One of the first pitch meetings Greer Shephard and Michael Robin took after uniting as producing partners in 1998 was with a dynamic young writer who had no produced credits, only a charming spec script dubbed Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn?
The script and the meeting were enough to convince Shephard and Robin. They took Ryan Murphy under wing and embarked on the development and production of the cult-fave WB Network dramedy Popular. That experience set the tone for what would become the Shephard/Robin Co. trademark of recruiting under-the-radar writers and guiding them through the grueling process of making episodic television.
"We think of our company as a trio, and we always have an empty seat at the table for our creator," Shephard says. "We're here to help them fulfill their vision, whatever that may be."
Murphy hit the bull's-eye for the two who had so much faith in him with his next show, FX's Nip/Tuck. Meanwhile, Shephard/Robin Co. further raised its profile this year by scoring with Kyra Sedgwick as a feisty Southerner transplanted to Los Angeles in TNT's detective drama The Closer, created by James Duff.
"We've been lucky in that we've guessed right most times about who we want to get into business with, whether it's writers that we're giving a big chance to or people that need a little rehabilitation," Robin says. Adds Shephard, "You can just feel it if someone really has something they want to say."
The partners are veterans of the prime-time trenches. Shephard, whose father, Harvey Shephard, was a top CBS and Warner Bros. TV executive in the 1970s and '80s, met Robin in 1991 when she was a junior exec at ABC and he was working his way up the ladder at Steven Bochco Prods.
By the time Robin was ready to go out on his own as director/exec producer of the ABC drama C-16, which had a short run in 1997, Shephard was ready to join him as a producer on the series. She had risen to head of drama development at ABC, but she had become increasingly wary of how media conglomerates were "metastasizing" into assembly line-style development processes.
Nearly a decade later, it comes as no surprise to the partners that their most distinctive, and most successful, work has been done in the basic cable realm, with outlets that had nothing to lose by gambling on unconventional ideas and promoting the heck out of them.
"Both FX and TNT seem to have reverted to the older model of development, where the very big decision (for the network) is who do you choose to get into business with and what idea are you going to pursue together," Shephard says. "And from there, there isn't so much micromanagement. It's more about, 'Give us what it is that you want to say.' "
Robin's depth of knowledge in physical production has allowed them to produce high-end dramas on basic cable budgets and tight seven-day shooting schedules (compared with eight or more for broadcast TV).
By design and necessity, Nip/Tuck embraced a minimalism in its set design; The Closer is shot entirely with handheld cameras, which gives "great kinetic energy into the piece" and saves valuable prep time, Robin says.
"There are a million little bitty ways to save money that all add up," he says. And all of those little bitty innovations have contributed to Shephard/Robin's growing reputation as purveyors of high-quality, fiscally responsible productions. Establishing their track record with Nip/Tuck and now The Closer has allowed them even more freedom to pursue the projects that inspire them, which stands in sharp contrast to Shephard's previous life as a network exec.
"At every step along the way, we always have the freedom to say no," she says. "It's made life a lot easier to live."