September 2003

Write on Time

Inside Judging Amy's script-delivery success.


Director James Frawley with actress Amy Brenneman

The verdict is in on Judging Amy, and the show is guilty — of being a television show that treats the issue of on-time script delivery as a serious mandate. Through the CBS program's first four seasons, 93 episodes were produced and, but for a few exceptions, all were ready for the crew and director right on schedule.

It happens that as Judging Amy races toward its 100th episode on-air in November, it represents a success story. At a time when too many showrunners look at deadlines as mere estimates and seem to believe that timelines are there to be abused, Judging Amy is a director's dream, a production on which the collaborative process is respected and schedules are taken seriously. In this day and age, its near-spotless record is a substantial accomplishment.

"The on-time record reflects a true respect for the director," believes Jim Hayman, a one-time co-executive producer and longtime director on Amy (now working on the freshman CBS drama Joan of Arcadia). "This kind of work ethic on the part of the writers and producers tells the director that he's an important part of the process."

Agrees James Frawley, who joined Amy as a director and co-executive producer in its fourth season: "I'm very proud to be a part of it. When I started on this show, it was like dying and going to heaven.

"I'm on the DGA's Creative Rights Committee, and late-script delivery is one of the major issues we're struggling with. As a freelance director, I've experienced nightmare situations where scripts come in during the fourth, fifth, sixth, even the seventh day of prep, making it impossible for me to do anything resembling good work."

Frawley and his fellow members of the Creative Rights Committee who direct single-camera shows have worked tirelessly gathering information from peers and discussing with showrunners and producers the best way to achieve timely script delivery. As part of this stepped-up commitment to assess the depth of the problem and improve the situation, the Guild began tracking script delivery on single-camera television shows during the final quarter of 2002.

In that report, nearly half of the scripts (49%) in one-hour television were delivered late, with 20% late by anywhere from a week to 15 days. Of the 651 episodes studied, just 333 were on time, while 318 were late from one to 15 days. Of those, 65 scripts, or 10%, were late by at least a week and in some cases more than two weeks.

As any director who has been so afflicted while working in series television would attest, late delivery bogs down the process in a myriad of ways, resulting in dramatic budgetary overruns to the studio and creative challenges that place a strain on those both below and above the line (along with regular cast members, guest stars and extras). The issue has proliferated to such an extent that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) joined forces with the DGA to tackle the problem and, more importantly, to address the culture that has allowed script delivery to get out of hand.

As DGA Creative Rights Committee Chairman Steven Soderbergh said, "The lack of preparedness does not just affect the ability of directors to do their jobs but makes work more difficult for the entire cast and crew. It generates perpetual anxiety, budgetary overruns and occupational peril in equal measure."

But not on Judging Amy, where late scripts have represented a tiny percent of the mix.

Showrunner Barbara Hall consulting with actress Mary Steenburgern (right)

It's About Tenacity

How has the show managed to so effectively buck the tardiness trend? It's all about organization and keeping one's eye on the ball — a ball that in this case has the phrase "Focus and Consistency" written on it. And a majority of the credit goes out to Barbara Hall, Judging Amy's writing showrunner and guiding force during its first four seasons (she's since moved on to executive produce Joan of Arcadia this fall).

Hall, whose pre-Amy credits include writing and producing jobs on Northern Exposure and Chicago Hope, explains that her formative days in TV taught her an important lesson, that is, it's not an option to be scriptless the first day of prep. "You hurt your own show if you deprive the director of prep. It was always a priority. And there was always the sense of giving directors all the time they needed to get it right.

"My philosophy is that as soon as a director signs on, you're partnering with him or her. That person's job is to serve the work and perhaps elevate it. I certainly don't think of the director as someone who comes in to mess things up. And maybe that's why this late-delivery trend is happening, maybe it's partly a control issue."

So why is it that not all showrunners seem to take directors seriously when it comes to getting scripts in on time?

"There is this fallacy that brilliant writing can't happen on time and in an organized fashion, that it only happens in a chaotic environment," Hall replies. "But I don't believe that. I think it's about presenting an organized system, and telling the writers, 'Here's the amount of time you get, here's when you must turn it in, here's where I might do something to it.'

"If you bring your people into the process instead of shutting them out, you promote a creative environment where things are turned in on time. I believe adversarial relationships where the director gets shut out are what start the problems."

Joseph Stern, an executive producer on Judging Amy and the casting/editing side of the equation, tosses all the credit for the "Amy system" to Hall as well as fellow executive producer Hart Hanson for getting the job done through four superbly run seasons.

"Barbara and Hart were true sticklers for on-time delivery," acknowledges Stern. "They were careful in evaluating the ability, character and work ethic of their writers. That made a huge difference. But they also had great organization and work ethics, promoting a positive environment that encouraged people to do their best work, and to do it efficiently. With this kind of ethic behind you, crunch time comes during the final third of the season and the writers are more likely to go the extra mile. For [Hall and Hanson], it's all about tenacity."

