90210

The Emmy nominations came out last week, and two women directors were nominated: Lesli Linka Glatter for the series finale of “Homeland” on Showtime (of which she had been the producing director for the past six seasons,) and Mimi Leder, for an episode of “The Morning Show” on Apple.  I am so proud of my fellow female directors, and I’m proud of our business for accepting the idea that women directors are just as, and maybe more, capable than male directors.  After all, it’s about the imagination and the leadership, not the physicality of the director.  Men, women, white, black, gay, straight  – none of that matters.  What matters is how well the story is told. 

There once was a story of 90’s pop culture called “Beverly Hills, 90210.”  I’m watching numerous episodes right now, not because I’m bingeing it during the pandemic, but because I’m going to be speaking about it in a podcast this week and I had to reconnect and remember so that I could sound halfway smart.  I directed 14 episodes of it, from 1990-97 – probably more than any other director and it’s the most episodes I’ve directed of any particular show in my career. 

And I’ve always been slightly ashamed of that.  Ashamed that it was pop culture, it wasn’t critically acclaimed, in fact, it was derided. There was no way I was ever going to be nominated for an Emmy for that series.  But I did win a  different type of directing award for that show, something that in some ways is better than getting an Emmy.  It was called the “1993 Scott Newman Drug Abuse Prevention Award” for directing an episode of 90210 called “Perfectly Perfect.”  Scott Newman was the son of Paul Newman and his first wife Jackie Witte.  Scott died of an overdose in 1978 and the award was created to honor his memory and inspire storytellers, both writers and directors, to create TV episodes that might help audience members do better in their own drug struggles.  That episode featured Jennie Garth as Kelly Taylor, who overdosed on diet pills because she was feeling ashamed of her body image.  She was trying to be perfectly perfect, and learned that there was no such thing.  Since the show reached about 20 million viewers every week in season three, I have to believe that there were some young girls who were impacted by that episode. 

As I re-watched this series that I directed 28 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised. I was surprised by the depth and intensity of the scripts, and I discovered, with the objectivity of time, that I shot it surprisingly well.  I didn’t anticipate that, having lived for decades with the embarrassment of directing something so plebeian as a teenage drama for a struggling new network (which was Fox,) that was laughed at in critics’ circles.  This discovery brought to mind something that John Ritter confided to me at around that same time.  I was directing a short-lived show called “Hooperman” in which he starred, and we were discussing this very concept of art vs. commerce, of feeling proud or ashamed of one’s work as measured against the recognition or lack thereof within the entertainment business.  Good reviews? Awards? Ratings? Interviews? Pickups?  Ritter had a strong viewpoint on this, as he’d spent so many years acting in “Three’s Company,” a popular sitcom that had never been critically embraced.  He told me that, years after the cancellation of “Three’s Company,” a young boy from the Make-a-Wish Foundation wanted to visit John on set.  Agreements were reached, hoops were jumped through, and a ten-year-old boy in a wheelchair was introduced to John on the set of “Hooperman.” The boy whispered to John that when he was in the hospital, struggling to live and hooked up to all kinds of equipment, his one daily joy was watching reruns of “Three’s Company” and forgetting his pain as he laughed at John’s comedic chops and effortless pratfalls.  John said he realized then that there was value in his work, whether he won an Emmy or not.  Of course, one could argue that there was the value of longevity and financial rewards, but every artist wants to do elevated work, work that matters.

There was value too, in “90210,” which dealt with social issues unaddressed elsewhere on TV that appealed to teenagers: alcoholism, sex, drug use, death, love, abuse, school, cheating, faith, growing up and all that that means.  In the same period of time, I was directing eleven episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” another show that dealt with life-and-death issues.  Every episode ended with a message of how humans are surrounded and lifted by God’s love.  This was another show that critics smirked at, since their supposedly sophisticated taste rejected anything that reeked of sentimentality.  But I contend that it’s only sentimentality if it’s superficial.  If it’s authentically from the heart: the writer’s heart, the director’s heart, the actors’ hearts – then it is spreading a message of hope and faith.  And that show proudly owned its point of view, knowing that “Touched by an Angel” would never win an Emmy but it made a difference in peoples’ lives.  The production office received thousands of letters during its run from people attesting to their ah-hah moments and new perspectives.  We used to sit in the conference room of the production company in Salt Lake City and pass those letters around, fighting back our tears, learning perhaps that someone lived instead of died because of the TV show we were making. 

