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Friday, November 13, 2009

THE SHOW MUST BE RUN




People have asked me many times, what is a “showrunner”?  What does that mean?  What do you do exactly?  When I’m in the middle of a season, the last thing I wanna do is talk about the job description, but I thought I’d take a minute while I had some down time and try to explain the process.  Although the name implies the basic truth -- the showrunner runs the show -- “running” can cover a vast array of duties.  Let me qualify by saying that my only experiencing running a show is on Sons of Anarchy.  I was an executive producer on The Shield and would often run the writer’s room, but Shawn Ryan was the only showrunner on that show. 
CREATOR VS. SHOWRUNNER
More often than not, the person who created the show -- came up with the specific idea and wrote the original pilot -- is the person put in charge of the show.  To me, that is the only concept that makes sense.  Especially if it is an original idea and not based on another property -- book, life rights, etc.  I can’t imagine hiring a writer to develop and write a pilot and then bringing on someone else to carry forth that vision.  Sometimes a network will develop a project from a writer and then for one reason or another, hire a more seasoned showrunner to take over the show -- the television landscape is littered with those failures.  Sometimes a creator will be high-profile and will not want the daily duties of running the show.  On Lost Damon Lindelof, who co-created with JJ Abrams, brought on Carlton Cuse to help with the running of that show because JJ was pursuing feature work.  Carlton is a great showrunner and Damon still carries forth the original vision -- clearly that combination is working. 
For me, and it’s my fear of overall deals (where a studio can attach you to any project), I couldn’t imagine running someone else’s show.  First of all, my personality is such -- let’s just say I’m not a people person -- my idea of diplomacy is a cold stare and a door slam.  I’m not an ingredient you can just mix into any recipe.  Not unless you wanna die a violent gastrointestinal death.  The showrunning gig is so demanding and the pressure is so great, if it wasn’t something I was completely proprietary over, I just couldn’t show up.
WRITING
The big arcs for the following season usually materialize for me at some point in the previous season.  Midway through season one, I knew Gemma was going to be raped in the premier of season 2 and she would reveal it in episode 210.  This year, I knew what season 3 was by episode 206 (it’s the joy/pain of this art form - my brain never shuts off).  I then spend a chunk of the hiatus flushing out those ideas and then pitch the season to my writers the first week back.  That’s when the heavy-lifting begins. My writers and I will hang the meat on the bones.   
At the beginning of the season, before production begins, I only have one job -- story.  It’s a magical time.  Just me and my writers spinning love, blood, Harleys, revenge, guns, tits/ass, and dark (usually genitalia-related) humor (and yes half my writers are women).  We’ll spend a few weeks on the big arcs, then begin with the first episode. 
After an individual episode is flushed out, the writer/s assigned to it, will generate an outline.  I’ll give notes and send them to script.  This fluctuates depending on the time of the season, but the writer/s will usually get 7-9 days for a first draft.  If time allows, I’ll give notes and send them off for a second pass.  Usually 3-4 days.  Then I’ll take over the script.  This is where I’m not such a skilled showrunner.  The truth is, it’s very difficult for me to see/hear the episode from the outside.  Basically, I give shitty notes.  Shawn Ryan had great skill at seeing the episode from afar.  His notes were always very specific and guided the writer to a closer draft.  Me, not so much.  I can’t see the episode until I’m inside it as a writer.  I have to hear the voices in my head.  Quite often, I end up re-breaking and significantly altering the story.  My rewrites tend to be extensive, more often than not, from page one.  It consumes most of my time on the show.  It’s not a reflection of my writers, they are all incredibly talented, and I will always give them the writing credit.  Hopefully I’ll get better at guiding them as time passes, but for now, I’m just so fucking anal about the voice and tone of the show.  It’s a bit obsessive, but it’s the only way I know how to do it. 
I then turn in a draft to the network/studio and get notes.  I take the notes that make the script better and disregard the ones that don’t.  And truly, some of their notes do make the script better.  John Landgraf, Jane Francis, Nick Grad and Danielle Woodrow (my exec), are story-savvy folks.  Our relationship is solid enough that if I get the occasional ridiculous note, I can respond with, “Really?  That’s your fucking note?”, and illicit a laugh rather than an awkward silence. 
