Sunday, April 02, 2006

My first directing assignment

You never forget your first. I’ve now directed over 50 episodes of television but none stand out like that maiden voyage. It was an episode of WINGS in 1995 called “Portrait of a Con Artist as a Young Man” (written by Jeff Richmond & Joyce Gittlin). The premise was that addled mechanic Lowell (Thomas Hayden Church) makes these large twisted pieces of metal that a museum director considers art. Comedy ensues (despite my efforts). Tommy is a gifted comedian (the fact that the rest of the WINGS cast was on suicide watch when he was nominated for an Oscar notwithstanding). But he never reads a line the same way twice. Nor does he move the same way twice. Forget matching problems, I had no idea what the star of the show was going to say or do the entire week. Kind of hard to interject the patented “Levine Touch” when that’s the case.

The rest of the cast was nice (and by that I mean “tolerant”). I had been a consultant and writer on the show since the pilot so we knew each other very well. But there comes a point in the run of a series where the cast feels they’ve got their characters down, they no longer need to rehearse that long, and well…they want to go home. This usually happens around season four. (On one show I directed it happened episode four). We were in season six. The cast didn’t want to just go home, they left their engines running. So we’d do a scene once. They’d walk through it. I’d be ready to say let’s go again and they would say, “We got it, let’s move on”. I, the director, the floor general, the man in control of the stage, would be thinking “you have WHAT?” My first scene was in the airport terminal. Casey (Amy Yasbech) was celebrating her birthday. All of the other characters came in, one at a time, from different directions with presents. And they all gathered around a table where a birthday cake was perched. Nine characters, all stacked up, each with props, torn wrapping everywhere, delivering lines to each other in every possible combination. Time taken to rehearse that scene: a half an hour. “We got it. Let’s move on.” I had visions of adding little bits of comic business, working out any rough spots, fine tuning the pace so the script just crackled. No. By noon we had a runthrough. One of the cast members had to buy something at Adrays before going out to hit a bucket of balls so we had to move it along. Needless to say it was ragged. I didn’t win any points with the producers when cast members would come up to me and ask “I forget. Am I in this scene?”

The next two days were more of the same. But now the Oscar nominee got bored saying the same lines over and over (i.e. twice) so he started changing them…which is a nice way of saying KILLING them. My mantra became, “Please say the lines as written”.

Day four was camera blocking. First scene up, the party. Nine characters, ten pages. And you can plan your camera assignments in advance but if one assignment changes, let’s say Camera B can get a better single of Tim Daly than Camera C as you had envisioned, then the rest of your roadmap goes right out the window. That happened to me the second line of the show. Little wonder I was taking FOREVER to do this. The cast was getting antsy. The first AD kept pointing to his watch. Every crew member I spotted was rolling his eyes. The camera coordinator started giving me suggestions to speed up the process. Then the DP started giving me suggestions. But often they were opposing suggestions, thus confusing me more. The camera coordinator told the DP to butt out, it was none of his business. The DP took exception with that. They almost came to blows. Yeah, I really ruled that stage with an iron hand. I think it took ten hours to complete camera blocking.

Show day. We rehearsed all afternoon, had a dress rehearsal at about 3:00 that lasted an hour. Then we were free until the filming began at 7:00. At 6:30 the audience was let in. At 6:35 I’m handed pages, the rewrite following the dress rehearsal. They had written a BRAND NEW SCENE. What the fuck?!! We couldn’t rehearse on the stage, the audience was now there. I ran backstage, gathered the actors and walked them through it. Then I went to the camera operators, told them there was a new scene, gave them assignments off the top of my head, said just do the best you can and after the audience goes home I’ll block and shoot it properly. All the while I’m sweating through my suit.

Filming begins. It starts with a thirty second pause then Tim Daly calling out, “Say ‘action’, Kenny!” Helen (Crystal Bernard) brings the birthday cake with lit candles to the table for Casey. It slips out of her hands and she drops it. Cut! Fire marshals run out to the set. It’s a twenty minute delay. Then Tommy decides to really improvise. I go out into the stage and tell him nicely to do the line as written. Take two. He does another line. I repeat my request. Take three. Yet a third line. I go out to the Oscar nominee and tell him I will punch his fucking face in if he doesn’t say the line as written. He does the line right. No one can say I’m not an “actor’s director”.

