Eye-popping money shots sell series

To portray the interior of Hugh Hefner’s original Chicago Playboy Mansion of the 1960s, the producers of the NBC pilot “Playboy” secured the lakefront estate in Evanston, Ill., of Charles G. Dawes (1865-1951), who served as vice president under Calvin Coolidge. They spent three weeks repainting it, redressing it and switching out the furniture. Then, when the day shoot was over, they turned around and restored it to its original state.

Supplemented by a day’s worth of exterior shots of the actual mansion (which was divided into five condos in the ’90s), it makes for a very convincing facsimile of the bachelor playground of the Playboy world, says writer/exec producer Chad Hodge. But if the pilot gets picked up as a series, don’t look for them to re-Hefner the house.

“We would build it on a set,” says Hodge.

Such is the extra effort producers routinely devote to pilots, whether they’re assembling a crowd of football fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium outside Atlanta for CBS’ “Hail Mary,” starring Minnie Driver, or guiding equipment-trucks up narrow mountain roads in Oregon to shoot the mossy cabin lair of the villainous Postman (Tim Bagley) in NBC’s “Grimm.”

Generally, pilots are far more expensive to make on a per-minute basis than the series they’re designed to sell, and most have one or two set pieces that are unusually costly and complex for a TV budget.

In CW pilot “Awakening,” the killer scene is a huge rave party in rural New Jersey in which the show’s race of sexy zombies-who-live-among-us let loose like hipster cannibals. The production was based in Toronto (standing in for New York City), so the producers decided to film the rave in a century-old barn in Pickering, 24 miles outside the Canadian city.

On the day of the shoot in March, temperatures dipped down to an unseasonable minus-2 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than move to an indoor location, the producers brought in propane heaters, along with parkas for the 80 scantily clad extras to wear between shots. But it still wasn’t enough to eliminate the chill.

“Within the first half-hour, hypothermia is beginning to set in with your poor cast,” says William Laurin, who created and executive-produced “Awakening” with longtime writing partner Glenn Davis. “They’re turning vaguely blue. But when you’re a zombie, the blue skin actually makes the makeup more dramatic,” he laughs.

The money and effort expended on showcase scenes such as these can seem like a big waste if a pilot doesn’t get picked up, which why networks sometimes go straight to series, as ABC is doing with its new globe-trotting show “Missing,” starring Ashley Judd, which is scheduled to begin shooting its full-season, 10-episode order in the Czech Republic, Croatia and Istanbul in May.

“To fly over there and set everything up and make a pilot and come back, it would’ve cost half the budget of the entire season,” says “Missing” creator/executive producer Gregory Poirier.

Pilots on Location
Tax credits driving shows to hit road | Producers pay premium for first-time glitz | The lure of incentives | Watering holes and other location delights
2011 Upfronts

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