Movers & Shakers

David E. Kelley Productions

by David Jon Wiener Sr. Editor, Feature Films

In 1995, David E. Kelley signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to create and produce four series over five years. With Ally McBeal on Fox, The Practice on ABC, and Chicago Hope on CBS, Kelley Productions delivers 12 hours per month of network programming favored by audiences and critics alike. Kelley writes much of this material himself (in longhand on legal pads), making him one of the most prolific producer-writers in the industry. Surrounding him is a team of producers , the subjects of this interview, who handle the hectic responsibilities of day-to-day production: Jeffrey Kramer, Jonathan Pontell and Robert Breech.

POV: How did each of you come to know and work with David Kelley?
Jeffrey Kramer: I was running development for Fox when we became friends. He once said to me, “If I ever have a company, I’d love for you to run it” and I thought yeah, yeah, yeah. But he actually meant it and it happened about five years ago. I’m President of Kelley Productions and Co-Executive Producer of both Ally McBeal and The Practice.

Jonathan Pontell: This is my tenth year with David. I met him while I was an editor on L.A. Law; I was there for seasons four, five and six. My last year there, David left to create a new series and we agreed that when he was ready to do the pilot, I’d leave L.A. Law. By that time, I’d become an associate producer. I left and edited the pilot for David’s new series. I stayed with him through four years of Picket Fences. By the end of that show, I was a full producer and starting to direct. I was a producer on The Practice and did some directing, then we moved on and did Ally. David asked me to edit the Ally pilot - last year I directed three episodes and am now co-executive producer. I’ll be directing two more Allys this season. Last year, I also worked on The Practice, watching cuts and giving notes. But it was too much to do, so Bob Breech is now co-executive producer exclusively for The Practice and I’m just working on Ally.

Robert Breech: I met David Kelley in 1986 when we both came together on L.A. Law. I had been a lawyer, too, but had finished practicing about two years prior to that time. I’d quit the law and got an MFA in producing at USC. I worked briefly in documentaries, did a couple of features and then met a neighbor of mine, Gregory Hoblit, who was Steven Bochco’s right-hand man [Greg currently directs features, Primal Fear and Fallen.]. It was Greg who supported me and introduced me to the Bochco organization. When I knew David was going to leave L.A. Law at the end of its fifth year, we agreed to work together in the future. I knew he had a commitment with CBS but he had not delivered anything at that time. I remained with L.A. Law for its sixth season while David wrote a feature and developed Picket Fences with CBS. I then came aboard as a producer on Picket Fences. Under David’s deal with ABC, we had The Practice first and then the Ally McBeal pilot on which I worked fairly extensively during the shoot. More recently, however, my involvement has been exclusively with The Practice.

POV: How did Ally McBeal get started?
JK: With Ally, David knew the Fox commitment was going to be Mondays at 9:00pm. They said, “Here’s the time slot - we want you to do a show for us.” He created it to follow Melrose Place. The main character is very real. For every three steps forward, she takes two back just like the rest of us.

POV: Jeffrey, did you come from a law background into this business?
JK: No, I was an actor.

POV: Do you still act?
JK: No, thank God, no! I’ve retired. However, I did play the pedestrian in the Ally pilot - David’s idea - the one she bumps into and screams at.

POV: Anybody else appear on-screen?
JP: I did a couple cameos on Picket Fences. I played a guy who stole panties from a laundromat; in a later episode, I came back dead because I tried to steal someone’s panties while they were still wearing them. I was on a slab in that one; my mother was very upset.

POV: Who owns the shows?
JK: Fox owns the copyright and trademark. The rest of us are employees.

POV: How many scripts do you like to have at the beginning of each year?
JK: As many as possible. But sometimes, there’s only one or two. And David does all the writing. We do occasionally give out scripts but, basically, it’s all David Kelley.

POV: What kind of creative input do the rest of you have?
JK: David is always open to all the voices in this mix. For each script, there’s a story meeting where the director and anybody else can chime in and give story notes. On every script we do, David opens it up to story notes; you can ask him about anything.

POV: Who came up with the unisex bathroom?
JK: That’s David. It’s a great place where people can tell secrets and it’s not in the office.

POV: Who does the visual work for the fantasy sequences?
JP: Encore Video, supervised by Mike Most. Actually, the dancing baby existed in a crude form on the internet, a promo for a company that did computer effects. We got the rights and refined it.

POV: What would an average week in production be like?
JK: I bounce around between the sets. And there are different network problems, show problems, different executives to answer to, emergencies, whatever.

POV: How about The Practice?
RB: When we’re up and running, we have four shows in various stages of production simultaneously and one is constantly trying to juggle balls in the air; you may be working with writers on show one, in prep on show two, refining story and scripts, attending innumerable meetings about casts, sets, props, etcetera. And then you have show three shooting and show four is in post. Monday, we have a 7:00 am call and, from then on, everything is a stream of consciousness until Saturday. As the co-exec, my primary responsibility is the creative execution of the show. I work with dozens of very bright people with particularized needs who care greatly about what they do. Then, there’s always Murphy’s Law - you have to adapt to unexpected situations and maintain flexibility. To my mind, a good producer should be the eye in the middle of the storm. No matter how much pressure comes your way, remain steady, be patient, know how to listen and understand psychology. You’re best off practicing preventive medicine but, when the unexpected comes through the door, that’s when your mettle as a production team is really tested.

POV: How about Ally McBeal?
JP: When we’re starting the fifth episode of the season, we're in full swing. So there are five episodes we’re working on at the same time. While we’re shooting one, we’re prepping the next; at the same time, there are three episodes in various stages of editing. I spend a decent amount of time on stage, kind of looking over the director’s shoulder a little bit. David spends very little time doing anything other than writing so I see myself following David’s concept, to see he gets what he wants all the way through. After ten years, I have a pretty good sense of what he’s after. And we have “tone meetings,” which is where we all sit down and David tries to define what’s in his mind, how he sees new characters, their situations, how far to go with a character, that kind of thing.

POV: By the way, who played Janet Reno on Ally?
JP: That was a wonderful actress named Linda Gerringer; she did Evening Shade and on the Picket Fences pilot, Linda is the woman who commits suicide in a dishwasher. She looks nothing like Janet Reno so we had to use heavy make-up.

POV: When things got to the point of the company doing 12 hours of programming per week, did it go through a rapid expansion?
JK: No, because most of the people are hired on the individual shows; the company itself has only five executives. We recently moved to a brand-new facility in Manhattan Beach, Raleigh-Manhattan Beach Studios.

POV: What was involved in The Practice moving its time and day?
RB: When we moved to Monday from the Siberia that is Saturday nights at 10:00, we knew we had begun to develop word-of-mouth among viewers. Monday helped enormously but we knew it would be short-lived because of Monday Night Football, which is a franchise show for ABC. Sunday was the position we were pushing for, along with other possibilities. It’s a real opportunity to share what we do with an audience.

POV: Is Kelley Productions moving into features?
JK: Yes, we have one we just finished for Disney and a picture at Phoenix. But I think there’s a true love of television at this company; we love the process and the pace of it.

POV would like to congratulate the whole team at Kelley Productions for receiving an Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series for The Practice.