BY STEVE POND
Photographed by Scott Council
Michael Jackson's first moonwalk. Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Prince performing "Purple Rain" in a downpour at the Super Bowl halftime show. Bruce Springsteen singing "The Rising" in front of a gospel choir at the concert to celebrate Barack Obama's inauguration. Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing with Twyla Tharp. Meryl Streep winning her first Oscar in 29 years.
These are some of the iconic moments of the last few decades in popular culture, and we know them through the images chosen by Don Mischer. A veteran director and producer of live, entertainment and event television, Mischer has in his more than 35-year career been responsible for everything from the Kennedy Center Honors to the Democratic National Convention to Olympic opening ceremonies, from specials with Yo-Yo Ma and Shirley MacLaine to ones with Beyonce, Bono and Britney Spears. In addition to winning 15 Emmys, two NAACP Image Awards, a Peabody and the Producers Guild's 2012 Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television; he holds the DGA Awards record for wins with 10, and has been nominated 16 times.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, whose detour into television derailed his Ph.D. plans, Mischer has been immersed in event television for most of his career; and although hes earned a reputation as one of the classiest guys in the field, hes demanding enough to have wrapped two of the events listed above (Motown 25 featuring Jacksons moonwalk and the Olympics ceremony that included Ali) convinced that the shows had been disasters.
We spoke at Mischer's Beverly Hills office as he was deep in preparations for the Academy's Governors Awards, which he and his company co-produced, as well as the 85th Oscars ceremony, which he is directing after two years of both directing and co-producing the show.
STEVE POND: Youre about to direct your third Academy Awards. What are the particular challenges of that show?
DON MISCHER: There's something about the Oscars thats in a class by itself. It requires more effort and more focus. There's a lot of anticipation and a lot of expectations, and its harder to deliver on some of that stuff in the environment in which we now find ourselves. Directing it always feels like a great responsibility. You're sitting there with a live event, making choices that affect how people will interpret the show. If you're on the wrong shot at the wrong time, it works against you. And little things happen.
Q: What kind of little things?
A: The first year I directed the Oscars in 2011, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin came out in white jackets from opposite sides of the stage. I was watching them come together, and there was a great expression on Penelope Cruz's face [in the audience]. So I went to a shot of Penelope, and then cut back to them as they came down to present the award. Well, Javier and Josh embraced and kissed each other when I cut to Penelope. That night I read that I had obviously cut away from them embracing because I didnt want that to be on television. Of course I had no idea that was happening. Had I known that they were going to kiss, believe me, we would have seen the kiss.
Q: You came to the Oscars after three directors had put a strong stamp on the show over the previous four decades. Marty Pasetta did it for 18 years, Jeff Margolis for eight, Louis J. Horvitz for 12. Did you have ways in which you wanted to put your stamp on it?
A: Yes. But the first thing I did was go back and look at every Oscar show since the first broadcast in 1953. I watched every one of them to see what worked and what didn't. We all want a show that has, well, emotional moments, that has surprises. I was hoping for great movies, unpredictable winners and heartfelt acceptance speeches; things the director has absolutely no control over. All you can do is be prepared to cover it if it happens, because those times are more chaotic, but often much more energetic and real.
Q: Can you prepare for the unexpected?
A: In my script, I'll note options of who to cut to if somebody wins. And during the speeches, I'm always watching people connected with the person receiving the Oscar. We'll have eight or nine cameras looking for the right reactions, and if the winner mentions somebody, hopefully you'll have a camera there. But because it's live television, you have to do this in a split second. You're looking for people who seem really touched or moved by the speech, and you have a split second to say, 'I think that's genuine, I think it will last'. Because when you say, 'Go to camera 14,' you don't know whats going to happen. I took a shot of the Coen brothers once: They were completely focused on the stage, but the instant I took the shot, one of them started looking at his watch. And one of the reviews the next morning said, 'You could tell from that shot how bored everybody in the audience was.' Directing a show like the Oscars is kind of like playing Russian roulette with two bullets in the chamber. But, you know, its wonderful when it works.
Directing Mikhail Baryshnikov for Baryshnikov by Tharp (1985) on PBS (Photo: Courtesy Don Mischer).
Q: The first two times you did the Oscars, you produced and directed the show. There's no reason you couldn't have hired somebody else to direct; after all, you were busy enough already.
