I’m often asked, “TV directors don’t really get to do much, do they? The show’s already established, right?” My answer is, “Hell yes, we do a lot!”
We take ink on paper and make it come alive on either the big screen or the small screen. We transform words in a script into living, breathing, visually stimulating images that move people, makes them think and entertains them. We leave our mark while serving the script. We fight for the story, for the actors, for the words and for the visuals. We are fighters. We don’t wait for people to do things for us; we go out and get them and make them happen. We are collaborators who never give up.
With my second feature film, Silver Skies, being released, I’m a bit nostalgic looking back at my directing career. This is a movie that I created: wrote, directed and produced. It’s a work of art that comes straight from my heart. Yet will I make any money from it? Will I have another opportunity to direct a movie? Will anyone see my movie? These are the questions that literally keep me up at night.
Making a living as a director means that I do have the privilege of being on set again soon. I will go off and direct more television, where they pay me to bring my unique vision to an episode that, most likely, millions of people will watch. The shows I get to direct are shows that people would kill to direct: The Walking Dead, Sneaky Pete, Jessica Jones. I love every second of directing these shows. As hard as it may be—and it gets very difficult and stressful sometimes—I’m always grateful.
How did I get here?
My first feature film, Acts of Worship, was about heroin addiction—something I lived through. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival and traveled to festivals around the world, ending its run with a couple of Independent Spirit Awards. It was an amazing experience. I got an agent and a manager. They offered me only romantic comedies (oh, I’m a female director, right, so I must love only romantic comedies.)
After this whirlwind, I was ready to direct my next movie. Instead, I was back at my day job. Beyond deflated, sitting in my cubicle, angry and bitter. One day, a friend told me about a shadowing program for TV. This particular program was through L.A.-based John Wells Productions, and it was set up to help independent film directors get into TV, where they could make a living. I sent my movie and called every couple of weeks. After six months, they let me in.
The Directors Guild of America has a great list of Television Director Development Programs. My best advice to young directors is to apply to every single one of these programs. Don’t pick and choose. And if you’re a writer as well as a director, find writing fellowships and apply to those in addition. Sometimes people have to apply more than once before getting in, so don’t delay sending in that application.
I also tell anyone who wants to get into directing TV that if they can write, try to get in the writer’s room. If you’ve made a feature already as a writer-director, had some success at festivals, and now have an agent, push that agent to get you meetings to get into a writers room. Watch shows that you love and contact the showrunner yourself if the agent can’t get you any meetings. At the very least, the agent can provide you with contact information.
Once you’re in the writer’s room, you will have steady work. Then you can make your movies on the side, and write spec scripts, or at least option properties you like and write pitches. In a couple to a few years, if you are a great writer, you can move up the ranks. And since you already directed a short or feature, you have something that can be used to persuade the powers that be to give you an episode directing. That’s one way to go if you’re a writer-director.
If you go the director route, like I did, then moving up into a creative position can be difficult, but not impossible. The point is to keep writing and directing no matter what.
Another thing I did was go out to L.A. and sublet an apartment for two months. It was my goal in that time to learn how to have a business meeting. The first meeting I had was with John Cooper from Sundance. I wanted to follow up on my festival experience. I sat in the meeting with him, and he gave me the best advice: Tell the person you’re meeting with how they can help you. Be specific in asking for help. Sometimes people are shy or not quite able to be as direct as they intend. Because successful people are so busy, they just don’t have time to figure out what you need. So ask them directly.
I went into every meeting after that with two goals: to learn to be direct and to get the name of at least one other person I should meet with. Even though I had a manager and an agent, I needed to hustle myself to get as many meetings as possible. This will lead to people knowing who you are and name recognition will help a lot on the road to earning a living. If people don’t know you, they can’t hire you.
So I successfully completed the shadowing program and then, fortunately, got hired to direct two episodes of that show. I haven’t turned back. It took me years to get steady work—many years of non-stop perseverance and dedication to hustle. But I’m an independent filmmaker, so that’s just what I do. I’m a hustler.
I’ve learned that there may be no time when I can sit back with opportunities flying at me. Instead, at every level, there is another “no” coming at me. At every meeting, there is a reason for not financing my movie, or giving me a shot at directing an action or superhero movie, or hiring me for that episode I have my heart set on. At some point, I got to be the one to say “no.” “No” to a job I don’t like, “no” to people I don’t want to work with, “no” to people who don’t want to collaborate and “no” to people who think directors are there to do what they are told.
Most of the time, the hustle and the fight pays off. And I get to make my living as a director: the best job on the planet. MM
Silver Skies is available on DVD and on Amazon and iTunes April 4, 2017, courtesy of Virgil Films.