I work for broadcast TV, and I respond personally to shows that, like “90210” and “Touched,” tell stories that are from and for the heart.  Similar recent shows I directed include “Brothers and Sisters” and “Parenthood.”  I’ve never been hired (yet) by one of the streamers – Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, etc.  But Netflix had more Emmy nominations in 2020 than all the broadcast networks combined.  So the road is clear, if the goal is to be nominated for an Emmy: direct a show for a streaming platform.  But if the goal is to tell stories that are relationship-oriented, that tackle the problems and delights of being human, then I’m right where I need to be.  And as I tell my directing students, “Focus on what you have to give, not what you want to get.”  What we all want to get is approval: the awards, the reviews, the things that get listed in one’s obituary.  But what we have to give is our storytelling ability and the determination to help, to make a difference.   And that is what television is really good for, whether the TV Academy and its Emmys recognize that or not.  Because when you can reach 20 million people in one night with your story, you have a pulpit to spread your positive message far and wide.  And I am reminding myself to be incredibly grateful to have that opportunity.

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THE MYTH OF “WRITING TO SELL”

I was doing all sorts of things to avoid writing.  I scrolled through emails and Facebook. I made some phone calls.  I picked up a few books that were laying around with bookmarks indicating where I had stopped the last time I picked them up.  The next book I picked up was actually a set.  Four books in a box.  They were written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, and they are Winnie the Pooh books.  I paid, I think, around fifty dollars for the little box of little books.  And I had seen a movie  called “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which piqued my interest in the author.

So then I had to know about the man.  There are all sorts of amazing tidbits about this author on Wikipedia, anyone can look him up.  But the fact that stood out for me was this:

Looking back on this period (in 1926), Milne observed that when he told his agent that he was going to write a detective story, he was told that what the country wanted from a “Punch humorist” was a humorous story; when two years later he said he was writing nursery rhymes, his agent and publisher were convinced he should write another detective story; and after another two years, he was being told that writing a detective story would be in the worst of taste given the demand for children’s books. He concluded that “the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.”

And so he wrote some stories for his son and his wife.  The dedication in Winnie-the-Pooh reads, “Hand in hand we come/Christopher Robin and I/To lay this book in your lap. / Say you’re surprised? /Say you like it? /Say it’s just what you wanted?/Because it’s yours -/Because we love you.” Any writer can relate to the trepidation revealed in that dedication – who would buy a little book about Milne’s son and his stuffed bear?  He had no way of knowing what a behemoth of a property the Winnie the Pooh character(s) and stories would become.  No one knew.  It’s like the William Goldman quote, “Nobody knows anything.” So says the author of “The Princess Bride,” “The President’s Men,” “Marathon Man,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and the book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” from whence that quote came.  If anyone should know what has the potential to be successful in writing, publishing, and Hollywood, it would be Goldman. But he was right, no one knows if anything is going to be successful. 

         So the current reverse-engineering thinking in Hollywood that you have to write “something that is currently selling,” is crap.  My agent has scolded me about that through the years, every time I write a period piece or a romantic drama unlike any other TV show.  I know the subtext is, “Make it a slam-dunk for me to sell your script.” AA Milne’s agent told him the same thing in 1925 and here we are, almost a hundred years later, chasing the same theory, a theory proven by Milne and practically every other successful writer, not to be true.  Hence, the aphorism, “Write what you know,” which is the same thing as Milne’s (paraphrasing here) “I write it because I want to.”

         And yet, as has often been posited, you don’t have to kill someone to write a murder novel.  You can use your imagination.  Said Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.” So all the sci-fi books and screenplays that portray the future used imagination.  All the historical novels.  All novels, period. All screenplays, period.  They all come from the writer’s imagination. And no one EVER knows if it will be successful, even if it’s a Star Wars or Star Trek spinoff.  It has to work, it has to be a story that stands alone in all its glory, the glory of the writer’s imagination.

