Barbara Stoll has been working in the television business for forty years. She started as a production coordinator on the American sitcom called “Silver Spoons,” and has worked her way up to the position of executive producer on network comedies. Her most notable show was “Roseanne.” It was the highest rated program on television for nine years. Since then, Barbara has produced shows for Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, CBS, NBC and Lifetime. This spring, she produced “The Kenan Show” starring Kenan Thompson from “Saturday Night Live” with the standup comedian and actor, Chris Rock, in the director’s chair. Barbara grew up on the East Coast of the United States. After University, she moved to Los Angeles where she earned a Master’s Degree in Film, Animation and Television from UCLA.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Odesa International Film Festival where she gave a masterclass on pre-production.
How did you get into TV and production?
Barbara Stoll: I think I always knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment business. When I was young, I was a ballet dancer – not professionally – but it was as a little girl, so I knew that I liked that. I never knew exactly what it was, but I was just attracted to it. And then when I finished University, I wanted to move to Los Angeles and one way I knew to do it was to go to the film school at UCLA and so I applied and got in. I went to UCLA for three years and then I needed to get a job. It’s actually a good story, I think – the night before I was to graduate from UCLA, I went to a party with my husband, a young comedy writer, and we met a lot of interesting people at the party. There were some other women there and they said: “What do you do?” and I said: “Well, I am finishing school and I am looking for a job” and one woman said to me: “Well, I am looking for a unit manager for this studio I am at. Would that be interesting to you?” And I went: “Yes” and she said: “Well, come and meet me tomorrow” and I met her and she hired me! And I have worked everyday since. So I guess my point is, to answer your question, that I was always attracted to it, but when I got my first job I kind of figured out what I wanted to do and I found out I was good at multitasking. I can do a lot of different things at the same time, probably because I am a woman!
How do you work with showrunners? How is the creative process and how much does the financial side of the production depend on you and the showrunner’s vision?
B.S.: The work I usually do is for studios like Sony, Universal Television or Disney and there, they have a budget for how much they would like to spend, so they would go: “On the half-hour comedy we were going to do, we want to spend around two million dollars on every episode.” And so, they’ll have an idea of how much money you need to spend for each thing. My job is basically to take it and make sure that it is enough money – that there is not too much money or too little money to do it. And then, I would go to the showrunner and say: “I think we have good money to do this thing.” Sometimes, they want to know how much, sometimes they don’t care and they just say: “As long as we have enough money, it’s OK.” Then, I think I just have enough experience and I know how much it will take from reading the script and what kind of show it is. But what will happen is that sometimes if the showrunner writes the show and he/she writes an episode that’s a very big episode, and we spend a lot of money, I go and I say: “This is OK, we can do this episode, but the next one, you need to make a little one.” So we work together and we talk. They don’t need to know too much because they have other things; they need to write and be creative, but I can say: “Look, we need to do a smaller episode because we are a hundred thousand dollars over where we need to be, so can we maybe not have so many guest stars?” and most times they’ll go: “OK, I understand” and they’ll do it. I think it’s all about communication, a matter of letting them know soon enough because you don’t want to go in at the last minute and say: “No, no, no, you can’t do that!” So it’s talking, communication, collaboration…
How has the climate on set and in the writers’ room changed since #metoo?
B.S.: People are much more careful now. I think that the writers’ room has always been a safe place where you can say things and nobody will get mad at you for saying them, but now people are more careful. I really think they’re more careful. For my job, with the #metoo movement, I find that more people come to me and say: “I have a problem.” Mostly women come to me. On my last show, maybe five different women would come in and say: “You know, they’re not treating me well.” It wasn’t always against a man; they’d just be: “They’re doing something on the set that offends me. That is not OK.”
And in the creative sense, are there more women behind the camera, writing…?
B.S.: Yes! When people are in the writers’ room and they hire the writers, they make sure that there are women. On the show that I’m doing now, there’s 80% women and a man is the showrunner. On the last show that I did, there was 40% women. Sometimes, it’s the younger showrunners who know that it’s the right thing to do and they also want the voices. They want the women’s voices. So it’s gotten better, at least in my television comedy world – maybe not so much in the movies.
You say in your masterclass description that pre-production is the unsung star of a hit TV series. Can you explain that?
B.S.: That was my husband! He said: “You need a good name for it, so this is what you should call it!” But it is true. If you can do all the pre-production, then you’re ready. And you’ve hired good people, you have enough money, you’ve scouted your locations and you’re prepared and then if something goes wrong, you can worry about the problem and not go: “Oh My God! I didn’t get the paperwork done for that location!” That’s all done!
So in pre-production, you need to take care of everything before you start shooting. You need to make sure that everybody’s hired and that they know what they have to do, so they’ve had enough time to buy everything that they needed to buy, the costume designers have fitted the actors, etc. It’s just all making sure that they have enough money to buy what they need, that they have a room to do it in, that they have transportation to go get what they need, that it’s all taken care of, all the details… Because it’s the little things. With the sets and the locations, you need to make sure that those people start soon enough, that you can talk to the showrunner and say: “What kind of a place is it that you want to do?” and show him/her pictures and go: “Something like this?” And you go find that and then make it. You also have to go and make the deal with the person who owns the restaurant or the house and sign the contracts and have the lawyers look at it and make sure it’s OK before you can even go there. A lot of times, you have to check with the neighbors there and make sure that they’re OK that you’re filming there. So it’s all backing it up so when you come to start the shooting, there are no problems…
How long does pre-production typically last?
