How Making a TV Series Is Like Stage Racing

09.4.2011 | 9:26 pm

Note: While Fatty is cycling away in France with Andy FREAKING Hampsten, Paul Guyot – NOT the guy who suggested Felicity cut her hair – is guest blogging for him.

Some of you have inquired about my day job. Or maybe it was more like, “Will this guy please go back to his day job so we can have Fatty back?”

Either way, let me waste your reading time with a brief (okay, not so brief) explanation of why/how making a TV series is like a stage race.

I am a writer/producer for a series on TNT called LEVERAGE. It’s not a ratings leviathan like a CSI, nor is it an Emmy stacker like MAD MEN. There are no sex-starved vampires or lovable serial killers, no 60’s ad execs, nor forensic magicians. No cops, lawyers, or drug addicted nurses.

What we do have is fun. Lots of it. basically, the series is Robin Hood – our cast of regulars steal from the Bernie Madoffs and Enrons of the world and give back to their victims. Each week the team runs a con or pulls a heist or any combination thereof to take down the bad guys.

Okay, enough pimping. Here is why what I do is like Stage Racing.

Every season begins with great anticipation. Just like the weeks leading up to the Tour de France or Tour of Colorado… excuse me, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Dear God, can we please get them to drop the utterly ridiculous name and just call it the TOUR OF COLORADO? Or if they’re scared of it sounding too much like the Tour of California, then call it THE COLORADO CLASSIC – a nod to the original Coors Classic.

I mean, come on USA Cycling, who is heading up your marketing department? The USA Pro Cycling Challenge? Seriously? That was the name that everyone in the boardroom went, “Yes! That’s what we should be known as!” You are aware, right, that none of the riders in the actual race call it that? Unless they’re being interviewed on TV. They call it “Colorado.”

If the first race was any indication, you have the chance of becoming the premiere cycling race in our country, but with a name that sounds more like some Mountain Dew-sponsored BMX obstacle course, you will never surpass the ATOC.

But I digress.

So every season starts with great excitement and anticipation. Like every stage race. The stage race figures out the routes. The TV series figures out the “routes” the episodes will take during the season. The stage race invites teams. The TV series invites directors. Riders commit. Actors commit. Then the race begins. Then production begins.

The Prologue

Most stage races begin with a prologue. This is to whet everyone’s appetite, to get the teams and riders warmed up – almost like an extended session on the trainer. You obviously can’t win the overall in the prologue, but if disaster strikes you can certainly lose any chance of taking the yellow jersey.

In the TV series, our prologue is called pre-production. “Prep.” The first script is turned in (or hopefully, first few), and schedules are made, actors – both regular cast and guest stars are locked in for certain dates and times, the writers all return to the writers room after the long break, and with anticipation still high, we “officially” begin our season.

Early Stages

Most stage races have fairly innocuous early stages. There may be a tougher one here or there, but basically the first couple of stages in a week-long stage race or the first week or so in Grand Tours, are fairly flat sprinter stages. Yes, I’m generalizing, but you get the picture.

In the TV series the early stages are the first few episodes that are produced – by that I mean the scripts are written – usually we’re anywhere from three to five scripts ahead of production – they are budgeted, scheduled, and shot. Directors come in – a different one each week (for each episode) and most things run fairly smoothly – like a flat stage. There might be a crash here or there, but the GC remains pretty much as expected before the race began.

The Mountain Stages

This is when it gets good. These are the stages where it gets hardcore in the peloton. The big fancy sprint stage winners do everything in their power (and sometimes others’ power – I’m looking at you Cavendish) to simply survive the mountains so they may continue the race.

In TV, this is what’s been referred to as the Big Muddy. When you’re in the muck; halfway through a season, which can sound so good when you say it like – “Wow, we’re already halfway through the season!” Or it can sound completely demoralizing as in – “Oh my God, we’re only halfway through this thing?”

It’s right around this time in the stage race that most of the peloton loses any hope/chance of winning. It’s when your grinders come to the front. Those nasty 145lbs wisps with absolutely sick power-to-weight ratios. Those guys who crank at >6.2w/kg up HC climbs. The mountain stages separate the true contenders from the rest of the peloton.