         And every writer questions the merit of the piece as they’re making it.  Here’s something David Bayles and Ted Orland point out in Art and Fear; Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

         “At some point the need for acceptance may well collide head-on with the need to do your own work…It’s the ballad of the cowboy and the mountain man, the myth of artistic integrity and Sesame Street: sing the song of your heart, and sooner or later the world will accept and reward the authentic voice.”  We all hope for that, despite what the buyers and brokers say.  Standing in J.K. Rowling’s shoes for a moment, one wonders how she felt after eight publishers had rejected her first Harry Potter book. Did she still believe she had an authentic voice? Did she still believe that her authentic voice would be recognized and become successful? Her agent was saying, “I don’t know… we’ve been turned down eight times…”  But she didn’t let the agent quit.  And then Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 500 million copies. I imagine it was much easier to sell Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and all the other sequels after that.  A sequel comes with a pre-informed audience, one who has invested much in previous incarnations.  It’s harder to convince anyone that a new idea has merit until it’s proven that it does. Mark Twain said it better: “The man with the new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.”

         So there are four books about Winnie the Pooh.  Four books that A.A. Milne wrote.  And then, there are:

         6 plays

         5 theatrical shorts

         6 features

         5 TV shows

         4 holiday specials

         9 direct to video features

         19 video games

I’m quite sure that A.A. Milne never imagined that his new idea would succeed so well. But because he sold his rights to the property in 1930, he must have been satisfied with his creation.  It was the Disney organization that took advantage of Milne’s imagination, just as Warner Brothers made millions after Rowling sold the rights.  But every big success requires the initial idea however, the one born of a writer’s imagination.

         And so… I will sit down to write. Something original. Something authentic.  I shall not worry about selling it, I will focus on my imagination and tell a story.  Tomorrow.  I will sit down to write tomorrow.

CHASING AWAY THE BLUES

By Bethany Rooney

I was born an optimist.  Lucky, I know.  I not only see the glass as half-full, I think it’s a pitcher.  Bigger, better, full of more good stuff.  I was blessed with that perspective, which makes it difficult sometimes to understand others who approach life differently.  Those who see the glass (and theirs is only a thimble) as half-empty, those who are innately sad or depressed or negative.  Watching them, I think, “Cheer up, it’s just a matter of mind over matter!”  But then, I know they would if they could.

            Part of that realization is that everyone has those moments.  You know, THOSE moments.  Moments of insecurity, of fear, of rage against the unfairness of life.  We are human, we have those moments.  I’m not talking about depression here, just the occasional pity party that we all throw for ourselves. And for directors, living in a business of subjective judgment and creative expression that can fail easily, those parties can come along quite often.  Each shooting day has the potential for numerous disasters, for anything less than excellence is cause for self-doubt at minimum, self-destruction at the maximum.

            So human beings need a method to chase away those fears, those blues.  And directors need that more than many others.  (Granted, in the “Well, it isn’t brain surgery, it’s just entertainment,” school of philosophy, our troubles can seem indulgent.  But ask any director, they will tell you that a director needs a thick skin, a genius brain, and a warm heart to make it through the day because our creative choices leave us open to judgment, ultimately by anyone on the planet who watches the finished product.)  Given that we, by nature, are problem solvers, here are some tips for Chasing Away the Blues.  And it’s not whiskey.

            The first solution is GRATITUDE.  Begin and end each day with it.  Change the focus from what is wrong to what is right.  If nothing else, be grateful for waking up and making it through another day.  But really, there are so many things on top of that to be grateful for, you just have to pay attention to them.  By making a list of all that warrants your gratitude, you see all that’s good in your life.  Count all the tiny stuff, it doesn’t have to be something dramatic like winning the Oscar.  It can be the bird song outside your window or the fact that you remembered to bring your umbrella on a rainy day.  It becomes difficult to sulk or snap if you’re focused on all the reasons you can be grateful.  Say thank you: to the Divine Spirit and to the divine spirit within yourself. 

            The second solution is HUMILITY.  Know where you stand in the vast ranking of human beings.  There is always someone better off than you and there is always someone worse off.  No matter how much ego you have, you are not the best. And the chances are good that you are not the worst.  We are all here having a human experience, trying to achieve and get along with each other… it is humbling to realize that we are all the same.  No matter what differences we have with each other, what we have in common is the tie that binds: our humanity.  So don’t walk on set as if you’re royalty.  You may be the leader that day, but your intrinsic worth is the same as the lowest person on the crew list.  Smile. Acknowledge. Compliment. We are all one. And again, that process of reaching out overcomes our blues.  You can’t genuinely tell someone that their performance authentically touched you, or that the crew did a masterful job of bringing your vision to life, and remain in your fog of self-pity.  You are aligning yourself with an observation that says, “I needed help, and you gave it.”  You are humbly lifting someone else up.

