Writers on the Web: Interview with Sam Miller, Executive Producer of “On The Rocks” Web Series

Want to be in a writers’ room? How ’bout you create your own?OnTheRockslogo

No other web series captures the independent DIY spirit better than the one I’d like to introduce to you today: On The Rocks.
Formed by a collective of entrepreneurial aspiring TV writers called The Grinders, On The Rocks is a multi-camera web sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience.  They operate a writers’ room in the same way a TV series would–meeting to break stories, punch up scripts, and plot out seasons of the show.

I interviewed Executive Producer Sam Miller, no stranger to writers’ rooms himself, having worked with the writers of Desperate Housewives, Malibu Country, The Exes, and now the new CBS sitcom Mom.

Rebecca: How did you come up for the premise for On The Rocks?  What inspired the story?

Sam: The premise of a multi-camera web series was something I’ve kicked around for a few years. Finally, there was an email chain on a large Yahoo group of TV writers venting frustration at the challenges of the business, and it seemed like a good time to assemble a team. So that inspired the project to get together.

The concept for On The Rocks is based on my experience working as a studio assistant. The group was inspired by the frustration of working in Hollywood but not doing what we want in Hollywood. So since a lot of people can relate to the corporate world and the cubicle life, we set the show in an office place. A lot of the characters are named after my friends. [The main character] Sally is inspired by my experience coming out of college and entering the workplace, with some shades of my girlfriend thrown in. We wanted to find a location where these characters could work, drink and have love lives without moving sets, and an alcohol distribution company seemed like a good fit.

Rebecca: What was your process like in preparation for writing?  Did you do outlines, story grids? How many drafts did you go through?

Sam: One of the other writers, Chris Wu, and I started bouncing emails off each other trying to settle on a setting. Once we came up with Pacific Spirits, we started working on an ensemble of six characters. Once we had them, we knew Sally was our POV character and we broke a story based off her.  We really wanted to make this show a full-length TV pilot, so we wrote the show as a half-hour but in four acts, like the
TV Land show Chris and I were working on together at the time. That way we could split up the story and it’d be like TV act breaks.

Chris and I took maybe three passes at the script, then we sent it to the rest of the writers. They gave us notes, we took another pass, then brought it to the group for a punch up. We put it on a TV screen and went line by line in a room, just like we do on all the shows I’ve been a writers’ assistant on. We then had a table read with the actors, which led to another rewrite, and then we had a run thru on a stage, which led to the shooting draft. We tried to mimic the sitcom production schedule as much as possible. We had about eight or ten drafts all in.

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The Grinders
From L to R: Front – Ali, Violet, Jessica, Aurora. Back: Andrew, Sam, Chris and Greg. (Not Pictured: Jonathan).

Rebecca: What was it like in your writers’ room? How was the experience of creating your own writers’ room?

Sam: Creating a writers’ room was the reason we put this project together. We tried to run it just like it’s run on shows where the rule is to “yes and” other people’s pitches. The experience was the most rewarding part of the process. It’s amazing how one writer can take one aspect of one character, take a part of their life, put it in there, and the character not only feels richer but it’s like that part of their story was always there.

The one challenge is that we’re all volunteers so unlike in a writers room where there are executive producers and staff writers, we were all writer-producers. Sometimes that made it difficult to navigate what the best route was, but fortunately we had a great cast and director that helped us stay on path.

Rebecca: Had you produced your own work in the past? What challenges did you encounter when producing this series that you didn’t expect?

Sam: In college, I helped produce a half-hour sitcom for the campus station. Someone else made the pilot and I helped him make three more episodes. I graduated, but he kept making more. He’s now an assistant on a TV show and just got a script.

Anyway, I’ve tried web series before. There was the five-minute pilot three years ago that didn’t make it out of post due to terrible cinematography. There was the three two-minute webisodes I shot with my roommate in our apartment that wasn’t unique enough to stand out. This is the third project in as many years.

The challenges this time were a little larger. One main challenge was that the writers would meet once a week so we had to find a way to collaborate when we weren’t together. Fortunately, one of our writers, Jessica, suggested we use a website called Basecamp and another writer, Violet, created a Dropbox folder early on.

