Ms. Pietila participated in the NEM 2015’s panel A Match Made in Co-production Heaven, during which she discussed the opportunities of today’s television industry, as well as the pros and cons of co-producing projects.
Check out the video interview at NEM or read what she has to say about her career below.
Bonita Pietila started her career in the music industry, as a concert promoter, and was at one point the only female licensed promoter in the US. But she transferred to TV. Soon enough Ms. Pietila started working on The Tracey Ullman Show, from which The Simpsons derived, and she became the casting director, and later the producer of the show. Ms. Pietila succeeded in what many others couldn’t – she got a hold of well protected public personalities such as Julian Assange, Banksy and Ringo Starr, to name a few, and convinced them to participate in the show:
You started your carrier as a concert promoter. What are your fondest memories from that time?
I was so young and I got to work with all of my friends; think that was part of the excitement. I mean, when you work on a live project and you have to make immediate decisions, it is exciting; and I think those decisions were never hard for me to make. That was the challenge – make the right decision, and make sure the show goes on. It’s such a rush. It was the best career I ever had.
How did you transition to TV?
I moved to Los Angeles and I thought that I would work in the music industry. But I couldn’t get a job, it was hard for girls at that time. Everything that I had achieved didn’t matter. At one point I was the only licensed female concert promoter in the United States. But I couldn’t get a job in that industry. So, as sad as that was, I had to find another way to make a living and I ended up being a talent agent.
The entertainment industry is a crazy world, and you can get hired for the skills you have. That’s what happened to me.
What would you call the key quality in finding right voices for The Simpsons? Which character presented the biggest challenge?
I don’t think challenge is the right word. What I’m always looking for is comedy – actors that have comedic timing. But you also want the voices to be memorable among all other voices. So you have to really look for that uniqueness, the quality of someone’s voice. We had some incredible television and film actors available for the show, but the voices weren’t unique. So to me that wouldn’t make a great voice. Each voice has to have a unique sound quality, their pronunciation has to be very good, and they also have to have voice clarity and comedic timing. All of that really matters.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call you the biggest spy in the showbiz industry: you’re the one who managed getting Julian Assange, Banksy, and Thomas Pynchon to The Simpsons, when no one else knew where on earth they were. How did you do that?
Well, whenever the need comes up I immediately think – who would know that person? I address those six degrees of separation.
Julian Assange is a great example. I thought – who would know Julian Assange – his attorneys! So I tracked down his attorneys. By reading articles on them, I soon knew who his representation was and wrote a letter to the attorneys. They finally responded. It’s not a speedy process. It can take a while and you have to establish that you are reputable – you have to clarify where you are from, what you want and that you’re not after a tabloid story. You should never lie to anybody, just never lie. There’s no point.
I found Banksy through whom I believed was his art dealer. I thought, who would know how to find this person? I think the hardest, or one of the hardest, was to get to Tony Blair. Who is going to know Tony Blair the best? – the press secretary. You have to be logical, the approach that works with one, doesn’t necessarily work with somebody else. Sometimes they aren’t open to collaborate with the show, but you have to talk them into it. It can be a lengthy conversation.
The longest it took me to convince someone was Ringo Starr. Convincing Ringo Starr to do the show took at least six months. But I just never gave up. You don’t want to take no for an answer too quickly. But if they have a reason why they don’t want to do the show, and I can’t make it go away, then I have to accept that. I think Ringo Starr’s manager said no four or five times. But I really thought it was a great idea. There was no reason not to do it. It was such a fantastic episode, Marge really loves Ringo Starr, had pictures of him, it was such a tribute to him that I really believed would be wonderful. And it was.
You won three primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Animated Program with The Simpsons – what makes those three episodes (Homr, Behind the laughter and Trash of the Titans) different and special?
Winning an award comes down to what your competition is that year, so the quality of the other nominees is important. But I think with our show it’s hard to make a choice as to what to submit for the award shows. In the end it’s up to the showrunner to make that choice, but you want to submit one that is really funny. If the judges laugh we have a better chance to win than if they don’t laugh. The animation has to be wonderful. You have to take into consideration how funny the script is and how good the actors were who made it come to life. So it’s a very hard decision. We are so proud of a large number of shows, which one do you choose?
What were the biggest challenges that you had to face as a producer?
I think anyone who is producing and working in television has the same challenge – time. Week after week that show has to be delivered, so managing time is hard. You think to yourself – I could have made that episode a little better, maybe we should reshoot that scene. You don’t always get it right the first time. But you have to learn to get it right the first time. You may not have the luxury of time to go over it again.
Was there anything you wished you would have done better?
With the show? Yes, but I don’t think the audience noticed. We are all so anal and really meticulous – everything needs to be perfect. But I will say that we don’t ever argue. Our discussions are the most polite discussions you’ve ever heard. Everyone’s so smart and good at their jobs, you never have the need to go – you idiot, what did you do that for. It’s more like – well I just don’t understand, and I really think we could do this… The process is very polite. Everyone has done their job for such a long time so you would never say something really rude about the quality of their work, just that you have a different idea.
