Winter 2013

A Fair Shot

Most people in the industry agree the number of female directors in episodic TV is appalling. We asked showrunners, network executives and DGA members to weigh in on how to solve the problem.

By Amy Dawes

Ah, Mad Men. A show beloved in the entertainment industry, as in other sophisticated quarters. We settle in eagerly on Sunday nights, seduced by the look and feel of its 1960s advertising world--the richly complex characters in their retro-cool clothing, with their indulgent bygone habits (smoking and drinking in the office!) and outdated social mores. We're bemused by its shocking displays of sexism, and grateful for the decades of change that separate us from that throwback culture, in which women who aspired to the top creative positions had to buck an entrenched, gender-based hierarchy.

Oh, wait a minute. Press pause. That last part? Rewind and play that again. This is where we shift uncomfortably on our sofas. Because if we're honest with ourselves, we'll face the fact that if there is any place in today's world where women who aspire to the top creative positions have to buck an entrenched, gender-based hierarchy, it is on the very sets where television is made.

Horder-Payton says she has no problem directing the testosterone-driven men of Sons ofAnarchy.

This is a story about women directors in episodic television and the small percentage of episodes they are offered to direct. It will introduce people who care passionately about this situation, and are trying to change it. Gathered from these surprising and inspiring individuals, are specific, useful input and ideas. You'll see how change gets made in ways large and small, and how a real shift is very possibly on the verge of finally happening.

First, the numbers. According to the most recent data collected by the Directors Guild of America, this past season, of more than 3,100 episodes in more than 190 scripted series on network and cable, 85 percent were directed by males, and 15 percent were directed by females. These statistics are basically unchanged from the year before, and show just modest improvement from DGA reports issued in years past.

Let's move on to a story from the set of Mad Men. Fans may remember the episode from season four called "The Suitcase." It's the one where Don made Peggy cry when she tried to extort some recognition for her devotion to the job and its cost to her personal life. And then the two of them went on to pull an all-night workaholic bender.

It's somewhat legendary among aficionados as a tour-de-force. It was nominated for a writing Emmy and director Jennifer Getzinger was nominated for a DGA Award in Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Dramatic Series. (She had also been nominated the year before for "The Gypsy and the Hobo" episode, in which Betty confronts Don about his true identity.)

So here's the backstory on Getzinger. Shes a graduate of the American Film Institutes Directing Worskshop for Women in 2005. She wound up in New York, working as a script supervisor, first on Sex and the City, and then on The Sopranos. That's where she met Matthew Weiner, who brought her on in that same capacity for the pilot of Mad Men.

When the pilot got picked up, remembers Weiner, it became an issue of her coming out to California to be the script supervisor. "She said to me, 'I'll come out if I can direct an episode.' I said, 'I can't guarantee that. It's the first season and I don't know what's going to happen, but I can guarantee that if you don't come out, you won't.'" He laughs. "Right after that she sent me a short film she had made at AFI, and it was very impressive."

Fast forward: She did an episode as director that first season, and the second season, she was just a director, and she's been with the show ever since. "I really rely on her," Weiner continues. "She's got a great eye; she's very creative, and very good with the actors."

It wasn't easy for Weiner to get her that first directing shot. He had to fight resistance from AMC. Mad Men was unproven, and it was the network's first original scripted series. "You horse trade," he explains. "You offer them someone they trust, and are excited about, and you say, 'I promise he'll do two episodes. Now let me take a chance on this other person.' But yes, someone like Jennifer required a lot of fighting." Since then, she has gone on to direct for many other shows, including Hung, The Killing, and The Big C.

IN MY OPINION: DGA members offer their points of view (L-R, top to bottom) Rachel Feldman, Jennifer Getzinger, Lesli Linka Glatter, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Tawnia McKiernan, Susan Vaill and Jessica Yu. (Photos Courtesy: Greg Crowder, Jennfier Getzinger, Lesli Linka Glatter, Gywneth Horder-Payton, ArdenAsh, Susan Vaill, Howard Wise)

When this tale began, you might have thought it would illustrate that the work environment on the Mad Men set reflects the same discriminatory culture it depicts. Rather, the point is this: if the creator whose psyche gave rise to Don Draper can think as progressively as this, why can't more showrunners?

