Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Battlestar Galactica - Episode 415!

Since I'm loathe to even reveal titles at this stage, "415" is the Battlestar episode I'm currently writing and producing in lovely Vancouver B.C. As I type these fateful words, we begin shooting tomorrow with director John Dahl at the helm. I don't want to give away any significant plot details (or any details at all), but two words: no daggits. Sorry.

Anyway, people sometimes wonder what exactly a "producer" does in the pre-production and shooting phases of episodic television. That's a little like asking "what does a banker do?" It all depends on the job description, and how the powers-that-be have defined your role.

On BSG, for the writing producers, it generally means coming up to Canada and attending to all the myriad details that transform the words on the page into something that can actually be shot with human beings on a stage, or created with CGI. When you're four seasons into a show, happily a lot of the decisions have already been made. Costumes are pretty much set, make-up, hair, lighting, "the look" of the show is well established. So at this point we're dealing with the specifics of the individual episode, with the help and guidance and enthusiasm of a host of incredibly talented production folks.

Assuming the actual content of the script is relatively settled (and that's a BIG assume on some shows, not so much on BSG once we get to the pre-production stage), then the main concerns are usually budget, schedule, budget, schedule, oh, and occasionally we have to think about the budget. And the schedule.

BSG is not an inexpensive show (and thank you for the generous budgets that have been provided, Sci-Fi and NBC/U!) but there are of course limits. Sometimes the writers can be surprised when a sequence that may seem relatively simple on the page is actually more complex and costly. Conversely, I'm sometimes surprised by what ISN'T that expensive. And the fixes aren't always that Draconian. Sometimes thousands of dollars can be saved by simply moving a scene from one set to another.

And then there's the shooting schedule. Needless to say, there is not an unlimited amount of time in which to shoot our little epics. I'm always astonished at what our crews and directors can accomplish in the time alloted, but there is considerable design involved in making that come to pass. After you've done this "TV thing" for awhile, you learn to adapt your thinking, to some extent, to the practical realities of production. Some of this is intuitive. If you set a half page scene in a set that you're only using that one time, you're expending considerably time and effort moving crew, lighting and etc. for a very short piece of story. If that same scene could be set in a location you're already using for other work, you've just lopped a chunk of time out of the schedule to be used elsewhere. In well-budgeted features, this stuff isn't so important, but in television it can be make or break, especially if the choice is between the unique location or sacrificing a bit of story.

(As an aside, I was given an education in this many years ago when I was doing an uncredited production rewrite on what eventually became DARKMAN III. I had written a scene where Darkman slammed a bad guy into the hood of a car, bashing him so hard the hood crunched in. I was then given a thirty minute lecture by the director on how impossible that piece of business was; you needed to bring two expensive stuntmen in to manage the throw, you would need to double or triple the bad guy's costume in case it was soiled or torn in the action, you needed to create four or five fake, bendable "hoods" so you could do multiple takes when the first try inevitably went wrong, etc., etc. Suffice to say, this was NOT a high budget production, and I think we wound up throwing the guy up against a tree.)

There are also alterations that happen when you try to put your scenes in the actual physical spaces that have been created for the show. (I.e., "on the sets.") We're all pretty familiar with how things look, but it's easy to forget there's no door over there, or that ceiling is too low for X to happen, etc. Experiencing the physicality of the space really helps adjust to fit the story to the "reality."

So that's just some of what goes on after the script has been written... more as it develops!