Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Questions

Friday Questions to stuff in your stockings or wherever you normally stuff them.

Anna Hedburg asks:

When you sit down to write characters do you ever think of certain actors for the parts to help yourself write it, even if they might be unattainable, and do you ever go so far to name them (Seth Meyers-like)or is that crossing the line between storyteller and fanatic fan?

Anna, we use specific actors as prototypes all the time. Especially when a team is writing a pilot, having someone in mind greatly helps both partners envision the same character and hear the same voice. We often will select unattainable actors. And sometimes for the draft we’re submitting to the network we’ll flat-out say in the description: (picture Anne Hathaway).

One time we wrote a character for a pilot and modeled him after a specific actor. And then that actor actually came in and read for it. He read the lines exactly the way we pictured it. When he left we both looked at each other and said, “Nah, I think we can do better.” By the way – we did.

Daniel wonders:

How many permanent sets does a sitcom usually have available? An ensemble show like Friends or The Big Bang Theory has a lot of different characters living in separate apartments. Are some of them a generic apartment set that keeps getting redressed, or is there a lot of storage space in the studio?

I assume you’re talking about multi-camera shows that are shot before a live audience. It all depends on how large the stage is. TAXI was on a very small stage at Paramount. I once worked on a pilot done on the soundstage where Coppola erected the entire Las Vegas strip. It was a $5 cab ride from end to end.

Usually, you have your main sets (apartments, office, diner everyone hangs out at), and a certain amount of room for “swing sets.” These are the sets erected for individual episodes. Ballrooms, restaurants, classrooms, hotel rooms, hospital rooms, etc.

Sometimes if a swing set is too big you have to strike one of your existing sets (if you can). So if THE BIG BANG THEORY wants to do a big wedding scene, for example, then maybe they can’t do a scene in the lunch area because they need that extra space.

Designers are pretty ingenious when it comes to designing sets. Take CHEERS for example, designed by Academy Award winner, Richard Sylbert. The bar hinges in the middle. When we wanted to go to Sam’s office we would swing out the right side of the bar and fan out the right wall of the bar, opening to reveal Sam’s office. Look carefully for a line right down the center of bar the next time you watch CHEERS.

Here’s a little known fact: In FRASIER there were two CafĂ© Nervosa sets. Depending on whether they needed the room for a swing set it was either full-size or you just saw a corner of it. Designers use lots of tricks like that in order to maximize space.

And finally, from vicernie:

Your comment about skipping the commercials reminded me of a Friday question I have wanted to ask. The only commercials that have any staying power to me are humorous ones and they often turn up on YouTube. Can sitcom writers turn out a good thirty second, funny commercial?

I’m sure some can, but understand that comedy writing and comic copywriting are two very different skills. Yes, a commercial might be funny, but does it sell the product? And in advertising that’s all that counts. There have been lots of hilarious commercials, but at the end of the day you couldn’t remember what the product was. Those spots are failures.

There are some exceptional copywriters, but unlike sitcom writers, they never get a credit. And Don Draper would take the credit for their work anyway.

What’s your question?


Carol said...

Your answer about the sets made me think of something I often ponder when watching shows. Set dressers.

The amount of detail they put into little, mostly unnoticed background things always fascinated me. I remember watching a Full House episode that was set in an English classroom and noticing a board game called 'Acting Shakespeare' that I also happened to own. I really wanted to know who it was that put that there, because I thought it was brilliant little detail to include.

And how does it get decided what gets hung on a fake wall? How much freedom are they given? Are they just told things like 'sports nut' or 'science geek' and then they go shopping and find the things they think work?

These are things I ponder when I watch television.

Dan Ball said...

Oh man, I love the set design question!

Being the huge Trekkie that I am, I love trying to look through the movies and TV shows, trying to recognize all the sets that have been redressed and recycled. The movie sets were actually converted into the The Next Generation set or were reused in later movies. For example, the Klingon bridge in The Motion Picture was reused as the Enterprise's torpedo room in Star Trek II.

It's probably tough to do this on a non-scifi show, because most sets don't have distinctive architecture and the decorations can be switched out easily.

Thomas said...

I've jumping on this sets band wagon too!

Q: When filming the episode do the studio audience have to hustle along the bleachers from set to set?

Phillip B said...

A Mel Brooks story has always stuck with me - he said he was contracted to create the series "The Nutt House" so the studio could re-use an expensive hotel set created for the Bette Midler film "Big Business."

It just rings true.... and the "The Nutt House" ran for a month.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Reminds me that William Goldman has said he usually writes his parts for Audrey Hepburn because he loved her so much.


