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TV producer gives lecture

Lauren Baldwin | Friday, September 25, 2009

In order to create great TV or art of any kind, you have to dare to suck, said Douglas Lieblein, Emmy-nominated writer and co-executive producer and writer of The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana.”

“You have to be brave enough as an artist and throw that thing in the back of your head that judges you out,” he said.

After previously pursuing acting, directing and screenwriting, Lieblein found his passion as a half- hour sit-com writer during his time as a writer’s assistant.

“It is a completely different kind of writing that you’ve never heard of or experienced and I fell in love with it,” Lieblein said.

Lieblein discussed how the group of six writers and producers begin the Hannah Montana production process.

“We come in eight weeks early, start breaking stories that we think would be good Hannah episodes,” Lieblein said. “We create stories from the heart of the character outward, about how the character is moving forward in life.”

If the group can make comedy out of a serious subject, they have a story.

They always start out with “Miley wants blank,” but because Miley Cyrus can’t be filming every hour of the day, they always have a B story in the episode that she isn’t in.

A high priority of writers is to consider the effects everything in the episode can have on the young viewers.

“We know absolutely that everything Miley does on screen, a six-year-old girl will do at home; we all have kids,” Lieblein said. “They are going to imitate everything she does and says.”

After outlining, beating out stories and ending up with a bunch of story ideas for the season, the first episode goes into production. Lieblein discussed a typical workweek.

“Monday 9 a.m. everybody comes in; actors, writers, directors, and we do a table read. Actors sit around the table and they read through their scripts,” Lieblein said. “We’re hearing the dialogue for the first time. It changes everything when you hear it. ‘Oh that joke doesn’t work,’ and at 10 a.m. the actors go to the stage to rehearse.”

While the actors rehearse, the writers get notes, work on production and spend the rest of the night rewriting the script for Tuesday’s run-through.

“Tuesday morning actors are rehearsing on stage, and from nine to one we have free time,” Lieblein said. “Our free time is frantically scrambling to finish next week’s script. We go back to stage and see run-through of script. We see it up on its feet and we have a visual.”

By Wednesday props are included in the run-through, and network executives come to give feedback. This is the time of the week when huge parts of episodes need to be rewritten based on concerns the network or the Standards and Practices Committee have.

“One episode was all about Miley endorsing a product before she tried it,” Lieblein said. “When she does finally try it, she’s allergic to an ingredient, and her tongue swells up so much that she speaks funny. They were afraid it seemed like we were making fun of people with speech impediments, so we ended up rewriting the entire last 20 pages of the episode.”

There are hours and hours of rewriting that occurs while in the production process.

“The most time consuming part is not telling the story; it’s telling it in a funny way,” Lieblein said.

Thursday is “crazy day.” Half of the show is filmed each Thursday. Lieblein and three other writers work in the writer’s room on the next week’s episodes while watching a video feed from the stage where shooting is going on and where the two executive producers are. Much collaboration on the shooting occurs between the people on the stage and in the writing room.

Friday, the script for the next week is completed. At 5 p.m., 225 guests come to the studio and the other half of the show is filmed.

“Friday night the show is over. Big sigh, and start all over again on Monday,” Lieblein said.

After describing what he does in his job, Leiblein gave advice on how to break into the business.

“If you really want to break into the business, learn to type really fast,” Lieblein said. “Being a writer’s assistant is the easiest way in. After you have been a writer’s assistant, you see another writer’s assistant, and you want to help them in. I have read every script that every writer’s assistant has ever given me.”

When asked if he has considered going into screenwriting, Lieblein replied that he could never give up his job because he loves the atmosphere of the writer’s room.

“When I go to work, I laugh more than I ever laughed in my entire life,” Lieblein said. “What I do for a living is too much fun. I’ve fallen in love with The Disney Channel and I love working with them.”

Finally, Lieblein said he knew Miley Cyrus was a star from the beginning, but he never could have expected the phenomenon that Hannah Montana has turned into globally.

“More people in India watch Hannah Montana than in the United States,” Lieblein said.