In June, the Moscow Film School offered an intensive course entitled: "TV series formats and their direction." Especially for the course the director, producer and screenwriter Paul Lazarus
("Murder, She Wrote," "Baywatch," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place," "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond, "" Ugly Betty, "" Who's Samantha?" and others) came to Moscow from Los Angeles for a week. On the last day of teaching, he shared his impressions of the experience.
What are your impressions of working with your Russian students?
In my group there were students with different levels of experience. There was a very experienced and well-known producer, there were also those who had never filmed anything for television. In addition, all the students came from different areas — there were not only producers, but also writers —quite good ones, by the way. I tried to make sure that my course was unerstandable and relevant to each one of them. I worked with each individual depending on their experience: someone who already knew about producing could miss some initial steps, whereas the newcomers had to go from the very beginning.
The students were very engaged and showed great enthusiasm, and in six days we were able to absorb the key formats of TV production in the US: 30-minute sitcoms, hour-long dramas and comedies shot on one camera. For each of the series forms I allocated one day. We were assisted by current acting students from the School, and with their help, I showed everyone how to shoot different types of series. I have worked in TV for almost 25 years and I tried to put all my experience in these 6 days. Obviously this was extremely difficult to do, especially because we had a language barrier. But prior to the begining of the course I had developed this specific programme over two months, and I think that I coped with the task.
I am glad that the students could shoot their pitch scenes for series, and was satisfied with the result. In my opinion, my students created very high quality and potentially successful products. On the final day, we held a presentation — as if we had started selling our TV series. I am convinced that the most reliable way to understand everything about television production is to try to sell the content you have created. To come up with an original idea and then sell it is the toughest thing to do in the industry. Especially if you want your show to last for more than one season. Each speaker had 10 minutes, including time for translation. I asked each of them what they were going to do with the characters in the second season. One pitcher suggested a story about a group of people who are involved in a secret government programme and do not know that actually they are being prepared to be sent to Mars. What will happen in the second season? They'll be sent to Mars! They were not aware of it, and suddenly at the end of the season they are told that they are flying on this space mission. In my opinion, this is a very interesting move!
The students came to you from different areas and with different life and professional experience, but is there anything that they had in common?
Of course. The desire to understand the structure of TV in the US. In America, TV content production is currently at a very high level. Movies have lost originality — all the fun is happening on television. And my students, without exception, want to understand what this is connected to. Today, the best minds in the industry — the writers, producers, directors — have switched from film and theatre to television. The best plays are currently put on television, and you can find the best scripts there too, plus the best actors. I do not know why this has happened, but it's a fact. There is no doubt that a role in this was played by the development of the Internet and the problems connected with the film industry.
How much fundamental difference is there today between television and web content?
We all see that the boundary between TV and the Internet is gradually disappearing. There are many, especially young people, that do not have a TV at home these days. Everybody uses computers. And I think we won't have to wait long until the line between the two methods of content delivery will disappear altogether. Internet is too good and there is no real alternative to it. It is a readily available source of TV content, movies and everything else besides. Services such as Netflix are probably the way of the future. And the main thing that each of us understands today is that if you have a good idea, then you can bring it to a very wide range of professionals and potential audience, and it does not have to be broadcast on TV.
What do you advise to those who have taken your course and want to develop further?
I always give everyone the same advice: the best way to learn how something is done is to do it yourself. Write and shoot short films, write the pilot for a series, shoot a few scenes — maybe it won't be with the coolest camera around, but just do it! I think too many people sit around and do nothing or speculate and talk about doing something instead of actually getting up and doing it. I forced my students to shoot 3 scenes for a television series, and it was not easy: you need actors, equipment, a location and so on. But we did it, watched the results, and I can say that it turned out very well indeed. I think that these eight students have already made a very important step.