Even with The Producers at the top of his résumé, Nathan Lane could be forgiven for experiencing a little flop sweat. Several dozen production company and CBS network executives are gathered on Stage 20 at Twentieth Century Fox to watch a runthrough of his latest stab at a TV series, tentatively titled Life of the Party. This is Tuesday; Friday he will face another tough crowd — a studio audience invited to watch the filming. The Washington, DC — set show has a pedigree: it's created by Jeff Richman, formerly of Frasier; the director is Broadway vet Jerry Zaks; and the sets, which include an elegant apartment at the Watergate Hotel, are by Roy Christopher. Of course, Christopher also designed Encore! Encore!, Lane's last attempt at a sitcom. It lasted 12 episodes.
The runthrough seems to be going well, with the laugh lines going over strongly. Still, it's hard to tell…what direction might this show about a gay former TV star-turned-Congressman take? “When I read Encore! Encore!, I actually liked it a lot,” recalls Christopher, whose judgment earned him long-running gigs on Murphy Brown and now Frasier. “I can't even analyze where that went wrong; I'm not always right about these things.”
Life of the Party photo: Stefan Olson
In fact, no one seems to have crystal ball about success in network series television, especially in today's super-competitive, instant ratings-driven environment. But during the spring, which is known as pilot season in Hollywood, many foolhardy souls try to peer into the future anyway. Networks issue orders for new contenders to take the place of the current crop of failures, or of older shows that are finally being retired. Finding a replacement for The X-Files, for example, was a major item on Fox's agenda last spring. Production companies scramble to put together new sitcoms and one-hour dramas, mostly from scratch, over the space of a few weeks.
In early May, the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) and the two minis (UPN and WB) made their fall season announcements. This year, 35 new series made the cut, as well as a few more shows slated as midseason replacements; perhaps three times that number of pilots were produced. In the course of that weeklong period in May, as the often mysterious process of scheduling and strategizing culminates, designers (as well as writers, directors, and actors) discover their employment fate for the fall.
During the first week of April 2002, I looked in on some pilots at various stages of development. It's a very busy time for designers, because they are often finishing up the season on their existing shows just as they're ramping up new ones. Friends Emmy nominee John Shaffner, for instance, was working with partner Joe Stewart on the show's one — hour season finale and the Dharma & Greg series finale, while shuttling back and forth between four sitcom pilots on the Warner Bros. lot. (Luckily, his two other two series, The Drew Carey Show and The George Lopez Show, had already wrapped). “I'm comfortable with four,” he says. “A lot of my shows are mature” — indeed, this coming season is reportedly the last for Friends — “and I'm looking for a new hit.”
Bram and Alice photo: Gale Adler
Roy Christopher had added two pilots, Bram and Alice and The In-Laws, to his Frasier and Becker workload; he handed off his initial design on Life of the Party to Stephan Olson, who was simultaneously finishing up the season on Titus, and prepping another pilot. Carsey-Werner's in-house designer Garvin Eddy, with That 70s Show, That 80s Show, and Grounded for Life on his plate, had it comparatively easy, with only one pilot, an untitled comedy for ABC about the blue-collar mayor of a Long Island town. But, he adds, “I've done as many as five, which is a lot, because pilots are a lot of work. I have three other pilot scripts sitting on my desk that they haven't developed. I do a basic design, but I don't zero in on the nuts and bolts until they say we're going ahead. And the boat has sailed for this season.”
The In-Laws photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC
On the drama side, things may seem less hectic, but the shows themselves are twice as long and hence twice as much work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer designer Carey Meyer was handed the plum assignment of designing Buffy creator Joss Whedon's expensive new science-fiction show, Firefly — one of the series reportedly being groomed by Fox to fill the vacated X-Files slot. (Another pretender to the throne, a remake of the 1960s Irwin Allen opus Time Tunnel, had already completed production in Vancouver.) At the same time, Meyer was finishing off the season on Buffy. At least Maxine Shepard, designer of the John Wells medical drama Presidio Med, could give her full attention to the pilot for the series, which had been awarded a coveted 13 — episode commitment from CBS: her last series, Citizen Baines, had been cancelled midseason. “I always look at them like a giant puzzle that I have to put together,” says Shepard about pilots. “From the script, I know there's a given number of sets that have to be designed and/or found, and I have so much time to do it in, and so much money. I look at how I can get this puzzle to work, and how it then can relate to stuff in the future, like what other set pieces they might want. The design has to be versatile enough to carry a show through an entire season.”
