Summer 2015

As TV changes, directors talk navigating pilots

With the landscape of pilots evolving—from traditional to backdoor to the Internet—directors are dealing with new business and creative decisions. Here's how a group of versatile pilot directors solved their problems.


Small World: Jonathan Krisel (2nd from left) directed the pilot for the Web-to-TV series Portlandia. The challenge was translating the spontaneity and freshness of a bare-bones show for a bigger screen without losing its charm. (Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC)

Julie Anne Robinson knows that the only thing that's predictable about shooting a pilot is that it will be unpredictable.

Robinson, who directed the pilot for the upcoming ABC series The Catch, recalls, "One time, we'd had lots of time to prep and I was on a tech scout, and the writer called me and said, 'Julie Anne, we're going to do a car crash on a lawn in front of a house.' So I'm in the tech van and I said, 'Look, there's a great house—pull over!' I surveyed the area and said, 'There's going to be a car accident and here's a fire hydrant and water's going to be spurting everywhere. That's perfect! Let's set it here. Let's go in and get permission.' So we had 15 people on tech scout, everyone measuring up for a car crash that wasn't in the script 15 minutes earlier. You literally never know what you're going to get."

That was especially true this past season, when a number of pilots were ordered at an unprecedented late date, and directors found themselves scrambling to deliver their finished products on time.

"There was not a lot of consideration to the actual process of making the pilot," says David Nutter, one of TV's most successful pilot directors, who most recently helmed the upcoming The CW pilot Containment. "You're in a situation where you can't get a green light to go forward and hire your cast and crew. My cameraman got an offer to go to another project. Actors were getting other deals. It didn't help anybody in the process."

The broadcast networks remain loyal to the late winter-early spring ritual in which hopeful showrunners compete in a Hunger Games-like fashion to secure the best actors, directors, and crew members to realize their visions. Most basic and pay cable networks develop programming year-round, and are more selective of the pilots they greenlight.

Eric Schrier, FX Networks president of original programming, says, "We use the script process as everybody else's pilot process. A lot of networks try to discover if there's a show there. When we make a drama, in our minds, that's a show unless something goes wrong or the combinations don't come together." Of the 20 drama pilots FX has ordered, 15 have gone to series.

Pamela Fryman, who directed the pilot for the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother and the upcoming NBC series People Are Talking, marvels, and not in a good way. "It's amazing we still do pilots, that we still try to cram everything into six to eight weeks and do nothing the rest of the year. The process is broken, and no one seems to want to fix it."

Adding to the uneasiness is the fact that new technology is changing the industry's economic model more quickly than ever. A television program no longer has to be seen on a television set and online services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are increasingly producing original content for subscription video-on-demand. This has prompted traditional broadcast and cable networks to expand the ways in which pilots are produced, which in turn has directors innovating ways in which they give birth to new programs. The Quarterly spoke to a number of pilot directors and executives about this evolving landscape and the challenges of creating the first episode of what they always hope will be a successful and long-running series.

The Backdoor Pilot

Perhaps the least risky path to a new series is the backdoor pilot, in which a popular show introduces new characters and situations for a proposed spinoff series. If the backdoor pilot is successful, a new series is born; if not, the episode may have cost more than a regular installment of the show (but still less than a traditional pilot) and is guaranteed to air.

Dick Wolf, TV's reigning king of spinoffs, relocated from Law & Order's New York to Chicago for a new NBC drama franchise, a triptych which began in 2012 with Chicago Fire, continued with Chicago P.D. in 2014, and will add Chicago Med in the fall. Fire director-producer Joe Chappelle directed the episodes that introduced both the P.D. and Med worlds.

"In some ways, a backdoor pilot is easier to do than a traditional pilot, because there are elements already in place; you're not starting with a blank slate," he says. "You have to strike that balance between, 'Is it another episode or is it a pilot?' That is the fine line."

To launch the Chicago P.D. backdoor pilot, Chappelle created a logistically difficult chase sequence that paid homage to the classic '70s film The French Connection. The production was given access to a significant chunk of an above-ground train line, locked down the streets below, and had helicopters shooting the action from the air.

"It was a huge deal for a TV show, fun and exciting to do," Chappelle says. "It was way above our normal orbit. It wasn't something we'd do on Fire, but we went for it; it was a really ambitious chase sequence. I figured they'd cut it for time, but it survived in its entirety. It really established the energy of the show through action."

