One Year Later: 10 Pieces of Advice to Consider When Filming a Television Pilot

For the better part of this past anniversary week of filming Farm Story I've been thinking about the shoot and I've been trying to think of something profound and moving to say about the experience. Although right after the shoot itself I said some stuff (which you can find here and here), now it's one year later and with the benefit of a full year, I should have a new and interesting perspective on the entire project. The problem is, that Farm Story was more than just a job for me. It was a truly life altering experience. It was challenging and thrilling, scary and exhilarating. It was a career experience and it was just a job. It was a dream come true and hopefully only the first of many television shoots for me as a director. As Terri and I make the rounds of pitching and selling the show, I really want to be profound and poetic, but in the end, the experience was too big for words. So, instead, I will fall back on the good ol’ trusty list. And hope that the fact that I don’t have the words for the profound-ness of the experience doesn't lessen the impact of my lesson. So, without further ado — 10 pieces of advice to consider when making a television pilot…

Food - This has been said before, but I will say it again because it cannot be said enough (and this isn’t just because I’m Italian) — good food is really really important. Look, if you are going to ask people to gather for 12-hour days and make a television show, (particularly if you’re going the micro-budget route and so can’t compensate people as much as you’d like) — you absolutely MUST have good food and lots of it. This ain’t college anymore — you can’t buy people off with a couple of pizzas and a six pack of beer. Speaking of beer…

Alcohol - It doesn’t hurt if you have some booze at the end of that aforementioned 12-hour day to help people mellow out and unwind. There is nothing quite so wonderful as sitting around a table on a screened-in porch with your colleagues (and a couple of bottles of wine), shooting the shit and bonding after a long, demanding (but creatively fulfilling) day.

Sleep - At least as the director, learn to thrive without it. As some of you know, in my other life I’m also a doula. So I’m used to managing on very little sleep. AND, we were doing 12 hour days not 18 hour days, so presumably there’s time in there for sleeping…I mean, by strict math, there’s uh, 12 hours in there for sleeping. Take out two hours on each end of the day for meals and ablutions (completely apropos of nothing I love that word, ablutions) and you’ve still got a good 8 hours a night for sleeping so what’s the problem, right? Plenty of time to sleep. Well…at least for the director, the problem is, even after you’ve checked in with cast and crew to make sure they’re good for the day (15 minutes), even after you’ve had dinner (30 minutes), even after you’ve had that post-work glass of wine and unwound (30 minutes), even after you’ve checked in again with your cast and crew to make sure they have everything they need for the night (15 minutes), even after you’ve retired to your room and abluted (10 minutes), and called home to say goodnight to your husband (18 minutes), and glanced at the next day’s call sheet (1 minute), and crawled into bed (1 minute), this crazy thing happens — your brain doesn’t shut off.  You start planning out the shots for the next day and what you want from your actors. You think about how you’re going to tell the story tomorrow and how that fits in with what you shot today. You think about what you’ll do if it rains when you need to do exteriors. And what you’ll do if the picture car breaks down again, or the location isn’t ready. You think about all of the gazillion things that could go wrong and will go wrong and how you’ll solve each problem. And then, when you’ve exhausted all possibilities (and exhausted yourself) and finally feel confident with how you’ll handle the day, you’ll start all over again, double checking your lists and making sure you’re ready for real and for true. So, yeah, uh, sleep? Not so much.

Impromptu Birthday Parties - Be sure to have at least one. In the midst of our 2pm-2am day we celebrated Julia (Sam Saylor) Haubner’s birthday. It was actually kind of perfect timing. At 12:01am I called cut on the scene we were doing and we took a quick break to sing to our lead and then jumped right back into the work. BUT, at 2am, once we wrapped that night, out came the cake and we celebrated for real. I do have to say, there’s nothing like a 2am birthday party after a 12 hour day of shooting and before our one day off, to really experience the festive mood. (Wired filmmakers are fun filmmakers.)

Misty Mornings - As most people know film shoots are long hours (a 12-hour day is usually on the short side) and most of the time you’re up before the sun. (It’s kind of a necessity if you’re shooting day exteriors because you want to maximize time in the light.) For an insomniac like me (see number 3), when not working, mornings are something you avoid like the plague because you’ve usually just gotten to sleep minutes before sunrise; BUT, if you’re on location and you’re doing what you love, and you’ve already accepted that sleep and you are just not going to be friends for the length of the shoot, then there is nothing quite so calming, and refreshing as stepping outside moments before sunrise, to wander through the misty morning air and soak up the vibe of the Shenandoah Mountains. 

Family - If you’re going to step into the unstable world of production, wherever possible, bring family with you. Having Mom and Dad Ammirati (and Mom and Dad Coduri) on set as well as husbands, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews on set and both “working” and actually working was such a blessing. Now granted, number 6 here probably isn’t for everyone but when you come from a big Italian family who not only love each other but also actually like one another, it’s impossible not to be comforted by turning around and knowing that your biggest fans are there and they’ve got your back.

Cast - Get yourself an amazing cast. Find people who are not only extraordinary at their jobs but are also fun, engaging, lovely people. You want to find a cast who will bring their own voices to the characters they are playing but who will also mesh those voices with your vision. Crafting the story with all of these amazing folks makes your job as director that much easier. But more than that, it makes it fun. Not just fun, like SUPER fun! 

