Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Directing TV...Where To Begin? or Yes, It's Our House But It's Mostly My House

Directing TV is like a doing a big need to separate each of the similar little pieces (shots) into groups, and then slowly but surely put those groups of pieces together (scenes), until you can eventually marry the groups together (acts) and end up with a finished puzzle picture (episode). Furthermore, each episode is part of a bigger puzzle (the season)...13-22 episodes that need to connect together in a coherent and cohesive way.

But where does solving a puzzle begin? Sometimes you start with the edges, other times you start with the prominent image in the middle, sometimes you start with the blue all depends on the board (schedule). So as a director, you not only need to be smart, creative, have a visual eye, be a good people person and have the ability to speak clearly and concisely in order to efficiently motivate and lead dozens and dozens of crew people and actors --- you also need to be able to think like an in non-linear. That's how you're able to deal with all the little puzzle pieces as individual entities, while still (hopefully) keeping in mind the picture on the puzzle box you’re trying to recreate.

It takes a special person to do this well, and yes, there's also vision involved (I can hear some of you muttering), but when it comes to TV series... its' the show or showrunner’s vision that matters most, not the directors.

One quick aside - let me say I'm questioning whether I'm the right person to try to discuss this directing topic. Why? Well, I've written as much television as I've directed, and I've produced more than those two disciplines combined. The man of many hats. So when I'm in the room, as much as I might try to just wear one cap, influence from all areas of experience tend to surface (or rear ugly head, depending on your prospective). What does that mean? In a nutshell, I can't or won't be the... 'I'm just the writer here and you producers or you directors frighten and confuse me, so whatever you say I'll just nod and go along with you"...guy.

And therefore there'll be times I'm discussing a story point with a director while mulling in my head that the schedule is really full the day that scene's supposed to be filmed...and might ask out of the blue if the director is planning to use a crane for the walk and talk, and if his answer is yes then suggest he to lose the crane to make time for some inserts on the newspaper headlines in order to address the story point issue that we were originally talking about.

Most times, people don't appreciate the writer also being a producer and director. They want to have the upper hand. But I'd argue that I'm only trying to help while juggling all the balls that are in the air when producing a TV series.

Anyway, kicking off with a question…Denis asks from the camp of TV writers: “Help us Obi Wan, how do we talk to you?”

Good question - how do writers, who primarily think linearly and in terms of a beginning, middle, and end...converse productively with directors who are basically thinking in a non-linear fashion? Writer will think in terms of story and character and arcs and beats, whereas most directors will think in terms of stunts and effects and shots and sequences (in and amongst all the 'story bullshit', as Josh Friedman once aptly described). Can we find a way to talk the same language, or is there some kind of middle ground to be found? Probably the latter, but let me first say that I don't think it's the writers who need to learn how to talk to the directors as much as it's the directors who need to learn how to listen to writers.

To set the table, here's a little anecdote from way back when I was on the writing staff of a series and producing for the first time a script I wrote. I'm in the middle of the 'first blush' meeting with the director of said ep --- he was a relative hotshot in the Canadian TV scene... been very busy shooting episodics for the better part of a year or so after having done a relatively successful low budget feature. And, well...let's just say it, he was sporting some ‘tude.

At some point during our discussion of talking through the script, I had to run down to see the story coordinator about something. Hotshot director happened to have a director observer tagging along with him (something the DGC/DGA will coordinate with productions to give newbie’s a chance to watch how the machine works - I did it a couple times right after film school), and so as I returned to my office I overheard the two of them talking...and it went something like this:

Hotshot Director: You read this teaser?
Observer: Uh huh.
Hotshot Director: Could you friggin' believe it?
Observer: What do you mean?
Hotshot Director: I mean, that opening scene. It doesn't even make sense...why has she even been hospitalized?
Observer (clearly confused): Um...yeah.
Hotshot Director: And the way it's written. (flipping pages) I mean...Hospital corridor. Find a patient in a private room. GRACE, an attractive African American woman (30). She's asleep. Slowly move in tighter as Grace begins to toss and turn, trapped in the throes of a terrible nightmare. Suddenly she sits up into a close-up and screams. (closes script) I mean, shit!
Observer: What?
Hotshot Director: He's telling me how to shoot it! I mean c'mon...who does he think he is? As if. I'll shoot it the way I friggin' feel like it.
Observer (having no idea what to say but wanting to bond with Hotshot): Oh yeah!
Hotshot Director: Man I hate TV.

