Thursday, January 10, 2013

Story Producer

When I moved from New York to Hollywood -- so many years ago that it was literally a different millennium -- I had but one goal in mind: I wanted to become a screenwriter. I had already written several scripts, entered contests, read screenwriting books, talked to agents, even sent a copy of one of my screenplays to Steven Spielberg's mother's chauffeur  But I needed to take the next step. I needed to come to Hollywood, where I could immerse myself in the world of movie-making.

And that's exactly what I did. I met with producers and agents and managers and writers and directors. I attended seminars and workshops and festivals. I read books and essays and articles and interviews. I did tons of research. I wrote, produced and directed a short film. I joined a writer's group to get critical feedback on my work. And I kept writing. I wrote whenever and wherever I could: nights, weekends, holidays, vacations, lunch breaks, in cafes, on the plane, by the pool, at the lake, on the beach, you name it. I wrote comedies, dramas, thrillers, action-adventure, historical, adaptations, features, sitcoms, webisodes, specs, collaborations, treatments, outlines, loglines, pitches, character sketches, backstories, beat sheets, even a blog.

And I never gave up.

But along the way I did take a couple of detours. I got a temp job as a paralegal that turned into a permanent job and went from being a means to support my writing to a energy-sapping source of frustration. So eventually, I quit. But, while I was working as a paralegal I met a singer-songwriter named Jimmy and we formed a band called The Buzzards. I attended rehearsals, wrote songs, played gigs, recorded a CD and tried to make a go of it, but the bottom had just fallen out of the music business and we just couldn't get any momentum going.

Luckily, Jimmy and I remained friends. A couple of years later, when Jimmy got a job working at a TV production company, he put in a good word for me and, after a while,  I got a job there too. When Jimmy became coordinating producer on a show called Ice Road Truckers, he got me hired on as a tape logger -- reviewing hours of raw footage and winnowing it down to a more manageable amount. Jimmy taught me the ropes and gave me extra assignments, pulling together footage for the producers and editors and creating short scenes for some of the later episodes. At the end of the season, I was able to parlay my experience into an associate producer job on another show called Ax Men.

Jimmy's training program allowed me to jump in with both feet, putting together "stringouts" for the story producers. Stringouts are rough cuts of scenes based on the story outline created by the series producer (also called a showrunner) and/or the supervising producer. It was a great learning experience and I found myself utilizing much of what I had been studying as an aspiring screenwriter, especially in terms of what to leave in and what to leave out -- what constitutes part of the story and what does not belong. And the learning went both ways -- stringing out story beats for Ax Men helped me to craft better scenes as a screenwriter.

Meanwhile, Jimmy had moved on to become a story producer on another show. He had often told me that story producer was the job I should shoot for and I was eager to get the chance. I wanted to be the one to shape an entire episode from start to finish. Whenever I got the opportunity, I quizzed the story producers about how they did what they did. I wanted to know everything about it. I had never been so fascinated with any other job in my life.

Near the end of my stint on Ax Men, I happened to see the new showrunner for Ice Road Truckers passing by in the hallway. I flagged him down and let him know I wanted to work on IRT again. He told me to keep in touch. A few weeks later I got a call from Jimmy. He told me that IRT had already hired four associate producers, all of whom were women, and the job I wanted might have been filled already. That same night was our company's Christmas party. I showed up determined to get that job. I cornered the supervising producer and asked, "What do I have to do to get hired on your show, grow some tits? Because I will." He laughed, then he said, "It wouldn't hurt."

Two days later, he called me and assured me that I had the job. No boobs necessary  I was much relieved.

It was great to be back on IRT. I was able to work much more closely with the story producers and editors than on Ax Men, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about how to put an episode together and see what works and what doesn't. About halfway through the season, the showrunner called me into his office and told me he was giving me an additional assignment. That afternoon we drove over to the company that makes all of the graphics for the show, and I was introduced as the new graphics guy. On the way back to the office, I asked the showrunner what I should be doing in order to become a story producer. He said, "Just do your job. People will notice." I hoped that was true, but I doubted it.

