BY BETHANY ROONEY
GOOD VIBRATIONS: When Rooney first broke in, she thought she had to
yell a lot, but over the years has learned that a happy set is a productive set.
I wasn't allowed to watch much TV growing up. This was 1960s Ohio and my mom thought I should go outside and play, not sit inside watching a box. I was, however, allowed to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. On one particular Sunday night in 1964, The Beatles were scheduled to make their first appearance in America. I was so excited. But there was a little glitch. Sister Rose Elizabeth announced to my second-grade class that if we watched it, we'd probably go to hell because it would be a sin (though thankfully, not a mortal one) to watch them sing "All My Loving." What was I to do? After a stern lecture on the playground from my friend Nina ("Are you crazy? You can go to confession, but don't miss The Beatles!"), I defied the threat of hellfire and watched the show, along with most of the country. And not only did I become a lifelong Beatles fan, but I found the path to my career. I thought, wow, I want to do this thing. I want to make shows that everybody watches. And I want to do it in the same way The Beatles did: with a smile.
It was clear by fourth grade, when I'd picked up the nickname "Little Miss Know-It-All," that I had a strong point of view and could tell people what to do. A natural director, even then. But when I grew up and came out to Hollywood, I discovered that not many people thought it was a good idea for a young woman to direct. That was a new and untried concept, utterly unwelcomed. Bruce Paltrow bucked the trend and gave me my shot, when I was 28, on his show St. Elsewhere. And I am forever grateful.
So now, I was a director. But I thought I had to be like the other directors I saw: older white men who yelled a lot. I tried the best I could to fit that paradigm (at least the yelling part) because I desperately wanted to be a good director. But it didn't work. It just wasn't me. I had to be authentic. I had to direct from the heart. And my heart was most definitely a glass-half-full Pollyanna type. Like her, I wanted to look for the "glad" in everything and everybody.
Most people today use the term as a dis. A Pollyanna is somebody too naive and falsely optimistic to grasp the gritty subtext of life. But we Pollyannas understand a basic thing about humanity: Everybody needs to feel important. So a Pollyanna director who makes her cast and crew feel loved and appreciated is way ahead of the game. And you can be a Pollyanna Dude too—it doesn't mean you're not strong and decisive; it just means you have good manners.
I caught on to this method of directing on my first job in 1987 as a freelancer on The Slap Maxwell Story. It was a half-hour single camera comedy produced by Jay Tarses and starring Dabney Coleman. Coleman had little patience for indecisive or dictatorial directors and could be extremely intimidating. He wanted to come in, do good work as quickly as possible, and get back to the tennis courts. I was terrified. But I ended up directing eight episodes that season, mostly because he was secretly an old-fashioned gentleman, and I was a newbie with a happy heart and a strict work ethic. I was prepared, we got through the day efficiently, and there were hugs all around.
And I discovered that it's important to acknowledge the crew too. A freelancer coming on to a new show has to make friends quickly, figure out who really has the power, and enlist everyone's support so that the shoot goes well. That was my lesson in 1989 on The Wonder Years, when it turned out that the person who had the most unacknowledged power was the key grip, by virtue of being a kind of father figure to Fred Savage and the leader on the crew. Once I made friends with Skip, it went great. He taught me to be friends with everyone, because a happy set is a productive set.
So here I am, 20 years and almost 200 episodes later, and I'm still a big believer in the Pollyanna method of directing. Herewith, some things I've learned that are helpful:
1. Say please and thank you.
A director asks for a million things a day. People are more willing to give it to you when you ask nicely.
2. "In my ideal world…"
When asked what you prefer (practical location or set? Technocrane or jib arm? A real casting session or an online one?) you might say, "Well, in my ideal world … (state your true preference)." And you know what? Those beautiful producers, writers, and crew members will try to give it to you.
3. Say yes before you say no.
Here are some versions: "Yes, that's great, but…" Or, "Yes, we did discuss it that way, but things have evolved a little." Or "Yes, you did terrific work, but here's the direction we're going in now."
4. Learn the names of everybody on the crew.
It's only half the work you think it is. It's just the first names, and if you need to be specific, you can ask for "Joe Props" or "Frank Greens."
5. Be positive.
When somebody asks, "How's it going?" you say, "Great!" It's not a bad thing to be a cheerleader. Everyone wants to feel good about the day, and if you're happy, everyone's spirits are lifted.
6. Remember, you're getting to do what you love to do. Enjoy it!
You could be unemployed. We all have been, at one time or another.
7. Encourage the contributions of everybody involved.
You know the old joke about how even the Honey Wagon driver is there to make movies? He may have some good ideas, just like the dolly grip or the script supervisor or anyone else on the crew. (And if it's not a good idea, you can say no. See No. 3.)
8. Love your actors.
They're brave, they're deep, and they're fragile. At the very least, they deserve respect. Even better, give them lots of loving. They need it.
This season on both Private Practice and Brothers & Sisters, the story lines included characters' deaths that taxed the emotional reserve of the actors and felt a bit depressing to the crew. I can't say I brought out the pompoms, but I did bring in an ice cream truck. They all seemed to enjoy it, and I didn't hear anyone call me a Pollyanna.
So, despite Sister Rose Elizabeth's predictions of a spiritual disaster, I'm still smiling, still loving what I do, still a bit of a Miss Know-It-All. Thanks to The Beatles and Pollyanna, I stayed true to myself—and you know that can't be bad.
Bethany Rooney is the author (with Mary Lou Belli) of Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing, which will be published in August.