Winter 2014

Keeping His Cool

Seith Mann’s steady rise in television owes much to his natural talent and his ability to stay calm in the face of all obstacles—including a hurricane.


Director Seith Mann

If directing careers are built on talent, luck and timing, Seith Mann has thrived on a topsy-turvy combination of the three. On the one hand, he graduated from NYU film school in 2003, shortly before the worst recession since the Great Depression; on the other hand, he gravitated almost by chance toward television, which was experiencing a renaissance, and had the good fortune to land his first directing job in 2006 on an episode of The Wire. “When I met David Simon, I’d never heard the term ‘showrunner’ before,” he admits. “I didn’t understand that there were multiple directors for a season. All I knew was that there was something exciting going on in television, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Mann’s debut on The Wire was striking enough to earn an NAACP Image Award nomination for directing. His second time at bat, on the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, confirmed his talent, landing him a 2007 DGA Award nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy. In the years since, he’s built momentum with repeat engagements on titles such as Friday Night Lights, Nurse Jackie, The Walking Dead, and Californication, among many others.

Growing up in the middle-class suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, Seith (his name rhymes with ‘Keith’) was far away from the worlds of film and television. Until he saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). “I didn’t know black people were directing,” he says. “That lit a fire under me for sure.” He majored in English at Morehouse, the all-black liberal arts college in Atlanta, but spent free time making short films with like-minded friends. On a graduate school tour of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he learned about its summer filmmaking boot camp, “Sight & Sound,” and wound up attending. It was a revelation. “I was really into it—above and beyond the curriculum,” he says. “It was the most enthusiastic I’d ever been about learning.”

Even so, he was reticent to claim filmmaking as a career goal, until his mother, a retired public school teacher, demanded he come clean. “She kept asking me over and over, ‘What do you want to be?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ until I finally got angry and said, ‘I want to be a director!’ I was scared to say it, and she knew that. Then she said, ‘Now that you’ve said it, you have to do everything in your power to make it happen.’”

He enrolled at NYU, where he had little time for television, but was keenly aware of how shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos were upping the ante. “Every week, I’d go to my neighbors’ apartments to watch, and from those two shows, I thought, ‘TV is amazing!’ When I graduated I was very proactive about looking for opportunities to work in television.”

UNFLAPPABLE: Mann, on the set of Nurse Jackie, tries not to micromanage the performance of actors, even kids.

After his thesis film, the 22-minute short Five Deep Breaths (2003), an urban drama heavily influenced by French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, was accepted at Cannes and Sundance, Mann landed an agent. And on his second attempt, he was accepted into the Disney/ABC-DGA Directing Program, where he shadowed TV directors including Adam Davidson and Peter Horton on Grey’s Anatomy. (Horton eventually helped him get that first Grey’s episode.)

He caught another break when Five Deep Breaths grabbed the attention of Robert Colesberry, an executive producer on The Wire, who was also an NYU graduate. They met for coffee, but Colesberry died less than a month later—though not before he had championed the film to his colleagues on the series. Producer Nina Kostroff-Noble eventually reached out to Mann and invited him to shadow on the show “out of respect to Bob’s memory.”

It was an opportunity Mann didn’t take lightly. When not trailing directors Ed Bianchi and Ernest Dickerson through their workdays, he hunkered down in the production office and studied every previous episode. “I wanted to understand the grammar of the show,” he says. “How it was shot, and what the different personalities of the actors were.”

When he finally earned an episode of his own, a fourth season script by Richard Price titled “Home Rooms,” he walked the locations with his then-1st AD Anthony Hemingway, a practice he’d learned from his mentors. “That’s when I think about the visual component and how I’m going to move the characters through space,” he explains. Bianchi had taught him to shoot stills on location to help construct his shots in advance. “Maybe the ARRI Alexa that we use on the day won’t be able to get into the same places my still camera can, but it helps me recognize that ahead of time.”

In his approach to actors, Mann says flexibility is foremost. “I don’t micromanage the performance. I’m usually dealing with very talented actors, and they’re all different, so the key is having the sensitivity to recognize what works for them.” By contrast, he achieved the remarkable naturalism of a rowdy, chaotic classroom scene in The Wire by using mostly first-time actors—Baltimore eighth-graders who fit the roles. “The saddest part,” he says, “was that the sides were written in the kind of language they use, but some of them couldn’t read. So the story we were telling was real.”

Mann, who offsets his imposing height with a bright smile and a warm, easygoing manner, likes coming back to shows that have been a good experience on both sides, and was excited to be heading back to New York to helm his fourth and fifth episodes of Nurse Jackie. He says an ability to project calm has helped him. “I don’t know that I actually am calm,” he laughs, “but if I’m stressing, it doesn’t ‘read’ to others, and people have told me they like that.”

That unflappable quality came into play in the summer of 2012 when a sequence of The Walking Dead, shot on a bridge in rural Georgia, was delayed for hours while hurricane-related rains pelted the area. By the time the skies cleared, and the crew shot a gory massacre in which zombies devour travelers stuck in their cars, the light was too far gone to complete the next scene, an essential confrontation between brothers Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Merle (Michael Rooker). “So we moved it into the forest, where we could use lights to dapple through the trees to create a sense of daylight,” says Mann, “and it actually played much better; it was more intimate.” The intense, revelatory exchange played so effectively that it became a favorite of his. "It gave you an opportunity to see into these flawed characters and connect to their humanity. That scene is an example of why I wanted to work in television."

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