There's more than one way to break into TV, and the story behind CW's Significant Mother proves that. Writing partners, actors and executive producers Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith sat down with Script to discuss their success and offer advice to writers breaking in.
"Significant Mother" stars Krista Allen, Nathaniel Buzolic and Josh Zuckerman - Zuckerman plays Nate, a budding Portland restaurateur whose world is turned upside down when he comes back from a business trip to find his lothario best friend and roommate, Jimmy, is dating his recently separated mother, Lydia (Allen). To make matters worse, Nate’s previously disinterested dad, Harrison, is determined to win Lydia back and isn’t afraid to use Nate to get what he wants. Stuck between his family feud and his best friend’s first serious relationship, Nate’s “new normal” forever changes his relationships with his parents and severely handicaps his own dating life.
Tell us how the idea for the web series, and ultimately the TV show, came about.
Significant Mother was actually an in-house idea that had been floating around the web division of our production company (Alloy Entertainment) for a year or so when they pitched it to us. At the time their title was So I Married Your MILF. Originally, Nate (the son) was to come home to find that his mom and his best friend had hastily (read: drunkenly) married while he was away on business. After Alloy shared the premise with us, they asked if we’d be interested in coming in and pitching them our take on what the series could be.
We were a new writing team at the time and no one had ever asked us to “pitch them our take on a series” before, so of course we were thrilled, but honestly a bit stumped about how to sustain the idea beyond the premise. After some thought, we decided to slow the timeline substantially because, to us, it seemed that the meat of the story, or stories, would be the awkward, precarious, scandalous relationship that led up to the marriage (or not, no spoilers here!) and not the marriage itself.
Not only would slowing the timeline allow us to explore the stages of the mother/friend relationship, but we’d also get to explore how the friendship between the guys would be affected. Especially, considering this is the first serious relationship the friend has ever had. Add to that, the fact that Nate is forced to stop putting his parents on a pedestal and start seeing them as real, messed-up people who are now swimming in his dating pool.
With all this in place, Alloy saw the possibility for sustainability in the idea and took us in to pitch CW Seed who bought 60 minutes of content for the web in 2014. In 2015, the network picked up a 9 episode season.
How did the partnership with CW Seed originate?
As we mentioned, we developed the idea with Alloy into a pitch for a web series, but we really wanted to make full TV length 20-22 minute episodes and there were not a lot of web platforms at the time willing to do that (this was in early 2013). Several places passed and we thought the show might be dead... but then another ½ hour comedy spec script of ours won the New York Television Festival / FOX Comedy Script Contest and we got a development deal with FOX.
This win got us on CW Seed’s radar (they’re a huge supporter of that festival) and they said they were interested in hearing our pitch (then titled Mother F@#*er). While our goal to position the web series to be formatted like a TV series had been a deterrent to other platforms, it was a real selling point to CW Seed. Seed was / is looking to develop web series into TV series because they’re in the unique position of also having their own broadcast network. We went in and pitched the concept, the pilot, the characters and a loose idea for the first season and a few days later they bought it.
What was the reception for the web series like online? Did the success of the show online spur the network to bring it to series?
It actually never aired on the web. We finished producing the web series in August 2014 and in September, right around the time CW Seed was planning to release it, they came back to us and said... “we’re not going to release this...” (gulp) “because we’d like to move it over to the network as a 2015 summer series.” (hooray). From there it took about six anxious months until the deals were all done and we could start. We started writing in March 2015, went into production in May and we’re airing now in August. It’s been a whirlwind!
What was the process like to bring the show to series? Is the TV series significantly different than the web series? Did you have to add any more characters, or plot lines?
It was actually pretty seamless. We always saw the web series as a back door pilot for the network, so when the CW Seed asked us to give them 60 minutes of web content, we gave them three fully produced TV ready episodes that highlighted the potential of the series (we like to call it our “thrilot”). When the network picked up the series, we kept two episodes in their entirety (save for scenes that had to be reshot due to recasting) and scrapped the third because we felt that story didn’t fit in the new nine episode arc.
In terms of plot and characters, they’re all the same, although the tone shifted when we moved from the web to broadcast. As it turns out you can’t do or say a lot of the things we did and said in the web version on broadcast, so making this premise a bit more family friendly in it’s approach was the biggest adjustment.
How did each of you get your start in the business?
We both started out as actors. We actually met in acting class at Warner Loughlin Studios in Hollywood about 10 years ago. In that decade, Erin was a regular on Passions, a major recurring on Suite Life on Deck, guest starred on a ton of TV series including How I Met Your Mother, Justified, and Castle and did various film roles. She also wrote and produced the indie feature Speak Now, which won the audience award at the Austin Film Festival in 2013.
Rich recurred on a bunch of shows including Grey’s Anatomy and guest starred countless others, including Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars and NCIS. He also directed a ton of web shorts for ACME Comedy Theater with cameos from actors like Matt Lillard, Lea Thompson and John Hawkes and went on to direct a short film, Grow Up Already, that starred Johnny Simmons, Odette Annable, Frances Fisher and Ethan Suplee.
While that was all happening, we both started trading the solo feature scripts we were working on (with various production companies), asking each other for feedback. We soon realized we had a similar sensibility and decided to try giving writing together a shot. Turns out it was a blast and our first few collaborative efforts got great responses, so we decided to keep doing it. The writing partnership has become our priority and primary focus of late, though we both still work as actors and solo writers when time and opportunity permits.
What advice would you give to other writers who want to create their own web series?
We got lucky in that a spec script we wrote led us to a company who hired us to make a web series, but that’s not the most direct way to do it.
If you have an idea for a web series, our advice would be to just go out and make it. With the cost of camera and production equipment today, and the many platforms looking for content, there’s no excuse not to create your own work.
The best way to learn is by doing (and sometimes failing) and then getting back up and doing it again. What we can offer is that when you set out to make your series, ask yourself what your goal is, what your end game is, because everything you do, everything you make, should ideally position you closer to that goal.
Significant Mother on CW - Mondays at 9:30/8:30PM Central.
Watch Significant Mother Trailer
Follow Erin on Twitter: @theErinCardillo
Follow Richard on Twitter: @richkeith
Follow Significant Mother on Twitter: @@cwmother
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