When making a television series about yourself and your friends, the hardest part is making sure the stories are entertaining to others. The next hardest part is making them fit into a half-hour.
And when the town you and your friends inhabit is Hollywood, it really helps if the community likes it.
"This could be humiliating in this town if we didn't get it right," said Doug Ellin, executive producer and creator of "Entourage," one of HBO's few remaining hit original series. "And you got to walk around, 'Oh, you did that [mess]?' "
About to launch the fifth season of the insider show about four childhood friends from Queens, N.Y., coping with the absurdly easy life of young Hollywood, Ellin has received enough calls from studio heads saying they can relate, and from friends' wives concerned about Vince's career, that he feels the effort is worth it.
This season, the boys will tackle what Ellin called the "biggest thing about Hollywood," that is, its extreme seesaw nature.
"One second, your friend's a loser, the next he's this giant star that you need favors from. The next second, he needs favors from you," he said. And that's if you're lucky. "Sometimes it never goes up."
Until now, Ellin said, many fans have perceived the ensemble's lead character Vince, a handsome, laid-back talent played by Adrian Grenier, as having an easy ride. But to show the real nature of the town, the new season opens with Vince's big film bombing at Cannes. His leading man status is suddenly called into question.
Ellin said he based the story line on actor Mark Wahlberg's appearance in "The Departed." (Wahlberg is also an executive producer, along with Stephen Levinson, of "Entourage.")
Ellin's own career has also been a model seesaw. A native New Yorker and Tulane University graduate, Ellin set out with friends for Hollywood, where he was surprised at how easy it was to get two films made: "Phat Beach" (1996) and "Kissing a Fool" (1998). He was up. The first made $1.6 million; the second $4 million.
Then, he couldn't find work. He was down. Then, he joined forces with Wahlberg and Levinson to make "Entourage." Up again.
One recent day, the 40-year-old sat in the shade of a tree, on a Calabasas hillside smelling of smoke, as actors and directors bustled about shooting and re-shooting a scene within a scene. (He asked that further details not be revealed.) At this point, he said, the show runs like a "good machine." He looked around at visiting friends and guest stars; his son Luke, 7, who plays the son of agent Ari Gold on the show, wandered over to ask a question.
"I could do this the rest of my life," he said.
His goal for "Entourage" is to finish at least eight seasons, and then maybe some more. The show has already won three Emmys but has yet to capture one for best series.
"I do have a dream about winning [for best series] in Season 10 after losing nine seasons in a row," he said.
One reason "Entourage" has lasted so long is that -- unlike other insider Hollywood projects -- it does not satirize its material, Ellin said. And the show is really more about friendship than Hollywood itself.
"Obviously Hollywood is big in the show, but at the end of the day, it's about these guys sticking together and helping each other out with their lives. That's what people relate to," said Ellin. "When I meet people, they always tell me, 'I know a Vince. . . . " Or an Eric (played by Kevin Connolly) or a Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) or a Johnny "Drama" (Kevin Dillon as Vince's brother).
Still, Ellin gets upset if someone, especially from the media, criticizes the show for not revealing the underside of Hollywood -- such as the prevalence of drugs.
But Ellin said the show -- with the possible exception of Dillon's character -- is taken from "real" situations and that neither he nor his friends took drugs.
In fact, everyday events are grist for the mill, he said, citing the arrest of actor Shia LaBeouf earlier this summer on suspicion of DUI. In LaBeouf's passenger seat was Grenier's former girlfriend, Isabel Lucas.
Might that be in the show? "Maybe. Anything is possible."
However, one of the biggest events to hit the industry in recent years, the writers strike, will not appear in Season 5. The 100-day strike delayed the start of the show's season from June to September and also cut its order of episodes from the usual 14 to 12.
Of course, there's always a potential actors strike. But Ellin said, "The writers strike was so devastating, I'm trying to pretend the actors strike isn't happening. I think the town's ignoring it. I'm ignoring it."