Imagine a world where you earn a steady, livable paycheck doing what you love—directing—and little else. That picture, sadly, doesn’t exactly fit independent feature filmmaking.
“From writing the script for my feature The Trouble with the Truth to getting the movie out on DVD and VOD, it was a five or six-year process,” says Jim Hemphill. “And the only part I truly enjoyed was the two weeks I spent on set working with the actors and DP, and the month or two after that in the editing room. Everything else was sheer drudgery.”
The indie writer-director (and MovieMaker contributor) found an alternative, however: “If you direct something for television, you’re going to reach anywhere from 400,000 to 10 million viewers,” he says. “And you can just focus on the job of directing.”
With theater attendance for independent film on the decline, and Hollywood studios decreasing its number of releases in favor of bigger blockbuster spectacles, career opportunities for feature directors are getting scarcer. At the same time, though, we are living in what some call the age of “Peak Television”—an age that has seen a dramatic spike in scripted content, especially with streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon getting into the game. FX Research reported that 455 scripted original programs appeared on American television in 2016. That number was up by nearly three dozen since 2015, and 137 percent over the last decade.
Consider the fact that each of those 455 shows has multiple episodes. That means there’s a lot of work out there for directors willing to trade dreams of the silver-screen auteurship for an audience hungry to devour content on their TVs, laptops and cellphones.
Herr Director No More
There is a trade-off, of course. Going from film to television directing means a demotion in authority. You are no longer the head honcho, the top banana, the final word on, well… anything.
“Television is a writer-driven medium, not a director-driven medium like feature films,” says Steven Adelson, a television director (12 Monkeys, Scorpion, The Blacklist, Riverdale) and executive producer on season two of Freeform original series Beyond. “It’s not about shooting your movie. It’s about shooting the show’s movie, so that showrunner and executive producers can tell the story they need to tell.”
“If you’re an episodic director, you’re not making as many decisions as you do in features,” agrees Tamra Davis. Davis directed features such as Gun Crazy and Billy Madison, then transitioned to television, directing on shows like Santa Clarita Diet, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grey’s Anatomy and others. “Wardrobe, art direction, casting—maybe you’ll do one meeting on those things. Yes, they ask for your input, but many of those things are already set. The showrunner, producers and department heads—the folks who work on every episode—have an overall vision. It’s not really up to me to question that vision.”
On the other hand, William Rabkin, a veteran TV writer (The Glades, Monk, Psych) and showrunner (Diagnosis Murder, Martial Law), has a slightly different take on it. “A good showrunner,” he believes, “will always listen to the director. They are artists in their own right. Why not take advantage of all the talent you’re paying for?”
Nevertheless, Adelson, Rabkin and Davis all emphasize that episodic television is a machine that has to keep rolling, and that TV directors are vital—but specific—cogs.
Finding Your Bearings in TV Land
“TV is a pressure cooker. You have seven days of prep, and usually eight to 10 days in production,” says Adelson. “Which means that a director needs to be like clay, able to mold to what’s happening. I always try to bring a little of my own flavor to things, but I don’t go into a show that’s all handheld and say, ‘I’m doing everything on the dolly.’”
Davis concurs: “You’re not going to shoot an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that looks totally different than every other episode of Grey’s Anatomy. You have to blend your style seamlessly into their format. Still, I think producers want directors to invigorate things, to look at the show from a new angle.”
The speed, she says, is exciting. “There’s way less time sitting in the chair, waiting for the camera and the crew to move to the next set-up. This is great for comedy, because it’s hard to shoot something funny and then wait 45 minutes and still make it funny.” She credits her experience on Gun Crazy, an indie she shot in 23 days, as instrumental to her success in television. “You have to be very thoughtful about your schedule. When your day is, like, nine pages, five different scenes with six different actors, experience as an indie filmmaker helps you figure out how to make that schedule work.”
For Rabkin, the director’s first role on set is managerial. “The director has got to get the show done on time and on budget. I once hired a well-respected director who turned out to be incapable of making a single decision on set. If one of our guest stars, who had a second career as a director, hadn’t stepped in, we’d still be shooting that episode—two decades later.”