Also, we knew it would be hard to find the right stage space, but then when we did, there were some technical miscommunications that would go under “high class problems.”  Then we had an editor lined up for post, but when he got a paying gig, we had to scramble and find someone else. Also, since we’re an audience show, we had the challenge of filling seats in the theater. Fortunately, we sold out on the day of our taping. Each challenge has helped us better understand our show, our work processes, and how to function better.

Rebecca: You already shot your first episode, yes? What did you budget for, and were you able to stay on budget?

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On set with On The Rocks at the ACME Comedy Theater

Sam: We shot our first episode. We were hoping the budget could be more like $2000, but once we found the theater, it was kind of hard to say no. Our original plan was to rent cameras, build a set, and retrofit a black box theater. ACME [The ACME Comedy Theater] is the most technically advanced 99-seat theater in Los Angeles. They already had a setup that kind of looked like an office. The stage space was a little more expensive than what we were looking for, but they already had a lot of the technology there.

On sitcom shoots, there’s something called a “quad-split” – it’s a TV with all four cameras showing at once. I had no idea how we’d do that on our own, but ACME already had the setup for it. Same with audio – we would’ve had to rent a soundboard in addition to everything else. So no, we were not able to stay on our original budget, but given our needs and the final product, I’m really happy with what we were able to accomplish.

Rebecca: How are you raising funds?  What amount do you need to hit in order to accomplish your goal?

Sam: We’re raising funds through Kickstarter. We thought about some other sites, but Kickstarter had the brand recognition. Our online goal is $20,000, but we really want to raise closer to $30,000. The challenge is as a first-time group, we were not sure what kind of support we would get. So we didn’t want to aim too high, but at the same time, to do the episodes the way we want to, we need to raise a certain amount, especially with taxes and rewards taken out of the pot.

Rebecca: What ways were you able to save money? Are there areas in which you felt you may have overspent?

Sam: We were able to save money on set dressing – our production designer, Fernando, gave me a receipt for the pomegranates he had to get and that was our only expense on set decoration, which is really amazing because I think that’s one part where our show shines.

I think we overspent with the stage space and the cameras. If we had a better idea of how to use the space, we would’ve been able to save some more. Unfortunately, that’s kind of what the pilot process is – a learning experience in which you overspend time and money so that if you do it again and again and again you have a much better idea of how to keep costs and time commitments down.

Rebecca: What inspired you to create your own work, and what advice would you give to others who are thinking of filming their own writing?

Sam: I was working on a writers’ assistant on a TV show and I got kicked out of the room when I pitched a line that eventually made it into the script where I as pitching it. Some shows just don’t care about assistants no matter what they say and that was frustrating. Fortunately, with the internet, I don’t need the permission of someone who’s been writing since the early 1980s on some of the worst seasons of the best shows.

I think anyone who wants to be a television writer should want to film their own writing. In TV, a high-level writer gets a producer title. It’s important to start learning how to talk to the cast and how to think of production elements. But the hardest part is it means you are going to be responsible for the producing. A lot of times it’s just willing a thing to happen. Some times it’s going to come out of your wallet. But if you’ve written spec after spec and you’re hitting a wall, it can be incredibly creatively invigorating to work with a cast and think about production. That kind of rewriting process will help your writing more than just getting another round of notes from a friend. So if you want to take your understanding of filmmaking to the next level, producing your own work is what you need to do.

Rebecca: Is there anything that, looking back, you would have done differently, or that you would keep the same?

Sam: We could always do everything better. I wouldn’t have had the group vote on a premise, because it just slowed us down with a bunch of conflicting opinions. I would’ve found a technical director to help the director manage all the cameras. I would’ve had a back-up editor in place in case something happened and I would’ve saved some of the production budget to pay an editor.

What I would’ve kept the same is the writing staff and the casting process. The staff was so fantastic, from the beginning of the project to the end, there’s no way this could’ve come together without all of their hard work. And we started casting early into the process, which really encouraged us to move forward with production. That momentum, and the idea that we were responsible to another group of people to try and keep this project going, has been very helpful to us in a way that if it were just me or there were no cast, this project probably would not have gotten this far. Crowd-funding is as much about the crowd around you as it is the crowd you’re going out to. And I was really, really lucky to have a great group around me – and I would never change that.

On The Rocks is currently fundraising on Kickstarter.

Also check them out on Facebook and Twitter!

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