Andrew Orillion: Brewing Up “On the Rocks” 4

Casting a Multi-Cam Series
by Andrew Orillion

on-the-rocks-cast-tvwriter.comWelcome to part four of the behind the scenes look at the making of On The Rocks. Last time, I wrote about the writing staff and how stories were broken for the series. This time, I’m going to focus on the intricacies of casting.

Web Series Aren’t Just For Friends and Roommates

In the early days of web series, most shows used limited sized casts comprised of friends, family and roommates of the creators. But, as web series have become more and more mainstream, their production has become more professional. Professional productions need professional actors, who aren’t always easy to find, especially when you can’t pay them upfront. Fortunately, the makers of On The Rockshad an ace up their sleeves.

Meet Ali Chen, a writer for On The Rocks who is also an experienced casting assistant.

Chen has been in casting since 1997 and worked with Joseph Middelton for five years. Chen got involved with On The Rocks through writer/director, Violet Ket.

“I’d known Ali for about a year before On The Rocks. She’s always impressed me with her diligence and professionalism and I was so happy when she expressed interest in this project,” said Ket. “She was the first person we turned to.”

Show runner, Sam Miller, who had previously worked in comedy development at ABC and as an assistant on Desperate Housewives, knew the importance of good casting and was thrilled when Chen came on board.

“Ali volunteered early on to lead the casting process and we got really lucky because of that. Ali launched into a casting process that rivals anything I’ve been a part of on the network level,” said Miller. “Ali just really understood the process. She knew who would be good on camera and who would be good on stage. We wouldn’t have found the quality of actors we did without her.”

The difference between multicam and singlecam comedy isn’t just aesthetic. There is a different tone and flow to multicam and it requires a different type of acting, something to be aware of when casting, Chen said.

“The big things to look for when casting for a multicam are people with a good sense of comic timing and who understand how jokes can change on the spot. You have to be really flexible,” said Chen.

Even though On The Rocks was a web series, Chen took the casting seriously.

“I never saw this as just a web series. Because I come from a professional casting background, I cast it as if it were a professional project,” said Chen.

It wasn’t just the show runner who was impressed with the casting process. Alicia Ying, who plays Andrea, admired the professionalism Chen brought to the process.

“The casting process for On The Rocks was just like testing for a network pilot. It was very professional. Ali was a wonderful casting director and did a great job making sure that everything ran smoothly,” said Ying.

What Do You Do With 1,000 Head Shots?

Before we go any further, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with using friends, family and roommates in your web series. A lot of great shows use amateur actors. But, if you want to go pro here is how Chen and Miller approached the process.

“First and foremost, make sure it’s a SAG-AFTRA project. Union actors are more skilled than non-union. It’s night and day,” said Chen. “Even if you think there isn’t, you will realize the difference as soon as you hire someone.”

It may be different if you’re shooting in a small town, but if you’re in LA or New York, go union. Because of their increased role in the entertainment business, SAG-AFTRA covers web series, but don’t let that scare you off, Chen said.

“SAG-AFTRA makes the signatory process very easy and affordable. There’s a deferred payment option under the New Media agreement that allows us to hire actors at a reduced rate, payment is deferred until the show makes an agreed-to amount of revenue.” said Chen.

If you’re SAG-AFTRA signatory, you can use Breakdown Services to find performers. Chen also put the word out through other local groups.

Not being an actor myself and knowing little about the field, I didn’t think a web series would generate much interest. Then, Ali hit me with the numbers.

Over 900 people submitted for the role of Sally, the female lead. David, the male lead, had around 800 submissions and supporting character, Ryan, had over 1,000.

If those numbers seem daunting, they are. Fortunately, Ali’s been doing this for a while and knew how to whittle the field down to a more manageable size.

“I looked for people with improv comedy training and the right look. I also didn’t want this to be an all white cast,” said Chen. “We wanted this show to reflect today’s modern culture and it was imperative to me that we get actors who were a mix of ethnicities. So, I kept that in mind as I went through the headshots.”

Miller was also keen on getting a diverse cast. Crowd sourcing the writing and production staff from a Yahoo writers’ group lead to a very diverse staff and Miller wanted the same for the cast.

“My experience in network casting is that networks want diversity and audition for it, but can’t really deliver. We didn’t want a token minority and we didn’t want ‘minority’ to become the defining trait of that character,” said Miller.

Once the field was down to about 100 actors per role, the next step was getting people to come in and read sides or send in tapes. This further reduced the number to about four per role.

Respect the Chemistry

The final part of the casting journey was the chemistry reads. Chemistry reads are when you get the actors together to see how they play off each other and how they work as a group. Chemistry reads can be very intimidating, especially if you’re working with less experienced actors.