Managing the graphics for IRT was pretty cool, I got to come up with a 15-20 second scene, usually involving death and destruction, and see it through from beginning to end. It was like producing a really short movie every week. Plus, the assignment came with an unexpected bonus: when all of the other AP's were being let go because their assignments had ended, I was kept on to continue handling the graphics. Instead of scrambling to arrange another gig on another show, I was set till the end of the summer.

Not long after I took over the graphics, the showrunner called me into one of the edit bays and dropped a bombshell: he was leaving the show. I was shocked, we were only halfway through the episodes, how would we get through the rest? Turns out, he had a plan. I would take his place in the 'pre-finish' bay -- addressing the notes each episode received from the executive producer and the network before they were handed off to the supervising producer and the finish editor for the final polish. This was a pretty big break for me, an amazing opportunity to learn how the episodes get made and to work alongside one of the best editors around. Plus, I would be getting credit as coordinating producer for the final eight episodes.

Working in the pre-finish bay was great. We spent about a week on each episode, overhauling scenes, restructuring acts, tweaking the voice over. It was a crash course in story producing. By the end of the season, I was ready to produce an episode of my own. But, first I needed to get a job.

Since everyone else on our show had already jumped over to Ax Men, there weren't a lot of jobs available. I had a brief a meeting with our executive producer to tell her that I was ready to make the move to story producer. She is in charge of several shows and knows who is looking to hire. But nobody was -- all the shows were crewed up. She took my resume and said, "I wish I had talked to you last week."

So, when IRT ended, I had no job lined up. I did have an interview for a show called Duck Dynasty, but they were looking for seasoned story producers and I had no credits to my name. But, the night before the interview, I got a call from the showrunner of a show called Black Gold, which follows the lives of oil-drilling "roughnecks" in West Texas -- he was in desperate need of a story producer and the executive producer I met with had given him my name. I took the job on the spot. I wanted that credit more than anything. I still went to my Duck Dynasty interview the next day, but all they could offer me was another AP gig so I didn't feel too bad turning them down. In fact I felt pretty cool.

My job on Black Gold started the following Monday. I showed up at the production office and ran into Jimmy, who was producing episode two -- I would be working on episode four. It was good to have Jimmy there, I knew if I ran into trouble I could count on him for guidance. After filling out a bunch of paperwork, I went down to the editing bay where I met Sam, an editor I knew from IRT. Sam has a lot of experience and talent and I was lucky to be working with him. I knew I would be in good hands.

Because I was starting on short notice, though, I hadn't gotten any prep time to preview the material before Sam started editing. Usually the story producer starts a week ahead of the editor and can provide him with rough stringouts of the some of the scenes. But we were starting from scratch. Also, we had some pretty big holes in our outline. The field producers were still shooting down in Texas and we had to wait for the footage to come in -- and hope we could use it.  We didn't even know if we would have enough material to fill an episode. I looked at Sam, a little overwhelmed, and asked, "What do you think we should do?" Sam smiled, "I guess we're gonna have to wing it."

We pulled up our first scene -- some raw footage of one of the main characters discovering that his roommate was in jail -- and started watching. As we watched, Sam kept stopping and starting, tapping keys and clicking his mouse. I didn't know what he was doing over there, but he seemed to be pleased: "This is good. This will work." By the time we had gotten through the raw footage, Sam had already roughed out our opening scene. I was amazed, "How the hell did you do that?"

We were off to a pretty good start. By the end of the week we had our first act pretty much in place. I came in over the weekend to try and get a head start on act two, so Sam wouldn't have to cut every scene from raw footage. I kept up that practice for the next four weeks and was able to stay just enough ahead of him that I wasn't slowing him down.

