Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Getting my start as a director

Sometimes a Friday Question is worthy of an entire post. Like this one by reader, Michael:

How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?

I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.

This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong.  All I knew was -- we were fucked.  There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down.  This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch. 

So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.

Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.

Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit.  I went home and drank heavily. 

Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes.  Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.

And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them.   Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.

Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.

Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.

I was extremely fortunate. I had been consulting and writing on WINGS since the show’s beginning. Showrunners Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell graciously gave me my first assignment. I obviously knew the show very well and had a good relationship with the cast.

So that was my first. I’ve written about the specifics of that experience elsewhere. But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.  

It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.

“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.

It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?


Mike said...

Excellent post -- thanks!

Isn't there some great Billy Wilder quote about him becoming a director to protect his writing? Maybe not and it's just the reason he gave in a few interviews or was assigned by biographers. But it totally makes sense.

Not that I'm giving you the "Billy Wilder of television" label; not that you're not fantastic, but my mom could start writing/directing TV and I wouldn't call her that. And who'd want to try to live up to that label -- even coming from an industry nobody.

As is often the case, a comment I mean as a compliment comes out backassward, so let me begin again:

Excellent post -- thanks!

Johnny Walker said...

Another route to becoming a director: Become a star of a hit show!

I recently watched an episode of Frasier that Kelsey Grammer directed... It was the weirdest directed episode I've ever seen. It had weird arty flourishes, like dissolves, or the camera suddenly zooming into an object. They were totally outside the normal language of Frasier.

What's interesting though is the fact that I bet his ideas worked fantastically in his head. There was a logic to them. You could see that Grammer had really tried to bring something to the table... They just didn't work, and weren't appropriate for the show, even if they had.

Since then I've seen other episodes directed by him, and they're much more inline with the rest of the directors.

Ken: I note that your partner, David Issacs, worked as a Creative Consultant on Season 7, but not you. How come?

Michael said...

Thanks for answering my question.

I think you have had nice things to say about John Astin and Katey Sagal in the past, but most of your posts about "Mary" make it sound like it was not a very pleasant experience. But at least you got some good stories out of it.

RCP said...

I always enjoy reading about your experiences, Ken. Someone noted the other day that you seem to live a charmed life, but you've certainly worked like hell and paid your dues to get there!

KG said...

Ken, for Friday Questions:

Have you ever changed a thing about a storyline, or the storyline itself, because you knew international viewers wouldn't understand that?

I mean, in the writings process, do the writers take into account that their show is sometimes watched worldwide? Is that a factor you have to consider?

Greetings, Kaan

Gary West said...

I know Ken gets a lot of questions about breaking in/connections and such. This seems like a good site and industry folks seem to be able to connect. Just the lounge itself - is incredible.

These guys sent me an invitation - but - I believe if you've got something to offer - you can join up. Or - maybe Ken can comment on this? He's the real expert! Just thought I'd share...


All the best - Gary West www.mrpopculture.com

pumpkinhead said...

I had the same thought as Michael. Everyone always seems in awe of Mary's talent and onscreen charisma, but why do stories about working with her always leave me with the feeling that she's... ya know...

Brian Phillips said...

"How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?"

...or dance to your bewitching music?


Johnny Walker said...

This is just a quick comment to let people (including Ken) know that excellent TV writer, Jane Espenson, is currently crowd-sourcing funding for her own web TV series, "Husbands".

You can donate some money in order to see Season 2 happen, here:


(I think it's great that creators finally have a way of getting funding from fans, instead of having to bow to studios and networks!)

D. McEwan said...

Fascnating post. Thanks.

Kirk said...

Mike mentioned Billy Wilder directing to protect his writing. In addition, Preston Sturges, at the time the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, sold Paramount the script for THE GREAT MCGINTY for only $10.00 with the provision that he be the one that direct it.

RyderDA said...

A friday question:

How much do awards -- like an Emmy, like a Banff festival Rocky -- really matter? Do they matter to people personally? Are they ego strokers? Do they really impact a person's resume, or give a show better legs? It really seems that some award winning shows (dramas in particular) can win all the awards they want and they still get canned.

And are all awards the same, or do some have more prestige than others? I know you joke about some (like the Golden Globes).


Anonymous said...

Ken, I had a Friday question: Do you think there's value in MFA screenwriting/TV writing programs at schools like USC, NYU, etc?


Dan Tedson said...

Good stuff. I can see the allure in it just from wanting to protect your material. There are times I'll hear lines delivered on sitcoms where you can tell what they were going for, and it would have been funny, except the actor gave it the wrong inflection. Must make writers cringe.

Brian Phillips said...

Sturges did not care for the direction of Mitchell Leisen, a former set decorator. Sturges said that Leisen was more concerned about the sets than the people in front of them. "McGinty" went on to win the first Oscar awarded for Best Original Screenplay.

Bryan said...

My Friday Question: I hope that I can articulate this properly. I notice in a lot of new sitcoms the following situation that really bugs me. 2 characters are talking; in comes a 3rd character, and 1 of the first 2 says something (usually derogatory) about the 3rd - clearly within earshot, who acts as if he/she doesn't even hear it. I know there is a suspension of disbelief going on, but in real like, this would result in a punch in the face. Is this really just about lazy writing?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I recently bought a first draft of your script for the third year Cheers episode Behind Every Good Man. I do not have that episode on tape or dvd, but a quick look on youtube and found a fragment from the exchange between Frasier and Diana that had been changed significantly. I think it is a wonderful sample of the sort of changes that occur in a rewrite week and would love to hear your thought about that. Now, I don't know if you have any of these first drafts yourself and if you could have done such a thing all along and decided against it. If you don't have this first draft, I would more than gladly type it up (although it might take some time) for you to use or comment. I think you have my email adress if you want to contact me.

Anonymous said...

I have two Friday questions. What does auditing a director entail? Also how much does a typical freelance director get paid per episode?

Submitted by Sam King

VP81955 said...

Sturges did not care for the direction of Mitchell Leisen, a former set decorator. Sturges said that Leisen was more concerned about the sets than the people in front of them.

Wilder apparently had his issues with Leisen as well, particularly over 1940's "Remember The Night," the first of four diverse Stanwyck-MacMurray teamings over the next decade and a half, and a film that's become a holiday perennial in recent years.

While Sturges and Wilder may have had reason for their disputes with Leisen, Mitchell did make some fine movies -- in addition to "Remember The Night," there's the wild "Murder At The Vanities," made just at the pre-Code wire (with a song praising marijuana, chorus girls in the scantiest of attire, and more); "To Each His Own," a solid "women's picture" from 1946; and an array of capable romantic comedies, including "Hands Across The Table," perhaps Lombard's best movie at Paramount.

Leisen also did some TV work, notably the famed "Twilight Zone" ep with Ida Lupino, "The 16-Millimeter Shrine," where Ida takes Norma Desmond one step further. (Lupino herself later directed a "Twilight Zone" ep, the only person to work both sides of the camera on that classic anthology series.)

chuckcd said...

"frantic week...loved the experience"
Is that some sort of oxymoron sentence?
Only thing I ever directed was the scoreboard show at an Angels game.
That was "frantic" enough for me.
'course that was "live" so maybe that makes a difference.