Presidio Med sketch: Maxine Shepard
The Presidio Med pilot cobbles together San Francisco establishing shots, a decommissioned Long Beach hospital location for the show's secondary medical center set, and the main set — the offices of a female doctor's practice, built on a stage at Warner Bros. Though schedules and budgets are much more liberal than for regular episodes — the one — hour Presidio Med pilot took up 16 shooting days, with the art department budget hovering in the high six figures — using locations is often a time- and cost-saving measure. Later, the medical center sets can be duplicated onstage, with the cost amortized over future episodes.
This is generally not an issue for sitcoms, which traditionally shoot on stage sets before a live audience. But even without going to locations, traveling between studios can be taxing: that's a major reason Christopher handed Life of the Party off to Olson, a younger designer who inherited Titus in like fashion. “I don't want to drive back and forth to the Fox lot,” says Christopher, whose offices and other shows are all at Paramount. Olson says when he entered the process, “Roy had roughed out the apartment and done a plan of [Lane's] office. He had an idea of the set list. I took everything to my studio and drew up the office and apartment, and left him a set of prints so he could think about colors and wall treatments. He made all the color choices, and that's about where he stopped.” Olson directed construction of the set model, a crucial step in creating the geography of the space.
From script approval to production, a typical sitcom pilot takes about five or six weeks to get up and running. If you're doing more than one, that means substantial overlap. The week after Life of the Party was shot (using up-to-the-minute high-definition cameras), Christopher's next CBS pilot, The In-Laws, with Jean Smart and Dennis Farina, went to rehearsals; his third, NBC's Bram and Alice, starring Alfred Molina, was just starting to build, for a late April 30 filming. And immediately after the Life of the Party set was struck, Olson and set decorator Richard Walker started putting together the sets for their next pilot, ABC's With You in Spirit, on the very same stage.
MONEY & MATERIALS
Budgets vary a lot on comedy pilots, and according to everyone, the numbers are declining. The relatively high-end Life of the Party's art department budget was roughly $150,000. “I'm never quite sure what that includes,” says Christopher. “I just design what's needed, and then the producers add or subtract.” Generally, though, the designer's budget is meant to encompass construction and dressing, and the figures can add up quickly. On his pilot, which is swimming against the film and HD tide by being shot on videotape, Garvin Eddy says, “We're spending about $85,000-90,000. Fortunately for me, we have a huge warehouse full of scenery, so I'm able to take stock sets and rework them.”
Shaffner also resorts to stock scenery, though he isn't necessarily happy about it. “When you design a fresh new set for that script and that character, you can really hit it on the head,” he says. “Otherwise, we have a set from a pilot that I rearranged into something else, and now I'm going to rearrange it again, and try to pull it together with color.” Of his four current pilots, Shaffner was able to be most creative on NBC's RomeoFire, designing a firehouse pretty much from scratch (at a cost of $100,000). Wanda at Large, a Fox sitcom starring Wanda Sykes, featured a couple new sets alongside ones pulled from stock. (“That's Chandler's office over there, and that's where Chandler and Monica got married,” Shaffner helpfully points out.) His other two, Saint Sass and What I Like About You, both for the WB, are “mostly scrounged,” and run more in the $70,000-90,000 range.
What I Like About You photo: Paul Gregor
What makes matters worse, says Shaffner, is that “they're writing in more scenes, so you have less money and more sets. It becomes a challenge to fit all the sets on the stage. It used to be a living room and a bedroom; now it's two offices, two talk shows, a ballroom, an apartment, and a bar: it's like, stop already!”
GIVING UP THE SHIP
When your main set is a vaguely arthropod spaceship with a “rear end that lights up,” in the words of Firefly designer Carey Meyer, pulling from stock is not really an option. With a 13 — episode commitment from Fox, this futuristic show about a scruffy scavenger ship was granted first-class treatment, with three feature stages devoted to its production, and a five — week shooting schedule and $6 — million budget allotted to the two — hour pilot. At least $1 million of that budget was dedicated to the art department. Meyer is excited enough about continuing with Firefly that he is giving up his five — season stint on Buffy to do it — a chance he wasn't willing to take after designing the pilot for Angel, the Buffy spinoff. “I'll start the new season, hire a new art director, weigh in for probably six episodes, and pass it on,” he says of the popular vampire slayer series.
