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.

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!)

What it’s like to shoot a TV pilot in New York City in March

Cold, is what it’s like. Cold. It’s cold.

We just wrapped three weeks of shooting our pilot, “The Ordained,” for CBS. We’re about to tunnel into post-production, or editing. Here are some images from the shoot.

Emma Lazarus house

Someone actually lives here.

Our first day of shooting was at this breathtakingly beautiful brownstone on West 10th Street. As gorgeous as it is outside, it’s even more so inside. Our crew stepped gingerly around priceless art and period furniture while the rest of us stamped our feet outside. The temp never quite hit 30. We were cold.

I wrote a scene taking place in the New York Public Library, where it’s prohibitive to shoot. So our genius of a location manager found this place, the Surrogates Court downtown near City Hall. Heard of it? Me neither. Take a look at that marble. You see where it’s peeling up top? That’s because the builder skimped by painting the walls instead of using real marble. I love learning that kind of stuff. We found records upstairs going back to the 1700s.

Yonkers courthouse

The Yonkers courthouse. You heard me.

We shot our court scenes in the ceremonial courtroom in Yonkers. There’s a stained-glass skylight and mahogany walls and it looks crazy good on film. Also, it was warm.

Judge's chambers

We needed a judge’s chambers, and the real one was too small. So our brilliant art director designed a new one, and the crew built it in the corner of the courtroom.

Lisa in video village

Oh, that’s me.

Every day, our hard-working crew built what’s called Video Village—the area where the producers lurk and watch what’s being filmed and occasionally squawk loudly. Those earphones on my head are called cans.

Movie camper

This is what happens when you write a small role and you neglect to give the character a real name.

Crew saves cat

Our crew: heroes.

A stray cat adopted us on the day we shot on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx. Then the cat proceeded to get stuck in a tree. Our props folks rescued it. Yet another reason to root for “The Ordained”! P.S. It was cold.

Federal courthouse NYC

We shot here on another cold, cold day. That was the day I leaned too close to the portable heater and my down jacket caught fire. I’m not kidding. But you know who had it worse? The poor extras, who were dressed, as my script dictated, for early fall.

Feingold, Ping & Nunez

We shot our law-firm scenes in the offices of an investment bank on Wall Street.

Fake elevator

We needed to shoot an elevator, so you know what? Our crew built one. This elevator is fake.

The Ordained cast

Our very tired and very talented cast taking a hard-earned e-mail break.

Set

This is our main character’s apartment building. IT’S TOTALLY FAKE. But it’s so real.

Capitale fundraiser

We shot our political fundraiser scene in this old bank on the Bowery. The 200 extras were tired, but at least they weren’t outside.

Father Santo

We shot a baptism scene in the jaw-droppingly beautiful St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, suggested by my husband (thanks, honey!) because he’d played concerts there. That’s me with the lovely Friar Santo, our on-set consultant.

Dead crew

And it’s a wrap for “The Ordained.” Sadly, some of our crew did not make it.

Please follow me on Twitter @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more updates. And please buy my novel—it debuts April 30! xoxo

We’ve prepped. We’ve cast. Now we shoot the pilot.

We just wrapped six weeks of prep for our pilot. We’ve cast the actors, scouted the locations, built the sets, selected the wardrobes. I watched our stars sit around a table and read my script aloud for the network. I’m exhausted, I’m nervous, in all truth I’m a wreck. But I’m ready. We start shooting THE ORDAINED on Monday.

Following are some scenes from prep:

Audition room

Casting is hard. Auditioning is harder.

Balls. Of. Steel. After sitting through round after round of auditions, I’m now convinced that’s what you need to be a working actor. You come in, say hi to the people who may or may not hire you, you pretend to be someone else for a few minutes, then you leave. And wait. Yep. Balls of steel.

Bus

Tech scout bus.

Last week, our staff and crew traveled around in this bus on the tech scout. That’s when we visit every single location plus our stages in a sort of dry run to make sure we’re maximally prepared. Electricians checked wiring. Prop masters discussed where pencil stands would go. Art directors measured door openings. Cameramen blocked shots.

Sign THE ORDAINED

Follow the arrow to our offices.

Maybe the most mind-blowing moment of this process was walking into a brick building in Brooklyn and discovering an expansive set of offices dedicated to our pilot. It’s a teeming hub of production coordinators and assistant directors and art directors and location managers. There’s even an accounting department (I don’t know why, but that impressed me most). It’s an operation. And big, humming operation that rose up out of a story I wrote.

As a writer, I’ve never thought of myself as a job creator, though I suppose you could argue content is what keeps the magazine and book industries alive. Still, I always felt like a skinny spoke in a massive wheel. Now I’m something more like the engine. It’s a wee bit terrifying.

