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The Republic of Sarah Creator on the Fascinating CW Show’s Origins

What would happen if one town decided to declare its independence? That’s the kicking-off point for The Republic of Sarah, the new CW drama set in the fictional Greylock, New Hampshire: When a mining company arrives in town to take advantage of a large amount of a valuable mineral discovered in the area, the locals, led by high school history teacher Sarah Cooper (Stella Baker), decide to take advantage of a quirk in the town’s geography to save it from being destroyed. The catch, however, is that now Greylock is its own country — and has to figure out what that means, across the board.

The Republic of Sarah had a slightly more complicated journey to the screen than most shows, as the pilot was originally developed for CBS before shifting to The CW. That decision, though, and the resulting changes made to the show (including aging down the characters), are something creator Jeffrey Paul King, a multi-season veteran of the CBS procedural Elementary, credits as making the show better. In this one-on-one interview with Collider, he reveals the real-life history (personal and global) that inspired the show, the importance of acknowledging Native culture (and including a Native character played by Forrest Goodluck), and why, exactly, the show’s premise isn’t meant to be anti-American.

Collider: To start off, what was the specific inspiration point that kicked off this idea? The spark that made you go, “Huh. That could be something.”

JEFFREY PAUL KING: The exciting thing is there is an answer, which is the idea for the show itself was born a long time ago, just I was studying this kind of stuff, and being like, “Oh, okay. South Sudan is a country now. I wonder how they’ll do.” That’s always been kind of intriguing. But it was always like, “Well, how do you make it a show?”

The thing that I think really helped me was ultimately doing enough research and figuring out that there actually are several geographical oddities on the planet that are like this. And that, to me, felt like, “Oh.” As soon as that became real, I think it helps us answer a question that the pilot itself is very forthright about, and also that I am always forthright with the show, which is the question of secession. Is this a secession show? And the answer is no, and I never wanted to make a secession show. That was something that obviously was going to always be an obstacle if you’re doing a show about a country that starts anew.

But then I discovered that there’s a strip of land in Italy called Seborga… What happened with that land is after the Napoleonic wars, they were making this list of what would become Italy. What’s Italy? And they left this strip of land off of [the list]. So you cut to 1960, and this guy figured out that they left that strip of land off it and declared it independent.

And right now, in 2021, Seborga exists as an independent principality inside of Italy. So it’s not a new country, but it’s somewhat sovereign. It’s a real thing. And the other one that just sparked my imagination was this strip of desert in between Egypt and Sudan, which is called Bir Tawil. And that also is a place where neither country has claimed it. It’s a chunk of sand that you could go to right now and stick a flag in and they would probably give it to you, because nobody owns it. It’s just a piece of unclaimed earth on the globe.

So I think, as I began to wrestle with the idea, finding some real things that actually are related to the show, that would help the narrative, would help me make this fun, uplifting thing in a way that makes the plot and the premise seem grounded, feel realistic. That’s when I first started to believe, god, maybe I could do this. Maybe this actually could work if you’re tethering it to real oddities, real things that have happened like that. I think before that, it was always just kind of a nebulous thing, and there were certain landmines about it that I was like, “Ah.” But then as I started to really think about it, it was like, actually, wow, you can make this work.

This is a minor detail, but in the pilot, Sarah explains that she knows about the geography that makes the premise possible because she studied cartography in college. And I was curious if you actually did something similar.

KING: Yeah. So my undergraduate degree is in cultural geography and cartography. I have a master’s degree in showrunning from UCLA, but my undergrad experience was not geared towards studying film and TV. I just showed up at Middlebury College in Vermont and they’re one of the few institutions left that has a dedicated geography department. So I just fell in love with [it]. I studied violence in European soccer and how it affects nationalism. I studied the economics and geography of fast food restaurants. It’s really kind of studying the world around you.

And maps, I’ve always loved maps. And a weird fun fact about me is that I’m a published cartographer. When, I was a senior at Middlebury. I used GIS software and all this high-level mapping software to make a map of Boston’s historic theater district, and that map was put in a textbook. So I’m steeped in that. I always liked that. I’m a pretty curious person normally in my life, and that’s always drawn my interest. So yeah, I’ve certainly spent time in that world.

republic-of-sarah-stella-baker

Image via The CW

So you have a degree in cartography. I would imagine that that lends itself only a little bit to the actual political aspects of creating a country?

