I was lucky enough to be trained by James Burrows, the Mozart of sitcom directors. After observing for a couple of years I asked him what’s the best advice he could give me? He said, “Get the job”. And like everything else he told me, he was right. You need to be thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim.
Yeah, but getting that job is easier said than done. This is where “who you know” REALLY comes into play.
Often times writers get their first directing break on their own shows, or as a reward for being on a series a long time. But I’ve seen First AD’s (Katy Gerritson of FRASIER, Lenny Garner of WINGS, Pamela Fryman, many others), editors (Andy Ackerman, Darryl Bates, etc.), camera coordinators, and line producers (e.g. Jay Kleckner, Tim Berry) get the nod too. On the worst show I ever freelanced for, I was followed by the wife of a studio executive. She showed up the first day and said to the actors “So like what, you walk around and stuff and I say okay?” (After the mutiny she was replaced, probably by the craft services guy.)
My first assignment was on WINGS. To this day I thank Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell for giving me the shot. I suppose it’s easier for a first-time director when the project is an indie feature that you wrote. Everyone looks to you since the movie is seemingly your vision.
In television you’re the substitute teacher for the Sweathogs. You do your best to act like you know what you’re doing but the cast KNOWS you’re not a director, not yet anyway. And you can’t blame them. Whenever a cast member wants to write a script we don’t take them seriously either (and God are we right most of the time. GAAAA.). It takes a while to learn actor-speak. Who knew a helpful note wasn’t “NO! Anything but THAT!!”
And then there’s the crew. Especially if you’re not one of them they HATE you first time out. With good reason, of course. You don’t know shit and you’re slow. There is nothing more terrifying than sitting down in front of the quad split (the feed from each camera) for the first time and hearing four grizzled camera operators whose credits include I LOVE LUCY, snarl, “Okay, whattaya want?” That’s the moment it starts coming down both legs. You worked all weekend with your little plastic men, moving them around, writing down your shots, getting all prepared, and now it’s like NONE of that matters. Even writing a block comedy scene for Courtney Thorne-Smith starts looking pretty good to you compared to this. What should take five hours takes eleven. No wonder the crew wants to impale you on the boom mike.
Somehow you get through it…unless you’re that studio executive’s wife. She’s probably an executive now herself GIVING directors notes. (So you like say ‘action’ and stuff and I say okay?) It’s a great accomplishment and if you’re ever hired again the second one can only get easier.
On Monday the tale of my first directing assignment complete with two crew members almost coming to blows and two cameras crashing into each other on show night in front of the audience. Where’s the Valium?????