A True Original: A Chat with "The Originals" Writer Carina Adly Mackenzie

I love mining my own experience for good moments on screen, but it can be painful to do that.
— Carina Mackenzie
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Emily Koopman: First of all, I want to ask the extremely cliche question of what inspired you to become a writer and how you got your start.

Carina Mackenzie: I've always wanted to be a writer, I think. I had a brief period in the third grade when I truly believed I was going to grow up to be a popstar, despite my lack of talent. And then for a year or two when I was older I wanted to be a music supervisor for a TV show -- I've always been really obsessed with music and I thought it'd be my career -- but other than that I've always been pretty focused on writing. I wrote all kinds of things -- I've written a lot of poetry, and I wrote songs when I was a teenager. When I was a freshman in college I binge-watched the first season of The OC and it really reignited my love for television, so when I got out of school I decided to move to LA and see how close I could get. I ended up working as a TV journalist for 5 years, which taught me a lot about the business and put me in touch with a lot of people -- specifically, Julie Plec. She'd read some of my articles about her show The Vampire Diaries, and one day she reached out to me and she and Kevin Williamson took me to dinner at Katsuya in Hollywood. I thought it was the fanciest thing. After that dinner, I think, they really believed I had it in me to be a storyteller, and they nurtured me for years while I was still a reporter. They gave me access to The Vampire Diaries sets as a journalist that very few other people got, and really let me into the family. I was observing from afar but I was scared to really make the leap. I liked being a journalist, I got to travel a lot and meet interesting people and I always knew where my next paycheck was coming from. Plus, I was pretty good at it -- I felt like it was a career, not just a job. Walking away from it was very scary and hard, especially because Julie made me quit my job as a journalist before she'd consider me for The Originals writer's assistant job. I had to start from the bottom as a TV writer -- being the writer's assistant only paid about two thirds of what I'd been making as a journalist, so it was a tough year financially, but also emotionally, because it was tough for me to go from a job where I had a lot of creative agency and a lot of autonomy to a job where I was just taking notes and lunch orders. I was only 26, but I felt like I was too old to be starting over. I felt like I had taken a huge step backward, even though I was closer to what I wanted than I'd ever been. Then, finally, Michael Narducci and Julie offered me the chance to show them what I could do with a script toward the end of the first season, and off of that work -- which I still think is the best script I've written -- they hired me to be a writer.

Emily: Now, what are some things about you that you think everyone should know?

Carina: Oh, that's a big question. I'm really candid on social media, so there's not much about me that people DON'T know. I guess something that I sometimes get frustrated about is that people don't understand that The Originals isn't my show. I've got a big social media presence left over from journalism, so I'm "loud," but I'm just a story editor -- I'm so new to this. I'm in a position of learning at The Originals, not a position of leadership. I can't think of anything else I'd want to tell people! I'm so boring, honestly. Someone asked me the other day what my hobbies are, and I was like, "Uh, writing?" At work I write stuff and people give me money, then I go home and write other stuff and no one ever sees it, and that's my whole life. People think I'm like, running around LA partying, and really I'm happiest on my couch with a glass of wine and a good friend and my dog and a Bruce Springsteen record on. I call my mom all the time. I'm boring.

Emily: You’ve primarily worked on television shows, is that your first love, or have you ever written features (even just on your own time)?

Carina: I've never written a feature. I've got a couple ideas up my sleeve, but TV is definitely where my heart is. I'm not even much of a movie watcher -- I love a good time-travel drama and I like coming-of-age stories, but I have really bad anxiety that makes it hard for me to sit still for two hours without, like, checking my phone to make sure no one I love has died, so I don't go to the movie theater very much. I realize that sounds crazy -- I'm kind of crazy. One of the best parts of being a TV writer is that I get sent movie screeners during awards season, so I can watch all the new ones on my couch, where I can see my phone. Anyway, I've got a few feature ideas for silly rom-coms that I'd love to sell to like, Hallmark or Lifetime or whatever, but no big fancy Oscar screenplay dreams or anything.

Emily: What do you do to make your characters believable?

Carina: You make them flawed. It's one of my favorite things about the characters on The Originals -- they might be vampires and werewolves and witches, but their flaws are huge, and very human. Klaus is selfish and irrational. Elijah martyrs himself and has buried all of his self-worth in his brother, which he in turn blames on his brother, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Hayley is hypocritical and impulsive. Cami's obsessed with fixing other people but never turns the magnifying glass on herself. Marcel touts himself as a man of the people, but his hunger for power threatens his relationships. They're messy and sharp-edged but they love each other, in healthy and unhealthy ways, and that's why we love to write them.

