Spring 2015

First-Time Directors

Breaking in as a first-time director in episodic television is never easy. It takes talent, persistence, and a helping hand. We interviewed some recent newcomers to see how they got started.


No set pathway exists to become an episodic television director. There is no mailroom in which to start. Every director travels an individual, sometimes circuitous path. Each story is unique. The only thing first-time directors may have in common is that it's never easy to get that first job.

To give perspective on how difficult it is to get that first shot at episodic directing, over the past five years, only 3 percent of more than 15,740 episodes were directed by a first-time episodic director. For the networks, studios, and producers who hire directors, there is a reluctance to place multimillion dollar episodes, and the extensive creative decision making that is required for each one, into the hands of someone who has never been tested in that genre. This is particularly so when established episodic directors with years of experience are available.

That may be in part why the most frequent path for first-time episodic directors is rising through the ranks of a show they have already been working on in another capacity. From 2009 to 2014, 66 percent of the 479 first-time episodic directors hired had been previously affiliated with the show in non-directing capacities such as writers, actors, producers, assistant directors, UPMs, cinematographers, script supervisors, and editors. The commitment of time to a particular series and the knowledge of the internal workings of the individual show seem to engender the goodwill, familiarity, and confidence from producers to take a chance on a new director. The majority of the remaining 34 percent of first-timers were directors from other genres including independent film, new media, commercials, music videos, student films, and documentaries.

To see how this dynamic works in practical terms, we reached out to five new directors to examine the diverse paths that led to directing their first episode and beyond.

New Blood: (top) After directing two low-budget features, Sylvain White got his first episodic assignment on CSI: Miami and has since moved on to other shows; (bottom) Nicole Rubio was a longtime script supervisor on Grey's Anatomy when she got the call to direct an episode. (Photos: (top) Courtesy of Sylvain White; (bottom) Courtesy of Nicole Rubio)

Breaking In

As a script supervisor, Nicole Rubio had worked for directors such as Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, and Thomas Carter. She had been on Grey's Anatomy for six or seven seasons with no thoughts of directing. But after years of watching others, she started thinking, "How would I block this scene to help tell the story? I wondered, could I handle the challenge and would I want to?" she recalls.

One day, director of photography Herbert Davis said to her, "Nicole, why don't you direct?" She demurred. "I said, 'No, I like my job and I'm comfortable doing it. I don't know if I'm ready to be in charge of everything.' But soon after that I started looking at the possibility. I'd been back-seat directing the whole time as script supervisor, keeping the words true, putting the pieces together, adding my two cents every now and then. One of our visiting directors, Debbie Allen, told me in a loving and mentoring way, 'Miss Thing, you need to go direct. Get your own gig and stop telling me and every other director what to do.' So season eight, I told the director-executive producer, Rob Corn, 'Put me in, coach; I'd like to direct.'"

No promises could be made other than to see whether the studio would approve, but at the end of the season, as Rubio tells it, director and former executive producer Tony Phelan said, "'I would like you to shadow me on my next episode.' I said, 'Oh, Tony, could it wait?' But Rob Corn came on the other side of me and said, 'No, do it now.' I said, 'Why, are we getting canceled?' But they were insistent and the actors were pushing me. I just wanted to make sure I was ready, and I was, but the fear of actually doing it was holding me back. It's one thing to say, 'I want to direct,' but it takes a lot of courage, skill, and confidence to make that leap."

Whereas Rubio was inspired by mentors to take the leap, assistant director Brendan Walsh took matters into his own hands. After serving as 1st AD on four seasons of Nurse Jackie, he and some friends put together $30,000 to shoot a spec pilot they had solicited from writers online, figuring it would be easier to sell himself as a director with a reel to show. He took the final product to the producers saying, "Hey look, I just did this. If you'd like to give me an episode, I'd love to have one." They liked what they saw and sent it along to executives at Showtime, who assigned Walsh an episode.

As camera operator on Chicago Fire, Reza Tabrizi already had something tangible to demonstrate that he recognized the aesthetic needs of the show. At 17, Tabrizi had moved to the States from Iran with a desire to direct. He studied film production in school and upon graduation joined camera departments on several shows and eventually became Chicago Fire's A-camera operator starting with the pilot.

"Most of the show was handheld and I had quite a bit of freedom to do what I wanted with the camera," says Tabrizi, who found he could put his fingerprints on an episode in concrete ways. "I started moving the camera to catch bits of story, picking beats to do push-ins. So when I said I wanted to direct, I think they saw I had a decent understanding of the stories that were coming through. That helped a lot." Tabrizi was given his first episode to direct in season two of the series.

Of course, few fingerprints can be found on a show more than those of the editor. Claire Scanlon worked as the editor on The Office from seasons five through nine, and during season eight asked for a shot at directing. "I approached [director-executive producer] Paul Lieberstein," she says. "I wasn't too pushy; I'd say I walked a fine balance." Lieberstein was receptive—David Rogers and Dean Holland had both previously gone from editing to directing the series—and she was given an episode to direct that season. "The actors trusted the editors," Scanlon says. "We were fiercely protective of their characters and made sure not to choose performances that went too broad."

