When it’s time to make a pilot film, TV people open up the bank vault.
The “Game of Thrones” pilot has been reported at $5-to-10 million. “Lost” was reportedly $10-to-14 million, including buying an old plane.
Now meet “Work in Progress,” which debuts at 11 p.m. Sunday. “We spent a little under $30,000 on the pilot,” said director-writer-producer Tim Mason.
That version, he said, is what will debut on Showtime. It has no dazzle and no airplane, but it does have the humor and drama of Abby McEnany (shown here), a Chicago comedian and actress.
The series finds a fictional Abby at 45, a lesbian who feels she’s attractive to no one. She’s planning to kill herself in 180 days.
It’s fiction, but not by a lot. “I’ve had … times of massive depression,” McEnany said.
Then come the plot twists – at her therapist’s office and during lunch with her sister. “Progress” is propelled in surprising directions.
One of the surprised people was Gary Levine, Showtime’s entertainment president. “Before the Sundance Film Festival,” he said, “we had never heard of Abby McEnany and Tim Mason …. As soon as we saw (the pilot), we loved it.”
He’s airing it after the rebooted “The ‘L’ Word,” which is also about lesbians, but in an opposite way.
Many of the “’L’ Word” stars, including Jennifer Beals, have a sleek California look. McEnany, by comparison, grew up in a time when “Saturday Night Live” had “It’s Pat” skits, with Julia Sweeney playing a person of indeterminate gender.
“I’ve been called Pat a lot,” said McEnany, who has a storytelling bit called “Julia Sweeney ruined my life.” The pilot includes one example. “It wasn’t just liike those frat-ty guys that we see in the pilot. I was called Pat by lesbians in lesbian bars, (in) what I thought would be a safe place.”
The no-gender look has complicated even basic things, she said. “I’m 51 and I get scared to use a public bathroom, because I don’t want to be yelled at or confronted.”
That shows up in the fourth episode. The pilot, however, brought a surprise:
“Tim and I were writing … and he was like, ‘Well, we could just write (Sweeney) in.
“I was like, ‘What?’
“He was like, ‘Well, she lives in the North Shore (of Chicago). Let’s write her in.’”
They met her and put her in more episodes. “She’s lovely,” McEnany saikd. “We’ve talked about Pat ….She does have misgivings.”
Another key Chicagoan joined the project:
The Wachowski brothers found fame writing and directing the “Matrix” movies and other films. Lana Wachowski transitioned to female about a decade ago and has continued to work in sci-fi; Lilly Wachowski transitioned in 2016.
“I took some time off and I enrolled in the paint department at the (Chicago School of Art),” Lilly said. “My agent kept sending me stuff, a lot of science fiction.”
Then he sent her the McEnany pilot. “Abby is just this magical human being,” Wachowski said. “She’s been working in the improv industry for 30 years, honing her craft.”
So Lilly Wachowski co-wrote the first season’s other seven episodes with Mason and McEnany and joined them as a producer. Here was someone whose “Matrix” movies have totalled $1.6 billion at the box office … joining a $30,000 project. For Wachowski and McEnany, a new era was beginning.