Twenty-five years ago, Dawson Leery said one of the words you couldn't say on television. Or tried to, anyway. When the era-defining series Dawson's Creek premiered on the WB on Jan. 20, 1998, show creator Kevin Williamson specifically set out to change the way that TV teens talked about love, lust and getting laid.
To that end, the series premiere features the main characters — aspiring filmmaker Dawson (James Van Der Beek), his best friend (and possibly more?) Joey Potter (Katie Holmes), his other best friend Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson) and new girl in town Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) — having frank conversations about sex that young viewers at the time rarely heard on network television. But there was one conversation that these teens couldn't have... at least, not directly.
"I couldn't say the word 'masturbate,'" Williams tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "It was so weird that I couldn't say that word! And then I thought, 'Can I say jerk off?' But I also didn't want Joey to say 'jerk off' or 'jack off.' I wanted her to say 'masturbate' — that's the word that character would have used. I fought for it, but the WB was like, 'No, you can't say it.'"
The Dawson's Creek premiere aired five years after the classic Seinfeld episode "The Contest" built an entire episode around masturbation, coining the phrase "master of your domain" to skirt network rules. With the WB's standards and practices department refusing to budge, Williamson had to devise his own euphemism, drawing up a list of options before eventually settling on "walking the dog."
"I'd never heard it called 'walking the dog,'" he admits with a laugh. "We just made it up, and thought 'OK, that'll work. We'll know what she means.' So we went with that; it was the first of my many experiences with the broadcast standards department."
At the end of the premiere, Dawson famously reveals to Joey that he "walks the dog" every morning while watching then-Today show host, Katie Couric. And Williamson says that's a case where he didn't have a list of alternate suggestions. "At the time, Today was my morning news show, and she was a favorite of mine so I used her name," he confesses, adding that he never heard from Couric about her unexpected cameo on the show. "I don't know if she ever publicly commented on it! I just remember thinking: 'I hope she's OK with this.'"
Despite those early squabbles, Williamson's relationship with the WB was more than OK after Dawson's Creek became a smash hit, solidifying the network's status as the premiere destination for Young Americans (not to be confused with Young Americans) in the late ’90s and early 2000s. "The creative executives on the series were really in tune with what we were doing," he says, appreciatively. "It was a young cast on their first show, I was a young creator doing his first show and the WB was a network that was just starting out, so everyone involved was fresh and excited. We all approached this as something special."
In a lively interview, Williamson shares some of the alternate casting choices considered for the main roles, apologizes for the show's lack of diversity and reveals which Season 1 storyline he'd never tell today.
Watching the Dawson's Creek pilot again now, it basically plays like a ’90s indie movie, from the soundtrack to the grainy visuals. Did you actually film it on 16mm?
Yeah, [pilot director] Steve Miner used 16mm film — we later changed that during the course of the first season. But we wanted to treat the pilot like it was an independent film because we wanted that nostalgic feel, and we also wanted to drive home the fact that Dawson was a budding filmmaker. The idea was that this show would be his memories, so we kept that in mind while we were filming the pilot. When I watch it now, I always forget that Dawson is wearing my shirt! I remember that the network executives were there that day, and they didn't like the shirt he was wearing, so I ripped my shirt off and made the switch. I literally ripped the shirt off my back! [Laughs]
You know, we never thought we would have an opening credits sequence for the pilot, but then Steve was on the camera truck and he found this Bolex camera with a broken lens. He handed it to me and said: "Go shoot an opening sequence." [Laughs] So [executive produer] Paul Stupin and I took the camera and when the cast wasn't filming, we put them in a car and drove them all to the beach. We were just walking around, and I'd be moving the camera up and down. We created the whole opening sequence out of that footage. Over the years, we kept thinking about updating it, but we just didn't. We enjoyed the opening so much, and it seemed to speak to who Dawson was.
There's a funny bit in the credits where Katie Holmes is looking directly into your camera and then she smiles and rolls her eyes. Do you remember what you said to her to inspire that reaction?
Oh, I just think that everyone was very self-conscious about staring into the camera. They were all just goofing off and smiling. I'm sure the other actors were behind me making her laugh in that moment.
Which scene from the pilot did you shoot first?
I remember it being outside of Dawson's house — I think it was the scene on the dock where they're filming his movie, and Pacey comes out of the water in that Creature of the Black Lagoon outfit. So we shot that whole sequence, and then I believe we went right into Jen's arrival in the taxi. We were outside for most of that day.
It is fun to see how quickly the pilot moves; streaming series tend to begin with a lot more exposition, but you get right to what the core of the show is going to be.