The Firefly spaceship
Intensive work started on Firefly at the beginning of 2002. “From mid-January to the first week of February, we were drawing sketches and creating construction documents, by mid-February we were building, and by the first weekend in March, we were filming,” says the designer. “I feel like we've created feature-quality sets, but if this were a feature, it would have been at least 25% more.”
At the other end of the spectrum from something like Firefly is the example of Buffy, which was picked up not on the basis of a pilot, but a 10 — minute “presentation.” “You quickly go to a location and give a facsimile of what you think you would create in the future,” says Meyer, who adds that neither he nor the show's original designer, Steve Hardie, were involved in that process. Roy Christopher says the problem with presentations is, “they get a really good designer, tell you that you only have $15,000 to do it, and that ‘we don't expect this to be the real thing.’ Then, if it goes to series, the powers that be will say, ‘I didn't think much of the scenery, I think we should get another designer.’”
Even with a generous budget, there are cost-saving solutions specific to pilots. Decorator David Koneff's set dressing for Firefly, which includes funky, supposedly scavenged furniture with more wood and fabric than on the average spaceship set, is rented for the pilot, with the contingency to buy and amortize it when the show goes back into production. On the Time Tunnel pilot, which was designed by Anthony Cowley, the double helix-shaped title apparatus mostly exists in the digital realm. “The only thing I built was the long green walkway with a ton of lights,” he says. “Once we go to series, God willing, we will have to build a lot more, because the actors will be interacting with the set.” Shooting the pilot in Canada was also an economic measure, of course…but that's another story.
THE VISION THING
What makes a pilot fly? Most of the interviewees agree that it comes down to the strength of the conception, backed by a writer-producer who knows how to develop it. “The most successful shows are the ones where you have one or two people that really have a vision of what it should be,” Eddy says, citing The Cosby Show as a perfect example. “The ones that are not successful are the ones where you have 16 visions.” Says Christopher, “There's a clarity about a hit show that's there from the first. Frasier was like that: you read it, and you just saw these people. It was so clear. Designing his apartment was a breeze.”
If the strong vision exists, Shepard says, a designer's job is mostly about helping a show through “a difficult birthing process.” Presidio Med did experience a bumpy labor: a few key players in the cast, which is headed by Dana Delany and Blythe Danner, were not in place until the last minute, which meant Shepard didn't have as much to go on regarding characterization, and even skin tones, as she would have liked. And the main set, which was designed to sprawl across two soundstages, had to be reconfigured midway to fit onto one. “John Wells looked at the floor plan and said, ‘We're never going to be able to write a scene where someone comes out of her office and hooks up with a patient coming out of an exam room.’ It's fabulous to work with someone who can look into the future like that, even if it makes it tougher in the beginning.”
But even with what looks to be a sure winner, when it comes down to the scheduling wire, there are those factors playing a behind-the-scenes role: counterprogramming concerns, or preferential treatment given to in-house network productions. When the fall schedules were announced in May, there were a few surprises. Presidio Med was given CBS' Wednesday night 10pm slot, against NBC's powerful Law & Order. But even with a commitment, rumors of trouble swirled around Firefly. It ended up on the Fox schedule, but at the less-than-prime 8pm Friday spot. Oddly enough, the decision was made to debut with the show's first regular episode, and air the pilot as a special event midway through the season. Time Tunnel was passed over altogether, which Cowley says was “a jaw-dropper.” He's moved on to another series remake: Dragnet, which ABC will premiere after Monday Night Football ends in January. What's going in the old X-Files timeslot? Malcolm in the Middle and The Grubbs, a new half-hour comedy.
Only one of Shaffner's sitcoms, WB's What I Like About You, which stars Jennie Garth and Amanda Bynes as sisters living together in New York, was picked up; it will air on Friday, opposite Firefly. Eddy's sole pilot didn't make the cut, but two of Christopher's did: NBC gave The In-Laws its 8pm Tuesday slot, while CBS scheduled Bram and Alice for Sundays at 8. In April, the designer had expressed doubt his staff of three, plus decorator Ron Olsen, would take on the design of four shows. But he changed his mind, hiring another assistant.
Life of the Party's future (and eventual title) is a little more uncertain; CBS slated it as a midseason replacement, premiere date to be determined. For Olson, this was a relief, since his other pilot was not picked up, and Titus was cancelled. If all three shows ended up on the fall schedule, the designer said in April, “I have some choices to make.” As it turned out, the choice was made for him. And Broadway theatregoers pining for a return of Nathan Lane to The Producers will have to pine a little longer, at least until the ratings come in.