Digital series… web series…this new format has been produced, reviewed and explored since 2000. Quibi is making them popular. The Emmys® have recognized them since 2011. My series “The Salon,“ finished during the COVID-19 pandemic, joins the ranks of a 2020 digital series for your consideration for the category: “Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama” Emmy® Award for 2020.
My learning curve
I need to say that this format is new to me as a filmmaker. I have produced and directed Emmy®-nominated MOW’s and Independent film. At the college and universities at which I teach, I head the short form documentary programs and web series development and production. I was trained by Francis Ford Coppola and come from a classical dance and theatre background. But, this was a new experience for me- life in the digital world!
Harry Shearer and Kate Linder convinced me we should take our award-winning Cannes Short Film Corner film “A Couple of White Chicks at the Hairdresser” to series, this was the perfect format to use. After all, with all the new steaming platforms, there was renewed interest in “White Chicks.” It had been the Movie of the Week pick for Shorts International Network on Direct TV and Frontier and the Oscar pick for Largo’s streaming service , SOFYTV.
I had been talking about taking the film to series for years. Well the “time has come the Walrus said.” Being who I am, having the push from the actors who promised to recreate their roles in the series, was all I needed. The Messina Captor producing machine went into full force.
I have found that for studio features, independent films, short form or series, the process for producing projects remains the same. The only difference is budget. The lower the budget, the more creative and enterprising one needs to be. As Sam Rubin, KTLA’s Entertainment Reporter who has a cameo role in “The Salon”remarked, “The story here is how you pulled on every avenue of your life to get this series made.”
First… you need a script!
First, I needed to get the script written and finished. We knew we wanted to try for an Emmy nomination, so we needed six episodes not any longer than 15 minutes each.
I had ideas on paper but it always helps to toss them around with a friend. Over coffee with my Social Media PR woman, Louise Sattler, we riffed. Louise went into “work mode” and had a web site constructed in her head and on paper before our coffee was over.
Reality is …
This is where I need to say, we were on a TIGHT budget. Let’s just say NO budget.
I always believe in hiring great, talented people and giving them credits that takes them to the next level. My classes from Santa Monica College (SMC) became my mother lode. I was writing, directing and producing, but I knew I would need help. The producers, Lori Glascow and Anthony Nex, who came from my class, are professionals in other fields. Louise also took on a producing role. Other key positions also were SMC advanced students from my classes or from my classes at Emerson LA or UCLA.
Location! Location! Location!
The script is finished and we needed a location and a timetable. Our first location is a new salon in El Segundo, Ca. It was perfect. We worked out times we could shoot there when they were closed. As a new salon, Louise was going to give them the much-needed PR in exchange for using the location. This is very important…low budget means barter, barter, barter.
Lori and Anthony were working on permits and parking for cast and crew. The city and Film LA issue permits. It is a paper-heavy process and can be expensive and time consuming.
Challenges of Casting
I focused on casting. How does this happen when you cannot afford a casting director? You call every actor you know that would be right for the roles. Remember, we have NO budget, so the actors were working on a SAG deferred payment contract. Some actors passed for this reason. Others said yes and then closer to production time said, “No”. It happens. Actors fall in and out of projects. In the long, laborious casting process, it is always this way. In the end I got the best of the best for this ensemble cast.
I did have the help of famed casting director Risa Bramon Garcia. I had not seen or talked to Risa since she produced a series of one act plays for Showtime for which I directed Hal Linden in the Vincent Canby play “After All.” That was in the late 90’s.
The internet is a glorious thing. I found Risa. Talked to her and without missing a step found two of my wonderful and talented actors, Akende Munalula and Chala Savino.
I knew Jeanette Connor from the Television Academy receptions. She is a wonderful actress and offers Screenwork workshop for actors to get their work in front of casting directors. I had met her in the late 80’s when I performed at her workshop. Jeanette came on board as an actress and casting consultant. She found our salon ladies, Gail Beardon and Jennifer Lee Weaver.
Diversity was key
I knew I wanted a diverse cast. Louise suggested a Deaf actor, Eddie Buck. I was very impressed with his work. Eddie became a member of the ensemble and I wrote this part for a Deaf actor. When someone is a good actor, it does not matter if there is a communication challenge. I found myself directing Eddie many times without using the ASL Interpreter. Simply, he became “actor Eddie” with my forgetting he was deaf.
It was important that the ensemble cast were all “A List” actors who had been on prime-time television. I met Luis Jose Lopez when we both had films in the San Pedro Film Festival. Luis was in. He introduced me to Vanessa Garcia. She said “yes.”
Louise recommended social media influencer Candy Washington. I met Derek Warburton at a lunch. We hit it off immediately. I told him we were in pre- production on the series and he offered help. Help! Great! But I want you in the series. Be yourself. Derek introduced me to Mason Grammer and we were off. Sam Rubin was an acquaintance. I contacted him, he read the script and said “YES!”
The crew is key
At the same time, I was putting together key crew positions. Most came from my classes at SMC. However, our wonderful costume designer, Caroline Skubik, I met through Deborah Landis, who is head of the costume department at UCLA. I met Deborah through Coppola. Caroline worked with the actors to use their own clothes. This means coordinating color and style for the overall look. Pam Temmen came on board as the production coordinator. Pam and I became friends through Terry Semel, former Chairman of Yahoo and Warner Bros. Studio, who she works for.
