The Gilmore Girls pilot, which premiered on the WB on October 5, 2000, is a concise marvel of storytelling, getting across reams of information in 45 minutes — and not just because the characters talk at warp speed. In that first episode alone, we get Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) backstory — the former getting pregnant at 16 and moving out of her rich parents’ house to make it on her own — and learn about their current situation: Rory, who is exceptionally smart, got into Chilton, an expensive private school that Lorelai needs financial help to pay for. We meet crucial supporting players like cranky diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Paterson); Lorelai’s parents’ Richard (Edward Hermann) and Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop); snooty French Independence Inn concierge Michel Girard (Yanic Truesdale); Lorelai’s best friend and uber-chef Sookie St. James (then-unknown Melissa McCarthy); Rory’s best friend Lane Kim (Keiko Agena); and tall Rory love interest Dean Forester (Jared Padelecki). All of this exposition is interspersed with generous helpings of mainstream and obscure pop culture references, and one truly great Macy Grey song. Whew.
Working off showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s famously enormous, but completely unbloated script, director Lesli Linka Glatter was tasked with bringing the very first of Rory and Lorelai Gilmore’s adventures to life. Together, Glatter and Sherman-Palladino created the indelible world of a show that continues to resonate with generations of women two decades after Luke poured that first cup of coffee.
Glatter — who over the course of her 35-year career has directed countless landmark episodes for shows like Mad Men, Freaks and Geeks, The Good Wife, The West Wing, and Homeland, not to mention the pilot for Pretty Little Liars — had the hefty responsibility of setting the tone of the entire series. She’s the one to thank for the perpetual crisp fall vibe of Stars Hollow, the sweeping shots around the quaint town square that made it feel like yet another of the show’s cast of quirky characters, and the smooth way the audience is dropped in the middle of a mother-daughter relationship that feels lived-in and real. On the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere, she tells Refinery29 how she did it.
Refinery29: How did you come to direct the pilot?
Lesli Linka Glatter: “I was sent the pilot through my agent, so not a very mysterious or interesting beginning. But I remember reading the pilot and just thinking, Oh my God, I have not read anything like this, that deals with the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship where each of the characters is so verbally articulate, and without it feeling false.”
I rewatched the episode just before our conversation, and I had totally forgotten that Lorelai and Rory are fighting for most of it. Was it a challenge to establish just how close they are for an audience that had never met them before?
“The first scene we shot is the first scene of the pilot. That was actually an amazing place to begin because that set up the world and the characters, and what the nature of their relationship was and how close they are — they were in some ways each other's best friends.”
What was the casting process like to find a mother-daughter duo who could pull that off?
“We met so many different actors, and there was a reference to Jack Kerouac...I can’t tell you how many actors came in and pronounced it [wrong]. Amy and I looked at each other, and we realized we cannot cast anyone who doesn't know who Jack Kerouac is, or at least doesn't look it up. That became the deciding factor during the casting process, which is hilarious.
“The characters had to be incredibly smart and witty, and you had to believe that's who they were, that it was not something that was put on top of these characters. Over the years, I've loved talking to mothers and daughters who watched the show together. It made them be able to talk and establish a rapport. That's kind of incredible.”
What do you think is the secret to the show’s continued appeal 20 years on?
“I think the fact that you have this mother and daughter that are close in age and have grown up together still feels very current. It doesn’t feel musty and judgmental about either of those characters in any way. But also, there've been so few shows for women about what it is to grow up a girl, or to be a mother, that feel relatable. Lorelai’s relationship with her own mother with Emily is fraught with complications as well. I love that.”
“It was always assumed that girls would go see movies about boys growing up, but boys would not go see movies about girls. So it was just harder to get those movies. With Now & Then, you had a female director, female writer, female producers — this was unheard of at the time.
