They met a few years ago in the trenches at MGM. Meredith worked as an assistant to MGM Pictures prexy Michael Nathanson; Marcie was on the desk of Elizabeth Ingold, the Lion’s exec veepee of production.
As both of them were bright and bubbly, young and ambitious in similar ways, the laws of workplace physics dictated that Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin would become friends. They ate lunch together most days, hung out in their spare time and developed a circle of mutual friends, many of whom were similarly employed in lower-rung showbiz jobs that offer Skybox views of the industry they seek to conquer.
Meredith and Marcie just happened to get there a whole lot faster than most, even in a town known for its accelerated career development.
“This has been our a-mazing year,” Marcie says. “We didn’t know what ‘normal’ was in all of this, so we’ve been amazed every step of the way,” Meredith adds.
Last fall, about nine months after the two voluntarily became unemployed in order to focus on writing together, Lavender and Ulin sold the first TV pitch they ever shopped, to the CW Network and CBS Paramount Network Television. CW liked the resulting sitcom pilot well enough to give “Eight Days a Week” a midseason order. And all of a sudden, to the surprise of no one more than them, Meredith and Marcie are the ones taking calls, and calling at least some of the shots.
Marcie, a Chattanooga, Tenn. native and Harvard grad who came west for graduate degree via USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program, remembers how envious she felt whenever writers would come in for meetings with Ingold and other MGM execs.
Lavender, a Chicago native who initially came to L.A. after college in Massachusetts to ply her trade as a singer-songwriter, had a sense of what the life of a feature writer was like from her older brother, screenwriter Jay Lavender. After her stint at MGM, Meredith worked as the writers’ assistant to her brother and his partner, Jeremy Garelick, on “The Break-Up,” which became a hit last year for Universal. Marcie spent some time working for producer Mike Karz before doubling-back into a writing partnership with Meredith.
The two hunkered down in mid-January and had a spec based on an original idea of Meredith’s a month later. Jay Lavender was impressed enough with the duo’s effort to pass it on to his reps at William Morris Agency, where the script circulated and landed on the desk of TV lit vet Ann Blanchard. She brought the M&M girls in for a meeting soon after she read it, on the enthusiastic recommendation of her assistant. (In Hollywood concentric-circles fashion, Blanchard’s assistant at the time happened to be an acquaintance of Meredith and Marcie’s, and she gave her endorsement of their spec to her boss the day before she was promoted to junior agent.)
Blanchard sent the duo out to meet with a number of producers, knowing that they’d need some serious guidance as they were intent on pitching their own material. The meet-and-greet that really clicked was the one at Hazy Mills, the CBS Par-based production shingle run by Sean Hayes and his producing partner, Todd Milliner.
In their first brainstorming session, the duo pitched Hayes and Milliner a number of ideas, but it was the “Eight Days a Week” conceit (which was different from the pair’s initial spec) that the producers zeroed in on as the “one that would sell,” Meredith says.
From there, they had to sell it to the CBS Par creative team. In that pitch meeting, Meredith and Marcie (pictured right) were heartened to realize that every person in the room had begun their careers as someone’s assistant.
They then made the rounds at the five broadcast webs, which was a wild ride in and of itself for Marcie and Meredith. The CW was their last stop, though it was top of their list of prospects, given the nature and demo-skew of their idea. In short order, they had a pilot script order from the CW.
“They came in with so much talent and energy and enthusiasm, I wish I could bottle it,” says Kim Fleary, CW’s exec veep of comedy development. “What makes their show so rich, even though they don’t have the experience, is that they are writing about something that they are very close to. They so often say, ‘Well, this (character) is my friend so and so,’ or ‘This happened to me.’”
So what is “Eight Days a Week” all about? Being an assistant to a high-powered boss in a sexy line of work, of course. Show revolves around the lives of four upwardly mobile friends in New York who work for the top hot-shot execs in their fields. One’s a Wall Street hedge fund baron, one’s a Web publishing titan, one’s a fashionista, and one is a powerful music publicist. And they all have dedicated, earnest assistants who are intent on soaking up everything they can while they roll calls, send gifts, make excuses and enforce the day’s sked for their bosses.
“It’s about people who are on the bottom step of the ladder trying to break in,” Marcie says, assuring that her characters live in “shitty one-bedroom apartments on the Lower East Side,” not fabulous lofts. “We’re trying to tell the very real version of what it’s like when you’re at that age when you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing…”
Meredith picks up the thought: “…and you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you want and yet your entire job, the thing your future depends on, is about knowing someone else inside and out.”
The all-consuming part of the exec-assistant’s life was driven home to Meredith one day when she was in a dentist’s office and was asked to give her Social Security number. She promptly replied with Nathanson’s.
“My friends and family were asking my why I wanted to keep my crazy job,” Meredith says. “And my only explanation was that I had to have that job to do anything else in this business.”
After “Eight Days” got the greenlight as a pilot, two more guardian angels dropped into the picture to help Meredith and Marcie on their way. Betsy Borns, an experienced comedy writer-producer, is guiding the co-creators naifs as showrunner. Seasoned helmer Arlene Sanford did the pilot and was encouraged enough to sign up for more, serving as the show’s house director and a producer. Skein’s ensemble cast includes Mario Lopez, Robert Ri’chard, Johnny Lopez, Rosa Blasi, Christina Milian and Anna Chlumsky.
Even by the standards of Meredith and Marcie’s charmed experience to date, their professional union with Borns and Sanford has been nothing short of heaven-sent, they say.
“Betsy’s been so good to us. She came in with the attitude of: This is your show; I’m here to help you, not take it away from you,” Marcie says.
As they dive into production during the next few months, the two are aware that they’re likely to find the past year a breeze compared to the grind of turning out episodes. But as excited as they are, they’re not really living in fantasy-land. They know that more often than not, new shows die quick deaths. Midseason shows can get pushed into a black hole of uncertainty. There may be actor problems or story problems; there may even be a Hollywood work stoppage next year to suck away the wind beneath their wings. That’s why the newly minted exec producers have been rigorously celebrating every victory, big and small, along the way.
“Wherever this (show) leads us, this is our Ph.D,” Lavender says. “This is the piece of paper on the wall that gets us every other job that we ever get. This is huge….This is cra-zy.”