I hate pilots! They're very hard. Writing television today has changed so much; nowadays you really have time to breathe and extend in creating your world and characters. But I also feel like I miss [that speed] a little bit. Pilots suck. You have to pack so much storytelling in there, write in so many questions and create an entire world with a future in 43 minutes. You can tell streaming services hate pilots, too, because the shows don't really get going until the third episode! There's something bad about that, but at the same time, you don't want it all packed into a pilot because it's unrealistic.
Over the years, you've talked a lot about some of the alternate castings that were considered for the various characters. Is it true that Jon Hamm auditioned to play Dawson's dad?
OK, here's the story with Jon Hamm. Back when I was trying to get Dawson's Creek off the ground, my best friend's neighbor had a nephew who had just graduated, and came out to live with her while he pursued being an actor. My friend was paying me to dog-walk because I was so broke. So I was dog-walking for him, and then his next door neighbor's nephew was dog-walking for her and we would walk the dogs together. I'd ask him, "What do you want to be?" And he was like, "I want to be an actor." That was Jon Hamm! And then Dawson's Creek happened, and I introduced him to the WB. He never made it onto our show, but he made it onto some other WB shows. So he was not in the mix for Dawson's dad. He was way too young! He would have to have been a teacher or something.
Was Scott Speedman really in the mix for Dawson?
I don't remember if he came in to read, but I know we talked about him. I mean, every young actor in Hollywood at that time came through those doors. Katherine Heigl came in for Jen because Steve Miner had worked with her on another film, My Father the Hero. Selma Blair was someone we were looking at for Joey. And I remember Joshua Jackson coming in and we all went: "Oh, he's Dawson!" But then the WB was like, "No, you found Pacey." We found James Van Der Beek at the last second. He sent an audition tape from New York, and we flew him in and took him to get his hair cut. Then we took him to the network, and that was that. It all worked out! [Laughs]
It's funny, because Scott Foley has a role as the jock who dates Jen early on in Season 1. So if Scott Speedman had played Dawson, you would have had Ben and Noel fighting over a girl a year before Felicity premiered.
That's so funny. And you know, Scott Foley would have been on the show more if he had been more available.
One of the issues that almost all '90s shows face now — including Friends and others — is the lack of diversity that was present at the time. Do you remember if you auditioned any performers of color for the main roles?
Regretfully, no. I don't remember it being a conversation, and that's the sad news. We auditioned whoever the casting director put before us, but there was no conversation being had about diversity, and that's really sad. By the way, that happened on the first Scream, too. We actually had a conversation about it on Scream, and we just didn't succeed. It's the whitest movie ever and we were very sad about that. With Scream 2 we tried to rectify it. That's when I first became aware of diversity in Hollywood, and I've tried to correct my mistakes. It was a different time then, and thank god we're in another world now.
In the pilot, we do see that Joey's sister has a Black boyfriend and they're raising their son together. But it sounds like if the show were made now, you'd ensure that Capeside would was a more diverse place.
One-hundred percent. That just wasn't enough, sorry. I have to criticize myself for that. I don't get points for it — that was bad.
We've heard over the years that romances were happening behind the scenes among the main cast. As a first-time showrunner, were you concerned when that started happening?
You know, I was so new to this business, so I didn't know what I was doing! I didn't know what happened on sets. I mean, I knew that set romances did happen — look at David [Arquette] and Courteney [Cox] on Scream — and here we are 25 years later and they're still happening. With every show I've ever done, I feel like there's been some romance that's come out of it. But [as the showrunner] you just sort of go with it and see where it takes you. Just like on TV, relationships evolve. But that was my first experience, and you just have to sort of roll with it. Half the time I was just clueless about it: I would always find out afterwards.
The Season 1 storyline involving Pacey's romance with his teacher, Tamara Jacobs, is probably one you couldn't do today. They tried something similar on the first season of Riverdale and got rid of it almost immediately.
It was definitely a Summer of ’42 storyline. We romanticized it in a way that you can't do today. Nor would I have the inclination to! I would not let that storyline fly today. If I was sitting in a writer's room and someone pitched that to me, I would say: "OK that's one way to go. Let's talk about another way." I would shift the conversation and not even go down that road. We're in an elevated state now were we talk about mental health and trauma and the repercussions of what happens to us when we're children. That's become such a conversation, and in today's world, I just don't think you can take storylines like that lightly.
We had a few moments where we tried to peel back Ms. Jacobs and try to talk about who she was and maybe what she was going through and why she fled town. But we didn't really dive in, because that wasn't the path the story was taking. I remember the network enjoyed it, but they were also like, "When is that storyline ending?" I told them, "The first six episodes, that's it!" They were happy we moved on from it. I would not tell that story today — that was another time, and I've grown a lot since then.
I've always been curious: Why did you pick Waiting for Guffman as the movie that Dawson, Jen and Joey go see together on their botched date night?
