It’s been 20 years since fans met Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, Jen Lindley and Pacey Witter down in Capeside. For many millennials, the four core characters of Dawson’s Creek were an introduction to the intricacies of high school, finding your identity, growing up, falling in love with your best friend and a sophisticated vernacular you expected to get in the ninth grade. But the show almost didn’t happen. “I had many people tell me that it would never get made,” explains executive producer Paul Stupin. “I had many people say that it’s just not right for TV. I just had every criticism possible, and I had to listen to them all, but I didn’t believe that any of them were correct.”
At the end of the day, Stupin was right. Over the course of six seasons, fans got to experience the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle, Jack’s coming out story, Jen’s path from bad girl to good girl, Pacey’s path to self-worth and so much more. The Capeside bubble of Dawson’s Creek helped shape the culture of TV in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Not only were the characters and storylines impactful, but the music from the show was as well. It captured the essence of what was popular during that time and created an indie and alt-rock fantasy for music nerds. Before the world would dive into The O.C. or Gossip Girl’s sonic database, Dawson’s Creek was one of the shows that set the bar high when it came to curating music and breaking artists. It’s something that wouldn’t have been possible without Stupin (Beautiful People, Switched At Birth), co-producer Drew Matich (Joan of Arcadia, Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce) and music supervisor John McCullough (That ‘70s Show, Party of Five). Together, Stupin, Matich and McCullough helped artists rise to fame, made pivotal creative decisions and curated musical memories that will last a lifetime.
Two decades after the first episode aired on Jan. 20, 1998, Stupin, Matich and McCullough discuss how the music of Dawson’s Creek shaped pop culture, tell untold stories about the show and talk about the possibility of a revival.
Can you tell me how you landed on the theme song for Dawson’s Creek?
Stupin: Yes, I can tell you exactly. We had originally -- when we were shooting the pilot, everything was done by the seat of our pants. We had six days. We had very little time scheduled for anything. And Kevin [Williamson] and I, my partner on the show, wanted a main title. And we didn’t really have enough time for the director to shoot anything. When he and I were in the editing room, originally for the pilot, we put on that Alanis Morissette song, “Hand in My Pocket,” and we loved it, the network loved it, the studio loved it, and that stayed for a relatively long time until we couldn’t clear it. So suddenly, when Alanis turned us down, we were looking for something as effective as that, and it set a very high bar. The network had licensed the Paula Cole song, “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And at the time, while they were using that music, I had gone to John [McCullough] and said, “Find me some singers, and let’s have some material written.” And honestly, I don’t remember the names of the singers that we had gone to, but there were one of two versions of music which I did like. But then I got a call from the network, and they said, what would you think about using the Paula Cole song? And you know what? It hadn’t really occurred to us, but we put that song on over the main titles, and it was very effective. And one of the things I liked is it tied all of these amazing promos that made the show look so good together with the actual show. I love that Paula Cole song, and it came out of a little bit of chaos, because we were getting closer and closer to an air date, and we did not have the song. And then when the network suggested, what about Paula Cole? It’s working so well in our promos. It just seemed like the right suggestion and the right idea at the right time.
How did you end up with a different opening song when it was picked up by Netflix and put on DVD?
Stupin: [Paula Cole’s] song stayed with us for the six or seven seasons that we were on the air. And it was also used, I believe, on the first season or two seasons of the DVD set. After that, Sony came to me and said, “Listen, we’re trying to save some money. We want to change that main title song.” And I ended up going back to one of the original songs that I had chosen for the main title for the remaining season’s boxed sets of DVDs. I know that was a controversial decision for some of the season’s boxed sets. It didn’t come from me: it came from the fact that somebody said, if we want to release these boxed sets, we’re going to have to save some money on the music. So at that point, I thought, well, if we have to get rid of Paula Cole, let’s stick with something within the Dawson’s Creek mythology. And that’s when I went back to one of those songs that were originally written. And to tell you the truth, when I look back on all of them, clearly the most distinctive and the one that really wins the crown on this one is the Paula Cole song.
That Paula Cole song is iconic.
Stupin: I know. It’s so moving and so powerful, and it became so identified. I’ll tell you something else interesting. At one point, I want to say around season four or three -- maybe season four or five -- it occurred to me to go back to Paula and ask her to maybe re-orchestrate or come up with a slightly different version of the song to put in the main titles, and she did a great job. But ultimately, I decided to just stay with the original version, because it was so identified with the show, and I didn’t think our fans would appreciate any change, ultimately.
