You’re all set!
by Dara Resnik Creasey
In the fall of 2007, my husband-and-writing-partner and I began production on the first episode of television we were ever asked to produce — an episode of Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies called “Bitches” about a polygamist dog breeder (played by Joel McHale) who is killed by one of his four wives.
I remember driving to the studio the first shooting day (of nine) and being in awe that I was there to watch our words brought to life. Sets we had described, characters we had conceived, dialogue we had slaved over. And then I got to set and realized, “Oh crap. I’m not just here to watch. I’m here to do a job.” But I had never really done that job before. I had seen others do it, but had never actually done it myself.
I imagine a first day on set is what a young surgeon feels like the first time she’s asked to actually cut into a patient. Except for the small fact that nobody is going to die if you screw up. The stakes might be lower… but they ain’t that low. Each episode of television costs millions of dollars. One tiny mistake — think something as simple (yet crucial) as a costume that comes in the wrong size or color and forces shooting to be pushed a day — will not just screw up the budget for that episode, it can carry over and screw up the budget for the entire season.
I can’t remember exactly what transpired. I’m pretty sure it had to do with the fact that we were working with not one, not two, but five canine “actors,” and something on the first day went wrong. One of our lead actors, for whom I have great affection, was not happy. And I could tell. I asked him if he was okay. He replied, “Well, are you happy with this?” And I sighed, “No…” “Okay,” he said. “Then why don’t you do something about it?” Don’t ask me why, but I think I responded, genuinely, extremely naïvely, “Is that my job?” His eyes widened, “YES.”
And with that, something clicked. Damn right it was my job! Nobody was going to fight for Fuller’s vision, our vision, of the episode more fiercely than me. I spoke up. And then I spoke up again. And again. And sometimes I made the difficult decision not to speak up. The next several days were challenging, exhausting, and more rewarding than I had ever imagined. The episode, and a few more sets behind me, I see better what we did right at this crucial life-giving step of the process:
Thing #1 We Did Right: We were in close contact with the showrunner at all times.
On some shows, the showrunner will want to stay as far away from set as possible, but most are very hands-on. They want to know everything. That said, they have other duties (room running, writing, re-writing, pre/post-production just to name a few) and part of your job as the episode’s producer is to protect him or her from issues you can handle on your own.
Thing #2 We Did Right: We learned everyone’s name.
Okay, maybe not everyone, and maybe not on the first day. But the people who can make your life easy or hard are much more willing to help you out at 3am on on a Fraturday (industry term for a Friday shoot that goes into Saturday morning) if you have a smile and know their names. If you are someone who doesn’t easily remember names, that’s what the other side of the call sheet is for. Keep it in your literal back pocket.
Thing #3 We Did Right: We had a good relationship with the actors, but we never gave them notes.
The DGA (Director’s Guild of America) is rightly touchy about writers who try to do the director’s job. And by “touchy,” I mean, it’s against their union contract. Don’t do it. If you have thoughts on the stars’ performances, you bring them up with the director between takes. How often you give the director notes depends on the showrunner (does he care about whether the words are said precisely as they’re written on the page?), the director (is she collaborative or combative?), the actors’ moods (have there been eight Fraturdays in a row?), and several other factors. Ultimately, the director will move on to her next gig, and you will have to answer to the showrunner, who will want to know why you did or did not get that shot you all discussed in the concept meeting (yes, that’s another real TV term) before production started. On the other hand, you also don’t want an entire set full of people grumbling because this is the 18th time today you stopped them from moving on because an actor didn’t say the words as you had them in your head. To that end…
Thing #4 We Did Right: We embraced production as a step completely separate from screenwriting.
I heard Ang Lee discuss this once at a DGA forum, and have since worked with showrunners who subscribe to the same theory. There are three different versions of any story on which you’re working: the one that’s in the script, the one you see on set, and the one in editing/post-production. Sometimes, production will magically look, sound, and feel as it did in your head when you wrote those precious words on the page. Sometimes, production will blow that vision directly out of the water and via planning or happy accident be even better than you could ever have written. And sometimes the light is fading before “action” is called, and you just have to get the shot, any shot, so you can live to fight for another shot on another day.
Besides, you’ll still have one more chance to mold your episode into the work of art you’re certain it can be between those commercials… in post-production.
Next time: The last step and beyond.Tags: Dara Resnik Creasey, Entertainment industry, Hollywood, Joel McHale, On set, Pushing Daisies, Television, TV production, Writer-Producer