The Intern's Lot: A Conversation in Film with Rob Thomas
By Mario Hernandez
I had the opportunity to join the Austin Film Festival at their sold-out event for "Conversations in Film with Rob Thomas" on Wednesday, April 18 at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. For those unfamiliar with Thomas, do not get him confused with the lead musician for the band Matchbox Twenty because this Rob Thomas writes screenplays. He's the creator of the critically acclaimed television show Veronica Mars, and on Wednesday, he spoke about creating a television series from inception to completion using his series Party Down as a case study.
I was the first person to show up to the event at 6:20 pm. The AFF staff was still prepping their setup, but once they were ready, I checked in and formed a line for the event. I met a wonderful couple from Arkansas named Raven and Nathan, and our conversations about Hitchcock, Wes Craven and the Austin Film Society allowed time to pass while more people showed up to the event. The conversations carried over into the theatre where we took seats front and center, a treat since Rob Thomas would later stage himself 5 feet away from me on the stage for the Q&A, with the perfect view of his polka-dotted black-and-gray socks that I found amusing.
Initially, Party Down was a passion project for Thomas that was highly inspired by the British version of The Office. Through that program, Thomas saw the future of comedy.
The backstory to the development of Party Down as told by Thomas goes back to 1995 in our happening town of Austin, Texas. While visiting an Irish pub (that no longer exists) on Sixth Street, Thomas met Paul Rudd (post-Clueless fame) and Rudd's buddy Adam Scott. The Clueless actor and his friend were visiting from Houston where Paul Rudd was filming Locusts. They were in town to experience Austin with Thomas' help.
Years later, Rudd and Thomas reconnected through friends Dan Etheridge and John Enbom for Veronica Mars. After various brainstorming sessions, the friends created an idea for a show about people who are chasing the dream for too long. The idea became the premise for Party Down, which is based on waiters in Los Angeles, an occupation populated heavily with aspiring actors, musicians, and the like.
They sold the idea to HBO originally, but HBO thought it would be another "inside Hollywood" show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Entourage. Thomas explained that HBO's vision disconnected from the idea that he, Rudd, Etheridge and Enbom had developed. They encountered a similar experience through the FX network, so for a few years, the pilot script for Party Down just sat in the drawer.
Amid the success of Veronica Mars, the friends eventually shot the pilot for Party Down during a Season 3 hiatus of Veronica Mars. The pilot was shot at Rob Thomas' personal home and was co-directed by Thomas, Etheridge and Enbom. The actors, including Jane Lynch, were paid $100 per day. (Lynch filmed the Glee pilot before Party Down, which explains her short-lived character in Season One as she was contractually obligated to FOX after Glee was picked up.)
The Party Down pilot was produced with the help of friends and acquaintances, so shooting this pilot was experimental in that Thomas and company were "feeling it out," as he explained onstage. The pilot was eventually picked up by the STARZ network at an agreement of $700,000 per episode. The show debuted to great reviews but low viewership, and as many of us know, few people saw the show when it was first broadcast.
During the AFF event, Thomas screened his unaired pilot of Party Down as a teaching tool. This was the first time the pilot episode has been publicly viewed and probably the only time if anything because of copyright issues concerning material used in the pilot. Thomas used a sort of "pop-up video" type of style during the screening, often pausing the DVD to point out something in the scene. For those Party Down fans who are curious to know what the pilot is like, it's got funny moments, unexpected brief nudity in a scene exposing a character's butt rising out of the pool after jumping in naked, and Andrea Savage in the role of Casey, who was replaced by Lizzy Caplan after the pilot. Overall, the four friends achieved the Office aesthetic they were aiming for.
Fans may be surprised to hear that during the Q&A session, Thomas did reveal that the pink bowtie that became that iconic element of the show was only a small decision made by the costume designer.
In more discouraging news to aspiring screenwriters in Austin, Thomas also expressed his opinion that the TV business is in Los Angeles and that it is almost impossible to get into the business from Austin. Recently, Thomas sold a pilot to HBO with Owen Wilson and Ira Glass, and he is currently working on a Party Down movie script as well, of which he has an outline already complete. Ultimately, it was an enjoyable experience and to top it off, I got a signed copy of the pilot script by Rob Thomas! Not everyone can say that.
Mario Hernandez is an Intern at the Austin Film Society.