Who was the artist you used for the replacement Dawson’s Creek theme song?
Stupin: The artist was Jann Arden, and the song was “Run Like Mad.” I have no idea how I just pulled that out of my head. I used a number of her songs on the show. And at this point, this was over the fall before we premiered, and that’s when I thought, “Oh, let’s go to Jann and see what she can do." And she did a great job, but Paula Cole wound up winning out.
How did you go about curating the soundtrack for this show?
Stupin: Well, it was so much fun. From the very beginning of the pilot we knew, when we were editing the pilot, that we wanted to use music in a way to convey the emotion, to convey the story. We wanted to create whole sequences where you could really enjoy the song under dialogue, which I don’t think had been done before, as well as in extended sequences that didn’t involve dialogue. And it really ended up being for a lot of the time, frankly, myself in the editing room with the editor just going over, trying candidate after candidate of songs that John would send over. In some cases there were songs that I was a big fan of, like Sophie B. Hawkins for instance who was in the pilot, and [I thought], “Let’s see what we can do. Let’s try anything.” And in some cases, we would look at, against picture, 10 or 15 songs against each scene. And I wouldn’t stop until I loved it -- until I thought we nailed it. And a lot of that came from having some really talented editors who were so good about cutting picture against music. I was a sucker for moving female vocalists, and that was sort of my go-to kind of vocalist for the show. As we got deeper into that first season, when people suddenly became aware that the show was really having an impact out there, it became easier for us to get artists.
McCullough: Not to sound snobbish, but we were looking for good music, good songwriting and music that typically had an emotion to it. It was just listening: hours and hours of listening.
Matich: A good song can come from everywhere and it doesn’t always come from the music supervisor. When I was there, we brought on editors who liked music, kept up with music and brought in music. We had an editor Barbara Gerard who kept putting in an artist named Alexi Murdoch back then. We ended up licensing him two or three times if I remember correctly. I came into this show liking music a lot and being pretty up to date. For every song in the show, there’s a story of how it came to be. The songs can come from anywhere. I could hear a song on the radio and I would think, “Oh my gosh, that could be great for Dawson’s Creek.” You’re just listening all the time.
Is there any artist you wanted but couldn’t get?
Matich: I know Paul in the pilot wanted “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. I remember him talking about that because it came up in season six - not the song, but the band. We wanted to have a band on the show in season 6 somehow and playing. There were some candidates, but really at the top of the shortlist was No Doubt just because of what Paul wanted to do back then. We just kept getting told “No, no, no.” In 2002, they had a new album out and they wanted to promote it so we wound up doing an episode where our gang went and saw No Doubt in concert. That’s one where Paul never really gave up. We actually had them on the show in the last season.
What was your favorite curated music moment on the show?
Stupin: One of my all-time favorite music sequences I think was suggested by Sony Music. They had a song by Ed McCain called “I’ll Be.” I heard it, and I thought, OK, that’s one that we’ve got to save for our finale, and we’ll build an entire sequence around it, and we did. Another of my favorites, and I think it’s been covered by many different artists over the years, but for me it was a song I’d never heard called “The Broken Road.” And we used it over this really emotional moment where we were with the character Joey, and she was wrestling emotionally over what to do with herself. It played out great, and I really do think once we found that right song with the right picture and the right scene, it created a real sense of magic. Another one that I loved was another one that came at us through Sony, that Sixpence None the Richer song, “Kiss Me.” “Kiss Me” came because it was used in some movie, and Sony called and said, “Would you be interested in using this? It hasn’t been on any soundtrack. It was in this one movie, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t used on the soundtrack.” When I heard it, I loved it so much that not only did we put it in the show, but we also ended up using that as one of the anchor songs on the first Dawson’s Creek soundtrack.
Matich: I do! In season five, Dawson’s father passes away. Tom Kapinos, the writer of episode 4, wanted in the worst way to use James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” At the time, James Taylor was really someone who didn’t license music -- he always said no. Tom wrote him a very personal letter to try and get the song. Within a couple of weeks, we got the song in. It was the moment in the show after the funeral where Dawson lets himself grieve. When we did the DVDs, some of the music was replaced, but we got money from Sony to keep the certain milestone songs for the DVDs and when we started doing season five, “Ok we’re keeping ‘Fire and Rain.’” Not that I had the final word, but nobody argued with me.
How did the decision come about to have Joey sing on the show?
