Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Directors: Part Four

Hack City

                                   He's a clown, all right...

“Hack: One who works for hire, especially with loose or easy professional standards. Performed by, suited to, or characteristic of a hack.”

 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

 A veteran writer/producer/show-runner once told me that as he saw it, “directing a sit-com looks a lot like being paid to have lunch.” Considering that this came from a man with more than twenty years of serious sit-com credits under his belt (including some of the biggest hits of the genre), who has watched hundreds of directors in action, that's saying something.

I’ve seen enough really good directors work to know that directing a multi-cam show isn't quite that easy, but it’s nowhere nearly so hard as crafting a pilot, then guiding it through the white-water rapids of pilot season to emerge with a series pick up and the daunting prospect of overseeing the writing and production of another twenty quality episodes. Nor can directing a 22 minute sit-com (with the considerable help of a camera coordinator to orchestrate the choreography of those four cameras) be compared to eight long days of filming an episodic drama, much less toiling the months required to bring a feature film in on time and budget.

Viewed from this perspective, I can understand the show-runner's stance on sit-com directors.

Still, having a good director makes a huge difference.  I’ve always been partial to seeing an older director at the helm of any production I’m involved with, be it a music video, television commercial, sit-com, episodic drama, or feature film. Having been around long enough to know what it takes to get the job done, a seasoned director rarely tries to reinvent the wheel on set, and is usually able to get the work done without jerking the actors and crew around for fourteen painfully tedious hours every day. During my early days juicing, then as I moved up to work as a Best Boy and Gaffer, I learned the hard way never to trust a DP under forty, and the same general rule applies to directors.

There are notable exceptions to all such rules, of course, since youth and inexperience do not preclude brilliance. Orson Welles might be the poster child infant terrible of Hollywood, and there's been some amazing work from modern young directors, but when working on a Disney kids show – perilously close to the bottom of the television barrel – ground-breaking artistic virtuosity is not required, nor is it in the budgetary scope of the production.* We’re happy to settle for mere competence here in Sit-Comland, rare though it may be.  All I ask of a director is to do his-or-her homework, make a real effort to understand what the writers and producers are trying to do, and bring a little wit and intelligence to the job of shepherding us through the shoot with as little drama as possible.

 In other words, I expect a director to be a professional – especially a veteran.

That doesn't seem so much to ask, which is why I was relieved to see a director of a certain age walk on the set of a show I worked a couple of years back. With a full mane of silver hair and decades of experience directing sit-coms under his belt, he seemed just the man to guide us through the week. There were warning signs of idiot/trendoid/hipster tendencies -- a humongous diamond earring gleaming from one earlobe, and a pair of ridiculous (and absurdly expensive) faded-and-ripped-to-shreds “designer” jeans – but given his long experience, I chalked that up to an aging man’s attempt to demonstrate that he’s young at heart, still relevant, and a serious pro at the television game.

Oh Mary mother of Jesus was I wrong. This clown turned out to be a complete hack, a man without a clue, and a “director” in name only -- proof positive that some people manage to climb the Hollywood food chain absent any artistic talent whatsoever.  It soon became clear that he was a poseur who had learned all the tricks of putting up a good front in adopting the appropriate lingo and authoritative mannerisms -- appearing to be a real director – but never bothered to figure out how to do the job in a competent, professional manner. Only in Hollywood (or politics, maybe) could such a fool manage to keep working all these years.

 Then again... perhaps my initial judgement was too harsh. It was possible, I mused, that he'd once been a good director, but had lost a step or three over the years and now relied on his name and reputation to eke out a living amid the lower circles of the genre. That so many multi-camera show-runners these days don’t seem to understand the difference between a good and bad director  -- and thus serve as enablers -- made such a scenario plausible, and the truth is, an aging director reduced to working on such low budget crap doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. For a director in that position, working a silly kids show is pretty much the final rung at the bottom of the ladder, below which yawns the bottomless abyss. Maybe the poor bastard was just hanging on by his fingernails and faking it the best he could, trying to salt away a few more paydays before plummeting into that cold, dark void. Which... once I thought of it, reminded me of the face I see in the bathroom mirror every morning.

Perhaps he who lives in a house of glass ought not throw stones.