KING: Yeah. I would say yes and no. I think it’s an absolutely astute point. I think the cartographical pieces of it is more about yeah, the construction of the premise and whatever. The other piece of my study, this idea of cultural geography is like… The question you’re asking when you study that is, how does place affect people? How does it affect people if they’re living in certain neighborhoods? How you memorialize a historical event, how does that affect the culture of that place going forward? I spent a whole bunch of time in my undergrad degree studying Holocaust memorialization, and what is the shape of the statue, and why is it where it is, and who made it? And really looking at how a place affects the lives of people.

And that does start to get into politics, because you’re just looking at, yeah man, how is the place you live comfortable and useful to the people who live there in terms of living productive lives? So there’s a little bit about that, that it was informed. But otherwise, as you say, that being said, I wasn’t a poli-sci major. So I think once we got into the writer’s room and once we began to actually make the show, the political stuff was a matter of just being good about making sure the room was full of people who didn’t look and think like me; making sure that the cast had a voice in what stories were going to be, and what opinions we were pushing forward.

We are a very collaborative show, probably because I come from theater and theater is always a team sport. I’m not interested in running a tyranny. So a lot of voices got heard on our show as far as how stories were made and that discussion. But ultimately, the end of day, we’ll say this: We’re not trying to be a soapbox, I think, through Republic of Sarah. Ultimately, it’s still is a story about people and their conflicts and how they struggle with stuff. But I think by listening to everybody and by letting people have a voice, I think we’re able to get closer to how the politics should play out.

Clearly, of course, finding your Sarah was essential to the show. I know that the pilot’s been through some changes, but was the protagonist always, basically, a young woman of some sort? And what were you looking for when trying to cast her?

KING: The protagonist was always a young woman and that comes from how I am a man raised by women. My father got sick when I was 11, and past that point, I didn’t really have that many male role models in my life who were adults. I didn’t know either of my grandfathers. I didn’t really have any uncles. But my mother had this gaggle of women, strong, independent women, who became defacto aunties and grannies for me all of my whole life.

So I am only who I am because of women and I always respect that and honor that. So that was why I was always like, if this were ever going to work in the real world, for my money, it would have to be a woman. Only a woman is strong enough to do this. So she was always a young woman. The CW version, I think, was just better because we sharpened her. She just became more specific. TV is full of amazing women and many of them are quite glossy. It’s an industry of image, of course. So very, lots of women in high heels and perfect-looking people. And of course, let me tell you, Stella Baker is perfect looking, but her attitude, her vibe, and Sarah’s vibe, to me is a bit more rough and tumble. It’s a bit more realistic and grounded and imperfect in a gorgeous way.

That’s why Stella pops so much — when she came in her audition and stuff, talking to her, she’s so thoughtful. She’s so clever. She embraces the imperfection. Talking to her about the story and about the way she acts and the way the character works, she was so excited every time Sarah was going to make a mistake. Every time Sarah screwed up, she was thrilled, because it just spoke to the realism and imperfection of humanity and of life. So I think that’s a very long and rambling answer to your question. She was always a young woman, but I think she got a little bit more specific and better when we tightened her up for the CW.

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Yeah, I feel like wardrobe-wise, the costume department seems really to know who she is and dresses her accordingly.

KING: Yeah. So we worked a lot with them and certainly Simonetta [Mariano], who’s our wardrobe designer, deserves a lot of credit. Stella herself deserves a lot of credit. The two of them went through a ton of patches, the cuts of that jacket. We really looked at Sarah as our superhero, and that leather jacket is her cape.

I also will say, we worked really hard to be specific about what bands does she like? So if you look really closely on that jacket, we actually worked with some bands to do the paperwork and do the work of clearing patches and clearing things. So on the front of her jacket, there’s one of her pins that says Idles, I-D-L-E-S. That is a working punk band right now from England who’s incredible. They’re these really aggressive, super feminist… Listen to Idles. They’re amazing. So we worked with them. We got in touch with their management and got the image cleared, so that is specific.

The big giant patch in the back, the wolf patch in the back of her jacket is also a band called Neurosis. Again, anti-authority, punk rockers from Oakland. Really thoughtful, aggressive. So we were just really careful. Even on the shoulder patch, that’s a quote from Emma Goldman, who’s an early 20th century anarchist, the basic idea of which is like, I don’t care about pretty, give me useful. Bread before roses. Yeah. So things like that. So we were really specific. We did the work. We did the homework to contact Neurosis and contact Idles and make that all happen.

