A career highlighted by two recent Emmy nominations for serving as Supervising Producer on Amazon's hit seriesTransparent, Rick Rosenthal has spent the last five decades working in every position of the film and TV industry. If you're a fan of horror films, perhaps you recall his name as the director of the hospital-set Halloween II (1981) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002), the eighth installment in the series spearheaded by John Carpenter? If you prefer your narratives serialized, there's a good chance you've noticed his directorial credit on select episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and Smallville. Due to his willingness and deft ability at working across multiple genres and platforms, Rosenthal has built a storied career being the "right person for the job," and with the creation of his production company WhiteWater Films in 2004, he's intent on finding the right person for each new one.
With the debut of the Indie Episodic section at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Rosenthal arrived in Park City with Halfway There, a 35-minute pilot starring Matthew Lillard as Jimmy Bishop, a former addict struggling to run a financially worse-for-wear sober living facility. After falling behind on a mortgage payment, Bishop must turn to his emotionally toxic (but handsomely wealthy) mother, played by Blythe Danner, for help in keeping the home up on its feet. Mom's a struggling alcoholic herself, only agreeing to provide a financial boost if her son can make the facility more "marketable" by taking in his former girlfriend (and current substance abuser), TV star Carrie Claussen (played by Sarah Shahi).
With just a brief running time, the characters Jimmy holds dearest are established as causing our lead equal joy and temptation. A funny series that takes its drama seriously, Halfway There hints at how the show's creative team will further dramatize the multi-conflict thread in future episodes. Rosenthal spoke with No Film School about what makes a good pilot, how film and television production and viewing habits have grown, and how to establish a consistent, familial relationship between directors and actors on a multi-episode project.
No Film School: How did the pilot for Halfway There come to your attention?
Rick Rosenthal: Well, it came to my attention because I developed it! I've been in the indie film space since 2003 as both a director and producer and [my company] WhiteWater Films has produced almost 30 films over the past 15 years. We’ve watched how much difficult each year has gotten for independent film distribution, with the minimum guarantees going down and the number of distributors dropping by the wayside. At the same time, there were a number of streaming services flourishing and proliferating, and we felt there could be potential for both a new business opportunity and a new kind of program: the independent pilot, the spec indie pilot.
An indie pilot possesses the same risk profile as a feature film. You make it without knowing whether or not you'll be able to sell it. And rather than working with the five or six distributors who can realistically pay decent minimum guarantees to develop a film, suddenly you have Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, CBS All Access, Apple, Google, and others places looking for content. This seemed, in many ways, to be a very satisfying situation where you can actually make a smaller half-hour independent movie that's really serving as a pilot for a series. You put in the same kind of energy and knowledge as you would on an independent film. And I've spent years both producing and directing television—most recently Transparent, but before that, Life Goes On and various other shows—and this felt like a good crossing of both talent and experience for me.
NFS: You mentioned the valuable streaming services currently experience success. In this world of online streaming, are there other challenges you've faced getting the work noticed given the plethora of distribution outlets and content now available?
Rosenthal: You know, it's hard to answer that question because….well, we don’t know the future of this project right now! Sundance is a wonderful opportunity to present this work to the world and, along with the pilot being represented by Paradigm and 3Arts, we’re putting all of our heads together to figure out exactly where the best possible home for it would be.
NFS: Are there certain rules to crafting a good pilot? It feels like you have to establish characters very quickly and concretely in a limited amount of time while also hinting at character arcs up ahead. Could you speak a little bit about that process?
Rosenthal: It falls a little bit on the writer who has to create really interesting, complex characters that have obstacles to overcome (and therefore, interesting character arcs). The pilot for Halfway There concludes with our protagonist left in a pretty dark place and he can spend a lot of time seeking redemption [in future episodes]. I think that casting plays a really important part when you're doing a pilot. Because, just as you say, you’re trying to establish characters in brief and broad strokes. You don't have a lot of time to do it. So the stronger the actor, and the stronger the actor grasps the character, the better off the pilot is.
"It falls on the writer who has to create really interesting, complex characters that have obstacles to overcome."
NFS: The Bungalows, the sober living facility where Jimmy makes it his mission to help others struggling with addition remain on the path to sobriety, is both homey and a mess, and very much in contrast with the large mansion his mother owns (complete with an expansive backyard and pool). How did you decide on choosing those two contrasting locations?
Rosenthal: Well, we visually wanted there to be a pretty big difference. The mother's house is very formal and the camera work is more formal, and that’s [contrasted] with the informality of the halfway house and the camera work we use there. It’s handheld and fluid and moving and far more informal there. We were really lucky to have found an old….well, it’s hard to tell exactly what it was—it was a school for a while in Altadena, California—to serve as our halfway house. It had multiple buildings, which was great, and one large building, which is where the main set was. And then we just got very lucky; we found a really nice house in LA that we were allowed to film in for Jimmy’s mother.
