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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CALL ME A GOOD DIRECTOR

I am not a female director, I am a good director.

My gender has nothing to do with my creative vision, my leadership skills, my ability to tell a story for the screen. My gender has nothing to do with my ability to interact successfully with producers, studios and networks. My gender has nothing to do with my ability to coax actors to their best performance, nor to partner with talented directors of photography. Clear enough? Then why do we even put that qualifier on women who are hired as episodic directors?

At this moment in time, it’s an advantage to be a woman director. There is a push to hire more women, to begin to level the playing field, to finally drag the statistics into the light. It’s tragic that only 17% of episodic television is directed by women. There is a vast talent pool of women directors eagerly waiting to be hired, even as they do everything possible (like enroll in numerous studio diversity programs and direct multiple indies and shorts) to make decision-makers aware of their existence and abilities. Finally the tide is turning, finally it’s a positive thing to be a woman director.

But not for me. Yes, I’m a woman who proudly stands with and for her sisters as they get hired.   But quality should be the determining factor in being hired as an episodic director. Does the director candidate do good work? Does that director have the sensibilities to make the best possible episode of a show? Does that director have the strength and commitment to lead all the elements (cast, staff and crew) in the service of their vision?   A director’s gender, skin color, ancestry, or belief system should not be relevant as a hiring factor. The only question that should be asked is, “Does this director know what she/he is doing?”

Of course, that’s not the world we live in right now. Right now, the calls are going out to hire women and diverse directors. And the gender/diverse hiring push is a pendulum swing that’s been a long time coming. As one of the few women who have directed over the years, I have been the lucky beneficiary of a vaguely guilty industry conscience that whispered, “Well, maybe we should hire a woman director or two.” Many was the time that I was the only woman on a season’s roster of directors. And I’m grateful for that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that being a woman helped my career. And I would never deny my femininity, it’s part of who I am.

But I’m at the point, after directing over 200 episodes of primetime network television, that I feel accomplished and capable. (That may have happened about a hundred and fifty episodes ago.) When a producer says, “I need a good director,” I hope my name comes up. When that producer says, “I need a woman director,” (to fill the quota imposed by the studio/network) I hope a new woman who is ready and smart and prepared will be hired. Producers don’t say, “I need a man director,” because that would imply that gender has something to do with a director’s abilities. In some future time, gender won’t even come up. At that point, I won’t be referred to as a “woman director,” because the only standard will be quality, the hiring decisions will be gender neutral, and all anyone will care about is that I’m a good director.

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A Trustworthy Relationship

          The fundamental relationship between director and actor is one of trust. The actor trusts that the director knows what she’s doing and will support and lead the actor to an authentic and appropriate performance. The director trusts that the actor has the emotional resonance and skill sets necessary to become the character. Each is helping the other find and hone performance to best serve the story. They need to believe in each other, lean on each other, to achieve the best results.

          Recently I directed something in which my relationship with an actor was definitely not one of trust. The actor had a wall up which I could not breach. It wasn’t personal; I was in a long line of freelance directors who had the same experience on this show. It was disconcerting, though. I’m a director who prides herself on creating that intimate relationship with every actor. It is not normal for me to be ignored and even rejected when directing an actor.

          At first I thought, maybe it’s my pride that’s the problem. Just because I get along well with most actors doesn’t mean I should automatically get along with every single one. So I redoubled my efforts. I don’t mean that I was a subservient ass-kisser. I mean that I really tried harder to effect change in performance where I felt it was necessary. But I was trying too hard, and I was too focused on getting my own way, rather than serving the material. The wall just became higher.

          Then I thought, I need to get my ego out of the way. “Be the love, be the light,” became my mantra. I can’t control how this person behaves, I can only control my behavior. So I’m going to be love and light and wear this person down with truly-felt sunshine. I’m going to break down that wall with smiles and hugs and acceptance. That didn’t work either.

          But it was my job to make the best episode possible. So it was incumbent upon me to direct to the best of my ability. And that meant offering notes and insight no matter how it was received, and staying the course until I saw the realization of those thoughts. “I’m not going to crumble,” I thought. “I’m not going to just give up and let the wall stand in the way and let performance suffer. I’m going to be my own wall of integrity. I’m going to not say ‘Cut and print,’ until it is what I need it to be.” That resulted in a few standoffs, and in all honesty, a few scenes that required judicious editing to achieve the result the script demanded.

          But ultimately, my pursuit of excellence (or at least, better than acceptable) work elicited grudging respect. I’ll never be this person’s favorite director, but at least there’s trust. The actor knew that I was focused on telling the story and trying to make it the best episode possible, especially in performance. It wasn’t personal, it was professional. And that’s trustworthy.

