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Showrunners Series-Big Love

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Big Love is an unlikely premise for a contemporary drama.
Set in the Mormon homeland of Utah, the acclaimed HBO series follows the Henrickson clan: home-store owner Bill (Bill Paxton), his wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), his second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and his third wife Margene (Ginifer Goodwin). Their polygamist lifestyle no longer condoned by the church, the Henricksons must hide their secret from disapproving outsiders while fending off threats from the controlling leader of the regressive compound that was once Bill’s home.
Now in its second season, creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have delved even deeper in the issues of faith of family. Pulling off a show with a unique visual identity is no easy feat, and so they’ve turned to David Knoller, who began his showbiz careers as an actor, before moving on to producing live TV specials, working as programming exec at American Movie Classics and then onto shows such as Grosse Pointe and HBO’s Carnivale before signing on to Big Love.
Below the Line: How did you end up working on Big Love?
Knoller: I was doing Carnivale and we were shooting literally on the same stages when they first started shooting some of the pilot stuff for Big Love. I had met with Mark and Will and kind of hit off.
BTL: Will and Mark are the creators and Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are credited as executive producers. How do the five of you work together and who’s responsible for what on the show?
Knoller: Ultimately, Mark and Will are responsible for everything across the board, and they’re always in contact with Gary and Tom and conferring with them. I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who helps facilitate the show, whether it’s thematically, of what they think the episode is about or how they visualize it or anything like that. And I try to find the best people, like directors, to help make that happen or I’m meeting with the people on the show who make that happen. That’s kind of the quick snapshot, because Mark and Will are definitely involved in every level of it.
BTL: How did you prep for the second season??
Knoller: We had the first script about eight weeks prior, which is, on a lot of shows, a luxury. We talked a lot about the first year versus the second year and spent a lot of time talking about what worked with the first season and what didn’t work. The guys really wanted to push more story through the episodes, which is a big part of what we’re trying to do. We talked a lot about how a voyeuristic point of view for the camera works really well for the show. Then we used that to kind of work with the DPs and stuff for the second season. We knew we wanted to have Jim Glennon and David Mullen back, and we had Jim start and, as I’m sure you’re aware, he passed away after our first episode. So we had to find who was going to fill in. We luckily had Haskell Wexler call us and he really pinch hit for us after Jim passed.
BTL: How did you prep each episode?
Knoller: The script, we go through with the guys, and we bring on the director about eight days prior to shooting. We try to have a table read the very first day the director is on, so we kind of get to hear the words the first time. Then we get notes from the network, from HBO, and we all kind of sit and talk about what worked and what didn’t. The next day or two, we schedule a tone meeting. We have the editor and the DP and, depending on the particular episode, we’ll have the costume designer and the production designer in there. We’ll try to talk about what the guys are looking for, what the writer of that particular episode is looking for. It’s like trying to figure out what the mission is in the episode.
BTL: What kind of schedule do you guys shoot on?
Knoller: We shoot about a 10-day schedule per episode. And like I said, we’re prepping about eight. And then the post is indeterminable. We literally just locked our final episode a week ago and we finished shooting that final episode in March, so that’s the extreme. There was actually a really long down period because the director wasn’t available to be able to do his cut. We have locked episodes within a couple weeks of shooting, but when the show isn’t set to air for a little bit, it expands to the time that you have.
BTL: Are airdates set in advance, or are they worked out after you’ve seen how production is going?
Knoller: It’s kind of worked both ways. There’s definitely usually a goal for a date and everyone usually starts working toward. Once the show starts shooting, I would say within the first few episodes, you’ll have a sense of when a show’s going to air. With HBO, it’s probably somewhere between six and nine months out from that first shoot date.
BTL: What are the challenges as far as costuming, hair and makeup that ensures that this looks like a suburb in America but is still region-specific to Salt Lake City and Utah?
