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“This election is so, so ugly, it’s not business as usual. I really felt for Jimmy when people were so angry,” she said of the Tonight Show host (and her former Saturday Night Live colleague) during her Produced By: New York conversation, held Saturday at the Time Warner Center. “It’s not Jimmy who peed in that punch bowl, it’s not Jimmy who created this horrible world that we’re currently living in.”
Fey said that because of the stressful political moment, people are probably experiencing “election-related weight gain, I feel like that’s gonna be a thing. ‘I gained eight pounds between the two debates!’” She added that she occasionally stops by SNL to check on their takes: “I’ve become their worst nightmare, calling up on Friday nights and saying, ‘So, what do you got?’”
Fey also recalled how she was puzzled when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a former comic and SNL writer and performer, publicly slammed an SNL sketch she penned about Arizona Sen. John McCain. “I thought, ‘You’re not wrong, but you do know my phone number. You wanna tell me or Larry King?’” she said. She later shrugged off contributing to his political campaign and “When he won, I texted him, ‘I knew you could do it without my four thousand dollars.’ To his credit, he texted back to me, ‘F— you.’”
Throughout the conversation, Fey explained that being a producer doesn’t require talent, but a strong work ethic, effective communication skills, and the ability to “understand what you’re asking people to do while also protecting the original writing.” It’s not for everyone: “I know really talented people who are just a mess because they don’t want to do any of the boring parts.”
The Hollywood Reporter rounded up the seven things Fey revealed about being a film producer, running Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and not pursuing directing.
She learned producing basics early.
Fey took internships in every theater department while in college, and was taught to take ownership of her ideas while in Chicago’s Second City improv group, where “if you needed a prop, you had to bring it.” Even more so, writers “are overindulged at Saturday Night Live,” as they produce their sketch from start to finish. “You’re encouraged to weigh in constantly, you sit next to Lorne Michaels at the dress rehearsal and you are to answer for anything that’s screwed up in it. Most of the time, you’re 22 [years old],” she explained. SNL also taught her how to make things happen quickly: “When I’ve been in movies, they say, ‘We can’t get that in time.’ Really? You can’t get that in four weeks? I know a guy who can get me that in seven hours. … I know a guy who made a copy of Melania Trump’s wedding dress in two days.”
Michaels remains her example of an effective showrunner.
As a showrunner, “you give your life over to it completely. … I don’t understand how people have three or four shows on the air. Where are you? I should try to meet Shonda Rhimes or read her book,” Fey joked. She looks up to Michaels and his SNL environment, one free of yelling and panic. “Going into live TV with so many parts and a celebrity host, there’s an incredible calm to him in the middle of that,” she said, even if it’s in the middle of a broadcast. “He stretches time and space to make the decision. That sense of calm, that freaking out does not benefit anyone. … He’s said before, ‘The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, the show goes on because it’s 11:30 p.m.’ You do the best you can.”
She doesn’t know her Netflix numbers.
Though Fey loves working with Netflix on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially because she can make longer episodes, she said she doesn’t know the series’ viewership. “Would I like to have the numbers? Of course,” said Fey. “Because I keep wondering, five years from now, when you go to renegotiate, you don’t know what you have. I think somebody more money-oriented than me will be at the head of that, but I’m very curious to see. If you could get a regular hit on network, like a real hit, that slot machine really pays off — [or so] I’m told. I don’t know Chuck Lorre personally.”
She isn’t fond of marketing.
“Oh, God,” Fey began on the topic of marketing. “Lorne and I did Mean Girls, and we had a meeting about the posters,” she recalled, noting that she was surprised that the department’s first round of ideas wasn’t good. “You go into this process thinking, ‘All those people are gonna help me,’ and it’s actually so often the opposite, that you’re just trying to keep them from f—ing it up. You think that this is the passive part, but it’s the hardest, most vigilant you have to be.”
She’s still learning about making movies.
“I’m still very much a novice as a producer in the feature world,” Fey admitted of her experience with Sisters and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. She’s still confused about parts of the film industry: “[In TV], they’re just beginning to understand they’re not beholden to those [ratings] numbers, as opposed to movies’ opening-night weekend. … We had a table read for Mean Girls where they had just gotten bad news about another movie, like Lara Croft [Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life] wasn’t tracking, and the table read was very dour.”
She prioritizes protecting the writing.
Sisters left room for on-set improv, but only because Fey trusts a handful of people like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph to do so. Generally, “someone worked on this script for two years,” she said. “I’m always really suspect of any actor who comes in and the first thing they want to do is change the script. … We’ve really thought about it a lot by the time it gets to you.”
She really has no interest in directing.
Fey wanted to become a producer in order “to have a say in how things are made,” as an actor and a writer. “If you write a script and you’re not a producer, they can take it away from you and change it as much as they want. They can give it to someone who has no idea what you were intending to do and they’ll pay them twice as much as you and spend to rewrite it, and they will,” she said. “As a TV writer-producer, I just stay on the floor and annoy the director and just hover. … Why would I direct? Then I’d have to learn about lenses and stuff. I just sit here with a full plate of food and mutter.”
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