'Showrunners' Duo Detail the Doc's Impossible and Amazing Race to the Finish (Guest Column)

Des Doyle and Ryan Patrick McGuffey write about the journey — and inspiration — in making the film about TV's best and brightest
Black Sheep Productions

 J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe)Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire)Shawn Ryan (The Shield)Damon Lindelof (Lost) and countless others shift from behind the scenes to become the focus of a new documentary, Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show. The doc offers numerous first-hand accounts of what it takes to get a TV show on the air and features a backstory that is almost as equally fascinating.

Below, director Des Doyle and co-producer Ryan Patrick McGuffey detail the arduous journey behind Showrunners.

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For anyone who has ever truly pursued the dream of making a film, they know it comes with costs attached. The lucky thing about being a first-time director is that naivete can make you unaware of just how big a challenge you've set yourself.

For my first film, I wanted to tell the story of the people who wrote and created one of the things I love most in life: American TV dramas and comedies. I had been fascinated by the role of the showrunner for many years and had voraciously read or watched everything I could about them. But frustratingly I couldn't find anyone asking them the questions that I really wanted answers to, which were more about the specifics of the job itself and less about the shows they made. So I decided to try and make the film I wanted to see: the showrunners story in their own words.

What this became was a four-year odyssey that utterly changed my life. Up until then I had worked as a camera assistant in the Irish film industry and had carved out a successful career there. To fully embrace making the film I wanted to would mean gambling with that career by relocating to L.A. on a semi-permanent basis for extended time periods and taking a major financial hit as low-budget documentaries don't come with big directors fees. There were also personal sacrifices as I ended up spending so much time in L.A. that my previous life and friends in Ireland became more and more difficult to stay in touch with. 

Starting out in L.A. as a first-time director, I knew no one in the TV industry here and no one had ever heard of me. That's a tough starting point when you're asking for a chance to pull back the curtain on the world of some of the most powerful people in entertainment.

Slowly over time — and perhaps out of piqued curiosity about the Irishman on a mission — doors started to crack open and former NBC development executive Christof Bove helped me make some contacts.  I owe Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) a huge debt for being one of the very first people to allow me an interview and for making it such a good one. That, combined with a small amount of other footage I had, convinced the Irish Film Board to take a gamble on me and financially back the film.

Read more THR Names the 2014 Power Showrunners

During the next 18 months, the story grew in the telling. I had been lucky enough to surround myself with some other like-minded dreamers: John Wallace,who was running the ship from Dublin, and Ryan Patrick McGuffey, an L.A.-based fellow Irishman. We slept on floors or couches and ate pizza or Subway for months because that meant we could afford a sound guy for two days — or a rental on the lenses I really wanted to use instead. 

In return for these efforts, small wonders were starting to occur. Some of the people I really wanted in the film were saying yes to us and spoke to me on-camera with a candor and emotional honesty I had not expected — perhaps because we always tried to have a conversation, not an interview, and because I was asking them questions they weren't used to being asked.

This grew to getting the opportunity to follow brilliant people through their working days thanks to the kindness and support of showrunners like Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies) and Hart Hanson (Bones). As Hart said once, "How can I say no to people who survived The Famine and The Troubles!"

As word spread through the industry about what we were doing, we found new friends to help us achieve our goals: the ever reliable team of Jason Rose and Jimmy Nguyen,who never balked at any favors I asked of them. Jason's couch became my home away from home (it's a nice couch though!). 

As more doors opened, we shot for the moon and chased Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams — two people whose work I admired greatly and, who during their time as showrunners, discovered many new writing and showrunning talents themselves. When we got them — through a mix of karmic intervention and tremendous goodwill on their parts — I really started to believe this was meant to happen.

That belief was tested to the core after a year in an edit suite working through nearly 100 hours of footage that my brilliant editor John Murphy declared the most difficult job he'd ever done because there were too many good people saying too many interesting things. For guidance, we looked to what the showrunners were telling us in the footage — Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) spoke about how in his writers' room he had put the words "Be Entertaining" on the whiteboards as a guiding note. So we followed suit in our editing room and those words watched over us throughout the cut. 

Editing wasn't the only challenge; we were running on fumes financially at this stage and had to run a Kickstarter campaign to get us through postproduction. Thankfully, because of the immense kindness of all our friends and supporters — even some of the showrunners themselves — more than a thousand fellow TV lovers contributed to make our campaign a success.

When finally in early 2014 the film was finished, everyone involved was exhausted but proud. We believed we had made a good film that aspiring TV writers and casual TV fans alike could enjoy. As we watched it with the first audiences at San Diego Comic-Con, Edinburgh TV Festival, and most recently, the Austin Film Festival, I felt a huge relief — they were laughing and crying just where we wanted them to. Most importantly of all, they were enjoying it, even telling us afterward that they were inspired by it. For all of us involved in making this film that has made all the sacrifices worthwhile. 

Showrunners  is currently screening at the Arena Cinemas and available on VOD. 

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