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Image via The CW

Another detail that that comes up in the pilot is, when Sarah is explaining the whole history of Greylock and its geography, you make a point of them talking about the claiming of tribal lands. How important was that a factor in a lot of the development of the show, the previous Native occupation of lands like Greylock?

KING: I would say it was really important, and I think it played out in a couple of ways. One is yeah, understanding that white people were not the first people on this continent. And in fact, that history obviously is very bloody and very tragic. Where I grew up in New Hampshire, yeah, it was Abenaki. But obviously, there are a myriad of tribes around the country that were pushed out and destroyed in the way that Sarah talks about. So that was one thing.

Two was, in the narrative itself, it’s something we’re looking to continue to allow to bloom on the show. There will be a more specific discussion of it, very likely in Season 2. And part of it is the existence of Tyler. The character of Tyler is something that we’re really excited about and really proud. The experience of being an Indigenous person in this country is that there are a thousand different versions of that experience. It’s a mistake to look at every Native person and go, “Okay, well, you’re Native, so your experience is exactly the same.” No, man, every tribe is different. The languages are different. The geography where they lived is different.

So for me, it was like, look. It matters to me. I care about representing this community in some way on this show. But I also acknowledge, and this comes from … I went to boarding school in high school and for two years, my roommate was a Paiute Indian from Utah. Like I said, I will never claim to be like, “Oh, and thus, I know about native things.” I don’t. But what I did get from it, which I’m grateful for, is an experience of getting to know somebody personally who grew up in that lifestyle, grew up on a reservation and has something to say about it. That’s what I’m grateful for. So for me, it was a matter of the existence of Tyler, putting a character in the show that is Indigenous, but also, ultimately, letting that Indigenous person have storylines that don’t always have to do with the fact that he is Indigenous.

The amazing Lily Gladstone is an acquaintance of mine. I’ve spent some time with her, and she talks about a lot of parts you get is like, “Yay, we’re representing Natives.” But the storyline is about a casino. It’s like, well, does every storyline about natives have to be about a casino? So we did our absolute best, and I was always talking to Forrest Goodluck about any stories about Tyler, just trying to make sure that we had this Indigenous presence. But also this Indigenous person is a teenage boy, and a lot of his concerns are about falling in love and finding his voice, as opposed to him just being a mouthpiece for talking about Native issues.

Also, before we started shooting, our production in the land that we were working on was blessed. We had a Mohawk woman come and perform a ceremony on day one of our production [in Montreal].

So there’s a tricky question I want to ask you about, with regards to patriotism: How do you feel like an American should feel watching the show, which is essentially about a group of people rejecting America? To be clear, I don’t think that the show does come off as anti-American at all, and I don’t want to get you in trouble with, say, the U.S. government for asking that question. But it is, I feel like, an aspect of it.

KING: It’s a fair question. And here’s what I would say is, I’ll answer it in two parts. One is that, it’s a fair take. I understand why the takeaway would be okay, this is anti-American. I think, by being as specific … I hope, by being as specific as we are in the narrative, as far as, this is a mining company called Lydon and really, the enemy beyond them is the governor of New Hampshire. It’s a specific person who is really abusing her power to flatten this town. It was our effort, it was our attempts to make sure that it wasn’t just, “Fuck America and fuck all of its history, and we’re out.” It’s like no, this is an obstacle, and the antagonists have put our backs against the wall.

I think in terms of how Americans should feel about it, ideally, what I’d like them to feel is the show to be an auspicious reminder of, you can make your world for yourself — ideally, it’s a inspiration to, if you don’t like the way that your town is treating the powerless, then run for office yourself. Roll up your sleeves and use the legal system and use the courts and use your power as an individual to change things.

In Republic of Sarah, and this is also done very specifically, nothing is done on Sarah’s behalf with violence and with law breaking. They don’t declare war. They don’t shoot anybody. They use the legal system to try to make things better for themselves and for their town. I think that is hopefully an inspiration that people will take away.

It’s pretty easy, I think, sometimes to look at the leaders of countries and think of the government as this weird, apersonal entity above all of our heads. Hopefully, the show reminds people that the government is just people. It’s just people who decided they wanted to try and make a change. If you don’t like what’s going on, then get involved. Roll up your sleeves and you can be in that government. I think often, leaders like that, you get to see them in terms of the marble busts. They become these strange demigods where you think that you could never do that or it’s unattainable. And it isn’t. If anything, let’s hope the show reminds people that you can be the change that you want to see. You can be the person that makes things better for everybody.

The Republic of Sarah airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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