What do you do when your career no longer fulfills you?

Jim Hemphill, an award-winning screenwriter and director, faced that question. After turning away from directing independent films for something that better satisfied his creative itch, Hemphill rediscovered his passion for directing in episodic television. Determined to fill the gap of available information on the subject, Hemphill began interviewing episodic directors—culminating in the tips and tricks they told him into a how-to for aspiring TV helmers.

The Art and Craft of TV Directing is divided into 20 chapters, each a conversation with a director delving into their creative process, methodology, and the ups and downs of their career. Hemphill is strategic in choosing directors with experiences across genres. He presents a collection of methods and philosophies to “demystify the process” and increase interest in directing for episodic TV.

Anthony Hemingway (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Underground) discusses the challenges true crime directors face when covering a topic that’s already so widely reported and how this differs from directing a series with an established tone and direction. Recalling his struggle to decide “what story to tell,” Hemingway says that his “visual style needed to feel grounded and able to integrate some of the old news footage.” On the technical side, Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries, Roswell, New Mexico, Riverdale) describes the difficulties of conveying emotions in an episode and the importance of creative framing and composition to convey messages to the audience. While directing The Vampire Diaries Plec used flight flares and overhead angles to “represent a combo of who’s watching you, who’s looking down on you, and what is heaven.” Both directors also stress the importance of working as a team, which often produces happy accidents on set. Plec recalls that when filming Sheri Forbes’ funeral in The Vampire Diaries, her AD staged the background and salute so well that she turned what was “just meant to be a five-second bit” into a “gorgeous story moment” of two minutes-plus.

Many of the directors agree that the differences between directing for film or for TV stem from time constraints. Actress-turned-director Lea Thompson (The Goldbergs, Mom) says the hardest part about shooting The Goldbergs is that her team only has four or five days per episode. She also highlights the difficulties of balancing a variety of angles when working on a multi-camera sitcom—all while in front of a live audience with minimal time to prepare.

The Takeaway

Most TV directors don’t start out with the goal of being a television director. The opportunity often falls into their lap—or better yet, they fall into it. If you’re a moviemaker who thrives in high-energy environments, racing against the clock to beat a deadline, then TV directing might be for you. Hemphill’s collection calls for a reassessment to the old adage that TV is a “writer’s medium” and encourages future moviemakers to consider the lessons that can be gained from directing television. MM

The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors by Jim Hemphill was published by Routledge on August 4, 2019. 

This article appears in Moviemaker’s Summer 2019 issue.