Susan Kouguell speaks to Will Scheffer about his new HBO series Getting On, offering sage insight on pitching projects.
Not ones to shy away from hot button topics, co-creators, executive producers, and writers on their Emmy and Golden Globe-winning HBO series Big Love, Will Scheffer and his partner Mark V. Olsen tackle “difficult” subject matters in their television and film projects — and their new HBO series Getting On is no exception.
Will Scheffer is a playwright, writer/producer and filmmaker. His plays have been produced in such venues as Playwright’s Horizons, Naked Angels, The Public Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theater. His first screenplay In the Gloaming (directed by Christopher Reeve), won five Emmys. Mark V. Olsen has written and produced several screenplays, teleplays, pilots and miniseries. For HBO, he wrote Mary Chesnut’s Civil War and Cabrina USA. Together, Scheffer and Olsen produced the independent feature based on Scheffer’s play by the same name, Easter.
KOUGUELL: As a team, you and Mark don’t shy away from edgy topics. Big Love (Mormonism and polygamy) and now Getting On (aging, dying and the health care system). Those must have been some interesting pitch meetings to HBO executives! Can you elaborate?
SCHEFFER: We like to write about “edgy” topics. It’s just who we are. We think of ourselves as “popular artists” and then we read some reviews and we think, “Oh god, a lot of people don’t want to go where we like to go.” In truth, we just want to write shows that are extremely watchable.
Getting On is largely about how we all deal with the process of aging and how we all care for the elderly. It is about relationships and the power struggles that come out of a small group of individuals that work together out of choice or necessity.
I admit that when we pitch, we know we’re pitching “difficult” material so we usually save the “difficult” part until we have the network hooked.
I’ll just use Big Love as an example. We worked up the pitch for over a year (we often do that) and we knew we didn’t want to mention the word “Polygamy” for quite a while. It went something like:
“There’s this guy and he owns a Home Depot kind of store and he’s your typical American man, right now. He’s overwhelmed by work and family. And his marriage is complicated. Actually this is a show ABOUT marriage…because he just happens to be married to three women. So this is a show about marriage times three.”
That’s kind of a thumbnail version of how we take a pitch about Polygamy or Death and Dying into the network. Luckily we work at HBO. Who else would have us, we’re beginning to realize.
The take-away from Scheffer’s Big Love pitch example:
- Each sentence of this pitch builds to the polygamy theme without saying the word “polygamy.”
- The pitch follows the protagonist, Bill. It first describes Bill’s situation (his job), who he is (typical American, right now), his personal issues (overwhelmed by work and family), his complicated marriage (without stating what the complication is thus building anticipation.) The pitch then continues by saying what the theme is — what the show is about: it’s about marriage. Scheffer continues to build the anticipation of answering the question of ‘complicated marriage’ by revealing that Bill is married to three women. And the clever hook: This is a show about marriage times three.
- Know the company you’re pitching to and the types of projects they produce. HBO, for example, is a company that produces more risk-taking series and films, as opposed to a network like ABC, CBS or NBC.
- Take your time developing your pitch. For Scheffer and Olsen, they worked on their pitch for over a year.What does this mean for you? Before you pitch your project, you must thoroughly prepare; know every aspect about your project, themes, plot and characters. You must then convey in your pitch not only what your story is about and the major themes, but your main characters’ strengths and flaws, and what’s at stake for each of them.
Keep in mind that when film industry executives listen to a pitch, they are thinking: How can I sell this project to my bosses and then to an audience? And they are pondering: What makes me care about this project enough that I will put my job on the line, to get this project made?