Emily: Do you have preference when it comes to writing for the screen or writing novels?

Carina: I like writing for TV. I like the collaborative process -- both with the writer's room while we're breaking the story, and then with the production team and the cast and the director when we're shooting the episode. Writing Eternal Night was really isolating for me and I still am not sure I love what I created! I'm writing another book now, and it can get lonely, when you're used to having ten people to talk to and rely on and jam with.

Emily: What are the most difficult and most enjoyable things about writing?

Carina: The most difficult things about writing are the most enjoyable. I love mining my own experience for good moments on screen, but it can be painful to do that. I cry when I write a lot -- not because, like, what I'm writing is so glorious and emotional, but because I go to a dark place sometimes. Episode 120 of The Originals was tough for me because I was working out some issues I had with my dad on the page, Episode 309 I'd gone through some relationship drama that turned into a Hayley/Jackson argument. It's tough but it's immensely satisfying when it works. For me, the hardest part of being a TV writer is the stuff that gets cut. There have been so many scenes I loved that ended up on the cutting room floor. Last year we almost had to pull a whole Aiden/Josh storyline from one of my episodes, and I literally sobbed about it. We wound up finding a way to put it back in because it was so important to me. That episode - episode 214, which was the death of Kol and the werewolf wedding - came in 20 minutes too long, so basically a third of it had to go. I'm learning to write smaller, now.

Emily: Do you have a favourite movie-going experience?

Carina: Like I said, movies are tough for me because of anxiety. My favorite movie-going experiences were before my anxiety got bad -- like, I used to go to every Harry Potter movie at midnight on opening day with all of my friends, and I'd just get so lost in them. Those were always my favorites.

Emily: What did a typical day look like when you were an assistant compared to a staff writer?

Carina: When I was an assistant, I basically took notes all day in the writer's room. You write down as much as you possibly can that's said in the room, and then you spend some time organizing it so that it makes sense, and making sure that things we landed on are easy to find. As a writer, you're mostly in that room talking -- but then once you've figured out the plan for the episode, you go off and write it, and then you start prep, which is a lot of big conference calls and meetings with the production team -- there's a stunts/VFX meeting, a hair and makeup meeting, a concept meeting, an art meeting, a production meeting. Sometimes you're on those meetings over the phone, sometimes you fly to Atlanta for them so you can be there face-to-face, and then obviously when we film we're in Atlanta on set, giving notes to the director and talking to the cast and making sure everything is as we imagined it, or better. But really, the heart of our show is in the writer's room. That's my favorite place to be, especially when there are a lot of people in there and it feels like a creative jam sesh.

Emily: What kind of work did you do before becoming a paid writer?

Carina: Oh god. I was all different kind of assistants. Personal assistant, production assistant, agent's assistant. I'm really bad at assisting, I think. Then I went into journalism, which, like I said, I really loved -- but I guess that counts as being a "paid writer." I hope I never have to do anything but write ever again. I really love it.

Emily: What are the top 5 most important things in your life?

Carina: I think this is going to be pretty cheesy, but... here we go. My family is number one. I talk to my mom pretty much every day -- I went through some pretty difficult stuff personally this year and I don't think I'd have come out the other end of it if it wasn't for my mom. I wish I talked to my sisters more -- we're spread out all over the country right now -- but I think about them every day and it's really important to me that I set an example they can be proud of. My friends clock in at number two. I try to surround myself with authentic, positive people who live honestly and passionately, and I think I've done a pretty good job of that here in LA. My work is number three -- I make a lot of personal-life sacrifices for my job, but my job is also really personal. The cast and crew and writers feel like family to me, so my devotion to my job is really about people -- you want to do your best so that they can all do their best and so that we can all feel proud of what we've done. And I really, really am proud. The fourth thing that's important to me is art. Music and art and books and other TV shows keep my brain working the way that it should. I try really hard to keep working on writing things outside of the show so that I don't lose touch with my own voice while I'm doing my best to emulate the voice of our showrunners. I want to stay inspired and excited, and that makes me better at my job and better at my life. The fifth most important thing to me is my dog. Just kidding... he's actually number one.

InterviewsEmily Koopman