Monday, May 03, 2021

Pilot season craziness

It’s pilot season.   This is the time pilots for the fall season are shot.  Invariably a few implode, or there is frantic re-casting and rewriting.  As someone who has made numerous pilots and gotten series orders for most of them, I don’t understand this.  


The show was miscast.  Often that means being forced to take an actor the network or studio wanted but you didn’t.

The premise and/or writing was bad and never should have been picked up in the first place.  

The pilot notes sucked the life out of it.  

But otherwise, consider these factors:

You’ve had months to write this episode, not just a few days.

You’ve had weeks and sometimes months to find the people who have demonstrated they’ve made THIS material work better than any other actor.  Normally you tailor the material to the actor.  In a pilot’s case, it’s the opposite.  You find actors who can maximize the script.   You'll never hear an actor say, "My character wouldn't say this" when auditioning.  He'll bend himself into a pretzel to make work what's on the page.

There are always changes during the week of production.  When things get on their feet they sometimes don’t work or need to be adjusted.   Once you have solid actors in place you can start to write more to their voice and behavior.  Frequently, first production drafts are too long and overwritten and you see what needs to be pruned.  

But the basic script and structure should work.  

The production process always begins with a table-read.  The cast reads the script aloud, and it’s your first real indication of what you’ve got.   Those used to be intimate affairs done in a conference room around a big table.  Maybe twenty people besides the actors were in attendance — staff and a network and studio rep.  

Today, as many as 150 attend these things.  Every executive west of La Brea.  And they’re now held in huge halls with the actors sitting on a dais instead of around a table relating to each other.  It’s utterly insane.

And since the TV industry operates out of fear, to hedge their bets that the table reading will go relatively well, most studios insist on a pre-table read with only a slightly smaller number of attendees.  

I never feared table readings.  I never feared moments that didn’t work in table reading.  So what?  We’d fix them.  But our table readings always went well.  We stacked the deck with the best possible cast.  We knew what we had going in.

We did do one trick that helped, however.  Actors have to be approved by the studio and network.  So depending, these execs can hear the same scene six or eight times.  By the time they get to the table reading it’s no longer funny to them.  So we always wrote separate audition scenes that highlighted the strengths of the actors.  That way, the network was hearing the pilot for the first time at the table reading and all the jokes were fresh.  

Good luck to everyone making a pilot.  Some will come out great.  Hopefully yours.


Matt said...

When you say you got a season order, what does that mean? Does that mean they were actually put on the schedule or is that just the next phase?

Simpsons Fan said...

Hey Ken-
Did you see the John Schwartzwelder interview in the New Yorker? It's really good:

When you worked on you Simpsons scripts, did they go through the process of being rewritten like he talked about? Were you in the room with the other writers at all?

Michael said...

I think of Carl Reiner writing the first 13 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show with the pilot, so he knew how the characters would act from the outset.

flurb said...

Ken, I'm sure you know this anecdote. It's backed up in "Mary and Lou and Ted and Rhoda," Jennifer Armstrong's book. The first MTM Show pilot was a disaster. It was partly due to air conditioning failure when the audience arrived, but the audience seemed to be almost hostile. The star wept all the way home, thinking, after her recent Broadway debacle, that her career was over. The writers made only a few tiny changes before CBS let them shoot it again. The air conditioning worked, sure - but the actors also felt more secure with time and a bit more input from the brilliant Jay Sandrich. The result is the golden first episode - full of exposition and yet breezy, rich with characters (not types) that you look forward to seeing again. How many pilots get that kind of care? Was it Moore's star-power that got the show its second shot, or Brooks and Burns' track record from "Room 222", or did Grant Tinker move things with the network? I know the show didn't bring world peace or anything, but it's amazing how close it came to not making so many folks happy on 1970s Saturday nights, and long after.

tavm said...

Michael, but he wasn't the one who cast the pilot which ad the time was called "Head of the Family". Carl, himself, was Rob PEE-trie and various different actors were cast as Buddy Sorrel, Sally Rogers, Laura Petrie, the Petrie son (forgot the name), and Alan Sturdy (yes, that was the original surname) who was seen from the back of his head except for one scene when his face was distorted-magic mirror-style-when filmed with a fishbowl in front of him! That pilot was shown during the summer of 1960 before Sheldon Leonard saw it and recast it telling Carl, "We need a better you!" And the rest if history...

Mike Bloodworth said...

One new variable must be added to the equation these days. What if your perfect casting choice has not or will not get a COVID vaccination? Would the other cast members and crew refuse to work with him or her even if they themselves have been vaccinated? Should the creators/produces be forced to settle for a second or third choice because of Coronavirus? Will vaccinations or the lack thereof become the new acceptable form of discrimination?
Right now there's a lot more to consider than just who (whom?) is a good actor.


P.S. If you are lucky enough to get hired on a good show, more power to ya.

Glenn said...

Ken, have you ever had an actor forced on you who turned out to be great?

PolyWogg said...

I love the "behind the scenes" reality of a lot of shows, particularly hit shows where people are talking about it years later saying, "It was a complete snafu from beginning to end, and I have no idea how it worked!" as opposed to "I knew it was magic from the word go..." (gag).

I recently binged Lost, which is long after the juggernaut had ended, and was watching some of the interviews done for S1. It's great to have the time you outline Ken as the "plan" after the "pitch", but in their case, they had something else fall through, they had room for one more show, they had a show runner who was too busy to do it on their own, so they asked this other guy to see if they could come up with something together on short notice.

Basically they asked the two on a Friday to meet on a Monday, fully expecting it wouldn't work, and by the following Friday they had roughed out the pilot where it was Castaway without Wilson but with an Island as a character and instantly Greenlit. Two more weeks to cast. They started shooting the series with many of the elements not nailed down, including that Jack as the main character in Ep1 was supposed to die to show the stakes on the island. Kate (played by Evangeline, a Canadian) didn't have a visa until the 3rd or 4th day of shooting and they were already doing contingency casting interviews to replace her. They did a ton of improv on location to film the scenes, not having a lot of experience in the wet climate of near-jungle. A number of the actors were auditioned and whole new characters created around them, like Hurley.

If it hadn't been that the studio basically asked them to come up with something, which probably meant nobody would admit it wouldn't work, less blessed mortals would have thrown in the towel, I'm sure. They were apparently almost halfway through EP1 before the "creators" knew what the show was.

I expect it's probably the reaction to a Greg Berlanti or Chuck Lorre show these days..."Oh, you want to do a comedy about toxic mold? How much money do you need? Are you sure that's enough?".

It was a fascinating overview of how NOT to create a show, yet it smashed.


David Riche said...

I was also going to ask about the John Schwartzwelder interview. He touched on so many themes you've discussed in this blog. So, I have no specific question ... Just wondering what points stuck out for you and what your responses would be.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I saw a panel interview recently that featured Matt Weiner, the Orange is the New Black showrunner, and two others who ran a network show that I can't remember.

(this seemed to be the OITNB season one-two hiatus)

The OITNB gal stated that Netflix ordered 13 right off the bat - no pilot.

This post on pilot season reminds me of a long-ago multipost on By Ken Levine - an excerpt (damn funny on the page) of I Dream of Gina.

Why not bust this up into three episodes and pitch it to Netflix? Do it like Weiner did - no stars (though Slattery and Morse were no spring chickens) - low budget, low risk. None of your good stuff ever required a lot of money, anyway.

Lots of options - write a few more episodes for a six-parter - write enough more for a 10- or 13-part series. You and Isaacs could do most of it on summer break at USC (UCLA?). GEt your rolodex out and set up "a room".

First, of course, sell Netflix.