When Film Independent Producing Lab Fellow Kevin Comer was asked to come aboard the series Doll & Em, he thought he was signing up for a small independent web series. Three years later the show is in the middle of its second season on HBO.
The series stars Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl, The Newsroom) and Dolly Wells (Blunt Talk, Bridget Jones’s Diary) playing fictionalized versions of themselves, childhood friends comically struggling to merge their professional lives without sacrificing their friendship. In season one, after a bad breakup, Dolly becomes Emily’s assistant. In season two, they write a play together about their lives and cast Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood to play them. In addition to starring in the series, Wells and Mortimer serve as associate producers and write the episodes with series director and LA Film Festival Alum Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man, Terri).
When Comer joined the team, the pilot was already in the can. “They did it for practically nothing,” he said. “It was Dolly and Emily, the director Azazel and a DP (Tobias Datum) on a Canon 5D that [Tobias] owned.” Comer’s job was figuring out how to produce the rest of the series just as cheaply.
Luckily the U.K. network Sky took an interest in the project and commissioned a six-episode first season (a typical series order for British television). But just because they were working with someone else’s money, didn’t mean they abandoned their independent mindset.
“Most TV shows are filmed in episodic order. You film, and then you edit, and then you go back and film again,” said Comer. “With ours, we essentially combined all of the episodes and shot it out by location like an indie film.” They also edited a two-hour film version of the first season and even screened it at the 2013 London Film Festival. Comer said that method was helpful because it allowed them to shape the entire arc of the season before they turned in any episodes. It also fit with the way the show was likely to be consumed. “We all sit down and watch a whole season in one sitting. So it’s great to know that your story works in a format that mirrors the way viewers are experiencing it.”
Along with their indie film approach came indie film problems. At the time they were shooting the pilot Emily Mortimer was living in Los Angeles and filming The Newsroom. They shot much of the episode in her trailer and at the house she was staying in. By the time the rest of the series was commissioned, Mortimer had left L.A., and Comer was tasked with getting back into the house and making it look just like it had when they filmed the pilot. Add to it the headache of filming a British Television show in the United States, dealing with two sets of union rules and constant currency exchanges, and Comer had a lot on his plate.
“There were a lot of things that we had to figure out, production-wise and union-wise,” he said. “We had to make sure that we adhered to all of the rules.”
On top of all of that, SAG rules made scheduling a challenge. “Doing TV in this manner, as an indie film, worked out well for everything except SAG contracts,” said Comer.
Because SAG demands actors are paid by the episode, shooting the series location by location meant that sometimes actors were getting paid for three episodes in a single day. “It really turned it into a matrix where if you pull out one thread, the whole thing unravels and the budget dramatically changes, which of course happened.”
Both seasons of Doll & Em feature well-known actors playing themselves. One of the names on their wish list for the first season was Andy Garcia. But when they didn’t hear back from him, they moved on. Wells and Mortimer wrote his part out of the script, and Comer and the other producers went about developing their intricate rubrick of overlapping actors’ schedules without him.
The script was approved; production was days away. “And then all of a sudden we get an email from Andy Garcia’s agent saying that Andy would love to be involved.”
Comer said the decision of how to proceed wasn’t a hard one: “You’re not going to say no to the Godfather.” So Mortimer, Wells and Jacobs rewrote the script, and Comer untangled and reconceived the schedule. “And it was so worth it to have Andy work with us.”
Their combination of A-list appearances and indie charm paid off. Not long after the series aired on Sky, it sold to HBO and eventually a second season was ordered. It looked like all sunshine and rainbows, but season two came with its own set of challenges.
A shorter shooting schedule, for one. Comer and his team shot all six episodes in 18 days, sometimes shooting as many as 13 pages in a single day. On top of that, filming around the holidays made schedules even trickier to navigate. Comer said there are a few scenes in the second season where actors appear to be in the same room at the same time, but they were actually shot on completely separate days. “But through the magic of filmmaking,” said Comer, “No one will realize which scenes they are.”
Through all of the challenges, Comer said the key to their success has been the closeness of the collaboration. “It was literally a family affair. Emily and [producer] Alessandro [Nivola] are husband and wife, Emily and Dolly have been friends since childhood, and they’ve both known Azazel for a long time. So it’s one of those blessings where people that you’ve known or have worked with for quite a while all just come together and make great contributions. I was the newcomer of the group, but I was quickly embraced into the family.”
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger