Kasdan comedy about network pilots is must-see 'TV'

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"TV" talk: If there's anything tougher than getting a movie green lighted it's got to be making a network TV pilot deal.

The elaborate dance between producers hoping to produce series pilots and the network executives who control the gates and purse strings is the subject of Jake Kasdan's very funny new movie "The TV Set," opening Friday via THINKFilm. It's really must-see "TV" for anyone who's in or interested in the network business.

Written and directed by Kasdan, "TV" was produced by Aaron Ryder and Kasdan and executive produced by Lawrence Kasdan (Jake's filmmaker father who's received four Oscar nominations over the years) and Judd Apatow (whose new comedy "Knocked Up" looks like it should be a huge hit for Universal when it opens June 1). Starring are Sigourney Weaver, David Duchovny, Ioan Gruffudd, Justine Bateman, Fran Kranz, Lindsay Sloane and Judy Greer.

In the film Weaver plays something of a descendant of Faye Dunaway's network TV programming executive character in the classic 1976 drama "Network," directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky. As Lenny, president of the fictional PDN, Weaver's a tough talking brash network boss who's riding high in the ratings thanks to the success of her reality series "Slut Wars." Gruffudd (who played Reed Richards in "Fantastic Four") is Richard, her right hand man, who's just been imported from the BBC to add a touch of badly needed class to PDN.

Duchovny plays Mike, the quality-minded writer-producer who's willing to compromise with the network to a point in order to sell the pilot for his new series "The Wexler Chronicles," inspired by his brother's real-life suicide. Unfortunately for Mike, Lenny thinks suicide's depressing and would rather not have that as the plot point that drive's the pilot's storyline. Mike's manager Alice (Judy Greer) puts the best possible spin on any changes the network's asking for while Mike's wife Natalie (Justine Bateman) reminds him that she's six months pregnant with their second child and he needs to have the job that goes along with selling this pilot.

"TV" is wonderfully funny without taking any of the obvious cheap shots that could be taken at an industry that's as ripe for satirizing as this one is. The result is a film that's one of the most enjoyable I've seen in months so I was delighted to be able to catch up recently with Kasdan to ask him about how he managed to get it made. Previously, Kasdan directed the 2002 comedy "Orange County," starring Colin Hanks and Jack Black, and the 1998 comedy thriller "Zero Effect," starring Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman. He also knew his way around the network TV world having directed episodes of series like "Grosse Pointe" and the cult favorite "Freaks and Geaks" (including its pilot in 1999, which was created, written and produced by Paul Feig).

"This is an idea that I had a long time ago," Kasdan told me. "I'd made some television pilots. A lot of my friends had made television pilots. I'd been around that world a lot and that process and I'd heard people's stories and had my own experiences. It sort of seemed eventually like everybody kind of had the exactly the same experiences. On a million different kinds of projects, the drama and problems and would always be kind of the same to the point where they started to seem a little predictable. I thought it made for a potentially (funny movie because of) the circumstances of (how) shows are made as well as the language that people use when they're talking to each other and all of that. The theater of it was amusing to me. So it's something I'd been thinking about for a long time possibly as a movie that could be entirely improvised, but then I just sat down to write a few scenes and it brought the whole script pretty quick."

Kasdan wrote the screenplay, he said, "immediately after the election in 2004. I sent it around to a bunch of actors and we made it independently. We basically put together a cast and went out and raised the money. It was done very, very inexpensively. I just went looking and found a bunch of investors to help us capitalize it for the most part and I went and did it on HD tape very quickly."

Weaver's character Lenny, the network chief who comes across as one of the guys, was originally written to be played by a male actor. "We were getting ready to do it that way," Kasdan said, "and right at the last minute our schedule shifted and suddenly I needed to recast that role and started thinking of it in a different way. I had been struggling to figure out how to go about casting it because it originally was written for a guy in his late 50s and then I had started to reconsider whether there might not be some more interesting way to do Lenny. And finally as we were three weeks out someone suggested, 'Well, what if Lenny is a woman?' Of course, it's the kind of idea that you initially resist for a second because it's a big leap from the original thing.

"But the more I thought about it -- and, really, no one was pushing it, particularly -- within a couple hours I wrapped my head around it and got really excited about it. I just thought it made the scenes more interesting and all of the dynamics between everybody -- between Duchovny's character and the character of Lenny -- if Lenny was a woman. It adds a whole additional dimension of ways that people try to be polite to each other, which is a big part of what's funny to me about how they relate to each other."

When I mentioned that Weaver as Lenny reminded me in a good way of Dunaway in "Network," Kasdan replied, "Yeah, there's certainly a little of that. That's one of my favorite movies of all time. There's no question there's something about that character that is a little bit reminiscent -- except Sigourney's in charge (being the network president while Dunaway's character was only the head of programming). So maybe it's like if that character had made it through the ranks (and is now running the network)."