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Directing With a Different Voice

I heard a piece of music the other day that made me rethink everything I’ve learned about the business of directing TV shows.

I’ve directed over 200 episodes of prime-time network television over 30 years. I co-wrote a textbook about directing called “Directors Tell the Story,” to share what I knew and give back and help emerging directors learn. In other words, I felt like I pretty much had this craft down. But then I heard it.

It was a theme from the film The Mission, written by Ennio Morricone. It’s called “Gabriel’s Oboe.” But this time, it was played beautifully by Yo-Yo Ma on a cello. An oboe piece played on a cello. It made me hear a piece of music with which I was very familiar in a whole new way. It was the same thing done differently.

And that made me think: why is an episode of a particular show that is directed by me different than an episode of the same show directed by someone else? (Yes, the writer originates the story, but every other element is the same. TV shows require an identity that is forged of relative sameness to hook the viewers and retain brand loyalty.) I have always thought that my job is not to reconfigure a show to suit my ego, it’s to deliver my best episode of an existing paradigm. I want to fit in. I want to have my episode look and feel like other episodes of that show. The producers, studio and network want it to be similar.

And yet, mine will be different. Because it came through me. The script is processed in my brain through layers of life experience: how I grew up, what I learned, who I loved, where I made mistakes. This is not news, since we all know that the entire business is completely subjective. We’re making art, not mathematical equations. However, I’ve always endeavored to play by the rules, to deliver what is expected. Because there is no room in episodic television for an auteur.

But now I think, I can do the same thing, I can just do it differently by celebrating my uniqueness rather than downplaying it. Anything I direct is going to be impacted by all the things that I am: I’m from Ohio, I’m a mom, I’m a Democrat and a fallen-away Catholic. But the primary difference between myself and 84% of episodic directors is that I’m a woman. And like me, other women directors bring their individual voice to their episodes or films with their gender difference being a big part of who they are. The world needs to hear our female voices, the ones we could liken to a cello rather than the familiar oboe of the male voice – because just as I was blown away by hearing the unexpected within a familiar format, so the audience might be too when watching a familiar show that seems just a little different somehow. Maybe even better.

Thank you for the insight, Yo-Yo Ma.

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What Makes A Good Director?

 1. The passion to be a storyteller.

2. A love for actors.

3. An outgoing personality.

4. Intelligence.

5. An ability to use the camera well.

6. An outgoing personality.

7. A facility for political gamesmanship.

8. Dogged determination to succeed.

9. An outgoing personality.

10. Communication skills.

11. A vivid imagination.

12. An outgoing personality.

You get what I’m saying.  This all comes to mind because I’ve had a few shadows (people learning to direct by watching) lately, and the Warner Brothers Directing Workshop (which I teach) is gearing up for its first open-application season, so I’ve seen first-hand a fair number of people who want to direct.  They are unique individuals, as different from each other as can be, but they share a common desire to direct.

For most of them, I want to say, “Give it up, it’s probably not going to happen for you.”  It’s not that I want to be negative, but realistic.  They don’t seem to have what it takes (see above).  But they will try.  They will make shorts, they will submit to festivals, they will spend their weekends and hard-earned cash to keep making movies.  And very few will succeed.  I’d like to save them the heartache – but then I think, it’s all a subjective business, that’s just my opinion, who am I to judge them?

And yet… I know what I know. This aspect of having an outgoing personality is not a learned skill, it’s an inherited trait that you either were born with or not.  It’s really about leadership, about having the ability to enlist others to follow you.  It’s about sparking their enthusiasm because they sense yours and judge you to be worthy of their time and attention.  And many of the people I’ve met lately who want to direct are not leaders in that sense.  I wish they could see themselves as I and others do, those who do the hiring, the producing, the financing.  I wish the wannabes could objectively grade their abilities and decide whether they really want to pursue this elusive goal of being a director.

Yet again… I’m grateful that there are those who crave to live in this magical world of make-believe where the collective consciousness doesn’t always matter, where money isn’t always the bottom line, where with faith and hope you can sometimes succeed when everyone predicted you would fail.  So I’m not going to rely on my realistic perspective about these directing hopefuls, I’m going to shut my mouth and wish them well.

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Choosing to be Happy

I am happy where I am.

Just now I’m in Nashville, directing the eponymous show, and in my free time talking with area college students.  I am invariably asked if I wish that I directed movies.  The subtext I take from that is, “It’s all well and good that you’re directing TV, but don’t you wish you directed a MOVIE?  It’s the height of the profession, you could be an auteur instead of a hack, don’t you want to see your name on the big screen?” They seem disappointed when I say no, I’m happy where I am.