Starting Up:  (top) Containment is the latest of David Nutter’s many pilots; (bottom) director-producer Julie Anne Robinson (left) worked six days a week on the pilot for The Catch. (Photos: (top) Quantrell Colbert/The CW; (bottom) Ryan Green/ABC)

Backdoor pilots usually get twice as much production time as an ordinary episode, and require extensive pre-production, two weeks or more. (Traditional pilots are accorded a far longer preproduction period, usually about eight weeks.)

"Production enhancement is necessary," says NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, "you need to deliver a satisfying episode for fans of the existing show but also sell a new world of characters and stakes. The Chicago-based shows have an organic way to do that given the natural handoff between firefighters, police, and medical personnel."

"The network articulated very early on that you need to create a new template for a show that can go off and be its own individual thing," Chappelle says. "Even though you're introducing characters, it's still an episode of Chicago Fire. But you end up with a large ensemble, because you're introducing a half-dozen new characters. It's very crowded, very dense."

Med's backdoor pilot took place in a hospital emergency room in lockdown because of a potential contagion after an explosion; some characters were locked in the building, others outside. "Action was going on in different areas of the same set, so there was a lot of cross-cutting," Chappelle recalls. "We shot it a little wider, so you'd feel some of that other business in the background. The widest lens we use on Fire is 15 mm, but for Med, we went to a 10 mm lens. It kept the environment a character in the show. But generally, in this universe, you want to create a unity among the shows. They have to have the same sort of palette."

Chris Grismer had a much different challenge on The CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries when the producers sought to create the spinoff The Originals. While the Chicago dramas are all aimed at essentially the same audience, The Originals sought to appeal to viewers who never watched Vampire Diaries.

"We were aiming at a more adult audience," Grismer explains. "It's tricky, because the episode exists in the Vampire Diaries world. But I used hand-cranked 35 mm cameras and triple-exposed the film. We created a new take on the violence, took it up a level. We changed the color palette a little bit when we went to New Orleans [Vampire Diaries shoots in Georgia]. We approached it like everything was decaying a little bit. We made it look a little rougher, a little more adult."

Grismer also directed the first episode of The Originals, which took place the same night as the backdoor pilot, but from the point of view of a different character. His planning for the pilot was thorough enough that he could use footage from it for that first episode.

"It was like shooting two pilots—the backdoor pilot, and then the first episode of the order," he says. "I had to make that backdoor pilot for fans of Vampire Diaries, and the second pilot, episode one of the series, for people who had never seen Vampire Diaries."

The Direct-to-Series Pilot

What determines if a network will take a traditional pilot route with a show or go direct-to-series pickup? There's not one answer, but timing, advance preparation, and budgetary matters are all part of the equation.

Salke explains: "Pitches that come in during the traditional pilot season are most often on the traditional script-to-pilot-to-series track. That being said, we are open to pitches all year long and often are presented with projects off-season. Many of those projects are presented with full series bibles and sometimes multiple episodes. It's easier to get a sense of the producers' vision for the show and often there may be co-financing in place. All these factors can motivate a series order."

She continues, "Sometimes the creative lends itself to a limited-episode approach. When the model is 13 or fewer episodes a year and we have a sense of the entire season and producers who we know can deliver, we may lean into the direct-to-series approach.

It's always a leap of faith. It's usually all about the creators and their vision, no matter what the financials look like."

But FX's Schrier is skeptical of the direct-to-series model. "It's very sexy to go straight to series, but if you look at the longevity of the great shows on TV, very few would be shows that went straight to series. They aren't in the top echelon of shows."

Perhaps part of this is due to perception: Direct-to-series shows tend to have smaller budgets and shorter production schedules. Andrew Fleming, who took Bravo's first scripted comedy, Odd Mom Out, directly to series shot three episodes in 12 days, about the time a single pilot episode is allotted.

But directors of direct-to-series programs could also argue that more groundwork has been covered before production begins. Scripts for an entire season have often been written before a single scene is shot, giving a director a better idea of the show's sensibility and narrative thrust. Additionally, logistical constraints can often result in more creative freedom.

"I kind of prefer straight-to-series," admits Jonas Pate, director-producer of NBC's summer direct-to-series '60s drama Aquarius, who also directed the traditional pilot for the upcoming ABC drama Blood and Oil. "A lot of times you hire people for pilots for more money, and then when you're picked up, they won't do the series and you're starting over looking for crew five months later. I like the crew to be consistent. I prefer the mindset that this is our team, we're committed, let's do it."