"I feel I have some insight into sexism and what its roots are," says Weiner. "But none of this is meant to be a political statement. It's just that, somehow, I still believe in meritocracy. It really is about who can do the job."

The networks, of course, have a large say in either encouraging or turning a blind eye to whether the workplaces they finance reflect diversity. For this article, executives at CBS, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., among others, were repeatedly invited to be interviewed. The response came back via their corporate communications representatives that they were unable to make time for it in their schedules.

"The studios and the networks think they don't know how to solve it--that's why they don't want to talk about it," says Tawnia McKiernan, who has recently helmed episodes of Grimm, Leverage and Covert Affairs. "But I really don't think anybody doesn't want to help. I feel like they don't know how to help."

In the course of reporting this article, though, it became increasingly evident that there are solutions. In the end, it comes down to people making up their minds to affect change. Everything else that happens flows from there. "As a network, it's something we try to emphasize the importance of," says Karen Horne, vice president of programming, talent development and inclusion at NBC Universal. "But we do it because we believe in it. It's not a mandate or philosophy."

NBC Universal has launched a number of programs aimed at increasing diversity, including a directing fellowship program, a scene showcase, and an annual breakfast meeting that takes the form of speed-dating encounters matching up directors with execs and producers (see sidebar). Along with Craig Robinson, NBC's executive vice president and chief diversity officer, Horne cites their approach as an attitude of community investment.

"Some showrunners decide personally to make a difference. The showrunner is absolutely key in determining what directors will be considered," says Veena Sud, who created the American version of The Killing for AMC, launched in 2011. "It's about being open, and saying from the get-go, 'I'm really interested in having women directors on this show; introduce me to some new ones.'"

AMC and Fox Television Studios, she says, were "completely open to it. In fact, they suggested several more women directors I wasn't aware of. But the showrunner needs to say this at the beginning of the season, because the train moves really fast once you start hiring directors."

The Killing, a crime saga set in the Pacific Northwest, was acclaimed for its dark psychological power, cinematic tone and moody, rainy atmospherics. For the pilot, Sud hired director Patty Jenkins, whose feature debut Monster (2003) starred Charlize Theron as a serial killer. Jenkins delivered a pilot that launched the series to strong critical acclaim. She won the 2011 DGA Award for Dramatic Series, and was also nominated for an Emmy. Other female directors recruited by Sud included Agnieszka Holland and Nicole Kassell. The Killing made the DGA's "best of list" for directorial diversity this year, with 39 percent of its episodes directed by female directors.

None of them were newcomers, though, with the exception of Sud, who cut her teeth on a single episode in season two. "It's a very, very difficult show to direct with so many demands aesthetically, technically, and production wise. It's not a show to learn on."

Breaking more women into directing episodic television, so that there are more available to choose from, remains a significant challenge and source of frustration.

"You hear people say, 'I'm very open to hiring women, but there arent enough women,'" says Getzinger. "And you say, 'But there aren't enough women because no one hires them.' They haven't been able to get enough experience for you to consider them qualified. How is this ever going to change?"

"I hate to put all the pressure on the showrunners," she continues, "but in the end, it does come down to them. Network executives recommend people, and have to approve people. But if showrunners really push for it more, that's where we can make a change."

Lesli Linka Glatter, a busy episodic director who recently helmed an episode of The Walking Dead, also worked as a co-executive producer on the show The Chicago Code. "Anyone in a position of hiring is in a position to make a difference," she says. "And it takes more than just awareness--you have to actively do something about it. I've had producers say to me, 'There isn't anyone out there, other than you and a handful of others'. I say that's ridiculous. I can give you a huge list, and so can the DGA. I make my own lists, and give them out whenever a showrunner or EP asks me, and I cull them down to be appropriate for that project."

