Writing the TV pilot, step 1: the idea

Ah, September. The crisp in the air, the apples on the trees…the panic in my gut as I try to sell another pilot pitch.

In 2012, I sold a pilot I’d written on spec. (Here’s how that craziness happened.) It got produced. (Read about that insanity here, here and here.)

And because that happened, this pitch process is very different from the last.

After we learned in May that my pilot wasn’t picked up for fall series, I allowed myself a few days (weeks) of disappointment (despair). Then I picked myself up (wallowed in tears), dusted myself off (wallowed some more), and prepared for what’s next (lay awake nights in wretched fear).

Coming up with the idea is tricky (diabolically difficult). It’s one thing to come up with a magazine story, something I did for many years. In journalism, for the most part it’s one and done: you publish your groundbreaking investigation (crappy trendicle), and then it’s on to the next.

It’s a whole ‘nother bag of chips to invent a brand new TV drama with a potential audience—and budget—of millions.

But: pssst. I learned a TV-land secret this summer: when you get a pilot produced, you don’t have to chase after own ideas for the next one. The ideas come to you! No lie!

Because of aforementioned experience, and because of the blind script deal I have with a studio this year, production companies—sometimes called pods, which makes me think of aliens—approached me with ideas. By ideas, I mean just that: an interesting character in the news, a nonfiction book the producers have optioned, a format to a foreign TV series.

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree: how freaking awesome is that?!

Well.

You still have to meet the producers, read their treatments, read the books, pitch your version, get your version rejected, meet with another pod with an idea that doesn’t quite fit, and again, and again, until summer wanes and your churning gut tells you to bleep or get off the pot.

Pitching can be heartbreak. You marry yourself so thoroughly to an idea that rejection feels like a thousand stabs in a necessary organ. If you were being dramatic about it.

Pitching can also be about dominance. You come up with an idea which may or may not suck, but it doesn’t matter because you’re an 800-lb. gorilla and you’re going to swagger in there and make them buy it. I’m not there yet.

For me, pitching is about evolution. You meet an idea, but you keep your mind open to change. You talk to your producers about it. You listen to their feedback. You think some more. A weird take on the idea comes to you in the middle of the night. You tell your producers about it. They say hmm. You discuss some more. You draft a pitch document, then you draft another, then another, then another, then another.

And finally it’s time for the studio pitch. Ready or not.

What it’s like when the network doesn’t pick up your pilot

On Friday night, I drove an hour down the New Jersey Turnpike for a book event. I have a brand new book out, you see, my first novel, titled “Pastors’ Wives” (buy it today!).

I parked and checked my phone. My producers had assured me we wouldn’t hear till Sunday if the pilot I wrote, “The Ordained,” would be picked up by CBS for series. Then I saw a smattering of messages from friends.

“Such a bummer about your show.” “Does this mean what I think it means?” “Sorry, so sorry.”

My network had announced its fall lineup, and we weren’t on it.

Grumpy cat Le Miserable

I called one of my producers. He’d just heard too. But he’d also heard it wasn’t over. CBS had picked up only two dramas so far, and word was they’d choose another.

I trudged through the upscale commuter town to the bookstore. My college pal Gerry had come for support. The clerk led us to the basement event space, where rows of folding chairs stood. They were empty.

I went back upstairs and sat at a table next to the door with a stack of books and a plate of cookies. A few families wandered in to kill time in the children’s section. Their kids ate my cookies. I sold one book. To my friend Gerry.

“Maybe it wasn’t the right…demographic?” said the clerk, as I left. We looked at the cover of my novel, which has a Bible on it, its pages folded in the shape of a heart. It’s soapy women’s fiction set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. He felt terrible. I felt worse.

Saturday came and went. We heard nothing. Misery.

Then, Sunday. It’s hard to be anxious on Mother’s Day, amid the flowers and the home-made cards and little-girl hugs. But I managed.

I stayed off the industry gossip sites, same as usual, though I see now they were rife with speculation. My producers clung cautiously to their cautious optimism. We were still in the conversation! We still had a shot!

It was my husband who Googled for news exactly two minutes after the news broke: the network had picked up a legal drama…that wasn’t ours.

Jorge Garcia drawing

Jorge Garcia drew this image of his scene in the Bronx (with Charlie Cox). He calls it “our first piece of fan art.” Which kind of made me want to cry.

If you’re a writer, you know this feeling. When the manuscript you slaved over for years is rejected by the dozenth publisher. When the magazine that commissioned your cover story mails you a kill fee. When a facsimile of the screenplay you sold to a studio gets made by someone else. It’s a sucker punch.

And because we’re writers, it feels intensely personal. On our best days we feel like we might actually be kind of okay at what we do. On our worst, we are exposed as frauds.

I know what you’re going to say, and I thank you in advance. That it’s amazing I got this far. That it’s unheard of for a thumb-sucking novice like me to get a beginner script produced as a network pilot. I hear you. I hear the high risk, high reward. I hear the better luck next time. (Also, it’s not completely and totally over; there’s talk of cable.)

And someday soon, I will return your calls and we’ll have that long-overdue lunch, over which I will regale you with the gory details.

But for now I am crawling into the darkest corner of my house and just rocking.

Our CBS pilot is finished. Now we wait.

The pilot for “The Ordained” is edited. It’s been cut and tightened, sound-mixed and color-corrected, tested and noted. It’s possible I’m slightly biased, but it. Looks. Great.

Now, we wait. Some images from the past couple of weeks:

The editing happened in Studio City, on the CBS lot. We didn’t get out much. One time I took a walk here, near my hotel. But mostly we spent a lot of time in the dark.

