When “The Good Wife” executive producer Robert King looks over the horizon in the Brooklyn neighborhood where his legal drama’s interior sets reside, he can see the bluescreen that HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” uses to add the ocean to its bustling outdoor Atlantic City boardwalk scenes.
“I just think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have something outside where we could put up a big greenscreen?’ ” King muses. “But I get it with a period drama. I don’t know how they do it on the budget they have.”
The reported $19 million “Boardwalk” spent on the pilot alone is enough to make any showrunner envious, but it’s all a matter of perspective for the six dramas nominated for Emmys this year: “Good Wife,” “Dexter,” “Friday Night Lights” “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men.”
“We’re always racing the clock to put out episodes, and you have almost no time to reflect,” King continues. “The budgeting concern is about time even more than money.”
Even for productions with HBO-sized budgets, producers and showrunners always want a little more.
“The appetite grows. There’s never enough money,” says “Boardwalk Empire” co-executive producer Gene Kelly. “You’re always going to want to be more ambitious than the box that you allow people to play in.”
The key for any show is choosing the right scene or element on which to splurge.
“It’s all about allocating resources and recognizing our strengths and weaknesses,” says “Game of Thrones” executive producer David Benioff. “We’ll never be able to match Peter Jackson when it comes to pitting massive armies against one another in a pitched battle. But we can spend a great deal of time with our characters, so that … the combat doesn’t have to rely on visual effects.”
Tapping into a production’s strengths means going against common TV wisdom for “Friday Night Lights” executive producer Jason Katims. Although building sets and amortizing the expense season to season is the easiest way for a show to ensure cost savings, Katims decided in the show’s early days to shoot entirely on location in Austin, Texas, with handheld cameras.
“We had six-day schedules for the last two seasons of the show, so that was a huge way of controlling costs,” Katims says. “We all knew that one of the ways that we were able to stay on the air for as long as we did was to do it for a price.”
Although Katims was able to save money with simple shoots on location, Benioff says his production’s larger budget went to lensing the elaborate fantasy epic in multiple locations.
“We shot in two countries for the first season,” Benioff says. “We’ll shoot in three for the second season: in old-growth forests, on rocky beaches, by seaside cliffs, in an ancient walled city, on a glacier just below the Arctic Circle. We inherited a huge world from George Martin, and we never could have done that world justice shooting in Burbank.”
While King admits his show doesn’t have the same breadth as neighboring New York-based “Boardwalk Empire,” he says “Good Wife” has hidden benefits for shooting in the Big Apple when it comes to signing guest stars.
“You suddenly have actors who are held captive to you because they’re doing a play in New York, and we work around their play schedule to get them,” King says. “So you can get better actors and not bust your budget.”
Kelly also finds that the faces in the crowd are better in New York.
“We get so much value out of the costumes and the faces,” Kelly says. “That was why ‘Boardwalk’ could only be shot in New York: the availability of the extras, the various ethnic faces that you get in the population pool here.”
Whether re-creating a historical time period or giving viewers a sense of realism in the present day, a show has to live within its means creatively and budgetarily.
“The thing I want more than anything else is to make it to ‘The End,’ ” says “Game of Thrones” executive producer D.B. Weiss. “And for us to make it to ‘The End,’ the show needs to be sustainable. If the show collapses under its own weight, we won’t get there. So it’s about finding the right balance — providing the scale and scope that people come to the show for, and doing it in a way that lets us keep doing it until we get to ‘The End.’ ”
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