From show creator Jamie Denbo and executive producer Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), the Lifetime dramedy series American Princess follows runaway bride Amanda (the delightful Georgia Flood) as she impulsively joins a Renaissance Faire after her dream wedding becomes less of a dream, after all. Suddenly finding herself in an unexpected situation leads the Upper East Side socialite to realize that Ren Faire life and the eclectic group of characters that she finds there will help her re-evaluate everything she thought she knew about happiness, friendships, romance and family.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Jamie Denbo talked about how American Princess evolved into the TV series it is now, how she ended up working at a Renaissance Festival herself, creating a certain level of chaos to properly portray this world, what she’s learned from working with Jenji Kohan over the years, what she’s been able to get away with when it comes to the comedy, how she has a lot of ideas for Season 2, and what she’s doing while she waits to find out about whether they’ll get to do another season.
Collider: When you started developing what would eventually become this series, where did it start?
JAMIE DENBO: This is my story. This is what happened to me, and I’ve wanted to tell this story, for 25 years, just without the wedding part. I wound up working at the Renaissance Festival, and not because I wanted to, but because I thought it was something else. I truly thought I was auditioning for Summer Stock because this was before the internet. I was like, “It’s Summer Stock. It’s Shakespeare in the Park.” And it was not. It seemed like a great idea between college graduation and whatever real job in the real world laid ahead for me. I auditioned at the New England theater conference auditions, which is a fancy way to describe a giant cattle call for all the summer theater companies, so it’s understandable, why I thought, “Nothing but a very legitimate theater opportunity would be here.” It’s not that it’s not a legitimate theater opportunity. It’s just that there’s a difference between that and Williamstown. I was not good enough to go to Williamstown. That was very, very evident. I was a good enough improviser to work at the Renaissance Festival, so after I drove six hours in dad’s borrowed car, all the way up to Lake Ontario, I was like, “This is a lifestyle.” That’s what I was confused by. It wasn’t a job. It was a way that people lived and brought up their families, and there were people of all ages. It wasn’t a bunch of 20-year-olds, who were just doing some fun summer gig. This was something that had roots and had been around for awhile. Somehow, I had made it to age 21 without ever knowing that it existed. There are a lot of people who still don’t understand what it is or where it came from, and why would they? The Renaissance Festival elicits a very strong response in people. Either they go, “Yeah, I go all the time, it’s super fun,” or they’re like, “Ew, no, I would never go there.” Some people have very interesting associations with it that are usually in the fetish realm, which is entertaining because it’s just so not quite accurate.
I’ve always wanted to go to the Ren Faire, but just haven’t ever gotten the chance.
DENBO: It’s fun people who want to have fun. If you had to give it one little, short description, that’s probably where you’d land. It’s a very sweet place. It’s very hippie-like. It’s definitely got its roots in hippie life, as opposed to historical re-enactment. When I figured out that this place existed, I was like, “I wanna share this with everybody!” But it was very hard to explain it to people, particularly back then, when they couldn’t just look it up on their phones and be like, “Oh, I guess it looks okay.” And then, I went from the really open, warm, funny, silly, bawdy, raunchy place of the Ren Faire to the Upright Citizens Brigade, which was like being in an indie band with really self-conscious nerds, as opposed to the open, wear-it-on-your-sleeve nerds, which wasn’t cool. This is the best iteration of this story. I’ve got all kinds of versions of this story, that I’ve wanted to tell, over the years. I did a one-person show about it. I did a screenplay where it was the mockumentary thing. I’ve shot short videos. I’m very happy with this version, for many, many reasons. It’s an updated story. It’s contemporary and it speaks to a different generation. It’s about the choices we make that take us places that we don’t expect to be delightful, and then they are, and we can leave behind all of the nuclear war and lady-rape for a few minutes. It’s nice to remember that your personal journey and your personal problems are still important, they’re still fun to think about, and you can be a socially responsible citizen, if you’re also really on the right path, or on a path that maybe is a new path for you. You have to have personal growth in your life. It’s important, or you won’t be prepared to fight with the masses against the nuclear war and the lady-rape.
How and why did the wedding come about? Were there other things that you tried, before you ended up at a wedding?
DENBO: No, the wedding really felt like a good way in. I do know someone who had been butt-dialed during their engagement, so I didn’t completely invent this. I know that it’s happened. There’s stuff that happens with modern technology that gets you caught. I did think that we needed a trauma because this is a smarter, more educated, and more informed generation. And I did want someone who was in her quarter-life because those people know how to use a phone. We needed a really traumatic, inciting incident to get her to the Faire because anyone, in this day and age, knows how to research. They Google it and Yelp it, and they figure it out. They find all of the opinions. And while you can truly never really experience something until you go there, in this generation, you can get a whole lot of information. So, we needed something that would drive her from one place to another, and it seemed like a really good fit. It’s also something that messes up your life. When you set your life up for a very certain path, one of the most emblematic things of that journey is going to be your wedding, especially if you’re a girl like her. While romance wasn’t necessarily the most important thing on my parents’ mind, getting married and having kids, and having a good college education, preferably a masters, and living near them, was all on the menu. I can relate to that conventional expectation. Nobody in my immediate friends or high school graduating class went this far off the rails.
When you set a show in a world like this, it seems like you have to create a certain level of chaos to portray that on TV, and with the scenes during the Ren Faire, it seems like everything and everyone is always moving. What are the challenges of scenes like that?
