Trusting the writer. Serial Eyes alumni report on their apprenticeship at Big Light Productions

Every year Big Light Pro­duc­tions (BLP), the pro­duc­tion com­pany headed by Frank Spot­nitz that is behind hit shows includ­ing The Man in the High Castle, Medici: Mas­ters of Florence, and most recently Leonardo, offers a three-month appren­tice­ship to one Seri­al Eyes par­ti­cipant. Since 2017 four lucky gradu­ates joined Frank and his team in Lon­don: Ruddy Wil­li­ams Kabuiku, Bar­bara Kron­en­berg, Ele­onora Ven­inova and Nadya Todorova. Seri­al Eyes Pro­gram Coördin­at­or Fed­er­ica Loddo recently met up with the appren­tices and asked them about their exper­i­ences at BLP.

Q – How did you like your appren­tice­ship at Big Light? 

Nadya – It was very fun! I par­ti­cip­ated in many meet­ings, cast­ings and feed­back ses­sions with writers. This was par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing, as it gave me the chance to be on the oth­er side of the table for the first time. I was also giv­en a lot of scripts to read and books to exam­ine, and I did a lot of research on many top­ics. Des­pite the fact that my appren­tice­ship took place online in the middle of a pan­dem­ic, it was very busy and very social. We even played lock­down quizzes! I had reg­u­lar catch-ups with cre­at­ive dir­ect­or Emily Feller, who made sure I was kept busy, but the whole team was very sup­port­ive and encour­aging. I really felt part of the team.

Ele­onora – My exper­i­ence was sim­il­ar to Nady­a’s, even if it wasn’t online. I remem­ber research­ing a lot of crime stor­ies from North­ern Ire­land because that was the broadcaster’s focus at that time. It was very inter­est­ing to see the dynam­ics in a pro­duc­tion com­pany in the stage of devel­op­ment. 

Bar­bara – I was in two writers’ rooms: a female writers’ room where we were look­ing for new stor­ies to devel­op and in the room for the show Leonardo. There were three writers, two script edit­ors, one assist­ant and I. It was a lively room with many excel­lent dis­cus­sions. Frank was very open and inter­ested in every­one’s opin­ion, and the atmo­sphere was good through­out.

Ruddy – I was in the writers’ room for the show they had in pre­par­a­tion back then, and we were three – the writer, the script edit­or and me. We mostly worked on the pilot and on the gen­er­al arc for the sea­son. It was an inter­est­ing pro­cess to observe, because it was abso­lutely writer-ori­ented. It was about the writers’ vis­ion. I also atten­ded the writers’ room for Medici, and the dynam­ics was very dif­fer­ent, because the show was already in motion. We were dis­cuss­ing and plot­ting the single epis­odes. I could also attend meet­ings with big net­works, utterly an enlight­en­ing exper­i­ence for a writer.

Q – What did you take away from those net­work meet­ings?

Ruddy – The way they oper­ate is inter­est­ing: they state facts, give very pre­cise feed­back with respect to the project’s feas­ib­il­ity and their interest in a top­ic or demo­graph­ics. But they nev­er tried to tell you how the story should be or what the writer is sup­posed to write.

Nadya – Gen­er­ally speak­ing, writers in the UK seem to be giv­en more free­dom and trust than in oth­er coun­tries. Pro­du­cers are dram­at­ur­gic­ally trained, and that makes a world of dif­fer­ence when they give notes to writers. My col­leagues at BLP nev­er imposed their ideas on writers, they’d rather just ask them to rethink. They showed huge respect for writers and their work.

Ele­onora – It’s true, but that could be a spe­cial fea­ture of BLP rather than of the UK industry. Hav­ing a writer-pro­du­cer at the head of the com­pany surely helps in estab­lish­ing an envir­on­ment where pro­du­cers must be well equipped in writ­ing.

Q – How does this mod­el reflect on BLP’s work­ing style? 

Bar­bara – BLP is very much involved in the cre­at­ive pro­duc­tion. They’re more focused on the series’ devel­op­ment and writ­ing rather than on the fin­an­cial part. This struc­ture is quite dif­fer­ent from what I knew from Ger­many, where it’s rather unusu­al to have in-house edit­ors.

Ele­onora – They are good at bal­an­cing out the cre­at­ive vis­ion of the writer and the needs of the pro­du­cer. Every pro­du­cer does that obvi­ously, but they’re just bet­ter at put­ting stor­ies in a cer­tain format without los­ing its cre­at­ive integ­rity.

