Why You Should Sweat the Details When Creating Your Series Pilot
'Nice' series creator Naomi Ko, director Andrew Ahn, and producer Carolyn Mao took to serialized storytelling to emphasize the personal.
As U.S. festivals continue to expand their plethora of multi-platform offerings, the opportunities for independent episodic series continue to grow. Moreso than feature-length projects, indie pilots may ultimately benefit the most from a high-profile "event" appearance; the fate of future episodes could rest on the industry attending the festival.
With her pilot premiering in the Tribeca TV section of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Naomi Ko's Nice—which she created, wrote, and stars in—hopes to make a splash. Based in part on her experience with breast cancer, Ko's series follows Teddy, a Korean-American from Minnesota who similarly receives the bad news. Upset, Teddy gets even further stressed out thanks to her demanding sister's upcoming wedding, her mother's pressuring her to get a "real job" so Teddy can be removed from the family's health insurance, and the romantic feelings she holds for one of her guy friends with whom she plays Fantasy Football.
Directed by Andrew Ahn and produced by Carolyn Mao, Nice is a moving and quite funny take on a character who's dealing with a slew of life-changing issues. Even so, her sarcastic optimism persists even as the outcome of her diagnosis is still very much in doubt.
No Film School spoke with Ko, Ahn, and Moa about how the series came to fruition, how it feels to work on a story so personal to its creator, and why Minnesota is a great (but cold!) state to set up production.
No Film School: When working on this pilot, did you create a show bible with a full synopsis of where the story would lead, its recurring characters, and things of that nature?
Naomi Ko: I first thought of the story as a feature film before realizing that I couldn't cram everything I wanted to cram into one film. Because of this, I first wrote a pilot and from there I created the show bible. I created the world of the series and really started building out characters and their timelines. That's how my early conception of Nice [was formed].
NFS: In a sense, an independent pilot could almost be viewed as a proof of concept. The story hints at where it could lead, and you have to build up a narrative without resolving it. How did that affect the writing for you?
Ko: The thing was that I had written a couple of iterations of Nice before going through different "dissolving" phases [of the story]. When it came down to the pilot, what was great was that my producer, Carolyn Mao, had already read a few drafts, along with Andrew Ahn, our director. When I retold Nice to them in the form it ultimately wound up taking, we already knew what the whole season would contain. We had the entire scope of the show in our minds and so it really came down to: what kind of narrative can we tell? Is it compelling? Does it entice the viewer enough? Can we do it as an indie production with the kind of reach we have?
"The fact that it was such a personal story to Naomi was really inspiring to me, especially because I saw that she had the strength to do it and to really be vulnerable as a person and as an artist."
NFS: Given that this was a somewhat personal story for you Naomi, how did you feel letting others enter in to create it?
Ko: I cannot fully express how lucky I am to have both Andrew and Carolyn as part of my team. Both of them were friends first and, as I was going through the development process, I was developing the entire season, writing every episode. It was really great and I knew that once we were going to pursue this on our own, to have highly skilled filmmakers like Andrew and Carolyn on the team, was kind of perfect. It all came together and was very serendipitous.
NFS: And Andrew and Carolyn, how did you both feel about collaborating with Naomi on such a personal work?
Andrew Ahn: Personally, I'm familiar with very personal film stories and I really support and love watching that kind of work. The fact that it was such a personal story to Naomi was really inspiring to me, especially because I saw that she had the strength to do it and to really be vulnerable as a person and as an artist. That really motivated me to want make this the best it could be and also to do it in a way that felt really respectful and human. That was a pro rather than a con for me, and if anything, it was a selling point for why I wanted to be a part of this and why I feel like it's turned out to be a really meaningful project.
Carolyn Mao: As a producer, my main mission is to support and help the creator see what their vision is, to help shape it in the development process (and help produce the project for them). As she's a friend of mine, I'm just a big fan of Naomi as a person. When she shared the project with me, the difficult nature of it and the way she was able to highlight both the comedic and dramatic elements while being so vulnerable and funny at the same time, I found it to be a great piece of writing. The writing itself was so great that I was excited to be part of the project.
NFS: And Andrew, being the person directing the first episode, did you feel an obligation to create a visual texture with your DP that would ideally extend for the series?
Ahn: Yeah, it's exciting for us to think that this could be the template, the episode that really sets a certain tone. And so, all of us together—Naomi, Carolyn, my DP Ki Jin Kim (who shot my feature, Spa Night)—saw this as an experiment, as an opportunity to take risks and try different things. We wanted to embrace a certain kind of indie aesthetic and then we also were just so inspired by Minnesota, which was the first thing that I've ever shot outside of Los Angeles.
We ended up shooting our exteriors in Minnesota for two days in November and it was so fucking cold that it almost made you regret going, but it was still so beautiful and the landscape really helped us set a look and feel and tone for the pilot. It was a really different experience than working on a feature because so much of what we're trying to do is not tell a complete story, but to tell the opening problem and launching questions for people to have so that they continue watching.
"It didn't make sense to try and do this in Los Angeles and it's also just an exciting opportunity to tell a story that's not set in L.A. or New York, which do not make up the entire country."
NFS: I know that shooting in Minnesota was important for this project, but I imagine that came with its own set of difficulties. Did you map out the locations you knew you wanted to shoot at?