From there, we generate a production draft, which gets distributed to the director and all departments.  That’s when the producing begins.  
I try to bring my writers back as early as possible so we can get a jump on production.  I like to generate as many scripts as possible before we start shooting, because when we do, my job triples.
PRODUCTION
One of the cool things on The Shield was that Shawn would let the writer of an episode produce it as well.  I’ve followed that trend and try to let each writer guide her/his script through production.  That means helping each department understand the needs of the story.  Casting, Art, Locations, Costume, Props, Transportation, Make-up, Stunts, VFX…
At this phase I usually weigh in on final decisions unless there is something very specific in an episode (Ironically most of my conversations are with the prop department.  I’m so anal about the small details). I will sign off on locations, costumes, sets and the director will submit the top three casting choices.  Most of the time I defer to the director because she/he was the one in the room during the session. 
Before the episode shoots I will sit down with the director, line producer, editor, writer/producer, post producer and TONE the episode.  This is usually a 2-4 hour meeting where I walk the director through each scene, pointing out specific story points and character arcs.  Basically making sure the director understands the episode and that everyone is on the same page creatively.
Once principal photography begins, the writer is my eyes and ears on the set.  If a question or issue comes up that they cannot answer I get a phone call.  That’s why my office is on the home set.  That means that 4 out of the 7 days, I’m within 100 yards of any crisis.  Call me a control freak, but I couldn’t run this show if it shot in a different state.  Hats off to folks who can. 
POST PRODUCTION
If half my time is spent writing, the other half is spent in editing.  I love post production almost as much as writing.  It’s the final rewrite, the last phase of the narrative.  It’s a long, complicated process, but I’ll try to give you a quick glimpse at what actually happens.
After an episode finishes shooting, the editor usually takes 3 or 4 days to finish assembling her/his cut, and then hands it over to the director.  The director has a week to finish the director’s cut, then I take over.  I usually have 3 to 5 days to turn in the first studio/network cut.  I get notes the same way I do on scripts.  We usually do one more s/n cut, then I lock picture. 
After picture is locked, I sit down with the editor of the episode, my post producer, Craig Yahata, my music supervisor/composer Bob Thiele and my music editor Charles Sydnor and we “spot” music.  That means we go through the episode and decide where music goes and what that music should be.  Bob has assembled a strong eclectic library for the incidental music (music playing in the clubhouse, in cars, in the garage, etc.).  I usually have a pretty good sense of what I want for the bigger music cues -- montages and key scene songs -- at the script level.  It’s in post where we see if those choices work against picture.  If it does, we decide if we want to use the original master or if we want to do an SOA cover.  Most times we opt for the cover.  It’s cheaper and has become a signature of the show.  Bob is also an amazing musician, so he taps into his music contacts and assembles the key players.  The result is always badass and brilliant. 
Beyond music, Craig, my post producer will coordinate any special effects, ADR (addition dialogue recording), sound spotting, looping (additional background dialog and sounds), color correction, etc.  When all that’s pulled together and I’ve signed off on all the elements, we go to the Final Mix.  That’s where all the final sound elements are mixed with all the final picture elements.   Craig and his team will spend more than a day doing a preliminary mix -- finding the right levels for dialog, music, background sound, etc.  I usually come in on the last day, listen to it, give notes and hand it back to Craig. 
That final mix is then sent to layback and locked into a master.  That master is delivered and beamed out to your television.
GRIND OF LOVE
So that’s sort of a crash course in the running of this show.  Early on, it’s a 40 hour gig, but once production and post duties begin, I’m looking at 70-80 hour weeks.  It beats me up a bit, but the truth is, I’ve got the best gig on the planet and wouldn’t trade a minute of it. 