Logistical issues have also come into play with regard to Amy's sterling record, Stern stresses. "We have been blessed to have a staff of eight writers from the beginning. Having a studio that will fiscally allow you to hire that many writers makes a huge difference as the season wears on."

Now that Hall has taken her system for on-time script delivery and moved on, the task of running Judging Amy falls to writer/executive producers Karen Hall (sister of Barbara) and Alex Taub. Hall arrived on the writing staff in season two, Taub last year. Both are determined to keep the show's system — as well as its near-perfect record — intact into the fifth season and beyond.

How DO They Do it?

Here is how Judging Amy gets written (as described by Karen Hall and Alex Taub):

At the first meeting of the writers for the season, 24 boxes will be drawn on a white board (one for each episode). The first eight are blocked out in detail to get everyone off and writing —one script per staffer, including Hall and Taub. Two more similar sessions will be held at strategic points in the season to block out and flesh out another group of eight storylines.

Each writer is responsible for coming up with multiple stories inside his or her episode — somewhere between four and six per script. An unblended outline begins the process.

All of the writers are responsible for at least two scripts by themselves. Generally, the writer will have at least a month to come up with a first draft. If a writer is running into problems, he or she is obliged to discuss the issue with Hall and Taub in greater depth so as to avoid schedule problems down the road.

"What we don't do in this process," Taub explains, "is spend an inordinate amount of time in a room together, as a group, breaking stories. And we don't spend the bulk of our workday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a conference room sketching out the episode in great detail, scene by scene, before going off and writing it. Here, a person is essentially responsible for the episode, doing it on their own or in tandem. Any collaboration is unofficial."

And as per Barbara Hall's original directive, even if a script is extensively rewritten, the original writer's name remains on there solo. "Barbara believed in hiring people who were up to the standard she set and then letting them write," Karen Hall says, "but every script doesn't have to go through only one writer's typewriter, as it were."

James Frawley (right) with DP Ken Zunder

You Should be Able to Go Home at Night

Though on-time track records are rare, they are not quite rocket science.

"Scripts are late when you have a show where you're always waiting on the executive producer to read the script after you've finished it," explains Karen Hall. "Alex's and my doors are open 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time is when we're writing. The truth is, problems erupt when you've got an egomaniac at the top who must control everything. I won't name names, but these people know who they are. And too many of us have worked for them.

"This job shouldn't be as hard as it's sometimes made out to be. I'm sorry, but you should be able to go home at night."

Adds Taub: "I've done shows where the studio and the network feel the need to micromanage the storylines right down to the two-line summary. Here, the studio (20th Century Fox) and the network (CBS) are very good at giving us notes, but at the script level.

Not every little thing is scrutinized. That makes a huge difference when you're talking about getting the script out the day before the first day of prep, which is what we shoot for."

The kind of people hired for the writing slots on Judging Amy has a lot to do with its prompt script delivery legacy, Karen Hall believes. "Barbara was always attracted to people with responsibilities, who were married and had kids, who led relatively normal lives," she says. "We also try to keep a good balance between men and women."

Veteran director/exec producer Frawley, whose directing credits run the gamut from That Girl and The Monkees to Magnum, P.I., Cagney & Lacey and Ally McBeal, maintains that everything on Amy begins and ends with the quality of that writing.

"The writing is simply excellent," Frawley believes. "Part of why they're so good, and so prompt, is that they're left alone to do what they do best and not have their attention diluted into several different directions. Their time and effort and energy isn't split between things like editing and acting and being on the set."

Frawley agrees with Barbara Hall that, too often, showrunners tend to delay delivery of the script as a way of exerting control.

"If it's delivered late, there's no time for script notes from the producers or the studio or the actors," he points out. "There's none of that foolishness on Amy. There is instead an underlying trust in what the writer-producers do. That's not to say there isn't feedback. But it never takes time away from their primary responsibility, which is creating the stories. I've never been part of a production team that functioned with such generosity."

In fact, adds Frawley, by the time production begins on a particular Judging Amy episode, "every department has had the script long enough to have received feedback from the producers, the director and the writers. This way, it's easy to begin each episode with everyone committed to making the same picture. That's simply not possible without a script during prep."

You will certainly hear no complaints about working on Judging Amy from Dan Sackheim, a director and co-exec producer on the show during its third season and now a producer-director on the freshman NBC drama The Lyon's Den.

"Barbara (Hall) really understood the need to have the full seven-day prep for a director. She's very forward-thinking and extremely disciplined," Sackheim agrees. "The bottom line for a director on these shows is this: having the time almost always equates to quality. It's that simple."  


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