BY JEANNE MCDOWELL
CASTAWAY: Jack Bender is in charge of Lost on location in Hawaii.
(Credit: Mario Perez)
It's 6:30 in the morning on the island of Oahu, and Jack Bender has already been on the phone three times with Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof back in Los Angeles. Shooting on the new season of ABC's spooky island drama is scheduled to begin in four days, and Bender, who's both executive producer and director, has just found out that roads will be closed to traffic this week to accommodate the opening of school. Stuntmen are being flown in for a big action scene, and now Bender has to rethink locations, which means script and budget changes.
If he were a guest director, Bender probably wouldn't be involved in many of the budgetary issues under discussion. But as executive producer/director of one of the most creatively ambitious hours in television, he's in charge of the entire Lost production in Hawaii and the guy at the center of the storm. "I'm responsible for guiding and executing the vision for the show and keeping it creatively on track," he says. That means hiring and overseeing guest directors, planning locations and dealing with unexpected snafus—like closed roads—as well as working closely with Lindelof and executive producer Carlton Cuse, who generate the scripts out of L.A.
CAPITOL HILL: Thomas Schlamme (right) directs the late John
Spencer on The West Wing. (Credit: Warner Bros)
Fifteen years ago, the job of producer/director barely existed in television. But today, a growing cadre of producer/directors like Bender are helming some of TV's biggest hits, from Lost, "24", Cold Case and Heroes to the dark comedy Desperate Housewives and even the more traditional sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
"Not too long ago a producer/director was seen as a luxury and frequently for cost reasons a studio wouldn't support it," notes Gary Newman, chairman 20th Century Fox Television. "But we're at a point where we're investing so much in these series anyway, that these additional costs, while adding to our financial risk, ultimately protect what has become a bigger bet than ever before."
Sophisticated shows like The Sopranos and "24" have opened the floodgates to series with high production values—and yet they have to be brought in on budget. That's the role of the director—starting with the producer/director. Studios derive a sense of comfort having a producer/director on a series to maintain visual consistency, and directors are gladly taking on the job and title for more control, credit and, well, money.
Thomas Schlamme is one of the pioneers of the modern version of the producer/director credit in his partnership with creator Aaron Sorkin on series like Sports Night and West Wing. He says, "pilots are huge, and studios want to shoot the subsequent episodes in a way that looks like the pilot but for less money and in less time. Producer/directors can help do that."
Cold Case producer/director Roxann Dawson agrees: "A pilot can be phenomenal and define the language of the series, but you have to find directors to interpret that language. TV is being pushed to a level that has never been seen before. Ultimately the director has become more important in TV because audiences are more visual. Shows need someone to maintain the visual language of a series."
It also makes sense from the studio perspective. "In TV production the writer-show runner is typically off in either the writers' room or in postproduction," notes Fox's Newman. "It's helpful to have someone who is on the set, who's sort of your quality-control person that can give you continuity from episode to episode. From the studio standpoint it really is that quality control."
Indeed, a good director understands the overall arc of the individual episode, how to shoot it, how to work with actors to bring out performances—and how to bring it in on budget. Likewise, a good producer/director in television understands storytelling over an entire season, how to work with directors to keep characters consistent and how each episode fits into the one before and the next one—and how to bring them all in on budget.
On a recent episode of Heroes, producer/director Allan Arkush advised guest director Jeannot Szwarc on the techniques used by the show to create each cast member's signature power. "Having directed earlier episodes, I was able to give him the shorthand for how to do certain things that are specific to our show, like how to show someone with powers, how we make their eyes look and how we jump back and forth in time and space," he says.
LIVING LARGE: Associate director David Charles is the problem solver.
Segment director Claudia Frank watches a bank of 40 monitors.
Szwarc concurred, sharing his experience as a guest director working with Arkush, "Allan was very helpful in explaining things that changed from last year. Like how they had developed the new thing with the eyes. I think that because they are directors, producer/ directors know the [guest] director's point of view. In terms of the story arc, they know where it's headed, it's very helpful. Most of the time, you're not directing the first or last episode of the season. You just get there in the middle and so they help give context to your episode." Plus, he added, "Allan was delightful and it was a very friendly, relaxed atmosphere to work in."