B.S.: When I did a pilot this spring, with Chris Rock as director and Kenan Thompson from Saturday Night Live as the actor, I had the production designer and the location manager start seven weeks before we started. That’s in TV for a half-hour. For a feature, it would be much more before that. But it was seven weeks to work through everything. The costume designer was three weeks and the construction people were four weeks ahead. You kind of know how much time you need and that’s how you budget for it and hire people.
Is there any difference in terms on production between the networks, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon…?
B.S.: It’s mostly the same, but HBO and Netflix spend a lot of money. The networks still spend a lot of money on their shows, much more than anybody else in any other country, I think. But what’s happened is that, for instance, costume designers who have worked on a Netflix show make maybe twice as much money, so when I go to hire them for my shows, their agents go: “They get more money than that” and then I have to go and try and get more money to pay them because they’ve raised all the salaries. There used to be that if the quality is HBO quality, it was very high quality. They would spend the money on the best for everything and have more days to shoot things to do it the right way.
It’s the Golden Age of TV. What can you say about that?
B.S.: It is the Golden Age of TV! I think that the stories are wonderful. I think that the best stories are being told on Netflix, Amazon, HBO… because they don’t have rules and they don’t have advertisers that they have to make happy to sell. The shows that I do on the network television are not as creative and not as free, but the stories are good. I think that it’s also so much more work for everybody because there’s so much content being made that you can get more jobs. I think that this is the Golden Age!
What’s your favorite TV show you have done and your favorite TV show in general?
B.S.: The TV show that I’ve done – I’ve just finished two seasons of a show that is called A.P. Bio and it’s about a high school class where they don’t learn biology. It’s very silly, but it’s a very smart comedy. It’s sort of like Saturday Night Live. The writer is from it – it’s an ensemble with a lot of different actors, it’s beautifully shot and it’s very funny… So right now, that’s my favorite show that I have done. The TV shows I like on TV… I like Fleabag. I loved Game of Thrones. Who doesn’t like Game of Thrones!? I like Chernobyl. There are so many good TV shows on TV right now. There are so many to see… It really is the Golden Age!
Do you binge-watch?
B.S.: Sometimes. I will-binge watch only maybe two or three episodes at a time because my attention span is not so good. I don’t sit down for a whole day and watch it. But sometimes, yes. Since I work in the network television, I try to sometimes watch the shows that come on the network just so I’m smart and I know what other people are doing. So then, I’ll just watch the one every week when it’s on.
What do you think of the new ways of watching TV shows now with the streaming platforms?
B.S.: I think it’s fine. I think however people watch is good. I really do. It doesn’t bother me. I think that my job is to adapt to help people do their jobs. I don’t think you can fight it and go: “Oh! They’re watching on their phones!” I think you have to say: “This is the new way that people are devouring their TV. That’s OK! Let’s make it good for them.” There’s a new platform that’s being developed right now. It’s called Quibi and what they’re doing is making shows that are eight minutes long with the idea that people are only going to watch for eight minutes. But they don’t want to do it so that everybody watches the eight minutes together. They want just you to watch the eight minutes and put your phone down and watch another eight minutes. So they’re designing their stories to be that way. I think it’s fine and I like it.
Sometimes, it’s the younger showrunners who know that it’s the right thing to do and they also want the voices. They want the women’s voices.
What happens when a show you’re working on gets cancelled? A lot of heartbreaks happen in May!
B.S.: A lot of heartbreaks! I am the one who has to go to the whole crew and say: “I’m sorry!” Sometimes, if a show is not doing well, they’ll just stop producing it and they’ll be like: “I’m sorry, but this is not doing well so instead of doing the twelve episodes you’ll do eight.” So the work that they plan to be having for the next couple months is gone and that’s very hard to do. As I’ve gotten older, I think it’s not as hard for me because I’ve done a lot of different series and sometimes it’s time for them to end and it’s OK. I did the show Roseanne – the first one I did – and it was a highly rated show and it was very good, I think. When they brought it back two years ago – because they’re doing all these remakes – it was one of those things where I was asked to go work on it and I couldn’t because I was doing A.P. Bio. But part of me was thinking: “It’s OK. I did it and we told that story and I don’t need to go back to that same thing. I’m really OK” So I think as I’m getting older, I can say: “This thing was good. Next…”
So what do you think about all these revivals?
B.S.: I don’t like it. I think some of them are doing a good job, but it’s like: “Let’s do new stories!” Why are we parading out older actors? I don’t care. Honestly. I think it’s a little lazy.
I agree! And what does it take for a show to be a hit, according to you?
