Viewpoint: Painless Productions’ Jim Casey on staying creative under constraints

If entering eating establishments were still legal, I’m convinced that if I stepped inside each of LA’s 137 Starbucks locations, stood among the macchiato-sipping table squatters hammering away on their ...
April 9, 2020

If entering eating establishments were still legal, I’m convinced that if I stepped inside each of LA’s 137 Starbucks locations, stood among the macchiato-sipping table squatters hammering away on their keyboards and shouted, “Help! I need an original, unproduced ‘deadly virus destroys Earth’ script right now!” I’d quickly accumulate at least 137 Dropbox links. Sure, each screenplay would feature its own outlandishly fictionalized variation – the bug was engineered by terrorists or our president is actually competent – but the basic premise of them all would be damn close to what we’re experiencing now.

The sad truth is we’re all living an eye-rolling “MOP” – an embarrassingly predictable Most Often Pitched cliché. I know this personally because somewhere in an undisclosed landfill, digitally etched into the 20-megabyte hard drive of a shattered Toshiba laptop, exists yet another cringe-inducing version of this story. It was my first screenplay. It’s also my last. You’re welcome.

Yet, despite the banality of this premise, our nation’s leaders still managed to completely miss months ago what so many heavy-handed hacks like myself easily envisioned decades ago.

Can we please not follow this failure of imagination?

Before I go any further, some housekeeping: 1) This is not a pep talk. I grew up in New Jersey where pep was pounded out of us the same way Springsteen lyrics were pounded in. 2) I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I can only respect a universe that has the good sense not to consider me when choosing its next move.

What I do believe, however, is that everything that happens provides us with an opportunity to learn something important. And I think this catastrophic world-wide shutdown is one of those opportunities.

Remember the grammar school teacher who compelled us to write an essay… about anything? Or the network exec who always asks to be pitched “the next gigantic idea?” If you’re feeling that phantom chill down your spine, it’s because complete creative freedom can be paralyzing. We want options, yes, but not all options. Creativity thrives under constraint, because, as psychologists say, restrictions force us to see the world differently.

It’s what we content providers have always done. We’re handed constraints – usually from our buyers – and asked to thread the creative needle. We focus on our target demos through casting and development, commit to a format before production begins and make painful choices in post, constantly narrowing and evolving our projects in the process. These are our daily restrictions. We’ve just stopped noticing them.

We’re reminded of their squeeze every so often when a network phone call begins with, “So, the group’s been kicking this around a little and…” If we lose that battle, we address the soul-crushing notes, knowing our beloved project will die. But somehow, it doesn’t. It hits. Because every one of us has been wrong at least once. In fact, most of us owe at least part of our success to a restriction we thought would end us.

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are now posing the greatest restrictions we’ve ever faced, and it’s inevitable that much of our most groundbreaking work will come out of it. I know this because we’re an innovative and resourceful breed; critical thinkers who thrive under pressure. We’re the dreamers and the doers. I know this because if high hurdles could stop us, every network schedule would be peppered with black holes and test patterns. I know this because against all odds, we get shit done.

But only when we embrace our restrictions and respect them – even love them – can we use them to inspire us. I believe those who do will thrive, and I fear for those who resist.

The next blockbuster concept will rise from this crisis. Someone will create it. In all honesty, I hope it’s me, but it could be you. Or it might be that over-caffeinated table squatter at Starbucks.

Founded by Jim Casey, Painless Productions, launched 25 years ago, has produced a long list of genre-busting and award winning series across a wide variety of genres including the long running franchise The Dead Files (Travel), My Crazy Ex (LMN) as well as spinoffs My Crazy Sex (LMN) and My Haunted House (LMN), Hot Properties: San Diego (HGTV), Out There with Jack Randall (NatGeo Wild, Disney+), Reasonable Doubt (ID), Evil Things (TLC) and Cat People (Animal Planet) among dozens more.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.