Network television production has always been fast. Typically, a shoot for a single-camera episode is just one week, and in the case of a live multicam show, they spend those first four days rehearsing before performing it live on the fifth day. After all, they have to crank out 22 or so episodes a year, so they can’t afford to be overly precious about what they’re making. In the case of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the original intention was for a four-day shoot. Yes, it’s one day less than a week, but the episode almost entirely takes place inside one airplane set. The need to change locations or build new things on a soundstage wasn’t necessary.
The network must have thought that would be a pretty simple shoot, so they made the decision to shorten the production schedule for the episode. After the passing of Richard Donner, William Shatner tweeted in remembrance of the director about how hectic making that episode was:
“It was chaotic; it was supposed to be a 4 day shoot & they cut it in half. They kept us there all night on the 2nd day to finish it. We were all sleep deprived.”
Shooting a half-hour episode of television in two days is insane, and any network executive or producer who thought that was a good idea probably should’ve been fired. However, that manic energy can be felt in the episode itself and certainly played a major factor in how successfully it renders Shatner’s character’s mental demise. I don’t like the idea that you have to create the same circumstances on set to achieve something on film, but I can’t deny that “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” has a magic in it that the truncated production generated.