How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?
I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.
This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong. All I knew was -- we were fucked. There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down. This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch.
So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.
Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.
Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit. I went home and drank heavily.
Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes. Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.
And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them. Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.
Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.
Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.
So that was my first. I’ve written about the specifics of that experience elsewhere. But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.
It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.
“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.
It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?