Linka Glatter acknowledges that there needs to be an emphasis on expanding the talent pool by making an effort to include newcomers. If the same group of women and minorities is being hired over and over, without that list getting bigger, then that's not changing things at all.

It can be instructive to take a look at all the forces that combined to help one new director, Susan Vaill, get her first shot on a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy. Vaill had been an editor on the hit ABC medical drama since its first season nine years ago, forging creative relationships and observing many aspects of production. She'd also directed webisodes of Seattle Grace, the show's online spinoff. Even so, she applied to the Disney/ABC-DGA Directing Program.

Why would someone with her level of experience on the show need to enroll in a two-year shadowing program? "I had that same question," she says. But the program helped her accomplish some key things. "It very publicly put it out there that I'm interested in directing--to the network, to the powers that be," she says. "It's a very competitive program to get into, so just to be accepted is a real honor. The other thing is that when you really shadow, a director lets you in on their process--when they're doing a shot list in their office, or having a private rehearsal with actors. So much of it is prep. Working with the writers, casting, talking about special effects, and how you're going to block things and do transitions. That's what I wanted out of shadowing. As an editor I was always upstairs editing. By being part of this program, I had the tacit approval of the producers to take time off to pursue this goal as well."

It's significant that the culture at Shondaland Productions, which in the 2012 season has three successful shows on the air--Grey's, Private Practice and Scandal--and is developing more pilots, is one that explicitly supports diversity.

Supervising producer Betsy Beers functions as a right hand to show creator Shonda Rhimes. "Since the beginning," she says, "it's been incredibly important for us to make sure there is diversity everywhere, both in front of and behind the camera. It reflects the world we live in. It reflects different points of view."

This embrace of diversity cannot be said to have hurt the concern, which is thriving. Says Jessica Yu, who recently directed an episode of Scandal, as well as one for NBC's Parenthood: "Other companies may say that there's not a pool of talent, but you look at Shonda Rhimes and you say, 'Hmm, she seems to be finding the people.'"

Explains Beers, "We spend a lot of time on the phone, saying, 'Who else do you have, in terms of diversity?' Shonda sets the tone, and at the end of the day she has to approve. But the entire team of producers is involved--Rob Corn at Grey's is aggressive and specific in pursuing a diverse range of people. And so are Tom Verica and Merri Howard on Scandal, and Mark Tinker and Ann Kindberg on Private Practice."

She cites Julie Anne Robinson as an example of the company's efforts paying off. "Robinson had directed television in the U.K. before she made her U.S. debut on an episode of Grey's Anatomy after shadowing on the show. She's also done Private Practice and we're trying to get her on Scandal. She went on to do the pilot of The Middle, and she's working a lot now. We're huge fans of hers."

"It hasn't been as deep a playing field, because it's been harder for women to get the shot," continues Beers. "But as a result of us wanting to have these different voices and energies, we have been able to seek and find some very talented directors."

This brings up another strategy for offsetting risk: the guarantee from an experienced director to step in if needed. Vaill had shadowed on a number of shows, including Grey's Anatomy, and landed a job directing the 2012 episode "If Only You Were Lonely." Under provisions of the program, Corn was contracted to act as a supervising director; someone who would have her back if necessary.

"It's a great way for directors to help each other," says McTiernan. "What makes it hard is that the guaranteeing director has to have that opening. One solution is for shows with a director-producer on staff to engage that person to guarantee newcomers. Because the whole point of it is to get a shot, and then to go on from there."

As the day neared for Vaill to finally call action on her first episode, an unexpected challenge arose. Her history of lower back pain flared up and she suffered a crippling spasm. When she went to her doctor to seek pain medication, she learned something else; she was pregnant. "It was a Friday and I was supposed to start prepping on Monday," she recalls. "This was the most important moment of my career--the one I'd been working toward for 20 years."