Crew - And complement your amazing cast with an incredible crew. Find people who are talented and enthusiastic. People you can trust to support your vision but who aren’t afraid to share their ideas too. Find people who you respect and who respect you in return. Who trust you and are comfortable enough to say, “Jess, can we get one more take for safety?” but who also understand and accept it if you say, “We really don’t have the time.” They will be the difference between a happily humming set and the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Producing Partner - When choosing your producing partner (because trust me, you DON’T want to go it alone) pick someone who complements you and trusts you and who you complement and trust in return. Find someone who you can be of hive mind with, who knows how you think and who shares those thoughts but who also, on occasion will come out with something that challenges you unexpectedly. Find a person who will stand up for what she believes in (even if it contrasts your vision) but who respects you enough to back your play when you need it. In other words, find a best friend. And, if that best friend happens to be an extraordinary writer, well that right there is just a bonus. 

Do THAT! - in the end, here’s all the advice you need: Do THAT! I know this is kind of a no brainier and all but if you ever get the opportunity to do the thing you love with amazing people — do THAT! If you ever get the chance to do something that scares the hell out of you but exhilarates you at the same time — do THAT! If you ever get the chance to push yourself to the limit and challenge yourself in ways you never thought you could be challenged — do THAT! If you ever get the chance to take 35 virtual strangers on a journey and in the process of journeying turn them into a family, (even if it’s only for 12 days in September) — no kidding, do THAT! In other words, if you ever get the chance to chase your dream and maybe even catch a piece of it — do that! Do That! DO THAT!

--Jessica Ammirati

About the Trip Down to Virginia...

One hundred and eighty miles outside of Staunton, VA, on the way to our Farm Story farmhouse location, my Subaru Forester fell apart. It had been acting up pretty much since we'd left NYC that morning trailed by a fourteen passenger van stuffed full of cast, crew, and equipment, and to that point I'd managed to convince myself that it was just the car showing its 13 years and 200,000 miles; when the steering wheel started to shimmy and my sister, who was driving, had veins popping in her arms trying to hold onto it, I figured something a little more serious might be going on.

We pulled into a gas station, followed by the van. Sunday afternoon in rural America; they couldn't help us. Potential disaster loomed: not only was the Subaru stuffed with equipment and luggage, it was also our picture car. We'd already shot NYC footage with it, and needed it for several VA scenes too.  Nervous breakdown in 3...2... Jess texted her parents, who were on their way down for the shoot and, in a stroke of luck, had just passed us. They turned around immediately and headed our way.

Back at the Subaru, fourteen virtual strangers stood in the parking lot wondering what the hell we were going to do. One of our actors, Logan, pulled a MacGyver and slid under the car with his knife to try and sort things out. The Subaru refused to be sorted. I called my husband back in CT. Our Director of Photography Alex pulled out his camera and started shooting the whole mess. I paused in my nervous breakdown to hope my hair would look good on camera. Vanity never takes a rest. At least not mine. Anyhoo...

Jess's mom and dad arrived. We decided the best course of action was to shove equipment and luggage into the parental mini-van and then Jess et al would head to Staunton while Kel and I stayed behind with the car; Tom and Theresa agreed to wait with us and bring us to Staunton if necessary. Our first order ofbusiness was to frantically Google till we found an auto shop open on Sunday afternoon.  And we did! Mr. Tire! Not a mile away! My sis and I shimmied over there in the Subaru. Tom and Theresa followed.

I gave Mr. Tire (not his real name) my sob story; he agreed to look at my car, and had his guy put it up on the lift thingee. A few minutes later he returned to ask me if I'd recently 1) hit something HUGE ("No," I said. "Yes," Kel said. "That pothole in NYC.") because 2) the alignment was shot which3) put uneven pressure on the front right tire which in turn had 4) gone egg-shaped and was 5) causing the car to buck. (I'd also managed to sever the tailpipe but that was not discovered till I returned to CT and my husband did HIS MacGyver thing under the car.) And, they could fix it but it would cost 7) about $1800 and 8) not tonight because 9) his guys had to get home.  The hefty bill had me wheezing. The thought of spending the night in PA when the car and I and my sister (our script supervisor!) were needed first thing in the morning in Staunton had me on the verge of hysterics.

I knew I was going to cry. I was horrified. Mr. Tire was horrified.  "Now don't get upset," he said. "I'll see what my guys say." He disappeared into the back and had a conversation I assume went something like this:

"Don't panic boys but there's a crazy woman out front."

"I thought there were two."

"Only one of 'em seems crazy."

My sister the non-crazy one kept reminding me to breathe (ALWAYS travel with a therapist, I tell you what) until Mr. Tire returned with the good and VASTLY more expensive news that they would stay late and fix the car for me. Rejoice, and pull out the MasterCard. I did, they did, and ninety minutes and $2500 later we were on our way.

Now you're probably thinking "How awful! How stressful! What a terrible start to your adventure!


And no.

Because the unexpected is what adventure's all about. Because here's what I actually remember about that day:

- the sweet support of our AMAZING NYC cast and crew.
- my sister making me laugh in the midst of the madness.
- Tom and Theresa, ever calm, sitting in their car, reading while we figured things out.
- the group in the van cheering over the phone when I called Jess to say the car was fixed and we were on our way.
- my folks, already in Staunton, calling to tell me not to worry, they were picking up pizza for everyone and would meet them at the house.
- Logan and his knife.
- Alex and his camera.
- the excitement of meeting our VA cast and crew at the farmhouse.
- My brother, also waiting for us in Staunton, texting the right words at the right time: "this is the one big fuck up every project has. Smooth sailing from here on in. Breathe and get your asses here, you've got a TV show to make."

And most of all:

Finally getting to the farmhouse in Staunton, seeing it all lit up against the September night, knowing it was full of strangers, not yet knowing how quickly they would become family.

What a good time we had. =)