I let them move onto another topic before reentering the room. But I knew what I needed know...this 'director' needed a serious talking to.

Why? Because he was full of two of the most detrimental attitudes a director can have when showing up to direct TV series: 1) he needed to 'fix' my stupid little script because it was a little loose and not the way 'he'd' tell the story, and 2) that he was above this and was simply slumming in television until his next 'feature' got a green light.

But let me first clarify something. I'm not advocating writing a lot of 'direction' into your screenplays. I'm a firm believer in the adage of writing the script to tell the story the best you can, but leaving the directing to the directors. However, I am not against splitting the difference and occasionally helping 'nudge' the director down a certain path. And if describing in some detail a way to approach a scene in an effort to clearly get across how you'd like to see the action unfold and achieve a desired result...especially if you're a writer/producer on a series...then I say it's okay.

One thing this particular director needed to understand is that scripts in episodic TV are almost always works in progress. Once you get past ep 1 or 2, they are being written fast and furious, and are never 'perfect' whenever the director arrives on the scene. I'm not saying this to make excuses for writers - they have to show up and play as hard as they can - but I heard the process best explained by Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin on one of The West Wing episode commentaries.

Sorkin (the writer/showrunner) made a comment that the particular episode they were talking about was in not the greatest shape when they began prep, and that Schlamme (the director) and the actors had "...hit some pretty bad pitches out of the park." Schlamme replied that "...the first draft was a mess...a brilliant and fascinating but not quite together mess." Then they both proceeded to talk about how they used the 'pre-production' phase to focus the story and essentially ‘write another draft’. But the key was that they were on the same page...they both understood what the goals and objectives of the episode were and found a way to best realize it by working together.

And ultimately they were realizing Aaron’s (the writers) vision, not the other way around.

John Rogers recently said that...filming a TV show is building a house in a week while crazy people run around inside the construction site. He’s absolutely right…but clarifying whose house it is can help make the craziness a little less crazy.

Because what also needed to be impressed on Hotshot Director was that he was just here for a visit.

I saw Tom Fontana speak once, and he told a great story about working on Homocide and some feature director that the network pushed on him came in to do an episode. And they started shooting and Fontana kept seeing dailies shot in a slightly different style, and then he saw a rough assembly edit of the first few scenes and it had a different feel to it.

So he pulled the director aside and tried to impress upon him what was working and what wasn't and things to change or do differently...and the director apparently said: 1) I don't roll that way, and 2) why'd you hire me if you weren't going to let me do my own thing? Fontana responded that he'd sit on set all day and direct over the director’s shoulder if the dude didn't change his tune. I can’t remember how it went from there, but Fontana's concluded by saying that when it's his series...his script...his family (the crew and actors)...the director damn well better behave like a guest in his house.

In feature films however, it's a whole different deal. For whatever reason it was once decided that the script is just a blueprint and the writer is just there to draft that blueprint or roadmap and then the director gets to take it away and interpret (read: change it) as he sees fit. TV and TV series don't work that way. Not that I'm saying there can't be some interpretation and revisualization going on, but in TV series, each director's episode is not's the show that is king.

Do we understand each other?

I think that's the way to try to look at improving the communication between writers and directors, as opposed to asking how do we talk to to each other. And this is just my take...I'm always open to discussion.

This post is too long already. And I didn't even begin to scratch the surface....

We'll pick it up another day.


David Bishop said...

Great post! Can I have some more please, sir?

English Dave said...

Great post Will, much appreciated.

Damaged Goods said...

This was terrific. Really enjoyed it. You must be exhausted now, right ?


Diane Kristine said...

Damn, I thought it was going to be about House :)

wcdixon said...

Suffering withdrawals, Di-ane?

Halifax TV/Film said...

very good post, thanks. btw, can I ask what shows you've worked on?

greg said...

I've done a lot of TV directing and producing - and the best way I know how to describe it is that a series is like a marathon. The entire crew is running it - but the director is just there for one mile. He can either be the guy complaining the whole time about what sad shape everyone is in and try to make them keep up to his pace - or be the guy that comes along side of everyone and encouragingly makes them enjoy that mile as much as possible. The crew is the family - and like it or not - it's their house. Make em mad and you're not invited back.

I had a friend who was directing her first series - and she planned all these cool shots - dolly and crane. The DP would just look at her and shake his head. Sure enough - when it hit the air - the scene would start after the dolly stopped and cut out before it moved again. She said from then on - she got it.

It's great to bring in a few things to shake things up - but do it with the crew's support. Or you don't get invited back to play...