Spelling out her teen dreams

Working on the most popular soaps of the '90s was Jen Grisanti's day job, Jenna Clarke writes.

Jen Grisanti.
Jen Grisanti. 

As Aaron Spelling's former right-hand woman, Jen Grisanti knows soap better than Mr Palmolive and opera better than Pavarotti.

The former vice president of current programing at CBS/Paramount and Spelling Television knows the exact elements needed to make top-rated, lucrative soap operas. She was the business brains behind well-known 1990s prime-time shows Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed.

The cast of <i>Melrose Place</i> in 1995.
The cast of Melrose Place in 1995. 

Unlike most success stories about females in television and movies, such as Tina Fey and Kathryn Bigelow, Grisanti initially aspired to become a television writer.

But she chose show business to carve out her career. It was a calculated risk that continues to pay off today.

''No matter where you are or what position you're in it's really important to have a clear focus on where you want to go and mapping your way there. For me, I knew as an assistant in [Spelling's] office that I wanted to be an executive. There were thoughts of writing and he encouraged me to write but I recognised that if I went the writing route I wouldn't be exposed to him as a mentor for as long as I was,'' she tells Fairfax Media.

She admits it was pure chance that she found herself hitched to Spelling's successful wagon. Just months after completing a degree in communications and cinema, she was fetching coffee and making photocopies for the president of Spelling Films.

Growing up in a family of professionals outside of Hollywood meant her only contact with celebrity was via celluloid and the small screen and she landed her big break through a job placement agency.

''I was the biggest fan in the world of 90210, it had been on for a year at the time and when I heard I was up for the job and I had grown up with his shows like Dynasty, I almost died with excitement. I continue to be so grateful for the opportunity. It was a very, very exciting time to be at Spelling when I was there.

''I came from a family where security was so important and the difference is that if you become a writer, you're freelancing, so the security is not that strong. It was not an easy decision. It was a decision that I was happy I made though, as it taught me what it took to work at a corporation. I got to give notes on a daily basis on five top shows a week and to see my notes being made was a thrill. The training ground going from assistant to executive and rising through the ranks was invaluable. I wouldn't have had the same experience had I branched off and gone down the creative route.''

She has been privy to some of the most successful (and not so successful) scripts ever written for the prime-time screen. Working as Spelling's protege meant hours of her day were spent poring over lines, making notes and liaising with show runners, directors such as Darren Star, writers and cast members including Luke Perry, Spelling's daughter Tori, Heather Locklear and Shannen Doherty.

Beverly Hills 90210 and its Spelling siblings Melrose Place and Models Inc. were some of the most successful television shows of the 1990s and noughties. Recent reincarnations of the 90210 and Melrose Place brands received mild acclaim but have failed to ignite the ratings as they did in their heyday. Grisanti believes that teen drama was a golden age of television but today's socially media savvy and global audiences demand fresh ideas and want writers to push boundaries.

''Working on 90210, Charmed and Melrose Place was amazing but it was challenging. When you are doing an issue-oriented show like Beverly Hills 90210 that is on the air for 10 years and you're doing 26 episodes a season, the ideas had to keep coming and be fresh, so it was important to keep a strong writing staff at all times.

''In America and all over the world we are kind of breaking new ground by moving outside of the box with new shows like Homeland, Mad Men and Breaking Bad and I definitely feel that the ideas are getting bigger and risks are being taken. I used to look at the landscape of TV and think that it was narrowed to medical, legal and investigative show but now we are expanding the market, which is great for everyone.''

As for the celebrity company she kept, Grisanti still pinches herself when she remembers Christmas Eves spent inside Candy Spelling's famous gift-wrapping room and sticking up for wild-child cast members such as Doherty.

''It was a phenomenal experience to watch Luke Perry, to watch their careers bloom and see them become overnight successes. They're great people and they're very talented actors. It was a pleasure to be a part of that journey,'' she says.

''Shannen became notorious because I think she didn't work well with authority. She was put under a magnifying glass and she had a rebellious nature and she provoked situations. When you have overnight success and your emotional maturity has not really caught up with what is going on in your life, I think it causes behaviour that in any other situation might not be considered as big as it is but when you're in the Hollywood eye and everything you do gets reported, issues become bigger.''

■ Grisanti will be a keynote speaker at the Epiphany International Artist's 2013 Television Writers Studio in Melbourne and Sydney from February 23. For more information, phone (02) 9572 7222 or see epiphany.com.au.