It’s Friday questions day but I’m only getting to one because my answer is so long. Next week I’ll blast through a bunch. And as always, feel free to ask yours in the comments section.
This week’s query comes from Stephen.
What is it about James Burrows that makes him such a popular director? Obviously at this point he has a great track-record with directing popular shows but in your experience of working with him, what makes him *so* good?
In baseball we talk about a “5 tool player”. That’s a player who can do it all (hit for average, hit for power, great speed, great defense, great arm). We’re talking Willie Mays here, and as you can imagine, there are very few.
James Burrows is the Willie Mays of directing. If a multi-camera director is proficient in two of the facets I’m about to list he’s considered a good director. Jimmy is the best at all of them.
Primary of course, is his ability to work with actors. Jim speaks their language, he understands their needs and concerns. He also realizes that each actor has his own process and timetable for getting to where he needs to be. Jim works with them individually and establishes the optimum creative environment. Bottom line: actors trust Jim Burrows. And he always justifies that trust.
He also “adds” things to the production. He has a keen sense of what’s funny (his father was the great Abe Burrows so it must be in his DNA) and he’s not afraid to add to some physical business or find little ways to improve any scene he directs. Most directors are traffic cops.
Jimmy appreciates the importance of story and the script. After runthroughs he goes back to the writers room and is involved in the rewrite discussions. I can still hear Jimmy in my head saying, “This is weeeeeird.” He knows dramatic structure and is a great help in shaping the script. Quite a few directors come from a technical background, not dramatic, and are intimidated by the writers. They feel very uneasy coming back to the room. Not Jimmy.
As for technical aspects, Jimmy is a marvel. No one camera blocks a show faster. I sit at the quad-split and carefully instruct each camera operator. I’ve spent the weekend preparing my shot list. Jimmy does it on the fly… without even LOOKING at monitors. Even complicated scenes (say a big wedding) he knows just what he needs and gets it. His shows always edit together perfectly. You never say “Geez, why don’t we have a two-shot here?” when Jimmy is directing. He knows the jokes and knows how they will best play on camera. And just as he adds business to the performances, he finds interesting creative shots. Watch the first year of CHEERS. You’ll see fabulous shots looking down hallways or shot from unusual angles. He really sold the bar as a character.
Most directors take all day to camera block a show. He can do it in about 90 minutes.
Like all good directors, he pays great attention to the details. Wardrobe, props – nothing escapes his eagle eye.
And then there’s show night. Hopefully you’ll be in the audience of a Jim Burrows show one time. He’s a trip. As the scene is playing he’s gently pushing cameras over to get better shots. He never watches the monitors. He paces the floor and doesn’t even watch the show. He LISTENS to it – listens for the flow, the pace, the delivery.
Of the many things I’ve learned from Jimmy, these two stand out. I once asked him about certain camera angles and he said if the story is right you can place one camera in front of the stage, shoot a wide master for the whole show and it’ll work. But if the story is wrong than all the technical wizardry in the world isn’t going to save it.
Second, I can usually tell a Jim Burrows’ directed show just by watching it. How? A lot of the camera angles aren’t perfect. In some cases there are shots that look downright sloppy. But Jim understands that performance and energy are more important than precision. So if an actor doesn’t exactly hit his mark, so what? The payoff is that the scenes have more energy and the actors seem looser, more natural… funnier.
There’s no one in his league. And just imagine how many more home runs and more MVP awards Willie Mays would have had had he been able to play for 35 years. Say hey, Jimmy!