Saturday, May 28, 2016

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.  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?

This is a re-post from many years ago.


Mark said...

"How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?" - A few maitre de's probably.

Great post. I directed some live news programs in college. It was a high. Would love to have stayed in it and done what you have done so many times. Thank you for sharing.

blinky said...

I really enjoy commenting on your blog posts but I really want to direct.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Actually, that leads to another question, which is how and why so many shows seem to allow their actors to direct episodes. Noah Emmerich has directed two episodes of THE AMERICANS; David Boreanaz directed an episode of ANGEL; Josh Charles directed at least one episode of THE GOOD WIFE; and so on. Isn't it a big risk for the show?

And I guess a second question: how come no women? Do the women not ask, or what?


Mike said...

@WendyMGrossman: I can't speak as to generalities but Roxann Dawson came to mind. The Star Trek series seem to be almost a free-for-all for directing.

Elliott said...

@Wendy M. Grossman:

I believe Penny Marshall began her career as a director on her own series, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY.


Tammy said...

blinky: Nice one. :)

Wendy: Two very good questions. Weird how I never noticed the lack of women, I guess it's part of how women are much less likely to direct in general. Matthew Rhys also recently directed an Americans episode, by the way.

P.S. I had trouble posting, sorry if this is a double post.

Marc Wielage said...

Ken, some day you've got to tell all the Mary Tyler Moore stories. I personally liked the MARY show, but I always suspected there was some grim turmoil behind the scenes...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Elliott: That may well be true. But that is a long time ago.

Mike: tx. I haven't watched Star Trek since the original series was cancelled. :)

Tammy: Women are underrepresented in directing in general, though movies/TV different. Jill Soloway has a great quote about this, to the effect that directing is playing DOLLS. How did women let men convince them they couldn't do it? :)


Johnny Walker said...

I'd also like to know where the "actor becoming a director" thing comes from. There's SO many examples (Alan Alda, John Ratzenberger, Kelsey Grammer to name just a few from shows Ken has worked on). I guess I understand it: When a show is firmly established it's a great opportunity for an actor (who has seen how the show is run hundreds of times before) to branch out into a new career (like Ken did), but why don't more actors want to be in the writer's room, or producers?

Is directing just more fun? (Ken, you've done both -- what say you?)

Andy Rose said...

It's remarkable how easy the great directors make the whole process look, especially on shooting days. I've been on sets where you rarely even see the director once filming gets underway, especially the ones who prefer to funnel most of their instructions through the 1st AD. For a while, I thought, "Hey, this job doesn't look all that hard." Then I was on the set of a TV show where one of the actors was directing, and it didn't take long to figure out that he was not fully prepared and did not have the respect of the crew. That was a long and very uncomfortable night, with a lot of raised voices.