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I am driving up a twisty canyon road in Malibu on the way to film our biggest set piece of the final episode of Parenthood. I am driving through a fog so thick that I am on the verge of having to pull over. It has not rained in Los Angeles for two years, but now, on our final episode, the rain has been following us, mocking us, laughing at us the entire shoot. Our shooting schedule has changed countless times. Our usually chipper crew looks haggard. Our producer is fried. The unflappable Larry Trilling, who has directed more than 30 episodes of Parenthood, looks like hell. So do I. The unforeseen benefit of this is that with nothing to do but wait for the rain to let up, you have some time to reflect, to look back, to take stock. And what better time to do that than when you are four days from ending a show that has changed your life.
It is narcissistic to think that there is something more poignant about your show ending than others. Yet, I can’t help it. This has been a show about family — but we have become a family. I look at Savannah Paige, who plays Sydney, and she reminds me that she was 4 when she was cast (today she’s 11). To her, life didn’t exist before Parenthood.
Throughout the life of our show, our Parenthood family was brought together through unexpected, sometimes tragic events. During the pilot shoot in San Francisco, I flew back to Los Angeles to look at an early cut of the teaser to send to the network. It was the only day of shooting I missed. That night, I was up late in my house and unable to sleep when our producer called and told me that Nora O’Brien, our beloved network executive at NBC, collapsed on set and died of a brain aneurysm.
We all loved Nora. She was smart and supportive and funny and never anything but positive. Peter Krause was particularly close to her. At her funeral, two weeks later, Peter and I cried. We had known each other for only a couple of weeks — yet we had gone through a tragedy — our peer died, a member of our tribe. We were all connected.
Then, weeks after the show was picked up to series, I was starting to work with our writers in the writers room when Maura Tierney called me to tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and might not be able to do the show. After a few weeks, Maura ultimately decided she needed to focus on her health and had to drop out. It was, of course, the right decision.
I started to truly wonder if this show just wasn’t meant to be. I had just gone through casting a pilot with 14 series regular characters, and we were back to the drawing board. Actor lists were thrown around. Dozens of names. Hundreds. Agents were calling. We would throw out names and answers would come back — “New York only,” “Not avail,” “Tech avail,” “Not in your wildest dreams.” And in the midst of all this, someone mentioned Lauren Graham. I was a huge fan and instinctively felt this would bring our show back at a time when I thought it could drift away.
I met with Lauren at Chateau Marmont to try to convince her to do Parenthood. I felt that with each passing day of not having a Sarah Braverman our show was getting closer and closer to disappearing into the ether. Time was passing us by. We were already unable to make a fall premiere, and I was concerned that eventually the network would decide to cut their losses. Getting Lauren would ensure not only a great actress for the role, but also a star that would help the network tolerate the considerable cost of reshooting the pilot and moving us to a midseason launch.
When Lauren said yes, things picked up at lightning speed. We reshot about 75 percent of the pilot on our new stages in Universal and went right into production of the first season — which, because it was now a midseason show, was reduced to 13 episodes.
Arriving in Malibu to shoot our final episode, it is pouring rain. There is almost zero visibility. The area where we are supposed to shoot all day has turned to mud. My shoes sink ankle deep into the ground. I ask a PA where Larry Trilling is. “He’s in his trailer; he has a migraine,” I’m told.
This is when you have lots of conversations with producers and ADs about strategies and game plans and calling audibles. They all basically add up to, “We seriously hope it stops raining soon.”
We shoot very little that day. One scene gets shot. Rather than trying to hide the rain, we incorporate it, giving our characters umbrellas and having them talk about it in the dialogue. Take that, weather gods! But everything else has to wait.
After many hours, when cameras finally start to roll, our spirits are lifted. We are getting great material, and everything is good until our producer Cary Jones approaches me with a serious expression.
“Need to talk to you about San Francisco.”
I have been excited because we have been planning to end our show by shooting the final sequence in San Francisco. It would be the first time we’ve been able to shoot up north since the pilot. We’ve talked about going there for six seasons, but schedule and budget have always made it impossible. This time, we have been planning for months — saving for months, to make it possible. Unfortunately, San Francisco is about to be hit with the biggest storm in 50 years on the exact day we are supposed to be shooting there.
