people who are, since Mad Men, lovers of that early-60s look and style. But have you had a sense that you’re going to pick up the space community and the space buffs, too? I just see this as appealing on so many levels—which, I suppose, is what ABC hoped for. 

A: Well, thank you.  And yes, I hope so—and that’s partly why I wanted this show to be on broadcast; we did talk about doing it for cable, but I kinda feel like this show should reach a broad audience.

And hopefully younger viewers who grew up watching Gossip Girl will enjoy the female friendships and the storytelling… and people who love Eric Damon (laughs), who was our costume designer on Gossip Girl and won an Emmy for Sex and the City, he did the costumes for this show.

It’s got great contemporary music in it, so there’s something for that audience. It’s not only for the audience that remembers this period; even I was born after the moon landings, so it’s not made with an eye for nostalgia. It’s a show that should be very accessible to everybody.

Q: Well, that’s the thing: It’s very relevant, even against that historical backdrop.

A: It’s also not so “salacious” that you couldn’t watch it with a family—if people are wondering! (laughs) “From the makers of Gossip Girl!”

Q: The cast looks great. It’s so large—I don’t know how you’d single anyone out.

A: Everybody’s great—it works as a true ensemble. The actresses were all very aware that there would be certain episodes where they were featured, and certain episodes where they weren’t. And they were all there for each other, when it was their special episode… just a very supportive group.

We were shooting out of town for almost six months, 
and I think the cast got very close in a great way and sort of became very much their own “club.”  

And I think it’s one of the first times in history where the first seven names on the call sheet are all women!

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