A: That's true, but I love directing. When television came to San Antonio, which is where I was born and where most of my family still lives, I was 7 or 8 years old. This was in the late 40s, and I was swept off my feet by this new medium. The first week that television was being broadcast in San Antonio, I remember my father taking me to a gym downtown. Around the periphery of the basketball court were television sets, turned so that the people sitting in the stands could see them. And in the center of the basketball floor they had performers and cameras. They were shooting a live broadcast of musical acts and country bands. I became infatuated with it.
Q: Infatuated to the point where you wanted to work in television?
A: In junior high school I had fantasies of being a television cameraman. I would dream that someday maybe I would be able to run camera on a show that would be broadcast nationally. When I was 13, my father gave me an 8 mm Bell & Howell camera, and I started making little films with that. It was something that I was just fascinated with, to the point where when I went to football games or parades or that kind of stuff, I wanted to find where the television cameras were and watch what they were doing.
Q: At that point, did you have any conception of what the director did?
A: No, I dont think so. Before I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to get involved, I don't know whether I had much knowledge of what a director did. Ultimately, at the University of Texas in Austin, I majored in sociology, with a minor in political science. I got a B.A., and then I got a masters degree in sociology and was on my way to getting a Ph.D. I had always had this interest in television, but I never really said to myself, 'Maybe this is a career move you could make.' But I had a friend, Bob Squier, who worked at a public television station at the University of Texas, Channel 9, and he informed me about the Ford Foundation giving grants to get some people from academia interested in television. I applied for one of those grants and got it. It was a substantial amount of money; like, $2,600 for the year [laughs], or something like that.
Mischer (center) rehearses the Kennedy Center Honors (1982) with co-creators Nick Vanoff and George Steven Jr. (Photo: Don Mischer).
Q: When was this?
A: This was 1962. And the grant stipulated that we got to do everything. So I got to paint scenery, I pulled cable for the cameras, hung lights, ran tape machines, all in the course of a year. It was the perfect place to really learn the medium. I was ADing by the time I got to the end of the year, and I was offered a job to stay there. And it was also a time I kind of look at as televisions coming-of-age in America. There was a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That weekend, television, for the first time I think, helped us as a nation share our grief. And it was tumultuous on that day. Kennedy was shot at like 12:32 p.m. in Dallas, and by 5 o'clock that afternoon there were people converging on Austin, Texas, because Lyndon Johnson was now the president. And because I had studied political science, I got assigned to some of the news teams, and I was helping these people create stories. That just solidified it for me that this is a medium that had tremendous power; although it was music and entertainment that I really loved the most.
Q: It was only two or three months later when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a moment when music on television really impacted the entire nation.
A: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I remember watching that, and I remember the excitement. It was a time of big thinking in television, and experimentation, and pushing the envelope.
Q: What part did you play in that?
A: By that point I was directing at this PBS station. We had a Studio A and a Studio B, and we would do a show from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. in Studio B, and then we'd go to Studio A and do one from 8:00 to 8:30 p.m. We'd then come back over and do another one. We might then show a half-hour film, and we'd go back and forth. There was a lot of really bad television done at this place, but it was a great learning opportunity. I mean, we would take the University of Texas Opera Company and shoot Tosca with two cameras.
Q: What did you learn that you still use?
A: Oh, every time we did a show we would learn something. For one thing, you appreciated what moving a camera could do for you visually. The gear was not terribly dependable, and I remember shooting half-hour shows in which I would lose a camera and have to shoot the whole show on just one camera. You might have someone on the keyboard playing a piece of music, and when you have one camera with no zoom lens, you learn you can move in, shoot down the line, ped the camera down and shoot a close-up down the keyboard, pull back to a medium shot, then dolly around to the other side of the keyboard. You take those things with you wherever you go.
Q: At this point, were you thinking about getting out of Texas?