Eventually we get to the new scene. I’m at the quad split, watching all four cameras. Huddled around me are the producers, studio executives, and network people. I call “action”, the scene begins, the cameras start moving and fishing and on the monitors it is utter chaos. People out of focus, shots of the wall, a close up of a nose. (like the last real of AFTER THE FOX) And to make matters worse two cameras collide into each other. Now the network guy must be thinking this director is INSANE.

We finish the show. I spend the next two weeks in a fetal position. I get a call from the producers. They edited the show together (a Herculean task since nothing matched) and discovered it was short. So they wrote a new scene to be filmed after they get done filming this week’s show. That means I start rehearsing and blocking at around midnight. You can imagine the happy cast I had.

And the scene is a dream sequence…with effects. And props that need to be smashed. But there are only two breakaway props so we only have two chances to get it. The first take the actor smashed it at the wrong time – blaming of course, ME. Mercifully, we got the shot the next take, I finally yell “Wrap!” at about 2:00, and drive home muttering to myself that Steven Spielberg had it EASY directing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

To this day I thank the cast and the producers for their patience. Especially Crystal Bernard who called me at home to say what a great job she thought I had done. Likewise for Tony Shaloub taking me aside, giving me a pep talk. That meant a lot.

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot a better, I’ve gotten a LOT faster but 70% of what I know about directing I learned from that first assignment. And 60% of it was what not to do.


Grubber said...

I feel slightly bad about laughing at your pain. Only slightly though. :) Many thanks for that story Ken, appreciate it!

Alex Epstein said...

And that's easier than WRITING???

By Ken Levine said...

It has been ever since that first experience.


You're allowed to laugh. I even did at the time.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Here's what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of my first single-camera drama shoot:

"It's been a ride and I've learned a lot. Like: even the most experienced advice can be wrong. You'll take the blame for all mistakes, so make sure they're your own. Stick to your guns about eyelines and how they'll cut together - others may know the rules but they don't know what you're working towards. The director's chair is where you leave your coat. Just because your camera operator thinks a scene is boring, that doesn't mean it is. If he thinks it's interesting, that probably means you'll have to cut the camera move off the head of the shot. On-set morale is as good as your caterers. The Arriflex camera is a lousy design for handheld work. The moment you say Steadicam, you lose an hour while they set it up. The first assistant director is your life-support. Buy new thermal underwear and wear your oldest clothes - the set may be pristine but lunch will be on the far side of a muddy field. Animals and children are a doddle to work with compared to anything that floats. There's no such thing as a simple little scene inside a car - they're bastards to light and shoot."


So, instead of saying, "What I realy want to do is 'direct'," people should be saying, "What I really want to do is transplant surgery. Blindfolded."

Anonymous said...

Despite that story, it's still something I aspire to do. Hey, to be my mentor?

How are you, sir?

Kelly J. Crawford said...

Ok, I really...REALLY don't want to be a director.

Julie O'Hora said...

I love how the shittiest experiences make the best stories.

Silly old life.

This Girl said...

Thank you for entertaining me (not just from this blog, but through your shows as well). I laughed when I read this because I, too, had my own memorable first "directing" experience. And although it didn't have the stakes yours did, it sure was a similar train wreck. And, I think, the exact same curse words.

Anonymous said...

jeff richman and joyce gitlin


Half the actors I've met seemed to have some new form of brain syndrome that, taken a bit further, eventually leads to "A Touch of Autism" or "Touched by..." or, simply, "TOUCHED" as in "Touched in the Head"

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoyed reading your "First Directing Assignment," because I just directed my first student film. It was a one day shoot starting at 8 am and ending whenever we got everything. There was confusion to say the least. Blocking, audio problems, cast members needing to be out at a certain time, lighting, and everyone was looking at me for the answers. I left for my night job with two shots left and told my Asst. Director to finish up. I couldn't get out the door fast enough. I was totally disappointed in myself for things running so poorly. The nicest thing I heard was, "Man, things really fell apart after you left." I was astonished. "They fell apart AFTER?" My question is this - How long before you went back into the directors chair?

props director's chair said...

Excellent description for the experience you got. The first assumption I'm going to make, however is that you have a projector with which to play your movie reel on.