Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Over the years I’ve helped out on a lot of pilots – coming in a night or two to help rewrite. These are usually long nights because everybody is still trying to determine just what they have. Did things not work because of the material? Or was it the actor’s fault? And if so, does he just need a couple more days to find it, or should he be replaced? And if you replace him, replace him with who? Then of course, there are the network and studio notes. And everyone is crazy nervous because it’s a pilot and so much rides on it. Sometimes my role in these rewrites was just to talk the creator off the ledge.
But these are a few of my more memorable moments from various pilot rewrites.
On one we were working late into the night, having trouble getting the story to make sense. At one point I turned to the creator and said, “What’s the second episode of this series?” “There is no second episode of this series!” he bellowed. “They’re never going to pick up this piece of shit!” We didn’t stay too much later after that. He was right (although the finished product actually turned out pretty well).
Usually, you do get a lot of network notes, especially if the runthrough wasn’t good. My partner and I worked on one pilot by a first-time pilot writer and director for a production company that had never done a comedy. What a shock that the runthrough was an utter trainwreck. I thought, we’re going to be here till midnight just getting all of the notes. The network veep approached, shook his head, said, “Whatever you can do” and just walked away. We couldn’t do enough. It was never picked-up.
I’ve been in network and studio note sessions where literally thirty people are bombarding you with suggestions and most contradict each other. I’ve been on conference calls where ten or fifteen executives are lobbing in notes. You don’t even know who’s talking. They don't even know who's talking.
I came back from one runthrough and the creator informed us that two of the actors were switching roles. Huh??? So we had to do the rewrite picturing how it might have sounded if the two actors were playing each other’s parts. There was another pilot being rewritten in another office in the building. I suggested we switch writing staffs.
My partner, David helped out on a pilot about and for African-Americans. The creator and the staff that night were all white. So they had someone in the room whose job it was to turn the joke pitches into Ebonics. Shockingly, this show never got ordered.
Jim Brooks' production company had a pilot. Instead of bringing on three or four writers for the rewrite, he invited fifty writers to come to the table reading and offer suggestions. He and the show’s creator would then tackle the rewrites. So it was like a comedy writing all-star convention. But of course, Jim got back fifty opinions, all different. My guess is he threw them all out.
But the goofiest was on this pilot where the director had a different way of working. Instead of the writers going down to the stage to see a runthrough, he would just come up to the office and tell us what needed to be done. We argued to the producer that this was nuts. We needed to see for ourselves. If nothing else, we were unfamiliar with the cast. We needed to get a sense of just who they were. At this point, we hadn’t even seen the set. We couldn’t even picture what the show looked like. The creator of the show had been let go (NEVER a good sign) and the producer was fairly new at this. He was torn but ultimately yielded to the director.
So the next evening we sit around the office doing nothing and finally the director comes up, says it went great, and gives us a few places where he thought we needed a joke, or could make a trim. He then went home and we set about rewriting the script by radar. When we finished we all agreed this was ridiculous. We’re sending a script to the stage that we have no faith in whatsoever.
We all had been signed up for one more rewrite night. The next day was the network runthrough. Networks like to actually see the runthroughs. Getting told it works great by the director doesn’t really work for them. So we were graciously allowed to attend too. And what we saw was an unmitigated fucking disaster. Nothing worked. All the stuff that the director said was gold was shit. Some jokes we added made no sense or sounded completely inappropriate once we heard the actor. And this was in front of the network. The producer was mortified. The network was uh, not pleased. We went back to the room, not even taking notes from the director, and did a major rewrite. Then at least one writer sat on the stage every minute for the rest of the week to make sure this hack didn’t fuck it up any further. The next day’s runthrough was leagues better (duh!). But the damage had already been done. Once a network gets real worried and loses faith in a project, it’s as good as dead. And it all could have been avoided.
Happily, these were isolated cases. Most of the pilots I worked on were well-written and run. Many made it to series. Networks are currently greenlighting pilots for the upcoming season. Best of luck to all the creators. Know what your second episode is and stay away from the window.
By Ken Levine at 6:54 AM