Thursday, April 29, 2010

James Burrows

It’s Friday questions day but I’m only getting to one because my answer is so long. Next week I’ll blast through a bunch. And as always, feel free to ask yours in the comments section.

This week’s query comes from Stephen.

What is it about James Burrows that makes him such a popular director? Obviously at this point he has a great track-record with directing popular shows but in your experience of working with him, what makes him *so* good?

In baseball we talk about a “5 tool player”. That’s a player who can do it all (hit for average, hit for power, great speed, great defense, great arm). We’re talking Willie Mays here, and as you can imagine, there are very few.

James Burrows is the Willie Mays of directing. If a multi-camera director is proficient in two of the facets I’m about to list he’s considered a good director. Jimmy is the best at all of them.

Primary of course, is his ability to work with actors. Jim speaks their language, he understands their needs and concerns. He also realizes that each actor has his own process and timetable for getting to where he needs to be. Jim works with them individually and establishes the optimum creative environment. Bottom line: actors trust Jim Burrows. And he always justifies that trust.

He also “adds” things to the production. He has a keen sense of what’s funny (his father was the great Abe Burrows so it must be in his DNA) and he’s not afraid to add to some physical business or find little ways to improve any scene he directs. Most directors are traffic cops.

Jimmy appreciates the importance of story and the script. After runthroughs he goes back to the writers room and is involved in the rewrite discussions. I can still hear Jimmy in my head saying, “This is weeeeeird.” He knows dramatic structure and is a great help in shaping the script. Quite a few directors come from a technical background, not dramatic, and are intimidated by the writers. They feel very uneasy coming back to the room. Not Jimmy.

As for technical aspects, Jimmy is a marvel. No one camera blocks a show faster. I sit at the quad-split and carefully instruct each camera operator. I’ve spent the weekend preparing my shot list. Jimmy does it on the fly… without even LOOKING at monitors. Even complicated scenes (say a big wedding) he knows just what he needs and gets it. His shows always edit together perfectly. You never say “Geez, why don’t we have a two-shot here?” when Jimmy is directing. He knows the jokes and knows how they will best play on camera. And just as he adds business to the performances, he finds interesting creative shots. Watch the first year of CHEERS. You’ll see fabulous shots looking down hallways or shot from unusual angles. He really sold the bar as a character.

Most directors take all day to camera block a show. He can do it in about 90 minutes.

Like all good directors, he pays great attention to the details. Wardrobe, props – nothing escapes his eagle eye.

And then there’s show night. Hopefully you’ll be in the audience of a Jim Burrows show one time. He’s a trip. As the scene is playing he’s gently pushing cameras over to get better shots. He never watches the monitors. He paces the floor and doesn’t even watch the show. He LISTENS to it – listens for the flow, the pace, the delivery.

Of the many things I’ve learned from Jimmy, these two stand out. I once asked him about certain camera angles and he said if the story is right you can place one camera in front of the stage, shoot a wide master for the whole show and it’ll work. But if the story is wrong than all the technical wizardry in the world isn’t going to save it.

Second, I can usually tell a Jim Burrows’ directed show just by watching it. How? A lot of the camera angles aren’t perfect. In some cases there are shots that look downright sloppy. But Jim understands that performance and energy are more important than precision. So if an actor doesn’t exactly hit his mark, so what? The payoff is that the scenes have more energy and the actors seem looser, more natural… funnier.

There’s no one in his league. And just imagine how many more home runs and more MVP awards Willie Mays would have had had he been able to play for 35 years. Say hey, Jimmy!


Jeff Greenstein said...

True, true, true. Also, everyone who's ever worked with him does some sort of Jimmy impression.

Lee S said...

Are there other directors whose work you like? I always seem to like the shows done by Jay Sandrich, John Rich and Hal Cooper.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaime J. Weinman said...

