Conventional wisdom is that total unknowns with little money can’t possibly get a film into the Sundance Film Festival. That as the festival has grown, it’s become more corporate and more exclusive.
Not true. “You absolutely do not [need connections]. I didn’t,” said Tim Mason, who co-created, co-wrote and is an executive producer of “Work In Progress,” a dark comedy that premiered in the indie episodic category at the film festival in 2018.
“You go online, and there’s filmmaker forums. And they’re like, ‘You have to know someone to get into Sundance or into Slamdance’ or whatever,’” he said. “We didn’t know anybody. This was written by two people who had no idea what they were going to do with it.”
Mason and co-creator/co-writer/executive producer Abby McEnany said they never expected their TV pilot to be accepted at Sundance. “When Sundance said yes, it was, like, ‘What are you talking about?’” McEnany said. “I just lost it.”
That’s the dream. Make a film or, in recent years, a TV show. Get into Sundance. Get noticed.
Mason and McEnany come out of Chicago improv, and it’s not like they had any contacts in Hollywood pre-Sundance. But they do now. After “Work In Progress” screened, Dave Binegar, Showtime’s director of original programming, came up and introduced himself.
“He gave me his card,” McEnany said, adding she thought: “Why are you giving me your card? I can’t call you. You’re from Showtime.”
In November 2018, Mason and McEnany found themselves in Hollywood talking to executives at the pay-cable channel.
“To be honest, before the Sundance Film Festival, we had never heard of Abby McEnany and Tim Mason,” said Showtime Entertainment president Gary Levine. But “as soon as we saw [‘Work In Progress’], we loved it and knew it belonged on Showtime.”
It’s based on a fictionalized-but-not-that-much version of McEnany — a 45-year-old, self-identified “fat, queer dyke” who has decided that if her life doesn’t improve in the next 180 days, she’ll end it. The tagline for the show is: a comedy about being out and down.
“This show is funny, outrageous and profound,” Levine said, “with a performance by Abby that lays herself emotionally bare in a way that will resonate with all who see it.”
“You don’t see people like Abby on television,” said Lilly Wachowski, who signed on as an executive producer/writer after the pilot.
In real life and on the show, Abby is dealing with depression, and she’s haunted by former “Saturday Night Live” star Julia Sweeney’s character, a social misfit of ambiguous gender. In real life and on the show, Abby is called “Pat” as an insult — a form of “bigotry and harassment or whatever,” McEnany said. “Pat ruined my life.”
And Sweeney appears in the pilot.
Very early in that first episode — the one that screened at Sundance — Abby tells her therapist about her 180-day plan. And her therapist dies. Which is a bit of an exaggeration.
“A lot of people were, like, ‘Did your therapist really die?’” McEnany said. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t be here. I would lose it.”
Mason and McEnany were well aware of a certain irony in debuting “Work In Progress” in Utah, which isn’t exactly known for being progressive or even particularly gay-friendly.
“Absolutely. I mean, we laughed about it,” Mason said. “‘Oh, yeah, let’s go into Utah and talk about our trans, LGBTQ show.’ It was a kind of running joke.”
(In the series, Abby becomes romantically involved with a much-younger trans man, played by Theo Germaine.)
Showtime ordered eight half-hour episodes, which begin airing Sunday at 8:54 and 10:54 p.m. (after the premiere of “The L Word: “Generation Q”). McEnany said, “It does feel not real.”
“It’s crazy,” Mason said. “One year ago, Abby and I were in a coffee shop on the north side of Chicago probably having that Sundance debate.”
A debate over whether to spend $80 on the entry fee.
“‘Why? We’re never going to get in,’” said McEnany, who eventually agreed, as long as Mason paid the entry fee. “‘You have $80? All right, money bags.’ And then it was a dream come true.”
(The truth is that Mason came up with the idea of submitting “Work In Progress” to the film festival to give his editor a hard deadline to finish editing the pilot. “We’ve got to send it to Sundance!” Mason said.)
And $80 means something to McEnany and Mason. They scraped together every cent they had to produce the “Work in Progress” pilot, spending “just a little under $30,000,” Mason said.
The budget for a half-hour network or cable comedy generally runs $1.5 million to $3 million. They made a pilot for 1 to 2% of that.
And that incredibly inexpensive half hour is what viewers will see Sunday on Showtime. Mason added a single shot after the Showtime deal “because the apartment we shot for Abby’s apartment is the least production-friendly apartment you could get” and the additional shot “made it look bigger. That’s the only thing we changed.”
Which is another part of the not-unattainable-after-all Sundance dream — that filmmakers can independently produce a project on a shoestring and sell it.
McEnany said the Sundance-to-Showtime odyssey been “bonkers … and it is still unbelievable.”
“What I really thought would happen [is] I’d be sleeping on my sister’s couch in about three years because I can’t get a job. Hopefully, that doesn’t still happen.”