Making the cut
by Dara Resnik Creasey
So, we did it. My husband-and-writing-partner and I got through the water bottle tour of staffing season, the intensity of our first writers’ rooms, the multiple round of notes on our first script, and finally the grueling hours of our first set. We were done, right?
Until that sucker airs, a writer’s work is never done. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are three stories — the one conceived of in the script, the one that is shot on set, and the one that finally congeals in editing. Sometimes, these stories are nearly the same. And sometimes, they are vastly different.
Showrunners bring the writer/producer of the episode into the process that is post-production to varying degrees. On Studio 60, we were not at all involved in post-production. That responsibility belonged to executive producers Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme. On Pushing Daisies and Mistresses we were given dailies (DVDs of footage shot the previous day), and then watched various cuts (director’s cut, studio cut, network cut), on which we were asked to give notes. But Bryan Fuller, and Rina Mimoun and KJ Steinberg respectively, were the only writers in the editing room. On Castle, we’ve been lucky enough to be invited into the editing bay with Andrew Marlowe, usually as observers (and occasional thought-giving peanut gallery).
Having never created a show that made it to series, I’m only guessing there are two major reasons for relegating the majority of post-production oversight to the showrunner. The first is simply a question of resources. There are fewer writers on staff than there used to be in this business. If you’ve already lost a writer to set for eight days, you probably want her back in the writers’ room so the next writer can cover set on his episode. Otherwise, each writer is in various modes of pre-production, production, and post-production, and suddenly a staff writer is alone in a big room with a blank white board, breaking her episode in a puddle of tears. Second, I imagine that too many bodies and opinions in a tiny, dark editing room would be a nightmare of Elm Street proportions.
As for studio/network notes on the cut, those calls are remarkably similar in nature to studio/network notes on the script. The showrunner takes the lead on these calls, though the writer/producer can chime in as necessary. Remember, usually the writer/producer was on set for production, not the showrunner. She’s the one who knows off-hand whether or not there’s a take in which the actor doesn’t make “that” face, or one where the actress looks like she actually took a sip of the poisoned coffee, or another in which it’s apparent that’s a chihuahua in the background and not a rat.
We’ve made it to the end (the end being an air date) of several episodes now, and there’s a short list of Things We Did Right:
Thing We Did Right #1: We watched all the dailies.
This is a time-consuming endeavor, but especially on your first episode, a crucial one. When the showrunner asks what you did or did not get, it’s helpful to refresh your memory. Which shots turned out the way you discussed in the concept meeting? What did you miss? Did the director print that take you really liked? A director gets less than a week to complete her cut of the episode before the showrunner works on it. It’s a difficult position for the director, knowing that her hard work will be re-written, so to speak, in the edit bay, and some directors are careful to “protect” their cuts by not printing too many takes. But in this digital age, it’s relatively easy to go back and “print” a shot the director didn’t include in the dailies, and your boss, the showrunner, will want to know what his options are. It’s important to know what you have and what you don’t.
Thing We Did Right #2: We did not give unnecessary notes.
Especially on our first episode, we were careful to save our thoughts for the big stuff. You’re going to be writing up notes on at least two cuts, and since wading through your notes is yet another item on the showrunner’s unbelievably long to-do list, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. Our notes are generally bullet points and not longer than a couple of pages. If your notes are ten pages long, it’s unlikely the ones that are meaningful to you will land. The showrunner will likely be the one scrutinizing every shot in the editing room. You don’t need to note how the lead actor’s hair isn’t quite right. But if you feel like the director cut a line that illuminates the B-story, it’s important to make sure you are heard.
Thing We Did Right #3: We came up with creative solutions.
On our first Pushing Daisies episode, “Bitches,” there was a story point about how the polygamist dog breeder (played by Joel McHale) was working on a designer dog with DNA from four separate breeds. The studio and network noted (on the “cut call”) that this was coming off as confusing, so we put our heads together with Fuller and conceived of a visual aid using existing footage and special effects to “show” the audience what the dog breeder was doing, rather than talking about it. Sometimes the creative solution is an insert (often a close-up) shot. Sometimes it’s ADR (a line you record, and often write, separately). Sometimes it’s removing a moment you fell in love with because it takes the story off track. Post-production is often a puzzle with moving pieces until days before it airs. Which brings me to…
Thing We Did Right #4: We celebrated.
Our friend and colleague Mark Goffman, who gave us our first TV job on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, imparted this advice early on: celebrate the victories. When our episodes air, even still, it’s not unusual for us to invite some friends over, open a bottle of champagne, and toast our good fortune at “making it” on some level. This business is full of heartbreak, disappointment, and failure. Completing an episode of television, landing a gig, selling a project, these are Big Accomplishments. Holding onto these moments will lift you up the next time you fall down.
There are a million ways to handle the million disparate experiences we each have as TV writers. I know what I did right, and I also know that others might have handled each of the steps I discussed in this series differently. But this last Thing We Did Right is the one about which I am certain. On this, I am not wrong. I promise if you celebrate the victories too, your life in this business will be better. Celebrate the great meeting. Celebrate getting an agent. Celebrate the first time you get paid for your words. Celebrate the attempt to do this crazy, fabulous, delusional, difficult and wonderful thing called writing.
And pour me a glass while you’re at it.Tags: Castle (TV show), Dara Resnik Creasey, Hollywood, Mark Goffman, Pushing Daisies, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television, Television editing, Television production, Watching dailies, Writer