            The final solution (for today) is LOVE.  I think of that sweet song, “Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke, in which he sings, “… I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’” And he’s right, that does make for a wonderful world, a world in which love is the answer, no matter the question.  There is no anger, there is no fear, there is just love to salve all wounds if we only choose to use it.  You can’t be down on yourself or the world if you’re expressing love to those around you, especially those who are lending their own creative talents to your enterprise. 

            The thread that winds through all of these solutions to the Blues is POSITIVE THOUGHT.  I know it’s hard to reach for that when you’re down; it can seem silly or useless.  But try it.  Reach outside yourself to be grateful for the good, to connect in your shared humanness, and project love outward.  Suddenly you’ll realize that you feel good, and in helping others, you helped yourself out of the hole you found yourself in, the one you couldn’t climb out of alone.  Be someone’s bright spot in a stressful day, and be full of gratitude for the goodness that returns to you. Then watch those Blues disappear, the pity party collapse, and the glass become half-full! 

            I can feel the cynical reader cringing, pushing away this advice as if it were either a joke or a religious fairy tale.  It may feel too altruistic, too simplistic, not based in reality.  “The world is screwed up, life is hard, you have to work like crazy just to survive. Drivel about gratitude, humility and love won’t solve a thing, least of all my blues. “All I can say is, try it.  It can’t hurt, and it may be the answer you’ve been seeking.

@ 2019 Bethany Rooney

WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG

It seems to me that when something goes wrong, I have to take a clear objective look at the sequence of events and make an assessment.  My three choices are:

  1. I did nothing wrong.
  2. I did a little bit wrong.
  3. Wow.  It is all my fault.

Making this assessment calls for stepping back, for putting my feelings aside, for trying to see things from the other side.  Sometimes this is hard to do, especially when I’m still mad or upset or saddened.  But as a director, as a leader, feelings are not supposed to be a part of this equation.  Truthfully, it’s not only in the leadership position that this objectivity should come into play, but in every human interaction in which the fullest possible positive outcome is not achieved; i.e., when something goes wrong.

Most of the time, I conclude that, #2, I did a little bit wrong.  That is due to the overall realization that most problems, most things that go “wrong,” are a matter of communication.  After all, there are two sides to every story.  So either in the initial event, or in the retelling of it, I either said something, or neglected to say something, or misinterpreted the narrative.  (As I type that, I think, “I should just keep my mouth shut.”)

But that is shortsighted.  And not possible, especially as a leader.  I have to communicate the vision I have as a director, whether it’s regarding a shot, a performance, or a decision.  I hope to do that in a concise and precise manner, as clarity cuts down on misunderstanding.  And if I am the receiver of information, I try to focus with full attention.  Sometimes I fail at that too, as I’m prone to multi-tasking (having a conversation with my mother on speakerphone while I put away groceries, for example) and that leads to inattention which often results in something going wrong.

I had an experience recently in which, while trying to stop someone from an action that I thought was a bad idea, I gave a personal example of the possible repercussions.  My opponent, who came from a totally different background than I, saw the whole thing differently.  So while I thought I was being clear and on point, I was tragically misinterpreted.  Was I at fault?  At first, I would have fiercely denied it.  About a week later, I was able to look back on the event and admit I shouldn’t have used the personal example because it was too specific.  Therefore, I was a little bit at fault.

And when something goes wrong on set, when a scene isn’t as good as it could be, am I at fault? Undoubtedly.  If I believe that the buck stops with me, I have to accept responsibility. Of course, there could be mitigating factors, things that were not foreseeable.  But if we planned well, if I communicated clearly, the scene should be great.  Should be.  But I guess I can’t control everything.  No one can.  So I can take a deep breath, do my best, and when things go wrong, take a look back and assess what I could do better.  Therefore, when something goes wrong, that’s a gift, because it makes me grow.  I know this isn’t news.  Philosophers through time have expounded on this theory. But for me, seeing my mistakes as gifts is a new perspective.  Maybe being able to say, “I’m a little bit wrong,” is a good thing…

CONTINUALLY REINVENTING MYSELF

At the close of every one of my childhood visits with my grandmother, she would comfort me with the aphorism, “All good things must come to an end.” At the time, I found it depressing rather than comforting, but now I see the truth of it.  And I’m comforted.