B.S.: I think it’s almost as magic. Honestly. I think that it’s the right actors, the script is very important and that it’s telling a story that is funny. Sometimes, the director is really important in TV, sometimes not so much. It’s more the script and the actors and if you can get that magic combination of the two and have an actor who plays a character so well that the audience go: “Oh I like that person,” that’s the success! You can try your best, but you just never know. Friends, that was magical! That they found these six actors who were all so good and all such different characters. And then, the writing was so good on that. It was just like: “How did they find these six people that it just worked?” It’s magic! It’s alchemy, I’d say.
What would be your dream project to work on?
B.S.: I don’t exactly know what it would be, but it would be something socially responsible that told a story that is important for people to be better and to help each other. Sometimes, I think that one thing I would like to do is to make a documentary, but I think that to do that, you have to have a story that’s so important to you. I don’t know what that would be. Some of the things that I care about, they have already done the movies and the documentaries about it. So I don’t know… I like what I do. I like the stories that I tell. I like smart shows.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker that you would like to work with?
B.S.: Yes, I do. It’s Lynn Shelton, a woman who does only very small movies. She’s made six independent films, but she also makes money by working as a director on TV and she has come in on two episodes that I have done. She is so special, very talented, funny, very smart and people love her. She does very good pre-production and she’s very patient, so if something goes wrong, she goes and says: “It’s OK. We’ll figure it out” But she’ll do this thing where she’ll go into the set when she’s directing something and the showrunner will be sitting there and she would raise her hands and go: “Did you love it?!” and he/she goes: “Yes!” and they don’t have time to think about changing something! She’s very good and I think she knows what she’s doing. I do also like Jill Soloway. I think she is very talented and I love Transparent!
How do you work? What’s your process like? How do you get in the zone? How does a typical work day look like for you?
B.S.: I tend to be a bit of a workaholic. I work hard and I think about work all the time; even when I’m at home, I’m thinking about it and I will make calls or emails just because. My process is that usually when I do the single camera shows, and we start rehearsing at 7 AM, I’m there at 7 AM because I want to be there to say good morning to the actors and to the director, show that I am part of the team and that I care and see if there are any problems that I need to deal with. Then, I will stay until they’re done shooting, which is thirteen hours later. I’ll go back to the office and I’ll go on with scouts for the next show or I’ll check with pre-production, but then I’ll go back when we’re done at the end of the day to say goodnight to everybody and see how the day went. I’ll go back and forth during the day to the set to check in. I do get in the zone, honestly, and I never really leave the zone. On the weekends, I still think about what I have to do and if there are any emails to write or to check and I will do it then. You do work hard, but it’s fine.
What is the perfect day on set like?
B.S.: I prefer to work in the studio than on location because on location, there are so many more variables and things that can go wrong, like a barking dog next door, a neighbor who doesn’t want you to be there, or the noise of the traffic, so it’s harder to anticipate and it takes longer. There are so many more things that you need to control that you don’t have control over, but in the studio, where you’ve set everything up and you’ve lit your scenes, it’s a much easier day. So I prefer, on an ideal day, to work on set and I like an ideal day not to be too long, that I get a call from the ADs going: “We’re going to finish early!” People like that too! It used to be that people wanted to work longer because they made more money with the overtime and now, so many people that I work with have families at home that they actually like to go home to. In the old days, people didn’t want to go home, but now people want to. And they like that. So if I can make people happy by going: “This is great,” then that’s a good day!
What advice would you give to a young woman who’d come to you and say I want to do your job? What would you tell her?
B.S.: I would say: “Work very hard, don’t compromise your values, be true to who you are, have a sense of humor, don’t get too rigid, be able to roll with things, make sure people like you, put in the time.” If somebody needs you to stay late, just go: “No problem!” You can either look at things as a very black or white answer, but there’s always a grey thing in the middle that will be the right thing to do, so I would also say: “Be flexible.” This is going to sound very, very shallow, but I am going to say it anyway: I think that you should dress and appear the way you would like people to think of you. So if you come in and you’re dressed like a production assistant, but you want to be a production coordinator, you need to dress to make people go: “Oh! They have their shit together!” So dress for the next job that you want to have! That would be an advice that I would give anybody, but probably women just because I could say that to a woman and it’s harder to say that to a man. Be true to your values, don’t let anybody make you lie or put you in a situation where it’s not the right thing. You can say “no” kindly, you don’t have to go: “I won’t do that.” You can say: “That’s just not something that I do.” There are nice ways of saying things and learn them.
What are your next projects? What do you have in the pipeline?
B.S.: I have two things in the pipeline. When I go back, I’m doing a half-hour comedy at Sony for NBC and it’s a multi-camera comedy. We invite the audience in, we’ve got four cameras and we’re going to do twelve episodes. We’ll start shooting in September and we’ll finish around the Christmas holidays. Then, A.P. Bio is going to have another season and they’re going to start up in January, so I’m going to try and prep that while I’m doing the first show and then we’ll work through April, I think. And then, we’ll see what’s next. I will always say that I’ve been very lucky to have had such a good career, to have to many good projects and to work with so many good and talented people because you never go: “Oh! I’m good at what I do” because – Karma! The Universe will go: “You can’t be so prideful!”
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Odesa International Film Festival.