Universal City Walk

The mixing happened on the Paramount lot, in the Technicolor building. People get around on these golf cars because the lots are freaking huge. Also, in L.A., it’s against the law to walk. That’s a joke.

Technicolor

The lots have a bunch of sets and equipment from other shows.

Glee set

How cool are these control boards? The veteran sound engineer showed me how each column controls a different sound: every actor’s audio, including background; street sounds; music. With one punch of a button or tweak of a dial, he can emphasize a word of dialogue or the bark of a faraway dog.

Mixing room

One important part of post-production was obtaining ADRs, or automated dialogue replacement. In the editing process, you might realize a word sounds garbled, or maybe you need a new line to clarify a scene. The actor then goes to an ADR station where he or she records that line again. There are tricks to keep it from looking like a badly dubbed kung fu movie—like cutting to another actor during the line, or maybe to the back of the speaking actor’s head.

So now we wait. We hear nothing, nothing at all, until the upfronts in mid-May. That’s when the networks hold big parties in New York to announce their line-up for the coming fall. If we get picked up, you’ll hear me hooting and hollering from wherever you are in the world. If we don’t, you’ll hear nothing, nothing at all, until I emerge from my deep, blue funk.

(If you like, please follow me on Twitter at @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more frequent updates. And please check out my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuting from Plume/Penguin on April 30!)

Casting a TV pilot is no picnic

You’d think this would be the fun part.

My emotions thus far in casting our pilot: bemused > tickled > confused > fascinated > overwhelmed > tired > baffled > frustrated > hopeful > bereft > furious > cynical > surprised > thrilled.

The first time someone asked me who I saw in the roles I wrote, I laughed. Because I didn’t see actors in my roles; I saw characters. Truth is, I don’t really follow actors. It’s hard for me to remember their names. I enjoy flipping through People magazine as much as the next girl, but I can’t rattle off the cast of “The Office.”

The roomful of network execs turned to me, and they didn’t laugh back. I realized I had to get an opinion—and fast.

Star

Stars!

Our two top casting agencies (one in L.A. and the other in New York) put together lists of actors for each of the lead roles, categorizing them by who was “technically” available, and where they were based. We producers were to cherry-pick the ones we liked.

This seemed like a silly exercise. How would we know who would be interested in a particular role in my particular script? Shouldn’t they read it first?

Nope—not how it works. Most Famous Actors, and even some Not That Famous Actors, are “offer only.” That means they won’t even consider the script unless there’s an actual offer on the table.

Even if they read and like the script, lots of other factors come into play. Can the actor commit to a grueling network schedule? Does he or she want to work in New York, where we plan to shoot? Is the role big enough? Will we meet their quote?

Here are the entities who have a say in the decision: a) the network; b) the studio; c) the actors’ reps; d) the casting directors; e) the producers (including me); f) and, finally, of course, the actor him- or herself.

Star on red carpet

This is probably the fun part.

In a number of these situations, it comes down to a meeting or call. And I’m as surprised to tell you as you may be to hear that I am called on to play the closer. While the other producers do the heavy lifting of dealing with agents, negotiating and hammering out the deal, I trot out to talk to the actor to explain the story, the character, my visions of the trajectory.

I leave my soul on the table every time. So when it doesn’t work out, for any of a million reasons, the loss feels awful personal.

But when they say yes? It’s brilliant.

 

What happens when a network orders your pilot

So I’m sitting on the couch at 8:30 on Friday night, reading. The kids are in bed. My husband is beside me, K.O.’d by the flu.

The phone rings. It’s my manager. I know it’s not going to be about my pilot. The network has only ordered Jerry Bruckheimer’s drama so far, the one starring Toni Collette. It still has four other big-name “commitment” projects to announce before it gets around to deciding on no-name hopefuls like mine.

My manager has assured me we won’t hear until next week, but that the team is still “cautiously optimistic.” I don’t know why. We’re up against 60 other drama pilots. It’s the first pilot I’ve ever sold.

On the phone he says, “Hold on.” Then I hear a lot of beeps and background voices as he conferences in our producers, our studio execs, and then, finally, the network.

That’s how I learned CBS had picked up my pilot.

To be honest, the conversation after that is a blur. There were a lot of congratulations and thank yous. I do remember someone mentioning the name of a legendary star who is being considered for a leading role, after which my brain exploded.

I woke up my husband. He managed a weak, “That’s great, honey—I’m so proud of you,” before he passed out again.

So I went to Facebook, as you do. I told friends that CBS had picked up my pilot. Which is the language my team had used.

As little as I know about the TV business, apparently my friends know even less. I am still getting texts asking what time they need to set their DVRs. So, here, an explanation, courtesy of TVLine.com:

When a network orders (or “picks up”) a pilot, they’re asking its writers/producers/studio to cast and produce a very close facsimile of what their series’ first episode will look like. Each pilot is reviewed by network brass, and then typically put into testing before a decision is made on whether it will land on the schedule (for fall or midseason).

That’s what happens next. We shoot the pilot. And only the pilot. Which will only ever air if the network sends it to series.

Meantime, there’s lots to do. First we cast and hire actors, a director, and many other people whose functions I still have to learn. We started talking lead actors a while ago, and the discussions always made me giggle. It’s weird to think of someone famous playing a role named after my dad.

On my end, I need to cut ten pages from my script. Ten pages! A producer from CBS’s THE GOOD WIFE was kind enough to clock my script for us, and that’s what we need to bring it in on time.

So here I sit in my attic office in freezing-cold New Jersey (19 degrees!), fussing with my script, nipping here, tucking there. Just like I’ve been doing these past few years, writing in cozy obscurity. Hollywood (82 degrees!) seems very far away—and a significant part of me wants to keep it that way. But change, it’s a-coming.