Left to right: Ryan Patrick McGuffey, Damon Lindelof and Des Doyle.
J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Damon Lindelof (Lost) and countless others shift from behind the scenes to become the focus of a new documentary, Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show. The doc offers numerous first-hand accounts of what it takes to get a TV show on the air and features a backstory that is almost as equally fascinating. Director Des Doyle and Co-Producer Ryan Patrick McGuffey, both natives of Ireland, sat down recently to discuss the arduous journey of bringing this film to life. For anyone who has ever truly pursued the dream of making a film, they know it comes with costs attached. "The lucky thing about being a first-time director is that naiveté can make you unaware of just how big a challenge you've set yourself," says Doyle with a hearty chuckle.
"For my first film, I wanted to tell the story of the people who wrote and created one of the things I love most in life: American TV dramas and comedies. I had been fascinated by the role of the showrunner for many years and had voraciously read or watched everything I could about them," Doyle adds. "But frustratingly we couldn't find anyone asking them the questions that I really wanted answers to, which were more about the specifics of the job itself and less about the shows they made. So we decided to try and make the film I wanted to see: the showrunners story in their own words".
What resulted was a four-year odyssey that changed both men's lives. "Up until then I had worked as a Camera Assistant in the Irish film industry and had carved out a successful career there. To fully embrace making the film I wanted to would mean gambling with that career by relocating to L.A. on a semi-permanent basis for extended time periods and taking a major financial hit as low-budget documentaries don't come with big Director's fees. There were also personal sacrifices as I ended up spending so much time in L.A. that my previous life and friends in Ireland became more and more difficult to stay in touch with," Doyle explains.
McGuffey chimes in: "We knew no one in the TV industry here and no one had ever heard of us. That's a tough starting point when you're asking for a chance to pull back the curtain on the world of some of the most powerful people in entertainment." McGuffey, who previously had a successful career in music working with U2 and later as an actor jokes,
If I had to give myself a title on this project, it would be an 'Accidental Producer.' I say 'accidentally', because anyone who would knowingly set out on a journey like our must be absolutely out of their tree mental. We didn't have the resources to hire another Producer in Los Angeles, so I had to learn rather quickly with the help of close friends who had traveled this road before me, especially Vincent Grashaw over at Coatwolf, who also shot part of Showrunners with us.
Slowly over time -- and perhaps out of piqued curiosity about the Irishmen on a mission -- doors started to crack open and former NBC development executive Christof Bove came onboard as an Executive Producer and helped Doyle and McGuffey make some contacts. "We owe Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) a huge debt for being one of the very first people to allow us an interview and for making it such a good one. That, combined with a small amount of other footage I had, convinced the Irish Film Board to take a gamble on me and financially back the film," Doyle explains.
During the next 18 months, the story grew in the telling. "I had been lucky enough to surround myself with some other like-minded dreamers: John Wallace, the main producer on the film - who was running the ship from Dublin and making everything we tried to do in LA financially possible, Ryan who was constantly trying to pull off miracles with few resources and our EP's Jason Rose and Jimmy Nguyen whose contacts, support and advice were invaluable. We slept on floors or couches and ate pizza or Subway for months because that meant we could afford a sound guy for two days -- or a rental on the lenses I really wanted to use instead," Doyle remembers.
In return for these efforts, small wonders started to occur. "Some of the people we really wanted in the film were saying yes to us and spoke to Des on-camera with a candor and emotional honesty I had not expected -- perhaps because we always tried to have a conversation, not an interview, and because Des was asking them questions they weren't used to being asked," McGuffey explains.
This grew to getting the opportunity to follow some of the biggest names in television through their working days thanks to the support of showrunners like Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies) Steven DeKnight (Spartacus, Daredevil) and Hart Hanson (Bones). McGuffey laughs, "As Hart said once, 'How can I say no to people who survived The Famine and The Troubles?'"
As word spread through the industry about what they were doing, McGuffey and Doyle found new friends to help them achieve their goals. As more doors opened, the neophyte filmmakers shot for the moon and chased Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. "They're two people whose work I admired greatly and, who during their time as showrunners, discovered many new writing and showrunning talents themselves," Doyle says. McGuffey adds "When we got them -- through a mix of karmic intervention and tremendous goodwill on their parts -- I really started to believe that this was meant to happen."
That belief was tested to the core after a year in an edit suite working through nearly 100 hours of footage that Irish editor John Murphy declared the most difficult job he'd ever done because there were too many good people saying too many interesting things. "For guidance, we looked to what the showrunners were telling us in the footage -- Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) spoke about how in his writers' room he had put the words "Be Entertaining" on the whiteboards as a guiding note. So we followed suit in our editing room and those words watched over us throughout the cut," Doyle remembers.
Editing wasn't the only challenge the team faced; "We were running on fumes financially at this stage and had to run a Kickstarter campaign to get us through postproduction. Thankfully, because of the immense kindness of all our friends and supporters -- even some of the showrunners themselves -- more than a thousand fellow TV lovers contributed to make our campaign a success," McGuffey says.
In early 2014, the film was finally finished, with everyone involved exhausted but proud. "We believed we had made a good film that aspiring TV writers and casual TV fans alike could enjoy," Doyle says with a weary smile. "As we watched it with the first audiences at Cannes, San Diego Comic-Con, Edinburgh TV Festival, and most recently, the Austin Film Festival, I felt a huge relief -- they were laughing and crying just where we wanted them to. Most importantly of all, they were enjoying it, even telling us afterward that they were inspired by it. For all of us involved in making this film that has made all the sacrifices worthwhile."
Showrunners is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, DirecTV, Xbox & PlayStation. The tie-in book, Showrunners: The Art of Making a TV Show, by Tara Bennett, is an Amazon.com best-seller.
The film is playing a sold-out show this Sunday, January 18th at 4pm in the Arena Cinema in Hollywood with Showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield) & the filmmakers taking part in a Q&A afterwards. More screenings of the film are in the works and will be announced soon.