Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 1, 2023

On Friday, March 28, Hopkins alumnus Mark Friedman came to talk to the Film and Media Studies department. Friedman co-wrote the pilot of NBC’s new showBelieve, which premiered on March 10. The other writer was recent Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the pilot and also serves as executive producer along with J.J. Abrams.

Friedman graduated from Hopkins in 1991 with a degree in history. He was originally a political science major, but discovered that he preferred the story and history behind political science and switched. This emphasis on personal stories continues to inspire his work in Hollywood. He considers himself very interested in the characters and relationships, which inspire his writing.

The fact that he is no longer working on the show is public knowledge, and Friedman had no problem mentioning this, nor did he have anything bad to say about the people he worked with. His name still appears as the co-creator in the short opening credits of each episode.

During the talk, Friedman gave many Film and Media Studies students inside tips over the extended, unaired version of the pilot, while it played on the projector on mute.

Such tidbits included how many takes a certain scene took, where there were cuts in the take, where the stunt double came in during fight scenes and where they filmed. There were many scenes filmed in Brooklyn due to tax breaks for filming in New York state, but the pilot was actually set in Baltimore.

These small pieces of information revealed just how much work goes into making a television show; the minute details that our eyes only notice for an instant can require hours of preparation. For example, there is a pivotal scene in a warehouse which was actually shot in two different places for aesthetic purposes. Watching the pilot, it’s impossible to notice these decisions that went into the production process.

He even remarked on the reasons why certain names were chosen. The little girl in the show, Bo, is based off a nickname for Cuarón’s daughter, Boo.

It was especially interesting to hear when NBC wanted certain changes to be made, be it about a character’s hair length or the gender of a certain character. A lot of these judgements were made based on the reactions from focus groups. For a group of Film and Media Studies students, it was invaluable to hear the process of writing a pilot and selling it to a major network, and then how changes are inevitably made. As Friedman explained, once he co-writes and sells a script, he may have little control over how the story arc of the season plays out.

Believe‘s pilot is different in that it goes above and beyond what a normal television pilot used to be in terms of the level of action and the scope. It cost more than a normal episode would usually cost, and this was in order to really make the pilot memorable. Friedman said that Cuarón wanted the pilot to be shot like a film. The first ten minutes include a violent car crash, an assassin committing double murder and a prison escape.

The rest of the episode follows Bo as her mysterious supernatural abilities allow her to touch the lives of those around her. Bo can sense energies from other people, often reading minds without even understanding her own powers. Friedman was happy to point out that Bo’s scenes with a doctor struggling with his decision to remain a surgeon came from Friedman’s own efforts to add emotion to the story, and they luckily were able to keep this B-Plot in the final cut. Meanwhile, the newly escaped convict, Tate, grapples with his life-threatening instructions to protect and hide Bo from those that want to hurt her and exploit her powers.

Directors like Cuarón, who have a strong background in heavy special effects films such as Gravity, are becoming more prominent as TV pilot directors, where the pilot can make or break an entire show. Stephen Spielberg has helped with the development of multiple shows, including NBC’s Smash and CBS’s Under the Dome. These big directors are drawn to TV pilots because they can be shot in between larger features, and there is a greater payoff if the show is a success.

With such big names, everybody believes they are in good hands and have high expectations. Fans of each executive producer especially have certain expectations. Friedman wondered if Abrams’ fans would want the show to be more supernatural, which is not what Friedman and Cuarón wanted initially. It will be interesting to see how the story plays out, and if the theme of the show will turn.


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