Firstly, I get to do what I love all the time.  I get to direct.  A feature director may be lucky to direct every three years or so, after spending grueling months grubbing for cash and cast.  I am privileged (and grateful for it) to join multiple film families, get to play in their sandbox, and emerge with a well-told story in a finished product.  Eleven of them this year.  How great is that???

Secondly, I AM making movies.  I’m directing a script with a beginning, middle and end, using the exact same process as any feature director.  The budget is $3-5 million.  I’m supported by a complex structure including a distributor (the network), a production entity (studio) and a company consisting of individuals who all contribute their best efforts to help me tell a story. We call it TV but that is the box (or laptop or phone) on which you watch it.  When we watch a visual story in a shared experience such as a movie theatre, our culture respects it more.  But have you really paid attention to narrative episodes of TV lately?  Amazing stuff.  They are movies, shot in eight or nine days, with great stories, phenomenal production value, and heartfelt performances.

Lastly, it’s my choice to be happy.  Back when I was an Associate Producer, responsible for post-production, I wondered whether I should just stay where I was rather than strive for a higher goal.  I was a good AP, I reasoned, and perhaps that was the peak of my abilities.  Americans are conditioned to continually reach up, push beyond the status quo, and maybe that’s all it was for me, rather than an organic move to stretch creatively.  But I chose to reach up and have been blessed to continue as a television director.  After a few years of that, the conditioning made me ask, “Okay, I’ve kind of mastered this directing thing.  Shouldn’t I want more?  Shouldn’t I want to direct movies?”  I thought about it a lot.  And I realized that, in addition to the factors above that were an influence, I could choose to be happy where I was or I could yearn for something that I didn’t have, which would make me feel incomplete and unhappy.  It seemed clear.  In every day, in every minute, in every situation, I had a choice.

So I choose to be happy.  Right where I am.

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We “Minority” Directors

Last weekend Paris Barclay was elected President of the Directors Guild of America.  As he should be.  He is a quality director who has won Emmys, and has been producer/director of numerous shows, including Sons of Anarchy and In Treatment.  He’s served the DGA in many capacities before this.  The man is qualified beyond reproach.  And yet the news release specified that he was the first African-American DGA President.  Lawrence O’Donnell even did a piece on MSNBC about it.  How about that?  A black DGA President.

What does his race have to do with it?  A director’s qualifications include  storytelling ability, creative eye, interpersonal skills, and leadership.  Race has nothing to do with it.  And neither does gender.

I would like to be known as a good director.  Not a woman director.  We directors of the feminine persuasion are lumped together, as when a producer says, “We need to get a woman director in here so the DGA doesn’t come after us.”  And yet, I’m as different from the next woman director as Paris is from the next black director.  We are individuals with individual skills and abilities.

I am so happy for Paris. But don’t lump him in with some neophyte just because their skin is the same color.  I’m grateful that I am a working director, but don’t lump me in with the next director with boobs. Quality comes from the mind, the one that envisions the visual story and tells it beautifully through collaboration with writers, producers, cast and crew.  Quality has nothing to do with the outside of us – Paris and me and all the other “minority” directors – quality comes from the inside.  Appreciate Paris’ mind, not his skin.

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The Freelancer’s Secret

 

 

A young aspiring director asked me this week how I cope with the most stressful aspect of being a freelance director: walking into the environment of a show that’s new to me, and after just seven days of prep, stepping onto the stage and directing the episode as if I’d been there forever, knowing the show’s culture and personalities, as well as the story I’ve been entrusted to tell.  I told her the secret, but I don’t expect her to be able to incorporate it until she has years of experience behind her, because we all learn by making mistakes and failing – that is a process that cannot be bypassed, as much as we all would wish it.

It was during those years of stumbling and falling, but getting stronger, that I discovered the secret of being a freelancer, the one that allows me to navigate uncharted territory with a fair amount of confidence and serenity: I focus on what I have to give, not on what I want to get.

I am not in control of what I want to get, which is what we all want: acceptance, approval, acclaim.  We want love and praise.  We want to knock their socks off.  Even if I direct the best episode they’ve ever had, I may not receive even a cursory “Good job!”, since people in this business are not known to be thoughtful.   I once complained to a DP on a pilot that the producers had not acknowledged the quality, much less the quantity, of the good work we were doing with a miniscule budget and limited time.  I was pissed, because we were busting our butts and hearing nothing but total silence from them.  “Oh,” the plain-talking Director of Photography said, “They didn’t throw you your dog biscuit today?  You didn’t get your pat on the head?”  My jaw dropped at his crude response, but it has always stayed with me.  Ever since, I’ve resisted my inner child’s need for approval.  It’s up to me to approve my work, just as it’s up to me to improve when I know I could do better.