For outsiders, even those with feature film credits and extensive reels to show for themselves like Sylvain White, the process of getting an episodic TV job presented other challenges. Born in France, White studied film at Pomona College, and started directing videos and then commercials when he graduated. After gaining attention for a short film he made, he directed his first straight-to-DVD feature and built from there, helming I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (2006), Stomp the Yard (2007), and The Losers (2010).

"Seeing some of the impressive stuff getting made on TV, I thought, this could be really interesting," he says. But it took him a few years of knocking on doors until he got the first call for CSI: Miami. "There was an opening and my name was on the list of directors," he says.

White got put through his paces in the interview, asked about his approach to directing and getting schooled in how things work on the show. He came away with the job, but without the benefit of a history on the series, he shadowed a director for a few days before taking the reins of his own episode. "It was the 10th season of the show and an extremely well-oiled machine," he says. "It was the perfect context for me as a first-timer to step in and learn. The management part of the job was different than features, as was the pacing and the type of coverage. Those were the three things of great value to observe. My first two small features were low budget, 18 day shoots—extremely fast—so the pace of TV really didn't feel different to me."

First Step: (top) Nurse Jackie 1st AD Brendan Walsh got an assignment after he brought a spec pilot he made to the producers; (bottom) As camera operator on Chicago Fire, Reza Tabrizi demonstrated an understanding of the show's style and was given a chance to direct. (Photos: (top) Showtime; (bottom) Courtesy of Reza Tabrizi)

In the Director's Chair

No matter how involved one had been on the series beforehand, directing an episode for the first time is still a big adjustment. But established skill sets can ease the transition and offer a way to approach directing. Knowing the show's grammar and familiarity with the creative team can also ease the transition.

"I'm friends with the DP, now director, Matt Sohn," Scanlon says. "He was so sweet and blocked out the scenes with me on the weekend. Now I do schematics for every scene I'm going to shoot because it gives me confidence if someone says, 'I thought that we would shoot from this side of the room,' because I already know why we can't."

This was something she applied immediately on her first episode of The Office. "I was directing James Spader, which to this day is one of the more challenging things to do. He is so prepared, you have to back up your direction with a really good reason," Scanlon explains.

And her long hours in the cutting room also proved useful. "My editing experience comes into play with every scene I shoot, putting the puzzle together in real time to know when I have what I need to tell the story of the scene, and not simply hose it down with coverage," she says. "I will say that knowing I come from a post background gives the actors confidence to move on or do a fun pass once I've assured them that we have it."

Walsh drew equally on his AD experience to execute the particularly tricky first episode of Nurse Jackie he was assigned, which included a production-heavy first day with a delicate sex scene to follow. "Sex scenes are awkward," he says. "I've done a few more since then but they're all the same: No one really wants to do it and describing what you want to actors is weird when you're trying to be respectful and not crude." But before that he had to get through a choreographed square dancing scene calling for a few hundred extras, smoke, and cranes, on a location with strict time constraints.

"It was a lot of moving parts," he says, "and the only day the location I wanted was available was the first shooting day of the episode; other locations weren't nearly as good. The AD and producers asked, 'Do you really want to do this on your first day? It's a lot.' But as AD I would have told the director, if you want this location, you've got to shoot it."

To prepare, Walsh googled "NYC square dancing," watched some videos, and found a giant square dance in Bryant Park. "I brought our choreographer and pointed out specific things I saw that I wanted to incorporate into our dance scenes."

A common theme in talking to all of these first-time directors was the new appreciation they gained for directors as decision makers and the steady stream of answers they are expected to provide.

"I don't think I could ever prepare for the number of nitpicky questions that came my way," Scanlon says. "It's not so much each individual question; it's the tonnage. By the end of the day you've answered a couple of hundred questions, so the more you can streamline and avoid decision fatigue, the better. But even if I don't have an answer, I give an immediate response, then give myself the space to think about the query. Then I go back to the person if necessary and tell them I've changed my mind and why."

Before shooting, Rubio got herself into what she called a "focus bubble" where she was "breaking down the script, visualizing scenes one by one, and then picturing the whole show together," she says. "I've trained my brain to think constantly for hours being a script supervisor, but I wasn't in charge. Being the director adds so much more pressure and responsibility that being in the bubble helps me stay in control. It's my safe place, 'cause once you hit the set, it ain't safe."

The first master setup Rubio had to shoot for her Grey's Anatomy episode challenged that mental toughness when she found a scene not going according to plan. "It looked simple on paper," she remembers. "Two actors with camera movement quickly became, 'Why am I doing this shot, it's not working?' The timing of the foreground actor to reveal the background actor's entrance wasn't working because the actors were getting stacked. It's easy to sit back, watch someone else's choreography, and figure out what's wrong, but now it was my responsibility to get in there and fix it."