Mao: Well, luckily Naomi is actually from Minnesota and one of the centerpieces was the Stone Arch Bridge you see in the episode. That was one of the reasons we shot in Minnesota because we needed that bridge and couldn't fake it. We really wanted to capture the feel of the city..
Ko: I think with Minnesota, the main course of difficulty, and that was something that Andrew, Carolyn, and I were facing, is the snow. As the story takes place in October, sometimes it does snow in Minnesota in October—it just snowed 14" yet last week, in April!— and that was really our biggest challenge. We were racing against time in mid-November against winter, and I think that was the only thing. That's why we had a break in-between our Minnesota exteriors and our interior locations Los Angeles, because we wanted to make sure we got it before the snow came.
It didn't make sense to try and do this in Los Angeles and it's also just an exciting opportunity to tell a story that's not set in L.A. or New York, which do not make up the entire country. To know and have met so many Asian-Americans in Minnesota was just really cool and I felt like there should be a diverse range of stories there. This was one way to do that.
Mao: As far as production logistics go, obviously L.A. and New York are the epicenters that Andrew mentioned, and we did have some drawbacks as far as having to travel some of our crew and keep it very limited because of its indie pilot status. That being said, the people that we were able to work with in Minnesota were fantastic and they were so excited about the project. Everything about the experience in Minnesota was so positive that I think Andrew and I would be happy to continue filming the series there. It was actually was much easier than we thought it would be because the community was so supportive of us.
NFS: There are two moments in the pilot where a character says something in Korean that has two different meanings, and that's used to comedic effect. Could you speak a little about creating those jokes and making cultural specificities part of the story?
Ko: As a Korean American who was born and raised in Minnesota, it was really important for me to highlight those particular types of Korean moments. A lot of my friends growing up would ask me, "Tell me inappropriate words in Korean, tell me inappropriate words!" And because I liked to mess with them I told them about gochu, which is a double meaning word for "penis" and "pepper" and then I would tell them to go say that to my parents. I would be like, "No, no, no, it's pepper. It's pepper. Tell that to my mom, tell her." And they would tell it to her and she would laugh. That was one of the many moments I had, as a Korean American kid, having fun.
It was really important that we highlight some of these Korean-American moments. We had another joke, which is a very, very specific joke that only Korean-Americans in Minnesota would understand, which was the "bab/pop joke". Bab in Korean means "rice", but then also in Minnesota, we call soda "pop." As a comedic writer, I always wonder, how am I going to crack jokes? It just felt like bad jokes, like the epitome of being a Korean-American in Minnesota because those are two things that are so important to both the Korean identity, "pop pop", and then also "pop" as soda. Minnesotans take such pride in saying that. Not Coke, not soda...we only call it pop.
Those moments highlighted the specific regionality of being a Minnesotan (which is so unique) and the general American cultural landscape and what it means to be a Korean-American in Minnesota, which is predominately white, known for its Scandinavian roots, and the movie Fargo. We wanted to give it that extra flavor, that extra feel of what Minnesota is by exposing a national and international audience to how diverse and inclusive Minnesota actually is.
"With a film, even if it's boring, people end up kind of watching the 90-minutes, but with a show, if it's boring, they're going to stop watching; they're not going to watch past the first episode."
NFS: How did Film North help with getting the pilot into production?
Ko: The reason why we were able to actually make this pilot is because I am a recipient of the 2017 McKnight Media Art Fellowship, which is a non-profit foundation based out of Minnesota. They partner up with Film North Productions, the facilitator of that grant. When I was awarded the McKnight in June of 2017, right away I talked to Andrew Peterson, the executive director of Film North, and said, "Hey, I got the fellowship money and I want to shoot this project."
From there, Film North immediately came on as our fiscal sponsor. Andrew was able to help navigate us, help Carolyn connect with crew members, and just really supported us in every way. They made sure that we were able to get our equipment in time and really helped facilitate this whole production in Minnesota and continue to as we moved into post-production and now into the festival world. They've been a really essential part of the process.
NFS: What have you learned about creating an episodic story that could potentially continue for an extended period of time? Whatever will come of this, you have to be ready to go back into it [if it gets picked up].
Ahn: When thinking about telling a story episodically, you realize that you really have to hold an audience's attention. With a film, even if it's boring, people end up kind of watching the 90-minutes, but with a show, if it's boring, they're going to stop watching; they're not going to watch past the first episode. I was thinking a lot about what makes Nice engaging and I think it really boils down to character and honesty. I really love all of the specific Minnesota and Korean-American stuff because I think it really shows the project as something that's authentic and trying to do something that's reflective of real life. That's a way to bring people in, to have them trust us as filmmakers and watch the show, excited to learn more about these characters and their cultures.
Ko: And from the writer's perspective of creating a series, I think the reason why we were able to do the pilot the way that we did and to do it with a variable budget, is because the series is all mapped out for me. I know exactly what's going on in every season. Every episode of Season 1 was already written at this point, so when we were going back to square one and were in pre-production and talking about how we're going to shoot the pilot, not only did I understand the season's scope and the series' scope, but so did Andrew and Carolyn too.
As a team, we were all able to really think: what are the most essential parts? What is essential to kick off this series? Writing an episodic is not just about if you can create a show bible or can you create a pilot, but also, as a creator, do you actually have the scope of the entire series in mind? Because that will really impact the way that you approach your pilot.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.