Weaver, of course, grew up in the world of network television in which her father, the legendary Sylvester 'Pat' Weaver, headed NBC where he created such milestone programs as "The Today Show" and "The Tonight Show." "It's funny, you know, because if you spend time with her you would never know (about her connection to television)," Kasdan pointed out, "because she doesn't watch a lot of television now. She lives the life of a theater actress for the most part and is not real current on what's going on in television. But she's retained just enough of it to occupy this part so completely. I think she's so great in the movie. I love what she does so much."

Was it tough getting Weaver on board for the film? "We didn't change a word of the script," Kasdan said. "So I sent her the script for a guy. She had been looking to do something like that, oddly, like she had actually been telling people that she wanted to play a role that originally been intended for a man. So when this came up like two weeks later it was I think a big surprise and she just jumped right into it. She liked the part and she hopped right in. I was very lucky. It was like two weeks before we were supposed to start."

In writing the material, Kasdan drew on his own observations in the industry: "It came from my own experience and the experience my friends had had in sort of living in that world a little bit for a long time. It's not really satirical. It's just crazy. I thought it was funny just trying to cast it in the most realistic way I could (to show) what that (world) is actually like."

Shooting took place entirely in Los Angeles on a very tight schedule of 23 days and nights. "It was very fast," he agreed. "We were trying to do it as efficiently as we could. The lot, which is (the setting for) about a third of the movie, was at Radford (the CBS Studio Center that many years ago was the home of Republic Pictures). We found some places (in which to shoot the) network offices."

It was the first time Kasdan found himself shooting digitally. "I really enjoyed it and I'm sort of converted," he told me. "The movie I'm making right now is a much bigger production and we're doing that on HD, also. It's called 'Walk Hard.' It's a movie that I wrote with Judd Apatow. It's a fake music biopic (for Sony starring John C. Reilly as singer Dewey Cox who overcomes adversity to become a musical legend)."

Shooting on HD is good, he added, "for comedy because you can let it roll and let people do multiple takes again and again. For me, I find that you see exactly what it looks like when you're on the set and that's something that I always like."

Asked how he likes to work with his actors, Kasdan replied, "We do rehearse. I like to start with the script and then create an atmosphere where they can go off the script. There's some improvisation, but for the most part the movie is very much as it was originally written with little additions and embellishments here and there."

Of course, making a movie within a movie poses challenges of its own. In the case of "TV," Kasdan has many scenes in which the pilot that Duchovny's character Mike is producing is being shot. Fran Kranz plays Zach, the male lead who really wasn't Mike's first choice for the role but wound up appealing more to Lenny than the other possibility. Lindsay Sloane plays Laurel, the female lead who everybody likes, including Zach, who'd like to get to know her much better. Their scenes for the pilot are being "directed" by Willie Garson, who you'll instantly remember from playing Stanford on "Sex and the City" and who's terrific here as Brian, whose approach to directing the pilot is a little more "cinematic" than Mike would prefer.

"It's a funny thing that for every job there's someone actually doing it and then there's also someone pretending to do the job," he noted. "So you have a real AD and a fake AD and then you have a real DP and a fake DP."

Asked about the challenges he faced while filming, Kasdan observed with a laugh, "Unfortunately, it was a strictly uneventful and really fun shoot. We all really enjoyed doing it together so it doesn't make for a lot of good anecdotes. We had a really good time doing it, all of us."

The movie came to THINKFilm, he explained, after "they saw the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival (last April). It was the first time we showed it and happily they wanted to release that. It took a little time, as these things often do, but we got to a really good (distributor) and we're very happy that they're doing it."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Apr. 26, 1989's column: "The extent to which theatrical success drives a film's performance in home video and pay-per-view television was hammered home when I focused recently on pay-per-view on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series.

"We all know the greater the success we make of a theatrical film the more value it will have in every ancillary market after that,' Robert Klingensmith, president of Paramount Pictures' video division, told me.

"'Obviously, the video market is theatrically driven,' observes Warner Bros. Distributing Corp. president D. Barry Reardon. 'The window is probably the criterion that's most important. We set the window for the video people -- we're holding to six months at this stage of the game -- and the pay-per-view window follows the video window. But pay-per-view is (still) an emerging technology as far as we're concerned. I think last year it was around a $225 million or $230 million business and worth probably $40 million or $50 million to the studios. So it still has a long way to come before it really becomes effective as far as we're concerned.'

"Is it live events or theatrical motion pictures that drives pay-per-view? 'Movies really are the bedrock of what pay-per-view is as a service,' Klingensmith points out. As for events, I'm cautious to use that word because sometimes what happens is that you go from events to concepts and sometimes these concepts just don't work well. People are trying to create events that aren't there. But a major fight or some of the other events that have been successful (like) the 'Wrestlemania' kind of things have generated an awful lot of money and are real benefits to the cable operators.'

"Some theater owners are fearful about the possibility that some day the studios might open films on a day-and-date basis in theaters and on pay-per-view television. 'I think we're a long way from that,' predicts Reardon. 'Universal had a test a few years back (with 'The Pirates of Penzance') and that didn't turn out to be a very good financial success at all. The way the boxoffice is these days, I don't see that in the foreseeable future.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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