Actor Timothy Busfield is doing something unique at MSU. As an artist in residence, he’s created a class to show students how to make a TV pilot.
But he’s not just showing them how to do it. He’s making them do all the work.
“The kids did everything. They ran the sound, they ran the cameras, they did wardrobe, they acted parts in it, they did everything except for the four lead roles which we did. And they played small roles,” Busfield says.
The four leads were played by Busfield, his wife Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie fame, and New York actors Marin Mazzie and Dylan Baker.
“And the idea was put them side by side with us and our process, and then help them. Because we learned our process from the pros we worked with.”
The pilot is called “Tenure.” It’s a dramedy about a college professor, played by Gilbert, who wants to become a provost. Busfield plays her husband, and Mazzie and Baker play their friends. Busfield wrote the script, but he explains that they shot the pilot from an outline.
“We shot it in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm which is Larry David’s show, which is a five to seven page outline and we just bang away at those scenes and the actors can read what content they need to bring. It creates a more realistic environment and for the students this year it’s the only style of real writing that I’ve wanted them to have.”
When it came to acting, Busfield encouraged the students to get comfortable with improvisation.
“The hardest thing to do is recite and memorize dialogue, and if they’re not ready for that yet and they still need to develop their skills, let them improvise and speak in their own voice, and say it the way they would say it, and film that story.”
English major Amanda Pastunink worked as one of the script supervisors on the pilot. She says improvising on the set made her think differently about her writing.
“You want to write it how people talk, otherwise it’s going to sound unnatural. And also, not holding on too tight to your writing because people are going to change it to feel comfortable and it's going to come across way better if they sometimes put their own spin on it.”
One of Miranda McClellan’s jobs for the project was location manager. She’s worked on films before, but says this pilot was a more hands on than anything else she’s done.
“This class has been really the most real world experience you can get on campus. It’s not something you can learn in a lecture or a classroom. You have to go out and do it.”
Camera operator Jeremy Peterson is a graduating senior, and his feelings about the class are bittersweet.
“Oh my gosh, it's insane to think about but it's such a great experience. I can use that experience to get my jobs but at the same time I’m incredibly jealous that kids have more time to spend with Tim which is not only a resume builder but a great contact to have in this industry. Just being able to say, 'oh yes I've worked with Tim Busfield' and then bam- you've already got people talking about that and they want to know how it was or they want to geek out about it too.”
So, will this be a show you might see on Netflix one day? Busfield speculates about a possible future for the pilot.
“Are we gonna try to sell it? We made it as a class project. First and foremost it's a class project. The students will be taught how it could be sold. And where it could be sold. But if it's sold, and how we try to sell it, that's separate of the class in a way.”
Busfield has a vision to continue doing this work, preparing MSU students up for jobs in the industry when they graduate.
“I would love to be sort of the Izzo at Michigan State. I want a team of students I can, as with each project, I can say, 'you're a camera operator I like, you're a sound guy I like, you're a production coordinator I like, you're a perfect assistant for this actor I'm bringing in,' and somehow put the kids side by side with pros so when they leave Michigan State, they don't have necessarily just a resume that might include some community theater and some Michigan State theater. But to be able to say, 'I worked on a project which is currently on the air and I have a resume- I was second makeup on this for two years,' that person's going to jump to the front of the line in LA.”
And based on the enthusiasm his students have about his class, it doesn’t seem like Busfield will have any trouble assembling that team.