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great insight on what goes on behind the scenes. Really liked reading about it. Would like to see more articles like this. What are the chances of producing more episodes of Sons of Anarchy in upcoming seasons?

jeff_hotchkiss said...

Fascinating insight. Thanks for sharing that. Love the show and love the music featured in the show.

pandorajones said...

Thank you.

That was very insightful. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this.

I can imagine how much work it must be, but really, you have the best job! I'm terribly envious.

X
Pandora

trapper said...

You and your team, certainly work hard for your money...

Thanks for the insights.

Bobby Nash said...

Thanks for this. As a writer outside the television business I am always amazed to see how the TV production process works.

The show is great. Keep up the good work.

Bobby

Shirily said...

Thank you for sharing this glimpse into your process. It's fascinating to read and provides invaluable knowledge to those outside the business. Knowing all of the steps it takes to get to the final product only deepens the appreciation for each episode.

Jake said...

Very, very interesting...One of my suggestions when you asked about dvd extras was to follow the entire process from concept to finished product. I still think that would be really cool to watch..It was very cool to read :-)

Anonymous said...

I fucking love that your writing staff is half female. Though in retrospect, I'm not so surprised. It takes a guy who has respect for women to write them so well. Kudos to you on the show--I initially didn't watch because I didn't think I could handle the violence. Which was so stupid, because it's the characters & their journeys you fall in love/hate/plain old curiousity with. Many kudos to you & all of your staff & crew for your hard & excellent work. It's well done, smart shows like SOA that continue to give me a modicum of faith in tv. That you didn't make Gemma's big reveal the season finale cliffhanger showed a huge amount of respect for your fans. And I for one thank you for it. It's so goddamm rare.

Ez Jake said...

Fantastic insight to the hard graft that goes on for our viewing pleasure,let me add that what we get to see certainly shows you and all the team have a definate talent for what you all do.SoA is a prime example every time I watch its as if I'm actually there witnessing events firsthand, there's not that many tv shows that can make me feel that way. Hats off to the whole team. Keep doing what you're doing.
Jake.

WI_Debi said...

I had no idea everything that was involved in creating my hedonistic hour of entertainment on Tuesday nights..Thanks for the glimpse in to your world.

You consistantly state you don't care much for people but you're always willing to share glimpses in to your world with complete strangers.

You always enlighten me or make me think, thanks for that.

"See" ya on Tuesday, have a great weekend! D

Smitty Hines said...

Thanks for sharing an inside look.

How many seasons would you like the show to go on for?

Amir said...

Great post.
I wonder if this is the same process for other shows too, or is it just a work method that works for you and your team.
And what's the job of an executive producer?

esonkcid said...

Based off your past Twitter posts and re-posts,and this blog post in particular, I was wondering if I could also be in the running to apply for an internship come March?

I hate being that guy and I've read your comment stipulations, but...

I love the show and other shows of the same thematic pursuits and I love to write. I'm great at getting breakfast; I have references to prove it!

Pointman said...

Thank you for the insight on the processes that spin behind a episode or idea.
It's a credit to you and the staff to bring it to fruition, then into the cast to shape the experience.
I had no idea of everything that is needed to make a great show- I appreciate the mechanics of SOA more for it.

Anonymous said...

Kurt,I am breathless and give out after that crash course. All I can say as many, many, others have, just keep on doing what you do, cause it's workin and we can see the results every tue. night!
Allen

Sheryl said...

Wow... Thanks for the insight into the process, Kurt. That really is an astounding amount of work, and so many opportunities for personalities to clash.

I will now officially quit whining and bitching about having to herd writers for the site I run - your post really puts things into perspective.

Anonymous said...

The show has become my number one favorite show and I look forward to it every week. You've given me a time every week that I can forget the world and travel to Charming. Thank you so much for being so creative and insightful to such a moving concept for a tv show. Every aspect of the show just makes the show absolutely perfect. I look forward to SOA kicking butt for several years. Thank you.

carlito said...

Excellent post, bro. The beauty of this grind is in making it look like it's no grind at all. Those who know KNOW, and those who don't -- but WANT to -- can read your blog for a glimpse at the men (and women) behind the curtain. Props you way, once again...

(And by the way, have FINALLY been able to catch up on this season and am blown the fk away, as per usual!)

Melvin said...

You must be doing something right, it's a damn good show....

Chopper Lehigh said...

Wow... I had no idea so much went into making a show. Thanks for the inside glimpse. I've got a whole new respect for you and the others in the industry.

Keep making a kickass show man! Loving every episode!

Bonnie said...

I love this paragraph..

"I’m just so fucking anal about the voice and tone of the show. It’s a bit obsessive, but it’s the only way I know how to do it."

And I dig that some of your talented writers are women!

Thanks for giving us a peek into your hectic and brilliant life..

RegRob said...

Thanks for the rundown of what you do on the show. It is obvious that you put your blood, sweat and tears into SOA. In addition to what you do behind the camera Otto has had some amazing scenes. You are an excellent actor. The scene when Otto found out about Luann was just so heartfelt. Thanks for all you do for the fans!

RobDale said...

What an amazing "walk-through" of how a show is put together. Again, this is what makes your blog one of the best out there.
Not sure if you remember me suggesting on Twitter that you write a post about the emotions one goes through once a season is "in the can." I know that SOA is done from your "work" side of things, but what kinds of emotions go through your mind as you sit back and wait for the season to conclude on television, etc.

