Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a full post. Once I start writing about myself I just seem to go on and on and on and on...
The question is from Rick Wiedmayer:
and on and on and on...
In a previous post you said that you wanted to become a director while David wanted to remain just a writer. How did you make the transition to director? What hoops did you have to go through to become a director?
There are numerous factors to TV directing; some I knew better than others going in.
I had spent many years going down to run-throughs, working with actors, shaping performances, and at times re-blocking. So the dealing-with-actors part of the job I felt somewhat secure with. That said, I got waaaaaay better at it. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.
My years as a writer taught me how to evaluate whether a scene or a story was working. This was invaluable. At the end of the day, if the script works you could just shoot the entire episode in one wide shot and you’d still have a good show. Yet, all the fancy camera angles in the world won't help a show with a sub-par teleplay.
I also had spent years in editing bays so I had a familiarity with that aspect of the job. I can’t tell you how many times I’d say to the editor, “Give me a reaction shot here,” he’d say “We don’t have one,” and I’d go, “How can that possibly be? The whole joke depends on her reaction.” “
Shit! I can do this job as good as this idiot” is the motivation for most jobs in Hollywood.
What I knew nothing about was the technical stuff. Especially in multi-camera comedy it’s very complicated. You have four cameras all moving at once. Their assignments change every time even one actor moves. Plus, you have to set for reactions, entrances, and you need different sizes and angles of the same scene so you have a choice in editing. And you have to have yourself covered if you want to lift portions of a scene that didn’t work for the audience or just make trims if the show is too long. People compare it to a Rubik’s Cube and I say it’s worse. When you’re figuring you a Rubik’s Cube you don’t have a hundred crew people staring at you and a producer reminding you that you’re on the clock and every wasted minute costs money.
So I spent about two years auditing Jimmy Burrows, Andy Ackerman, David Lee, and Jeff Melman. I’d sit behind them at the quad-split (four monitors) and watch how they camera blocked the show. Honestly, for the first year I didn’t know what the fuck I was looking at. Especially with Jimmy Burrows. He moved so fast. I was completely lost. He’d block an entire wedding scene in three minutes. Then you’d look at it on the monitors and it was perfect. Talk about intimidating. Eventually I started to get the hang of it.
Then I would test myself. I stopped sitting behind the director. I showed up for the runthrough following camera blocking, jotted down the stage blocking, and went home and tried to camera block myself.
The next day I would compare what I did to what the director actually did. The trouble is, if you make one changes. Let’s say you decide to use Camera A for the close up instead of Camera B that changes every assignment for every camera from that point in the scene.
So not only do you have to prepare, you have to be able to adjust when things change (and they ALWAYS do).
That was about another year, doing that exercise.
Finally, I felt I was ready. Here is where I am forever in debt to Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell. You have to find someone who will take a chance on a new director and hire you. Not easy to find. Sometimes impossible. They gave me that chance to direct an episode of WINGS.
I had consulted and written on WINGS since the pilot so I had a long relationship with the actors going in and that helped enormously. They were extremely patient and supportive. I’m forever in debted to them too. Especially Crystal Bernard who called me at home when the episode was wrapped and I was home in a fetal position to say what a good job she thought I had done.
Before camera blocking day I went up to David Lee’s house with my clay men and he helped guide me through the camera assignments. Of course, they all changed once I got on the floor but at least I knew exactly what I needed. It was just a matter of figuring out which camera to get it. That figuring took hours and hours though.
Eventually it all came together and I was on my way. The next hurdle was developing confidence so I could fool my cast and crew into thinking I knew what the hell I was doing. That just takes time and experience.
Ironically, now my favorite part of the process is camera blocking. It’s puzzle solving, it’s hanging with great crews, and it’s just fun. Jimmy still does it ten times faster though. How the fuck does he do that?!
Being a good TV director takes time, luck, experience, luck, patience, luck, psychology, luck, talent, and did I mention luck? Thanks again to everyone who helped me on my way.