In that spirit of autonomy, I focus on what I have to give: creative vision, craft, compassion.  I tell the story I am given to the absolute best of my ability, while surrounding my collaborators with love and praise.  The end product is what matters ultimately, but the process of achieving it is crucial too.  Everyone is able to give their best when they feel seen and appreciated, so the end product is undeniably better when everyone is contributing fully because they know they are safe (actors) and challenged to do their best (crew).  Directing episodic TV is a tough gig that requires all of my attention, as well as assistance from so many people. When I focus on giving, I am not worried about getting.

And by the way, the pilot producers were fired before I finished shooting the pilot.  It wasn’t about me, they were dealing with their own issues.  As Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Don’t make assumptions.”  There is no way to know what is going on in the executive suites, so I detach.  I’m there to do a job, and it’s wonderful if I’m acknowledged for it.  But I don’t look for it.  I’m there to give.  And that feels great.

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A Director’s Dialogue

 

I attended a Hollywood producer’s workshop last weekend on pitching, packaging and financing, since I know I have a lot to learn in these areas.  It was not the information that rattled me, but the multiple anecdotes about what a awful industry the movie/TV business is, how it eats its young and buries the old and pretty much kills at least the idealism of everyone else in between.

That set up an internal dialogue that went something like this:

“Yes, I’ve seen bad people do bad things, but I’ve been directing 28 years and I still am a good person.”

“Maybe you’re just a naïve person.  Or maybe you just don’t play with the big boys so you don’t get the big sledgehammer coming after you.”

“I might be naïve, I guess, but is there anything wrong with that?”

“There’s no place for naivete in Hollywood.  By definition it’s a cynical and desperate environment.”

“And I have had sledgehammers.  One recently really conked me on the head.  But I’ll survive and sail on.”

“Hah.  Little Miss Pollyanna talking.”

“Pollyanna saw the good in everyone.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Defensive, anyone?”

“I’m not defensive, I’m just myself.  A really good director.”

“Still sounds defensive.”

“Well everyone in Hollywood has to believe in themselves or no one else will.  I believe in myself.”

“Until you ask yourself why you haven’t directed more pilots or more critically-acclaimed television or why you’re not on the triple-A list.”

“I try not to go there.  I know there’s a path for me and I’m on it now.”

“New Age blah-blah.”

“Shut up.”

“No, you shut up.”

 

I opened up a pint of Java Chip, laid down on the couch to check the queue on my DVR, and shut up.  For now.

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Sail On To Success

Picture this: you are a small boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean.  Sometimes the wind fills your sails and you feel like you’re flying, going far and feeling good.  Sometimes you’re becalmed.  Sometimes you can see danger coming, like a gigantic cargo ship that could run you over.  Or the danger could be unforeseen, perhaps a behemoth whale that will come from beneath and overturn you in a shocking instant.  Most of the time you do your best, whatever comes your way, to sail on.  That is my new mantra for directing: sail on.

I’m in a dangerous business, where the currents are always hidden and very few speak the truth.  Failure is inherent because it’s a subjective business, so there are only opinions and no facts.  My success is generally determined by someone else: a network head or the audience that doesn’t tune in. Someone could choose to see my work as a failure due to their own hidden agenda, over which I have no control.  There are so many elements at play in directing, from the script to the personalities to the equipment, and each one is an opportunity for an obstacle, whale-size or not.   And there are my own internal obstacles: a potential lack in my knowledge, my leadership skills, my creative vision. To claim being a director is to sign up for a challenging life.

And yet, I love it.  I embrace it.  Oh my god, I feel like the luckiest person on the planet to get to direct episodes of television.  It’s so much fun! I am so grateful.

But it’s hard.  And sometimes I get knocked down.  I don’t get hired back on a show or don’t get hired in the first place.  Once I even got fired from a big studio pilot.  People tried to console me then by saying that everybody in this business gets fired at some time or another, and that I would learn a lot from the experience.  All true, as I have come to find out, but it wasn’t much comfort then.

Now I can look back and see how each obstacle taught me something.  Generally the lessons have been about holding on to my creative vision and staying strong.  Even now, though I’ve developed a tough skin and feel firmly planted in my self-confidence, I encounter a bump.  Someone doesn’t like me or doesn’t like my work.  That’s okay, I say to myself, sail on.  I won’t quit, I won’t stop doing what I love, I won’t look to anyone but myself for success.  Sail on.

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