Netflix: On Set and in the Writers’ Room

Netflix: On Set and in the Writers’ Room image

They put words in actors’ mouths. They move scenes seamlessly. They design iconic sets. Alums at Netflix develop the shows you can’t help but binge watch—and you likely didn’t know their names or how they do what they do, until now. By Sarah McAbee ’07

Netflix has more members than some countries have citizens. The DVD-by-mail turned streaming content giant now has 93.8 million members with 19 million new members added in just this year alone. It will not be long before the hybrid media company reaches 100 million members—a loyal audience built on a foundation of original programming. 

In 2011, Netflix made a decision to invest in developing, not just distributing, shows. That investment paid off hand over fist with record membership, viewership, and industry awards. Netflix shows have become must-see TV having never hit cable. The meteoric rise has happened in large part thanks to originals like Orange Is the New Black and Grace and Frankie. Alums James Bolenbaugh ’05 and Julieanne Smolinski ’05 share what it takes to make these shows so absolutely watchable.  

On set

Litchfield Penitentiary’s cinder block walls are painted industrial gray and sandy yellow. The linoleum floors are scuffed and always look dirty, despite their regular mopping by inmates. Meals are served from a short cafeteria line and eaten at rectangular stainless steel tables. Each inmate stores her personal items in a dented, rusty metal cabinet at the foot of her bed. Sunlight filters in through the roof of the prison greenhouse, down to the wooden plank floor littered with leaves and potting soil. Some of the planks are loose. 

There aren’t really any prisoners living in Litchfield, of course. The cell blocks, common room, visitors area and other spaces we see on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black are all sets designed in part by James Bolenbaugh ’05 and built on sound stages at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. Bolenbaugh has worked on all five seasons of OITNB, first as a set designer and then as the art director for seasons four and five. 

“I started on season one, before Netflix had made any shows,” he explains. “I’d tell people ‘I’m working on this women’s prison show that’s going to be on Netflix.’ The next question would be, ‘Is that porn?’” 

But by the time production began on the show’s second season, “all you had to say was ‘I work on Orange Is the New Black,’” he says. The show quickly earned near-universal critical raves and the distinction of being Netflix’s most watched original series. 

Viewers passionate about OITNB often focus on what’s easiest to see and hear: the talented, diverse cast (including Bennington alumnus Joel Marsh Garland ’97) and the stories and dialogue. The physical world of Litchfield is so authentically and completely rendered that it can seem almost unremarkable—until you remember that it was designed and built from the ground up by Bolenbaugh, the production designer, and more than 100 other designers and highly trained craftspeople, including carpenters, scenic artists, and set dressers. 

In the show’s early seasons, Bolenbaugh drafted scale drawings of sets that he describes as “lots of prison bars, cinder block, and scenery.” Despite the somewhat limited room for creative expansion—the show is set in a prison, after all—Bolenbaugh, in his own words, “grew up and matured with the show.” 

As art director, Bolenbaugh supports the vision of the production designer and producers by “keeping people in touch with each other, keeping people communicating, and keeping everybody organized,” he explains. One day, he may shepherd a design from the set designer to head of construction, scenic charge and the rest of the crew—“all the people who will build it and paint it and put lights in it and all that,” talk through the plans, determine the cost to build it, and where on the set it will be built. 

On another day, he may attend a concept meeting with the director and producers of an episode to discuss the episode’s needs, or go on a tech scout, where he walks through a location and works with the director and department heads to plan what needs to happen and communicate that information to the rest of the crew. 

“A big thing I love about working in film and TV is that it’s inherently collaborative,” Bolenbaugh says, but TV will always win out over film as far as he is concerned. “If you have a set in a movie, it might only be in a scene for five or ten minutes, and then it’s gone. But if you have a set in a TV show, it becomes a character. It’s something that evolves as the show goes on. You can add things to it, and you can spend a lot more time with it.”

In the writers’ room

“We certainly like to confuse the screen legends we write for,” says Julieanne Smolinski ’05, a writer on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. (If you haven’t caught an episode yet, those screen legends are Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen.) 

Smolinski, who has written for all three seasons of the show and is currently at work on season four, describes her work as “making up fake problems for imaginary people” while eating snacks in a big, stuffy room. “We’re sitting at a huge table, throwing ideas and jokes at each other and eating takeout,” she says.

On the best day, this can feel like the most fun you ever had at your high school lunch table. On longer days, or when we’re stuck, it can be like being in the longest corporate-job staff meeting of all time.’ But a staff meeting where the ideas include ‘Sam Waterston confronts an escaped python.’ 

A season of Grace and Frankie begins with what the writers call “Big Ideas” (somebody gets a younger boyfriend, somebody gets pregnant, somebody dies), which then get worked down to episodic ideas and then individual scenes, jokes and details. The entire group pitches jokes, and ideas, then “breaks” the episode to determine what happens in each scene. Only then is the script assigned to an individual writer, “who goes off to essentially put down in script form these extremely detailed stories we’ve come up with together as a group,” Smolinski explains. “By the time a writer goes off to script, it’s likely that the vast majority of the episode—down to individual jokes and the looks the characters give each other—have already been decided on by the whole room of writers.” 

Grace and Frankie is the kind of Netflix show that may surprise a typical subscriber. “We’re a little more of a traditional half-hour comedy and that’s cool for us,” Smolinski explains. “If anything, we nudge the envelope.” 

Since debuting its first original series, House of Cards, in 2013, Netflix has rapidly ramped up the production and distribution of its “Originals” and “Only on Netflix” content, releasing 126 original films and television series in 2016 alone. “They do everything from premium-cableesque dramas to laugh-tracked sitcoms to Adam Sandler movies,” Smolinski says. 

Netflix shows aren’t merely distinctive because of their genre or quality, but largely because of how viewers experience them and how writers can create them. Not tied to a weekly time slot, shows are not competing head-to-head for our attention during the same evening hours, nor do they need to meet strict specifications for running time or season length. A show is allowed to find its audience over time, and doesn’t risk cancellation over a week’s ratings. 

Unlike traditional television networks, which use pilot episodes to evaluate a series’ viability, Netflix tends to order complete seasons and renew shows quickly. The horror-comedy series Santa Clarita Diet, produced by Tracy Katsky Boomer ’05, received an order for a second season just a month and a half after its series premiere.

Streaming services certainly seem willing to take bigger risks, and have really changed the playing field in terms of format and tone—you don’t have to structure a comedy as rigidly as you did in 1996. You don’t even have to make a ‘comedy’ anymore. You can do something that’s a little more in-between. Julieanne Smolinski ’05

See the work of Bennington alums in these Netflix Originals

  • Melissa Rosenberg ’86 | Executive producer, Jessica Jones
  • Shawn Paper ’90 | Editor, Santa Clarita Diet
  • Tracy Katsky Boomer ’91 | Producer, Santa Clarita Diet
  • Julieanne Smolinski ’05 | Writer, Grace and Frankie
  • James Bolenbaugh ’05 | Art Director, Orange Is the New Black, Love
  • Joel Marsh Garland ’97 | Actor, Orange Is the New Black