In TV this is around the time certain actors are either bored, or have grown tired of their co-stars, or the writing, or the city you shoot in, or have a movie offer looming, or had to turn down a movie offer because of their TV series commitment and thus, are in a foul mood. Actors can seriously disrupt a production. Actors can get bent out of shape about their wardrobe, their makeup, their hair, or yes – the writing. They can acquire a distaste for the current director. Some have even been known to complain about the lighting and production design (the sets and set decoration).

All these issues they have require everything to come to a screeching halt, while said actor discusses said issues with said writer/producer. It can be as serious as trying to talk someone off a ledge, or as silly as trying to explain to a toddler why they can’t have Jake’s toy shovel simply because it’s blue and they feel it’s prettier than their own shovel, which is red.

You brought the red shovel to the sandbox. Dig.

All these discussions add up to the one thing that is kryptonite to a production — time. Time is the killer. The longer things take to accomplish, the more money it all costs. And TV is nothing if not all about the money.

But it’s not just the actors that cause your nice little stage race to suddenly hit Mount Washington. Generally speaking, actors are decent folk. We’re extremely lucky on our series to have a large cast of series regulars who are all quite wonderful to work with. So even with wonderful actors, there can be other people and problems that arise that cause a gradient to suddenly go from 4% to 17%.

Things like weather – this is always a nice one. You have three scenes scheduled to be shot outside in broad daylight and that day comes and it’s dark skies and torrential rains.

Or locations – you’ve had a location bought and paid for, and just perfect for your quiet, intimate scene between the two lovers… and you get there and the ladlord failed to tell you that’s the day the landscaping company is there with their mowers and leaf blowers. Or you were supposed to have police presence at the location to lockup traffic – only the police presence that shows up says they are unable to lockup traffic at that location.

You can have directors who suddenly decide the scene of three people talking around a table needs to be shot from the POV of a passing falcon – 300 feet in the air, or perhaps needs to be cut from 27 different angles – which are known as “setups.”

Every time you watch something on TV and you see your screen cut back and forth from one person to the other to the other and so on – each one of those angles is a setup. Meaning the entire crew has to set up the shot as far as cameras, lighting, blocking, and so on. The more setups you have the more time it takes to shoot.

And time = kryptonite.

All of these things (and all variations of them) have a habit of taking place during the middle of the season. The mountain stages. And It’s this time when the writer/producers see how strong their power numbers truly are.

The Last Stage

Eventually, if you’ve made it through the sprint stages without crashing, and the mountain stages without getting dropped, you get to ride into town on the last stage – which is generally ceremonial – like the Tour de France, or can be a bit racey – like the Tour of… er, the USA Pro Blah Blah Blah. Most things that can go wrong have gone wrong by this point, and if you’re still riding, it is a victory – sometimes more of a moral victory than an actual podium, but seriously, finishing ANY pro stage race in the world of cycling is quite an accomplishment.

In TV the last stage is the last episode of the season. All the scripts have been written. And while you started out four or five scripts ahead of the train (production) you always seem to be putting the finishing touches on that last script during the first day of shooting the season finale.

You’ve made it through the mountains, the actor likes their red shovel again, the location manager has been fired and replaced by a new guy, the network has been happy with the ratings and the episodes, and you’re so close to the end you can taste it.

But you’re not there yet. You still have to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of the racing peloton. Flats, crashes, an errant water bottle – there are still many things that can derail your drive to the finish line. So in that last stage you are simply doing all you can just to avoid disaster.

In stage racing the riders are usually miserable at this point. Completely cooked physically, psychologically, and emotionally. They just want it to end. They want to be able to have a day where they don’t ride at 280w for 100 miles. Where they can eat In-And-Out Burger if they want. Where they don’t have to wake up early and do it all again. They love their job immensely, but at this point sitting without moving their legs seems like heaven.

In TV you are tired and completely cooked creatively. You can’t believe you actually came up with enough story ideas to fill an entire season. You’re amazed you didn’t kill anyone on purpose or by accident. You’re surprised you’re fairly sober. You remember the names of your spouse and kids. But most of all, you are absolutely stunned you have not been fired by now, and that people still think you know what you’re doing.

You swear you are going to take a year off after this season and write a book. Or ride your bike. Or go to Hawaii. You’re completely convinced you have done every possible storyline for this show and these characters. You want to skip the wrap party and just go home and sleep.