A: I was just really happy where I was. And then my mentor Bob Squier moved to the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, and he said, 'Would you like to come here and work for me?' So I did. That's where I first met George Stevens, Jr., and I did soft propaganda pieces on the United States. Then I started to work with a filmmaker named Charlie Guggenheim, who did political campaigns and documentaries. He took me on as a filmmaker, and I kind of got sucked into the political thing. I was in Chicago in '68 at the Democratic National Convention working for Hubert Humphrey, and ended up directing some of Humphrey's town-hall meetings, which ran live to the nation. That was the first time I had ever directed anything that was a nationwide live broadcast. And in doing the political material, I met a man named Al Perlmutter, who was New York-based, and worked in news. Later, Al started a show in New York for PBS called The Great American Dream Machine; it was a magazine show, and it was really cool and kind of edgy. A lot of interesting people worked on this show: Sheila Nevins was a producer, Barbara Gordon, who wrote the book I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can was one of the producers, Bob Shanks who later ran ABC and wrote the book Cool Fire was one of the producers. It was cancelled after two years because political pressure was put on PBS, but it brought me to New York.
WHO'S THE BOSS: (above) Mischer has some tips for Bruce Springsteen before Super Bowl XLIII (below) Mischer working with his team during the 64th Annual Emmy Awards in 2012. (Photos: Courtesy Don Mischer and Frank Michelotta/PicutreGroup)
Q: You directed for PBS and for late-night television for a while; how'd you get into primetime and live event TV?
A: After doing two or three years of late-night television, I got two great phone calls in one week. One was from Roone Arledge, who was like a god in television at the time. He said, 'I've got a new show coming up with Howard Cosell. I'm hearing good things about you, can you come in and have a meeting with me about directing this?' Then I ended up getting an offer to do Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which was 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night, live from New York. Really high profile. They guaranteed me 18 shows, at $3,000 a show, which was big money. Then I got a call from a guy named Lorne Michaels who said, I'm starting a show called Saturday Night, its late-night, I'll guarantee you eight shows. And I think it paid, like, $1,100 per show. So I chose Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, and I regretted that decision for a long, long time. Lorne never ceases to remind me of that when I speak with him.
Q: The Cosell show was cancelled after 18 episodes, but it must have taught you a few things, apart from don't underestimate Lorne Michaels
A: Oh, I learned a tremendous amount working for Roone. I learned that with live television, you have to be ready for any unforeseen circumstance. And I found that the best way to be able to do that was to prepare, have the game plan, know what you want to do; and if you find yourself in a situation where the artist walks the wrong way or a light falls down or you lose a camera, you're better prepared to wing it. The Cosell show was a really good example of that. We had to go on the air at 8 and get off the air at 9, on the second. No leeway. And I remember one day, after we had the dress rehearsal, as I was scrambling to try and smooth it out as much as possible, Roone was reading the newspaper and he said, 'Hey, Lionel Hamptons in town'. It was five minutes to 7 o'clock, and we were going on the air at 8. And within an hour and five minutes, Roone contacted Lionel Hampton, booked him and got the vibes and the other instruments over to the stage. Lionel walked onto my stage at four minutes to 8 o'clock, did a three-and-a-half minute soundcheck, and then I said, 'Stop everything, we're going on the air in 20 seconds.' So we went on the air with Lionel Hampton playing something. I didn't have any idea what the song was or how long it was, and yet we had to bring that show off the air on the second. And when you go through that week after week after week, you learn to roll with the punches.
Q: As a director, do you find it more thrilling to do it live like that?
A: I don't know what it is about doing it live. There are people who call us stress junkies, because it is stressful. I do think that kind of stress, honestly, can become addictive. There's nothing like that feeling when you're counting down to the opening of the Olympic ceremonies. Everybody's talking all the time, and then 20 seconds before you go on the air, it just gets eerily quiet. So now you're down to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6; and in the case of the Olympics, you know that 80 percent of the planet will see what you're doing. There's no feeling like that. And you hope that every time you can ring the bell, that the results at least equal your expectations, and if you're really lucky, exceed your expectations.
Q: If a show doesn't meet your expectations, are you able to shake it off?
A: No. It's really hard for me. I'm kind of a glass half-empty person, and I tend to focus on what didnt work. Going back to the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, we had Jessye Norman close the show with a pyro display in sync with her performance of a song we'd composed called "Faster, Higher, Stronger," which is the Olympic motto. But something happened with the Atlanta Police Department, and as she started to sing the song, they let people into the fallout area of the pyro. And as a result, every time the script called for this magnificent, unprecedented display of pyro in sync with this majestic woman singing this fabulous song, we couldn't do it. And it just deflated me. When the show was over and I was walking across the field, my 6-year-old son Charlie came running up to me so happy, and he grabbed my hand and said, 'Daddy, whats wrong?' I couldn't step back and look at all the things that worked well. I mean, I later won an Emmy for directing that show, and it got great reviews and all that. But at that moment, I was just mad at myself.