But in that case, this guy shouldn't be such a pompous, preening dick on set. He really ought to be a little more gracious to the rest of the crew who had to put up with his snippy attitude and sloppy, lazy, reactive style of work. When a juicer on the crew sees something wrong in Take One of a scene -- clumsy dialog, staging, or redundant action -- that the “director” doesn't spot or bother to fix until Take Six or Seven, then something’s wrong.

What finally sealed the deal was learning that he'd showed up two hours before call on our first shoot day (mostly to beat LA’s legendary rush-hour gridlock), but apparently didn't bother to use that time to plan an approach to the day's filming.  Having already spent three days rehearsing with the actors, you'd think he'd come to the set fully prepared to get the work done in an efficient manner, and thus inflict the least pain on all concerned. Instead, this fool must have taken a nice long nap, unless he frittered away two full hours polishing that ginormous diamond embedded in his ear.

With the cast and crew on the clock, he proceeded to burn the entire morning fumbling through take after take after take until lunch, at which point we were two hours behind schedule.  As the minutes ticked away towards the end of the day, he had to rush through the remaining scenes, finally resorting to shooting the rehearsals in a futile attempt to save time.  It didn't work.

Fuck him. The guy’s a hack, and a lousy one at that. If I was as bad at juicing as he was at directing, I’d now be spending my days rummaging through those big blue bins every morning to cash in a few recyclable bottles and cans, then limp back to my cardboard condo for another cold night huddled under the Sixth Street Bridge.  Instead, this clown -- encased in a golden bubble of ego and incompetence -- climbed into his eighty thousand dollar sports car and burned rubber heading for home.

Which tells you a lot about the reality of life here in Hollywood.

But that wasn't the worst of it.  As it turned out, he'd already been hired to "direct" the next two episodes as well, which meant we were in for two more weeks punctuated by his periodic hissy-fits -- because, you see, The Great Man requires a funereal silence on set at all times to fully access his immense talent...

Two more weeks with a clown at the helm.  Nobody on the crew was laughing about that.

*  Being John Malkovich, by Spike Jonze was a good one, and although I’ve yet to see it, everything I’ve read and heard points to the young Behn Zeitlin having walked on water with his first feature “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” 

Note: Previous posts on the subject of directors can be found here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

I tend to go with your call on older and more experienced DP's and directors (especially older DP's who will not find a way to finesse nothing for hours to get more "reel" material), but there's certainly a host of people with the title director who I wouldn't trust to direct parking at the Hollywood Bowl. And like the proverbial "bad penny", they show up again and again.

k4kafka said...

As the saying goes..."That guy couldn't direct ants to a Hershey bar..."

JB Bruno said...

On the indie film side, I have seen too many older DPs be guys who are trying to bring their old comfort zone to new situations, with the basic answer being, "because this is how we did it in the old days." Then, I pray for help from the film gods that, as an older AD and line producer, I am not "that guy" myself.

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry --

I've worked with some great directors, but it never fails to astonish me how many really bad ones are still out there working. And you're right -- they never seem to go away...

Kafka --

True, that -- and you know exactly who this post is about.

JB --

That's the other -- and very sharp -- edge of the sword, isn't it? Sometimes the old guys only know one way -- the old way -- to do things, and can't be budged to try something new. I guess it all depends on what you're trying to do. The tried-and-true methods work just fine in the predictable, formulaic world of multi-camera sit-coms, but they don't always work in cutting-edge cable dramas or indy features.

It's a long time since I worked in the low-budget feature world, but the ideal DP for indy-land should be old enough to know what works and what doesn't with the new technology, but who is still open to trying new approaches in lighting based on the needs of the script.

And I too live in fear of becoming "that guy"...

JR Helton said...

Michael Taylor is one of the best writers I know, much more so than many of the "creative writing" professors I've met over the years who get paid a lot of money to spout their opinions on what is or is not good writing. Here's just one sampling of Taylor's funny, easy style of writing on the film business, the confidence in prose the kind that only comes from writer who knows what the hell he or she is talking about and definitely has something to say. I hope Taylor will collect all of his below the line musings, rants, and observations into a book one day and that someone will be wise enough to publish it as an expose on the realities of the film business, especially, the television industry. Maybe it's because I too once suffered under many an incompetent leader on film and TV sets that I so enjoy his blog posts, but then again, these stories occur in all businesses, though perhaps none more acutely than the rigidly hierarchical one of film. Hang in there Taylor. JR Helton