Obviously this is one of the scenes that comes to mind when talking about Burrows in his prime. There's the famous story that goes with it, that Burrows kept the scene going longer than scripted and told the actors to keep repeating the bit as long as the audience kept laughing.

Max Clarke said...

The blocking for Cheers was impressive. They used the corners of the bar to separate characters, as if the tv screen had two or three parts. There were interesting shots of the bar and the front door to Cheers.

The only frequent mistake I saw was a hot spot in the upper part of the tv screen. It appeared when the camera angled too far up toward that bank of lights right over the bar. There was a single light that hovered over the heads of characters sometimes, particularly Ted Danson. Not quite a UFO or a halo, but enough to notice.

Somebody mentioned John Rich. In his book, You're Lucky You're Funny, Phil Rosenthal tells his story of John Rich. John had a tantrum directing some episode, all because Ed Weinberger walked in and said everybody looked tired. Phil does voices really well in the audiobook version of the John Rich story.

D. McEwan said...

I have had the experience of being in the studio audience for a James Burrows shoot twice, both times, episodes of Will & Grace, and part of why I was there was to watch him work. Great time. Clearly Will & Grace was wise to keep him on for every episode, custom be damned.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

When I interviewed you a couple years back, I also had the privilage to talk to Mr. Burroughs. A very nice man, as were you (and Phoef Sutton and Rob Long and Ian Gurvitz - what is it with those writers). I have often imagined doing those interviews again and turning them into a book on 'the Cheers generation'. In my head the book's title would come from the answer you gave me when I asked why all those shows were so good: "It's All Jimmy"

Two tricks of the trade he told me. When directing you are asked to make decisions all the time. Don't spend to much time on them and just pick one. If later you think you were wrong, just say: "I made a mistake, let's try the other one." Which I love, because in my experience admitting a mistake is not something they teach people at film school.

He also told me that his trick to keep actors from discussing the script, was to ask them to each come up with one nscripted bit of bussiness for their character every week. I enhanced the scrips and kept them busy.

A. Buck Short said...

OK, since you’re only answering the one, I’ll just ask an RFQ (rhetorical Friday question). Both your recent reference to Boston’s (c’mon not Fresno’s) Dale Dorman and your current first and last paragraphs prompted this inquiry.

On the 50th anniversary of Enovid, who gave Bayer Aspirin the OK to name their new birth control pill after Carl Yaztrzemski -- professional baseball’s last triple-crown winner for the past 43 years? I mean “Yaz?” C’mon again.

After hell finally froze over and the Red Sox took the ’67 World Series, my hero rounded the bases and landed in the Licensing Corporation of America – where Big Yaz Bread was born, and gained enormous popularity as far south as – well probably New York. When we prayed, “Give us this day our daily….” there was no question in any Bostonian’s mind we were talking that magical loaf of above-average white bread from the Arnold Baking Co. (But, still white bread, none ‘o this fiber crap.)

However, in the blink of a ground ball navigating the narrow span between Billy Buckner’s legs, we were soon also blessed with Big Yaz cookies, Big Yaz hotdog rolls (and the Big Yaz Wieners that went in ‘em . Then, according to SI, Big Yaz ice cream, BY mayonnaise, BY sleeping bags, BY trousers , rainwear, T shirts, school supplies, hair tonic and even BY shaving shaving cream.

So this year, a German pharmaceutical giant invades the territory of baseball’s also last Polish Triple Crown MVP, and it’s, and it’s 1939 all over again. The noive! What’s next, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ortho-Novum in 2013 with Barry Bonds Diaphragms and the Ben Roethlisberger autographed douche bag?

l.a.guy said...

Burrows is most valuable when he's directing pilots where he sets the foundation for the shows' characters. I remember seeing a list back when the sit com was king and it was amazing how many of the pilots he had directed. He also collects a nice little royalty for each subsequent episode of the show that gets made. So even though he only directed the pilot for "Two and a Half Men" he has gotten paid for every episode that has ever been produced since then.

