‘Top Gear’ Producer Gets in the Driver’s Seat

Last summer, Christopher Fetner, Vice President of Post Production and Technical Services here at BBC America, headed to the land of “Top Gear” to talk shop about the “Top Gear Top 40″ special with Executive Producer Andy Wilman. Here, get an in-depth read of his many adventures.

It’s not often a dream project lands on your desk, but even a schmuck like me catches a break once in a while. A month earlier I’d committed one of my staff editors to act as Editor/Producer for an internal “Top Gear” series of specials. It was a neat idea, BBC America.com was going to put 45 clips online and let our viewers vote on their favorite challenges from the petrolheads at “Top Gear.” I had sat through several meetings on the project, and was pretty familiar with the intention of the project and the production plan. In addition to my editor, they would hire an external Producer to go over to London, shoot some wraps of Andy Wilman the Executive Producer of “Top Gear” and come back to the U.S. and build the show.

One of the advantages of open plan seating is the ability to see your boss coming from a mile away, this gives you time to shift screens away from Facebook, Gmail, or whatever other distraction you might be engaging in that’s not work related before you find them over your shoulder. So when I saw my boss growing on the horizon, I immediately set about looking busy.

“Chris, you have a minute?”
“Sure, what’s up?”

My boss motioned me over to the “soft seating” area. This could only mean a few things and usually none of them were good. We sat down and he sort of danced around the subject a little before landing on the issue.

“You know the ‘Top Gear’ Project we’re doing?”
“Sure, it sounds like it will be a good one.”
“We need someone to keep an eye on it, would you be ok with helping out? It means you’ll probably have to go over to the UK and film Andy Wilman…is that ok?”

I’ve never been a math rock star, but this calculus only took a few milliseconds. Free trip to England, work on a project associated with one of BBC’s most successful shows, and meet Andy Wilman… sign me up! That’s how it happened, an external producer fell through, time grew neigh on finding a replacement and me sitting there minding my own business catches a break. Luck can suck big time when it’s swinging the wrong direction and be almost unbelievable no matter where it’s going.

By the time I was brought on board, we really needed to accelerate the production planning. It’s always a challenge to pull together talented folks and get everyone’s schedule to align with the talent. This was somewhat compounded by the fact that England and most (if not all) of its inhabitants go on vacation in August… guess what month it was? We started working immediately to lock down a date with Andy Wilman. He was really accommodating and gave us a week that would likely work best for him in mid-September. Andy was in the middle of finalizing plans for the “Top Gear” Christmas special which we all know now involved a trip to India. So he wasn’t sure exactly what day he’d be available to shoot. Without an exact date for the shoot, we had two options. First we could wait until the last second and book a ridiculously expensive plan ticket once the shoot day was finalized. The other was we could go early, hangout in London, and rack up a ridiculously high expense bill while we waited for the shoot day to be firmed up on Andy’s end. Either way, the company was going to take a fiscal hit. Now, I have two little angel children, one four and one six. Usually one of them ends up kicking me in the head after having sneaked into mommy and daddy’s bed on a nightly basis… any guesses on how that decision went? Again, easy math!

When the actual travel day rolled around, we were still trying to figure out days and a crew. We had decided it made the most sense to use as many of the “Top Gear” crew as possible. These were the guys who brought the brilliance of that show to screen and using them for our special was the right thing. They knew Andy, they knew the location, and they knew the show. Pre-algebra on that decision! But until we had a day, we couldn’t lock any of them into doing a shoot. So with no crew, no shoot date, and no script, I got on a Virgin Atlantic flight in Newark bound for London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight over to London is always a killer, two or three mediocre movies, very little if any quality sleep, and you arrive to a brand new spanking morning with eight hours of cramped, stinky, airline travel hanging on you.

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‘Top Gear’ Producer Gets in the Driver’s Seat