By Robin Rowe
Ugly Betty executive producer Silvio Horta brings a fresh interpretation to a classic Cinderella story. The ABC hour-long dramedy crosses between drama and comedy as easily as it does the absurdly chic New York office of the fashion magazine where Betty works and Betty’s simple home life in Queens with her widowed father, outspoken sister and young nephew.
In its freshman season, Ugly Betty won Golden Globes for best comedy series and best actress in a comedy for America Ferrera. It went on to grab 11 nominations at the 2007 Primetime Emmy Awards in the comedy categories, the most of any comedy series, winning for casting, direction and best actress for Ferrera.
Not bad for a show that barely made it on the air.
Based on the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty la Fea, the Americanized Betty wasn’t an obvious winner. It was originally scheduled for the television hinterland of Friday night, but ABC moved it into the leadoff position on Thursday night, ahead of Grey’s Anatomy.
The show’s 2006 premiere did so well that ABC picked up a full order. Now in its second season, the Ugly Betty faces the expectations of being a hit show.
Below the Line talked with Horta about the show’s production challenges.
Below the Line: When you joined Ugly Betty you had just done the pilot for Westside. Why did Ugly Betty make it and Westside not?
Silvio Horta: I loved Westside, so I was disappointed when it didn’t go forward. It was a campy, soapy drama with crazy characters. In retrospect, not a bad warm-up for Ugly Betty. I love all my babies equally, so I really couldn’t say why Westside didn’t make it. For Ugly Betty, we had a lot of things going for us. We had a telenovela with a built-in international audience. We had Salma Hayek and her producing partner, Pepe Tamez, backing us and supporting us and keeping us in the news. We had the tremendous producing team of Ben Silverman and Teri Weinberg, who have now been snatched up to head NBC. We had some of the best casting of series regulars on TV today. You really couldn’t ask for a better lead than America Ferrera. And then, of course, we had the good fortune of critical recognition. We were originally slated for 8 p.m. on Fridays, and all the good buzz got us moved to Thursday … right before Grey’s Anatomy.
BTL: You created and wrote for two television shows before Ugly Betty, right?
Horta: The Chronicle was about a tabloid newspaper covering sensational and supernatural storylines, the twist being that the stories were all true. That was for the Sci Fi Network. Then for the UPN Network I created Jake 2.0, a drama about an average guy who, after his brain is infected with nanotechnology, puts his new superpowers to work as a spy for the government. Compared to Ugly Betty, both of these shows had smaller budgets and bigger obstacles to overcome. As a result, every contributor was a key player in making these shows happen — from the networks and studios who championed the projects, to all the crewmembers who worked so hard.
BTL: Did anyone come along with you to Ugly Betty?
Horta: I’ve tried to work with some of the same people throughout my career. Chris Gorham, who played Jake, is now Henry on Ugly Betty. Shawn Paper, who edited Jake 2.0, is a co-producer at Ugly Betty.
BTL: How do you prepare each episode?
Horta: There’s a tremendous amount of planning that goes into every episode, and a great deal of credit goes to our producers [executive producer and director] Jim Hayman, [co-executive producer] Richard Heus and [supervising producer and director] Victor Nelli, for coordinating it all and bringing the written page to life.
BTL: Ugly Betty has two showrunners. How is work divided between you and Marco Pennette?
Horta: Marco and I try to split up the tasks as evenly as we can. We actually divide our writers into two rooms, in order to break stories and punch up scripts at the same time. We’re kind of a hybrid between a one-hour drama and a traditional sitcom, so it really helps to have two rooms working on different things. There’s so much to be done with every episode that our writers often have to don their producers’ hats as well — lead concept meetings with department heads, talk about costumes, sets, guest casting.
BTL: How is the show scheduled?
Horta: My job is to arc out the stories for the series, to set up the season. The production schedule, that’s up to the AD. The assistant directors set what we schedule, when we shoot. We have our Jim Hayman and Victor Nelli to cover production. My focus is on writing, preproduction and post.
BTL: How do you pick your directors?
Horta: We have two in-house directors: Jim Hayman and Victor Nelli. Jim was someone who understood the show and came in at the beginning. Victor was a guest director who stood out last year. We still have guest directors. We try to do as many shows as we can with in-house directors on-set to keep the tone consistent.
BTL: How did you pick your DP?
Horta: We chose Ross Berryman as DP after going on a quest looking at reels.
BTL: What locations do you use for shooting?
Horta: We shoot at Raleigh and sometimes in downtown LA to get the feel of New York. We’ll use any number of bars, restaurants and parks for the out of the way places.
BTL: Where are the editors located and what’s their workflow?
Horta: They’re on the same lot. The editing is like the final polish on the script. The editors [David Dworetzky and Jennifer Pulver] do their own editors’ cut, then the director’s cut, then it goes to producers. Co-producer Shawn Paper gives a lot of notes to the editors. Then I give notes. Shawn was an editor on the show the first season who was promoted to co-producer and this year has edited a couple shows.
BTL: What visual effects do you have on the show? Do you have your own visual effects department or an outside company?
Horta: We do a lot of city stuff to set up Queens. And, we use visual effects for cool transitions. We have an in-house effects group and use Stargate Digital. We like doing visual effects in-house for Ugly Betty because it’s quicker. That’s something we started doing at the beginning of this season. We still use Stargate Digital, too. Keri Young is our visual effects supervisor.
BTL: How did you get your start?
Horta: I was an NYU Film School grad who decided to just take the plunge, move out to LA without any real job prospects or connections to speak of. I took any job I could find, including spritzing cologne for a department store. I was able to get some meetings from the one spec script that I had at the time, but the script that really started my career was Urban Legend. The timing was perfect because horror films were suddenly big again, and nobody had really done anything about the topic of urban legends. You very rarely hear about people having a good experience with a first script, but mine was bought, shot, and premiered all within two years. I think that based on the horror film, I was considered a genre guy for a while, and that’s how I ended up doing those science-fictiony shows.
BTL: How has the business of creating TV shows changed?
Horta: The business is always changing, but more and more it seems that creating a successful new show is like catching lightning in a bottle. The viewing audience has become more fickle, there are more choices, and if a show doesn’t come blazing out of the gate, networks are less likely to give them a chance. As shows become more expensive to make, expectations become higher, ratings become more important. Cheers and Seinfeld were both low-rated shows when they started. In today’s environment, they might not have lasted past episode two. Like I said, a hit show today is lightning in a bottle.
Written by Robin Rowe