Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How TV Shows 'Really' Get Made...

Fascinating article HERE from the Chicago Magazine about Jeffery Lieber, the TV writer responsible for the initial development and first pilot script for Lost before it was taken away and handed over to J.J. Abrams and up-and-coming scribe Damon Lindelof.

Some excerpts from the piece:
(Spelling Productions) Ted Gold recalls that ABC wanted its survivor drama to be a hyperrealistic portrayal of life on a deserted island: “Thom [Sherman] (at ABC) said to me, ‘We want to do Cast Away—the Series.’ That’s the only line that was ever pitched.”

Lieber imagined something like Lord of the Flies—a “realistic show about a society putting itself back together after a catastrophe.” In roughly a week’s time, he concocted a general story line centered on what happens to a few dozen plane-crash survivors when they are stuck on a far-off Pacific island. The show, as Lieber saw it, would focus heavily on eight to ten main characters—in particular, two half brothers, avowed rivals, competing for leadership of their fellow castaways, who include a doctor, a con man, a fugitive, a pregnant woman, a drug-addicted man, a military officer, and a spoiled rich girl. (Sound familiar, Lost fans?)

In September 2003, Lieber pitched his premise for the show, then titled Nowhere, to Sherman and his lieutenants. Afterward, continues Gold, “Thom called me and he told me, quote-unquote, ‘The best project of the year.’ He greenlights it enthusiastically.”

Lieber then spent weeks writing an elaborate outline, fleshing out the characters and story lines. Next came six weeks writing the pilot. Just after Thanksgiving, Lieber met with ABC executives for a session at which they made suggestions for changes. He recalls only minor quibbles—things like refining a couple of characters and tweaking some dialogue. “We’re really happy,” he says Sherman told him after the meeting. “If you don’t hand in blank pages on the rewrite, we’re shooting this thing.” Lieber was ecstatic. “Nobody tells you they’re shooting anything—ever. That’s the best news you can get.”

“I thought it was a done deal,” Gold says. The last step was to get (ABC head hauncho) Lloyd Braun to sign off. Over the Christmas holidays, Braun took Lieber’s script with him to the La Quinta resort near Palm Springs.

“It was not received well,” Jonathan Levin, then the president of Spelling, told Lieber a few days after Christmas. So the writer went back to work, but he had little time to revise the script and little to go on. Lieber was “rewriting like hell,” he says, but he “didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t being told really what the problem was—all I was being told was that Lloyd didn’t like it.”

He handed in a new draft a week later, just after the new year, and then waited nervously. A few days later, Sherman called. “He says, ‘Great job on the rewrite,’” Lieber recalls. “‘I really like it.’” Sherman told him that he had some more notes and would call again in an hour. Lieber was hugely relieved. But hours passed with no word from Sherman or anyone else at ABC.

What happened next to Lost has become industry lore. Braun decided to give the project to a young hot shot named J. J. Abrams, who had helped create the ABC cult favorite Alias, among other things. But Abrams was tied up writing another pilot and he was skeptical that the show’s premise could be extended to a whole season of episodes. Braun told him to take the weekend to think about it. Abrams did, and came back with a far-out idea to get around the show’s limitations: What if the island were a character—a supernatural place where strange things happened? Braun loved it.

By this time, it was extremely late to be starting over from scratch. “But Lloyd was so passionate about it, he wanted to take an eleventh-hour stab at saving it,” Sherman says. So Abrams teamed up with a promising writer named Damon Lindelof, and together they came up with another ingenious idea: a flashback device that focuses on one character each episode and allows the show to get off the island.

ABC picked up the pilot without a script, based solely on the outline by Abrams and Lindelof—an almost unheard-of move; less than three months later the pair were making a two-hour-long, $12-million pilot, one of the most expensive pilots in TV history. “I don’t know if there’s another story like this in the annals of television,” says Sherman.

It's worth reading in its entirety, and there's sort of a bittersweet happy ending for Lieber. The project went to arbitration (after numerous attempts by companies involved to exclude Lieber from the package) and he was awarded a shared 'created by' credit with Abrams and Lindelof which will appear when Lost returns to air end of this year.

But the process seems oh so familiar. Sherman says he doesn't know if there's another story like this in the annals of television, but having been on both sides of the fence --- as in the secret writer quietly called in to try to to put a spin on a show to convince higher ups to go forward AND as the writer/creator who's being spun in circles trying to appease higher ups before being dismissed for someone else who'd been clearly working in the wings...I'd say it's more the norm than not.

It's all business, yes. But a harsh business.

Swimming with sharks indeed...


Diane Kristine said...

I read that and was fascinated especially that for Lieber, this project was basically a fiasco - he feels like something of a failure because of it, and a fraud sitting at the Emmys with cast and crew who had no idea who he was - and yet it's making him rich. Interesting dichotomy of success and failure.

Good Dog said...

There's always Sam Simon, who left The Simpsons after its fourth year due to creative differences and compensation issues. His lawyers negotiated a deal that saw him take a minimal severance package but still retain a piece of the show.

Apparently it still nets him 10 million bucks a year.

Diane Kristine said...

Though from the context I thought Sherman was talking about the whole story, not just Lieber's woes - ABC greenlighting a pilot based on only an outline to the tune of $12 million, and seeing the risk pay off.

wcdixon said...

But how can I make it about 'ME'?!

Yes you're probably right Diane...damn you 'reading with attention'. I should just stick to mockup posters of fantasy tv shows with Jenna Jameson.

Emily Blake said...

That is really interesting. I wonder if Lieber's version would have been as successful as Lost is?

I feel bad for him in a way, but at the same time I love the show, so the studio was kind of right at the same time. It's a story worth examining for sure.

Diane Kristine said...

Geez, Will, that seems a little harsh! It's still interesting to hear that Lieber's experience isn't unique. I vote for this kind of post over Jenna Jameson. Now if you'd said Hugh Laurie, though ...

Dante Kleinberg said...

I have a hunch I wouldn't have watched the original show. I like the sort of far out crazy of Lost, and it's the hope for more crazy that keeps me watching through the usually boring flashbacks. (note: I said "usually" not "always" -- some of them are pretty crazy in their own right)

Grumpy O. Selznick said...

Youch. Talk about crying all the way to the bank.