New Beginnings:  (top) Director-producer Joe Chappelle spun off two backdoor pilots, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med, from Chicago Fire; (bottom) Chris Grismer adapted The Vampire Diaries for the backdoor pilot of The Originals. (Photos: (top) Elizabeth Morris/NBC; (bottom) Annette Brown/The CW)

But by no means was Aquarius a walk in the park. "You get none of those pilot luxuries when you're working straight-to-series," says Pate. "It was all a sprint. When you land at the location, you feel you're already two hours behind at call. You don't really sleep the whole time—you sleep when it's over."

Aquarius shot in Los Angeles, which was expensive, but a day was shaved from each episode to keep costs down. "Once we got the rhythm down, we managed," Pate reports. And since the story was a period piece, "Pulling locations was a big challenge. We had to find slices of L.A. to sell as the '60s—you'd point the cameras this way, but not that way."

Pate credits the extensive preproduction as "a blessing. They'd already written the scripts, which helps you get up to speed. And the style was less formal than on Blood and Oil. There was not so much camera cutting; it was more handheld, more improvisational."

Having multiple scripts in hand before shooting a single frame also helped Fleming on Odd Mom Out, produced by and starring novelist Jill Kargman based on her books about affluent mothers on New York's Upper East Side.

"The 10 episodes were already written when we went into production on episode one, which helped us overall," says Fleming, who has also directed network pilots, including NBC's Bad Judge. "It actually helps doing three episodes at one time, so they have a consistency to them. There's no radical shift in tone and look. You figure out everything about the look for the whole season. Cross-boarding three episodes is less confusing than I thought it would be. I thought of it as doing a feature."

Even given the tight schedule, Fleming was able to keep shooting days short and sane. "All the cameras are going at the same time, so you don't have to worry about matching, it's all just right there. You finish a full day in eight hours, and everybody's so happy. You have a mini-master, a two-shot and dueling singles and we'll get the scene in one pass. People love that, especially actors, because you don't want to be doing off-camera voice-overs at two in the morning."

Whether working on a generous network budget or a stringent cable one, Fleming says, "My job is pretty much the same. At the network, there are more people by the monitor on the set. But I still have to figure out how to shoot it and communicate with the actors and crew. On Odd Mom Out, I had more opportunities to take chances with the material."

Grismer, who worked on Syfy's Killjoys, a tale of galactic bounty hunters, also embraced the direct-to-series ethos. To create Killjoys' universe (or galaxy), Grismer had to collaborate with designers to construct three different alien militaries, spaceships and other sets, as well as hire effects houses, oversee casting, and sit through chemistry reads. "When you get a series purchase, there's more at stake, the pressure is higher. You don't want to screw up an episode," he says. Conversely, it can be more rewarding: "It's just being part of something from beginning to end. When you're a director-for-hire, you collect the footage and move on. You have little say in what happens. I enjoyed staying on a show and having a voice and seeing things turn out the way I wanted them to. It's more creative than just directing an episode."

From the Internet to Pilot

The most recent iteration of pilots comes from TV series based on Web content. IFC has developed a number of comedies that originated on the Internet, including Maron, Comedy Bang! Bang! and its Peabody Award-winning cult hit, Portlandia.

"A great many things we've taken to series since Portlandia existed in one form or another [on the Web]—a podcast or short-form video or sketch," says IFC Senior Vice President of Original Programming Christine Lubrano. "It's great when you have a piece of video to use as inspiration. The resulting show isn't always a replication of the sketch or podcast, but it's a great jumping-off place. Proof of concept for us is tremendously helpful."

Portlandia is a sketch comedy starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein playing multiple characters fondly skewering the laidback, earth-tone-wearing denizens of Portland, Ore. Wrangling all of these characters and performances and transforming what started as cheap, two-hand videos into a critically acclaimed television series was the job of director Jonathan Krisel, a fan of public access and other forms of no-budget TV.

"Originally, it was the two of them in a vacuum, very, very low-fi," Krisel says of the duo's online work. "It was more a live performance that was captured and cut down a little bit. The Internet is a good way to try some stuff with no big crew and no money being spent. Since there are no stakes to it, you can try to be a little experimental. I wanted to keep that sensibility. It wasn't like, 'You're now going to do it, quote unquote, the right way.' It was important to try to get away from the scary production environment and just make it a playground. I said, 'I'll be the grown-up, and you can just play around in the way you're comfortable. Don't worry about staying on your mark. We're going to get you wherever you go in the scene. Just be funny.'"

For the first few seasons of Portlandia, Krisel used Canon 5D cameras, which he had become enamored with when they first hit the market, though they weren't designed for television production. "Once the big lights come in, you can feel self-conscious. How can you capture the scene without ruining it and freezing people up? You keep it small and lean. To my mind, I make little independent films in natural light. A lot of TV is big, bright costumes, sort of artificial, and I wanted the look dry and natural. You can use cheap technology to get a great look."

