Creator John Enbom talks about he and his fellow former Veronica Mars writing partners produce the critically acclaimed Starz comedy Party Down on a shoestring budget.
Written by Denis Faye
While some writers need to put serious effort into avoiding Hollywood pigeonholing, it just comes naturally to John Enbom.
As a writer-producer for Veronica Mars and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as well as the scripter for the movie adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Enbom seemed destined for a long career bouncing around thrillers and science fiction. But then he and a few Veronica Mars buddies, Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd, pitched Party Down to Starz Entertainment’s fledging original programming division. The cable network decided to take a chance on the shoestring-budgeted, single-camera comedy. Suddenly, Enbom became a comedy showrunner.
“I bounce around my fair share,” admits the writer. “In my experience, being pigeonholed isn’t something I’m that great at.”
With season two of Party Down under his belt, Enbom chatted with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his uncanny ability to shift creative gears, what he’s learned from watching Buster Keaton, and the pros and cons of applying independent filmmaking methodology to television.
How do you explain your ability to escape pigeonholing?
There’s a certain degree of something that comes up and I chase that down and then something else comes up in a totally different direction, so then I chase that. I’ve always tried to follow my interest on some level. Party Down coming after Sarah Connor was a big gear shift, but I love comedy, and I love genre stuff so I am happy to work in both angles. That’s one of the reasons Veronica Mars was such a great show for me. It was kind of both.
I certainly have been pigeonholed, and that’s why I feel the desire to switch gears. If you’re solely good at something, and you’re really good at delivering that, then it’s fantastic, but if you get a little bored or your mind wanders, or if it’s not something you’re willing to devote yourself to… I’ve always just had this impulse to wander into something else.
Photo: © 2009 Starz Entertainment
Ryan Hansen (l-r), Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, and Martin Starr on Party Down.
Do you have to turn down good opportunities doing the things that have pigeonholed you to take those chances?
Not really. Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the position where I’ve been wildly in demand, where I’m turning down one thing to specifically make a perverse U-turn. I hope I haven’t just hopelessly scrambled my career by having a wandering mind.
How does your brain work differently when you’re doing hard science fiction versus comedy? How does your creative process differ?
Writing Sarah Connor was much more plot and drama-driven, so it was a very different approach to storytelling from Party Down, but there’s the underlying theme of trying to be inventive in the confines of television. That’s always the same. If there’s one thread that runs through my interests, it’s that I was always a huge fan of Buster Keaton and other silent films that were just about being inventive within these contrived situations. Whether it’s something somber and serious or genre-driven, the challenge is all the same – find something interesting and novel to do within these limited settings. It’s very much the same in comedy. The fundamental job is to figure out ways to juggle the balls within a single room.
A lot of the same talent came to Party Down from Veronica Mars. How did the writers’ rooms differ?
They’re extremely different in that Party Down doesn’t have a writers’ room. There is no staff on Party Down. I write most of the scripts. Rob has written a few, but when we launched the show, most of the creative team was already working on other shows, so I ended up getting the lion’s share handed over to me.
Veronica Mars was a classic writers’ room. A gang of guys would just sit around and write the stories up on the big board, whereas on Party Down we start with these threadbare stories and either Rob or I sit in our office and try to bash them out as quickly as we can.
We just don’t have the same resources. Veronica Mars was a great show to work on and an amazing group of people. It was a wonderful creative challenge to make the show snappy and witty as possible. With Party Down, I guess the challenge was laid out more in terms of what individual was up at bat. We had to have all the scripts done before we started shooting the show. Instead of proceeding along while we’ re shooting, we’d lock ourselves away for two months and just write all the scripts so they’re ready to shoot. Because there’s no staff, we can’t write and produce at the same time.
The show seems improvised at times.
No, every episode is scripted. We encourage the actors to go for that style and be loose and free with the material, but we simply don’t have the time to be that improvisational. Our shooting schedule is so tight. The world like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where you can take a month per episode and just find the show in all the improvisation, was something that we never could do. We had so little time to put the show together. It’s relatively tight to what we’ve written so we could put it together, but it’s a great testament to our actors that they could give it that very spontaneous feel. There was a fair amount of random riffing – and we always used whatever was funny, but by necessity, we had to have it tightly scripted just to work within our schedule.
If one guy and a laptop can come up with a show this funny, why do we even need writers’ rooms?
The only way we’ve been able to do it thus far is because it’s a 10-episode season. If they said, “Hey, let’s do 22 episodes,” we’d explode and die. It just goes over the line of too much work, so it would become impossible to make the show. We’d have to take two years to make the season.
Party Down seems to have a problem with actors, including Jane Lynch and Adam Scott, leaving for other shows.
Yeah, [that’s] because we’re a pretty low-budget, scrappy show just doing 10 episodes. We really couldn’t afford to lock the actors into multi-year deals. I think a big part of the appeal for the cast was to say, “Okay, we have a season, and it takes two-and-a-half months to shoot,” which isn’t outrageous for those guys. So it just becomes this brief, great, little experience, and if we’re lucky enough to shoot another season, we just round up whoever’s available.
But that’s a double-edged sword. It means that people aren’t tied to the show legally. I think it did reasonably well and everyone did a good job on it, so I’m not surprised people are being nabbed. Also, we’re a victim of bad timing. The show didn’t air its second season until pilot season was under way, and we still have no commitment for a third season, so people have to make those cruel judgment calls.
The way you describe it, it sounds like you’re making an independent movie.
That’s very much the vibe, production-wise. Also, it’s all shot on location, so every week we’re jumping to a new location and living there. The style is very loose and free, and we move pretty quickly and two months later, it’s over. It has a different style than your network type thing with a much bigger crew where it’s a much more corporate process.
Is that because you’re doing it with Starz?
I think so. It was sort of a magical moment. This was the first show they were going to produce and, at the same moment, we had come up with this show and were just figuring out how to do it. No one involved knew how we were going to do it, so we threw it together as we went. I think we could do that not only because we were working with a young outfit wanting to get its feet wet, but [because] they were also totally supportive of letting us make a good show. That was the only mandate we had. Every ounce of our effort went into making the show instead of the executive suite wrangling that often dominates people’s attention making bigger shows. There were never any battles over the soul of the show. It was just, “What can we do to make the show work?” It couldn’t have worked out any better for us.
Do you think this style of television production is something we’ll see more of?
It’s possible. I don’t think I’m enough of an expert on what it takes for other outlets to produce their shows, but I think it’s entirely possible. It was eye-opening for us. Using one or two writers to crank out a season of scripts and then to shoot it on the fly, you can’t scale up that model too large, but the things we learned about writing and working with the actors, we can take and use anywhere with anything.
Are you hoping to use this as a springboard to more comedy, or is it back to cyborgs and secret ops?
I would love to springboard to more comedy. One of the great satisfactions to me is that the show opened doors. Before, I was known as this hour-long genre guy, but comedy is always something I’ve had a huge interest in, and this show has put us on that map. I also think now is a good time to be in comedy because that whole genre has really opened up. In the past, I think it was constricted by the multi-camera, staged sitcom style, where now if it’s funny and it works, you can do anything. It’s nice to feel empowered in the comedy world when it feels like there’s a lot you can do.