Milton Academy grad rules prime-time TV
TV producer Betsy Beers couldn't be busier these days, between launching 'Scandal' — her latest collaboration with Shonda Rhimes — and wrapping her local pilot 'Gilded Lilys'
Betsy Beers looks pretty nonchalant for a woman who’s in the middle of the TV pilot race.
In her temporary office on the industrial stretch of Summer Street, she leans back, at ease, surrounded by bulletin boards that are covered in pictures of 19th-century costumes and Massachusetts buildings that looked new in the 1890s.
Beers only has about three weeks to finish what she started - a pilot for a new ABC period drama called “Gilded Lilys’’ - but she’s used to this pace. After all, she and her long-term professional partner, Shonda Rhimes, have done this successfully over and over again. It started with their hit show “Grey’s Anatomy,’’ now in its eighth season, and continued with the spinoff, “Private Practice,’’ and then with “Off the Map,’’ a Doctors Without Borders-type drama that had a short run last year.
Rhimes and Beers celebrate the launch of their new ABC show “Scandal,’’ a political drama starring Kerry Washington, on Thursday. And as of today, Beers - a Milton Academy and Williams College graduate who has long been Rhimes’s executive producer - has just wrapped the Boston-area shoot of “Gilded Lilys,’’ a show about the first luxury hotel in New York and the family and staff who run it. Stars include Blythe Danner and Madeline Zima of “Californication.’’ “Gossip Girl’’ producer and scribe K.J. Steinberg has been tapped to write the show.
“I learn something every time we do this,’’ Beers said of the pilot process, which involves a month of fast filming, then editing, then a long wait for networks to decide what they need. Beers said the lessons have been particularly interesting on “Lilys,’’ which is her first period drama with Rhimes. “It’s hard for people to breathe in corsets, for example,’’ she said, with a grin.
Under Beers’s watch, filming has taken place at local spots such as the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Union Station in Worcester, the Ames-Webster mansion in the Back Bay, and the Wang Theatre. For Beers, it’s been a homecoming. Her sister lives nearby and her mother’s family comes from the Boston area.
“I spent the better part of my developing years in Massachusetts,’’ Beers said, whose early childhood was on Long Island, N.Y.
Beers’s journey from Milton Academy to serving as the executive producer on a list of successful shows starts with a short comedy career. After leaving Milton (she graduated the same year as Governor Deval Patrick) and finishing Williams, she discovered the world of improv comedy. Beers loved the work and was encouraged by friends to get a job in Los Angeles playing a wacky-neighbor type on a sitcom.
“Then I found out that it was difficult to get a job as the wacky neighbor,’’ Beers said, which is why she found work reading scripts, which was time-consuming, lucrative, and fun. Sort of “like doing a book report,’’ she quipped.
The script jobs put her in touch with producers and directors, which is how she got her first gigs producing movies such as the 1999 ensemble film “200 Cigarettes,’’ which Beers worked on with Mike Newell. (Newell went on to direct “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’’ and “Prince of Persia.’’)
It was through prolific television producer Mark Gordon that Beers met Rhimes, who brought her into the world of TV and wound up becoming a close friend and collaborator. Beers has long been a television fan, and grew up watching shows like “Bonanza’’ and “The Carol Burnett Show’’ with her father, who was a talent agent.
Rhimes explains that although Beers is a non-writing executive producer on their projects, her job puts her at the center of the creative process. Beers hires writers, helps with story lines, considers locations, makes sure episodes have the right music, and, as Rhimes puts it, “does all of the things that are vital to make the show keep going.’’
They trust each other so much with their joint projects that Rhimes never came to Massachusetts to oversee the filming of “Gilded Lilys’’ and instead focused on rolling out “Scandal.’’
“Betsy’s been amazing to me - and with me,’’ Rhimes said.
Rhimes reveals something else about Beers’s influence on the duo’s biggest hit, “Grey’s Anatomy.’’ “In a lot of ways, [lead character] Meredith Grey is based on Betsy,’’ Rhimes admitted.
Beers compares her friendship and work relationship with Rhimes to the bond between Grey (played by Everett’s Ellen Pompeo) and her best friend on the show, Christina Yang (Sandra Oh). “We speak the same language, and it’s like she can read your mind,’’ Beers said of Rhimes.
“Scandal’’ star Kerry Washington says the way Beers relates to Rhimes - and how they welcome new talent - is what made working on “Scandal’’ so appealing.
“I went from arm’s length to bear hug,’’ she said, of her first meeting with Beers.
Beers admits that she shares a few other traits with the “Grey’s’’ heroine. She doesn’t have an on-and-off again relationship with a doctor (she’s happily married to a criminal defense attorney who cooks), but she does have Meredith’s attitude.
“I’m very dogged when I believe in something. I’m also dark and twisty,’’ Beers added, grinning and quoting the show.
Of course, Beers doesn’t seem dark at all. But she’s twisty, for sure, with a candid sense of humor.
“She’s one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met. I think that’s a big part of what makes her so successful,’’ said Channing Dungey, ABC’s senior vice president of drama development. “She has such an ability to multitask and to juggle a million different things at once. She can almost predict problems before they happen.’’
On set in Boston, Beers has been all about problem-solving, and making something that will be entirely new for ABC. She raves when she talks about what it’s been like to work here. The state’s tax incentives for filming helped bring “Lilys’’ to Massachusetts, she says, but it’s also an easy to place to find settings that mimic 19th-century life.
“We came here because the locations are incredible. You have great crew, you have wonderful actors, you have great merchants. Boston is a world that nobody has seen.’’
If “Lilys’’ gets picked up, Beers says she’ll be happily bicoastal. No one knows if it will will be, of course, and Beers is the first to admit that the pilot process can be a “crapshoot.’’ But she has high hopes for the show, which has been likened to an American “Downton Abbey.’’
The best-case scenario for the producing partners is that “Lilys’’ and “Scandal’’ get long runs so that Beers and Rhimes have time to grow the characters the way they see fit. That’s Beers’s favorite part of the job.
“I’ve had the privilege of being attached to a show in its eighth season,’’ she said. “What’s really great is that you get to allow a character to grow and change. It’s really fun year to year to reflect on what you’ve learned.’’