Sarah Stoecker, an experienced improviser who plays Sally, was initially a little intimidated by the chemistry read. Stoecker said a good casting director can help make the chemistry read easier by being supportive and putting the actors at ease.

“Sam and Ali are both incredibly professional and made me feel like I was in good hands throughout the process. Ali’s buoyant sense of humor set a fun tone for the chemistry reads, which was especially helpful to me as I had no idea what I was doing,” said Stoecker. “These two are really outstanding creative forces that I’m grateful to be working with.”

To Miller and Chen, Sally was the toughest role to cast and the chemistry read was essential for finding the right actress.

“Because so many of the actresses were in their 20’s they were less experienced and hadn’t had time to hone their comedic skills, even if they had comedy backgrounds,” said Chen. “The chemistry reads got Sarah the part. Some of the other actresses were too nervous, had probably never done chemistry reads before and just shut down. Sarah didn’t. She read with three different Davids and was the best fit.”

Stoecker wasn’t the only performer chosen on the strength their chemistry read. James Lontayao, who plays biochemist turned mixologist Ryan, was so good he was cast almost on the spot, Ket said.

“We had an idea what we were looking for in Ryan, and we’d seen a few very good candidates, but none of them was quite the right fit,” said Ket. “Then, toward the end of the day, James walked in and the moment he opened his mouth I knew we had our Ryan.”

Chemistry reads are an essential part of the casting process so it’s important to have as much of the staff present as possible. We had eight of the ten staff on hand for the read, all crammed into a single room. It was uncomfortable, but less uncomfortable than having to recast.

Not having casting director won’t kill your web series, but it’s going to save you a lot of time and effort. If you don’t have access to a professional, or can’t afford one, find anyone with experience, said Chen.

“Most importantly, be respectful of the actor’s time, especially if they are not being paid,” said Chen. “Always, always, be professional and organized.”

So, that’s the casting process. It didn’t have a lot to do with me as a writer, but I’m glad I was there for it. It was a fascinating peek behind the scenes. Next time I’ll get into the business side of launching a web series (it’s more complicated than you might think) and delve into the technical side of how we actually filmed the pilot.

Andrew Orillion: Brewing Up “On the Rocks” 3

Writing Staff
by Andrew Orillion

Welcome to part three of the behind the scenes look at the making of On The Rocks. Last time, I wrote about the creation of the pilot episode with showrunner Sam Miller and executive producer Chris Wu. This time, I’m going to take you into the writers’ room to meet the rest of the writing staff and find out how we take a story from concept to script.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Writers

With the pilot episode locked, it was time to outline or “break” episodes 102 through 106. Miller felt that first season should have a six-episode arc ending with a bottle episode where all the issues and tensions that had been brewing since the pilot would come to a head, but what would the bigger plot elements in between look like to lead the characters to that point?

“Chris had this great idea for the Episode 102 ‘A’ story. What if David has to promote a product he didn’t like?” said Miller. “This created a great obstacle with Sally on one side, telling David to be honest, and Andrea on the other side being a bit more pragmatic.” This also echoed the love triangle that was emerging. But what would the other characters at Pacific Spirits get up to?

Enter writer/executive producers Jessica Kivnik and Greg Machlin, who were assigned to tackle the “B” story. Kivnik, whose work involves tracking story for the Paranormal Activity franchise said, “The second episode is critical for defining your characters. You have given the audience a peek at each of the characters in the pilot and now’s your moment to clarify and solidify who they are.”

“We pitched a bunch of ideas, including an Iron Chef style mixology competition,” Machlin said. “Then Jessica and I met separately to develop that idea into an outline, thinking it would be the ‘B’ story.”

It didn’t take long for things to change. Back in the writers’ room, Miller felt that theIron Chef outline they created was developed enough to have its own episode. That’s when Kivnik pitched the idea that Michelle or Ryan could discover that they were being Catfished.  Another writer, building off the Catfish idea, referenced The Importance of Being Ernest, a more farcical and tangible work about deception. This became the basis for the 102 “B” story, which Kivnik would outline.

“Basically, Jessica had an original pitch based on Catfish, which was influenced byErnest and applied to our world in the form of a story about someone using a fake friend to get out of work,” said Miller. “Jessica then discovered the spine of a story in which two people admit they made something up and are in competition throughout the rest of the piece.”

“When you have two people lying in a comedy, the funniest moments come when they have to work hard to cover it up,” said Kivnik. “In our case that happens when Michelle has to pretend to be Ryan’s made up sick friend.” This turned into one of the major comedy scenes in that episode and thematically ties in with David, Sally and Andrea’s struggle to market a terrible beer in the “A” story.

While Kivnik was working on the Oscar Wilde by way of Social Media “B” story, Wu continued work on the “A” story.  Both were drafted and combined into what’s called a “Frankenstein draft” and from there more revisions were made to integrate the stories.