It’s on my mind right now because it’s the end of the TV season.  After spending ten months working on a show, the end arrives.  The show, the experience, was a good thing. And now it’s nearly over and it feels like jumping off a cliff into an empty abyss of not-knowing.  But I tell myself, another good thing will come along, and that’s only possible because of the ending that I’m facing.  Without that ending, there wouldn’t be room in my life for the next good thing.

To some degree that feels like meaningless words, just an effort to make myself feel better, but actually disconnected to the reality I’m facing.  And then I tell myself, it’s a necessary grieving process and I have to let myself go through that.  There’s a lot of talking to myself in a pendulum kind of way and it’s exhausting.

But we all know about that. Whether you’re on an 80-day streaming production schedule or a weekend web series shoot, it ends.  Everything does.  It’s a continual reinvention of one’s self, a start-and-stop-and-start process, an evolution that ideally leads one by experience and learning to improvement and further to wisdom. I understand the reason for the journey, it’s an expression of life itself in a microcosm.  I just don’t like it right now, facing wrap and potential unemployment. 

So then I slap myself for complaining and say, “Buckle up!  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!  Start the affirmations! Think positive, because thought will create the next wonderful thing!”  All of that is true, and I’ll be able to say it and believe it once the ending has actually happened and I turn my face toward the sun.  But right now the dark ending is staring me in the face.

I’ll survive, as I’ve done many times before.  But it never gets easier or more comfortable.

We all go through it. I speculate that it’s not just people in the entertainment business, but every person on the planet.  We learn, we grow, and we can do that because all good things must come to an end.  Thank you, Grandma! 

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USE YOUR WORDS

“Use your words” is a phrase we hear often in preschools.  It’s a way of reminding children that acting out is not always an appropriate way to make their point of view clear.  We tell kids it’s better to say, “I’m mad at you!” than hit someone.

Similarly, directors sometimes need to be encouraged to use their words too, since we all have a tendency to “act out” whatever we’re trying to communicate. We are an impatient bunch, and often it seems easier and quicker to physically show an actor what we are asking for – to move to the left, to turn around, to lean in closer – than it is to patiently explain while using our words.  And we are often in such a gosh-darned hurry, we resort to doing it ourselves, acting it out for the actor.  And if, in our impatience, the actor doesn’t respond quickly enough, we may even push, pull, or otherwise put them where we want them.

But that is demeaning to them. It is belittling their craft.  Actors are not puppets for us to maneuver, they are people: incredibly creative people who have prepared the scene in their own way, just as a director prepares in his or her own way.  We would be fools to not welcome their insights and idiots to treat them like chess pieces.

Part of the problem is that we’re prescribing how we want them to move, how we want them to physically navigate the set in a pre-marking rehearsal. That’s because we’ve imagined the scene in our heads and now we want the actors to duplicate our visions.  But if we would let them feel it out themselves, we could incorporate their brilliant ideas!  And then, if we need adjustments, for camera or lighting, or just to simplify the blocking – often to get the scene on one axis instead of two – we can request changes, using our words.  I call it the “nudge, nudge, nudge” method of directing.  We acknowledge the actors’ contributions, we incorporate them, and then, if necessary, we nudge them ever-so-slightly toward something that may work better for us.  One nudge at a time, we can work through a scene, paying attention to the intention that the actor is illustrating, forming and molding the blocking to become an amalgamation of their ideas and ours.  “I see you have the urge to move there on that line. Great idea! Maybe we could do that, but let’s try going this way instead.  Just turn left instead of right.  Let’s see how that works.”  We collaborate to create the fullest expression of that scene.  But we respect our actors, try to have a little more patience, and use our words.

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ME AND MY SHADOW Or, How To Shadow Appropriately

The bad news: “We booked all our slots already, we can’t offer you a job right now.”