Stupin: We just thought ultimately it would be great. That was just one of those things that she was so brilliant at conveying the depth, the yearning and the edge. All of the characters are unforgettable, and I think what Katie did with that role of Joey Potter...she’s certainly one of the more memorable characters that have been on television. I can’t imagine anyone ever playing that role as she did. And by the way, how she got the role is another story, because she was brand new, didn’t live in Hollywood and was in Toledo. But I’m so glad that we ended up casting her.
Do you ever wish Joey sang more on the show?
Matich: The talent show with Joey was before me. In season five, Joey got a roommate because she went off to college -- that was Audrey played by Busy Philipps and she could sing. We had her singing three or four times during the last few years. We had her singing “Son of a Preacher Man” and “One Way or Another.”
At the beginning of Dawson’s Creek, Jen was not necessarily a likable character to me, but by the end I was rooting for her and she had become my favorite.
Stupin: At the beginning, when we shot the pilot, the network didn’t give us the money for a full pilot. So we shot six days, and the character that was in the pilot script that we didn’t cast until we went to series was Grams. So Jen’s whole relationship with Grams was I think such a touchstone for the whole series. But the great thing that Michelle brought to it was the sense that underneath the calm there was such a sense of vulnerability: this girl had obviously been through some emotional pain. And I think she was great at conveying the fact that there were other levels to this beautiful girl who moved in next to Dawson. Theoretically in that first season, there was her grandfather in a respirator off in one room who was not doing well, and that relationship between Jen and Grams really built and had such a solid foundation of love and support. But at the beginning there was a lot of conflict. And I think seeing this girl from New York having to deal with a woman who cared deeply about her, but maybe wasn’t so good about communicating that added a whole sense of vulnerability to her character. Anyway, I’m really proud of all those sequences, and I love Michelle as much as everyone, but I never really regarded her as -- maybe I’m too close -- as sort of unlikable. I know that she was certainly a source of conflict on Joey’s part, from Joey’s perception, but we played that for many seasons.
Jen’s long-lost sister plot remains unresolved for me. Remember when they brought her long-lost sister in?
Stupin: I can tell you that the thought came up that maybe it would be a source of interesting conflict. The original idea was of this very sophisticated, smart, potentially dangerous girl shows up in Capeside and throws her wrench into everyone’s machinery. And that sounded like a fun idea, and when we talked about it, the thought came up: maybe we should play something of, is this girl or is this girl not Jen’s sister? And when I look back on it, I don’t think it’s any of our most favorite story turns in the show. We started the season, and when it became clear that that storyline wasn’t working as strongly as it should, we basically rebooted everything for the back nine episodes. It started to feel like maybe it wasn’t in line with the tone of the show; and that’s just one of the things you discover, and you adjust from what you learn. I think the back nine of the second season were particularly strong.
Something I’ve thought about a lot is, do you think there should’ve been more people of color on the show?
Stupin: I think absolutely. I think if we were doing it again, we would be much more aware of diversity and I think making sure that Capeside was populated with a more diverse group of characters.
When you were working with Sony, what was that process like?
Stupin: Mostly I was discovering them on my own through John. I cannot minimize John’s role in this. John very quickly learned the kinds of music and the kinds of artists and songs that Kevin and I were responding to. I had never heard of someone like Chantal Kreviazuk, Jann Arden and all these people. It was John who sent them over as possibilities. As our popularity started to escalate, I think Sony became aware of the fact that there could be some great synchronicity between different divisions of the company, and that’s when they started suggesting songs as well.
Why do you think Dawson’s Creek’s music had such an impact on pop culture?
Stupin: One of the things that I’m so proud of about Dawson’s Creek is that I think it really captured the emotion and the yearning and the vulnerability of growing up. And I think that one of the key ways we did it was to underscore these brilliantly written scenes with some absolutely brilliantly written songs. And I think together it lifted the emotional power of the show. Because there are points where I’d be watching it on the air -- and I’ve seen each episode 10-15 times -- and you still get choked up. I’m so proud of the quality of the writing, and I think that was so amazing. But coupled with the music, it would make those scenes spectacular.
Matich: I think it was a perfect storm of everything. Kevin Williamson brought these characters together at a perfect time. I think Paul brought a music sensibility that no one had really brought to TV before of really being the current music be our soundtrack rather than choosing songs here and there. I think it also really made careers. I think with Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me” we were the first ones to use it and it became a big hit after that. We were the first ones to license Norah Jones in 2002.