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Episodes 103 through 106 would follow a similar progression from raw idea, to outline, to more detailed outline, to writers being assigned, to (eventually) a finished script – and they’re all still evolving.

“Breaking story is a bit like going for a hike without a map,” said Aurora Clark. “If you have a general sense of where you want to go, stick to the trail (story structure) and trust in your fellow hikers (writers), you’ll eventually reach your destination and have yourself a little adventure in the process.”

The idea of a love triangle between David, Andrea and Sally was there from the beginning. Dave and Andrea would have an on-again/off-again relationship, then Sally, the quirky new girl shows up. Sally and Dave clearly have chemistry but he’s still with Andrea. This triangle formed the bases of the first season arc.

“I had a sketch for a series, but I didn’t necessarily have all the pieces,” said Miller. “The week-to-week story would be some sort of workplace conflict with Sally on one side, Andrea on the other and David caught in the middle.”

The writers kicked around a lot of “A” and “B” stories and had to decide which ones fit together thematically. The “A” story would involve one set of characters so the “B” story had to involve the other characters. The stories would sometimes crossover, but not always.

“We knew that there were certain stories we wanted to do, like one where the characters have to stay at work all night so we had to decide where that would fit in the arc of the series,” said Kivnik. “Plus, we discovered that our cast has some real chemistry beyond the natural pairings of Sally-David, Michelle-Ryan, so we’ve been re-examining the story beats to service our marvelous cast and let them intermingle in ways that will surprise you.”

It is a puzzle that is constantly being rearranged and debated even after the first episode was taped.

Grinding it Out With The Grinders

As we continued to meet, the back-and-forth of the writers’ room fueled the creative process and shaped the series in fun and unpredictable ways. So, what is it like to be part of a group when writing is typically a solitary profession? Here is what some of the writing staff for On The Rocks had to say.

“Even though lately I’ve been writing feature-length screenplays, I have an improv background so writing with a team feels very organic to me,” said Kivnik. “In improv, you learn to create with the mindset that no idea is a bad one, trust other people’s ideas and explore and heighten them to find the funny. Knowing we all have each other’s backs takes some of the pressure off to be clever. But when I can make the other writers laugh, that’s like striking gold.”

Machlin said, “Friends in the business talk about cutthroat rooms and showrunners with toxic personalities. But, this room’s full of supportive, funny people who can take your grain of sand and turn it into a pearl–or at least a shinier, more colorful grain of sand.”

Machlin added that being supportive is an important aspect of any good room and to not be afraid to speak up even if you think your idea is no good.

“Throwing up a total brick to get other people’s juices flowing is okay,” said Machlin. “Sometimes being the bizarre, off-the-wall, out-of-the-box guy is a good thing.”

While Machlin had experienced collaborating with other writers while working as showrunner on a web series he co-created, WRNG in Studio City, Clark was new to the collaborative process. However, she soon fell in love with the group dynamic.

“This is my first time working with other writers in a collaborative setting. It’s better than crack,” said Clark. “Part of being in a writers’ room is learning how to facilitate the creative process. Being a good listener and laughing at other people’s funnies is just as important as pitching jokes. The goal isn’t to be the funniest writer in the room; you should come to a room prepared to help everyone else be the best writer they can be.”

Ali Chen, a writer and casting director, was also new to writing in a group. She had previously only written for magazines, websites and as part of class assignments.

“I love working with a writers’ room. The ideas of nine people together makes the script so much stronger than if it’s just yours. It’s great to learn from the experience of others and also see how your ideas can work if you just tweak them,” said Chen.

“As a writer, I’ve learned so much from On The Rocks. I’ve learned how to work in a writers’ room, how to break a story, how to work collaboratively, how to fall in love with an idea and let it go, how to pitch ideas to the group, when to defer to people who have more experience than I do and also when to make sure an idea is heard if I think the story and the room would benefit somehow,” said Chen. “I’ve learned how to take other people’s ideas and treat them as my own for the benefit of the story.”

That’s all from the writers’ room. Next time, I’ll be back with Ali and the cast taking about the casting process.

Andrew Orillion: Brewing Up “On the Rocks” 2

Writing the Pilot
by Andrew Orillion

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.

To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/watchontherocks and follow The Grinders on Twitter at https://twitter.com/watchontherocks

Andrew Orillion: Brewing Up “On the Rocks”

A Behind the Scenes Look at the Creation of the First Multicam Web Series
by Andrew Orillion

It all began January of this year, with an email chain in a Yahoo group dedicated to TV writing. The question was simple, “How long would you go on with your writing career before you gave up?” The question got over 300 responses and started a lot of conversations. One of those responses was from Sam Miller, a writers assistant for Desperate Housewives. He had an idea, what if a small, but dedicated team of writers and industry professionals from the Yahoo group worked together on their own Web series? What would the results be? Five months later, the results were in and On the Rocks, a new Web series from a crowd sourced creative team, The Grinders, was born.