But –

The good news: “Congratulations!  We would like you to shadow!”

All rising directors in TV have heard some version of this speech.  Here’s what you don’t get: a job, a credit, a paycheck.  Here’s what you do get: an opportunity.

Shadowing a director is the television business’ form of apprenticeship.  Following an episodic director allows you, the fantastic director that no one knows about yet, to see how the job is done.  The practice has become de rigueur on both sides: the hiring entity (production company, studio, network) and you, the job seeker.  They want you to watch and learn on set without a commitment to you, and you want to get the shadowing out of the way so you can actually direct. Even though it’s a requirement, there is as yet no rulebook.  The evolving nature of the practice means that appropriate behavior is not yet codified and it’s an unspoken and potentially pothole-filled road to making a good impression.  You may finish an assignment trailing negative feedback just because you didn’t know better.  So, herewith, are my advisory “rules.”

  1. This is not about you getting a job and therefore making an effort to impress others with your directing capabilities. This is about you soaking up as much information as you can while being a fly on the wall. Don’t express an opinion unless asked.  Be humble and quiet.
  2. You are being given the chance to peek behind the curtain, to see behind the scenes. Pretend you signed a non-disclosure agreement and don’t mention anything you see or hear during your shadowing tenure.  This is all top secret, please be grateful to those who allowed you this unfettered look at how it all works.
  3. Don’t ask for anything, don’t need anything. Take care of yourself.
  4. To take full advantage this learning opportunity, prep as the director preps. Outline the story.  Know intention and obstacle for every character.  Block and shot list.  It’s too easy to sit back at video village and judge the director’s work in hindsight.  You need to go through the same thought process the director did to understand how the decisions were made.
  5. Be there before call and stay until wrap.
  6. Watch with focused attention and don’t be on your phone while on set.
  7. If you have a question, ask the director during lighting or another down moment. Most directors love the craft and like talking about it, so they’ll probably be happy to talk it through (and explain why they’re so brilliant!)
  8. Remember that the people who hired you will be asking on-set personnel (both cast and crew) for their opinion of you. Be nice to them.  It’s okay if you’ve been so quiet that they can’t assess your performance, that counts as a positive. But being nice, friendly and upbeat counts even more.
  9. Send flowers or wine with a handwritten note afterward to the director, producer and anyone else who supported you and your desire to direct. Be genuinely grateful.  After all, you were chosen for this shadowing slot over a hundred other people who were clamoring for the opportunity.
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WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM OTHER DIRECTORS

For the past six months, I’ve been in the enviable position of observing other directors as they work while I’m the producing director of the CBS drama, BULL.  This is an unusual experience for me because mostly I’ve been a freelance director, one who floats in and out of the sets and offices of production companies, directing a single episode and then moving on, with little time to observe others.  So it’s only now that I have the opportunity to watch and learn since it is my job and pleasure to support BULL’s guest directors, to accompany on their episode’s journey, to assist without overruling them in their decision-making processes.  The fascinating thing is that we’re all different: in our spiritual nature, in our creativity, in our approach to the work and the execution of it.  And yet…there is an “x” factor to a good director that is instantly recognizable though generally unremarked-upon.

That “x”factor is self-confidence, a belief in one’s ability that is sure, quiet and rooted in one’s personal belief system. It’s not about ego, it’s about doing a job skillfully and joyfully.  It’s about loving the craft and nurturing all who participate as staff, cast and crew. There is an unspoken sense of purpose that this person radiates and is subtly acknowledged by all: this individual is there to fulfill the show’s needs in a superb way because of who they are.

How does this capability reveal itself?  By:

  1. having a clear understanding of the story.
  2. presenting a specific point of view in telling that story.
  3. coming up with a method of visual storytelling that fits the show but brings that little extra pizzazz to it.
  4. communicating that vision clearly and strongly.
  5. respecting others’ contributions and incorporating them.
  6. realizing the critical importance of actors’ authentic performance, facilitating that process to bring each scene to fulfillment.
  7. leading everyone in a positive, uplifting manner, which impacts not only the final product but also the day-to-day process of creating it.
  8. having a lightness of being, a sense of humor, a subtext that reassures everyone that the director has it all handled, that the set is safe from long hours, bad storytelling and a mean temper. 

