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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