Jim said...

Think you've seen that set before? Here's British writer Brian Clemens talking about his early days in the business back in the fifties:

...he started writing for the legendary Danziger Brothers, churning out scripts for cheap second features.

“The Danzigers were smashing,” he says, “because they used to move from studio to studio and use old sets and props. If they moved to MGM, they might have a submarine, The Old Bailey and a dozen Father Christmas outfits. So they’d say: Write an 80-minute film that incorporates all three.

And I'm sure I've come across a blog or two in the past highlighting how costumes were reused.

Artie said...

That's what the money is for!

Mike Schryver said...

Now I have a new game to play while watching FRASIER - try to spot the rump Cafe Nervosa set.

Breadbaker said...

When Douglas Adams started writing the radio scripts for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he said that the part of the Book should be played who sounded like Peter Jones. So they got Peter Jones. In the movie, Stephen Fry sounded like he was imitating Peter Jones (which is fine, since Peter Jones was unavailable, being dead).

Johnny Walker said...

I'm fascinated by iconic sets. I've read that that description of the Cheers bar before -- but my brain still can't quite grapple with how Sam's office worked. So the right-hand bar swung out -- where? To the back of the set? So the audience would have been seeing behind the bar before Sam's office was swung into its place?

And when the cast went through the door to Sam's office, was most/all of the office actually there? Or was it just a doorway to nowhere and Sam's office was swung in when they needed it?

You once posted the set design of Frasier's apartment (looked like an AutoCAD file). I'd love it if you posted more of these!

Speaking of Cheers and Taxi, I just watched the episode of Taxi last night where George Wendt appeared as an exterminator. I'm guessing this is where the Charles brothers first saw him, and so later thought of him, when they were casting Cheers.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Breadbaker: My recollection from reading Adams on the subject is that it took them a long time and a number of auditions trying to find someone who sounded like Peter Jones to think of *asking Peter Jones*. :)


DBA said...

Thomas, no you sit where you sit and if you're lucky you can see 2 of the sets clearly. All the action is on monitors visible from the entire audience. So if a scene is on a swing too far for you to see, you just watch the monitor.

BD Bradley said...

Friday question:
Recently Gawker posted the minimum salary for staff writers (eg $3,703/wk for a 20 week guarantee). This got me to thinking... what is a staff writer's commitment to a show? If it is in production for 26 weeks per year, are they free the rest of the time to pursue other writing assignments? And if they choose to pursue other assignments, what impact might it have on their ongoing employment the next season?

Storm said...

Thanks, Ken; I always kinda figured there must have been some kind of swing-away wall to access Sam's office, but I could never quite figure it out.

Dan: Being a Trek costumer, I do the same with the costumes and wigs. "HA! That dress she's wearing was used on a Dabo Girl on 'DS9', with a weird necklace and a different belt! Nice try, Bob!"

Carol: Until he passed this last March, I used to have a lovely elderly neighbour named Richard, who'd spend the better part of the day on his porch, enjoying his garden and visiting with people like me who walked by with their dogs (he loved them, but couldn't have one himself). I must have talked to him almost every day for over 2 years (usually about old films/stars) before I found out that he was a retired set dresser, who'd worked for decades at Universal Studios (and others)doing both film and TV; his last regular gig was on "Murder, She Wrote". I only got to speak to him about his job a handful of times before he took a bad turn and had to stay bedridden; the last time, he told me about how the studio had dragged him out of retirement to help supervise the rebuild the Main Street Town Square set (most famous from "Back to the Future") after it burned down around 10 years ago, because he was one of the only people still around who had help build the original set, and they wanted it as exact a replica as possible. I've always enjoyed set design/dressing, and thanks to him and his stories, I'm even pickier about things being from the correct era/place than I already was; if I see a great set, I'll think "Oh, so gorgeous, I wish I could talk about this with Richard!", or if it sucks, I think "BOO! Richard would NEVER let THAT pass!" He was a lovely, sweet man who lived for The Movies and made me see new things in old favourites, and I miss him dearly.

Cheers, and Happy Yule/Solstice to my fellow heathen freaks,


Allan V said...

When the cast does a reading prior to rehearsals, how does that work? Who's at the reading besides the actors, and who's in charge? How long does it usually run? Do actors often try to tell the others how to play their roles, resulting in friction?

ODJennings said...

