Booking the Unicorn

In many ways, working in television is no different than being a project manager, a communications manager, or a preschool teacher. Why? All of these jobs involve taking a wildly creative idea, streamlining it into a cohesive, concise story, and then doing everything it takes to make it come to life.

In my days on the production management side of television, I’ve done some incredibly interesting things. I’ve met celebrities ranging from Will Smith to Justin Bieber to Ron Jeremy. I’ve hired, fired, defended, taught, and monitored the livelihoods of hundreds. I’ve shown up to work expecting to film 14 very large “convict-types” in an outdoor prison set, only to have them spit at me when it started to rain. I’ve been hit on by security guards, blamed for others’ mistakes, judged because of my hair color (I’m a strawberry-blonde), and yelled at because I was trying to be sensitive to someone’s special needs.

Recently, as I was relaying to a friend of mine just how bizarre it is to work in television, it occurred to me that the nuggets of truth I’ve discovered in production can apply to all sorts of creative management. As hyperbolic as my stories sound, at their core, my experience is probably not much different from anyone working in a creative field.

For example: It was a normal Tuesday afternoon during a shoot week. During the run-thrus before taping, a barrage of changes always came to my team, sending us into communication tizzies as we ran scrambling to alert every affected department. Nothing was ever too stressful (not even the day we had to find a school that would let us shoot a stripper giving a lap dance to an administrator). Everything always worked out, because we, the producers, figured out ways to creatively meet the most outlandish creative requests. This week, I got a particularly memorable demand.

Boss: Allison, we added this scene in which our main character will dance in a magical land and be rescued by her boyfriend. We want portions of it to be practical, portions animated, but we want to make sure the girl, her boyfriend and the unicorn are real.

So, I need you to book us a unicorn.

(A short PAUSE as I process the logical nature of his request, and just how illogical it truly is.)

Me: Um… you know that unicorns don’t exist, right?

Boss: (PAUSE…) Well… Right. But we still need one.

Me: Mmmm-kay!

Have you ever had an absolutely outlandish request from a client? From an editor? From your child?

Haven’t we all?!

Like the client who asks for a feature on the front page of the New York Times, or the editor who wants the inside exclusive scoop on the latest BP scandal, or the child who wants to bring her 12 best friends to Disneyland, we have to find ways to answer back with a little creativity.

Here’s how I’ve learned to best take these “pie-in-the-sky” requests back down to the universe in which we live.

Clarify their actual desires. Making the statement to my boss that unicorns don’t actually exist was not meant to be snotty or contrary, it was made to start the clarification process. “What is the point of the scene?” “Why did you want a unicorn?” “Was it because of it’s magical qualities?” “Was it because it’s something the two characters can ride away together on?” “Was it just another ‘set piece’ in an already expensive fantasy land?” “If there is no unicorn, do we lose the romantic nature of the scene?” “Is the unicorn pivotal to the story?”

Present alternatives. All right, let’s be honest, it’s very clear that we’re not going to get a real unicorn for the shoot in two days (or two lifetimes, for that matter). So, at this point, what must happen is I need to graciously stroke the boss’s ego, assisting him with brainstorming alternatives that will both “sell the bit” and achieve his original goals. “I understand you want them to ride off together into the sunset—it’s a lovely romantic image. Could we use a horse instead?” “Could we put a practical cone on a practical horse?” “Could we animate the unicorn?” “Could we get a prop plastic horse that comes in on wheels?” “Could we rent a pony?” “Could we use a stuffed horse head?” (Creepy, but effective.) “Can it be a funny bit with those kids’ pony-heads on sticks?” The goal in this stage is to not only let it be known that the request is actually very valid and is being entertained, but also to help the requester begin to think outside of their box.

Address concerns. For some individuals, this step really goes hand in hand with the offering of alternatives. Some people work better when they can reason through options, checking them off the list before they’ve even exhausted all the possibilities. Others need their creative space, reasoning through the highest cost options and the most impossible, as well as the inexpensive and practical. (This is when it’s crucial to know your audience.) With the issue of the unicorn, I knew we could reason through everything ONLY after we dreamt a little. When, through my questions, I learned this scene was going to be a mere 15 seconds, and that the “unicorn” wasn’t going to be seen head to hoof, I mentioned that having a live horse would be absurdly expensive, and not really the best dollar spent, especially since horses don’t come with horns. Also, we learned that a pony wasn’t going to cut it size-wise, and animating a unicorn was going to be even more costly. Some might see our choices dissipating, but everything in this process is intentional. We were narrowing our choices to find the winner, while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the original request.

At this point, the requester will generally a) concede to an offered alternative, b) throw a fit that you’re not listening to them, or c) maintain that they still need the unicorn to happen.

From here, it’s time to get really creative. Let’s face it, even the most charming of individuals cannot always change a person’s mind. Sometimes you just have to produce a unicorn. That was the case for me. There was no other option. And truthfully, it wasn’t so bad. It was just a unicorn.

A friend of mine once worked on a show where the writers changed the location of their bar scene to a pirate ship—two days before it was scheduled to shoot. This was while every pirate ship in Southern California was occupied, shooting the latest “Pirates” movie. After challenging the pirate ship request, it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to get by with anything less than a pirate ship. Phone calls were made for two days straight, and eventually, a little old man scraped together an old fishing boat, at which point the art department hauled bootie (and booty) to dress it like a pirate ship. Voila. Problem solved.

These absurd instances are an everyday occurrence for those of us in creative fields. One of our shining moments on screen was creating a human chess match, full of royally-adorned players. In the eleventh hour, our writers decided it would be really funny if four of our human chess pieces were yanked out of frame when their pieces were eliminated. In other words, they needed to spring quickly up in the air, past the camera. There was no time to do anything but, quite literally spring into action. We called in all of the proper teams, including a special effects team who worked overnight to achieve the perfect “yank”. Problem solved.

In the case of the unicorn, we ended up with a large plastic horse model to which we affixed a beautiful nose-cone, gave him wheels and rolled him on and off-screen. It was nowhere near what was originally requested (as we were filling a request for a mythical creature, this wasn’t all that surprising), but it did resemble a unicorn. It also ended up changing the feel of the scene from romantic to absolutely outlandish and funny. However, the writers were very pleased, the crew was proud of their creation, and I could rest easy knowing I was in the end, able to book a unicorn. Problem solved!

In our daily creative lives, we often have to field difficult requests. But this is all just part of the creative process. As a matter of fact, if you find a position where we don’t have to do this, please don’t ask me to work it. I can’t imagine not being able to creatively solve problems, especially ones that involve pirate ships, human chess pieces or unicorns.