As an active episodic TV director going from show to show, Millicent Shelton has a sometimes crazy schedule. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Margy Rochlin
KEEPING HER COOL: Shelton tries to find comedy in the chaos and defuse tension with laughter.
Millicent Shelton found herself walking onto the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank and wondering for a second, “Where am I again?” For Shelton, this sort of momentary geographic disconnect means that business is booming. Over the past seven years, Shelton has directed a far-flung variety of episodic TV shows, from her Emmy-nominated installment of NBC’s 30 Rock to TNT’s now-defunct rumination on the male midlife crisis, Men of a Certain Age, to 90210, the CW’s glossy update of the classic Aaron Spelling teen soap.
“I love being a guest director. I love it,” Shelton says sitting in the dining room of her spacious townhouse seizing a quiet moment for dinner while her 4-year-old twins are asleep upstairs. “I have director’s [attention deficit disorder],” says Shelton who possesses the perfect attributes for someone whose occupation involves only occasionally returning to the same set twice: an upbeat outlook, bottomless reserves of energy, a restless mind, and a love of prepping. “I get bored if I have to do the same thing over and over again. I love jumping around to different shows and different styles of shooting.”
But back in 2005, Shelton—whose earliest credits include writing and directing music videos for chart-toppers such as Salt-N-Pepa, R. Kelly, and Aaliyah—didn’t immediately grasp the rich possibilities of what a helmer-for-hire could contribute to an established, long-running television series. “In music videos it was all about being original, it was all about me, my vision,” says Shelton. “When I started doing television I thought my job was to disappear. I thought it was about doing their show the way they’d always done it. Then I learned that’s not what they want. They want me to stay within the box of their show but to give it the Millicent twist.”
What Shelton quickly found was that by throwing herself into full-bore research mode—meticulously watching as many previous episodes as she could and poring over old scripts—when she hit the set she could easily discern when to shoot a scene in the pre- ordained style of the show and where she could insert a creative flourish. Whenever possible, Shelton worked with actors who might have gone on autopilot to help bring nuances to a performance. Often without anyone noticing, she’d slip in what she considers her signature—a cinematic wide shot such as the one featured in an episode of Californication. “It was sort of an homage to Beverly Hills Cop,” says Shelton, referring to a fleeting bit of footage in an exchange at a firing range between David Duchovny’s dissipated Hollywood screenwriter character and a bonkers rap magnate.
It was on her second episodic gig ever—The Bernie Mac Show—when it dawned on Shelton that she also had the right upbringing for someone who would often find herself face to face with the behavioral unpredictability of talent. From Day One until the Martini Shot, Mac, the sitcom’s creator and star, found reasons to carp at Shelton. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. He hates me.’ But I got through it. On the last day, Bernie took me aside and said, ‘You have thick skin. I like you.’ It was a test,” says Shelton. She passed, crediting both her internal grit and tendency to see humor in pandemonium, something she learned from being the youngest of four children in her St. Louis household. “I got picked on a lot. I can deal with an actor who’s having a bad day, missing their kids, being in a bad mood. It isn’t personal. I try to defuse things with laughter. I find comedy in a lot of chaos. Things are going crazy and everybody else is freaking out, and I’m like, ‘This is kind of funny.’ ”
The way Shelton tells the story of how she ended up in show business definitely has its elements of slapstick. After getting her undergraduate degree in English from Princeton and at occupational loose ends, Shelton’s older sister urged her to send a resume to her friend David Lee’s brother, Spike. The next thing she knew, Shelton was the most overly educated production assistant in the wardrobe department of Lee’s 1989 race relations drama, Do the Right Thing. When that wrapped, she landed a spot in wardrobe at The Cosby Show. In the hopes of using a short film she was making to get into film school, she solicited her blunt-speaking boss as a test audience of one. “[Bill Cosby] gave me some really harsh criticism,” says Shelton with a weak smile, “which I needed to hear, but I recut it and submitted it to Tisch [School of the Arts at NYU] and I got in.”
Shelton working with Virginia Madsen on the cable movie Hornet's Nest.
No one can say it has always been easy. After her 1998 hip-hop road trip feature debut, Ride, which she wrote and directed, performed weakly at the box office, Shelton found it a struggle to get work. But instead of complaining she went back to the drawing board and shadowed veteran director and Guild first vice president Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue, Sons of Anarchy) for three years. “A lot of people—black, white, and other, men and women—don’t succeed because they give up. I didn’t give up,” says Shelton, a member of the DGA’s African American Steering Committee, which, in addition to tributes and educational events, actively explores ways to assist the Guild in improving employment opportunities for members of color. “Opening your show up to different vantage points actually can be a really good thing,” says Shelton, who when confronted by doubters uses herself as a case in point. “I’m an African-American female. You wouldn’t think I’d do so well on a show called Men of a Certain Age. You wouldn’t think that would be a match. But it was a great match.”
Over the past several months, Shelton has directed the pilot episode from MTV’s Awkward and a TV movie of best-selling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell’s Hornet’s Nest for TNT. In 12 hours or so, she’ll be directing an episode of Harry’s Law. But it’s 8 p.m. now and she still has prep work to attend to.
Suddenly, a loud thumping noise can be heard as Shelton’s husband sprints up the stairs: one of her twins is out of bed and apparently practicing Gymboree moves. Meanwhile, Wookie, her fluffy white Shih Tzu, begins, for reasons unknown, excitedly racing around in circles. “You should see it here at breakfast,” jokes Shelton, who makes mornings at the Sheltons’ sound like a night at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“It’s a juggling act. But I love my kids and I love what I do,” says Shelton who’d like to get 10 minutes or so with some other female directors with young kids and swap tips on time-management and motherhood. “Everyone always asks me, ‘How do you do it?’” she laughs. “And I always say, ‘I drink a lot of espresso and I don’t sleep much.’”