So that’s the evidence that there are core qualities of all directors. Each director that operates by those methods comes to them by virtue of who they are.  Can that be quantified? I believe the short answer is, a director is a LEADER.  (No shit, Sherlock…) But how does one become a leader?  Is it in-born or learned? Nature or nurture?  

Recently I observed a group of neophyte directors in an exercise of directing actors.  Regardless of their skills, it was fascinating to watch and assess individuals before they even started rehearsing a scene.  Did they have good posture, with their shoulders back and head held high? Did they speak with a clear voice? Did they greet their cast with a smile and shaking of hands?  Did they make and hold eye contact? Did they stand in the middle of the space or did they slink against a wall?  All of those mannerisms are a “tell” that indicate the individual’s sense of self.  Do they believe they have a right to be there and can achieve what needs to be done? Or do they operate out of fear that they are not enough?  The skills can be learned, practiced, and improved.  The sense of self that informs those skills is something that was given before birth.  End of story. At least from my very unscientific observation.

I always say, “I learn something about directing every day.”  That is so true, and usually I mean it in the sense that while directing, I make a mistake and consequently, learn.  (To my personal dismay.) But lately I’ve also been learning by watching others, whether professionals who are at BULL to direct an episode, or up-and-comers who are taking the first steps.  It is such a complex job, to direct an episode (or anything else, from web series to big-budget feature,) that it is a never-ending process to learn all that is possible.  But a director has to start, probably in kindergarten, to acknowledge their ability to lead and then start to practice the inherent skills, developing them over time so that he or she can walk onto a set and RULE: kindly, justly, and creatively. And of course, with JOY.

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Out Of My Comfort Zone

I just directed an episode of a show that was WAY outside my comfort zone.

My comfort zone is directing a heartfelt performance, of creating a scene in the ersatz environment of a soundstage that feels real and spontaneous. I feel confident directing fish out of water stories, family stories, coming of age stories. I am comfortable with small crews in which I know everyone’s name and how they contribute to the collaborative whole.

But I don’t have a whole lot of experience with Visual Effects. Or Special Effects. Or Stunts. Or the overwhelmingly male energy of a writers’ room that made a Tone Meeting feel like a football game, with the accompanying cheers and swagger. So this last assignment that incorporated those elements felt really uncomfortable.

I would give myself daily pep talks. “You’ve been directing for years. You’ll figure it out.” “Anything you don’t know, ask. People will be willing to help.” “You can survive anything for eight days (of shooting.)” But all of those felt like empty platitudes when I was facing the reality of failing. REALLY failing. FAILING big-time.

It made me think of the universal human response to trying something new. Being afraid but doing it anyway. A baby attempting her first steps. A singer stepping forward from the choir to a solo. A baseball pitcher taking the mound in his first college game. A newbie director saying “Action” in front of professionals. And all are facing judgment. “Ah, good job.” Or “I thought he’d do better than that.” Or even, “I don’t think this (endeavor) is right for her/him.” Case closed, it’s all over. You tried, and maybe, you failed. Or maybe, you did okay. Maybe there’s room for improvement – AS THERE SHOULD BE. No one will ever do anything perfectly the first time they try. Everything requires practice. Ten thousand hours’ worth, if Malcolm Gladwell is right (and I think he is.) So that means that a person is pretty much guaranteed a lot of failure when trying to learn a new skill.

Directing film is a challenging position. Many skill sets are required. So that means extra opportunities for failure. And for someone like me, well-established and full of the inflated ego that comes with that, trying something new can be terrifying. But… What I learned about myself is that fear doesn’t fit me. I can’t operate that way; neither can I pretend to be something I’m not. So how, I asked myself, can I cope with trying something new but refusing to be afraid?

First, I did extra homework. I was completely prepared. Second, I relied more on others for help (first AD, script supervisor, DP) rather than going it alone, as I usually do (there’s that ego again.) And last, I gave myself permission to not be perfect. To know that I would fail and I would learn and survive. To laugh about it, to take it in stride, to grow and become better at my job. It’s okay to make a mistake, we all do. All of us humans, all of us directors. It’s all a process of evolution. And I’m grateful for a show that took me out of my comfort zone. I was getting a little too comfortable there, anyway.