Our San Francisco trip is canceled. We have no location in Los Angeles yet, and we shoot in two days. Cary assures me that we will find a great baseball field to shoot the sequence. We were going to be at a beautiful park in San Francisco, with unprecedented views of Golden Gate Bridge, the wharf and the city. That night, I am emailed location photos of baseball fields. Larry, our production designer Steven Jordan and I all separately have the same first choice. We have to move fast to secure the location — so the place we will shoot the final sequence of the show is decided by photos on an email. No scout. No van rides. No scout lunch.
The morning of the shoot, I let my GPS guide me to the field. It takes me across the street from Universal Studios, where we have been shooting the show for the past six years. We went from flying the entire cast and crew to San Francisco to shooting in our backyard.
Larry is standing in center field with Scott Schaeffer, our AD, and David Miller, our DP. No one else seems to have arrived, and they look a little lonely out there by themselves. I walk across the field and join them.
Larry looks at me, knowing we are about to shoot the final scene of the show. “I was thinking I’d shoot it here, in center field,” he says. “Sounds good,” I say. And that’s it. It’s decided. And the minute it’s decided I get deeply depressed. No more scripts to write. No more decisions to make. We’re done. Our entire day of shooting today is a visual sequence with no dialogue — so I can’t even listen in on the headphones and make suggestions to Larry to try a line here or there. The show has always felt sort of infinite to me. Whenever I take out a character’s storyline in the writers room or cut out a scene in post, I always tell myself, “I’ll make it up to them next time.” Now, for the first time, I’m taking in that there are no next times.
Some of the cast is arriving now. They will be playing baseball later in the day so they are picking up gloves, throwing a ball around, warming up their arms. I pick up a glove and join in. Bonnie Bedelia has a surprisingly good arm. When she sits down, I throw back and forth with Ray Romano and think about how many times the show has taken me by surprise — has filled me up, knocked me out. A flood of images come to me. Max sitting in the back seat of the car driving home from the horrific school field trip where another kid peed in his canteen. “Why do people think I’m weird?” He pleads to his parents for an answer. Zeek taking Amber to the wrecking yard to show her the car she had an accident in, where she could’ve died. “You are my dream. Do not mess with my dream,” he tells her. Haddie calling Adam from Cornell demanding that he tell her what is really going on with her mom, who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Hank proposing to Sarah outside of a hospital where her father just had a heart attack as bodies are carried past them in stretchers. Crosby proposing to Jasmine in the rain. Victor’s adoption ceremony. So, so many others …
We are shooting now. I sit by the monitors and watch Larry Trilling craft beautiful shots like a true artist as our cast is on the field looking happy and carefree. Since there are no words being recorded, we have a soundtrack of feel-good Braverman-esque songs playing, one after the other, and I sit back and watch and tear up and think this is perfect. This is exactly where we should be shooting this scene. This is exactly where we should all be. This is what would happen with the Bravermans. They would be thrown a curveball and end up embracing it. Making it all seem like it was meant to be. For the first time during the shoot the sun is shining.
I directed the next-to-last episode of Parenthood. I wrote three of the four last episodes. I had the cast to my house. Had a champagne toast with the writers. Had a huge cast and crew party. Drank eggnog in the camera truck after we wrapped the final day. All that, and I don’t really feel like I’ve said good-bye to Parenthood. The truth is I don’t know how to say good-bye. There’s too much overlap now. Too many of the writers and actors and directors and crew who are like family. Too much of my own autobiography is embedded in these stories.
Maybe the answer is, “Don’t say good-bye.” I think about the movie Boyhood. How they shot for one week a year for 12 years. Turned out pretty damn good. I let myself fantasize. While all of our cast and crew will be going on to do other shows and movies, how hard would it be to find one week a year to revisit an old friend? We fly home over the holidays to see family, don’t we? We make time. Why not fly home to see the Bravermans? Stranger things have happened. So let’s not say good-bye just yet. Let’s just say until the next time.
Emmy-winning writer and producer Jason Katims received the Kieser Award at the 40th annualHumanitas luncheon on Jan. 16 at the Beverly Wilshire. The Parenthood creator was recognized for his work promoting a “greater appreciation of the dignity of each member of the human family.” David Hudgins presented his fellow Friday Night Lights producer with the honor as some of Hollywood’s most successful showrunners, including Peter Tolan, Brad Falchuk and Hart Hanson, looked on.
The Parenthood series finale airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC. Stay tuned to THR’s The Live Feed after the episode for complete coverage.
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William Jackson Harper