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.