Rick Rosenthal's 'Halfway There.'
NFS: The pilot opens with Jimmy and his girlfriend inebriated. As they continue to party hard, carelessly speeding down a local road, they’re pulled over by the cops. You then employ a jump cut that takes us to the present, six years later, where Jimmy is now helping others suffering from similar addictions. Could you speak about establishing narrative stakes—and what's at hand for a character—while doing so in a pretty efficient and fast manner?
Rosenthal: We had initially written more [of an intro] that was much longer but ultimately got in the way of getting things started. We liked the idea of starting with the stakes already high, and certainly, the opening sequence flows right into Jimmy Bishop's flaws and his being arrested. The audience can see what he's up against. And so when we see him six years later, it doesn’t need more backstory than what the intro has already provided. More information comes out in a later scene where Jimmy visits his mom and you learn that he could have been “a great investment banker.” You learn a little bit more about his past there.
NFS: Also interesting, given Jimmy’s job and the site of where he works, is that characters are constantly coming and going. One character exits and a new one is “tagged in.” For example, there’s a young woman who reaches one year of sobriety and is planning on moving out of the facility, and then there’s a young girl who’s suffering and stops in to check out the space with her parents. In mapping out the series, were you thinking of ways characters could come and go on an episode-by-episode basis?
Rosenthal: Absolutely. The idea is that, as we gather traction as a show, I think there will be actors really interested in playing a character arc where we can say, "let's bring you in for three, four, five, or six episodes" depending on the arc of that character. We have a tremendous amount of flexibility to explore interesting characters. One of the things we're interested in is the possibility of adding a little more music to the show while simultaneously keeping with the reality of performers struggling with addiction. It wouldn't be a stretch to have a well-known musical performer (or an actor playing a musical performer) come in to play a character arc of someone who is trying battle an addiction.
"As we gather traction as a show, I think there will be actors really interested in playing a character arc where we can say, 'let's bring you in for three, four, five, or six episodes.'"
NFS: The DP on this pilot was your son, Noah Rosenthal. What is it like to work with someone you're so close to?
Rosenthal: It's great. Our relationship is much more like “older brother/younger brother” than “father/son.” I went through the American Film Institute as a director and Noah went through the American Film Institute as a cinematographer, and over the last couple of years, we've worked together quite a bit. We've developed a nice shorthand where often times I never have to finish a sentence. I'll say, "you know, I was thinking ..." and he's like, "yeah, I've already gone and set that up". So that's really great.
As you've probably noticed, the girl who comes to look at the facility with her family (and then comes back at the conclusion of the episode) is played by my daughter. So yes, it's a family affair, but I think it's really nice to have them take part and we really liked what she did.
Rick Rosenthal's 'Halfway There.'NFS: And you shot with?
Rosenthal: An ARRI Alexa.
NFS: It looks quite strong, and while we typically associate episodic series with small-screen viewing, festival opportunities like Sundance provide the work with a rare theatrical debut. That may not be its final, intended home, but it's getting that opportunity. Was there a uniqueness to viewing it in a theater?
Rosenthal: The line has certainly blurred between television and film. I mean, when you look at the metrics, television has had some really huge productions. Some of the HBO shows are huge productions and feature the kind of detail that used to only be associated with feature films. Television has come a long way, and so has the way we, with our 65’ screens and Dolby home sound systems, consume and interact with it. The two [art forms] have really begun to merge. As far as seeing our pilot on the big screen, it was certainly a fun experience. It was shot that way, and by that I mean, it wasn't shot to only be shown on a “small box”. Almost everything we've done was from a filmmaker’s point-of-view.
NFS: Knowing your filmography in television and how you've directed sequels in the Halloween franchise that picked up immediately where the previous director left off, you have a knack for continuing the stories of directors who entered the story prior. If/when Halfway There continues, will you continue in the director's chair or will other directors come aboard to continue what you started?
Rosenthal: If we're lucky enough to get picked up for a series with Halfway There, then we would definitely develop our own repertory company of writers and directors, and actors for that part. After I directed the pilot of Life Goes On in 1989, I continued to produce it for a few years, creating a repertory company of directors. Up until then, the tradition was: if you have 22 episodes in a season, then you generally had 19 or 20 directors on board. I don't really like that. I liked the idea of having three or four directors and having them rotate. It allows the cast and crew to really get to know them, and the directors really get to know the cast and crew. It becomes much more like a family and I think the communication is way better.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.