Lori handled the SAG contracts. No easy task. In this same time our location fell out. The owners decided that they should be paid regular location fees. This can go as high as 10,000 per day. Well, now we are scrambling. Anthony, a professional photographer, came through with his studio in Culver City. In the end, this was a blessing. Anthony has a beautiful studio, with a kitchen and dressing rooms. The big change was for our production designer, Cassidy Steele, who now had to build the set and not just dress it. Pam came through with donated product from Matrix where her cousin worked. This was a big savings because renting props from a prop house is expensive.
Now, I’m writing and rewriting for confirmed cast and change in location. The real advantage being the writer, director and producer is you can make changes on the spot. And I did!
Meanwhile Louise headed up and enlisted the help of her women’s group and neighbors. They helped with craft services, served as extras in the series and key make-up and hair people. Louise had another client who were caterers. As we all know production runs on its stomach. The food was now taken care of.
Since we could only use the studio one weekend, I needed to find another location. SMC has a cosmetology department. I met with the chairperson and she gave us full use of the department on weekends when there were no classes. Again, someone up there loves us…I think. We agreed to use SMC cosmetology students for hair and make-up. They would get credit and if they wanted to, could be extras in the series as hairstylists. Louise found additional hair and make-up stylists from the LA Cosmetology School.
With these elements in place, the schedule was finally in place. It had been constantly changing as the locations changed. We needed to finalize shooting days for the SAG contracts. We would shoot Friday-Sunday one weekend in October in the studio and the following Sunday. The next weekend, we worked Saturday at SMC.
I should talk a little about budget. Although, crew was working for credit, locations were donated; actors were on a SAG deferred contract there are always expenses. And the expenses add up. So, if you decide to take on a project like this, know you are going to go into your savings. Nothing in film or television or digital comes 100% free. But if you believe in your project, it is worth it.
One of the hardest things to find was the actual salon stations. They are very expensive to rent. Pam scoured Craig’s List and found stations at salons that were closing. We negotiated a good price. Paid the delivery service to go and pick them up. When the service got to the salon, it was locked up. I called. I was told the woman I was speaking with was just a broker. The owners had found another buyer for more money.
I was furious and hysterical. We had an email contract. Dejected, I was looking at a rental for the weekend of $9,000. After a sleepless night, I got a call from the broker. The other deal had fallen through, would I like the stations for free. I did not trust these people at this time, so I said, “Anthony and I will be at the studio on Sunday at 3. If you get the stations there then I will take them. I am not paying the delivery service again.” Sunday at 3, the stations arrived and where stacked in the studio. Hurrah!
Filming went very smoothly. Our cast, many of who are social media influencers kept us in the public eye. We had 73 million impressions during shooting. We had professionals donate their time to help out. Griffin Nex, our Director of Photography, needed grip and electrical help. Lori’s husband, Marcus, a professional DP, came in and lent a hand. My husband became a clapper. I always believe in a harmonious set. This comes from respect. Our set was hardworking and fun!
Shooting is over and now the real work starts. Like we were resting before!?! My professional editor from my class at Emerson LA got a new job and was not able to continue working on “The Salon.”. The process for finding a new editor was laborious and long. We were on a tight schedule. Our deadline was the Emmy submission.
This is were my long-time editor and friend Rita K. Sanders came in. She put the word out. Many editors and assistants were booked. Little did anyone predict that only four months later the town would be completely closed down!
Sunghwan Moon, an assistant editor on “Jane the Virgin” and other CW Network shows, came on board. Sung was a gift. He brought in VFX artist, Jaqgravan Sananikone. Manuel Rivas, who was our production sound, served as post sound. Manuel found us our Color Correction woman Angelica Reyes Escribano.
Judith Owen, Harry Shearer’s wife and brilliant composer, singer and songwriter donated her original music. Judith had donated the music for “A Couple of White Chicks at the Hairdresser”. Her continued involvement was essential.
Originally, a post production house designed credits for the series. These were not very good, so, Erick Zarate, one of my students redid them in two hours at SMC. I have newfound respect for post-production supervisors. I was doing the job, with Sung’s help. This is a job I never want to do again! Coordinating all the different departments, making sure their work is on time and gotten to the editor when he needs it and as the director making the creative decisions was exhausting and stressful.
Just as we were getting close to finishing, I had two major deadlines…Emmy nomination deadlines and Sung was going to a new job. Boom! Pandemic! This is when I learned that in the world of Internet one can do most of the post by Google drive, We Transfer and File Mail. We did not need to sit in an editing bay together. What would have happened if Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates had not developed the programs and technology they did in the mid 70’s.
So, we were one of the first series to be completed during the COVID-19 pandemic!
Actress Mason Grammer was a special surprise in the series. Her first acting job right out of high school. She was honest and delightful. I’ve decided that when we expand the series, Mason will have a more integral role. She will be the POV of the audience to bring them into the rarified world of “The Salon.”
Let the competition begin!
We are now submitted for the Emmys®. We are going out to distributors. Mason helped us get the attention of her father, Kelsey Grammer. He recently joined us as an Executive Producer along with his partner Tom Russo.
This is just another step in the process….each one a journey of trials and tribulations. Would I do it again? OF COURSE!!!
FYC 2020 EMMY® For Your Consideration link subject to the uploading by the Television Academy on or before June 25, 2020