Drive far enough north in LA and you arrive at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Just a mile further and you can uncover Santa Clarita Studios – the TV home of Justified, Vegas, and Make It Or Break It. The independent filming location is nestled among non-descript office space. I was there thanks to one of those who-knows-who type things. My congregant, Bernie Kessler, knows Pamela Chais, a veteran TV writer of such shows as Love, Sydney and Maude. Pamela is the mother of Bill Chais, a TV writer and producer, who is also the co-creator the TNT Dramedy Franklin & Bash. Bernie was driving Pamela up to see her son’s set and got me an invite along. Now that’s an excellent congregant. And I got a great tour.
Franklin & Bash is about two outlandish lawyers working for a large law firm. Shooting its third season, it stars two charming actors – Mark-Paul Gosselaar from Saved the By the Bell and NYPD Blue, and Breckin Meyer, probably best known from his break-out role as the skateboarder Travis in Clueless and as Jon in Garfield (But I appreciate him most for the work he does as a writer on Robot Chicken). I hadn’t watched the show until just before this trip when I did a brief crash course. The show also stars Malcolm McDowell, Heather Lockerlear, and others who were on set today, so I’m not going to talk about them.
When you tour a set with the mother of the producer, everyone is very friendly. We were very graciously welcomed by every single person we encountered. I discovered it takes a ton of people to make a TV show run. I also couldn’t take any photos (except one of chairs below) – sorry.
Everyone was at lunch when we arrived. Craft services on a cable show like this one aren’t overwhelming, but there seemed to be a nice variety. The extras sit separated from the cast and crew. I immediately spotted Mark-Paul Gosselaar and images of Zack, Slater, Kelly, Screech, Jessie, Lisa, Mr. Belding, and others popped into my head. Saved By The Bell was a good show. I even dressed as Screech a number of years ago at a NFTY event in Texas. When I meet famous people, I strive not to be another needy fan boy. I try to play it cool and treat the famous person like a person. I have failed twice: When I was 17 and met Billy Joel, and as an adult when I met Mookie Wilson – I was tongue-tied both times.
So I shook Mark-Paul’s hand and met his wife Catriona (who is tall, blond, beautiful, and very nice), his mother, and his aunt. Mark-Paul looks fantastic and is super-skinny. We ran into the family again later by the trailers and learned that the Gosselaars are expecting a child this September. Suddenly, Breckin Meyer bust out of his adjacent trailer with a cowboy hat and no shirt. He clearly meant to make an entrance, but I don’t think knew his producer’s mother would be standing there. He came out dressed a moment later and was very friendly (and very short – even shorter in real life). He and Mark-Paul seemed to have a very friendly, relaxed relationship.
We toured the sets for the show. There are standing “big courtroom,” “small courtroom,” “judge’s chambers,” “law offices,” and other regularly used sets. Most were cluttered with equipment as only the big courtroom set was being used that day. A short golf-cart ride took us to another part of the studios up the hill (where the view was magnificent) to see the “beach house” and “jail” sets. The beach house is modeled on a real Long Beach house. It was incredible – anyone would happily move in. Looking at it as a real house, it demonstrated standard TV tropes. There was a staircase that lead down to a wall that gave the illusion of a bigger place (where the bedrooms would be). The deck was exactly like the real beach house so they can match shots. It had a semi-realistic 270° ocean view around it. The living room, dining room, and kitchen were all one giant room as all TV apartments and houses seem to have (Friends – click image below, New Girl, The Golden Girls, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother, and on and on), which make filming much easier. So start knocking down those walls now!
Looking at the beach house, there was a lack of real things two rich bachelors would have – such as computers, television – but there was a giant telescope and lots and lots and lots of liquor. A fridge just full of Coors Light (a sponsor of the show), a shelf crammed with hard liquor, cases of beer in a visible storage area. These characters drink. Nearby the Franklin & Bash beach house was the quaint outdoor set of 1960s Vegas from the show Vegas (the new one with Dennis Quaid). Made me want to go play Keno.
Filming was approaching. From the small courtroom set we could peer into the big courtroom and watch the rehearsal. Most of the cast was casually dressed – Breckin was in shorts and a t-shirt. They ran the lines quickly. Mark-Paul had most of the lines in the scene and was still in the process of learning them. I wasn’t able to fully get the plot from this isolated scene, but it did involve a lot of Native Americans as extras, a meteorite, and a baseball pitching machine used to prove a point in that way only TV law shows can.
After a couple rehearsal, the cast left for hair and make-up. Lighting and sound cues were all done by a large team working in a lot of short-hand and on-the-spot decisions. Height and hair-appropriate stand-ins represented Mark-Paul and Breckin. That is an actual job. One surprise was that the episode’s director was David Paymer whom you know from movies like City Slickers and Quiz Show. I know many former actors now direct TV like Fred Savage and David Schwimmer. He didn’t seem to do much during the filming leaving to a bunch of assistant directors, production director, etc. to run the show.
After an endless wait, the cast returned all dressed up. They filmed the scene, which felt a bit bumpy with some awkward line readings. Then they took a break, discused camera angles for a while, and then did the scene again. And again. And again. Each time the three cameras were position nearly identically. They hadn’t taken a single shot of the other lawyer, the judge, or the witness. I asked the assistant who was nicely babysitting me and she said they often do a scene 10 times from one angle and then do it all again from other angles. The extras and the minor actors spend the whole time just sitting there. Acting may be a glamorous job, but for most people it involved a lot of patience and starring into space. For the leads, it involved a lot of repetition. Everyone was very professional. Breckin would occasionally joke around. Mark-Paul, who was the main focus of the scene, was absorbing his lines. According to the script supervisor, Mark-Paul just assimilates each age of script completely. At one point while elivering a line about a “meteor,” Mark-Paul interrupted himself and said, “The writer put meteor, but it should, of course, be a meteorite.” When Breckin forgot to turn on the pitching machine, Mark-Paul seemed a little frustrated, but he turned it on, walked back to an early spot and continued the scene. When you’ve been on TV almost continually since you were 12, I imagine this is just another day at the office.
As I had grown bored hearing the same scene a half dozen times, I decided to slip out and end my tour. As I left, I marveled how the entrance to the F&B studios was set like a police station for each use. Every movie and TV studio is genius in purposing and reusing locations to create the atmosphere and place needed.
It was fun to watch a scene being filmed (even if I only saw one scene from one camera angle over and over). TV and movie can both be tedious and require a huge team, even in a simple dialogue heavy courtroom scene. While some people don’t like having the curtain pulled back on the magic, I like knowing bit more on how they mike, light, set, and make a scene that ultimately make a seamless moment in a show. I am grateful to Bernie, Pamela, and Bill for the visit.