McKiernan, directing an episode of ER, says women have to use all their contacts.

But the pregnancy meant that Vaill couldn't take medication to ease the pain of her back spasm. Vaill felt she owed full disclosure to her supervisors at Grey's. "I wasn't concerned about directing while pregnant; I was concerned about directing with a back issue," she explains. "I wanted them to understand why I couldn't just get pain killers."

Corn and Rhimes, she said, were immediately supportive--even offering her a chance to reschedule her debut to a later episode. But Vaill decided to keep things on track, after making a key psychological adjustment. "When you direct, the prevailing idea is that you have to show you're this intense leader, and captain of the ship, 100 percent sure of every decision. But because in that moment I was a bit humbled by this injury, I knew the only way Id get through it was if I was open to support. And they made it clear that it was okay for me to ask for it."

As the week of shooting got under way, there were times when she did. "I felt no shame in getting Rob's advice if I needed it, or asking someone a question, instead of faking my way through it," she says. "At the end of the episode I had several crew members email me or come talk to me and say it was refreshing to see a director who didnt feel they had to constantly present a dictator-like personality."

Both the episode, and many months later, Vaill's baby, were successfully delivered.

But an issue that Vaill touches on--the behavioral expectations of a male-dominated production culture--can present, in the workaday world of TV sets, a persistent obstacle to women's progress.

"There's a perception that the one-hour dramas tend to be more muscular. That's a word that gets used a lot," says director Gwyneth Horder-Payton. Given that she's directed more episodes of Sons of Anarchy, the successful and uber-macho cable drama about an outlaw motorcycle gang, than anyone else, her career achievements give the lie to the notion that female helmers can't be effective in a masculine culture. But she's also acutely aware of what she's up against.

"The thing you hear most commonly is that women are indecisive on the set, when in fact, that is one of my strongest points," she reflects. "I was a 1st AD for eight years, mostly on The Shield, where we moved at a breakneck speed. On that show, it was important to make a decision fast, even if it was wrong, so that people had confidence in you. And in fact, we didn't make many wrong decisions. I carried that with me into directing. To lead a great number of testosterone-driven men in these situations, you need to be decisive immediately, and then not waver. I think that women, culturally, are brought up to listen to other people's opinions. So out of respect, they'll listen to the people around them and consider those ideas, which in many cases may be better than their own. I think people take that as indecision."

Consequently, Horder-Payton guards against such tendencies. "You have to be mentally strong enough to stand up to all the people who are ready to fill your shoes. These producers and DPs can be a rough bunch. The moment you don't have the answer and you're not talking, the perception is that you're not leading. Oh my god, the men will step in so quickly. You have to regain your footing very quickly, or you've lost power for that episode. On the set, anybody who hesitates for longer than 10 seconds is lost. That's something I've learned, and I'm sticking with that."

She says it helps to have come up through the ranks, as she did. "To navigate the minute-to-minute set life can be rough. It would be very difficult to come out of nowhere and be put in that situation."

Not that there is much danger of that, apparently. Even after 20 years in the business, and having proven herself as a 1st AD on The Shield from the pilot onward, Horder-Payton was put through elaborate paces before she was allowed to take the reins of an episode.

"Every year I'd say to my dear friend and mentor [The Shield director-producer] Scott Brazil, 'Remember, Scott, directing is what I want to do. It has always been my dream. Can I have a shot at it next year?' And every year it was 'No. We have other people in line.'"

Then, a well-known director on a major hit show--Grey's Anatomy, as it happens--tried to entice her to serve as that show's 1st AD. He sweetened the proposition with the promise of a chance to direct.

'I took Scott to lunch and said, 'Unless you give me a directing shot, I'm leaving. And you know if I do, the show's going to fall apart.' I could say that because it was true--The Shield was a very tough show, and the cast and crew had formed a way to work that was highly unusual. He said, 'Okay, we'll give you a show. But for one full season, you have to give us notes on the directors' cuts, go to all the casting sessions and give notes, and sit in the editing room with [showrunner] Shawn Ryan and give notes.'

