You Don’t Have to Go to Film School to Produce a TV Pilot

by Corinna Mendis

As a new independent TV writer and producer, I’ve learned a lot about the process, without even taking a film class. The irony is that as an undergrad I went to NYU, which is known for its film school…but I went for psychology, not film.

Growing up, I always wanted to be an actress. I would get all the neighborhood kids together, write one-act plays (mostly about my dog), then get everyone together in my basement and put on a show for my stuffed animals. As I got older, my passion for acting grew, as I took acting classes at the community theatre, played the lead in the high school plays, sang my way through Guys and Dolls, and drove into Manhattan for head shots.

It was then that my parents told me that if I was going to be an actress, they would completely cut me off. Now, two bachelor’s degrees, and two Master’s degrees later, I am thankful that I did not become an actress. Why? Well, because now I can write about all of the experiences that I have had: the people I used to massage (no happy endings, although there were many unsuccessful attempts made by many clients), the experiences working in medicine (which is the basis for my next pilot), and the trials and tribulations of working with the homeless population at a homeless center out here in Long Island, New York.

When I first began working at the shelter, I immediately thought it would make a great television series, almost like a combination of M*A*S*H and SCRUBS. So, I bought some screenwriting books, and LB’s Television Writing from the Inside Out, then bought screenwriting software, and started writing. The result was a dozen + drafts of a half-hour television pilot called:

NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD

PILOT: “A NEW BEGINNING”

Pilot Synopsis

When SADIE METZ, a cockeyed optimist who wants to save the world, begins her internship at HOPE HOSPITALITY CENTER, a men’s homeless shelter, she realizes that she is in for more than she ever expected. Sadie is a fish out of water who unwittingly makes every mistake possible as she struggles to help the homeless.

Among those she meets in this episode are:

  • BART, a suicidal alcoholic (well, he certainly keeps trying his best at the suicide thing) who finally asks for help
  • SIFU FRANK (“See Foo, not Sea Food!”), using his best kung fu to keep himself centered while running the place
  • BEN, the burned-out counselor, spiraling down his own inner staircase
  • MARK and BETH, Sadie’s fellow interns, who together can’t manage to get even half a clue

Series Synopsis

As a counseling intern at HOPE HOSPITALITY CENTER, an emergency men’s homeless shelter the wealthy New York City suburb of Jefferson’s Point, SADIE METZ finds herself caught between her ideals and her parents’ and community’s outrage about the shelter “ruining” their town. This dark, half-hour dark comedy emphasizes the clash of two cultures every week, while focusing on the trials and tribulations that the homeless, counselors, and interns face.

In NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD’s neighborhood, the good life is as elusive as a phantom but its dream is still very much alive for Sadie and those she works with. What prevents the dream from coming true is a combination of factors – civic intolerance, substance abuse, economic chaos – and the very obvious fact that the world is, for all practical purposes, totally nutsy-cuckoo. As are most of the people, whether we’re talking about those who have everything, those who have nothing, or those who have found themselves with (or is it without?) both.

NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD is often shocking, sometimes sad, and, like loving, well-intentioned Sadie, always funny.

About the Production

It was not my intention to produce my own pilot, but you could say that “nutsy-cuckoo” prevailed. Like Sadie, I started my career as a Mental Health Counselor by interning. I worked my way up to counselor at Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson, New York, and created a drop-in center for homeless men and women who would come in for food, clothing, and a much-needed shower.

Right now, I’m a Physician’s Assistant at a hospital in Long Island, but I’ve never been able to shake my showbiz bug. After finishing the script for NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD (at last!) it just seemed natural to shepherd it to onscreen life. That meant rounding up the right group of experts and taking the plunge.

We shot at Pax Christi. At first it seemed like the perfect place, but after the first ten minutes, regrets hit, big time. Our first scene was in the parking lot, with irate picketers carrying some very “irate” signs protesting our fictional shelter, and Pax Christi’s “guests” thought the picketing was real. Anger and resentment spread, causing a ruckus, which was all too public: The shelter is located beside the Long Island Railroad, and you can imagine the looks from passengers waiting to board their commuter train.

We managed to survive that encounter, but the next day I found myself having to fall back on my counseling techniques to keep the the shelter’s real guests calm, while also dealing with the usual unyielding production chores. Everything came to a head when the our director’s sneakers disappeared, and when the counselors working at the shelter couldn’t help, we ended up having to call the police to keep things from getting out of hand.

As it turned out, one of the homeless guests had taken them, and, luckily, he came back an hour later with the sneakers still on his feet. We ended up watching an impromptu foot fashion show, and the tension eased. By the third day, tensions had eased so much that instead of doing all they could to make us leave, those living at the shelter were begging everyone to stay.

The shoot was an emotional experience for everyone, with the cast and crew starting to understand a side of life they hadn’t known existed, a side of life we all worked so hard to bring to our show. All of us have demons to conquer, and we experienced the power of comedy in the most direct manner possible because it was laughter that got us through everything, bonding everyone involved together and, I hope, making NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD a truly wonderful and unique entertainment experience.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the trailer coming very soon.