'The Climb' Creator Reflects on Her Public Pilot, From Pitch to Premiere
A month after her Detroit-set comedy debuted, writer and actress Diarra Kilpatrick reflects on her experiences with the unconventional process that Amazon launched in 2013.
Diarra Kilpatrick is the creator and star of Amazon's The Climb, a Detroit-set comedy about an assistant who ditches her job to find internet fame. The pilot, alongside two others, rolled out in November and is currently in contention for series order at the streamer. It could be among the last of its kind, as Amazon leans more toward traditional development and series orders.
THE SET UP
My agent Jacqueline Sacerio is leaving CAA to become a producer at Mark Gordon Company. I'm already developing a half-hour pilot for FX, but she says she wants to produce my next idea. I think this is just something people say. I send her a bunch of loglines. She likes the idea for a show that centers around two women who want to become famous but have no talent. It's called The Climb.
It's 2015. An executive at Amazon, Amanda Greenblatt, has seen American Koko — the web series I made for $3,000 on YouTube, later bought by ABC — and wants to hear what I'm taking out next. A lot of writers hate pitching. But as a writer/performer I find it less anxiety-producing. In fact, getting a chance to do a one-woman show without having to force your friends to buy tickets is kind of a joy.
I go in to pitch Amanda and Gina Kwon. I talk to them about some of the things that have been occupying my thoughts lately:
1. Memes that are pressuring me to "SLAY LIKE BEYONCE, OWN LIKE OPRAH, DRESS LIKE OLIVIA POPE, AGE LIKE J-LO, RUN LIKE HILLARY and DELEGATE LIKE SHERYL." They're meant to be encouraging but sound crazy exhausting, if not impossible, especially since Olivia Pope isn't even a real person.
2. The connection between Instagram and Barbie. I wonder if scrolling through pictures of pretty girls like the Kardashians, who live in dream houses and wear couture clothes, are just a grown-up's way of playing Barbie's fantasy dream life.
3. Donald Trump'’s victory hasn't proved me totally correct yet, but I get the feeling that celebrity and a charismatic persona are as valuable a currency as any on the road to having it all. Especially in this shifting idea of the American Dream.
4. I want to see Detroit onscreen the way I saw it as a child — as a wonderland full of both grit and magic. I tell them that I thought crackheads were merely eccentrics until I was about 10.
I walk them through my characters, story ideas and the ways that the questions I was pondering would coalesce into a show about women striving for the happy ending Disney promised. The executives nod a lot. Later, I find out that they love the pitch and fight for it to be picked up to script and then pilot. I am grateful for female executives like these who empower female storytellers. From my American Koko EP, Viola Davis, to Jamila Hunter at ABC, to Cindy Chupack (who I'm working with now on Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here), women have always been my greatest champions. Contrary to what you might see on The Real Housewives of Wherever, women hire women. Women support women. We text each other things like, "You're the sun, the moon and the stars," and we aren't being hyperbolic. We are much more inclined to build each other up.
I'm very comfortable in my artist skin, but the management of other artists is probably my greatest challenge. I want to make sure I'm cleanly communicating my vision, because I so want to get the best out of my collaborators. I learn so much along the way and am blessed with fantastic artists, designers, actors and producers to take this journey with me. They make me better.
The biggest hiccup is a huge lesson learned. There is one person my gut tells me that I should let go early in the process. Sometimes women think that we can grit our teeth and work with anyone, adjust, make compromises, grin and bear it. I am wrong. He implodes and I vow to act on my instincts going forward.
On the other hand, our director Chris Robinson is a dream and really pushes me when writing the visuals, he elevates the fantasy sequences from what is on the page. Also, we find a gem in casting: Alysha Umphress, an actress out of New York. Our characters' friendship is the central relationship of the show and we're relieved when the cast is completely rounded out with such heavy hitters as Jocko Sims and Robert Gossett (an actor I met doing L.A. theater).
It's important to me that we find a great actress with curves to play opposite me. Everyone in town sends us a great many skinny white girls, but this is an area where I hold firm. A.) It's Detroit, and B.) I think a show by and for women should reflect a variety of body types.
I'm very proud of the dynamic of an interracial friendship where the black woman isn't just a shoulder to cry on. White women have shoulders too. I love that our relationship, especially in the pilot, portrays black female fragility and white female sassiness. It's something I see a lot more of in life than onscreen, and I always thought that should be corrected.
Alysha is from the theater like me, and we sing the most obscure songs from Broadway musicals during takes. If we annoy the crew, which we must, they don't show it. Like the local actors, the local crew is seasoned and hard-working. A couple of them thank me for bringing work to Detroit. I discover that there are few greater feelings than bringing paying jobs to your hometown.
Dr. Farron McIntee, my best friend since childhood, shows up on the last day of shooting to be a featured extra. As kids, I constantly forced her to sing, dance and act with me. (She complied so happily that I didn't know until we were in our 20s that her real passion was science.) Farron becomes a casualty of post-production and ends up on the cutting room floor. I hope to get a full-season order if for no other reason than to rectify this. I owe her.
"Are they doing that voting thing?" A million people ask me this as our launch date is fast approaching. People have become hip to the fact that Amazon courts viewer feedback on their pilots as part of its decision-making process. America gets to weigh in like it's American Idol. This is concerning to me because Jennifer Hudson didn't win, and I can't think of anyone who did. I grow little uneasy. Asking random people for their opinion, in this day and age, almost feels like asking people to troll you.
Eventually, I'll get a text from my ninth-grade boyfriend who I haven't seen in years telling me that he's already watched the pilot. He loves it and thinks it's "very Detroit." This is tremendously satisfying. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll receive messages through social media from strangers all over the world who love the pilot, relate and want more. I realize that the upside to the voting is that people get to be a part of your journey almost from the very beginning. Strangers are investing in me. They're rooting for me.
On the wee hours of Nov. 10, the premiere day, I'm in a hotel room in Atlanta as and I watch the first customer reviews roll in. Holy shit. This is really happening. A feeling with which I am not too familiar creeps in … I'm actually proud of myself. Familiar with self-flogging and imposter syndrome, I have that black nerd, perfectionist, no room for error, don't self-congratulate cross to bear. But pilots are difficult and messy and there's such a huge learning curve, and I am on the other side, a better, stronger artist. So, as this feeling of pride creeps in, I welcome it, savor it. And I think to myself that whatever happens with The Climb, I have slayed, owned, ran, dressed, delegated and definitely aged. Who gives a shit if it was like Beyonce or Hillary or Oprah or anyone else? I did it like me.
Diarra Kilpatrick is an actress, writer and producer from Detroit, Michigan. She is the creator and star of Viola Davis-produced digital series American KoKo (now available on abc.com and the ABC app) and The Climb on Amazon. She's written for the Jordan Peele-produced The Last OG and is currently staffed on I'm Dying Up Here. She lives in Los Angeles with husband, writer/producer Miles Orion Feldsott.