"It was like shadowing, but I had input. Instead of getting up at 4 a.m. to be a 1st AD, I was getting up at 2 a.m. and watching a cut and writing down as many intelligent notes as I could. I had also done two short films that I gave to them. And I took improv classes for a whole summer to help me work with actors--I think that should be a pre-requisite for any director. At the end of the year, finally, they said, 'OK, we're gonna give you a shot.'"

After that first episode, she was given another, and then another. "And that was it," she recalls. "I never went back to being a 1st AD."

She offers the same advice to others who transition from the crew: "Don't go back. Put enough money away so that you can sit it out, or you'll never be defined as a director."

Horder-Payton has become one of the in-demand female directors who help improve the diversity numbers, though she limits herself to seven hour-long episodes a year. "It's so I don't burn out," she explains. "And because I have a family." Her son is 23 and her daughter is 16. The family lives in Santa Cruz. "When I come home, I'm there for them 100 percent of the time."

Another industry attitude that can hold women back is that shows involving action, stunts and visual effects are beyond their grasp. But NBC's Grimm, a supernatural police procedural packed with those elements, has managed to become both a first-year hit and a diversity star, with 48 percent of episodes directed by women and minorities.

When asked how that's possible, the show's director-producer, Norberto Barba, immediately explains that gender doesn't become an issue. "There's nothing more important than the ability to tell a story, and gender has nothing to do with that. We have very good stunt supervisors and effects people who can guide our directors on that other stuff."

Well, then, what about the belief that a first-year show can't afford to take a risk on diversity?

"People of color and women are not the risk," returns Barba. "People with little or no experience are the risk. All the women I've gotten have been very experienced, and none of them have let me down."

His hires have included McKiernan, Karen Gaviola, Betty Kaplan, and Holly Dale, among others.

 Linka Glatter, directing Mad Men, has her own list of women directors she gives to producers.

How does he find these directors? Word of mouth. "We've put it out there. It's well known in the business that we at Grimm are always looking for people of color and women. Someone will call me and say,' I worked with so-and-so and she was awesome.' It's the same way you look for any good director--you ask people whose opinions you trust."

About this idea that theres nobody out there? "I used to hear the same thing about Latinos, and I was out there!" says Barba, whose heritage is Cuban. His directing hires still have to be approved by writer-showrunners David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf, but "they are just as committed to diversity," he says. The show's efforts are also backed by a highly supportive network culture. "My hat's off to NBC, they are really pushing for it," says Barba. He cites current programming vice presidents Bruce Evans and Vernon Sanders as key supporters and diversity advocates.

"We're just trying to do the right thing and embrace the changing demographics," Barba explains. "It's not like affirmative action; people actually need to earn the job. I have to have faith that they can do it."

The flip side of the coin is that so many shows still rarely, if ever, give female directors a chance. The DGA diversity reports worst of list is comprised of nearly 30 shows with a diversity rating of 15 percent or less--that accounts for both minorities and female hires across the full network spectrum.

Waiting for the spirit of inclusion to move individual showrunners may never be enough, according to some with a stake in the game. With the numbers unchanged, year after year, is it time to implement more strident measures? Rachel Feldman, who last directed an episode in 2005, has had enough of waiting.

"Whatever that silent winking contract is that says, 'As long as we show best efforts, that should be enough,' there has to be an end to that," says Feldman. "We need to put teeth in this thing." She says the only way the studios and networks are going to make important social change is by quotas, goals and timetables. "I know these are perceived as dirty words, but they shouldn't be. Because any time we have been able to make social change for civil rights, for women's rights--these measures have been required."

"Episodic TV is the logical place where change can occur. It's very quantifiable; there are a certain number of networks, a certain number of shows created per season. It's the right place to make this change."

