Every so often, someone will note the myriad producers credited on a project and ask me: “Joe, what does a producer do?” And I will tell them: “Everything and nothing and many things in between.”. The truth is, unless you’re actually working on the production (and even then, there’s no guarantee) it’s tough to figure out a given producer’s role. And while common sense would dictate the seeming hierarchy would offer a fair reflection of relative import, my experience doesn’t exactly bear that out. I’ve worked with Consulting Producers whose contributions to a series were crucial to its development. On the other hand, there have been times where, halfway through production, I’ll be introduced to an “Executive Producer” who will be about as familiar to me as the guy who filled in for our regular craft service guy after HE called in sick that day.
Some day, I’ll give you a general overview of the meaning behind those varied producer titles, but for today’s blog entry, I’d like to discuss the role of one particular Executive Producer – the showrunner. Simply put, she or he runs the show, overseeing production from prep through to post, weighing in on everything from set design to casting, wardrobe to music. And while all of their duties are of utmost importance, their most critical undertaking is the show creative – and by that, I mean: It’s the scripts, baby!
I’m a firm believer in having as many scripts as possible in place before the start of principal photography. I know, I know. This, no doubt, holds true for most any showrunner – but desire and execution are two different things. Last week, our 2nd A.D. marveled over the fact that we already had eight of our ten scripts ready to go. Our Production Manager concurred and pointed out that she had only ever been on one other production where that was the case. That production? Dark Matter of course. I’ve heard horror stories of show’s having to prep off outlines or a showrunner’s verbal pitch for a given episode. And I have vowed to do everything in my power to ensure my team is given the tools to succeed. Hey, things happen and a best case scenario isn’t always possible – but I’ve found that those worst case scenarios CAN be avoided with proper planning.
Early scripts allow for better prep across all departments which, in turn, yield greater efficiencies and, ultimately, a better-looking product. The money ends up on screen instead being used to put out fires. Of course easier said than done and a key part of pulling this off comes down to the people you work with: cast, crew, and, yes, the writers! THEY’RE the architects, the world-builders, the ones locked up for weeks on end, breaking stories, eating cold take-out and drinking warm LaCroix while battling over character motivations, narrative pay-offs, and how alien shovels may differ from those on Earth. It’s the showrunner’s job to run that room, create a comfortable environment in which all can feel confident enough to contribute ideas, no matter how crazy. And it’s the showrunner’s job to not only explore those out-there ideas but also move on from them when it’s clear they’re not going to yield results. It’s up to the showrunner to keep things on track.
Every showrunner has their own approach to the room. I like to keep things fun yet focused while maintaining a blistering pace (by most standards). I’m less concerned with getting all the details right on the first go and prefer to realize an episode’s story like a Polaroid snapshot, gradually defining it over time. On the series I’m presently work on, for example, we broke the show’s ten episodes in broadstroke beats, then I went home every night and wrote up 10-12 outlines for each which we later discussed and revised in the room. The writers eventually worked off these preliminary revised outlines, using them to write their own outlines before going to first draft.
But every production is different. On Dark Matter’s first season, we broke all 13 episodes over the course of two and half weeks, an astounding feat achieved only because I’d been sitting on those stories for over five years before getting that elusive green light. Season 3, on the other hand, was more of a challenge, a much longer room that produced much fewer outlines.
As I said, the writers are the architects. Their scripts are the foundation of each episode and the series as a whole. But once principal photography commences, depending on the production, that writers’ room could be down to a single individual: the showrunner. I remember one such scenario where I was assured: “All the writers are great. You won’t have to do any rewriting”. This, of course, is utter nonsense because, once an episode goes into prep, changes will be required irrespective of how successfully a writer captures the character voices or executes that fourth act turn. Actors or locations become unavailable, episodes don’t board, potential builds and proposed developments prove too expensive. Changes need to be made and, with no writers’ room to call, that job falls to the showrunner. And the size of that rewrite can vary.
When my former writing partner, Paul Mullie, and I first joined Stargate, we co-wrote episodes. Years later, long after we had started writing episodes separately, we still shared a co-writing credit because I was writing originals while he was doing uncredited and unpaid (Hey, it’s part of the job) passes on other writers’ scripts, and occasionally those dreaded page one rewrites. I remember one year Paul received a nomination for two scripts, one he had actually written but hadn’t been credited on, and another he’d been credited on but hadn’t written.
Like I said – it’s part of the job. And a job I got because I was a young writer who was given an opportunity by another showrunner and allowed to learn the ropes and grow into my role as a Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Co-Executive Producer and, eventually, Executive Producer. Like many others, I landed that opportunity by delivering a terrific first draft of the pitch they bought.
It’s the scripts, baby!