In my first article on the making of On The Rocks, I wrote about the creation of the show and how the staff came together. For this article, I’ll focus on writing the pilot episode.
With the staff, The Grinders, in place and the basic premise of the show agreed upon, executive producer/writer Sam Miller and producer/writer Chris Wu began work on the pilot.
Unlike the rest of the staff, who had never worked together before, Miller and Wu knew each other through industry connections and a pilot writing course they both took at IO West in 2009. Miller worked in comedy development at ABC Studios and Wu was then an assistant at William Morris.
“When I sent out the email for this group I was surprised when Chris was one of the people who wrote back because I knew it was a large Yahoo TV writing group but I didn’t know how large it was,” said Miller.
Both had written comedy pilots, but they had never worked with each other before or written for the Web.
Web TV vs. Regular TV
While TV and Internet content are starting to merge, they aren’t yet interchangeable. The Web is its own world with its own set of challenges. The biggest difference is episode length.
“We knew that a 22 minute episode would be way too long to post as one episode so we had to break it up,” said Wu. “Sam and I always looked at it as a kind of four act structure, as almost four miniature episodes that made a larger episode. That really did shape how we structured each act so that it could work as both an act and as a standalone episode.”
Short run times are true of almost all Web series; it’s the nature of the beast. Complicating matters was the desire to shoot multicam style.
“We were very conscious of limiting the size of the cast and the number of locations. You have to keep it one space, three areas, six characters and those are the tools you can tell that story with,” said Miller. “But, constraints improve creativity, you have to stick with your main characters and get to know them a lot more in the small amount of time you have.”
On The Rocks, Not Just a Way to Drink Scotch or the Sequel to Arthur
The first step in writing the pilot, or writing anything for that matter, was to flesh out the characters.
“There was also a lot of talk about the characters and the kind of character mix we really wanted and needed for this series,” said Wu.
The main characters are Sally (Sarah Stoecker) and David (Sam Daly). Miller wanted the show to have a female lead, so Sally became the latest hire at Pacific Spirits, a liquor distributor in an unnamed West coast city. Having a female lead turned out to be serendipitous as half the crowd sourced writing/producing team of The Grinders are women.
As you might expect from a multicam series revolving around liquor, Cheers was a big influence on the show. The classic Sam and Diane, will they/wouldn’t framework was in full effect, as was the Jim/Pam dynamic from The Office, Miller said.
Playing Sam to Sally’s Diane, is David. David has been with Pacific Spirits for a few years and is already feeling burned out. Miller took a little bit from his own life in creating David.
“I had kind of been a corporate burn out at a certain point when I was working at ABC studios. The corporate of it all was a little overwhelming and I think everyone questions their career path at some point,” said Miller. “So that’s where David came from.”
While David and Sally have a Sam and Diane thing going, complicating matters is David’s on again/off again girlfriend, Andrea (Alicia Ying).
“In my mind, I wanted Andrea to be a character like Carla from Cheers: brutally honest and quick with zingers. We landed on her being a little bit more on the materialistic side with connections from Daddy,” said Wu. “We also wanted to balance her out with being competent and ambitious in both her professional and personal life.”
No office is complete without a boss. For On The Rocks, the boss is affable, straight arrow, family man Patrick (Kevin High). Good natured, but a little slow, Wu said Patrick was a combination of several bosses he and Miller had.
Rounding out the cast are office manager Michelle (Ariana Ortiz) and biochemist turned mixologist, Ryan (James Lontayao). Michelle and Ryan are kind of the odd couple in the office Chris. They are two characters you would not expect to be friends or hangout with each other. But, through working together and drinking together, they’ve become close.
Wu and Miller said that much of the credit for the success of these characters goes to cast.
“Originally we wanted an older actress for the role of Michelle, an experienced actress, someone in her golden years. We were even looking at someone who was in their 50?s or 60?s to play Michelle,” said Wu.
“We ended up finding a great actress in Ariana. Not only was she really talented, but she had a different take on the character that really impressed us. We ended up adjusting the character a little bit to fit her performance,” said Miller.
Giving, Taking and Letting Go
With the characters in place, Miller and Wu began hammering out the pilot. Instead of working together in the same room Miller and Wu traded drafts via email. They went back-and-forth three times before they felt confident enough to share the pilot with the rest of the staff.
“I’d written pilots with people before and sometimes you’re not on the same page with what needs to go on or they’re not at the same level as you,” said Miller. “It was nice that we and Chris were on the same level, though I probably bugged him with a few too many emails at one point.”
Of course, no first draft ever makes it to the screen. The group punch up process, something normally reserved for professional writers’ rooms, was next. Enter the writing staff; Ali Chen, Auroa Clark, Violet Ket, Johnny Kleinman, Jessica Kivnic, Greg Machlin, Nora Winslow and myself.
Writing with a group is very different than writing by yourself or with a partner, Miller said.
“When it’s you, someone else and eight other people all of the sudden you’re going through the script line-by-line on a big TV connected to a computer it becomes a very different beast and all of the sudden that line that you thought was okay, someone points out the problem with it,” said Miller. “Or, you get stuck on a certain section where a joke isn’t necessarily working and you know it has to be fixed before you go on stage with it.”
Through weekly (and occasionally twice weekly) meetings, table readings and Skype sessions, the group disassembled and reassembled the pilot. With the help of the staff and a few cases of beer, the first episode and the series took shape.
Not only did jokes and punch lines change during the punch up, a major plot point in the first episode was abandoned. The pilot story originally hinged on a phone call in which the new hire, Sally, spoke up. After the table read, it became clear that really wasn’t working, Miller said.
“I was drawing from some personal life experience as to how good it was, but it didn’t work so we threw it out,” said Miller. “But, that’s the really nice thing about having a cast and having a table read which is part of the production process which don’t normally get to go through when you’re just writing a pilot by yourself.”
Wu agreed that letting go of stuff you like is a big and sometime difficult part of the punch up and revision process.
“The hardest and most challenging thing you have to learn to do is to make big story changes in later drafts where you actually have to give up scenes you spent hours and days on just because it doesn’t work anymore,” said Wu. “But, it’s something you have to learn how to do.”
And that’s the story of the On The Rocks pilot. In all, it took about – months for the pilot to be locked down and ready to shot. Keep that in mind next time you think you can just bang out a Web series in a weekend.
Next week, I’ll talk with writing staff about how we work together and contribute to the show.