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What's an "Executive Producer?"

By J. Michael Straczynski

Every couple of days, as today, I get one or another message saying, "In this episode, did you have anything to do with, or were you involved with...." and it's the script, or an actor, or whatever. All legitimate questions. In thinking about this, it occured to me that maybe it might be a good idea to go over what an executive producer actually *does*.

So file this under "How I Spend My Days," by J. Michael Straczynski, Age 12

1) I write scripts. 12 the first year, 15 the second. When you see my name on a script, every action and dialogue was written that way. My scripts are very detailed. There is very, *very* little improv allowed on the show, not necessarily because I think each word is golden but because a changed word can mess up an important sentence that foreshadows something 4-6 episodes down the road. If an actor is having a problem with a line, which happens occasionally but rarely, and wants to substitute one word with another, somebody comes from the stage to my office, 15 feet away, and checks to make sure it's okay.

2) I work with the prosthetics/makeup people in conceptualizing and approving makeups. I partly sculpted the original version of Delenn's headpiece in the pilot. Prosthetics folks read the script, come up with several designs, run them past me, and I approve one or the other.

3) I work with the costume designers, again with final approval on all elements. Sometimes if I have something specific in mind, I'll try and sketch it out. (I can't draw for squat, and our costume designer finds my pathetic scribblings very amusing, and...."cute." I once drew a kitty on the same page as a costume note, just to show her i was improving my range. She stuck it on her wall. Argh.) Usually she comes up with designs, runs them past me, I make some notes or suggestions of varying coherence, and she runs with it.

4) I approve all set designs, and again, once in a while, will get into the act with a rough sketch of one sort or another. Any artwork, posters, signage, set dressing, props...all go through my office for personal approval.

5) Along with the director and a few others, I sit in on all casting and have final right of decision, along with Doug, and we rarely disagree.

6) I approve all directors and writers for the show, and work with both. In the case of directors, we speak about the episode many times, and have "tone meetings" just before shooting in which we go over every page to discuss the visualization and make sure we're on the same track. I try to slip out onto the set when possible to make sure we're still on the right track. If I see something that may not be what I had in mind, I'll either defer if it works, or if I'm concerned, I'll pull the director aside for a quiet discussion, and let the director relay my notes to the actors. (On the set, there can only be one voice, and that is the director, in terms of relaying instructions to crew and cast.)

7) I work with the composer, determining in- and out-cues for music, and where I have something in mind, expressing it to Christopher.

8) Working with the CGI folks on exactly what given sequences should look like, and how long they should be.

9) After the director makes his/her cut, John Copeland and I go in to make the producer's cut. We sometimes re-edit every frame, or do a light dusting. Generally I work more with the character stuff, and he's good at action stuff (hence my nickname for John, Captain Action). We sometimes spend as much as two days going over every single frame, to tighten and make it stronger.

When you have a crew and cast as talented as we do, a lot of the preceding stages amount to basically saying "yup" a lot, and in all of this, John Copeland is my good right arm; I rely on his judgment implicitly.

(John is also our resident military expert, and he does a lot to keep us in line with tradition. I think when the B5 history is eventually written, his importance to the show will really come through.)

What's it like for me? Race to the studio in the morning, run from one meeting to another, with directors, art department, costume department, prosthetics, grab an hour with the door closed to write my brains out, maybe get onto the stage for 5 minutes to watch a particular delicate scene being shot, race back to more meetings, race off to editing, grab another couple hours writing, race home, grab a sandwich, write a few hours, and do BBSing.

Sometimes, in all that, it's very possible to actually forget what it is you're doing, to forget to *enjoy* it, because you're too much in it ("the world is too much with us"). That happens, alas, all too often.

But every once in a while, one realizes just what one *is* doing, from some comments on the BBS (holy smoke, the episode WORKED!), to days like today, when there's one scene in particular in dailies with G'Kar and Londo, that is *so* perfect, *so* brilliant a performance that you realize suddenly what you're doing, and what you've touched, and then, for a moment, it's fun.

Then there's another meeting....

Well, I figure I'll probably most enjoy all this long after it's finished.

Unfortunately, in my case, I'm all over the map, depending on when meetings are held...sometimes very early, sometimes later in the morning. I'm usually up until at least 3 a.m. every night of the week, sometimes as late as 4-4:30 a.m., so how much actual sleep I get is a very flexible notion.

As for the crew...crew call is 7 a.m. M-F, as a rule. If an alien is in the first scene, prosthetics crew can sometimes show up as early as 6:00 a.m. Actors and crew actually hit the stage at 9 a.m. (7-9 is spent basically waking up, rigging lights, setting up cameras, other stuff.)

We shoot until about 7 p.m., rarely any later.

"You're the writer and executive producer, and also big and tall. My question are, within the limitations of the budget you get, who controls the money? Who has the final say over who to hire or fire, and what to spend money on or not? Do you control all of that, or do you havemini-budgets for individual groups and let managers below you handle the smaller details within? Can you briefly list the parts of the management hierarchy above and below you for, say, 1-2 levels? Who's your boss and your boss' boss? To whom are you the immediate boss and who reports to them? Or maybe it's all a very flat hierarchy?"

Doug and I own Babylonian Productions. Once the budget is allocated by WB, we have full, final and complete discretionary control over it all. Now, if we're going to do something major -- fire or hire a recurring actor or director -- we have to contact our liaison at WB and explain why, and what impact it has on standing contracts. Once they are brought into the loop, they generally stamp "okay" on it and we move on. They only get into the major issues, not the smaller, day to day things.

Guest stars: Doug and I have final authority, no need to check with WB; costume designs, sets, CGI, prosthetics...I generally deal with all of that, with John Copeland. John handles a fair amount of this stuff as well, but if there's any kind of decision that needs to be made, to finalize stuff, it comes to me.

And that's really the whole chain of command: me and Doug, then John; and at the approval process for major changes, WB.

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Last update: January 2, 1997