Thursday, March 30, 2006

Who hires directors?

The question was asked: who selects directors for TV shows? I can only speak for comedies but usually the show runners. Unless it’s a pilot and then it’s the network (and some of the directors they LOVE I wouldn’t let behind my cellphone camera). All directors must be studio and network approved but during the season that’s usually just a formality. I’ve never been told I couldn’t hire a particular director. There were a few I wish somebody did. When a director is recommended as “Andy Ackerman on a budget” RUN.

I was lucky enough to be trained by James Burrows, the Mozart of sitcom directors. After observing for a couple of years I asked him what’s the best advice he could give me? He said, “Get the job”. And like everything else he told me, he was right. You need to be thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim.

Yeah, but getting that job is easier said than done. This is where “who you know” REALLY comes into play.

Often times writers get their first directing break on their own shows, or as a reward for being on a series a long time. But I’ve seen First AD’s (Katy Gerritson of FRASIER, Lenny Garner of WINGS, Pamela Fryman, many others), editors (Andy Ackerman, Darryl Bates, etc.), camera coordinators, and line producers (e.g. Jay Kleckner, Tim Berry) get the nod too. On the worst show I ever freelanced for, I was followed by the wife of a studio executive. She showed up the first day and said to the actors “So like what, you walk around and stuff and I say okay?” (After the mutiny she was replaced, probably by the craft services guy.)

My first assignment was on WINGS. To this day I thank Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell for giving me the shot. I suppose it’s easier for a first-time director when the project is an indie feature that you wrote. Everyone looks to you since the movie is seemingly your vision.

In television you’re the substitute teacher for the Sweathogs. You do your best to act like you know what you’re doing but the cast KNOWS you’re not a director, not yet anyway. And you can’t blame them. Whenever a cast member wants to write a script we don’t take them seriously either (and God are we right most of the time. GAAAA.). It takes a while to learn actor-speak. Who knew a helpful note wasn’t “NO! Anything but THAT!!”

And then there’s the crew. Especially if you’re not one of them they HATE you first time out. With good reason, of course. You don’t know shit and you’re slow. There is nothing more terrifying than sitting down in front of the quad split (the feed from each camera) for the first time and hearing four grizzled camera operators whose credits include I LOVE LUCY, snarl, “Okay, whattaya want?” That’s the moment it starts coming down both legs. You worked all weekend with your little plastic men, moving them around, writing down your shots, getting all prepared, and now it’s like NONE of that matters. Even writing a block comedy scene for Courtney Thorne-Smith starts looking pretty good to you compared to this. What should take five hours takes eleven. No wonder the crew wants to impale you on the boom mike.

Somehow you get through it…unless you’re that studio executive’s wife. She’s probably an executive now herself GIVING directors notes. (So you like say ‘action’ and stuff and I say okay?) It’s a great accomplishment and if you’re ever hired again the second one can only get easier.

On Monday the tale of my first directing assignment complete with two crew members almost coming to blows and two cameras crashing into each other on show night in front of the audience. Where’s the Valium?????


Anonymous said...

I'm a big Will & Grace fan and noticed that James Burrows directs just about every episode. I know most shows have 2 or 3 directors that will direct a large number of episodes, but I can't think of anyone else BUT James who has directed a W&G ep.

I figured he must be a producer on the show to get hired so repeatedly, and of course he is.

Though I hate to say it, I didn't know he was such a seminal director. Just looked up his there any show he hasn't worked on?

How closely does a director have to work from the script? I know in TV writers are king, but if a director didn't like a line or a plot element, does s/he have any power to change it?

By Ken Levine said...

Directors certainly can question any line or plot element and should if he feels it will help make the show better. It's just that some directors' objections are taken more seriously than other.

Anonymous said...

hi ken

Thanks for your thoughts on Cheers and the writing craft and all matters related to the crazy entertainment industry.

Can I ask you something? I know James Burrows, as you said, is the mozart of sitcom directors.

How does he work with the actors?
how did he work with you on one of your scripts? and what did you learn from him as a writer?


By Ken Levine said...


Good question you posed. I will in a future post talk about Jimmy and just why he is the best.

Whaledawg said...

Hey Ken,

Since it's apparently all but arbitrary who gets hired to direct, hire me. I'm in L.A. now and I know that if I could just start at the top good things would happen from there.


By Ken Levine said...

The trouble is Garrett, I have to be running a show instead of just tivoing it.

Whaledawg said...

Call me over when you watch it, I'll direct the slow motion baywatch style and fast forward through all the unecessary talk that's on T.V. these days.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. Your blog is eye-opening and hilarious. Can't wait to hear more.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken-
Someone called me and told me that there was as memorial service for Andy Ackerman I was stunned. As it turns out, It WAS not our Andy Ackerman, the director. It was another one.

But.. I was googling his name
and it brought me to this old post. I am laughing out loud. I think I first met you on the episode of that first freelance directing assignment you refer to.
I was 'observing' too, but not the exec wife you refer to.

I read in the trades three weeks ago and ... yes.. she is a network exec herself now! Good call!

Good laugh.
And glad all is well with Andy.