Like any seasoned director, Rubio relied on "communication, timing, patience, and staying positive. I kept saying to myself, 'It's going to work!' Giving the dolly grip and camera operator action, then timing the foreground actor to do his thing, waiting a beat then giving the background actor an action-dialogue cue was the key. Turned out to be a lovely scene."

A Cut Above: As editor of The Office, Claire Scanlon won the trust of the producers and the cast and was offered an episode to direct. She has since helmed over 20 episodes on a variety of shows. (Photo: Courtesy of Claire Scanlon)

What Comes Next?

After delivering their first episode, none of the directors interviewed were yet in a position to quit their day jobs, though all report that it felt a little strange returning to their previous roles on the set. It wasn't that they felt above it or no longer enjoyed their job, but they had caught the directing bug and experienced the wild ride of being in charge of the bigger picture. After breaking in, some got calls from agents to represent them as directors, and others went looking for agents, but in most cases a second assignment came much as the first one did—on the same show, or with the same producers on another series, or through a contact made on that show.

Back again as 1st AD on Nurse Jackie, Walsh made it known to the producers that he was interested in directing again, and was quickly assigned the penultimate episode of season six when a director dropped out. "Everyone was happy with my first episode, from the network to the actors, so the next one fell in my lap," he says, as did six more episodes in season seven.

Rubio's experience is a good example of how a career can start rolling. She had directed another two episodes of Grey's Anatomy when director-producer Corn got a call from Eric Stoltz, who had acted in and directed on the series when Rubio was script supervisor. Stoltz was now director-co-executive producer on Madam Secretary and inquired about Rubio as a director. "Rob said he told him the truth," Rubio recalls. "That I was relatively new at it and people wanted me to succeed. Anyway, I just came back from directing my first episode of Madam Secretary, which continued to confirm for me that I was more than ready and capable. It was a completely different network, different show, cast and crew, and East Coast, and it was fantastic! The first day we shot almost 10 pages on location in the snow."

Scanlon returned to editing, directed another episode of The Office and edited the pilot of cast member Mindy Kaling's breakaway show, The Mindy Project. "I really knew that show, having edited the pilot," Scanlon says, "but when [executive producer] Howard Klein asked me to direct The Mindy Project, I was shocked because so many people wanted to direct that show. On some level they must have trusted me."

Kaling says of the decision to bring Scanlon to her show, "She has amazing taste. I knew that from the first time I worked with her in the editing bay at The Office. I was so excited to see her direct."

Scanlon says she was then able to parlay that experience into jobs with people she didn't know, a major challenge for new directors. As Scanlon tells it, her first out-of-family job on Suburgatory came through an assemblage of factors, starting with Rachel Filippelli, vice president of current programming at Warner Bros., which produces the show. "Rachel went out of her way to make a diversity hire," Scanlon says. "That combined with [director-executive producer] Emily Kapnek's firm stance on hiring women directors all played a part in my booking that first job. Emily had also worked with Howard Klein on Parks and Recreation. So it was really a confluence of events that led to my hire, but then I got asked back. And when you get asked back, that's a good sign."

Now with about 30 episodes of comedies such as Faking It, Black-ish, and The Goldbergs under her belt, Scanlon has noticed something as a woman behind the camera. "The vibe is immediately different; there's a feeling [on the set] of, 'Oh, this doesn't happen every day. I wonder how she'll do and I'll give her the benefit of a doubt.' I think the crew is actually kind of excited," Scanlon says. "People are nicer right off the bat. When I showed up pregnant everyone was really solicitous, especially the guys. I was a little worried but it was, 'Sit down, put your legs up!' It's not like you get all the breaks, though; I don't want to say that. You'd still better show up prepared."

Not all new directors are eager to strike out on their own. Traits that initially got them the directing job, notably the ability to build relationships and a sense of loyalty, may keep them in the nest a little longer. After turning in his first episode of Chicago Fire, Tabrizi returned to camera operating and told the producers he was interested in directing more. When the same production company, Wolf Films, launched Chicago P.D., Tabrizi was tapped to do another episode of each, which happily kept him in the family.

"I am hoping my next step can be to branch out to other shows," he says, "but for the past three years I've spent more time with these people than anyone else. I told my agent when I signed with him, after directing my first episode, that as long as I'm operating for Chicago Fire, I'm not going to ditch them to direct elsewhere. I can't burn that bridge. I'm hoping the show can go for a long, long time, and that they'll just be OK with me branching out more."

However it happens, whether it's coming up through the ranks or developing skills elsewhere, all of the directors interviewed understand how hard it is to get that first shot at directing, and are grateful for the chance. Looking back, Scanlon is philosophical about the opportunity she was given. "Showrunners on the most creative, trailblazing shows have in their own careers been given chances to put something original out into the world," she says. "So I think this encourages many of them to offer the same chance to those around them. Although I loved editing, directing encompasses all aspects of production and the interaction with all the departments is very rewarding." And she could be speaking for all newcomers to the trade when she says, "I adore my new job as a director."


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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