DENBO: That’s a good question for my brilliant DP and the Second AD, who handle all of the background. It’s a colorful world, an active world, and a world that’s alive. You’ve gotta capture that, if you’re gonna put it on screen. You’ve got to capture the dancing, the motion and the joy. This is not a world of people staring at their phones. People don’t go there to stare at their phones. They’re not luddites. They take pictures and they’re completely technologically savvy. You want to make human eye contact, which is not necessarily the way we live anymore. We spend a lot of time avoiding human contact. It’s like everywhere is an elevator now because you’ve always got your pocket computer to avoid people. It’s been so nice to hear that comes across and that there’s always something to look at because that’s the way it is at the Faire. There’s always something feeding your entertainment and your vision. It should feel messy, and hopefully not too chaotic. One of my favorite sequences in the entire series is in the pilot, when she experiences the Faire for the first time, on a Faire day, and you see all of this action going on around her.
When you developed this, how far ahead did you plan out the story that you wanted to tell? Do you have a good idea of what Season 2 would be, or have you thought even further out from that?
DENBO: I do. I have a lot of ideas for Season 2, but I can’t talk about them because it would spoil the ending of Season 1. But yes, there are so many stories to tell. People do literally run away with the circus. Some people make it a part of their lives. There are all different levels of participation at the Ren Faire. I know a 12-year-old who was being home-schooled and who was also part of a professional whip act. She could whip a flossy piece of spaghetti out of her dad’s mouth from across the stage, in inch increments. You find yourself sitting and watching people do small things. It’s almost Fosse-esque. They’re talking to you and making jokes, but it’s not stand-up. It’s different. It’s more vaudeville.
You’ve worked with Jenji Kohan before, on Orange Is the New Black, and for awhile. What did you learn anything form working with her and watching her work, that you feel you’ve really applied to what you do now?
DENBO: Jenji has been an inspiration to me, in so many ways, not just with her work, but with her general life ethic. She’s game. I brought Jenji to her first Ren Faire, and then she would go every year. Jenji loves adventure. Jenji loves subcultures. Jenji loves characters and people and delving into the side character where things might not be so interesting, and then, suddenly, that’s a story. You can see that with the 40 speaking characters on screen in Orange is the New Black. Every one of them is so specific and so unique. There is just no such thing as a side character in her shows, and I love that. Everything she does winds up a true ensemble. That’s the TV that I love. That’s the kind of performance that I love to watch. I hope that we can recreate some of that with her influence, and it’s definitely been a pleasure to give everyone a backstory. That’s what I love. There’s a classic story about how Uzo Aduba went in for some other role (on Orange is the New Black), and Jenji created a role, just for her. We did that multiple times with actors who came and we were like, “Well, we can’t use them for this role because they’re not quite right, but I see this person bringing this other version of a character to life.” She’s open to everything. You aren’t locked into, when you work with Jenji. You let the actors start to inform where their characters go, which is pretty great. Coming from acting, I really appreciate that, and I love that opportunity. It’s been nice because, when you’ve been a career guest star, for as long as I have, and you’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of people in Hollywood, you remember people and think it would be good to bring them into the show. There are people that I love, that I’ve known as comedy people for so long, that brought their own energy to this world. And then, before they know it, they have six episodes. That’s been great. Jenji’s allowance and her malleability, in terms of allowing people to come in and bring their own energy to it, has been incredible.
This is a show that you can push boundaries on, when it comes to the comedy and some of the innuendo that you can get away with. Have their been times when you thought you’d maybe pushed something too far? Has there ever been anything that you were surprised you actually got away with?
DENBO: I didn’t think about that until the Hollywood Reporter review, which was really good, listed all of the disgusting things that happened, like barf, piss, breast milk, pubic hair, screaming orgasms and dildos, and I was like, “Oh, fuck! Holy shit! That’s an intense list!” It’s not like I had a list and thought, “Gee, I wanna put these things everywhere!” They just happened. It’s a communal society, where you get close, you get up in each other’s grill, you fuck each other, you see things, and it just happens. That was a little bit of my own experience with the Faire. It wasn’t a complete gross-out, but I’m also all about gross-out humor. Nothing makes me happier than somebody shitting their pants, so that’s also just my sensibility. I’m a long-time Howard Stern listener. I don’t get offended by stuff, and I don’t tend to think of it as shocking. Maybe when you put it all in a list together, you suddenly go, “Huh, I should talk to my shrink about that.” But at the same time, it’s super honest. It comes from what I think is funny, and I’ve found a fantastic group of writers who laugh at a lot of silly things while not being afraid to go high brow or low brow, at the same time, so I feel good.
As far as what you have going on, what do you do while you wait to find out about a second season? Do you have other things that you’ll work on? Are you somebody who’s always writing, all the time?
DENBO: Always. I’ve learned, over a long time in Hollywood, that you’ve gotta have at least three or four balls in the air because most of them are going to fall on the ground. I’m always thinking and I’m always developing. I’ve stopped auditioning. I’ve forgiven myself because I’m not as strong of an actor as I am a creator, and I’m really okay with that. If someone were to give me a guest star on something, I would absolutely take it. That’s a good day’s work. But I don’t know about trekking across the Fox lot, in a hundred degree heat, holding my heels anymore because that just feels like a waste of everybody’s time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s really, truly an actor that I admire, who’s in that waiting room, and I feel like it should be given it to them. I’m happy with the comfort level that I’ve gotten to with that. We were originally going to air in January and then they decided, rightfully so, that this was a summer show, so I had a lot more time on my hands, this past winter, than I would have liked. But if you’re not always writing and working, you’re really going to lower your chances of being ready when the call comes. I strongly believe that. I have a very strong work ethic, as far as working on other stuff.
American Princess airs on Sunday nights on Lifetime.