One of the most memorable songs for me was the heartbreaking “Say Goodnight, Not Goodbye.” It was Beth Nielsen-Chapman who did that one. I believe it was in the beginning of the series and reappeared when Michelle Williams’ character was dying, I just remember it added to the poignancy.
Stupin: As we got into the end, we’d been doing it for so many seasons, and certainly, we wanted to make that finale as emotionally powerful as we possibly could. And there were big events that happened in that finale. And by the way, that’s something I could go on forever about too. I do know that in terms of the music selections for that, there was so much care and so much thought given. And the big issue when we were going into that finale was who was Joey going to end up with? Is it going to be Dawson, or is it going to be Pacey?
Can you tell me about the music in the final episodes?
Matich: I do remember that while we were talking about the final episodes Paul wanted to bring back some of the songs that had been milestones in the previous episodes. With Michelle Williams’ character passing away, he wanted to bring back Sarah McLachlan.
How did you land on who Joey was going to be with? Was it planned out?
Stupin: I can tell you, as Kevin was writing it, I think the question was still very much in the air. It’s a two-parter finale, and they weren’t shot together, but they were shot back-to-back. In the first hour, we had sort of started setting up with as many subtle, little indications as we could that it would be Dawson and Joey. And then as we got into the second hour, the sentiment shifted, and we ended up with Joey and Pacey being together. That was a decision that was made, basically, when the second half of our finale was being written. I think sometimes the best decision can happen out of chaos and out of thinking every single option through. When I look back on that finale, I’m so proud of the ending, and I think ultimately it was the right decision, because I think that the relationship between Dawson and Joey was ultimately timeless and transcended normal relationships.
That’s crazy, because I would’ve thought they’d planned that out years before.
Stupin: No, we actually didn’t. Generally we would start every season and really think about what this season would be about and where we wanted to go and what the highlights, what the big story turns would be. But we didn’t really ever have the luxury to basically sit around and think years in advance. There were certain, of course, events in these kids’ lives that of course we knew we were going to do, and that is after we were in high school for a number of years we would go off to college, and we would follow the characters there. So those kinds of things we knew in advance. That kept the storytelling fresh. When I look back on all the years of Dawson’s Creek, I would say I love them all, but I have a real sense of pride and love for those first 13 episodes.
Is there something you wish would’ve been done differently with the show?
Stupin: To tell you the truth, no. I was fortunate enough to be in a position -- having run it all those years -- to hopefully make the right decision. Most of my issues would be production issues. We shot it in North Carolina. I would’ve loved to spend a little more time in Cape Cod and capture a little more of the texture of that part of the world. But I think we pulled it off pretty well. We even actually shot a few pieces in Europe that we liked, when Joey finally got to Paris. In my mind, each one of these episodes has had so much tender loving care put into them and so much talent and heart and love that I think they still all work pretty well.
Matich: Yes. I would have met Paul Stupin four years earlier and did the show with him. Dawson’s Creek breathed life into work again for me. Paul would set this tone of setting the bar really high but making sure everyone was having as good of a time as we could. That’s something I really hadn’t found in a show before, and it’s something I’ve tried to do since.
Is there a story about Dawson’s Creek that people don’t necessarily know?
Matich: I can tell you that the No Doubt episode, we actually sent a whole crew up from North Carolina to Worcester, MA. But none of our cast came to Worcester. We shot the soundcheck of the concert when no one was on the floor. All of the close-ups are during the soundcheck and all of the wide shots are from the concert. The guitarist at soundcheck and at the concert had two different guitars and we had to use color correction to make them look alike because they gave him a different guitar for the concert. It totally screwed us over.
If Dawson’s Creek were to be revived today, what do you think it would look like? Would it even be possible?
Stupin: Well, I would say that nothing is ever impossible. But the thing is, I think that we were incredibly lucky to have found I think the perfect young actors. I think that James, Michelle, Josh and Katie were just perfect for it. So if we ever did bring it back, as a fan of the show, I’d certainly want to see and revisit all of my original characters and find out where they are and what they’re doing, and I’d want to see these characters as adults. And at the same time, I guess if we were bringing it back, we’d also want to introduce a group of characters that are the same age as our original cast was. And to do that I think that would be a challenge to find any group of young actors - to put together an ensemble as historic and memorable as the one we originally created. Nothing’s impossible, and I’d love the challenge of doing it, but I think it would be hard, if not impossible.
Matich: I feel like our last episode was the “in the future episode,” but I don’t know what it would look like. I’m just not sure. We had a great thing, it ran for a long time...let’s just appreciate it. It’s a tough recipe to put back together anyway.