Saturday, January 16, 2010

How not to direct a show

Yesterday I featured the first episode I ever directed. I've since directed over fifty more but you never forget your first one. It was also a bitch. Here are the gory details. I know it's kind of long but what the hell? It's a long weekend.

The episode was called “Portrait of a Con Artist as a Young Man” (written by Jeff Richman & Joyce Gittlin). The premise was that addled mechanic Lowell (Tommy) makes these large twisted pieces of metal that a museum director considers art. Comedy ensues (despite my efforts). Tommy is a gifted comedian but he never reads a line the same way twice. (Maybe for Sam Raimi on SPIDERMAN but not me) Nor does he move the same way twice. Forget matching, 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 lovely (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 Tommy 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 road map 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 future 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 reel 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 Shalhoub 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.


denzdenizens said...

Once again,great insight..thanks,Ken!

Max Clarke said...

"Say action, Kenny!" Funny in a sad way.

Gutsy move, Ken, lots of writers look at directing and thank their lucky stars they don't have that chaos on their shoulders. Takes guts to get into the game like that.

D. McEwan said...

All of which question: Why does everyone want to direct?

D. McEwan said...

That should say "All of which begs the question"

Ah, what does a sentence need with a pesky old verb anyway?

Tim W. said...

Maybe it's just me, but for the life of me, I don't recall seeing a dream sequence in the show you posted.

By Ken Levine said...

The dream sequence got cut in syndication. After all that. Sheesh.

blogward said...

How true. Oh, and apropos of the 'death of sitcom':

WV: barbile = the grouchiness that ensues after several beers.

Sérgio said...

Dear Mr. Levine,

Thank you for this great insight in a show I love. Already a while ago you wrote about Wings and a "difficult castmember". One of the commenters asked you if it was Steven Weber and you replied that Weber was a good guy. About f*cking up the face of Lowell you also had mentioned something and I think it's funny how you handled that. I can really imagine it.
In this post you write about Tony that gave you a peptalk. That leaves two male guys that fight for the title of "difficult castmember". Either Tim Daly or "Roy Biggins". I have the feeling - based on your blog - that it was Tim Daly that gave you a hard time.

I also understood from another blog of yours that in the last season of Cheers you were a bit frustrated with the attitude of the cast.

I really wonder how directors can cope with "cast" that at a certain point see themselves as the centre of the universe. Do you still have "fun" in doing your work at that moment? And don't you think - in those moments - I prefer to simply write scripts and that's it?

denzdenizens said...

If I may interject for a sec(t?)an age-old adage comes to mind...'It takes one,to know one'...having said that,I also admire the 'old school' craftman's approach.Egenestrither way,bravo!

denzdenizens said...

Wow,I must say I've no clue as to how 'Egenestrither' came out of the intended 'either' nor why the feeling of paranoia has suddenly enveloped me! (Perhaps,it's because I just watched one of those Jesse Ventura~'Conspiracy' shows!) P.S.That Bilderberg Group scares the SHITE out of me!**Have a nice day!**

denzdenizens said...

(Dream Sequence) Please,disregard any & everything Mr.Higgins may have blogged...Thank You for Your Cooperation~ T.B.G.

Raymond said...

Sérgio: If Ken wanted you to know who the "difficult cast member" was, he would've identified him by name in the first place. Please don't try to guess who it is; that will just discourage Ken from sharing these sorts of tidbits in the future. (Ken may still have a professional relationship with the person, and this information would damage it.)

denzdenizens said...

Everybody loves Raymond's commentary!

Dave Williams said...

Sheesh! And I thought directing theatre in the round was difficult.

denzdenizens said...

Just wait til you've worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman...or better,yet...Randy Quade~for that matter~or so I've heard!

A_Homer said...

But the point is, despite the nightmare you still managed to have more directing jobs. Not that I understand how the tv directing 'system' works, but that tells me your actions didn't cross the point of no return. Is there really one for sitcom directors?

Ian said...

Adrays... man, that takes me back.

I recently came across Rob Long's "Conversations With My Agent." Apparently I bought it a decade ago and never read it. I just finished it and it had me laughing throughout... your post on directing has much the same feel.

Winz said...

Well done, finnaly i get the informations. Thanks pall!

Anonymous said...

Any mention of Adray's gets a rave from me.
Thanks Ken


Jason said...

I watched through most of the clips your provided in the previous entry on your directorial debut. Perhaps I don't know what to look for but I did not see it as being anything different than any other episode of Wings. So I don't see why you are so hard on yourself. Looked good to me.

fisastr= Oh man... do I really need to spell this one out? .... Jay Leno.

den parser said...

Yeah, It's cool. I've watched it in youtube.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, I hope you're going to review the Golden Globes telecast.

As the show went to commercial, they showed Mickey Rourke taking Mike Tyson's face in his hands and kissing his cheek.

He's lucky Tyson didn't take off more than an ear.

LD said...

Uh, isn't it Amy Yasbeck?

LD said...

And it's Raiders of the Lost Ark, not Arc. I admit I've only skimmed the article, is there some irony I am missing?

Mitch said...

Great story, Ken. It's a shame that some of the best lessons come at the cost of our sanity.

michael weithorn said...

Ken, when I did "Ned and Stacey" with Tom Church, I distilled out this (fictitious) exchange between him and me from thousands that we actually did have about the scripts:

Tom: Michael, this line isn't funny.

Michael: What do you mean, Tom? That line gets a huge laugh.

Tom: Yeah, but not 'til the END!