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.