Details Wanted: The Challenge of the Blank Slate

I’ve just signed on to help produce a pilot for a cable network.

Like many production-related, freelance gigs, I have no earthly idea what I am getting myself into. I agreed to take on the project because I like the people I will work with, because this is a new challenge, and frankly, because I’m waiting to hear on a few full-time opportunities. Great way to pick up a few extra bucks!

The majority of the initial “Do you want to work with us?” call consisted of a quick description of the show and the compensation I would receive for producing. While I cannot share with you the details of the show, I can share that is a bit of a documentary-reality hybrid. As I’ve been working on scripted shows and sketch comedy/variety shows for the last five years, this will be new territory for me. I haven’t really delved too much into the reality TV world up to this point, save a few field pieces produced here and there. In fact, I’ve explicitly avoided reality TV because of its reputation of being terribly demanding and not very rewarding. While I’m not sure I know what to expect other than a few people’s negative impressions of reality TV, I’m ready for the challenge.

Thus, I agreed to the compensation, armed with little more than a basic premise to the show, and conceded, “Yes, I will be on the lot tomorrow.”

So, I packed my computer, a few office supplies, a quick lunch, and rested my head before the latest chapter in my freelance life has a chance to explode onto the pages of life.

Which brings us to now, Monday morning. Here I am. Alone.

As the other two people signed on to the project are currently waist-deep in other commitments, I am the office of one, spearheading the translation of the creative impetus behind this show, and fleshing out the details of exactly what it will look like. I have a basic spine of a story, and now I need to craft the rest of the skeleton before we all join together to add the organs, slap on the meat and cover it in skin.

The prolific composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim once said, “God is in the details,” eschewing the typical image of an artist reveling in a blank canvas. He claims that with these “details” or “restrictions,” one is able to create great things with much ease. I’ve found this to be true for me, not only in my artistic life, but also in my personal and professional life.

In a perfect world, communications professionals are gifted with many details upon which they can build a great story and strategize a fantastic message. Sadly, this is rarely what I experience. In this particular case of working on a television pilot — something that has yet to establish a true voice — the charge of interpreting and creating these details falls to those charged with making the show happen. In other words, clarifying dreams, translating desires and materializing wishes of the executives, creatives and network rests solely in on us, the producers. (Or today, in my case, the producer.)

While I am not allowed to discuss the technical details of the show I’ve signed on for, I can tell you that what I’m doing is much like an exercise in both creative writing and basic journalism. I’m taking something that has not existed before, and peppering it with as many details as I can. From there, I hope to be a part of team that produces a story that not only accomplishes the wishes of the creators and the network, but brings a strong story in which a faithful audience will participate and invest.

First, I am answering the 5 Ws, both creatively and technically.

Who is our audience? Who are the people we will grow to care about in this hour?

What will this show be about? What is the draw? What will the audience take away? What types of stories we can unearth?

Where will this pilot episode take place – town, physical shoot locations? When – time of day, time of month? When does it have to be in the network’s hands? Why will we choose one location over another here? Why will the audience care? Why do the people here matter?

How will this all come together? From staff to cast to logistics to budget to network delivery dates, everything must be considered.

Next, I am setting the stage for a story that will hopefully unfold into a wonderful pilot that will be picked up for a long-running series. I need to determine setting and characters. It’s a rather simple concept, but as any writer/creator knows, these things are paramount to a successful story. These are the types of “details” to which Sondheim refers. Choosing a location that is not interesting or does not produce wonderful characters that viewers will care about could kill a series before it even begins. Thus, my present challenge means I will spend the majority of the week researching the perfect locale for this pilot episode.

My parameters are challenging and not really all that helpful. Not to mention that we are slated to shoot in four weeks? That means in one month, not only do we have to have a location selected, but a cast of “average citizens,” a crew and all the nitty, gritty details that fall in between, many of which I cannot discuss. (For my opinion on timelines in the production world, please see my “Good. Fast. Cheap.” entry.)

Challenging? Absolutely. A little frustrating? Only if you’re not comfortable with or amenable to wandering around in the dark, synthesizing information coming to you in blips and clips throughout the day/week/weekend. I, however, am signed on for eight weeks, and am ready for the challenge.

Let the details surface. Let the story unfold. Let the fun begin!