But you still have to avoid the flat tires and crashes – the actors getting sick, or the directors going insane, or the weather screwing you, or any of the other countless issues that can and often do come up during that last stage.

The Podium

It’s over. You did it. In the stage race you are overjoyed if you made the podium, or won one of the jerseys, or buried yourself time and again for your teammates (I’m looking at you Jens Voigt), or in some cases, simply finished. You still feel like crap, but now that you’ve had a bit of time to absorb it, you already start thinking about next year – and doing it all over again. Better. Faster. Stronger. (cue music from Six Million Dollar Man)

In TV, you did it. You are overjoyed if your show won the ratings battle – either overall, or won it for the week or the night, or just did well enough the network has picked it up for another season. You still feel like crap, but now that you’ve had a bit of time to absorb it, you’re already thinking about next year, and how you can do it all over again.

Better. Faster. Cheaper.

Remember – there’s still time to win your very own TREK LIVESTRONG BIKE by donating to my Livestrong Challenge Austin page.


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  1. Comment by JodieA | 09.4.2011 | 9:56 pm

    Wow, Paul! I’m tired just reading that. Or maybe I’m tired because it’s 11pm where I am (Kansas City). At any rate, thanks for the insight. Sounds like you’ve got a tough job. I enjoyed reading about it and how it compares with that race that should be named the tour of Colorado. More Jack stories, please.

  2. Comment by bobbles | 09.4.2011 | 11:35 pm

    Ah well I hate to ruin a good joke but there was already a Tour of Colorado…

  3. Comment by Jake | 09.5.2011 | 1:35 am

    Good stuff Paul.
    @Jodie: How many crazy awesome Jack stories can he have? Let him move on to other things he wants to talk about!

  4. Comment by Cookster | 09.5.2011 | 3:02 am

    A good tale and a great show. Keep up the blogging and the scripting. Now try comparing writing for Fatty and running a con.

  5. Comment by Grant | 09.5.2011 | 4:34 am

    Oh, hey, while there aren’t many comments on this, let me say I am a big fan of Leverage – keep up the good work, and who knows, maybe you can get more than 7 Tours, I mean Seasons!

  6. Comment by Paul Guyot | 09.5.2011 | 5:18 am

    You mean the name Sand Creek Sports basically trade marked? Uh, yeah…

  7. Comment by Scott R | 09.5.2011 | 6:00 am

    Okay, people. Let’s go steal a biking blog.

  8. Comment by Mac | 09.5.2011 | 6:02 am

    Hey, I like Leverage.! Keep it up.

  9. Comment by Jesse | 09.5.2011 | 7:56 am

    I don’t have that channel, but it sounds like I’m going to have to figure out a way to see the show anyway. Thanks for the description!

  10. Comment by Clydesteve | 09.5.2011 | 9:49 am

    like – thanks, Paul!

  11. Comment by Heidi | 09.5.2011 | 10:14 am

    Last year I came across the movie Ordinary People playing on television. Timothy Hutton was so amazing in it (incredible) that I googled him to see what he was doing these days, and that lead to Leverage being added to the TiVo lineup. I think Sophie needs to have fling with Fatty.

  12. Comment by allison | 09.5.2011 | 10:32 am

    Last friday night I completed a manuscript and turned it into my publisher. By the time i turned it in, i felt like I had been in a battle with it to see if I could finish it b, before it ate me alive. (I won, but barely!)

    Your column combined my life this summer — watching every pro cycling event i can find and slogging through the final stages of my manuscript.

    I am keeping a copy of this column because it is a spot on comparison for any writing project I’ve ever undertaken. And you made me laugh out loud, repeatedly.

    I will pull it out on one of the mountain stages of a project and remind myself to laugh!!!!! and to find a recording of the USA pro blah blah blah or the tour de france to chill out for a while.

    great writing. Thanks!

  13. Comment by Flash | 09.5.2011 | 3:14 pm

    Brilliant interweaving of job and sport! I enjoyed your writing immensely.

