You are Prepping a Story, not a Budget…

Dual stages prepped for Chicago Fire.

Empty stages await their sets on “Chicago Fire”.

 

The only way to capture the modern audience is to mount TV shows that have detail, texture and tone to engage them, keep them entertained and most importantly—make them want to come back to watch next week. Good scripts given a proper staging, letting actors look their best—these things make a difference in the way the audiences perceive the quality of the show and their desire to continue watching.

I’ve had the great good fortune to produce for Dick Wolf for many years on numerous projects. Luckily, I had worked in the industry for almost 20 years before I met Dick, so I had already made my rookie producer mistakes, like pushing the Director of Photography to make daylight on way too big a shot on my first TV movie. The poor DP did it, but it took 2 hours to light and the dailies were sad. Reshot it anyway. You learn…

I think one of the main reasons Dick and I got along so well was that I understood that it’s all about the story.

No matter what project I produced, I tried to let the production team think big. In early prep, “all things are possible” is the mantra. Smart Writers and Producers don’t set shows in places that can’t be sustained, so I am talking about Producers starting off planning for success.

Of course, as responsible Producers, we do not want to spend money stupidly.  We must be adept at creating scenarios that are repeatable and commercially viable. The dance of the numbers (The Budget), with the Studio/Network will take it’s long and winding way once the project has been given the go. The fight over the budget will be contentious. They always are. In fairness to the Studio—it costs a lot of money to do a series. Of course, much money can be made– that’s why all the fighting.

Wolf knows what he will fight for is the story. That’s what the good Showrunner (Head Writer & Top Executive Producer, often the Creator of the show) does. But our main job as Producers, our key job, is to produce something of value for our Executive Producers and the S/N– television shows for today’s on demand viewing and continuous demand viewing well into the future. Those are the shows that will re-run well– and forever.

The good ideas and scripts are complicated and detailed and as we know, the Devil and Murphy will always be your fellow filmmakers. Sweat those details. Make sure the computer screens, mobile phone screens and TV screens all look real and match what is going on. Just that bit is not easy to execute. Keep an eye on what the sets look like. Keep an eye that the message, the Tone that has gone out to all crew who will bring these details to life, is clear and insistent. Keep those Tone meetings going in prep – “We spoke of a concept like this… Is what we’re doing in line with that??” Keep referring to that script.

The roadmap is there.

Good Showrunners will continue to revise their scripts in prep to conform to real locations and details that Directors bring. Revising that script as close to shooting reality, by the time the show hits the floor, is the mark of the good writer.

There’s a reason Directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock could be perfectionists. Their shooting scripts matched the reality they would face on set and on location.

As Producers, we do not push Showrunners. Simply asking questions is always sufficient with writers who know what they want. “Asking, Not Telling” is our motto. Remember– the Showrunner needs their Producer to lay out options without the Producer pursuing their own agenda.

JR in the Prod. Ofc.

Me in yet another generic, colorless production ofc.

So at some point or points in the prep, the Producers need to agree to a budget. The Production Designer (PD) and Art Dept. also know reality will settle in. They will make decisions to put more money in some places and take money away where it won’t show – all in concert with their Producers. Sometimes, I would suggest a fairly lame idea that would save lots of money, but not look right. My PD would know I wasn’t serious (they hoped I wasn’t), but took to heart what I was serious about—I was saying this sequence or this particular scene wasn’t worth the money. Let’s make a cheaper plan, but we can be clever in how we cheat.

TV itself is a large cheat. Whether it’s comfort food, like “Grey’s Anatomy” Season 11, or exciting serialized action, like “Game of Thrones”—they are similar stories endlessly repeating themselves with people we want to spend time with.

Done well, viewers cannot get enough. If we can create that demand for the content we brought to the screen (of all sizes), we have done our jobs as Producers.

 

Next week, defining the terms–

Asking, Not Telling.

Reporting, Not Editorializing.

And, how to keep shooting and get what you want.

Until then…

Deadline set

This is the pristine “Deadline” set just before we shot it. The tabloid newspaper drama featured Oliver Platt as a famous columnist. Called The Chicago Ledger in the show, the set is built in the actual former newsroom of the NY Post. Note the headlines on the wall are all famous Post front pages cleared for the show and with the Ledger masthead added.

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