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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

My Time to Wear Red

I wore a red outfit the other day for the first time in my life.  To look at me, wearing red while interacting at an industry event, you wouldn’t have known it was a big deal.  But it was a significant milestone, because I was willing to be seen.

In this business, there are so many cultural biases against me.  I’m a woman.  I’m overweight.  I’m so not hip – I’m a mom from Sherman Oaks.  But I want to play with the big boys because of my passion for storytelling and filmmaking.  I have to be a director, I am compelled to do it, even though I don’t fit the standard description.  But none of that external stuff matters when the inherent drive is to tell a story visually, to bring a script to life.  We are all the same underneath.

I was at a meeting yesterday of the Women’s Steering Committee of the Directors Guild of America, where women talked passionately about their own desire to direct and the cultural roadblocks in their way. I’m one of the lucky ones who has been given the opportunities to express myself and tell stories and command a set.  I count my blessings every day, but I know now that I wasn’t claiming ownership of that director’s chair as well as I could. In past years I would have worn black and sat in the back of the room.  At this meeting I wore turquoise and sat at the front.  I’m no longer afraid of judgment.

Before recent evolutionary jump, I didn’t want to call attention to myself.  I wanted to blend in, to skate under the radar, to be part of the middle and not the top.  In work, that meant that even though I was the director, I was quiet.  I didn’t have a big personality or a big voice.  I still think that’s a good way to go, but now the difference is that if someone sees me for who I really am, I’m okay with that.  It’s about self-acceptance, self-love.  It took me all these years to love myself for who I really am, so it’s okay for others to see me and love me too.

I had to take a deep breath just now and be willing to let that sentence stand without backpedaling, without hitting “edit” and “cut”.  It’s my time to own myself for all that I am.  It’s my time to wear red.

Love vs. Fear

My husband insisted I watch the first episode of Bates Motel.  I stuck with it for the first fifteen minutes, admiring its style (directed by Tucker Gates) and hating its content.  I left the room in a huff after Vera Farmiga’s character was brutally raped and then she brutally stabbed the rapist to death.  Brutal.  And I didn’t want that in my brain.

I want happy thoughts.  I want curiosity and wondering and warm memories and love.  I want love for my life and for my work.  As an audience member, I want to see love and as a director, I want to give love.  Not just to my cast and crew personally, but I want to tell stories that feature love, not fear.

For that’s what the two ends of the storytelling spectrum are, love and fear.  The fear may be cloaked in anger or hate or revenge, but underneath it all, it’s fear.  Fear of losing identity.  Fear of losing a loved one.  Fear of being beaten in the power game.  Fear of being a loser.  It’s loss vs. gain.  Fear is a losing proposition, love is always a gain. One is detracting, one is adding.  One is generally violent, the other is based in emotion.  Speaking in huge generalities, one is an action adventure appealing to men, the other is a rom-com appealing to women.

So many stories are fear-based today.  (Any show about vampires or zombies; any show about predators, any show about crime.)  And many in the audience enjoy them, as the ratings attest.  And directors love to commit to a fear-based story, because it’s dynamic and scary and interesting. Director Danny Boyle, who directed the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire as well as the Summer Olympic Opening Ceremonies in London this past summer, talked about the dichotomy between directing with a “good” point of view as opposed to a “bad” point of view in the April 2013 issue of the magazine Wired. “When you’re doing something like the Olympics, which is socially responsible and family oriented, the dark side of your brain doesn’t go to sleep.  It’s still there, fevering away, wanting to do something dark and unacceptable.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that conflict is necessary for good storytelling.  There is no story without conflict.  There is no light without darkness.  And I’ve shot my share of mayhem and murder, even rape.  I did it because that was the job: I’m hired as the director and I must tell the story as best as I can.  In fact, the rape scene I shot was so disturbing that the network affiliate in Salt Lake City cut some of it out – but censorship is a blog for another time.  Where I am now in my life, I don’t want to see it and I don’t want to shoot it.  This world doesn’t need another Bates Motel.  It doesn’t need more fear.  It needs more love.

That’s The Way It Is

Walter Cronkite would end his nightly broadcasts saying, “And that’s the way it is,” asserting that the CBS Evening News was telling the truth for that day. Well, the way it is for women directors in the TV and film business is appalling. That point was brought home yesterday at the Directors Guild of America, where female guild members met for “The 2013 Women Of Action Summit”.

We knew the numbers: in the 2011-12 season, women directed only 15% of episodic television. In features, the numbers are even worse. We listened to numerous distinguished speakers (27 in all) on three panels describe their own rollercoaster careers and determined efforts to gain credibility and respect in a business that continues to operate in a paterfamilias paradigm. The audience applauded as impassioned speeches were made for that paradigm to shift. And a lunchtime brainstorming session among all the participants came up with practical steps toward just that.

But I don’t hold out much hope that we can reach gender parity in the directing ranks any time soon. In the 2011-12 DGA Report which assessed hiring practices for episodic TV, there were numerous shows that hired women or minority directors for fewer than 15% of their episodes, including some of which I have directed: Hart of Dixie, Castle, Rizzoli and Isles, and Revenge. There were 26 shows in that list, and eight shows that hired no women or minorities at all. On the other hand, there were 41 shows that hired women or minorities for at least 30% of their episodes. That’s great, but why are we stopping at 30%? It could be because there just aren’t that many women directors: females make up just 13.4 per cent of the directors’ category in the DGA. So essentially, there are two barriers to gender parity in directing: the entrenched male-oriented paradigm, and the lack of women with the qualifications to do the job.

So while efforts are made on both micro- and macrocosm levels (allow new directors to shadow experienced ones, invite showrunners, studios and networks to open their rigid hiring lists) there are those of us who continue to represent women in this workplace. And we must do it better, in order to hold the banner high for all those who come after us. We must understand the craft fully, navigate the culture subtly, come to set fully prepared and confident, and be the visionary leader that unites all the elements into a product that exceeds the expectations of the buyers. Those of us who are lucky enough to be in that fifteen per cent have to be strong enough and talented enough to dismiss from doubters’ minds the nagging thought that women are not good enough to do this job – because sadly, even in this day and age, we are all tarred with the same brush. One woman director who fails makes it harder for the rest of us, even though we may have nothing in common except our gender. You don’t hear references to the other 85% as “men directors” and one man’s failure doesn’t reflect on the others.

That is still so for women. But we don’t whine about it. We just work harder to guarantee that we excel, both for our individual careers and for the women who come after us. In that way, someday, we won’t be talking about “women directors” but just “great directors”, since gender has nothing to do with it. And that’s the way it is – or will be.

Leaving episodic shackles behind

Just wrapped ABC/Shondaland “Scandal”.  OMG!!  My level of excitement felt the same as when I first began directing, in part because I was challenged to shoot the script differently, and partly because the writing was so damn good and the actors were so damn good and we were together making good stuff.  So every day, I woke up and my first thought was, “I get to shoot today!”  Really, I always feel that way – I love my job and enjoy the creativity no matter what show I’m on – but elevated material elevates my heart rate.  The reason I mentioned shooting it differently is because the brilliant DP, Oliver Brokelberg, has found really interesting ways to manage a huge amount of material (78 scenes in 9 days!!!!) and contribute visually to the storytelling.  Not every scene has to be covered in traditional closeups.  It’s very freeing.  The parameters to which I’m normally shackled were removed.  I imagine that must be the way that an indie filmmaker feels. And “Scandal” is a 42-minute movie every week!