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Sunday, July 19, 2009
Directors: Part One
A fish rots from the head...
Note: here in Hollywood where they are made, the term “sit-com” refers to a half-hour, four-camera comedy that comes with an irritating-but-unavoidable laugh track. Since these shows are filmed in front of a live audience, there’s no cheap way to remove the audience reaction from the sound track, so producers simply “sweeten” it a bit and go with the flow. Despite the inevitable thematic/comedic similarities, half-hour comedies shot single-camera style are not considered sit-coms -- not by those of us who do the heavy lifting required to make them.
The show I've been working on was finally blessed with a really good director. That might not sound like a big deal in the formulaic world of sit-coms (a writer/producer’s medium where the director’s main task is to serve as the on-set traffic cop), but for any production, having a skilled and steady hand on the tiller makes a huge difference. When that director also brings a generous sense of humor to the set, and is smart enough to treat everyone on the crew with respect, good things are going to happen, so it was no surprise that we enjoyed our best week yet. It helped that this episode featured a crisp, funny script allowing our cast to relax and fully inhabit their roles -- and in that secure comfort zone, they felt free enough to indulge in some extremely funny ad-libs during rehearsals. The best jokes on set never make it to the live show (or past the network censors), but the entire crew was cracking up during our long blocking and pre-shoot day. Always a good sign, that.
It’s so much easier to get through the day when everybody’s smiling.
As one among a handful of truly gifted directors working in sit-coms, this man is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Although the vast majority of directors have achieved some level of competence over the years, their skill sets don’t always measure up to the task. Some bring a friendly, low-key approach that at least makes them pleasant to work with, while others are tense, uptight jerks who turn the entire week into an ordeal for all concerned. At the bottom of the pot are a few truly hopeless fools who neither understand the nature of the medium nor how to deal with other people in an effective manner – lost in their own little haunted house of mirrors, their deep-rooted problems rapidly metastasize to fill the sound stage. I’ve had the misfortune to work with several like that, including two Little Napoleons who suffered from Short Person’s Aggressive Derangement Disorder. These unbearably self-important little toads seemed to think they really were curing cancer on set, demanding that the entire stage remain as quiet as a tomb, hounding the AD’s to patrol the perimeter and enforce absolute silence. Woe be to the hapless extras or stand-ins who dared laugh out loud way across the stage and behind the sets at the craft service table.
How can the Great Man possibly focus his Giant Brain on the brilliant work at hand while lesser beings scream in quiet whispers a hundred feet away?
Being a Silence Nazi doesn’t necessarily make for a bad director – the legendary Jim Burrows runs a ruthlessly quiet set, but his solid gold track record has earned him that right. It's his vastly less-talented brethren -- directors in name only who really don’t know what they’re doing, but attempt to hide their incompetence and insecurities behind an aggressive, I’m-the-boss-here front -- that piss the crew off. They're not fooling anybody, least of all those who do the heavy lifting, which might explain why it's generally these jerks who treat us like servants.
To the uninitiated, this may sound like a distinction without a difference -- but on set, being there to serve is not the same thing as being a servant...
Do I sound a little bitter here? Maybe so, but after a while you grow weary of busting your ass doing everything the hard way because some well-dressed clown who comes to work with an immaculate manicure and a hundred dollar haircut (a guy raking in well over twenty thousand dollars to direct a single one-week episode) doesn’t know how to do his job. After working on thousands of sets with countless directors over the years, it’s not hard to spot who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. Incompetence sticks out like a turd in a punch bowl on a working set, and unfortunately, sit-coms seem to be plagued with more than their share of lousy directors. In the big money/high stress arenas of feature films, episodics, and national television commercials, truly incompetent directors tend to get weeded out*, but sit-coms offer something of a safe harbor where a few supremely untalented directors can be handsomely rewarded for their incompetence.
It’s an enduring mystery to me how sit-com producers choose who will direct their shows. Some directors are signed for an entire season, and if the show turns into a hit, that director ends up doing every episode of a long and lucrative run. Other shows rotate between several directors over the course of a season, while some seem to pick names out of a hat. In such a chatty town as Hollywood, you’d think word would get around fast enough that those few truly lame sit-com directors would have to find another line of work, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Two such buffoons come to mind (their names changed to protect the guilty, of course -- I do have to work in this town again), who for very different reasons were so clueless that neither could be trusted to direct traffic without causing a Sig Alert.
Nevertheless, when I last saw them, both were getting more than enough work to keep their mortgages and DGA dues fully paid up.
One (call him “Bernard”) is an ex-actor whose professional background may indeed enable him to reach deep into the thespian psyche to extract the finest performance from his cast -- but the man can’t block a scene to save his life. Not that blocking** is a simple affair, but it’s one of the basic tasks a director is so well paid to perform. Besides, a sit-com is supposed to be a comedy, not some soul-baring crucible like “On the Waterfront” or "Streetcar Named Desire." A director coming in to baby-sit one or two episodes of ongoing show will find his cast well-steeped in their characters – they don’t really need an outsider’s “guidance” to find their way through the A plot, B plot, and the tag.
This doesn't mean ex-actors can’t be good directors. I recently worked with one well known ex-thespian who has earned his way onto the "A" list of sit-com directors. It’s not what a director used to do that counts, but what he/she can do now, and that includes blocking a scene in a relatively efficient manner. On most sit-coms, blocking day shouldn’t take more than ten hours. It can go long if there are extensive pre-shoots, but a truly gifted director can do it much faster. I’ve watched Jim Burrows block a full episode before lunch. Perhaps it's unfair to judge mere mortals by such Olympian standards, but “Bernard” was slow to the point of absurdity – his plodding, owlishly pedantic approach drove the entire crew up the wall every week. He was so clueless that I almost felt sorry for him, but it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy stumbling towards such an absurdly fat paycheck at the end of the week.