My favorite part of watching the old Twilight Zone episodes is looking at the MGM Backlot. It was already in serious decline, but that made it perfect for the post-apocalyptic world so many of the episodes were set in. Since their budget for sets must have been about $40 per episode, they wandered out onto the lot and filmed what was there.

If anything it makes the show even better when you realize that Monsters on Main Street is happening on the street where they filmed the Andy Hardy movies.

Hesh said...

Was the back pool room in Cheers a swing set as well? And in addition to that, would the bathrooms then be behind, like Sam's office, or were those separate entities? I remember in Season 1 there would be shots going all the way from the back room into the main room in one motion which was well done and made it all look seamless.

And on that note, now I wonder how there could be a window leading outside

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Talikng about a large set... as a director do you like the set smaller or bigger. I used to love large sets, people walking around all the time and shouting. I also liked the fact that two characters could have a believable moment alone (although it was always weird that sometimes in Cheers two characters could talk in private and sometimes they talked just as loud with someone at the other end). But our favorite director liked his sets small, easier to time as he liked it, no time lost with long walks. Do you have a preferance or does it depend on the script?

Anonymous said...

Dear Ken,

I have been awaiting your comments on the season finales of "Homeland" and Masters of Sex.
I had decided that I was done watching "Homeland," and the finale with the death of Brody did not cause me to change my mind; but I am looking forward to Season 2 of Masters.

Brad maddox said...

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Gary Mugford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Mugford said...

Ken, vis-a-vis commercials, there was a long-running coffee commercial series that starred Anthony Head and was a water-cooler topic for two, maybe three years. These interstitial commercials were about the only non-comedy series that I could think of. But I DO wonder if a heavily product-placed series of 60 second episodes could work in our YouTube world? By plopping the series in the middle of (random) commercial break(s), the time for doing other things (bathroom, food, etc.) would be cut to the point where more people would stay in their seats and leave their fingers off the remote, just in case an 'episode' was coming. Done properly, the product placements would serve as the commercial content and the entertainment would serve as the way to increase views. Naturally, the sophisticated would end up watching the 're-broadcast' on YouTube. But for the great unwashed, it might keep them from channel-surfing. These interstitial shows would run one Seinfeld joke, or three quick hitters, or enough action to further a cliff-hanger in a drama. Might even leave space for great writers from TV's past to work again. Thoughts?

Bob Summers said...


How are residuals/royalties calculated? Does Tim Allen get 1/250 of a cent every time they run "The Santa Clause".

D. McEwan said...

Set and costume recycling can certainly be fun to spot. The outer space uniforms worn by the ship's crew in MGM's Forbidden Planet show up again and again on Twilight Zone episodes and in George Pal's film The Time Machine. The flying saucer from that movie also showed up repeatedly on Twilight Zone. The steps up to the Morlock dwelling in Pal's Time Machine are the same steps on which Burgess Meredith sets out all the books he wants to read before breaking his glasses in TZ's famous episode, Time Enough at Last.

The sets in Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death all looked so great because they'd just been the castle interiors in Becket.

On the old classic Doctor Who series they built a set of goopy monster costumes which, colored reddish, were the sinister monsters in the Jon Pertwee story Claws of Axos. A couple of years later those exact same monster outfits, now painted green, were the half-grown vegitable monsters the Krynoids in the Tom Baker-era story The Seeds of Doom.

There's a type of twisty-spiral "stone" pillars that show up in just about EVERY Hammer horror movie ever made. Hammer's movie Curse of the Werewolf was based on a novel titled The Werewolf of Paris, yet they set it in Spain. Reason? They had a standing Little Spanish Village set still up in their backlot at Bray, from a just-completed movie, so they moved The Werewolf of Paris to Spain to reuse the sets.

It continues and is always fun to spot. Remember that curving stairway in Norman Lear's short-loved but fondly remembered The Powers That Be? It's the same stairway Fran Drescher besmirched for years and years on The Nanny.

The saloon/show-stage in Warner Brothers' Calamity Jane is the same set that the can-can dancers perform on in Vincent Price's House of Wax. The dance-hall saloon in Disneyland, The Golden Horseshoe Cafe, is identical to that set down to the smallest detail. Harper Goff designed the set for Calamity Jane. Walt Disney hired him away from Warner Brothers to design 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and then to work on Disneyland. Assigned to design the Golden Horseshoe, Goff just pulled out the blueprints for the CJ dancehall and said "Here, build this," and got paid twice.

My favorie set reuse is the gigantic structure seen collapsing in flames in the "Burning of Atlanta" sequence in Gone With the Wind. It's actually the gigantic wall and massive door in King Kong being burned down.

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