Why I Teach Directing

Because I absolutely love directing.

Because I have knowledge to share.

Because the business needs it.

It’s not that the business needs me, per se, but the business needs someone to step up and say, “Many directors in TV today don’t know what the heck they’re doing and don’t realize that directing can be done differently and better; consequently, there’s a huge lack of respect among cast, crew and everyone in the business for the craft and the individuals who purport to practice it.” So I’m volunteering to step up.

There were a couple of developments in the 90’s that lead to the decline of both the knowledge of, and respect for, the craft of directing. The first was video assist, the second was the practice of handing out directing assignments as perks to others (like writers and actors) in lieu of increasing their salary or title.

“Video assist” was a tap on a film camera that allowed anyone to see what the camera was seeing at “video village.” (Previous to that, only the camera operator was privy to the image, everyone else watched the filmed results – the dailies – the next day in a screening room.) By having a monitor on set, there was implicit permission for everyone watching to have an opinion about what they were seeing. Most especially, the writer of the episode usually had an opinion. That opinion was expressed to the director, who then had to choose whether to take it into consideration. At around this same time in the business, executive producers began to be referred to as “show runners” and acknowledged as the primary power in the structure of creating television episodes, as every episode must start with a script. Television then began to deviate from features, where the script was the starting point but the director was the main creative force. In television, the director began to be perceived as a cog in the collaborative wheel of production; someone who ran the set but may have differing opinions from the boss, the show runner, who was shaping the entire season with his or her ideas and script execution.

Because video assist allowed the director to see the shot in real time, directors began sitting at video village rather than staying on set with the actors. This lead to a shift in importance from actors’ performance to the visual representation. In other words, it was all about the shot. And since the writer was sitting at video village as well (as a spokesperson for the show runner,) directors began to defer to the writer, or at least have them corroborate the director’s opinion about whether the scene was progressing as it should. So there was a de facto decay in the director’s creative vision and power to achieve it without others’ input. This decay was in many ways the directors’ own fault, because they were abdicating final responsibility for determining whether they should “print it and move on” by seeking the writers’ permission first.

As this practice of video village becoming a scrum of decision-making spread throughout the television business, incoming directors saw the new paradigm. And many of those recent first-timers were previously filling other crew categories: writers, actors, DPs, editors. It was understandable: since they had had to pick up the slack from indecisive directors and support them with their own knowledge, they began to think, “Hey, I just pulled that director’s bacon out of the fat. I know how to do this. I can direct too.” And the next season, rather than a boost in pay or title, they asked for a directing slot. What they didn’t realize is that there is a craft to the director’s job which involves many skill sets: how to tell the story brilliantly, on time and on budget, working with actors to achieve performance, navigating politics, understanding camera, being an energetic and decisive leader on set. And that list doesn’t even include the work done in prep (location scouting, casting, blocking and shot listing, making decisions regarding production design, props, and wardrobe, planning stunts, special effects and visual effects) or in post-production. It’s an incredibly complex and joyous job, and a person needs to study it, practice it, evolve with it, in order to be even somewhat good at it. But the writer thought, “I just gave good performance notes to that director, based on my awesome script, so I can do the job.” The editor thought, “I saved his ass by cutting it so well, I can do that job.” The actor thought, “I am on set every bloody minute and I know how to talk to actors, so I can do that job.” Etcetera, etcetera. But none of them had the whole picture, none of them realized they had to study the CRAFT of the director. So the overall quality of TV directors eroded and their abilities were derided from the crews on set to the executive suites of the production companies and networks.

We need to win that respect back. There are many superb television directors out there, but for every excellent episode they direct, there’s another one by a newbie who doesn’t know the craft who dents the overall perspective. If a crew or cast has to deal with a lame director, their opinion of all TV directors goes down. We are all tarred with the same brush because we all have the same title and job description. I am teaching the craft so that the public perception of all directors can go up and we earn the respect of all those who collaborate in this amazing business of making television. I love my job. I do it well. And I want the same for all television directors.

So here’s the first lesson for emerging directors:

  • Direct from set, next to the actors and camera, not from video village.
  • Learn the craft.

It is a complex job: after over 200 episodes, I still learn something every day. That’s why it’s so joyful, so wonderful!! And it’s why I teach directing.