The next season brought a new show of twelve episodes we had high hopes would be picked up for the “back nine” (including the pilot, adding up to a full 22 episode network season), then become the long running hit we all want to land. The crew was heartened to learn that our producers had the good sense not to hire "Bernard" again -- but after trying different directors out over the first few episodes, they hired “Mr. Herman” (not his real name) to bring the bacon home.
I got a close look at him on his first blocking day, when all four camera and their crews (which back then included four camera operators, four first assistant/focus-pullers, two second assistant/loaders, and four dolly grips) showed up, along with the full compliment of grips, juicers, set-dressers, prop people, hair/makeup, script supervisor, camera coordinator, and production personnel.
I noticed a few eyebrows rise among the older sit-com veterans when "Mr. Herman" walked on set to greet the assembled crew. As the day went on, I pressed some of them for specifics, but they just shrugged and mumbled something non-committal. Things seemed to go well enough at first – we ground out the work all morning, broke for lunch, then continued working into late afternoon. “Mr. Herman” wasn’t particularly deft at blocking, but by leaning heavily on the camera coordinator, got the job done. His real problem turned out to be actually shooting the scenes -- particularly “pre-shoots” filmed prior to the live show that are then edited and shown to the studio audience on television monitors on shoot night. Pre-shoots are usually done for any scenes requiring location filming, stunts, special effects, “poor man’s process,” or any other time-consuming procedure. After blocking half the show, we paused to shoot a simple scene with two actors involving less than two minutes of dialog. We blocked and rehearsed, then rolled all four cameras. The first take was pretty good -- not perfect, but close. The actors nailed it on take two: as far as the cast and crew were concerned, this was the one.
“Mr. Herman" didn’t see it that way.
“Let’s go again,” he said.
I noticed the two executive producers exchange a Meaningful Glance. They knew damned well we had it in the can, and both possessed the power to overrule their director – but apparently they didn’t want to intervene and pull rank on his first day of real work.
So we did it again. And again, and again, and again... until some forty-five minutes later, the poor actors were gasping like dying fish from their desperate efforts to breathe some life back into a scene "Mr. Herman" had steamrolled flatter than a stale tortilla. There was nothing worth saving in that final take – it was limp, dead television road kill -- but naturally, that’s the one "Mr. Herman" loved. He all but slapped high-fives with the dazed actors, who by now were totally confused.
That’s when it hit me just how fucked we really were. This clown had been signed to direct every episode for the remainder of the season, which meant we’d be working around his idiocy for the next three months. Although there were lots other directors available (some really good ones, too) our producers somehow got suckered into hiring a guy whose only real skill was knowing how to look, talk, and act like a director. The only thing he couldn't do was direct.
The show went belly-up by Christmas. With no back nine or Season Two in the offing, the crew scattered to the four winds looking for another job. The silver lining in this otherwise dank, dark cloud was that at least we wouldn’t have to work with "Mr. Herman" again.
I’m not suggesting directing a sit-com is easy – nothing’s easy in this business -- but compared to the grinding ordeal of episodics or features, guiding a sit-com is a relaxing walk through a lovely park on a crisp spring day. From what I’ve seen, directing sit-coms is certainly the easiest well-paid job in Hollywood. With even minimal blocking skills (backed up by an experienced camera coordinator to help orchestrate the four-camera choreography), and a good DP making sure the set is properly lit, all a director really has to do is follow the script as the rewrites trickle in through the week. So long as he pays attention and makes an occasional suggestion as to framing a shot or the timing of a punch line, everyone will think he’s doing a fine job. Should a situation arise requiring a serious decision, the show’s creator/executive producer is always nearby to make the call. A gifted director can do much more, of course -- and the show will be all the better for it -- but given the nature of sit-coms (22 minutes of endless laugh-tracks on the very small screen), the viewing audience at home is unlikely to notice a huge difference between a superbly directed sit-com and one that’s done by the numbers.
The crew will notice, though. The crew sees everything.
So who am I to complain? Just a lowly juicer near the bottom of the food chain -- a guy who lifts heavy objects for a living and has earned fistfuls of overtime thanks to hack directors fumbling their way deep into the red zone. I don’t pretend to know much about directing, but for twenty-thousand dollars plus per show, you’d think sit-com producers would at least be able to buy some minimal level of competence.
Much of the time, you’d be wrong.
* Love him or hate him – and I’ve yet to meet anybody who actually likes the guy -- even Michael Bay manages to make movies that earn truckloads of money for the producers and studios that hire him. As with the vast bulk of network television, his movies are a long way from cinematic art, but Hollywood has never been about the art – here, it’s always about the money...
** For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “blocking” refers to the physical process of working out exactly how and where the actors and camera will move during the course of a scene – and on a sit-com, how all four cameras are to cover the action. On any scripted project (feature film, episodic television, sit-com, soap opera, or commercial), standard procedure is to block, light, rehearse, then shoot the scene. Sit-coms differ slightly in that three days of rehearsals precede the blocking, but it’s not until blocking day that that the process gets serious. Blocking forms the foundation upon which the structure of each scene is built. If a director doesn't block a scene right, the result won’t flow or work nearly as well as it should – and left unchecked by the producers, this will turn a good script into an instantly forgettable mess every time. Ken Levine – one of those very good directors – offers his insights on the process here.