The bad news: “We booked all our slots already, we can’t offer you a job right now.”
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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t ask for anything, don’t need anything. Take care of yourself.
- 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.
- Be there before call and stay until wrap.
- Watch with focused attention and don’t be on your phone while on set.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.