Similarly, on Cold Case, flashbacks are a key element and really have to push the envelope, explains Dawson. To achieve this, guest directors make myriad creative choices, from the film and lens they choose to how the film is processed. But while Dawson says she tries to give directors the freedom to put their own imprint on an episode, she's recognizes that her job is to ensure that ultimately the episode has "the look" that brands the series.
This kind of authority goes with the territory of being producer/director, which generally includes control over all aspects of production that end up onscreen. A big part of the job entails hiring and working closely with guest directors, which requires a delicate balance between giving a freelance director the creative freedom to realize his or her vision while still exercising a producer's control to ensure you get what's needed. "Part of my job is to help guest directors and make them aware of the pitfalls," adds David Grossman, executive producer/director of Desperate Housewives.
That doesn't preclude being the resident hard-ass, when necessary. "Every guest director wants to hit a home run, and I do whatever I can to support that and give them their wings," says Lost's Bender. "But while I can say I've been there and really understand, I also have to speak up when something's not right in a scene. Healthy disagreement is part of the creative process. But at the end of the day, I get to make the call as executive producer."
Many producer/directors say that even when they were only directing they tended to think like producers anyway. "If you're a good director you also know how to creatively produce, whether you're given the autonomy to do that or not," observes Schlamme. "Directors are problem solvers and producing is an extreme form of problem solving."
For instance, filming in Hawaii—far from the TV-friendly environment of Los Angeles—often tests Bender's mettle as an executive producer. For an upcoming episode, he had to figure out whether it was smarter to film an operating room sequence in a real hospital in Oahu or import costly equipment and props from L.A. In the end, he decided to shoot in a local hospital.
The specifics of being a producer/director vary from show to show. Typically, the job entails directing a few episodes each season and hiring the guest directors. For instance, Bender will direct five episodes of Lost this season, executive producer/director Steven Williams will direct another five, and 13 episodes will be done by guest directors. On Desperate Housewives, executive producer/directors Grossman and Larry Shaw directed eight episodes each last season at the request of creator Marc Cherry, who's still a hands-on show runner, even in the series' fifth season. "He doesn't have to worry because he knows we understand the show," says Grossman.
It is this dual role of hiring guest directors and directing episodes that has been seen as controversial by some freelance episodic directors. "In the past, each one-hour single-camera show would have 12-15, or more, freelance directing assignments, and traditionally no single director would have more than a few episodes," says DGA Associate National Executive Director Warren Adler. "With the increase in the number of producer/directors, some freelance directors have been concerned that there are fewer assignments available on some series than there might have been than in the past. Fortunately, television series production is booming thanks to the increase in cable dramas, so that overall there are more opportunities available for directors."
The tradition of producer/directors in multi-camera half-hour sitcoms is a different story. "Because of the way that multi-camera half-hour sitcoms are scheduled," adds Adler, "it has been possible for directors to take on a continuing role throughout a series' entire season, and exercise more authority without always having the title of 'producer.' And since the beginning of television, there have been sitcom producer/directors who have directed and produced the majority of episodes in a series." For example, iconic sitcom directors like James Burrows directed every episode of the sitcom Will & Grace over the course of eight years and John Rich handled much of the directing chores on All in the Family for the first four seasons of the series.
JUST FOR LAUGHS: Pamela Fryman directs Josh Radnor on
How I Met Your Mother.
