Smash – Conceiving the Pilot Episode

Smash was a Dreamworks series about the world of Broadway and shot in NYC. It was Directed by Michael Mayer who is a Tony Award winning Broadway Director. When the executives at Dreamworks called me, they said they wanted me to go to NYC for an extra week of early prep so that I could shadow Michael and look at some of his work (his musical American Idiot was playing at the time) and get a feel for the type of complex staging he likes to do in the theatre. They asked me to suggest ways the camera can be used so that the pilot could have a similar type of fearless movement. I thought this was a good idea on paper, but I in no way wanted to force ideas onto Michael. So, I decided to go there and let the situation speak to me, then decide how I could contribute. When I arrived, I found that Broadway Directors work very hard. Casting session here… understudy problems there… project meetings… attending performances and giving notes. It was 7 days a week and endless. Michael was amazing and had a positive spirit and a real love and passion for the theatre. He’s talented, tireless, enthusiastic and a very kind man. About 3 days into that first week he said to me; “Look, I know why you’re here. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell you in terms of how I want to move the camera. I don’t know enough about camera to tell you I want this type of move or that type of lens.” I told him not to worry and explained to him that he didn’t have to know an endless amount of technical jargon in order to talk to a DP… that I can get visual cues from what he does know, such as a music choice or editing idea or historic photograph, location… or even an anecdote about being backstage, etc. I suggested we go through the script and asked him to tell me what he did know about any given scene, on any level… and that I was there to help him and that it was my job to come up with a way to represent his idea in a visual manner that I could present to him. He had a fantastic reply; “Shelly there is always one thing I will be able to tell you at any time. I can always tell you what I want the audience to feel.”

That was all I would ever need.

SM1

Working with Michael was collaborative and energetic. He reminded me just how much enthusiasm plays a part in the selling of an idea to a producer, actor… or even an audience. Being an accomplished Broadway Director, he wanted to make a pilot that was faithful to the theatre community. Therefore, all the rehearsal spaces are actual spaces used regularly when preparing a show for a Broadway run. All the various offices were actual offices of producers and agents that Michael had dealt with over the years. Restaurants were theatre haunts. He said that his goal was to be able to show the film to any of his friends and have them put their authentic stamp of approval on the finished work. So, when we were scheduled to do a shot in poor light on 8th Avenue, I suggested doing our reverse on 9th Avenue, thus avoiding the poor lighting direction, he said; “You mean use a background on 9th Avenue while the rest of the scene plays on 8th? No… every New Yorker will spot that immediately. We can’t possibly do that. We’ll need to figure a way to use the actual reverse on 8th.” I was the only guy from California… and it showed with that suggestion! Only actual reverses! Through the weeks of prep and shooting, mainly amongst the theatre area on 44th & 45th, just off 7th, I observed that he was very recognizable to passers-by who were all theatre workers… actors, set designers, composers etc. “Hello Michael!” “Hey how are you? What are you working on?” A very small and tight-knit community. The day after we wrapped Smash, I was scouting in that area for the new ending for Captain America, which was to be shot in Times Square. By then, the theatre crowd had gotten to know me (mostly technical people like lighting guys and dimmer board operators) through my association with Michael; “Hey Shelly! What are you working on?” I feel like I made a lot of new friends on that one. The pilot got picked up and the series landed in the very capable hands of DP David Mullen, ASC who photographed all the episodes after the pilot aired.

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