Q – How does the devel­op­ment of a show look like in the real world?

Nadya – Much of what I could observe at BLP, I had learned at Seri­al Eyes. For instance, the feed­back ses­sions with writers. The ques­tions that they were asked were the same I was asked dur­ing the early stages of my pro­ject dur­ing the pro­gram. Now I was watch­ing it hap­pen­ing in real life.

Ele­onora – How to give feed­back, choose and approach a pro­ject, test if a cer­tain idea is mar­ket­able or poten­tially inter­est­ing: that’s def­in­itely some­thing that we learned at Seri­al Eyes, but on the appren­tice­ship you’re on the oth­er side, that of the pro­duc­tion. Being on the oth­er side always gives you a much bet­ter per­spect­ive on the whole pro­cess.

Nadya – The devel­op­ment pro­cess is very dif­fer­ent from show to show. One pro­ject star­ted with a story someone read and for which they acquired the rights. For anoth­er pro­ject they aimed at work­ing with sev­er­al writers, and star­ted research­ing stor­ies that could work well for them. But they also start pro­jects sub­mit­ted by someone through their agent.

Q – What did you learn from this exper­i­ence in terms of work eth­ic?

Bar­bara – Don’t be afraid to say your opin­ion. This is some­thing very spe­cial. BLP’s work eth­ic is def­in­itely char­ac­ter­ized by par­ti­cip­a­tion.

Nadya – Yes, every­one’s opin­ion mat­ters, as you don’t know where the good idea can come from. They listen to every­one, which is very refresh­ing and very encour­aging.

Q – How does a typ­ic­al work­ing day look like at BLP?

Ele­onora – I was quite flex­ible in how I could organ­ize my work there, as long as I main­tained the dead­lines. So, it was up to me to decide wheth­er to start doing some research, or read scripts.

Ruddy – In my exper­i­ence it was dif­fer­ent, because at that time writers’ rooms were tak­ing place. In the morn­ing, I would mostly read scripts and books, while in the after­noon I was in the rooms. In my case it was pretty struc­tured.

Ele­onora – Every couple of weeks they also held a devel­op­ment slate meet­ing, in which they update each oth­er on all the pro­jects run­ning. Every­one in the com­pany is briefed on every pro­ject. This was a great way to keep every­body in the loop about what’s hap­pen­ing.

Q – How did this exper­i­ence impact your career?

Bar­bara – In Ger­many people are curi­ous about my exper­i­ence. They ask a lot of ques­tions. BLP is a pres­ti­gi­ous com­pany, and nat­ur­ally people are curi­ous. But I would say that the biggest impact occurred at the indi­vidu­al level – the les­sons I took with me, both on pro­ject devel­op­ment and on a mar­ket oth­er than the Ger­man, are most valu­able. I was also very lucky and got very detailed feed­back on my Seri­al Eyes pro­ject “Me, Myself and Who?” for which I have received devel­op­ment fund­ing. 

Ruddy – The appren­tice­ship at BLP was a huge call­ing card on my CV, and it opened the doors to many meet­ings here in France. But it was a double-edged sword: watch­ing a com­pany work­ing so well with writers, and then hav­ing to come back to a more pro­du­cer-ori­ented vis­ion was bit­ter­sweet!

Q – What are you work­ing on now?

Ele­onora – I’m edit­ing my first fea­ture film, which I shot in the sum­mer. It is fun to see how much the edit­ing pro­cess is influ­enced by my train­ing in show devel­op­ment. I’m rearran­ging the struc­ture, which is non-lin­ear, and many tech­niques from the TV series world come very handy.

Bar­bara – My first fea­ture Mis­sion Ulja Funk just premiered at Ber­linale. I then imme­di­ately star­ted in a writers’ room for a series pro­ject, which I will partly dir­ect, too.

Ruddy – I’m cur­rently work­ing with author Tania de Mon­taigne on a pro­ject optioned by Mer­cer Pro­duc­tion. The show is called Black Gold, and it’s a 6x52’ his­tor­ic­al action drama about slavery abol­i­tion in France.

Nadya – I’m work­ing on my Seri­al Eyes pro­ject, which got optioned by a Ger­man com­pany, and I’m also devel­op­ing a fea­ture film with an Itali­an com­pany.