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If you’re a loyal Greendale Human Being—a fan of the NBC comedy “Community,” for those not in the know—who also happens to make movies, you may have wondered at one point what it would be like to work on the cult favorite show. Recently, I sat down for my second interview with Derrick Comedy/Mystery Team director Dan Eckman, who directed the 13th episode of season three, “Digital Exploration of Interior Design,” in which Britta (Gillian Jacobs) falls for Subway—that’s a person, by the way—and the friendship of Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy Barnes (Derrick Comedy member Donald Glover) is tested by an emerging pillow fort-vs-blanket fort rivalry.
The episode marks Eckman’s first time directing narrative television, an experience he sees as both similar to and different from his work directing features and Web shorts. Or, in the immortal words of Troy Barnes, “It was the same, but also, it wasn’t?”
Andy Young (MM): When did you first get approached to direct an episode of “Community”?
Dan Eckman (DE): Technically sometime in April 2011. They hire the directors before they have scripts, but they know the dates so they schedule those out, and I got episode 13 in season three.
MM: Were you involved in the writing process for your episode at all?
DE: I asked [showrunner] Dan [Harmon] if I could be in the writer’s room while they wrote it, and he said yes. I don’t think I was required to be there, but I wanted to be a part of the process so I could see the development of my episode in the room.
MM: This was your first time directing for television. Did you spend any time on the “Community” set to prepare?
DE: I shadowed [directors/executive producers] the Russo brothers when they did the pilot, because they had seen Mystery Team, which is actually how Donald [Glover] got his part on the show. I later directed some second unit stuff on episode four of the second season, and I shadowed two other episodes on season three. Shadowing the Russos and watching them direct was definitely the best way to prepare for working on a show like this.
MM: With a show that deals with so many different marks in pop culture, did you have to do any research for your episode?
DE: It was definitely kind of an evolving thing for what was being homaged or parodied, and that’s part of why I wanted to be around for the writing process. I wanted to know what genres or material we might be dealing with so I could be prepared for that, like the 1984 bit.
MM: Did you put any references in yourself?
DE: Subtle ones. Like the shot of the pillowcase being thrown in slow motion is pretty much like the chair being thrown in Raging Bull. Same with [zooming] in on the backpack, that was inspired by Casino. And there were a few others, like some stuff from The Conversation.
MM: What were some of the biggest challenges as a director working with such a big ensemble cast?
DE: I came in with a plan and tried to execute it, but things are constantly evolving and you have to consider when certain actors have to leave and [come up with] ways to keep track of what you need. I did shoot more master coverage than I usually would in my work outside of television, but I would also get plenty of special shots to work with. Also, my episode was actually somewhat unique in that it broke the cast up into factions, rather than always having them constantly together as a whole… It felt more like shooting three different short films, because the cast was broken up.
MM: You’ve worked with some of these actors before (Donald Glover, Jim Rash), but did you have any trouble working with the rest of the cast for the first time?
DE: Not really, since I knew the actors pretty well from my time spent on set, and from shadowing the Russos I knew what types of notes they’re typically given. And, honestly, the actors really know their characters extremely well, so the only real notes you need to give them are toward tracking certain arcs in the episode and trying to get different flavors of lines for the edit. No take is wrong; we want the option to play a scene at different volumes once we’re editing. For the Britta/Subway plot, for example, we have so many different takes of different ways they made eye-contact or interacted with each other, so you can have so many different versions of those scenes.
MM: How long was the shoot for your episode?
DE: Five days. It worked out… that we didn’t have to do reshoots, with the exception of getting something from the battle scene that we later got [while shooting] the recreation for the part-two episode.
MM: Did you suggest having the Derrick Comedy cameo? Or was that brought up from someone else at the show?
DE: I suggested it. I knew we’d have extras in the pillow fort army and we wanted them to be directable. And they’re technically already students at Greendale, so we had a lot of fun figuring out what part they had in Abed’s army.
MM: When you’re shooting your episode, are you thinking about how it will play within the context of the entire season, or are you fully focused on what’s going on inside your episode?
DE: I think typically you’re focused on your stand-alone episode, but since this was a part one of a two-parter, and since I was a fan of the show and had spent a lot of time on set, I was keenly aware of who the characters were and where they were going throughout the season. I think that was more necessary for my episode than the typical sitcom.
MM: You edit most of your work. Were you involved in the post-production process of the episode?
DE: The way “Community” works, in post they have editors going 24/7 on different episodes. The director is shown an editor’s cut, then they make their director’s cut before anyone else makes a cut of it, and then the producers make their final cut. I do like to be involved in post on my work, so before the editor’s cut was made I basically watched and logged all of the footage, marking takes that I liked for the editor. By the time we got to the editor’s cut it already reflected most of my choices, which I don’t think it would have otherwise. I actually placed some in temp music myself. I basically used the scores from Skyrim and Apollo 13.
MM: Did the final cut that aired pretty much resemble your cut?
DE: Yeah. I was really pleased with how it turned out. I was told not to shorten my director’s cut to broadcast length, so I think I left it about two or three minutes over so they could have some room to cut it down. And the changes they made were mostly for time. The backbone of my director’s cut is still intact.
MM: Overall, how did working in the narrative television format differ from your other work?
DE: In certain ways it was completely different, but in others it was the exact same thing. The art of it is essentially the same. You’re much more concerned about getting enough options so all the different opinions can be tried; that’s why I was happy to see how many of my choices ended up in that episode, because there are a lot of different ways they could have gone with it.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.