I've never seen anyone make a list, but I'd be surprised if anyone has ever directed even 25% the number of pilots that went on to become successful shows as Burrows has. No wonder studios will kill to get him to do their pilots.

Stephen said...

Thanks for answering Ken.

Ref said...

Sounds like your comment on the late Dom Deluise that "he shows up in a lot of projects because people love working with him." Many more years to James.

LouOCNY said...

Sandrich..Rich....Burrows...and, with an asterisk, Marc Daniels. Why Daniels? All Daniels did was invent the damn format when he directed the first season of I Love Lucy. Desi Arnaz gets all the credit, but it was Daniels who instituted most of protocols of how the three (originally four) camera live audience sitcom was done. Daniels was so good, he could make a pile of oatmeal like HOGAN'S HEROES look good. And why the asterisk? Daniels was just as good, if not better directing dramatic shows, too - his work on STAR TREK alone makes him a legend to this day.

And as far as directing pilots is concerned, Burrows rival in the field MIGHT be a guy named Robert Butler, who was Mr. Pilot for both comedy AND drama for many, many years. Among the shows Butler directed pilots for where such lightweights as : BATMAN, HOGAN'S HEROES, he directed the first STAR TREK pilot, HILL SREET BLUES, MOONLIGHTING, etc, etc, etc

Rockgolf said...

Y'know, I can't even see the clip JJ Weinman is referring to. (I'm at work.) But I'll bet it involves a test for a taxi license.

Anonymous said...

Question for next week:

From stories from you and Evanier , listed credits rarely reflect reality. So why keep them the way they are - and not change?

For that matter, when hiring for new shows - how does the producer know that a "Written by" in resumes doesn't mean "Pizza-runner" or "slept with a producer" ?

tesolly said...

Question for next week:

In Frasier, was it decided from the beginning that Niles' wife Maris would never appear or was it just something that happened over time?

Thanks, Tom.

Anonymous said...

I have had the good fortune of working with Jim since the first season of "Friends". You don't have to know him to realize how good he is at what he does. Crew members have that "sixth" sense. We learn to "tune-in" to his voice and, over time, even learn to think like him.

He is the best and, consequently, the fastest at what he does.

I'd like to think that he has raised us up to his level of proficiency.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here to answer the Maris question. We originally conceived the Maris character with this smarty pants thought, "Let's make Niles' wife unseen, and just when the audience thinks 'Oh, it's a rip off of Vera' we will have her show up." Of course we started getting great mileage from the descriptions of unseen Maris so we put it off. Finally, the descriptions of this woman made it impossible to cast the part even if we wanted to, so that was that.

El Snacktator said...

Why has there never been a show about El?

El is a 5 tool cupcake.

Your Humble Correspondent said...

So, for all his greatness, James Burrows is to blame for 2.5 Men?

Dawn Marie said...

Reply to David Lee, regarding this part of your post
"We originally conceived the Maris character with this smarty pants thought, "Let's make Niles' wife unseen, and just when the audience thinks 'Oh, it's a rip off of Vera' we will have her show up." "

It was so well done it never occurred to me it was a rip-off of Vera. The imagination did not go near the same neighborhood.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

So, for all his greatness, James Burrows is to blame for 2.5 Men?

No, that's Chuck Lorre. Completely.

It's fortunate that "The Big Bang Theory" seems to be mostly run by co-creator Bill Prady. The instances of some cutting cruelty seem to be when Lorre contributes to the scripts, but otherwise, it works.

I'm looking forward to "Mike & Molly" because of Melissa McCarthy from "Gilmore Girls," but with it being about two compulsive overeaters who meet at a weight-loss support group, and because Chuck Lorre created it, I'm hoping for the best, but also bracing for what might transpire.

Brian Doan said...