Feldman, whose credits include Picket Fences and Sisters, is also not a big advocate of shadowing. "It's the default mechanism that the industry uses: Oh, let's let her observe. And it's the centerpiece of all the diversity programs. But it's a ridiculous system. The person shadowing may be learning, but what is anybody else learning about her, except whether she has social graces, and how she drinks her coffee? Enough jobs just don't happen from these programs."

While the system has been slow to change, women directors have been finding ways to enhance their own visibility and also, offer a crucial assist to others. McKiernan, who directed more than nine episodes this past year, gives part of the credit to her website. "Every job I've been up for, they immediately want to go to the website. They don't want to wait for the DVDs. It makes it easier for my management to say, 'Just check out her name [the site is].'"

She put the site up a year and a half ago with the help of her sister, a web hosting professional, and she learned Final Cut. "As soon as I do a show I update it with clips, and I've also put them into categories. Because when they're looking at you for a job, the question they always ask is, 'Does she do comedy, does she do drama, does she do visual effects, can she work with kids?' So I have those categories on my website. They can click and look at scenes that have all those things."


Getzinger was given her first shot to direct Mad Men by showrunner Matthew Weiner.

McTiernan has other suggestions too. "You have to use your contacts. Everybody who's in the Guild at any level has contacts." She cites a recent situation where, on a plane trip to Portland to shoot Leverage, she encountered Terrence OHara, a director she had worked with as an AD, who has done three episodes of Grimm, a show she had tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting on. "I said to him, 'I love that show, and I really want to get on it. Can you help me?' So he talked me up, and I ended up getting the job."

McTiernan says she pays it forward for other directors when they land a job on a show she has worked on. "I'll say, 'If you want to have coffee with me, I'll let you know the ins and outs of the show.' Because it's very hard to start on a new show and hit it out of the park. If we as women want to move this forward, we have to do whatever we can to help each other out."

So to women who feel overwhelmingly excluded, McTiernan says: "You have to make it a positive thing. How do you get people to want to open the door and let you in? And you have to think, 'Where can I find cracks in the system? And how can I best utilize those cracks?' It's going to take a lot of work, and you're going to be disappointed a ton. But you can get there."

Weiner says he has made it a policy to reserve a few directing slots for newcomers every season. "If they have the stuff, and they really want to do it, they'll work very hard. It's everything to them, and you're going to get someone who is incredibly prepared, and trying to be a filmmaker."

He suggests the time to look for openings is during the early months of the year, when experienced directors who have been booked months in advance for episodic slots are suddenly called away to shoot a pilot.

"That's how Lynn Shelton came along," says Weiner, referring to the independent filmmaker who broke in as a network episodic director on a 2010 episode of Mad Men. "Lesli [Linka Glatter] had dropped out of an episode to shoot a pilot. I had been following Lynn, because Scott [Hornbacher, an executive producer] and I really liked her movie Humpday, so at the last minute we were able to bring her on."

Yu says it helps to keep things in perspective; but only up to a point. "It's good to remember how hard it is to break in for anybody," she says. "Gender is only part of the story. A lot of feature directors are gravitating to episodic now, and there are fewer productions in Los Angeles. But when you look at the numbers, that's where you see the bigger picture, and that's the part thats difficult to reconcile. I remember seeing a report when I shadowed with John Wells [in 2000]. The numbers seemed shocking then, and they haven't budged much."

The best thing women directors can do, according to Getzinger, is make sure they are ready. "You can bang on doors, but make sure you've learned about performance and camera and everything else you'll need," she says. "Because as one of my friends at AMC said, 'Now that you've got your at bat, all you have to do is hit it out of the park.' That's the really important part."

Horder-Payton recalls her own first shot. "I couldn't have been more prepared. I had color-coded notes for every character. Because I knew this was it."

"The thing is," Getzinger adds, "I know tons of women who are ready."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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