BY JAKE KASDAN
NO KIDDING: Kasdan, directing Zooey Deschanel on New Girl, says the best way to ensure characters will be funny is to hire funny actors.
Seven years ago, I made a movie that I was pretty sure at the time was going to end my career. Or at least a big part of it. And I was basically fine with that. Even though my career was not really big enough to start closing off any corridors, there was this one area that I was OK leaving behind.
The movie was called The TV Set, and I had written and directed it. The subject was pilot season and the completely insane process by which new network television shows are developed. It was based on my own experiences, as well as those of my friends and collaborators, many of whom I had watched survive the making of their own pilots. And some people around me (my agent) felt that the movie was not particularly...loving in its depiction.
I’ll very quickly describe the pilot-making process for those who are not totally acquainted with it (probably a fairly small group) and/or have never seen The TV Set (an enormous group; almost nobody has seen The TV Set):
Every year, broadcast networks develop hundreds of potential first episodes for new shows. Literally hundreds. The scripts for these pilots are developed by their own excruciating process between the months of July and December. Then in January, about a hundred of them are selected to be produced, at exactly the same time, so that they might be completed by the same weekend in early May. Then, network programmers watch them all in a row and compare them to each other, according to several different criteria, one of which is market research testing, and the rest of which are kept secret from the outside world. Of these hundred or so pilots, a tiny number emerge victorious and are awarded with a timeslot and an order for more episodes. The rest of the pilots are promptly taken to a farm and euthanized.
The upshot of all this synchronized production; combined with the fact that there are, in actuality, a very limited number of hours to fill between eight and eleven o’clock on the broadcast networks; is that the months of January through April become a ruthless, lawless, sometimes desperate, often sad, Hunger Games-like wasteland in the television business. Large decisions are made very hastily, often at the whim of people who wield tremendous power but who may or may not be entirely sure which project they’re talking about. Wrong actors are cast much more frequently than right ones, as various pilots compete for actors with almost no experience or body of work (a promising 6 year old can be a hot commodity). Worse, otherwise decent people turn under the pressure of competition and start trading in rumors and hearsay, and the struggles of others, even friends, can suddenly seem to be a personal advantage. It’s a savage, archaic and yet deeply entrenched system that leads to a lot of mediocre work and brings out the worst in people.
You get the idea. It’s a flawed system. And almost everyone who works within it agrees, including...pretty much everyone.
Which is why it’s weird that I’ve spent most of the last two years working on pilots and new series and that I’ve mostly loved it. There is a secret corner of pilot making that is actually kind of great; one that nobody ever talks aboutÑand that is pilot directing.
I’ve had the incredible good fortune to jump back and forth between movies and television (even after making The TV Set). And without a doubt, some of the best and most valuable experiences I’ve ever had directing have been on the sets of pilots.
My first pilot gig; in fact my first job in television; was Freaks and Geeks, and the experience of directing that pilot was probably the single most formative of my directing life. The lessons I learned from those people (Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, the incredible cast) and the approach to comedy that we derived together to make that 48-minute “mini-movie” have, in one way or another, infused almost all of my directing work since.
The central tenet of that approach is basically this: The funniest stuff comes from life and feels, on some level, true. So when you’re trying to build something that can last for a long time, that can be funny again and again, you need to be working with truly funny actors who will inspire great comedy writing for their roles. And while this may seem obvious (it definitely does as I type it), it is in fact the single most important aspect of a comedy pilot, and the easiest thing to loose sight of in the chaos of pilot season. It’s more important than casting actors with big names or great looks, more important than almost any commercial concern, and ultimately, for the purposes of the pilot, it’s actually more important than almost any single detail of the script.
Which is not to say that the writing is any less important than the casting. If anything, this approach requires an even more tenacious writing process. We work as hard as we can to make the script as strong as possible. Then we search tirelessly for the best and funniest actors to play the parts; the people who truly make you laugh at a joke you’ve heard a thousand times and make you listen to what they’re saying. And then you keep writing, rehearsing, improvising and writing more to make it even better for them. You let the actor shape the role, and help to build a character that fits them perfectly. And it is the role of the director to engage, enjoy and challenge all of these people; to steer all of their considerable superpowers in a coordinated direction, by pushing and prodding, asking and suggesting.
In many cases, we do this even at the audition stage. The network casting process usually mandates an endless series of progressively soul-crushing auditions. By the time actors get to their final network audition, they are performing the same 11 or so jokes for the fifth time to a room full of people who have mostly already seen the same material performed at previous auditions. The stage is set for disaster. But if instead the director treats the auditions and the rehearsals for the auditions as a way of working out the material, trying new scenes and new jokes and different attitudes, hearing them in the mouths of actors that are in serious contention, then this obstacle course of protocol can actually become very helpful. It’s a way of experimenting and looking for the different ways an actor can make you laugh. What if this character were more like this? What’s it like when he’s angry? What’s it like when she decides not to say something aloud and says something else instead?
If all goes well; check that, all never goes well; if enough things go well and you’re able to get to the starting line with a great cast, then this exploration and experimentation continues throughout the shoot and into postproduction.
This process of working with the acting and the writing, helping those things meet in the middle and coalesce into new, honest, funny and hopefully lasting characters; that has lead to some of the most exciting directing of my career. Figuring out how to shoot and render those people in their places is an equally thrilling extension of that work, as is the editing, where it all either comes together...or doesn’t.
I always think of working on a pilot as akin to starting a band. When it’s working, the collaborations and experiences can be hugely enjoyable and really satisfying. Freaks and Geeks taught me how to work that way, and working with Liz Meriwether on New Girl, the second major series of my career, reminded me how much fun that can be.
And in rare cases, when lightning strikes, the work and the product can actually transcend the existential ridiculousness of pilot season and lead to something really positive.
Sometimes even a TV series.