THE HANDYMAN: David Grossman helps acclamate guest directos on
Desperate Housewives. (Credit: Monty Brinton/CBC/Isabella Vosmikova)
Pamela Fryman, who directed almost every episode of Just Shoot Me, is carrying on that tradition by directing all 23 episodes of How I Met Your Mother this season as the show's producer/director. It's a daunting task with 60 scenes in the pilot and an average of 40 scenes in each episode, and Fryman, who is executive producer/director, will spend most of her time on the set rather than in the production office. Even so, the veteran sitcom director says that while she was flattered to get the job of executive producer/director—and welcomed the authority—it's the level of involvement in all aspects of the show that appealed to her most. "I have my nose in everything," says Fryman, who said she gets to try things she's never done—like shooting with a single camera and going out on locations—without asking anyone for permission.
But whether multi-camera or single camera, sometimes the dual roles can collide. It's not uncommon for a producer/director in single camera to be prepping for one episode and at the same time working on postproduction on another. "You're a little schizophrenic," admits Dawson. "When you're directing, your job is to create the visual language for each episode. On the other hand, as producer you have to make sure the director—whether it's you or someone else—fits it in an eight-day schedule and makes it all happen. In that way I always feel under pressure."
In prepping for Cold Case's 100th episode, which will be a 1938 period piece, Dawson the director wants to hire a big band with 12 musicians, but Dawson the producer knows she can't afford more than 10. "I want it to look great but I don't want to blow the budget out of whack over two saxophones," she laughs. "I'm holding off and if I can find room in the budget later on, we'll put them back in."
Given these constant demands and decisions, it's not unprecedented for a series to have two producer/directors or more on the payroll. On Heroes, which requires an inordinate amount of location scouting to keep production in L.A., Arkush and producer/director Greg Beeman switch off duties. One of them focuses on the episode in production, while the other is out hunting for locations. "We have to work really hard to keep the quality of the style up," says Arkush. For this season's episodes they found a farm in Ventura County to double as rural 17th-century Japan (with a nod to Akira Kurosawa), a Pasadena apartment house to replicate a building in the Ukraine, and Soledad Canyon to serve as the U.S.-Mexican border.
Whatever the division of labor, at the end of the day, advocates say the producer/director job fosters higher quality episodes, and saves money, which is what studios and networks want most. As the consistent and often archival memory on a show, a producer/director can avoid duplication by informing guest directors what's been done before. On "24", which was one of TV's first series to break the episodic mold and venture into real time, producer/director Jon Cassar sees his role as providing a consistency that calms the cast. "Writing and acting is a huge part of our success," says Cassar, who oversees the nitty-gritty of daily production, including scouting locations, casting, costume design and pretty much everything on camera. "Even Kiefer [Sutherland] says he's more comfortable seeing the same faces and dealing with the same people. We're totally invested in the show and can virtually pull back and remember notes and what we did in season two or any season. This is reassuring for an actor."
Cassar, who joined "24" during the second season of its six-year run, says guest directors on the set also feel like they have an instant ally. "I've done 1,200 hours of TV and many shows where I was a guest director for one episode. You don't know anybody, and absolutely no one is on your side. Now suddenly there's somebody here that can connect with you at your level because in TV, producers and writers don't understand the problems of directors." His biggest challenge? "Jack Bauer is always racing the clock and so is Jon Cassar," he jokes. "We just don't have enough time to do everything we want to do."
As difficult as the job may be, by all indications, it's here to stay. As the pressures of television intensify, as cable and networks compete with new digital platforms for eyeballs, as production costs escalate and advertising dollars shrink, producer/directors are now recognized as important members of a production team which can keep quality up and costs down. Maintaining the visual look and style of a show—and the unyielding bottom line—has never been more important.
"What we've learned about TV production over the course of the last decade is that the hits are more valuable than ever, and the shows that are in the middle are really not the same good piece of business they used to be," notes Fox's Newman. "So we have to do whatever we can to elevate a show into the upper echelon of programming."
And that increasingly includes utilizing the talent and expertise of producer/directors. While the studios have found a way to achieve consistency in their hit series, for directors the work is a gratifying challenge.
"I never get bored," says Cassar. "There hasn't been a single moment when I've thought to myself that I'm creatively finished and can't give and get more out of this show. I haven't found a feature film yet I'm ready to give this all up for."