BY DAVID KRONKE
On the Modern Family soundstage on the Fox lot, Michael Spiller is sitting in the show’s elegant living room, discussing his life directing 21 episodes of the hit sitcom, when two prop masters step up to ask his thoughts on a pair of fliers for a subplot in the current episode. He and the prop guys spend many minutes discussing sundry logistics. After the three men reach a conclusion acceptable to all, Spiller drolly notes, “We’re the only ones who are going to be asking these questions.”
The Right Moves: Michael Spiller directing the award-winning
"Halloween" episode with Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell. Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
The directors on Modern Family do sweat the small stuff, such as what a flier that will be onscreen for no more than four seconds should look like, but, more often than not, they work at a breakneck, guerrilla pace. Even when shooting at multiple, off-lot locations, the show maintains an incredibly short-by-industry-standards eight-hour workday. In its first three seasons, the mockumentary focusing on a closely knit and only slightly dysfunctional extended family, led by gruff patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) and his trophy wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), has single-handedly influenced how sitcoms are shot and won two DGA Awards along with 11 Emmys, including two for outstanding comedy series.
“Even the fucking dog is winning awards on the show,” laughs Fred Savage, the child star turned director, referring to the family dog’s win at the recent Golden Collar Awards. Savage himself was nominated for a DGA Award this year.
Jason Winer, who broke into the industry as an admittedly “manic” comic actor, helmed a dozen of the series’ first-season episodes, including the pilot, which created the blueprint for the show. “We chose Jason [as the series’ producing director] because he just came in with an amazing amount of enthusiasm and energy,” says executive producer Steven Levitan, who created the show with executive producer Christopher Lloyd. “And after having worked on that script for three or four months and being old and tired, I think we just responded to this burst of energy in the room.”
For the pilot, Winer honed the documentary style of the show in which the characters are interviewed on-camera during each episode. But right from the start Winer was pushing the boundaries.
“We improvised, we didn’t just do the scripted interviews. I sat off-camera and asked additional questions,” Winer recalls. “Steve and Chris rolled their eyes at me to a certain extent. I honestly think that they indulged me that process. But having been an actor, I knew that we needed to let these people find, not just their characters, but the tone of the show.”
Since Levitan and Lloyd’s script didn’t include much stage direction, “it was really incumbent upon me to figure out what the show looked like,” continues Winer. He had further challenges: “I knew we were doing the first-ever mockumentary-style show for ABC, a network that was not necessarily comfortable with sitcoms without bright, poppy colors and a laugh track, so I knew that I had to make the network comfortable with what we were going to deliver. So every angle I chose for the pilot was only one I could justify in the real world, if these people were really being followed by cameras. Now that audiences have embraced the show, that logic is no longer being scrutinized.”
Levitan and Lloyd had largely produced multi-camera comedies, where every comic gesture must be seen in a single take, so Winer had to prove his was the right approach.
“We were shooting the very first scene in the kitchen with the kids,” Winer remembers. “I was planning to do it in two [separate] two-camera setups. After the first setup, they started wanting to cut jokes. They said, ‘This isn’t working,’ and wanted to rewrite the scene.
“I said, ‘You’re picking on the jokes that I don’t have cameras on yet,’ ” Winer continues. “ ‘I’m gonna move the cameras, and then you’ll see—I promise it’s gonna work.’ I realized, because of their background, there was a certain impatience on their part to see stuff come to life right away. And right then and there, part of the style of the show was born because I realized I had to show them the whole scene in every setup. And that’s when I started blocking the scenes, moving the actors around, and moving the cameras in such a way to show them the whole scene at once every time.”
Levitan, who has directed three episodes of the series and received a DGA Award nomination for his first-season episode “Hawaii,” admits he can be more than a little protective of his series. “When I’m not directing, I’m fighting the instinct to be very hands-on and try to force myself in respect to the director and go through him. And as a self-proclaimed control freak, that’s difficult,” he confesses. “I am often a much more comfortable driver than I am a passenger. My natural inclination is ‘No, this is the way I had it in my head. We should do it that way.’ ”
But with the show’s success he has become more comfortable deferring to his directors. “I have to balance [my impulses] along with what the director is bringing to it,” says Levitan. “When I have confidence in that director, the more I’m, like, ‘OK, that’s not what I had in mind, but you’ve certainly come through for us in the past; I’m sure you will again.’ ”
Ultimately, what Winer was doing to best realize the material would impact how sitcoms are now shot. Every take on Modern Family is shot by at least two cameras, meaning directors don’t worry about perfect lighting setups, and they assiduously avoid master shots or coverage. They largely trust their cast’s comic instincts, suggesting only minor adjustments in performances. To save on set-construction costs, just a few of the drawers and cabinets in kitchen sets are functional, which cuts down on blocking choices. When shooting on location, which the series often does, directors rarely have a fully controlled environment, so civilians—or, as Levitan calls them, “free extras”—frequently wander into the cameras’ purview.