Why I Teach Directing

Because I absolutely love directing.

Because I have knowledge to share.

Because the business needs it.

It’s not that the business needs me, per se, but the business needs someone to step up and say, “Many directors in TV today don’t know what the heck they’re doing and don’t realize that directing can be done differently and better; consequently, there’s a huge lack of respect among cast, crew and everyone in the business for the craft and the individuals who purport to practice it.” So I’m volunteering to step up.

There were a couple of developments in the 90’s that lead to the decline of both the knowledge of, and respect for, the craft of directing. The first was video assist, the second was the practice of handing out directing assignments as perks to others (like writers and actors) in lieu of increasing their salary or title.

“Video assist” was a tap on a film camera that allowed anyone to see what the camera was seeing at “video village.” (Previous to that, only the camera operator was privy to the image, everyone else watched the filmed results – the dailies – the next day in a screening room.) By having a monitor on set, there was implicit permission for everyone watching to have an opinion about what they were seeing. Most especially, the writer of the episode usually had an opinion. That opinion was expressed to the director, who then had to choose whether to take it into consideration. At around this same time in the business, executive producers began to be referred to as “show runners” and acknowledged as the primary power in the structure of creating television episodes, as every episode must start with a script. Television then began to deviate from features, where the script was the starting point but the director was the main creative force. In television, the director began to be perceived as a cog in the collaborative wheel of production; someone who ran the set but may have differing opinions from the boss, the show runner, who was shaping the entire season with his or her ideas and script execution.

Because video assist allowed the director to see the shot in real time, directors began sitting at video village rather than staying on set with the actors. This lead to a shift in importance from actors’ performance to the visual representation. In other words, it was all about the shot. And since the writer was sitting at video village as well (as a spokesperson for the show runner,) directors began to defer to the writer, or at least have them corroborate the director’s opinion about whether the scene was progressing as it should. So there was a de facto decay in the director’s creative vision and power to achieve it without others’ input. This decay was in many ways the directors’ own fault, because they were abdicating final responsibility for determining whether they should “print it and move on” by seeking the writers’ permission first.

As this practice of video village becoming a scrum of decision-making spread throughout the television business, incoming directors saw the new paradigm. And many of those recent first-timers were previously filling other crew categories: writers, actors, DPs, editors. It was understandable: since they had had to pick up the slack from indecisive directors and support them with their own knowledge, they began to think, “Hey, I just pulled that director’s bacon out of the fat. I know how to do this. I can direct too.” And the next season, rather than a boost in pay or title, they asked for a directing slot. What they didn’t realize is that there is a craft to the director’s job which involves many skill sets: how to tell the story brilliantly, on time and on budget, working with actors to achieve performance, navigating politics, understanding camera, being an energetic and decisive leader on set. And that list doesn’t even include the work done in prep (location scouting, casting, blocking and shot listing, making decisions regarding production design, props, and wardrobe, planning stunts, special effects and visual effects) or in post-production. It’s an incredibly complex and joyous job, and a person needs to study it, practice it, evolve with it, in order to be even somewhat good at it. But the writer thought, “I just gave good performance notes to that director, based on my awesome script, so I can do the job.” The editor thought, “I saved his ass by cutting it so well, I can do that job.” The actor thought, “I am on set every bloody minute and I know how to talk to actors, so I can do that job.” Etcetera, etcetera. But none of them had the whole picture, none of them realized they had to study the CRAFT of the director. So the overall quality of TV directors eroded and their abilities were derided from the crews on set to the executive suites of the production companies and networks.

We need to win that respect back. There are many superb television directors out there, but for every excellent episode they direct, there’s another one by a newbie who doesn’t know the craft who dents the overall perspective. If a crew or cast has to deal with a lame director, their opinion of all TV directors goes down. We are all tarred with the same brush because we all have the same title and job description. I am teaching the craft so that the public perception of all directors can go up and we earn the respect of all those who collaborate in this amazing business of making television. I love my job. I do it well. And I want the same for all television directors.

So here’s the first lesson for emerging directors:

  • Direct from set, next to the actors and camera, not from video village.
  • Learn the craft.

It is a complex job: after over 200 episodes, I still learn something every day. That’s why it’s so joyful, so wonderful!! And it’s why I teach directing.

 

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