Knoller: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko is our costume designer. We did Carnivale together and she’s great. But Mark and Will had spent a lot of time together even before the series started and had gathered pictures and went up to Utah. But as soon as Chrisi came on, she went up to one of the compounds and they are constantly hiring some P.A. or something up in Utah who will go to a march or special day there that we can shoot with a video camera. It’s all based on a lot of great information, primary information. There are certain situations where they wanted to portray a particular part of a ceremony, whether it was LDS or the Latter-Day Church, and some of that stuff we don’t have information on, some of that stuff is kept very private. So we try to do as much research as we can, and then the costume designer goes away and comes back and says, ‘This is what we think will be close to it’ without stepping on anyone’s toes and still present the story the right way.
BTL: What are the advantages of having two DPs, Mullen and William Wages, on a show?
Knoller: We really want the directors to be able to do something special with their episodes, so it’s important to be able to have your DP in the prep. And if they’re filming that other week’s episode, then they’re not available for the prep process. I think it really starts to show, because they can really set up, they can walk the sets with the director, find certain feels and looks ahead of time. Even from an equipment standpoint, they’re really going to know what they want and need.
BTL: Where do you shoot?
Knoller: We shoot in Santa Clarita at the Avenue Scott Stages. We’ve probably been there 3½ years, so we shoot there, we shoot in Aqua Dulce and we shot in Mentryville. Our Home Plus is in Downey, and that’s a real Home Depot kind of store that we shoot at and we go there like once a month. And we also shoot in Salt Lake. We went five to six days last season.
BTL: Is the three-house set built on a stage?
Knoller: It’s two places. We also shoot in Fillmore and that’s actually the street that these houses were based on. We built the three homes in our stage based on those. The fronts of the houses are the same, but once you step four feet into the houses, they’re completely different. Ours are much larger and then they continue into the backyard that we created.
BTL: I thought I caught you guys shooting at a restaurant in South Pasadena?
Knoller: Yeah. We’ll shoot on whatever location the script calls for and that’s a perfect example. We did find ourselves in Pasadena a lot this season. There are a lot of places in Pasadena that feel like the avenues of Salt Lake City, with older homes. It’s a great match.
BTL: Percentage wise, how much do you shoot on location and how much on the stages?
Knoller: Our goal was to shoot (on location) four or five days out of the ten and I’d say we really ended up shooting five days to six days out of the ten this season. We just felt like the show needed to breathe a little bit more and Mark and Will definitely felt that, and so we did everything we could to go out there.
BTL: How many editors do you have and who weighs in on the e
diting of an episode?
Knoller: We have two editors on this season, Byron Smith and Meg Reticker. I think part way through the season, Megan had an opportunity to do a film and Byron took over the remaining last episodes. We had three last season and pretty much found that because Mark and Will need to be involved in the cut, we don’t need as many editors working concurrently because they can’t split themselves up.
BTL: As for music, you had Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo last year, and this season you have David Byrne. How did you get such great musicians to do your music?
Knoller: Mark actually did Grosse Pointe with me, years ago with Darren Starr. And then Gary Goetzman has a great relationship with David Byrne, and he’s always wanted to have David to do a show with him and he was able to finagle David to look at the show. When he came down to the set, there’s definitely just a whole other point of view from him. He’s perfect for our show, because there’s this skewed perception, which is dead on what we’re looking for.
BTL: What has been the reaction to the second season?
Knoller: It’s been really great. The ratings have been building since the second episode. And then a lot of people have been talking about the soundscape of the show this year, particularly with David Byrne’s music. A lot of people have commented on the pace of the show and how it’s just really moving though. What’s interesting is the comments they’re making are things that the guys really wanted to make a change on.
BTL: What would you say is the most difficult thing about running this show?
Knoller: I guess personally I feel terrible when I can’t get everything the guys have written on the page to fruition. And it’s obviously impossible to do that on any TV show. We’ve had a few episodes where we have gotten what they wanted.
BTL: What’s the most satisfying?
Knoller: I would say two things. One is that, especially this season, that there was such a sense of family. Not that that wasn’t there the first season, but there was something that really jelled and just everyone caring and really wanting to be there for everyone else and I’ve seen that on other shows, but there was something about it that just really hit me on this show. And from a show standpoint, to sit on the stage and feel like I’m 7 years old when I see Bruce Dern or Jeanne or Bill or somebody work and be totally there in a scene.

Written by Tom McLean

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