Tales from the trenches: Grady Hall pitches ‘Spartacus’
by Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado
In August of 2013 we published our book about pitching, The Hollywood Pitching Bible. While the book was intended to offer solid advice about selling projects for film and television, along the way we also discovered how the pitching process can become a way to analyze and understand something more fundamental about the nature of a story – a way to decode the DNA of the idea itself – understand it, reverse-engineer it, perfect it. The response to the book has been fantastic and we got some great feedback from readers. Many asked that we amplify some of our ideas, and also include more real-world examples.
So for the second edition of the book, we asked creative professionals who have sold pitches for movies and television shows to tell us the story of their pitch. Each of these stories illustrated one (or more) of the points we made in the book. Hollywood Journal has graciously offered to publish some of these “tales from the trenches.”
– Doug & Ken
I first met Grady Hall when he became attached to direct a 300-style western film I was producing a few years ago. Grady was already well-established as a top commercial director, but it was his contribution to launching the Starz series Spartacus that was winning him some fans at that time. The story of how he used massive preparation and extensive visual aids to land a job on that series struck Doug and me as a great example of how the right preparation for a pitch can really make a difference. We included Grady’s story in our chapter about using “Props” in The Hollywood Pitching Bible.
– Ken Aguado
I originally started out in the world of episodic writing, but had been exclusively directing music videos and commercials for about 8 years when I heard that executive producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Josh Donen were looking for someone to guide the launch, directing, and visual development of their new show for Starz – an R-rated, stylized, drama series fictionalizing the life of Spartacus.
At this early stage, there was no script or treatment – or at least not one anyone wanted to share. The most tangible concept about the series was that they wanted to do “television’s first graphic novel series,” and that the network loved the catchy idea that we were going to show gladiators as if they were “the NBA superstars of their time.”
I had no credits they should care about, no recent series experience, and no previous connection to anyone involved. What I did have was a particular insight into visual storytelling, and about a month to prepare the answer to their dilemma: how exactly to create a high-quality 300-style“graphic novel” look for around $2 million per episode. They agreed to meet with me.
In preparing for the pitch, instead of approaching it by thinking, “let me see if I can get this job,” my thought was “when I start the job, I want to be ready to do it right.” I acted as if I was already on the show – seeing every related film, watching behind-the-scenes visual effects clips, reading hundreds of graphic novels, devouring every historical, quasi-historical, and fictional work related to Spartacus and ancient Rome, and finally, boiling it all down to a clear vision for a shooting style and approach that served the stories we wanted to tell.
Thanks to my “nuclear” over-preparation, a pitch meeting that started ice-cold thawed almost instantly, as I walked the executive producers through my vision and approach to the show. It was the biggest mood change I’ve ever seen from the start of a meeting to the finish, and I think it’s because I wasn’t just pitching to join their show, I was solving their most daunting creative and production challenges as if I were already a member of the team.
The actual pitch had a high-energy montage of great movie scenes and some cool concept art, but the difference-maker was a clear vision of the road forward, supported by more than a hundred specific, original, doable ideas for scenes. I gave out printed presentations with custom-made concept art, passed around a dozen heavily bookmarked graphic novels, and shared inspired scenes from other films. I spoke without notes for about 45 minutes, but was vigilant about seeking questions, gauging reactions, and adjusting my emphasis accordingly. I delivered enough visual style ideas to last for the life of the series but, more importantly, I energetically presented my core idea that any visual technique or style we use must serve storytelling, emotion, and character. I was asked for a visual approach, and I delivered a story-driven visual approach, which is exactly what they wanted. I did the work before I was on the show as if I was already working on the show, and that’s how I got on the show.
The deal was done within days, and I was off to the first season as a director and producer on a show that would go on to several successful seasons. We ended up using lots of specific ideas from that first pitch, but the meeting’s most vital contribution was the introduction of the mantra to always prioritize storytelling over style, even when working on a show whose initial goal was merely to bring a big-screen visual experience to pay cable.
Click below to read a few additional “Tales…”:
Tales from the trenches: Paul Guay pitches ‘Liar Liar’
Tales from the trenches: Robert Eisele pitches ‘The Great Debaters’
Tales from the trenches: John Gray pitches ‘Ghost Whisperer’
Tales from the trenches: Tony Gayton pitches ‘Hell on Wheels’