Q: Didn't you have another temper moment at the democratic convention in 2004?
A: Oh, yes. I was up there on the dais overlooking everything, and I had a communications box in front of me. And I knew that CNN and that everybody else was able to hear me when I pressed the pool button on my box. So I would press that button and say, 'John Kerry's 45 seconds away from entering' or 'Obama coming out in 20 seconds from stage right.' Then there's my private line, PL. What I didn't know was that CNN somehow got on my private line. Every time I hit the pool button I was very proper, but when I hit my private line there were no holds barred. So Kerry finished, and we cued the balloons and nothing happened. We'd used a local balloon vendor who did not have experience with anything that large, and it didn't work. So I cut loose, and I didn't know it but I was being broadcast on CNN. My stage manager, Garry Hood, said, 'Don, get off your PL immediately!' It didn't take me more than 30 seconds to realize what had happened, and I was so embarrassed and humiliated I snuck out of the arena, went back to the hotel and took the first flight back. I thought that I had a reputation of being a classy kind of guy and doing things right, and I thought, I will never live this down. But I was taking my kids to school one morning and I pulled up at an intersection and Jay Leno was next to me, and he said, 'I'm proud of you, man, I didnt know you had it in you!'
Q: Who was most influential for you when you began directing live TV?
A: Well, when I first came to Los Angeles, I called up Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith and asked if I could watch them work. They let me, and that's when I began to understand that to be a good director, you need a team with you that shares your vision and understands your commitment and can help you accomplish those goals. So when it came down to ADs and stage managers and camera operators and lighting people, I began to really understand that these key positions make all the difference in the world to a director. When I watched a master like Dwight, I understood that one thing that really worked for him was the team that he had. When you're working in public television or peripheral television, you have no control over your team. You may be able to bring in a camera operator or two, or on occasion a lighting director, but you can't put the whole team together. And it made me realize how much that difference made, because they were really creating wonderfully artistic things. And so the whole DGA team became very important to me.
Q: You've directed some episodic television, from Murder, She Wrote to It's Garry Shandling's Show. Were you ever tempted to stick in that field?
A: When I first came out to Los Angeles, variety and music specials were my strong point. There were a couple of opportunities; I remember at one point Grant Tinker approached me about doing a series. But personally, I loved the different concepts and people that you dealt with in variety. I'm sure that in the long run, I would have been more successful financially in series television. But you know, there were times when I would work with Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp, and then six weeks later be riding on Willie Nelsons bus in Texas. That variety appealed to me, and I have never regretted that decision.
Q: It also led to a remarkable 11-year stretch beginning in 1979 in which you received 12 DGA nominations and won eight times.
A: Yeah, that meant a lot to me. It took a long time to get there, and the fact that it comes from your peers and your competitors makes it a proud day any time you get a nomination. I don't think there's a more rewarding recognition than having the people you compete with for work say 'you deserve this.' It was a time when I was lucky to work with a lot of great artists and A-plus production teams, especially the DGA team members, and I think the content of the shows really helped a lot in terms of getting recognition by my fellow directors. I always say, 'It's not the camera frame, it's what happens inside the camera frame that makes the difference'. It's not about wide shots and close-ups and Steadicam shots and jib moves and all that. It's about having a good story to tell. There was a time in variety television in the '80s when there was a lot of experimentation with new concepts and original, creative approaches to music and dance.
Mischer with Billy Crystal backstage at the 84th Annual Academy Wards in 2012. (Photo: A.M.P.A.S)
Q: If the shows experimented with new concepts, did you also experiment?