Winer also discovered the advantage of using long lenses. “Especially when we’re on the set, I want to create foreground-background separation,” he explains. “And you want to do that on a long lens. I like to tell jokes in three-dimension. I like to use the focal length of the lens to be able to shift your attention from something happening deeper or shallower. Not a lot of comedies on television tell jokes in that third dimension.”
This renegade method, the series’ directors agree, invariably results in fresh and inspired comic performances from the cast and a palpable energy in the final product. “No one ever says, ‘Oh, Modern Family is great, but the lighting looked a little crappy,’” notes Levitan. “I will gladly sacrifice a little bit of the beauty of the shot for the freshness of the comic moment. We talk a lot about cameras, about the specs, and what it does for lighting or whatever. I say, ‘Does it make it any funnier?’ A camera that makes it funnier is the one I want.”
Savage agrees. “It’s a new age for TV production. The world of 14-, 15-, 16-hour days is gone, the people who will be successful in the new TV paradigm will be directors who can work lean—and that’s the concept of Modern Family. With the success of the show, it forced everyone to re-examine the way they work. It allows us to work faster and make things leaner.”
At work in the editing bay with his editor, Ryan Case, to perfect an imperfect line reading for a recent episode, Winer reflected on the alchemy of the series. He recalled being a little nervous about shooting a scene in the pilot with a handheld camera in which Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) walk from their adopted baby’s bedroom down a hall to their kitchen in a single take. But Levitan and Lloyd supported his choice.
“In my experience directing pilots, I might’ve been afraid to just deliver that runner to the network because they would nitpick it,” says Winer. “But Steve and Chris protected me. They said, ‘Be confident and comfortable in this material.’ And as a result, I think what you end up getting out of that is real chemistry between the actors onscreen, instead of feeling like it’s manufactured through the editing.”
Winer won the DGA Award for his execution of the pilot, but as season two began, he was busy prepping the feature remake of Arthur. So Spiller, who had directed two episodes in the first season, handled the heavy lifting in season two, doing a dozen shows. (They both did at least six shows in season three.) Spiller had worked in New York on Sex in the City and Levitan had given him one of his first jobs in Los Angeles on Greg the Bunny and knew the series was in good hands.
“Michael is very skilled,” says Levitan. “He brings a very strong command of shots and of capturing sequences, particularly complicated setups, like the ‘Halloween’ episode for which he has won so many awards [including the DGA Award]. That was a big, complicated show with a lot of moving parts and he was able to see it clearly.”
Spiller expends much energy figuring out where his cameras and actors should be in every scene. “I tend to spend a lot of time by myself with the script [on the set], just trying to imagine where people are moving, and how that would work with where I think the cameras should be,” he says. “I draw diagrams and all that, and when there’s a lot of characters, it starts to look like some bizarre football play. It’s particularly hard to imagine 10 people, when you’re standing in a room by yourself, from two different vantage points. But once you get the cameras up, once you get the cast in there and on their feet, a lot of it just seems to fall into place.”
For the “Halloween” episode, Spiller says his biggest challenge was shooting a sequence in which Mitchell arrives at his law office in a rubber Spider-Man costume, only to discover that the memo he received to come to work in costume was a prank and his bosses actually abhor such frivolity. He grabs a suit in his car but is called to a meeting before he can remove his costume, so arrives at the conference room with his business garb over his squeaky Spidey suit. Afterward, he scurries into a bathroom and—well, let’s just say it doesn’t end happily for him.
“Adding to the complexity was the fact that we shoot the show documentary style, so we tend not to do a lot of ‘cinematic’ shots to tell the story,” Spiller notes. So a lot of comic business had to be shot from vantage points the documentary crew might logically have seen, such as a janitor taking Mitchell’s dress shirt, without too much cheating.”