So, how did this happen? How did a band of near total strangers come together to create and shot a full-length, multi-camera, comedy Web series pilot? Over the next few weeks, leading up to the taping of the second episode, I’ll take you behind the scenes and give you an in-depth look at the creation of On the Rocks.

In the spirit of full discloser, I’m part of the writing and media outreach team for On the Rocks. But, don’t worry, I’m not going to direct you to our crowd funding page, yet.

Building the Team One Email at a Time

The team behind On the Rocks, The Grinders, is not your traditional Web series creator. We’re not college roommates or old film school buddies. We’re not lifelong friends or co-workers. In fact, most of us had never met prior to our first production meeting.

Crowd sourcing the writers’ room was definitely risky. When there is no money and no guarantee of anything getting made you never know if the team is going to stick together. I’d been part of a writing team that didn’t even last a month and Miller had previously worked on a Web series that only produced one episode.

Aurora Clark, a writer and part of the media outreach team for On the Rocks, had her doubts, too.

“I wasn’t sure if it would work. The idea of random strangers meeting through a message board and sticking together long enough to finish a script was outlandish,” said Clark. “But, through some strange alchemy, not only have we finished a script, we shot a whole 22 minute episode. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”

An interesting side effect of crowd sourcing the writers’ room is that we ended up with a very diverse staff. None of us went to the same college or grew up in the same state and only four of the ten staff members are white males.

Everyone had a different reason for wanting to be on the team. For executive producer and writer, Miller, it was partially out of frustration with the Hollywood system.

“I started the project because I was frustrated working as a writer’s assistant in a room where no one wanted to hear my opinion, but some of the things I suggested or thought of were going into the scripts,” said Miller. “I was tired of only writing pilot scripts and never getting to work with actors who would work on the lines to help me make my writing better.”

For Violet Ket, who is originally from Bulgaria, On the Rocks is about breaking in and breaking new ground.

“What attracted me to On the Rocks was the chance to work on something new and exciting with a group of talented people who are not afraid to break Hollywood conventions in order to achieve their dreams,” said Ket. “We need more people like that in the industry, full of enthusiasm and not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”

Johnny Kleinman, a writer and producer, was also drawn in by the passion of the group and the chance to be part of a team.

“Since I made the decision to be a writer and producer, I had only worked solo in studying the craft. By joining the group, I have been able to collaborate with other like minded writers, who have since become friends, who have taught me a great deal about writing sitcoms for television,” said Kleinman. “I thought the dynamic of the group was perfect for me since everyone had the same passion and determination as I do to write and produce comedies with a disregard to whether some exec is giving us the green light.”

As for me, I joined for three reasons. First, my career had stalled. I’d had some contest success but was never able to capitalize on it and that brief success was back in 2010. Three years is an eternity in Hollywood. Two, the idea sounded intriguing. I’d never been part of a writing team before and with Web series become more ubiquitous by the day, it seemed like a great opportunity. Even if the show never got made, it would still be a great experience to be part of a crowd sourced writing staff. Third, the production meetings fit into my schedule. We met on Tuesday nights and I had Tuesday nights off.

Slow Approach to the High Dive

Out of the initial email, a group of about 15 writers and industry professionals was formed.

Instead of jumping right into the process of creating a show with the crowd sourced team, The Grinders waited it out. It was important to see who would stick with the production and who would leave for various reasons. The last thing you want is to have a great idea, but no one to execute it.

We spent the next few weeks, emailing back-and-forth to hash out the initial details. When and where we were going to meet, everyone’s responsibilities and most importantly what the show was going to be about.

Everyone had their own idea of what we should do, all we knew is that it was going to be shot multicam, in front of a live audience. This limited what we could do since it confined us to one location, but we wanted to do it despite the challenges and because of them.

“There’s a certain excitement and immediate feedback you get with a live audience that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Miller. “Before, due to the cost, only large studios could make this kind of production. But now, anyone can, and we’re out to show we can do it as well as the pros.”

The top three ideas we considered were; bar on a space station, two brothers running a comic book shop (my idea) and a workplace sitcom set in the advertising department of a liquor distributor.

In the end, we went with the liquor distributor idea. By this point, the group was down to ten and it has stayed at that number since.

With the team in place and the idea set, it was time to begin work on the pilot.

Next week I will share a look into the writing of the pilot and the planning the first six episodes. Stay tuned!

To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/watchontherocks and follow The Grinders on Twitter at https://twitter.com/watchontherocks