The first challenge involved with Big Time in Hollywood, FL was that the creators, Dan Schimpf and Alex Anfanger, conceived the show as ten episodes telling one story. In other words, it is a serial. That seems like a simple choice of exposition. It is not. It means Big Time is like one very long movie. Perfect for binge watching, difficult to shoot. The writers have to understand the whole. The actors have to know their entire arc.
Even though Aristotle wrote over two thousand years ago, his ideas from the Poetics are still very much with us today – even in television. Stories are unified by time, place, and action.
Most comedies manage this by having a cast of “regulars.” In the lingo of an actor, this means you get paid – a lot. After you are a regular on a series for a few years you can spend the rest of your life participating in Pro-Am golf tournaments. Having regulars on a sit-com creates the illusion you are telling the same story. Episodes on regular comedy shows don’t have to truly be unified by action. Cause does not have to have an effect. Whatever you do in Episode One does not have to change what happens in Episode Six.
That is not the case when you tell one story. The motivating factor in Big Time becomes the same as we have in life: consequences. Consequences drive us through our day, enroll us in exercise classes, make us decide if we are going to eat that donut, make us decide to lie or tell the truth.
The advantage this gives Big Time in Hollywood, FL is that even though the plot may seem to be a giant construct always on the verge of spinning out of control, the motivation is simplicity itself. It is one lie. One lie told in the first episode that creates the horrific and hilarious twists and turns throughout the entire series.
The delightful side effect of this is that no matter how chaotic the show gets, on some level we sense it is true. Our lives spin out of control the same way: one trip to the store to get a mango, one dog we discover in our back yard, one conversation with a friend about tomatoes—and everything changes.
The second challenge Big Time in Hollywood, FL presented was a practical one. How do you shoot it? Television shows never have the time or money to do what they need to do. When they do get the money they need, like on Deadwood, they’re usually cancelled.
To accommodate the physical limits of the series we had to cross-board the show. “Cross-boarding” means you don’t shoot the episodes in order. You shoot everything that takes place in the living room today. Everything in the bedroom tomorrow regardless as to what episode it is.
Dan directed almost the whole series so he took on the job of keeping the narrative straight for us. Before each scene he would remind us – this is after a car wreck, this before the knife fight, this is after you get the phone call…and on and on.
As actors our job was different than usual. We didn’t just have to be aware of what we were about to shoot, but we looked ahead to future episodes to see if there were any lasting effects of this scene that would pop up. We also were constantly reviewing what we did weeks before to make sure what we were doing made sense.
In the end Dan and Alex had a giant jigsaw puzzle to assemble. It took months. From what I have seen the results are remarkably seamless. It is almost impossible to see that the beginning and end of a scene may have been shot weeks apart.
Despite living in a state of constant low-level confusion for almost four months, this was an actor’s dream. Many acting teachers speak of the necessity of “knowing your subtext.” That means know what various events in a scene mean to you in all ways: conscious and unconscious. Know their history. Know the fears and hopes you have surrounding an event. In Big Time, the odds were we just had a scene about the conscious and the unconscious before lunch.
You never know in any acting venture if you will achieve success, either artistically or commercially. So what do you hope for? You hope to learn something new. You hope to end up with a good story. And as actors you hope to have a chance to tell the truth. Whether you do it for one moment, or you do it for seven years, depends on luck. If you do it with people you care for and respect, that’s all the luck you need.