Additionally, that episode’s schedule necessitated that the sequence be shot on the Fox lot, home of the production’s permanent sets. But there was no single location that provided everything for the scene to work, so two separate buildings were used: one of which could only be used after dark, and a bathroom set constructed to Spiller’s specifications. Green-screen effects and digital brushing were employed to make these disparate elements seem part of a single office building. “A lot of work for a couple of minutes of screen time,” he says, “but I think it looks pretty seamless.”
Using two cameras on every take has its pros and cons, Spiller concedes. “Any time you do opposing camera angles, there’s gonna be some compromise in the lighting,” he admits, while praising cinematographer James Bagdonas for his inspired work. “But if the setups take too long, you wind up losing momentum. Momentum is very good for comedy. Not having to do eight setups in a single scene and have it take five hours is very good for comedy. So, yeah, although there’s a little bit of a trade-off, I think it’s worth it because our show looks great and it’s really funny.”
Despite the handheld, documentary look, many shots are actually done on cameras that are locked down—operators bump them to simulate the shaky movement. When handheld cameras are used, Spiller says, the operators tend to improvise.
“They’re always on earpieces, listening to the scene,” Spiller explains. “Generally, we try not to get [the camera] on someone before they speak. The operators know how to capture the specific moments. It feels very alive, very engaging.”
Shooting with two cameras also helps the performances as well, Spiller adds. “Some characters may have only one or two lines in seven pages of dialogue, but they need to be present throughout. So one of the challenges is just finding stuff for people to do, to keep them busy. So I think it really helps the comedy to shoot both sides at once, that way our cast is never saving their performance for their coverage since they are all on camera all the time.”
Back on the living room set between takes, Spiller is in the midst of another ambitious episode entitled “Planes, Trains and Cars.” Four and a half days of the five-day shoot are on location, including Malibu, Agua Dulce, two airports, a train station, and a scene involving a helicopter. “It’s enormous,” he says. “The shooting and scheduling challenges are worth it. It’s great to have an episode that has so many varied locations—each story takes us somewhere different, the beach, the desert, the subway.”
Spiller and Winer credit their 1st ADs, Alisa Statman and Jim Hensz, with helping—literally, on Spiller’s current episode—make the trains run on time. Spiller says they’re invariably correct within 15 minutes.
“Alisa Statman is an organizational wizard,” Winer marvels. “She’s got a very unassuming presence on set, which is unusual for a 1st AD. She’s like a ninja. You never hear her work.”
“On any other conventional show,” explains Statman, “there are a lot of unknown factors, but because of the way we shoot, it’s a matter of mathematics at this point. We’ll spend 15 minutes on blocking, 15 minutes to light. There’s 25 minutes of performance rehearsal and then we shoot the scene in 45 minutes. It’s actually pretty easy to manage.”
Hensz, on the other hand, Winer is amused to note, “has a different sort of style. He’s equally organized, but a little bit more of an energetic presence and character on the set.” Verifying that description, Hensz says, “I have no skills, I just know the people who do know how to do something. My job is part camp counselor, part cheerleader, part disciplinarian, part coach. The director is the captain, and my job is to make sure the boat goes.”
The two ADs work on alternate episodes and schedule the time to shoot each scene, at every location. But there’s no formula in assigning episodes to directors. In most cases, the match between director and episode is purely luck of the draw, Winer says. “The directors are booked into slots well in advance of the scripts being written or stories being conceived.”
Usually it seems to work out for the best. “Because of the random nature of the process, it’s particularly exciting when a special script lands in your lap,” adds Winer. “That was certainly the case when I read the script for ‘Virgin Territory’ [in season three],” which he says features some of his favorite work on the series. In the episode, Phil (Ty Burrell) inadvertently discovers that his teenaged daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) has lost her virginity. Winer was most proud of the scene in which he deftly combined heart with the quirky humor of the series—rare for a sitcom. In the scene, father and daughter speak to one another through a toy store salesperson, conveying in coded toy-centric dialogue their disappointment in and, ultimately, acceptance of one another.
In the end, the timesaving and cost-cutting measures apparently prove absolutely no drag on the series’ quality for the show’s directors. “To me, it’s much more about the creative benefit of moving quickly than it is the financial part,” Winer says. “We’re not doing this to set any records, or prove anything to anybody. We’re doing it because it works for the style of this show, because it keeps everybody fresh. It keeps things fun and moving.”