First Step: (top) Jonas Pate directed the pilot for the new series Aquarius; (bottom) Pamela Fryman introduced a hybrid style for How I Met Your Mother. (Photos: (top) Vivian Zink/NBC; (bottom) Monty Brinton/CBS)

Another comedy that made its way from the small screen to the slightly larger one is Comedy Central's Broad City, focusing on two twentysomething slacker pals and their low-stakes, misbehavior-fueled travails. The series is produced, written by, and stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson and the pilot was directed by Lucia Aniello, who helmed an episode of the web series. Aniello also has a hand in the writing and had previously directed her own online sketch comedy, Paulilu Mixtape.

"We were taking a show that primarily existed as a slice-of-life web series and turned it into a version of a sitcom," Aniello observes. "What was the best way to keep the essence of what the show is? How grounded are these stories? How broad? Because there was so much of the heart of the web series we wanted to keep intact, adapting it into stories that were longer than five minutes and keeping it sustainable was something that we discussed a lot."

The solution, Aniello found, was to make the situations "feel relatable, yet still make it look like you're seeing things you've never seen on TV before. I hadn't really had an opportunity before Broad City to really make a lot of choices aesthetically that supported the storytelling. It's been fun to get to do scenes that get to look cool for a reason, like, 'The girls smoke weed in a dorm room.' We've seen that a million times, how can I make this look distinctly Broad City? Otherwise, a lot of the show feels pretty low-fi, mostly because the characters are in a pretty low-fi part of their lives right now."

Both Portlandia and Broad City have budgets that would kindly be labeled modest, but neither Krisel nor Aniello is complaining. "Initially, I didn't worry about money—just the fact I was getting to make something at all was exciting," Krisel says.

Aniello feels positively spoiled by her budget, given how she used to work. "The budget was probably the biggest difference in the jump from the Web to TV," she says. "Some of our locations have made all the difference. We needed a warehouse to be a FedEx pickup center, and we got to shoot at this enormous fish warehouse space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When I walked in, I was so happy. It was beyond my wildest dreams."

Krisel has since graduated to the world of bigger budgets, directing the pilot for FX's Louis C.K.-Zach Galifianakis comedy Baskets. "I may have more trucks and more crew, but that's OK," he says. "The important thing is to still have fun."

The Traditional Pilot

If shooting pilots based on Web material is one of the least expensive ways to create a pilot, the traditional pilot is the priciest. Networks, for the most part, persist in embracing it because, well, it's hard to argue with success. But even the network pilot is a process in flux.

In early 2014, when he was entertainment chairman at Fox, Kevin Reilly announced that the network would develop and produce pilots whenever it came upon an idea it liked, but he resigned before his plan could be implemented. That didn't prevent him from adding a half-kidding post-script in his resignation letter to Fox employees: "Don't go back to pilot season!"

NBC's Salke says her network remains committed to pilot season, but, she admits, "We can all use more time and it's critical to continue to produce out of the normal cycle. We can't keep cannibalizing each other in casting and production."

It's too soon to tell whether the flurry of late pilots this year was a bellwether or an anomaly, but as David Nutter notes, "If they get away with it this time, it's very possible they'll try to get away with it the next time. To do your best creative work, you can't rush into it, which they want to do."

Nineteen of the 21 pilots Nutter has directed have gone to series—a track record that makes him one of the most sought after single-camera pilot directors. Since his early days doing pilots, he's noticed changes and new challenges facing directors. Chief among them is a rise in the number of actors wary of the networks' arduous slog of 22-episode seasons. "Many of them are trying to hold off for that HBO or cable pilot and their 13-episode arcs, which is something more manageable," he says. "It's tough to find great actors you want with so many things going on in the industry."

Another issue that has arisen is the fact that the broadcast networks have been seeking to emulate edgier cable content and running into resistance from standards and practices departments that could dilute the concept. "When network shows try to be cable shows, they're not very successful," says Nutter. "You always want to try to break the mold, but more often than not the decisions they're making on shows they're picking up are based out of fear and not thoroughly thought out."

Nutter tackled his latest pilot, Containment, about the outbreak of an epidemic in Atlanta, much as he generally does, and this method helped alleviate this year's time crunch. "I wanted people with experience working in Atlanta," he explains. "It made for a much smoother transition. That was definitely a time saver."

