Winter 2015

Skilled Director, Will Travel

Karen Gaviola learned her craft as an AD and has now directed almost 100 TV episodes. For her, it’s all about exercising different muscles.


DGA Quarterly Karen Gaviola
Director Karen Gaviola (Photo: Brian Davis)

“I never realized directing was a job. I watched movies in grammar school and high school, and I liked them, but I never realized that someone had to put the movie together,” says Karen Gaviola, sitting in a cafe a block from her house in L.A.’s Fairfax District. It’s the first time the roving TV director has been home in three months.

Just back from directing an episode of The Blacklist in New York, she’s about to begin shooting an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, her 99th episode of television. In the last 15 years, starting with NYPD Blue in 1999, Gaviola has directed CGI dinosaurs in Australia for Terra Nova, car crashes and F-16 flyovers in Texas for Prison Break, dance sequences for Private Practice, twisted fairy-tale capers for Grimm, and stylized crime stories for Gotham. Not to mention dozens of procedurals, everything from Law & Order to Criminal Minds, and all three CSIs. She welcomes the variety. “It’s all about exercising different muscles,” she says.

The most marked change she’s noticed is how much bigger the shows have become. “NYPD Blue focused on character and story,” she says. “They didn’t have big action scenes. The Blacklist has character, story, and great action scenes. It’s one of the biggest shows I do.”

Just about every month, Gaviola meets a new cast and crew. “I like navigating through the uncharted waters,” she says. “It’s like an exercise in psychology, because you have to figure out how to make the best show you can with the people you’re working with.”

Over the years, Gaviola has solved plenty of problems on the set, but she says her most important lessons came from three wise men on her first directing job on NYPD Blue—director-producers Mark Tinker, Paris Barclay, and director Matthew Penn. She had been working as 1st AD on the series for three years when she got her first chance to direct. Early on her first day of shooting, Gaviola went to the set to work out the blocking for an interrogation scene. “I was moving all the furniture, sitting in all the chairs, trying to figure out what all the shots were going to be, and what the actors might do and might not do.” Tinker saw what she was doing. “He said, ‘Karen, get the acting right first, then everything else follows.’ That was one of my biggest lessons.” It resonates today. “I do a bunch of different kinds of shows, but I firmly believe that the style of the show is driven by the material.”

From Barclay, she learned how to work with actors. “He said, ‘Direct them Socratically. Don’t tell them what to do; ask them what they think they should be doing. They know their characters much better than you do.’”

Gaviola has been open to collaborating ever since. “Most actors are pretty sharp, and I give their opinion a lot of credence, because they’re the ones we watch, not me,” she says. “But they can also be wrong. That’s where I come in. I don’t know how many of them really want guidance, or want you to talk to them about their character. They just want to know if what they’re doing is working. I think that’s mainly the director’s job, to make sure that what the actors are doing is what’s called for.”

Lance Acord
AT HOME: Gaviola directs Cory Michael Smith in a recent episode of Gotham. She welcomes the challenge of meeting a new cast and crew just about every month. (Photo: Jessica Miglio/Fox)

Penn’s tip has also served her well: Have a plan, and be prepared to break it. “There are so many things that go into making a show that you just can’t predict,” Gaviola says. “But as long as you have a plan of what you need, then it allows you to be flexible with how you achieve that plan. So the sun’s setting, great, let’s shoot it at night. We have an hour? Let’s get two cameras up and do it as one setup. The actor won’t stand there? Fine, let’s move the camera and put it where the actor is.”

As much as Gaviola appreciates what she got from her mentors, she credits another source for her career: the DGA itself. She was pre-med at Harvard until she started studying film there. Returning home to Los Angeles after graduation, she was accepted into the DGA Assistant Directors Training Program.

“My first week as a DGA trainee, on the series Simon & Simon, the director asked me, ‘So, how do you like being a trainee?’ I answered, ‘It’s great if you like indentured servitude.’ The director looked puzzled, while the 1st AD, Judy Vogelsang, stifled her laughter behind him.” Vogelsang later pulled Gaviola aside and gave her some advice: “‘No matter how you feel and how tired you are, we’re all lucky to be working in this business.’ And I still feel that way today.”

Coming full circle, Gaviola is now an alternate on the Guild’s National Board and participates on several committees, including the Television Creative Rights Committee and the Women’s Steering Committee. “It’s an opportunity to give back,” she says.

Moving up through the ranks as an AD gave her the practical tools she needed to build her career. “It was the perfect springboard for directing, especially as a woman,” she says. You learn how to manage time, personalities, money, and schedule. As a 1st AD, you run a set of at least 100 people.”

And in terms of establishing her command of a set, “a Teamster once told me that within the first 10 minutes of the first day of shooting, the crew knows what the director will be like,” Gaviola continues. “So for me, it’s important to set the tone fast on my first day—I know my stuff, I’ve done my prep, and, yes, you can trust me.”

As one of a few women known for directing action, she knows that some people still see it as a man’s job, though she can easily list many other women who do it well. “Action is a different muscle, but it’s basically cause and effect: If you fire a gun, it’s nice to see where the bullet goes. You go from point A to point B. If you think of action that way, it breaks it down a lot easier.”

Though the genre has become much more open to women over the years, there is still a long way to go. “It’s another obstacle,” Gaviola says philosophically, “but you just have to buck up and do it.”


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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