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!

Rediscovering the craft

I’ve been talking about the craft of directing a lot lately, as people discover the book, (Directors Tell the Story) and ask me to speak on the subject.  I thought I (and Mary Lou) had covered the subject completely in the book, but No!!!  There is so much more for me to learn, so much more for me to share.  Often, it’s something that I knew but had forgotten, until some incident reminds me in a graphic way.  Recently, I was directing the second episode of a new mini-series on USA called Political Animals.  Fantastic script by Greg Berlanti and Molly Newman.  A magnificent cast:  Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino, Cieran Hinds, James Wolk and Sebastian Stan.  All of the elements were in place.  But it’s especially difficult to direct the first episode after the pilot, because there’s much less time (8 days instead of 15) and less money to create something that ideally feels and looks the same.  Plus the reality sets in: the euphoria of creating something new and wonderful is gone, replaced with the prospect of 12-14 hour days for the foreseeable future.  But here’s what I learned (again).  Faced with restrictions, directing becomes of necessity more creative, at least in terms of getting what you need with less toys (crane? what crane?) and less time.  It becomes almost like the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey gang, let’s put on a show!”  It’s really fun.  It’s really exciting.  It’s really challenging. You can’t throw money at a problem, you have to figure out some other way of achieving superb storytelling.  And the other lesson, of course, is that the major element of storytelling is performance, not camera work.  And oh, there were amazing performances in Political Animals! (And my camera work was pretty good, too…)

Big questions, little moments

My script for In Plain Sight was ostensibly about a drag queen who had to go into Witness Protection after seeing his boss murdered.  And for the main characters, it was about their choices in life: getting engaged for Fred Weller’s character, meeting a new guy for Mary McCormack’s as well as saying goodbye to old relationships.  It struck me that what it was really about was identity: who are we? What do our choices say about our priorities?  These are essential life questions, illustrated through an entertaining weekly TV show.  That’s why being a television director is so cool.  I’m telling stories, but in getting to bring a great script to life, I’m privileged to show a point of view about the eternal/spiritual “why are we here?” debate.  How does illustrating that theme impact my work on a daily basis?  It’s like a filter through which all decisions are made.  As I shoot the scenes, I’m always asking myself, “What story am I telling here?”  The answer may just shade a line reading, or it may drastically change the blocking.  But I must know ahead of time what the script is really saying.

Life Is Good

Gratitude is everything. Every day starts with a prayer of gratitude, but on shooting days, I know I have something extra to be grateful for. “I get to shoot today, thank you, God!”

I take the newspaper to work with me, and most days, I find I never get around to opening it. That’s because I’m busy blocking, or setting up the shots, or talking to my beloved actors, or (on a really long lighting setup) going to visit the craft service table, or actually shooting. The day goes by so quickly. And I end up tossing the paper in the trash. I’m so grateful for a job that keeps me so engaged, so creative, so happy, so connected to all the others that help me tell a particularly wonderful story. Life is good!

Matters of the heart

I finished Private Practice and moved directly over to Revenge – both ABC Studios productions.  In one show I’m shooting a scene of a heart transplant, and in the next I’m shooting scenes of figuratively breaking hearts.  I guess what that means is that a director has to understand hearts.  There’s the heart of the producer/show creator/writer, for whom this episode is literally one of his/her children, and it beats with pride and fear – will this director understand my material and do it justice?  There’s the heart of the actor, beating with empathy and memorized lines and ritual of wardrobe/hair/makeup, wondering, will this director get me where I need to go?  Can I trust her?  There’s the heart of the crew members, beating with the ticking clock, wondering, will this director make the day? There’s the heart of the DP, beating with desire for art, wondering, will this director have good visual ideas that allow me to stretch creatively?  And there is my own heart, the director’s heart, which incorporates all of those things and adds more: will I elevate the material?  Will I make every decision that allows this episode to fly to great heights?  Will I lead with humor, discipline, love?  Will I tell the story in the fullest way possible, with truthful performances and vivid visuals? It takes a great heart, operating out of love and inspiration, to be a director.  The only thing that can take down a director is the fear of not being good enough.  But fear does not belong in the heart.  It belongs in a box, locked up and put away in the deepest part of the closet, only to be opened very occasionally as a kick in the head when arrogance rises up around me like a cloud.  Then I take out the fear box and look at it for a moment, reminding myself that we are all human and there are ups and downs in every life.  Then I put the locked box away in the closet and open up that great heart again.  The next job, the next episode, the next film demands it.

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