Written by Ali Laventhol
This is the first of a three-part blog on producing your episode when you’re on the writing staff of a television show. Here I’ll talk about the PREP period before cameras roll, with blog parts 2 & 3 (PRODUCTION and POST) coming soon.
I had planned to write about this well before the WGA strike began. But now, after walking the picket line for weeks, the topic seems bittersweet, because this is one of the many issues that drove the Guild to call a strike in the first place.
Fewer lower to mid-level writers are being given the chance to produce their episodes these days due to cost-cutting moves that have to do with the length of time writers are employed. In some cases entire writers’ rooms are released before production even begins. Since broadcast shows generally write and shoot at the same time, those writers are thankfully still producing. But if you’ve come up on streaming shows and haven’t accumulated producing experience, you’re going to have a tough time getting a job—what showrunner wants to hire a producer-level writer who isn’t adept at producing?
But this isn’t just about job security. There are so many reasons why it’s important for writers to follow their episode as it comes to life. A script will change during prep, production and post. There could be daily rewrites, or hourly for that matter—the writing isn’t complete until the final edit. Of course, there are directors and editors and a showrunner tending to each episode as well, but a showrunner is pulled in a thousand directions and can’t be as present as the writer, who is therefore the protector of their story. The writer can answer the umpteen questions that will inevitably come up—after all, a director/editor/1st AD hasn’t been in the room for months, isn’t aware of upcoming story, and doesn’t have the same understanding of the room’s intention or the showrunner’s vision.
Not to mention, the writer can WRITE on the spot, on set when needed—and sometimes it really is desperately needed. So, this blog post means even more now that we’re fighting for the chance to keep this part of our profession alive.
So, let’s get to it.
WHAT IS PREP?
Prep is the period of pre-production before your episode shoots. This is when the guest director comes on board and pairs up with a 1st AD to roll up their sleeves and plan every single detail of what will happen in production and what exactly is needed for each scene. For the writer, this is your chance to get to know your director and fill them in on info that isn’t on the page. An episodic television director’s contract states that they have the right to participate in all decisions until the end of post-production and that no decision should be made until the director has been consulted, so just know that they will be hands-on with everything, and eager to hear any information you have that will help them deliver the best final product.
As far as the script goes, you will typically be rewriting during prep since production elements will be shifting moment to moment. You will also likely be doing some trimming and cutting as the 1st AD makes the board (the shooting schedule) since those things are an Olympic level puzzle and it’s rare that everything in the script will fit.
However, the bulk of prep will be about attending the following meetings….
This is the first meeting to occur during prep. It’s the kickoff. All the department heads get together with the 1st AD, director and writer. Sometimes the showrunner will come, sometimes they can’t make it. Typically it’s the 1st AD who leads the group through the script to discuss all the elements of each scene and get the ball rolling on what exactly is needed. For example, if an action line says something about a character getting a text while making breakfast, they’ll want to know exactly what food, how many pans, how many plates, if we need to see the phone screen and how does the director want to shoot the phone—greenscreen or practical, that kind of thing. Think of this meeting as the time department heads will get a better grasp on what they need to accomplish during prep. They’ll do this by asking the director and YOU questions. If there’s something you don’t know, say you’ll get back to them and then talk to your showrunner when the meeting is over.
Tawnya & I have gone on a few location scouts, but on most of the shows we’ve worked on, we skip the scout and attend the locations meeting afterward, where photos of all the scouted locations are shown and discussed. This is the time when the director will note her choices, and you, the writer, are welcome to weigh in with story or character justification for one location over another—but ultimately it’s the director’s decision. If you do go on the scout, you’ll ride around in a van with the 1st AD, Director, DP and locations people to see different options for the locations in your script. For example, if you need a coffee house, you’ll scout three or four of them, all with different looks and sizes. Sometimes locations are chosen not only for creative reasons, but because of their proximity to the stages or to other locations in your ep allowing the 1st AD to solve a scheduling problem they’ve been wrestling with. One important note here is that if you know a particular location will be needed again in the season, make sure the locations people know that it’s not just a one-off.
Exactly as it sounds, the props department will be doing a show and tell of the props they’ve gathered for each scene. There will be options… do you like this backpack or that one? Do you want a gold money clip or a silver one? A lot of these choices will come down to character—what would the characters choose for themselves? Your director will have opinions and it’s a good idea to support them if you agree. Sometimes there may be something about the character or story that your director doesn’t know and that’s when it’s important to speak up and point out why one prop would be better than another.