  14. Comment by MattC | 09.5.2011 | 4:12 pm

    Ahhhh…most excellent post Paul! I think I will forever more be paying extra attention as shows I like progress thru a season, and just marvel that we have ANOTHER episode to enjoy! I had no idea that you have different directors for each episode (are all/most TV series like that?)…how on earth do you maintain a ‘direction’ (not exactly the word I was looking for) in the growth and overall character for each actor (AND also the series in general)? I guess if you have a set group of writers/producers, then that would tend to stabilize things even though you have new people ‘in charge’ each episode, trying to give their own spin/vision to it. All in all it sounds like a pretty crazy business!

    And btw, when you are in-between seasons (like now), do you actually just have all of that time off? Kind of like adult summer vacation? (That might explain why you have the time to be Fatty’s stunt double).

  15. Comment by Paul Guyot | 09.5.2011 | 4:54 pm

    @MattC — Yes, I’m on vacation… though vacation for me means working like a dog. I’m finishing up a novel that will be on the Kindle at year’s end, finishing up a short story for an anthology – a CYCLING THEMED anthology!

    And I’m in meetings and discussions with an actor to star in a pilot I wrote last year. Cannot give names or details at this point, but will do so down the road when it’s kosher.

    And most importantly I am hard at work coming up a “Let’s Go Steal a Bike Race” Leverage episode that will feature the dramatic television debut of Fatty!

  16. Comment by stuckinmypedals | 09.5.2011 | 6:01 pm

    Paul, I love LEVERAGE and love your comparisons to cycling. That would be SO awesome if you did a bike race episode. Surely you’d need plenty of extras in Fatty gear, right? ;). Enjoy your break!

  17. Comment by Nancy S | 09.5.2011 | 6:34 pm

    Happy, happy! My DH and I love Leverage and now I’m wondering if the cycling demographic is unequally represented in the Leverage audience. If it wasn’t, it will be now!

    “Let’s go steal a bicycle race” is an awesome idea! Do it! Do it!

    And, I can’t wait for your book in the Kindle store! Can you tease us with just a little teensy bit more detail about your book? Please?

    And. How’s the arm twisting of Twin Six going? A box turtle jersey would be tres kewl!

  18. Comment by SydneySS | 09.5.2011 | 8:14 pm

    Too long, didn’t read :P

  19. Comment by VA Biker | 09.5.2011 | 8:23 pm

    Good stuff. I knew it was complicated, but somehow I thought the “glamor factor” would override the everyday nature of it. It’s a job like everyone else’s, but can pay significantly better when things work out really well, eh?

  20. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 09.5.2011 | 11:21 pm

    ‘Let’s go steal a Bike Race’ outstanding! On theme alone. Fatty and Sophie, too much. Though I’m afraid the ‘kryptonite’ quotient (time) of that scene would set records. Long shot of Fatty either babbling like a two year old , or mute with fright.
    Pretty sure the Leverage team decked out in cycling kits (Team Fatty) would boost viewership 3 fold, but the kryptonite factor is still there: “….Actors can get bent out of shape about their wardrobe…”

    Let’s get an informal vote on who we want to see in Lycra;
    Nathan Ford(T. Hutton)

    Would Timothy Hutton wear Lycra?

  21. Comment by pedalgeek | 09.6.2011 | 5:34 am

    Paul – I love Leverage! A non-cycling friend (I do try to not hold that against him) a year or two ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.
    I have taken the spirit of the cycling/leverage mash-up suggestions as I PVR up episodes of Leverage for my watching pleasure while I grind away on my trainer.
    My only disappointment is that the Canadian winters last longer than my saved up episodes.
    Keep up the great work!
    Count me in as a sponsor and check out to see how I am trying to follow in Fatty’s footsteps and better the world….any shout out would be much appreciated.

  22. Comment by pedalgeek | 09.6.2011 | 5:40 am

    you may have noticed that I actually meant “a non-cycling friend ‘introduced me’ a year or….” above but missed a word or two in my excitement.
    Would that be the rough TV equivalent of a plot gap?

  23. Comment by Demonic1 | 09.6.2011 | 1:45 pm

    Hi Paul-
    just wanted to say that I love Leverage!
    And while I don’t have cable I do buy Leverage seasons when they come out- I’m already through season 3. and it was awesome.

  24. Comment by nh_joe | 09.7.2011 | 8:56 am

    I have a question – where are all these stage races that have a few easy stages and a ceremonial final stage? Every stage race I’ve done the last day is just attack after attack after attack!


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