Wardrobe

Ties and shoes and belts and hats and…

A big part of creating a world is dressing your actors to fit their parts. I had no idea what a gigantic effort this is. Our brilliant wardrobe designer and her assistants began with concepts for each character—is he young? Rich? Casual? Flashy? They gather our stars’ measurements and then they SHOP. Our world is luxurious and powerful; so are our clothes. The selection fills a small warehouse.

Set

Our interior set.

Here’s another moment that blew me away: walking into a drafty building and into our stages. Much of our filming occurs on location, but a few interiors have been built indoors. It’s one thing to find existing spaces that are allowing us to shoot; it’s another to create one from scratch.

Director's chair

The man with the plan.

Now it comes down to this guy. On the Friday before we begin shooting, his documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” debuted on Showtime. He’s a remarkable director and a remarkable man, and we can’t possibly be in better hands.

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.

 

Location scouting for my pilot

I spent the last two days in a van driven by a Teamster with eight other people, scouting locations for my pilot. It was raining. The van kind of smelled. It was a total blast.

Times Square

The view from a location we scouted.

We’re shooting in New York City. This is no accident. I threw one after another iconic landmark and character into my script because I hoped this would force the issue. It’s a New York story! You can’t fake Times Square on some Hollywood lot!

Shooting in New York means a New York production staff. Who knew so many accomplished TV and film professionals live and work here? (Oh, you did? I didn’t.) Some have theater backgrounds; all just like it better here than in L.A. They don’t want for work, either. Their lists of credits are looong.

We trooped after our location manager into office buildings and churches and private residences and a courthouse. One law firm we visited would let us shoot while they work; one townhouse owner scooted away her daughter’s toys as we tramped from room to room. It’s not for free; each location demands a fee, and a hefty one at that. I suppose it’s one way to make your mortgage, but can you imagine letting strangers invade your beautiful home?

The best part was the van gossip. They’ve all worked with each other over the years on various projects, and when your colleagues are celebrities, there’s a lot of intel to trade. Even the van driver had stories. These guys know where all the bodies are buried.

Some things I learned during location scouting:

• If you’re shooting in March for a scene set in late summer, you’ll need special effects to color Central Park’s trees green.

• Likewise, if your script would force your poor actors sit outside in March on a fire escape in underwear, you’ll probably have to build that set indoors.

• Even if the scene is set in a small space, like, say, a starter apartment, you still need a ton of room for cameras and crew.

• New Yorkers get really pissed when you shoot near their homes. I know this from when we lived on the Upper West Side and we’d curse “Law & Order” for hogging all the parking on our street.

• The City has rotating “hot zones” where you’re not allowed to shoot. This is supposed to give residents in popular areas a break, but often a zone might magically sprout up in a VIP’s neighborhood.

See? Fun.

My CBS pilot was inspired by my dad. This is him.

In case you haven’t heard me hollering, CBS ordered my drama pilot, THE ORDAINED. Here’s the write-up in Deadline by Nellie Andreeva (“The back story of Cullen’s project is the kind aspiring writers dream of”—if you dream of ulcerative colitis!) and the one from the Hollywood Reporter.

As Deadline reports,

the essence of the lead character inspired by her late father, a former priest.

This is true. So I thought I’d introduce you to my dad.

His name was Tom Reilly, and he was an ex-priest. My character’s name is Tom Reilly, and he is an ex-priest.

I am not yet so good at making stuff up.

Thomas J. Reilly, priest

This was Father Tom Reilly, before he became MY father.

My dad was born in 1933 in Philadelphia, the second of six children. My grandfather, his father, was an Irish-American lawyer who ran for district attorney but lost. My grandmother, his mother, was of Cuban descent.

In my pilot, Tom’s father is an Irish-American former governor of New York who ran for President but lost. Tom’s mother is of Cuban descent.

Making stuff up is hard.

My dad left the priesthood in his mid-thirties to marry my mom. In my show, Tom leaves the priesthood in his mid-thirties to try to save his sister, the mayor of New York City, from an assassination plot.

So I made THAT up.

After he quit the priesthood, the real Tom Reilly went into advertising. The made-up Tom Reilly goes into the law.

See the difference? I can do this.

Tom Reilly spent the next forty years in Japan, raised four kids, ran his ad agency, made everyone he met laugh, and remained a devout Catholic to his last. That last came in 2009, nine months after my mom died of cancer. Near as any of us can figure, he died of a broken heart.

I don’t know yet what the future holds for my Tom Reilly, the one in my head. I have so many adventures plotted for him, twists and turns, tragedies and triumphs, maybe a broken heart or two. All I know is he’d be damn lucky to live a life as rich as the real-life Tom Reilly’s. We all would.