How does TV from today compare to the TV from the beginnings of your career? Is there some quality that you miss? Which would be the biggest advantages of today’s television?
I think it’s definitely the amount of options. Today we have so many options to gather together a fantastic show, of any genre; so many ways to present new ideas. Networks or streaming services, online platforms or YouTube – there are many more options than before. When I started we had three options; three networks, and that was pretty much it. I think this is the golden age of television. There are more and more talented people writing incredible shows with great productions values, which they didn’t have money for when I was starting out. You look at the old series – they are mostly produced on one set and had to use it over and over again. And now… when I first saw the opening scene of Game of Thrones, the sets and the production, I thought – they don’t do this in television. It’s a lot of money for production value. You see the money on the screen, which you never had before and I think it’s the paying audience demanding a higher content quality.
Co-production is more and more coveted as the best path from an idea to a finalized project, both creatively and financially. What do you find most appealing in this form of collaboration?
I’m not sure it’s the most coveted. It may be the more accepted path – when you set the cost of the project and see the need to co-produce. But I think that if someone can do it all on their own, that’s the way they’ll go. Co-production can offer additional revenue streams. The only way to do it all on your own is if you own the network and you produce your own shows. You always have to work with other people, though. These projects are a collaborative effort. Sometimes you look at the ending credits of a film and think – wow that’s a lot of companies. It’s interesting. I think people want to invest a little bit in a lot of things and hope one of them will work. it’s the safer way. It seems to be the way things are done today to get a project on the screen, no matter if it’s a big one or small one.
How would you describe your newest project, recording of a speed metal band tour? How did you decide to get involved in such a (ad)venture?
I started in music, so it’s always been my favorite genre of entertainment. But the reason that I embarked on this project is the fact that I love documentaries. This isn’t really a documentary though, it’s a story. It’s a really funny, very human story about what happens when a band that isn’t famous goes on tour. When you’re famous and go on tour it’s a whole different story. The reality I wanted to share is what happens on tour when you just get started. Every band has to do that, there is no other way. It’s fun and funny and this is an actual band, I didn’t put them together. There is a group dynamic within this band that I thought was so fun and so engaging and articulate, and multinational – it all made for a good time for all.
With all your work, you still get to be a passionate photographer. What is sure to capture your attention?
I came to realize that people don’t necessarily see some things the same way that I see them. My brother often asks me – I took the same picture when we went on a hike, so why does mine look like this and not like yours? It’s because people see things differently. And I think it’s fun to find light in something. It’s a hobby and I love it. I only shoot film – it’s a different look than a digital shot and the look I like. You learn to take one shot and decide that’s the shot. If I did it for a living it might be different. You have to trust that you have the shot. For it to be really good you have to wait for that shot.
How well do you know our region? What are your expectations from NEM?
I do not know your region. I can only assume that everyone wants to watch television – everyone wants to be entertained. It’s another country that I’ve never been to, and I’m very excited. I travel a lot, but I have never been to this area. I saw Croatia on The Amazing Race, and all of the contestants seemed in awe of Croatia’s beauty. I’m very excited to see it for myself.
Would you be open to doing a project in the region?
You never know, a big part of the project is who you’re going to work with – that’s the fun of it. If it’s going to kill you – why do this? To create something means to give so much of yourself in the process, so it’s important to find a wonderful project with people that you enjoy working with and that you share mutual respect.
How do you choose your projects?
I find something that peaks my interest – it could be a subject that I know well, or that I don’t know at all. But I think there has to be a challenge to it. It has to be different from the last one. There’s the challenge of it and then you think – do I have enough time to do it well? If you don’t do it well there’s really no point in doing it. Do I have time to do this, who am I going to work with, how can I make this happen? Everything is so immediate and you have to decide fast. But if you have the resources and people that you can access, and you like the subject – than the decision is made. Sometimes people ask me to do projects that I don’t want to do and I have to be polite, but I think to myself – I don’t care about that subject. If I don’t care, then I don’t believe other people are going to care either.
How do you see the future of television?
Everything is going to be on-demand, the quality will be really high, and everything will be accessible at any time. It doesn’t matter if we watch the shows in two days or every week – we still see it. I think the most important thing is going to see who controls how we see it – I think we will all be able to demand what and when we want to see content. Network television is very well established and it will continue to exist. There are so many people watching, who will watch the first or second run, reruns or whatever. The revenue streams are still there. You just figure out how much you have to spend on your show based on how much you can make in revenues. Television will just keep creating even more ways to deliver content to viewers.
When Fox started it wasn’t available in the whole US. My mom had to drive an hour to a friend’s house to watch the first episode of The Tracey Ullman Show because she wanted to see my name on the screen. Now they stream this stuff all over the world.
Are there any regrets from your career? And is there some project you really wish to do?
Not really a dream project, more like a dream vacation. There are always so many projects you could do, there’s so much activity. So I want a dream vacation.