HAIR, MAKEUP, COSTUMES
These are usually run as two separate meetings but on the last show we were on, they were run together. It actually got interesting as the two departments didn’t agree at times on how certain hairstyles went with certain outfits or vice versa, but I digress. Again, it’s a director’s territory here—they will be choosing from the looks that each department presents, and actors will have strong opinions, too. That’s fair, they’re the ones who have to be on camera, but don’t automatically roll with it when you hear, “so-and-so likes this look best.” It’s important to weigh in when it comes to story. For example, if your character is really hoping to impress a guy in a certain scene and it’s not explicit in the dialogue, you should reiterate it in this meeting to make sure the character’s look will support the unspoken efforts they’re trying to make. Another example: We were introducing a new character to the series in our episode and the looks for her first scene were chosen by the director, showrunner and studios/streamer at the last minute. There happened to be some asinine intra-show politics going on plus a mid-season regime change that caused the show to be severely behind schedule and the wardrobe department was scrambling to keep up. All that meant we never saw this new character’s look until she walked on set for rehearsal. She was supposed to be a high-powered attorney and new love interest; a woman who was successful, driven, commanding, confident and could make all the heads turn when she walked into a restaurant. Well, she showed up in a brown tweed mousy cheap looking suit completely wrong for the character. The moral of the story is, make sure you see ALL the looks beforehand, even if the director/actors/showrunner/studios/network are weighing in and you trust they know what they’re doing. You never know when your eyes on something will save the day.
More notes for costumes, hair and make-up: You will be asked about whether a character would change clothes from one scene to the next or be in the same look, or how formal or informal they would be. Like, when she gets home from the party would she stay in her dress for this scene, or would she have put on sweatpants by now? That kind of thing. There may be discussions about piercings that need to come out or tattoos that need to be covered. The planning is so crucial, but even still – you may encounter situations on the day on set that need to be dealt with like the time on Famous In Love when an actress was doing a period scene (the show was set in modern day but the characters were shooting a period movie within our story) and our actress couldn’t remove her Cartier Love Bracelet (which didn’t exist in the 1950s) because it requires special Cartier tools to unscrew it from her wrist. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up, right? :-/
Casting has completely changed since COVID with taped auditions being the norm now rather than actors coming in to read. But casting is obviously a huge part of prep and you should be included. This is also director territory (it’s stated in their contract that they must participate in casting and be consulted before any casting options are sent to the studio and network). Your showrunner will have strong opinions, too, but again, a showrunner is pulled in a million directions and can’t feasibly do everything on their plate. Plus, a good showrunner will know that keeping the writer empowered and invested is critical to the show’s success. In most of our experience, we’ve watched auditions and given our top two or three choices to our showrunner who has been open to discussing the reasons why we like who we like. For smaller roles, they’ll usually just leave it up to us.
BACKGROUND / EXTRAS
This meeting will be about how many people are in the BG at a party or concert or in a restaurant or wherever your scenes are set. They will discuss ages, ethnicities and wardrobe of your extras and background actors. Since all of this will have already come up in the concept meeting, it may feel repetitive. Sometimes, at this point, the budget may be forcing you to decide which scenes you can reduce the numbers on.
Because Tawnya and I have never worked on a vfx heavy show, we’ve found that this is one meeting we don’t really need to attend. Generally, it’s the director, 1st AD and a VFX supervisor discussing how they’ll be shooting the vfx elements of your episode. On a rare occasion, you may need to answer a story question here – or you may simply want to attend so that you have an idea of what’s happening once you get to set. But if you work on a non-vfx heavy series, the most this meeting will be about will be a greenscreen here or there, or maybe some crowd cloning or sign replacement.
This meeting is crucial! Here, the director and showrunner will discuss the script, scene by scene with the DP and editor present. On some shows, it’s the writer who runs this meeting and not the showrunner. (Note: Having the writer of the episode run their prep meetings in general is important not only because the writer knows their episode best, but also because the training that comes with running a meeting is critical. Writers will have to do it more and more as they move up the food chain plus, from a showrunner’s perspective, it’s important keep writers invested and passionate. We’ve been on shows where writers were valued and empowered, and we’ve also unfortunately seen the opposite and it really makes a huge difference in overall morale but also in the quality of the show.) Okay. Back to the tone meeting: The purpose of this sit-down is to communicate to the director everything they need to know about the meaning of each scene. The tiny moments and how they tie in to future or past story. Remember, your director hasn’t been in the writers’ room and doesn’t know the series as well as you do. They move from show to show one episode (or so) at a time. So they are not as familiar with things like backstory or why a certain non-verbal reaction is really important. Yes, the meeting is about tone and mood as well, which is why your DP is listening carefully.
This meeting occurs at the end of prep and is a large meeting. Whereas all the department heads attended the concept meeting, here you’ll typically see several people from each department in addition. Again, you’ll go through the script scene by scene and each department will report on what they have chosen and what they have ready, so that everyone knows how their stuff will work with everyone else’s elements.
This is usually the last day of prep at crew lunch because your actors are the focus of the table read and they are shooting the episode before yours while you are prepping your episode. They’ll read the script (and someone, usually the 1st AD or the Director) will read a cut down version of the action lines. NOTE: You may have already been asked to make said cut down version which just means trimming all the action lines down to their barest bones. The table read is the chance to hear the latest version of the script out loud which, as we all know, always sounds different than it does in our heads when we’re writing. After the table read, you may have notes and the cast might as well. Each showrunner has a different policy as to when the cast can share their notes—for some it’s 48 hours in advance of the 1st day of shooting. For some, it’s here after the table. For some, it’s closer to when they first get the script. In any case, there may be other notes that come up here. You may have network execs attend who have notes as well. Your director may have last minute changes. So plan to do these after your table read and get the new pages to your script coordinator ASAP because you are about to start shooting!
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.