Getting the Rec
Let’s state the obvious now: Hollywood is a town built on relationships. Which doesn’t mean the system is rigged—after all, we patronize businesses, make hiring decisions and contract with service providers based on recommendations. The film and television industry is no different. And because the financial stakes are so high, producers and showrunners are cautious about who they’re going to hand the reins of a production over to.
That said, the path to building a career is wide open. Davis’ first TV job was directing an episode of Cracking Up, an ill-fated series created by Mike White in 2004. “As a feature director himself, Mike specifically wanted different feature film directors on his show,” she remembers. “That was at Fox, and my next job was at Fox. A lot of times, your last job gives you good references for your next job. It’s a small world in television.”
For Adelson, however, directing TV meant moving away from a well-established career as a camera operator on major motion pictures like Batman Begins and shows like Stargate and Nikita—no easy feat. “I had worked for Danny Cannon and Gary Fleder as an operator on a number of their shows,” he says. Over the course of 200 episodes, he let them know that he wanted to direct. “They recognized that I understood story and character, and I had their backs in terms of protecting the material with the camera. Finally being OK with losing me as their operator, they gave me the opportunity to direct on their shows.”
Continue to work with people you respect and enjoy in whatever capacity you can, Adelson advises, “but make sure they know what your objective is. If they think that you’ve proven yourself over time, they will help you. I was good with the camera, but I would say loyalty was what ultimately provided me with my opportunity to direct.”
In his role as an executive producer on Beyond, these days Adelson looks for directors with solid track records. “If they’ve done only one episode on shows that had some longevity, there might be an issue. Why weren’t they invited back? I check with showrunners and hiring directors. I look at their material and see if they’ve done stuff in the genre that I’m working in—for example, our show has a lot of visual effects and action.”
Show reels aren’t particularly persuasive to Adelson because they make it hard for him to gauge a director’s full abilities. He prefers to see full episodes, or even a short film. “It’s all about how you get into and out of a scene. Transitions are the bread and butter. That’s what I look for, because anyone can just shoot a wide master and then follow with coverage.” In the end, though, “it’s not like you can force yourself into being hired. You have to have good representation that can put you in front of the people in the position to hire you.”
For those who don’t have an inside track, the transition from independent film to television can be a bit of a mystery. For Hemphill and moviemaker Enid Zentelis, a crucial break came from shadowing successful television directors on set.
How? Hemphill suggests that you take note of who’s directing the shows you really like and reach out to them. “They might not all respond, but some do,” he says. “Overall, I’ve found TV directors to be kind and supportive.”
Best-case scenario: A well-connected director likes your indie film and offers to make calls on your behalf. That’s what happened to Hemphill, and it allowed him to shadow television director Rob Greenlea, who worked on Stitchers on the Freeform network. Along with a front-row view of the production process, Greenlea provided guidance on how Hemphill could best angle for a job—for example, referring to himself as “the shadowing director” (noun), as opposed to “shadowing the director” (verb).
“It cements you in the minds of the cast and crew as a director—who will, theoretically, be coming back to helm an episode in the near future. You want to make sure you’re never far from the thoughts of people who might hire you, because most of the time when a first-timer gets hired in episodic, it’s a fluke—another director drops out, for example, and you get called in at the last minute.”
Zentelis, who directed the 2014 Sundance feature Bottled Up, took a somewhat different path to the same destination. After showing her episodic pilot, Au Pair, she won a paid fellowship with NBC Universal. Network programs like these seek to bring new blood into the system, and have become a way for Hollywood to correct its historical systemic exclusion of women and minority directors. Still, they’re looking for serious professionals with a track record.
“You have to have a career in features or commercials before you’re accepted,” Zentelis explains. “They’re looking for people who, from day one, have the skill set and know the craft, but haven’t had a shot yet. And even then, nothing is guaranteed. The showrunner and executive producers on a given show have to agree to accept you as a shadow.”