So here’s to the resurrection of Tom Reilly. May he yet live.

How I met my TV agent (and my manager, and my lawyer)

Breaking into TV writing is about as mysterious a process to most of us as nuclear fusion. The biggest mystery of all is how one goes about getting an agent.

Here’s what knowledgeable people will tell you to do:

1. Enroll in film school.

2. Move to L.A.

3. Grovel till you find work as an assistant in a writer’s room on a show.

4. Grovel till one of the writers takes a look at your specs.

5. Pray your script will make the writer laugh/cry so hard he’ll introduce you to his agent.

That path only works if you’re 18. What if you’re not? And have a full-time job doing something else entirely, plus a mortgage, plus a husband and kids, and you live 3,000 miles from the Hollywood sign?

Here’s a short version of what happened to me.

Jeremy Piven Entourage

My agent is not this guy.

In 2007, I was a journalist, a staff writer for Time magazine. I had just published an article I thought—for no good reason at all—would make a super cool TV series.

My book agent—who had hoped the article would turn into a super cool book—sighed and introduced me to her friend, a TV agent in Hollywood. He called. I pitched the idea. He totally got it. He asked for a treatment.

I said, “What’s a treatment?”

I could say that was the start of my brilliant career as a TV writer, but that would not be true. That pitch died a gruesome death, but not till two years later, during which I continued to work at Time. Meantime, I took classes and workshops and read everything I could on how to write a TV script. I finally quit my full-time job in 2009.

In 2010, I went to L.A. for staffing season. That’s the month or so in late spring when new TV shows hire their writing staff. My agent set up a ton of meetings, but I wound up not staffing because all, and I mean all, the jobs that year were in L.A.—which is kind of a long commute from New Jersey.

But it wasn’t all for nothing. Because the most important meeting my agent set up was with the guy who would become my manager.

Whoa, whoa, you’re saying. Why would a broke-ass writer without a single credit need or deserve a manager? And what’s the difference between an agent and a manager anyway?

That’s a timeless question, and a tricky one. I can only speak for myself: my agent is my connector and negotiator. He’s my link to networks and producers as well as the other people and projects his powerful agency represents. My manager represents me. (Think Ari and Eric in “Entourage.” Without the drama.)

So that’s how I met my TV agent. I now have two at the same agency. And my manager. They hooked me up with my lawyer. They’re all great guys.

That’s a lot of commissions for said broke-ass writer, you’re thinking. But you know what? Ten percent of zero is zero. If I earn nothing, they earn nothing. I hope to earn them a little something someday.

 

I sold a TV pilot. Here’s how it happened.

I sold a drama pilot to CBS.

Although this happened in early September, it didn’t seem totally real until this past week, when I was out in L.A. and people shook my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

Plane and pilot

Not this kind of pilot.

A year ago, I pitched an idea. That was all it was at the time: an idea. And lest you think that’s totally bizarre, this is how it works in Hollywood. Every September, writers troop into network executives’ offices, and they spin a tale they think could maybe work on TV. Then the network executives buy it, or don’t. I know. It’s an insane business model.

Anyway, I failed. I completely failed to sell my idea. So I went home to New Jersey, cried, drank, and finished my novel. My book agent sold said novel in February. So this spring I found myself with some time.

“Just write the pitch up as a spec,” said my TV manager.

Let me try to explain what those words mean to a writer. It’s how I came to write my novel, which began as a magazine article, then morphed into a TV pitch, which met a horrible, harakiri ending. My book agent told me to just write it as a novel. Even though I’d daydreamed of such a project, it meant everything hearing it seconded by someone who really understood my idea and, moreover, its chances on the market. It’s the equivalent of: “I believe in you.” When someone says that, you begin to believe yourself.

And so I did. I wrote my damn pitch into a TV pilot script. If you’re in the business, this is where you laugh. Because you know it’s near impossible to sell a spec. “Spec” is short for speculative. As in, a speculative script written on the speculation that someone somewhere may want it. What I didn’t know is that the chances of a spec pilot selling are about near that of Karl Rove winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like I said, I did not know that. So I spent the spring shaping and writing my script. My manager weighed in with note after note. We eventually had a script we rather liked. Now we had to shop it.

Last season, we’d shopped my pitch with a whole entourage. But the producer we’d worked with on the pitch declined to partner with us this time, “given how hard it is to sell a spec,” she said. That was my first hint. Oh. Maybe all this had been a total waste of time.

But my manager believed in the project. So he sent it out. CBS Studios responded immediately. After a phone meeting, they made an offer. Swiftly after that, they announced CBS, their sister network, was in.

The best part? I’ll make the Guild minimum and keep my family’s health insurance. I dream big, see.