“The way Amy pitched it right off the back was that Lorelai walked into the coffee shop. She orders coffee, a guy tries to flirt with her. She goes up to get more coffee. Her daughter comes in, the guy tries to flirt with her daughter and then realize that it's a mother daughter. She said, this is my daughter, while you don't look like you should be a daughter, and you don't look old enough to have a daughter she’s 16. That's a great teaser that sets up this relationship, but still a mother daughter show without, uh, you know, some sort of hook that was still the risk relied on falling in love with these characters and just having the relationships being enough.”
We talk a lot about the immediate impact of young women seeing themselves on screen, but you have the benefit of seeing the effects two decades in!
“It’s amazing to me and makes me so happy that they had images of themselves. Certainly when I was growing up, they were very few and far between, I think it's really important that we had that. And now we're talking about that a lot with diversity role models — you need to see yourself. Hopefully, [as a director] you make something that's universal that works for both genders, but I love the idea of telling a mother-daughter story that grandmothers and mothers and daughters could all watch, and they would be able to see themselves. And I loved that it was okay to be smart. That was one of the things that [Amy and I] certainly discussed a lot in the casting of Alexis [Bledel]. It was a real challenge to find a young actress who felt like she was really smart and was actually really pretty, but wasn't aware of it. When you’re an actress in Hollywood, usually pretty is what people are responding to.”
As a director on the pilot, you were largely responsible for setting the tone of the entire show going forward. Was it difficult to then step back and let someone else run with it?
“I love coming in and finding the look and feel of the show. Creating this town as a world I thought was critical. To do that visually, [emphasizing] the uniqueness of the characters within the town was very important. After I did the pilot I came back and directed a few episodes because I wanted to stay connected to the show. It's always hard to let go. I loved those characters. I loved working with Amy and the world we created, but it's always hard to move on, especially if it's been a positive experience and you love the world and the characters and the people involved.”
Do you have any favourite memories from the shoot?
“Alex Borstein was originally cast as Sookie, but when we got picked up, Mad TV would not let her out of her contract. So, we had to reshoot all of the scenes with Sookie once we cast Melissa McCarthy. Both of these actresses are rock stars, but I had to work with a choreographer reshooting what we call ‘the kitchen dance,’ and do it all in one piece. It’s the one where Sookie is a danger to herself; she’s picking up things and almost hitting someone in the head, and they're all there to put the towel on top of the handle. That was an amazing scene to shoot. We were laughing so hard — it was a little insane to shoot that in one shot, but I think it made the scene.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
“One of the big challenges is that this was a time where people were doing presentations and not pilots. [Executives] couldn't quite imagine that a mother daughter story that didn't have some sort of, I don’t know, supernatural element or some sort of higher concept to it was going to be successful. They gave us a very small amount of money to go make this presentation, so instead of shooting the whole script, we had to shoot only a portion of it. If they liked the presentation, then we would shoot the rest of it and make it a pilot. But this is a character-driven show. You can't pull out a few scenes to shoot and get the sense of what the show is going to be, because it's all about the relationships. So, we ended up shooting a huge portion of the script in a very short amount of time — more than would normally be considered a presentation. I think we shot 35 minutes of what would have been a 45-minute episode.”
Is there anything you'd change about it today?
“Every time I go back and look at my own work, I find things I would do differently. But I have to say, I feel like the writing of the script is really good. I feel we did establish the world. And I do think that you fall in love with this relationship, and that's a lot to ask of a pilot.”
A lot of the criticism leveled at the show in recent years has focused on the lack of diversity in the cast. Is that something you think about now, looking back?
“I think that now — in a very good way — we want to reflect the world as it is, which is a diverse world. It would be great to have a more diverse cast. I loved that Rory’s best friend is Korean, but yes, I think looking back that would have been a great addition to the story. I certainly want my casting now to reflect the world that we're in.”
Do you think young women will still be watching the show 20 years from now?
“I hope so. That would be wonderful. But I also hope that there are more stories told about girls growing up. Even though Gilmore Girls dealt with some serious issues, there’s a lightness to the storytelling. There’s more to say when it comes to mothers and daughters.”