Summer 2014

My Story–and I’m Sticking to It

The director and creator of Arrested Development offers some choice—and not so choice—words about meeting the demands of the job.


Mitch Hurwitz David Cross

ROCKY ROAD: Mitch Hurwitz (left), with actor David Cross on Arrested Development, insists that every decision a director makes must always and solely service the story. (Photo: Mike Yarish/Netflix) 

I was so flattered when the DGA Quarterly asked me to share some thoughts on directing. Particularly because seldom does a week go by when I’m not stopped on the street and asked what I’m thinking when it comes to direction, and whether “crossing the line” is something I intentionally do. Sometimes the officer will even make me get out of the car and do that humiliating drunk test, but as soon as I trot out the old, “I’m a director” … well, I get out of there with nothing more than a warning and a headshot of a cop who thinks he can act. And I guess this is the long way of saying that that’s why the guy who played the chef on Running Wilde was so wooden: sometimes you just owe a favor.

But it got me thinking about what it means to be a director. What is the “thing” that he or she is solely responsible for? (And in the interest of simplifying for the reader, I will hereafter refer to myself as ‘she.’) Obviously, a director must know how to pull a performance out of a novice actor, or, in the case of a legend like, say, Liza Minnelli, how to push it back in. But working with an actor is a de facto partnership, and instead of focusing on how much of a performance is the result of the director’s talent versus the four percent of people like Will Arnett who just “walk through the door” with it, we have to look elsewhere to find the responsibilities to which the director must attend.

By the way, I use the term “walk through the door” figuratively. A character entrance is far too important to trust to an actor’s instincts. Particularly because their most powerful instinct is usually to get more screen time. And it’s not just the doors you have to watch. The actress Portia de Rossi once exploited a seam in a “cityscape w/water element” cyc that had come unsealed, and entered an act two seduction scene before the characters were even undressed. It was an awkward moment, but fortunately I was able to think on my feet and “make it work for the picture” by cutting the scene entirely.

Is the most fundamental part of a director’s job in the technical realm? Or are we to listen to the DP who claims that they are the “expert” when it comes to choosing the right lens, the perfect shot? How often have we heard those particularly defensive refrains: “Of course it looks too dark through the eyepiece—you’re closing the wrong eye.”

Or what about the DP’s “blame-the-director-first” mentality behind “if you insist on receiving these balloon bouquets, can you at least keep them out of my shot!” And I’ll never forget this gem from a real character I just could not get onto my team: “Jesus, that’s not what DP stands for! How did you even get in here?” Yet perhaps there is some truth to the fact that the technical work is best left in the hands of the DP. (Which, incidentally, stands for “Director of Photography,” for you newbies to the Guild—and Welcome!)

But you may ask, “if shooting is a shared responsibility, what is the core function of the director, Mitch?” Well, let me answer that question with another question. (How many more words to go? You said, like, a thousand, right?) OK, so now let me answer that question with an answer.

For what it’s worth (and I’ll get you a hard figure on what it’s worth as soon as I find out what this article pays), in my opinion the director must always and solely be a servant to story. In fact, every decision a director makes must ineluctably be traced back to that directive. In fact, when looked at through that lens—with the correct eye open—directing is actually quite simple! So I’m probably wrong...

But the realization hit me with the blunt force of the DP’s Maglite during the recent season of Arrested Development. Troy Miller and I co-directed every episode of this labyrinthine endeavor—and I’m not being overly dramatic when I say we did so without prep weeks or tech scouts—for 80-plus continuous days. (Although I’m obviously excluding weekends. And we shut down for a week or so at one point. And we did do some tech scouting and prep. So you know what? I am probably being overly dramatic. I think I just really want you to like me.)

But we shot the season in a completely randomized way. We’d often have days in which we’d shoot scenes for seven different episodes. Many times, we had to shoot scenes for episodes we hadn’t written yet because it was our only chance at having certain actors together. But beyond the incredible devotion and hard work of a crew that had to work thanklessly (a policy I regretted when I discovered it meant doing my own job ‘you’re welcome’-lessly), it was in spite of these obstacles we prevailed. In fact, it was because of these obstacles. We had no choice but to hyper-focus on the needs of the story with every decision, every attitude, and every shot.

Of course “story” can mean many things and I know what you’re going to ask: “Mitch, I’m the young woman who asked you a question in the fifth paragraph and I was wondering, would you be willing to read a spec Parks and Recreation?” Aha. That is not what I thought you were going to ask. But some might ask what happens when there’s no story to support a decision. I would say that if you look a little closer it’s probably there. And if it’s not, then there’s an opportunity to dig deeper and add to the story.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I will however remain to take any further questions during the “CAA congratulates Kevin Spacey” ad appearing after this article.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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