Just curious.

therealzenobia said...

Thank you , thank you, thank you.

therealzenobia said...

p.s. Mr. Z is watching S1, so while we're delving into the greatness of 210, I feel I need to shout out for the greatness of the 108-111 block.

Q: Jax doesn't have the ball to pull the trigger.
A: Blam!

Kohn: That restraining order came out of nowhere - and it made me feel like some kind of psycho! (Brilliant line, brilliantly delivered)

Excuse me: Can you please finish fucking beside the dead body of your ATF agent stalker? We've got an IRA honcho bleeding to death over here!

Why Clay tries to save the club: We always focus on the fact that Bobby is in custody. And in the moment of the final order to hit Donna (okay, Opie), Tig's final argument is, "We have to save Bobby." But the fact is that in Ron Perlman's eyes, we see a big shift when he's told that Jax has been identified. They have to save Jax. And he's been punished for this every since.

I am in a running argument with Mr. Z over the interpretation of Gemma saying that she "can't go through that again" with Jax. To me, this says, "I don't want to help you plan to hit my son the way we did his father." Mr. Z disagrees, and of course Gemma just told Jax that he probably committed suicide - and to that, I say bullshit and refer all doubters back to the very sad death of little Alvarez.

Anonymous said...

Wow - I enjoyed reading about the production of your show. You said that the directors do most of the casting - who was in charge of the primary casting of the main characters - because whoever did it - DID A GREAT JOB. Especially Kim Coates and Johnny Lewis. Kim Coates is such a pro!
Also, You are 100% correct about the result of the music being totally bad-ass! "forever young" from Season 1, still running through my head. Downloaded from itunes and can't get enough of it!

Mooona said...

Thank-you...you are helping to educate future 'showrunners' and writers. I appreciate the time you took to put it in writing!

Leonard Chang said...

Thanks for the detailed explanation. We all appreciate the time and effort to demystify the process...

Michael said...

Having written, produced and directed documentaries, I very much relate to what you write here, but it's obvious I could learn a lot from you and your process.
It took most of the first season for me to "get in to" the show, but now I record every episode to watch more than once.
Hey, Mr. Detail Man! I've never seen a black, holiness congregation, choir, baptist revival meeting in a Roman Catholic church. WTF?

Anonymous said...

Thanx for sharing the process...and the info regarding your staff. My man refused to watch the first season since, after just a few episodes, he announced that he could tell it was written by a woman, therefore disqualifying the show as anything believable. Being bikers, we struggled with such (reality) issues, but I continued to stick with it and have found this season much better, and now my man watches with me. Looking forward to season three.

Denise Shelton said...

Thanks, Kurt, for another look inside the machine. People do not have a clue. Even the crews on crappy shows work hard. John Q. Clueless sees you on the red carpet and thinks, "What has he done to deserve all these perks?" Just like people who marry for money, people in the entertainment industry usually end up earning it. All the crap Jay Leno has taken lately--NOBODY works harder. Thanks for sharing the knowledge that these are real jobs, with enormous challenges, and that talent is only a small part of the equation. Not to mention the fact that the networks are more interested in what some adolescent numbnuts thinks than they are in the attempts of their writers to produce quality entertainment. Keep up the good fight!

Anonymous said...

To Michael who said:
"Hey, Mr. Detail Man! I've never seen a black, holiness congregation, choir, baptist revival meeting in a Roman Catholic church. WTF?"
Actually, here in the south, we see this kind of thing all of the time. What happens is that the Catholic church will outgrow itself and they will build a new building - usually further into the suburbs - and sell the old building. Many of the smaller, less well-moneyed black churches often buy these old buildings and don't really have the money to change much - sometimes not even a sign actually gets changed for many months. I can think of two that I drive by on a regular basis but that is in the southeastern U.S. and not in California. Maybe it's different there.

Fergus said...

I don't watch SOA (yet - it's on my to watch list) but that was really fascinating, so much hard work people take for granted. Good stuff, keep it coming.

Sasha White said...

Thanks for the breakdown. As a viewer I love knowing how things are done. As a writer I find it fascinating.

Kat Scratch said...

thanks for the "insider" look. i feel all special and shit. you gotta be a good showrunner...all us 'fans' are just as fucking obsessed it seems as you are. HA HA!

SOA Forums said...

Thanks for that insight. That kind of creativity and attention to detail is what sets this show apart from others. The absolute care for quality makes all the difference.