A: Absolutely. There are times when what happens in front of the camera requires a lot of support. It may require over-the-top lighting, or staging devices, pyro, all kinds of things. And there are other times when the worst thing you can do is over-hype or over-manipulate something. If you're doing a high-tempo rock n roll number, like Bruce Springsteens Super Bowl halftime show, you do lots of cutting and there's lots of energy. But there are other times when you don't need it. If Beyonce is really feeling a song and communicating it through her eyes and her face, you can stick with one shot of her for a long time if you just do a slow creep in. In the early '80s I did a show with Shirley MacLaine called Illusions. In it, Shirley told a story where she went from a child to an old woman with just a stool and a shawl. It was a long, very emotional piece, and I remember being at NBC when we were shooting it, and everybody coming to me and saying, 'What the hell are you going to do with that? Are you going to cut around and do over-the-shoulder shots and stuff?' I said, 'No, I'm gonna shoot this with one camera.' It was nine minutes long, and there was never a reason to cut away to anything else. I love doing rapid cutting and effects just like everybody else, but you have to be careful where you use it and when you use it.
Q: You won your first three DGA Awards for the Kennedy Center Honors, which is pretty low-key as awards shows go. Does that show require a different approach?
A: Yes. It's really about that interchange, that electricity thats going back and forth between the stage and the audience, specifically the president and the honorees up there in the box. And I learned a lot on that show from [producers] George Stevens, Jr. and Nick Vanoff. I remember George saying, ''Id like people to come in here and watch the show and never know its being taped for television.' And I completely understand what he meant, because television can come in quickly and contaminate an environment. But I also knew this was going to be on CBS, so I told them I needed two spots in the audience to put cameras. I said, 'I'll keep them down lot, but I need them there, and I remember Nick saying, 'No, I just don't think we can do that.' I respected Nick, but I answered, 'I just dont see how I can do a good job,' and I got on a plane and went home. A few days later they called and said they agreed to put the cameras in.
Q: You also won a DGA Award for Motown 25, the show where Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk
A: I was so depressed about how that evening went. It was a jerky, jerky night, and we had to stop seven or eight times to complete set-ups. We had Stevie Wonder set up to begin the show, and I got a call in the truck just as we were getting ready to roll tape and start the overture that Stevie couldn't make it that night but he would be there the first thing tomorrow morning. I'm not kidding you. I didn't even go to the wrap party, I was just so depressed. And when I got into the editing room the following week, I slowly began to realize, man, we've got gold here.
Q: But you must have known that Michael's version of 'Billie Jean' was something special; and there must have been pressure to make sure you shot it right.
A: Michael came in the night before the show. We taped the show on a Friday night, he came in on the Thursday and showed us the song in an empty house. There was a magic involved that was really clear to us. In terms of shooting it, I recorded four video feeds. I had both a close-up of him, and a full-figure, head-to-toe shot at all times. And that allowed me to make sure when I cut the show that I could be in the right camera at the right time. I did a live cut that night, and that was very close to what you saw on the air. But those were the days when you would record maybe three or four video feeds. Today when you're directing big shows that are being taped, every camera is being videotaped all the time and you can completely remake the show when you get into editing.
Q: Is new technology making your job easier, and giving you more options?
A: New technology, and I'm now talking about social networking and all the rest of it, has been wonderful in many, many ways. In creating the things that we do for television, I really do think that the second screen experience is as important as what we do on the actual show. That's another reason I like live television. If you're watching the Oscars live, and you're my son who's a junior at NYU, you are socializing with your network of friends during the show, and that enhances the viewing experience. If my son Tivos the Oscars and watches them the next night, he doesn't have that. And I really do think thats helping to make live television even more relevant. We estimated after the Oscars last year, based on Nielsen figures, that 67 percent of the people who watched were also at a second screen.
Mischer at a rehearsal for the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Courtesy Don Mischer)
Q: Even though you are involved in producing all these shows, is directing a lure?
A: Well, there was a time I stopped directing. For eight or nine years, I dont think I did much directing at all. But I started as a director, and that was the first real gratification and thrill that I had. I really only got into producing because when I was just directing, it was very hard for me to put my own team together, and I wanted to have more control over the directing. And I find that I am gravitating back to directing; always, thats the part of the business that thrills me and excites me and gets my heart beating quickly. And its been that way my whole life. You know, I helped my daughter's junior high school do their variety show for the elementary and junior high students, and at one point on the Saturday afternoon before the show, I started to feel like I was under just as much pressure as if I were directing the Olympics.
Q: So did the junior high variety show go off well?
A: Oh, it was great. I actually got a little plaque from them that I have here in my office.