I love that movie so much, and we thought it was a movie that a young filmmaker like Dawson would be watching. We had to ask Christopher Guest for his permission to use it. Steve Miner had directed [Guest's wife] Jamie Lee Curtis in a movie [1992's Forever Young] and he called her up and got her to get Chris to give us permission! So that's how that happened. I was just happy to be talking to Jamie Lee Curtis. [Laughs]
Do you think you'd handle the initial animosity between Jen and Joey differently now?
We always wanted to add layers to [that relationship]. I mean, in the second episode, Jen tells Joey, "I'm gonna make it really hard for you not to like me." And Joey does everything she can to not like her, but ultimately they bond. I definitely wanted Joey to be angry early on. She was a very angry character in the beginning of the show, and that had to do with her life after her father's incarceration and her mother death. There was a lot of raw emotion inside her, and it made her impulsive and a little angry. She just got a bad draw in life. And then Jen comes in looking all perfect and beautiful.
But then, of course, I wanted to dispel that image of Jen and show her insecurities. She didn't think she was pretty: In the second episode, she goes, "I look like a duck." And Joey's like, "What are you talking about? You're gorgeous." It always always about moments like that for us. Moments that meant something, that were emotional and could lead us to the next moment. That's all that the writers were trying to do: Keep it real, and keep it honest.
What creative lessons did you learn as the first season took shape?
Every show is different, and you learn different skills on every show. With Dawson's Creek, I learned that television is an interactive medium. I had written Scream all by myself, and then I was working with Wes [Craven], so it was a very insulated experience. Television is about how well you can work with others. And then there was the schedule. It was the first time I realized, "OK, this is a job." A hard, hard job. You have to meet deadlines, and you can't just write forever. At some point, they take that script out of your hand and they go make it. I always wished that I'd have one more week to polish a script, but you run out of time in TV. I learned that you have to write fast and it has to be good, and that's hard to do.
Were there ever times where you just went, "I don't have a story to tell this week."
That happened on The Vampire Diaries during the first season. We were trying to figure out the universe and the mythology of the show, and it took forever to figure out. So there were times where we were like: "We don't have a script," but it was 3:00 in the morning and they're going to start filming at 7. We pushed through it and latched onto something that worked quite well, but we pulled a lot of hair out!
With Dawson's Creek, there were times when we'd be sending pages to the actors while they were in the make-up chairs. And then they'd be like, "OK, why am I saying this? Help me understand, I don't have the rest of the script yet." And then we had to talk through what the show would be, and then they'd get it. Sometimes, they'd film scenes that they got the scripts for the next day. And that's so unfair — that's not the way you want to run things.
But we struggled in that first season. First seasons are very difficult, because everyone's new and there's a lot of stop, start and stumbling. What I love about streaming now is that they've changed the format a little bit, so you can actually write the episodes, get them where you need them to be and then you go film it. Whereas with network television, it was just a vicious hamster wheel.
At the same time, Dawson's Creek was so huge when it premiered. Streaming shows like Wednesday can go viral, but I wonder if they are able to achieve the same level of success as a ’90s network show.
I don't know the answer to that, but I feel like we're in a moment right now where we're going to see if it can happen again. When are we gonna see a show explode like that — a show where all four young actors are suddenly on magazine covers everywhere and suddenly being offered movie roles during their hiatuses. I don't know the last show that happened on. But how awesome is [Wednesday star] Jenny Ortega? She's so good. And she's in Scream now!
In honor of Dawson Leery, I have to end with a Steven Spielberg lightening round. Can we say that Michelle Williams is in The Fabelmans because of Dawson's Creek?
Oh, I don't know. You'd have to ask her that question. She'd know better than I! [Laughs]
I believe you've said that he was always very flattered by your references to him, though.
Oh yes, he was. He had to get his permission to use all of those posters on Dawson's wall and to reference him so much on the show. I wrote a letter to him asking for his permission, and he granted it. He was very kind.
In the Dawson's Creek pilot, Dawson first suspects that his mother is having an affair with her co-anchor when he sees them together on television. In The Fabelmans, Sammy Fabelman discovers his mom is having an affair with a family friend when he sees them together in home movie footage. Coincidence?
I never put that together, but what do you know? That's interesting. Look, if I can get into Spielberg's universe in any way, I'll take it.
Finally, Spielberg opted to make The Fabelmans instead of the next Indiana Jones movie, and James Mangold scored that job instead in our world. But in the Dawson's Creek timeline, can we assume that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a Dawson Leery joint?
Well, we did end the show revealing that Dawson was successful in Hollywood. And in the last scene of the series finale doesn't he say that he's meeting with Spielberg? So yes, I would love to believe that Dawson Leery is directing movies for Steven Spielberg! That would be awesome. [Laughs]
Dawson's Creek is currently streaming on HBO Max and Hulu