Notes From the Land of TV

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This summer has been slow for commercial work, so I’ve been spending a lot of time working in episodic television. It’s not a bad thing to do every once in a while. It reminds you that there are people out there making media that isn’t 100% designed to sell stuff. I mean, I know television is still about selling ad time, so it’s going to be at least 50%, and sometimes it is clearly 75-80%, especially when the product placement is super obvious: “You have access to everything in the Kenmore kitchen”; “Let me look it up on my Surface”; “You have half an hour to take your models to the L’Oreal Paris make-up room.” But someone somewhere in the process generally at least thinks they’re creating art. And that translates to the actors too — it’s actually nice for a change to watch some of them act. Not that commercial actors can’t be quite good, it’s just that having to pick up a French fry 75 times in a row in slightly different ways for reasons you don’t understand doesn’t really lend itself to creating an exemplar of the thespian arts. On the other hand, though, TV work is a bitch, distinctly more so than union movies and commercials. You’re often trying to shoot six to eight pages a day, as opposed to two or three on a feature and maybe one on a commercial. This means that the pace is rapid and the days are long — 13+ hours is common. Which is why I have been slacking on the blogging lately: several days in a row of TV work doesn’t leave room for much of anything else in your life other than sleeping and eating.

And thinking too much, of course. So here are some thoughts I’ve had about my time working in TV over the past 15 years.

1) Directors: in TV, the difference between a good director and a bad director is time. 

Directing is not easy, but directing TV is especially hard because you think you have artistic control but really, you have very little. Generally, you come in as a hired gun for an episode at a time, and you’re not there to be creative, you’re there to do a job: make an episode that basically looks like all the other episodes, and that cuts together without problems. Oh, and you’ll have to work faster than you’ve ever worked, and therefore make more compromises than you’ve probably ever had to make. So you have to know how to cover a scene without over-covering it, basically what you can get and what you have to get and the difference between the two. You also really have to know how to talk to actors, because generally, they know their characters and material better than you do, and you have very little time to try things out, so if you want to have even a chance in hell of getting them to make an adjustment, you’d better understand how to get them to listen to you. And you have to know how to work with your crew. They won’t expect you to be super friendly — you’re going to be too busy for that — but you have to know how to express to them what you’re trying to get, know when you’ve gotten it, and thank them at the end of the day. And most importantly, for any of the rest of that to happen, you have to know what you want. 

The directors I’ve worked with in TV over the years have really run the gamut. There were the British directors who took nine hours to shoot material that should have taken three, by adding shots that nobody could understand and doing multiple takes of them. (Why? Because when they shoot Downton Abbey, they’re used to a schedule where they break for tea every four hours? It’s a mystery). There were the husbands of the production execs who wanted to hear themselves talk just enough to add an extra hour or so to the day. And then there were the pros, who just came in, did their thing, cut their losses when necessary, thanked everyone, and went home. Of course, I can’t predict conclusively whose episodes are going to turn out best. But I will say that I’ve watched enough TV shows that I’ve worked on to know that when you use more shots than you need to tell the story, it gets cutty and confusing, and takes above four or five rarely get used (unless the actor was so exhausted that it simply took that long to get the line right). So you do the math.

2) Writers: make sure your script is finished before it’s time to shoot the episode.

I worked on a TV show many years ago where we were getting new pages an hour before we had to shoot them. It was crazy (and perhaps a sign that the writer was also the executive producer, which he was, and that show wasn’t going to survive, which it didn’t), but at least it meant that the writer was trying to get something right. Most of the writing for the shows I work on is fine, but when it’s not, it trickles down to affect everything. Writing cute and witty lines is easy. Even if your characters all sound the same, that’s generally something the audience will let slide because they’re so cute and witty (West Wing, anyone?). But what you can’t do is let them speak the subtext like they’re expositional title cards, because nobody talks like that. If your characters are constantly explaining things that no human being would ever be explaining either because you’re trying to make up for scenes that don’t exist or you don’t trust the audience to understand the context or follow the story, then you’re in trouble. In case you don’t know because you’re one of those L.A. writers who doesn’t fly out to New York to be there for the shoot, this leads to time-consuming on-set discussions with unhappy actors (because they know how human beings do and do not talk), more takes than you should have to do (because it’s hard to give a good performance of dialogue that doesn’t make sense), a slower day, etc etc. So please make sure your script is not just good enough but good before you send it to set.

3) ADs: your job is not just about “Picture’s up!”

It’s like a mantra: makethedaymakethedaymaketheday. But the way you make the day is not, in fact, by just pushing forward constantly and calling out “Picture’s up!” prematurely, as if doing that is going to magically make everyone ready to go when they aren’t. Your job is to make sure that everyone on set can do their job efficiently, and that doesn’t always mean that you just keep moving, in fact, it often means the opposite. For instance, it means that you take the time to plan out and inform the crew of where each department should set up their equipment. It means that you should take the time to make sure everyone knows when rehearsal is happening, so that everyone is there for rehearsal who needs to be there. It means you take the time to make sure that everyone knows you’re rolling and the lock up is really a lock up. Seems like common sense, I know, and most ADs basically get this right, but you’d be surprised how many seem not to understand that when you get these types of things wrong, that’s what kills your day. 

4) Crew people: don’t talk shit about your own department.

If you spend a lot of your time bitching at or complaining about the person you’re working with, I guarantee they probably have things to say about you that are just as bad if not worse. Plus, the more bad shit you say, the more the person you’re saying it to thinks less of you, rather than the person you’re complaining about. You should either stop hiring the person you’re complaining about or quit working for them, period. Otherwise, it starts to become clear that you are really on some level enjoying your sado-masochistic relationship, and this is how to like to work, which isn’t something that makes most sane people want to work with you.

5) Everyone: if you think it’s time for you to get out of the business, it probably is.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with people who are pretty sick of what they do, and all conversation with them consists of variations how much their job stinks. Well, we all know the job stinks. We all know the hours are terrible, the food’s generally bad, things vacillate between boring and stressful, and the work itself can be back-breaking, frustrating, humiliating. You think this is news to anyone on this set? Right, so stop complaining about it. Even better, do what you’ve been threatening to do for the past 20 years and get out, or at least try. I know, believe me I know, it’s hard. It would mean massive changes in your life on all sides. Plus, if you couldn’t talk about the famous people you’ve worked with, the directors who love and always hire you (until they don’t), or your main topic of how much you hate your job, what would you talk about? But you might be happier. Unless, of course, being unhappy is what makes you happy. Which I think is true of many people who don’t know what it means to be happy, so being unhappy is the only thing that reminds them they are alive. 

This one, of course, applies to me. But at least I know it, and I am trying to do something about it, and instead of boring my colleagues with my complaints, I get to bore you. 🙂

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