Monday, August 13, 2007

Reading About Producing and the TV Writer/Producer...

Via Greg, this excerpt from a forthcoming U.K. book 'What I Really Want to Do Is Produce' by Helen de Winter which begins by posing this question to several experienced feature film producers:

So you're a producer... what exactly do you do?

Some highlights from the answers:

Alan Greenspan (Donnie Brasco, High Fidelity): "I ask myself the same question."

Barbara Broccoli (Goldeneye, Die Another Day) "Most people have absolutely no concept of what producers do, even people in the film business."

Jennifer Todd (Austin Powers, Memento) "I always say I'm the head firefighter."

Eric Fellner (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary) "Ultimately a producer is the instigator... the cheerleader."

Stephen Evans (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Madness of King George) "Frankly the more you explain what you do, the more pathetic you sound: 'I did this and that and you don't realise what I've been through...' You just sound like a fully paid-up member of the Sad Fuckers Club."

Jason Hoffs (The Terminal) "A producer once said to me that a movie project is like a very sick patient who is dying in the emergency room, and you are the doctor who needs to keep the patient alive - except that the patient wants to die. It's not like he's fighting for his life. Even if your project is on the fast track, the amount of care, energy, ideas and passion you need to keep pumping into these things to get them made is staggering. Along the way there are going to be thousands of roadblocks. But you have to keep going. So that's what a producer does. Everything possible."

James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) "Producing is simply having the will to get something done, and figuring out a way to make sure thousands of people help you."

One of Greg's colleagues also commented:

"I tend to make a list of things to do and figure out how to get other people to do them. Using as little money as possible."

That defines it about as well as I've ever heard it. All good stuff. My hat always goes off to producers (and I mean the actual producer, not those garnishing credits via a pay-off or their affiliation to companies or the financing)'s such a difficult thankless job because although in some ways you are doing everything, it can appear like you're doing nothing. Tough gig.

I also recently read a book by TV writer/producer Jeffery Stepakoff (Wonder Years, Sisters, Beauty & the Beast, Dawson's Creek) entitled 'The Billion Dollar Kiss'. It's a fascinating memoir with lots of insightful, behind-the-scenes peeks at how television is really made, Stepakoff describes how quality script-driven programming ruled the airwaves in the eighties and nineties, why we're watching so much reality TV now, and what the future of television holds for viewers and writers alike.

It's a good read, not only for anyone starting out and wanting to write/produce television, but for more experienced scribes as well. The chapters where Stepakoff reflects on his stint on 'Dawson's Creek' is pretty great insider stuff (how the heck did James Van Der Beek get to wield such a big bat?).

Here's a taste:

When you write one-hour TV—feeding the massive apparatus that produces a $2.5 million mini-movie every six days, day in and day out—you are certainly accustomed to round-the-clock doses of heart-thumping, stomach-churning, no-way-in-hell-will-we-make-the-deadline anxiety. But the panic that gripped the writing staff on Dawson's Creek this particular day was a special kind—an unforgettable kind.

To say that the show was starting to sink would be polite; at this point at the beginning of Season Three, we were already deep, deep, underwater. When I was hired onto the writing staff a few weeks earlier, Dawson's Creek was the hottest show on television. Oh, word was out around town that "The Creek was a crazy place to work" and "Dawson's was a nightmare, beware!" But every writer heard those decrees about every show in town. I mean, unless you were lucky enough to work for Phil Rosenthal on Everybody Loves Raymond, nicknamed by writers as "Everybody Loves Everybody," you knew you'd inevitably put up with a certain amount of insanity if you took a staff gig. That was a given. But the truth is, I had no idea what I was signing up for. I don't think any of the writers really did.

We had been called into the Room to break story, as was our habit; but on this particular day, we had been called much earlier than was our habit. The mind-numbing sound of smashing metal at the body shop on Olympic and Barrington, which our story room overlooked, hadn't even started yet. Like small animals able to sense an oncoming natural disaster, we knew from the position of the sun, the ubiquitous Venti-sized cups, and the alarming quiet, we were officially entering Crisis Mode.

The anxiety was escalating in the Dawson's Creek story room. Tammy Ader stood at one of the five large dry-erase boards mounted on the walls and wrote all sorts of words in a wide variety of cheerful colors. "Pretty in Pink Story!" "Risky Business Part 2!" "Pacey Gets Motorcycle, à la Rebel w/o a Cause." Whenever the story process hits a speed bump, TV writers will often pitch classic paradigms—also known as movies we might be able to rip off. Paul's cheerleading efforts for the possible story lines just made Alex even more disheartened. It's not that he was above stealing from movies. TV writers on deadline will shamelessly pilfer just about anything for inspiration. Current events, bible stories, the sex lives of interns are all fair game for next week's show. Alex hated the tone of Tammy's stories. He championed mysteries, crime stories, and characters that weren't quite like what you'd find on the network that aired Felicity and 7th Heaven. "I sold out," was the explanation Alex oft offered the writing staff as to why he took the Dawson's job. "Sony backed the Brink's truck up to my front door and started dumping money until I just couldn't say no anymore."

As the day progressed and the story process did not, moving from constructive dialectic into something less collegial, twenty-seven-year-old Greg Berlanti, a former movie producer's assistant who had just started writing TV the year before, said something that changed all our lives: "Pacey kisses Joey."

What? I remember thinking. "You can't do that. Joey is Dawson's girl. Remember, they are soul mates, and that is the closest thing we have to a franchise around here."

But Greg was so impassioned, as was his usual state, that he jumped up, grabbed a cheerful color marker from Tammy, and drew a triangle on one of the boards, writing "Pacey" at one point, "Joey" at another, "Dawson" at another. "No, I'm serious," he said. "Pacey kisses Joey. Think about it!"

And that's when it hit me. Of course! A love triangle. Heresy is exactly what the show needed. Not only did we have a story, we had a story engine, a dramatic problem that would create many other stories. There had been a love triangle on the show before, between Dawson, Jen, and Joey. There had once even been a kiss between Joey and Pacey. But these stories never went anywhere. As one person closely affiliated with the series put it, "Those ideas were floating around in the ether; Greg pulled them out and focused on them." For the first time, we had a series. The Katie Holmes–Josh Jackson Kiss, the love triangle it created, and the stories that it bore drove the show to 128 episodes, six seasons, and international acclaim.

I'd also recommend it to Canadian readers just because his Creek experience sounds oh sooooo in, they filmed in North Carolina but were constantly on the phone with the network and studio back in LA.

The distant location. Much like how things can go down up here in Canada.

So there you go, each time you think there's no books under the sun that can teach you anything new...another couple come along.

1 comment:

Bill Cunningham said...

The producer is the one (sucker) who wants to see the movie so badly he'll do anything to see that it's made.