San Rafael’s Indigo Films makes fascinating reality/crime fare for cable on a DIY-sized budget.
After sunset, the winds on Treasure Island can be excruciatingly cold—just ask anyone on the production crew of I (Almost) Got Away With It. 'GOT,' as the team refers to it, is a locally-produced, original TV series on Investigation Discovery, and since its premiere, GOT has been one of the highest rated shows on the network. Indigo Films, the producer of the series, has just finished producing GOT’s third season, and for the past two years they have made Treasure Island one of their production bases for re-creation shoots—because it’s local, mostly empty and relatively cheap.
When I visited the crew one Friday, I watched them film re-creations from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. The story that week involved a drug dealer, so the crew hustled to cover at least ten scenes: including a deal on a basketball court, a street fight, a night club chase and even the criminal lighting his car on fire as an alibi. Artie Glackin, the series’ first A.D. and coordinating producer, notes the 15-person crew is half the size of a normal independent film crew.
“I think our show is the perfect example of ‘We do the best we can with what we have,’” said Glackin. “This year [in Seasons 2 and 3], the stories are pretty elaborate; they’re all adventures. So we just have to be more creative to be able to do that without spending a lot of money.”
I (Almost) Got Away With It is a crime series with a twist. The producers locate criminals who spent years hiding from the law, but now, in prison jump-suits, they are interviewed disclosing their elaborate stories of escape and evasion. These interviews are illustrated with gritty, voyeuristic, engaging recreations.
“A very interested thing, of course, about GOT is that you know right up front who did it,” said Investigation Discovery Producer Sara Kozak. “They’re telling you about their thrilling ‘life on the lam,’ and then at the end, you get a great satisfaction thinking, ‘Thank God he’s locked up.’ It works on so many different levels.”
“It’s an incredibly complicated production,” said Chris Leavell, the Supervising Producer at Indigo. It begins with Indigo’s producers researching compelling, surprising stories of criminals who escaped the law for years, sometimes decades. “You have to try to find a story that’s going to fit all these various parameters we have on the show. And then you’ve got to try to get in touch with this convict in jail. There’s only one way to do it. You write a letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope inside of it to get back to us.”
The producers play somewhat of a gamble in this regard, because every state and prison has different rules, sometimes considering stamps currency and confiscating the letters. Indigo also has to simultaneously search for and contact the police, FBI and other officials who relentlessly pursued the criminals over the years. “So there’s just an incredible amount of logistics that go into that,” said Leavell. “When that story was brought to us, we started thinking, ‘Okay how are we going to make this happen in this amount of time? And how do we have to budget things? And how much time should we anticipate for this to transpire to actually get a story that we can actually go film even just the interview for?’”
While the research phase may move at an almost uncontrollably glacial pace, once a story is green-lighted, the rest of the process moves quickly. Indigo has set up two teams, with a producer and director taking turns each week prepping in the office. As one pair figures out an extensive scene breakdown and specific shot list, and consults with the various departments (like the art/prop department and casting), the other pair is out in the field. Each team completes filming of a full episode’s re-creations per week.
Based in San Rafael, Indigo Films is one of only a few Bay Area companies that produce nonfiction programming for the national cable networks. Indigo’s historical, educational and crime documentaries are broadcast on Discovery Channel, National Geographic, A&E, the History Channel, TLC and others. Indigo’s ability to compete with LA, DC and NY-based companies, where the major networks usually hire for production, can be attributed to their smart budgeting and creative resourcefulness.
I saw this cleverness manifested on set. The art department doubled as extras by “crossing” the camera in black hooded sweatshirts to create a voyeuristic feel, and the crew offered their own cars for traffic scenes. Around 9:00 pm, when a fresh wave of hunger set in, some started foraging the end-of-week craft services from a big Tupperware box, pulling out chewy granola bars and cookie bites.
Despite the long hours (the team usually works at least 11 hours a day) and lack of fancy catering, there was still something exciting and fun about it all. “Everybody gets along really well,” said Glackin. “And we work really hard; we take pride in that. And then we slip into our little comas afterwards, that we well deserve, get all rested up—and do it again.”
Indigo’s commitment to high production values, as well as their selective search for good, multi-layered stories, has paid off. I (Almost) Got Away With It premiered as the number one series on Investigation Discovery. “We were so impressed by the way GOT performed, right from the start,” said Sara Kozak, who reviews the daily bulletins detailing every show’s ratings. Kozak also said Investigation Discovery is largely watched by women, but GOT seemed to attract more men, making the series’ audience closer to 50/50. Because of GOT’s success, Indigo was invited to produce a new series, Cuff Me If You Can, which received strong ratings, and they also produced a 3–D episode of GOT.
“You know it’s hard when you see a feature film that has millions and millions of dollars and they can do so much more than we can,” said Leavell. “But then again it’s really fun when you pull off something that looks as good as it does on just a shoestring budget. And it makes you really get clever and creative about how you approach those things and that’s fun. It’s amazing what you can do on a small budget if you think about it.”
You can learn more about Indigo Films at IndigoFilms.com.
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