I teach at Oberlin College, Mr. Burrows' alma mater, and he came last fall for the re-dedication of our town theater (which the college just bought). He was quiet and self-deprecating, and seemed perfectly happy to hold back and let others be in the spotlight-- but when he did speak, he was hilarious and charming, and in total control of the situation. I imagined this was a lot like what he was as a director: cool and confident enough in his skills to let others shine, and always aware of how to step in and put the perfect spin on a situation.

The clip Jaime shared above is great, but I always think of this scene from the second season finale of CHEERS. Look at how many tones it juggles, how it goes from drama to comedy, how it tells funny jokes, only to turn them on their head and make them engines of serious character development. Look how it goes from involvement right up to the border of the uncomfortable without ever making us lose our sympathy of the characters. And then, look at that final moment when Sam unwraps the painting and says, "Wow." I'd seen the next season years ago, so I knew what happened afterwards. But in the moment of watching I was so engrossed that I wasn't thinking about that, just thinking "this really makes me want to see what happens next."

A lot of that also involves the writers and actors, of course, but I think a great deal of the credit has to go to Mr. Burrows and his extraordinary touch. As someone who came of age in the early 80s, so much of my love of the form is because of shows he worked on, and I'm very grateful for it.

Cap'n Bob said...

Anent Vera and Maris: A show called DECEMBER BRIDE (1954-1961)featured Henry Morgan as Peter Porter. His wife, Gladys, was never seen, though sometimes heard. Eventually, he starred in PETE AND GLADYS (1960-1962) and Cara Williams played the wife.

LinGin said...

David Lee, if you're around: Was the character of Mel written in such a way as to sort-of give us a look at Maris? Because her appearance and her attitude seemed almost identical to all the descriptions the audience had been given over the years. And Jane Adams was terrific.

I'm feeling so old. I remember Abe Burrows from his appearances on "What's My Line?" and the talk shows, back in the day. And "Guys and Dolls" has the best book ever written for a musical.

WV: antic. Rather appropriate.

Mark said...

Hi Ken (AKA Wise Sage):

Recently you posted a very informative post about plotting MASH episodes and you mentioned how the dramatic moments had to be earned.

Is it possible you could elaborate a little more on this?

As well, any chance you can talk about plotting for "Cheers"? How was it different than MASH?

Thanks much,

Todd said...

A Tale of Two Burrows:

As an audience member, I saw Mr. Burrows direct a couple episodes of "CHEERS" in its early days.

One filming went off without a hitch and looked like 4-camera ballet.

The other lasted 5 hours before they released the hostag-- er, audience, and they still had pickups to do.

It was probably circumstances beyond his control...

...but then again, maybe Mr. Burrows has an evil twin!


Another Mark said...

Hate to go all dark and nasty here, but John Rich was/is a talentless hack. And truly the antithesis of James Burrows.

The success of All In The Family had little to do with him but he rode it for decades. Look at what he touched after that -- most all of it came out badly.

Why? Rich is a smug arrogant prick, insulting and demeaning on set, hates actors (who also hate him) and has killed so many comedies that he should be on a WGA Wanted for Murder poster.

During cold table reads, he'd throw out line readings to actors -- then laugh out loud at his own reading -- and stick his cigar back in his mouth.

(he thinks whatever predictable "right" joke rhythm he hears in his head will always be better than what actors might find.)

Okay, I'll calm down.

He just doesn't belong on a list with James Burrows.

Jimmie loves actors, creates endless space for them to find great stuff AND be grounded in reality and their characters. Crew people love him, he respects writers, he makes the creative process work so everybody can do their best. And that's why the results are good.

David Rosen said...

Anyone can direct a sitcom. James Burrow is a snake. He stole a script idea from me and is as insecure as the day is long. Fortunately. I have a cassette of him playing guitar and singing a song for a porno film in the 70's. He actually sings and wrote "she comes when she cums." Priceless. There are websites dedicated to his backstabbing and stealing of artist's work. Stop glorifying his mediocre directing and expose him as the talentless thief he is.