Jeff said...

LA Times has an interview with Katey Sagal in today's issue.

holymotherofgod said...

Holymother. That's a production!! Amazing that people have such talent at teaming music and sounds to actions, so that it's natural to the viewer's ears. Far out; I really enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's very interesting to read about the process. What a tremendous amount of work! Makes me appreciate this great show even more.

Rich, Denver

Geoff said...

Thanks for the window into how a TV show is produced!

Steve said...

Kurt, a really interesting and illuminating blog. I'm a writer/producer in the UK and we all look at the input US writers have over their very covetously. Over here you write or produce, rarely both at the same time - in my old producing job I cast Charlie Hunnam in his first role! Anyway, my point is that as a producer, I used to hire both writers and directors for my show - I was always careful that both chimed with my vision for the show, but its never clear to me who hires the directors in US drama. Is it the showrunners? Is it the Exec Producers? Someone else?

Philip Clark said...

This post is full of win. Thanks for this!

Andy Rogers said...

I believe people would love this post! I want to share this to my friends. Thank you so much for sharing.

mkadman said...

Great blog with tremendous insight. SOA to me is the best show on TV. The 1st season was great. The second season has been 10 times better. Im so far from a biker and tatoos but it shows that you dont have to know that world to really enjoy such a great show. Keep up the great work!

Lavetta Cannon said...

Kurt,

I heard your interview on NPR on Monday and decided to check your blog out...I love it! I'm an actor/writer who's trying to sell my first script. I don't have much knowledge of how to get the script bought or "developed" or even much about how the business works on the production side. Your post on "showrunning" was really informative and helpful. Thanks man and keep the posts coming!

Lavetta Cannon

Sharon said...

Thanks for the great info! I always wondered how all this worked. Unfortunately, this brings me to the realization that my dream of a year round season rather than just 13 episodes will probably just remain a dream. Oh well, guess I'll just have to rely on my DVR! Keep 'em comin', Kurt!

matthew said...

Kurt Sutter,

I'm currently an MFA student at NYU's dramatic writing program and a giant fan of your show. Your comment, regarding writers historically being treated as if they have the smallest penises in town, is depressingly true. Even in theater, directors are muscling Playwrights out of parts of their publishing royalties. For all the accolades of intellectualism the theater will throw at you, the one thing you’ll almost certainly not catch is a living wage. In screen, you get a living wage but no respect.

This is frustrating when you read great scripts, like Waldo Salt's Midnight Cowboy. The script is far better than the film. Salt has an amazing ability to work the screenplay format. In the end, it amounts to a tragic glut of unappreciated literary and dramatic brilliance.

Television seems to be the last great refuge for dramatic writers to work, without the occupational hazard of being stabbed in the back and laid out…so dogs might pleasure themselves in your wounds. This makes shows like Sons of Anarchy incredibly important.

TV is a fantastic medium, both in a drama theory sense as well as pure bang for buck entertainment. Sons of Anarchy contributes to TV being a fertile soil, where writers can create quality material, without fear of the whole dog-screwing thing. It helps lift TV to its rightful place of respect.

Sons of Anarchy is a prime example of this contribution, because it’s on cable. It’s hammering away at the it’s not TV it’s HBO boast. For what it’s worth, although it seems quite possible these words of praise might simply be drifting out into the wasteland of cybernetic ether, never to be read by anyone, your contribution means a lot to me as a young writer.

I’m considering doing an episode of Sons for my portfolio—geared at getting an agent; don’t worry this is NOT leading into “please read my stuff.”

On the flip side though, I would really appreciate being able to read a Sons script. They’re not on any of the typical online script databases. No one’s hocking your bootlegged scripts down in SoHo and no one’s passing them around at Tisch.

If you’re willing to tell me how to get a Sons of Anarchy pdf, I’d really appreciate it. If not, no worries, I love the show and I’m happy to hear it’s getting a third season. I hope you get a lot more. Let’s be real, I hope you get enough seasons that I have a shot at one day getting a staff job. I’m a young writer. I don’t get money or respect; I have to have dreams.


Thanks,

Matt Bukovac

Anonymous said...

Hello. Great job. I did not expect this on a Wednesday. This is a great story. Thanks!

HannahMarieH said...

LOVE this entry! As someone who want to write films and in the last year or so Ive fallen in love with the art of a television series, I found this unbelievably insightful!! Thanks!!

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