Moving Forward:  Andrew Fleming took Odd Mom Out straight to series. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

Another frequent complaint of pilot directors is that the script is too long. Nutter addressed that by working with writer (and director) Julie Plec to pare the script down to its essentials. "I have 42 minutes to tell the story and I might have a script 60 pages long. That means I might be 20 minutes over, so why waste time and money on things that aren't going to be in the show? There's no sense wasting time on connective tissue scenes because your audience is way ahead of you. I'd rather have more time to work on the important scenes, the crux of the episode."

The British-born Robinson faced similar time constraints directing the pilot for The Catch. "We were up against it," she says. "We ended up doing six-day weeks. A lot of it took place at night. We'd finish Saturday at 5 a.m. and be in Monday at 6 or 7 a.m. That's tricky."

She had developed the show's concept, about a female forensics accountant who uncovers fraud, for producer Shonda Rhimes. The pilot was shot in Austin to save money, and then moved back to Los Angeles for series. "Because I'm a director and a producer, I understand the financial considerations they're dealing with," Robinson says. And because the pilot was filmed during the city's annual SXSW festival and accommodations were at a premium, emphasis was placed on employing a local cast and crew as much as possible. (Robinson reports this wasn't an issue thanks to the professionalism of Austin's labor force.)

Like Nutter, Robinson employed her past methods to help streamline the production process. "It's important to make sure everyone's on the same page regarding the look," she notes. "As part of the pilot process, we develop a pitch to show the studio and network. I always make sure every single crew member sees that presentation, so we all know what we're working to. Everyone from props to background artists see it. I'm meticulous in terms of detail."

As with many of this year's pilots with compressed schedules, The Catch cut time in postproduction. "Editing was very tight, I'm not gonna lie," Robinson admits. "But I think everybody felt we delivered a product that [we were] proud of. But there were a lot of late nights for everyone."

Robinson is philosophical when it comes to the question of being crunched for time vs. having a more forgiving schedule. "No matter how much time you have, it's a struggle to get cast members. If you have longer, you might spend more time thinking about the script. So you've had months of prep but then a completely new script comes in. That's happened to me, as well."

Different Origins: Lucia Aniello took the
web series Broad City to TV. (Photo: Robyn
Von Swank)

Even before the time crunch of the past pilot season, Fryman had devised a way to streamline sitcom production with a hybrid approach, blending single-camera scenes with multi-camera work in front of a studio audience for How I Met Your Mother. "I started shooting in a hybrid style out of necessity," she recalls. "How I Met Your Mother involved shooting so many scenes in so many locations and was written in a way that just wasn't strictly multi-cam. We didn't have enough relatives to put in the audience and make them stay through a taping until three in the morning," she says with a laugh.

Shooting location and backlot scenes in advance and inserting that footage amidst scenes shot before an audience "worked like magic," she says. So well that she used the same approach on the pilot for CBS' Mom and her latest pilot, NBC's People Are Talking, a comedy conjoining romantic relationships and race relations.

"Hybrid versions have become this playing card to talk creators out of single-camera," she says drolly. "Everyone wants everything single-cam, but that's more expensive."

Like Nutter, Fryman finds the casting process more challenging now because more actors are seeking work on cable series. In fact, casting caused production on People Are Talking to hit a snag when the network rejected an actress late in preproduction. "When we finally got to the table read, we had to make a switch," Fryman says. We continued rehearsing even though we didn't have an actress for the part. We used stand-ins, then the actress came in and it was, like, 'Hurry up. It's not fair to anybody,' but nobody said it was going to be fair."

As new screen formats proliferate, outlets increase, and viewers find ever more ways to interact with their favorite programs, the pilot process will continue to evolve. And that's a prospect that excites Fleming, whose work has shown up everywhere from the broadcast networks to the Internet.

"The fact that there's a spectrum like this is great, actually," he says. "I love doing pilots for the networks, where the schedule is all mapped out down to the minute and locked-down months in advance a little like a horse race. In cable, things happen when they're ready to happen and there are far fewer people involved, so you get a lot more creative freedom.

"There are so many new players [creating content]," he continues. "I've heard from people who have hired me, [admit] 'We're new at this.' They're learning as they go along. The rules are being unwritten."

But whatever the method of arriving there, what won't change for directors is the heady rush of creating a new series from whole cloth for audiences to embrace.

"I'm in a situation where, every year, I get a chance to do something different," Nutter says. "I get to test my abilities and stretch my knowledge of what I do. I like the excitement of making a pilot, I like that everyone I work with has one goal and has a positive energy. I put my heart into it every time."

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