Zentelis knew TV director Nisha Ganatra (Transparent) from film school, and approached her about shadowing on NBC sitcom Great News. With creator and showrunner Tracey Wigfield’s (30 Rock, The Mindy Project) blessing, she spent two weeks on set, looking over the shoulder of an in-demand television director.
“Nisha knew I could direct, so I was right by her side,” says Zentelis. “We would talk lenses, blocking, what different actors needed—it was a constant dialogue about craft. As an indie director coming onto a network show, it’s important to learn the culture. That you already know how to direct should be a given. The rest is how you adapt.”
From a practical standpoint, Zentelis had to wrap her head around the production realities of episodic television. “The director shifts with every episode. And everyone has a slightly different style,” she explains. She noticed, for example, that this necessitated a lot of flexibility from cast and key crew, like assistant directors.
This is a sentiment echoed by Davis. “TV actors work for 12 weeks, and these directors come in and out. Sometimes their reaction is, ‘Who is this new person coming in and telling me what to do?’ But once people start to trust you, it’s exciting to see that relationship grow.”
Perhaps what surprised Zentelis most about her experience was witnessing how Ganatra was firmly in charge of her production. “No one questioned [her]. As a female director, that’s not something I’ve always experienced. I went into it focusing on the craft, but then it hit me just how incredibly friendly and hospitable the set was.”
All in the Family
If there’s one motif repeated by everyone, it’s that television tends to cultivate a family-like atmosphere. From the writers to the producers to the cast, the same group of people work together for an extended period of time. This can mean that incoming directors, transient as they are, can feel like guests in someone else’s house.
Davis warns about the perils of that situation. “Every show is its own dysfunctional family,” she says. “So it’s important to know your place. Just do your job. Don’t get involved in the drama, or cause any drama. These people have to work together for another three months.”
Zentelis, on the other hand, found the family dynamic on Great News a relief after the more isolating aspects of features. “There doesn’t tend to be these crazy breakaway egos,” she says. “That tone comes from the top down. Great News had a confident, magnanimous, creative showrunner in Tracey Wigfield, and the directors and cast she hired reflected that.”
A Sustaining Passion
Connecting the dots from gig to gig, Davis is always looking one step ahead. “I am constantly trying to book myself into the next job,” she says, “by having great relationships, delivering great work, and pulling the rabbit out of my hat, in order to secure the next opportunity.” She wanted to work on the series You’re the Worst, for example, in part because it shoots in L.A., where her family is based. Seeing that that show’s producer and DP were also working on Still the King in Nashville, she managed to get herself hired on that show so she could prove her worthiness. “It took a year, but I’m now doing three episodes of You’re the Worst, starting in a couple weeks. You have to play the long game.”
Zentelis warns moviemakers that they should expect things to move slowly, over the course of many meetings (a.k.a “generals”), especially when it comes to the networks. “It’s a personality test. Can you work in a collaborative way? Can you deal with upwards of a hundred cast members, and a huge crew, and talk to the executives at the end of the day?”
If you check all those boxes, though, you can look forward to a more stable future than ever feature films have afforded. And that’s what makes the siren song of television so alluring. Directing TV is more about career goals than the quest for fame—practicing your craft as a respected professional rather than achieving artistic glory as an auteur.
“It’s full-time work to break into a field that is this competitive,” Zentelis says, “but I’m heartened. There’s an awful lot of great work out there, and [studios] want new directors.”
“As a married mom with two kids, I am completely happy doing three episodes a year,” says Davis. “You can actually have TV jobs and still have a life.” With her 10 episodes in 2017, she’s making more than a comfortable living, though “there are times when you’re like, ‘Who knows how next year will be?’”
“There’s a saying,” Hemphill says. “Analog dollars have become digital pennies. And it’s true. Streaming services are great for consumers, and great in that they provide filmmakers with the opportunity to reach millions of viewers. But they’ve also devalued the content to the point that it’s much more difficult to make a living as an independent filmmaker. The appeal of directing episodic TV is that you can actually make a living doing it.” MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Top image: Steven Adelson and cinematographer Tom Camarda on the set of an episode of The Player entitled “The Norseman,” directed by Adelson. Photograph by Nikhil Paniz.