What I learned while making a TV pilot
As someone who spent four years as an officer in the Marines, I'm no stranger to large, complex operations. Weeks, months even, of hard work comprised of long, slow periods of planning punctuated by intense moments of stress that can last for days.
Since leaving the service I’ve thankfully not encountered similar situations, but the last few months I've spent producing a TV pilot I wrote has come extremely close.
While this particular task is by no means a commonly undertaken one, I've definitely learned some worthwhile lessons applicable to any position, from the military to filming a series to building and selling a new piece of software.
No matter the project, the story is sometimes the same.
Sometimes it is who you know, and that's great. Don't be afraid of who you know if it can help you achieve something worthwhile. Networking is networking. Be friends with everyone, help them out and they will do the same for you. Just like any military operation I was part of, I did not tackle my project alone. I had an experienced production team and a top-shelf crew, all of whom I had access to through family and/or friends. A prime example of this would be starting with an Emmy and Peabody Award winning executive producer who helped oversee the whole thing, who happens to be my father. Through him, we got our director of photography and his decades of experience in TV and advertising. The others were more close friends and associates, all with the talent and background perfect for this job. It goes without saying that is a lucky set of circumstances. It nevertheless felt very strange at first to rely so heavily on personal connections to bring my project to life; after all, nobody wants to feel like they're relying on their parents for anything. But without my friends and family, getting my project off the ground, let alone carried out by anywhere near as qualified a team, could have taken years, if ever.
Pull your own weight. And any extra weight lying around. We had a lot to do and very little time to do it, so there was no chance for anyone to slack off. We also didn't have a lot of money either, so our crew was streamlined to the bone. There were no interns standing around to carry out random tasks, no hordes of people waiting to do the one specific thing they're there to do, and no prima donnas angrily demanding coffee. Everyone on the set helped out with everything they possibly could. The director of photography helped move lights, the van driver oversaw props, the editor helped the sound guy, and our producer brought the coffee for everyone. The coordinator even got in front of the camera and had a line in one scene (playing the pivotal role of "Hipster Bartender," as it says in the script). Yes, some tasks need specialists. That's why we had a professional makeup artist rather than me trying to smear lipstick on some poor actress. But when something needed to be done, it gone done, and nobody bickered about whose job it actually was.
Being overly concerned with "who is supposed to do what" only wastes time. If you can do something that needs to be done, do it. Plus, your team will see you alongside them, and that will only help.
Move fast but don't rush. A sloppy mess done early is no match for a superb project done in the nick of time. When we decided to shoot my script, we had only the vague idea of a schedule. But we knew that we had to cast the main parts as soon as possible. We also took as much time as we possibly could to do so, because having talented people in the right roles was essential. After the initial casting session, we still had two main roles to fill. So we held a second one, again as soon as possible, and found two fantastic actors to complete the cast. We casted as quickly as we could without rushing to fill roles with people unsuited to them.
This philosophy carried us through two days of intense shooting, much of which was done at a single restaurant that we had access to for a limited amount of time. We planned as much as we could ahead of time, with input from every department, and searched for every time saving option we could. The pace was exhausting and we pushed our time limit to the brink, but the camera never rolled on a "take one" until we were sure everything was set. The applicability is the same for any project: don't confuse the near-panicked rush of an impending deadline with efficiency. If it has been done right and on time, it doesn’t need to be done early.
Embrace the arguing. As one of my favorite authors, Frank Herbert once wrote, "Real boats rock." You're boat's going to rock, though maybe not as hard as ours did. Unlike with literal boats metaphorical rocking, especially in creative projects, can lead to new ideas and motivation for everyone involved. Nearly every aspect of the pilot was contested at one point or another: the script, the tone, the budget, how we would stage each location to make it fit the story, even the color of the fake mixed drinks in the actors' hands. On the day of the restaurant shoot, the word "cut" was almost always followed with a new argument between the executive producer and the assistant director as to whether or not we would actually be done on time. The former was confident, the latter cried for everyone to move faster. So we all confidently moved as fast as we could. And it got done, with greater input and an increased sense of purpose. Hearing other voices makes the collective project stronger.
As the title implies, I'm still hard at work with my pilot. It's moved on to the post-production phase, which is full of its own unique challenges (though, since the people actively involved are just the editor and I, most of the arguing centers around whether to order Chinese or Mexican for lunch). But I've already learned much from this process, a lot of which can apply to any project.
Who knows, maybe in a few years you'll be explaining to your team about the tips you learned from the guy who wrote that hit show everyone loves. Fingers crossed.
Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. Follow some of his writing on Task & Purpose as well as some of his antics on Brocast News.
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