Around the end of the third week, we hit the big hole. Sam and I stood and stared at the array of index cards on the wall, each one representing one of our scenes, arranged in columns by act. We were looking at act four and Sam was shaking his head. "These aren't scenes -- they don't go anywhere and they have nothing to do with our story. We have a big problem." I knew he was right, but I didn't want him to worry about it. Putting the story together was my job. His job was to keep cutting the show. I said, "I'll find some new scenes. It'll be fine." Sam looked at me like I was crazy. Where the hell was I going find these "new scenes?" We were already competing with the other episodes to keep the scenes we had. I really had no idea myself. But I had spent two seasons on IRT, digging up material and putting together scenes out of the dregs of the footage. I would just have to do the same thing here.

There was one big difference, though, between IRT and Black Gold: IRT had a lot more footage. On IRT we had seven crews shooting every day for three months. On Black Gold, we had one or two crews, sometimes overlapping, and they had only been shooting for about five weeks so far. It wasn't going to be easy to find new, and usable material.

I came in that Saturday and started reading through all of the field notes and camera logs. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I hoped something would jump out. After a few hours I found something. At first it looked like a boring "soft" scene -- one that takes place off the oil rig and has little action. But I knew with the right editing and supporting footage, I could use it to fill in one of the gaps in our story and show some insight into what made the character tick. It was a building block. I pulled up the footage and put together a rough cut for Sam. When I showed it to him on Monday he was psyched, "That's a great scene!" We immediately threw out the old material and added our new scene. Act four was saved. Now on to act five.

On Thursday of our fifth week, we had a screening scheduled with the executive producer. She happens to be a very smart and talented lady, but everyone still dreads these screenings because the delicate love-child you've been nurturing for the past four weeks is about to get eviscerated in front of your eyes. It's not fun. I went to the furniture closet and got one of the good padded chairs and jammed it into our cramped little bay so she wouldn't have to sit on a hard metal folding chair. I bought some Fiji water and even put an air-freshener behind one of the monitors -- to mitigate the aroma of two guys working in desperation in a small windowless room for the past four weeks.

The time came for our screening and we were pretty ready. We had our whole episode roughed out, with no holes left, and it was the right length. The executive producer came in and took her seat. She had brought her own water, so she didn't need my Fiji water. We started playing the episode and got through about thirty seconds -- all of which was flashbacks to "previously on" material -- and then her phone rang. She excused herself to take the call, talked for a few seconds and then told us she had to leave. And that was it. The screening was over. Instead, we sent her a copy of the episode so she could watch it later.

The next day we started getting emails from her with her notes for the episode. We only had one day left, so there wasn't much we could do about them, but as it turned out there wasn't much we needed to do. Apparently she was pleased with what we had and only suggested a few changes here and there -- making the voice-over clearer or rearranging a few scenes to make the story more logical. She loved the new scene I had added into act four. I felt like I had really dodged a bullet. Sam was very happy. We even got through most of her notes before the end of the day. We really lucked out.

But in a way, I kind of felt cheated, too. I had wanted her to see my work and hear her comments firsthand to get an idea of what she thought. I wanted to impress her with my first episode. I wanted to prove that she had made the right choice in giving me the opportunity.

Near the end of the day, I got called in to the showrunner's office. He told me that one of the other story producers wasn't going to be able to do his next episode and they needed someone to take his place. He had talked it over with the executive producer and she told him, "Get Richard." I was stunned. I wasn't even sure she knew my name. I guess she did. The showrunner asked me if I wanted the job and I said, "Hell yes!" I went back to the bay and Sam and I said our goodbyes. He was moving on to another show. I would have a few weeks off and then start in on episode nine. I felt pretty great.

I was a story producer.

I still haven't given up my dream of becoming a screenwriter, but I finally get to do something I've always wanted to do, using all of the skills and knowledge I've been acquiring my whole life. And it turns out I kind of have a knack for it, too. I love my job and even though I appreciate the time off between shows, I can't wait to get started on the next one. I never knew I would end up doing something like this. But in a way, I have been preparing for it all along. I guess I just love telling stories.


Anonymous said...

act 5: happy ending! i'm very happy for

Anonymous said...

for you, rich!

Anonymous said...

and your show poster is most phallic!!!