Spring 2015

On the Air - New Girl

The quality and variety of episodic television may be at an all-time high. With long-running comedies like New Girl, newcomers like Jane the Virgin, and dramas like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and NCIS: New Orleans, the range of material is vast. We asked directors about the challenge of creating some of today's most acclaimed series.


Fast-Paced: (top) Director Trent O'Donnell says he and his fellow directors, including (bottom) Jay Chandrasekhar, do a lot of fairly traditional coverage. (Photos: Fox)

Fox's talky sitcom New Girl is about Jess, a big-eyed young schoolteacher (Zooey Deschanel) and the four men—played by Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr., Max Greenfield, and Lamorne Morris—with whom she shares a downtown loft apartment. What director Trent O'Donnell likes to tell incoming directors about maintaining the show's bright, filmic look and idiosyncratic rhythms is to keep it simple. "We do a lot of fairly traditional coverage," says O'Donnell, an Australian who made his U.S. directorial debut with New Girl last season and has directed eight more episodes since. "We'll do one or two takes in the wide. Then we'll come into longer lens coverage. We tend to cross cover in singles and two-shots a lot. If a director comes in with something that is an overly elaborate shot or one that doesn't fit our tone, I try and correct that."

Instead of arriving with a shot list filled with flamboyant camera moves, what New Girl demands of a director is the ability to corral a six-member core ensemble (Hannah Simone plays Jess' best friend and non-roommate, Cece) who, after a take or two of sticking to the tightly written script, are adept at unleashing dizzying amounts of fast-paced, ad-libbed dialogue. "The reason why I love doing New Girl is because everybody in the cast is a top level actor-comedian; there's no weak link," says director Jay Chandrasekhar, who should know about such things since he got his start as a founding member of the cult sketch comedy group Broken Lizard. "But if you have a scene of five or six people, they all want the final line. It's called 'The Blow' and it's usually one of the best jokes in the scene. So you have to ride their improv the same way you ride a bucking bronco. It's like, 'It has to stop somewhere, and somewhere within the realm of the story. We're not going to rewrite the story for this. So, yes, that's a funny joke. But we have 21 minutes to put on TV. The scene is going to end here.'"

The series, created and written by Elizabeth Meriwether, is shot primarily on two soundstages on the 20th Century Fox lot. The exterior of the old brick building where the New Girl characters live was built after flotillas of paparazzi, in response to the series' soaring popularity, started showing up at the real-life site in Los Angeles' downtown Arts District, making it inefficient to film on location there. The hard part, though, is the static nature of the principal location: Much of the action takes place with the cast sprawled on a sagging brown leather sectional couch in their loft's combination living room/kitchen. Because there are only so many ways to stage characters chewing over a subject on the same set, a bit of inventiveness is required.

"As with any show where you're shooting a lot in one location, you want to explore different angles and not have the characters sitting in the same space throughout the episode," O'Donnell explains. "So we try to get a little bit of movement, but the kind that is truthful and less for the sake of TV blocking for coverage. It all comes back to the same thing—you want to make it somewhat grounded and believable and seems like the kind of world these people would live in."

Noises Off: Director Fred Goss has directed seven episodes for New Girl, including an ambitious Thanksgiving episode from Season Four. (Photo: Fox)

When director Fred Goss, who has helmed seven New Girls, landed a Thanksgiving episode that was supposed to generate a door-slamming vibe a la the classic stage farce Noises Off, he realized that he would have to inject a "one-thing-leads-to-another" energy into what was essentially a large room and a handful of people.

"If it was a big party, it would have been easy—we'd have a ton of extras wandering around to increase the mayhem. But it was just [six characters] and [five] dates," Goss says. "It's always a nightmare for a director to do an entire episode that takes place in one room because you're basically leaving the editor with no options of how to assemble it. I try to make my cut like [the video game] Tetris so you can put it together in a few different ways."

To solve the problem, Goss came up with a strategy he refers to as "spirited transitions": One roommate, for example, insults his blind date, the camera follows her as she storms off and as she passes two other roommates the camera settles on them while they are deep in conversation. Then by having the principal talent roam around in the background, they became nonspeaking extras for their cast mates' scenes.

"[First AD Michael Risoli and I] were able to map out who would be seen in the background of each required angle for all the different setups," Goss says. "We made sure that there was always an angle on each setup that didn't have anyone in the background, in case the positioning became problematic based on the shortening of a scene. Would the final cut be compared to Noises Off? I don't think it would immediately jump to mind, but I do think we created the pace."

For directors who arrive on the New Girl set for the first time hoping to capture the show's visual tone, they could do no better than to refer to the pilot directed by Jake Kasdan in 2011. "He made it very clear what he was looking for," Goss says of the cinematic quality that Kasdan got by using an 85 mm lens instead of going the more traditional sitcom route and shooting with wider lenses. "It creates a shallower depth of field which looks more like a big-screen feature film—and I think New Girl has maintained this very pretty look."

Back in the early days of the series, part of directing a New Girl episode meant expecting hilarious but overlong scripts, regular deliveries to the stage of alternate dialogue, and having to shoot lots of singles as a remedy for a cut that badly needed trimming. Now in its fourth season, New Girl still finds comedy in romances that bloom awkwardly then fizzle, or thirtysomething men taking micro-steps toward adulthood. But these days, a premium is put on efficiency and directors who arrive prepared and ready to think on their feet.

"On the first season everyone is excited to invent the show," says Chandrasekhar, who has directed three episodes. "It's like, 'Are we going to use a lot of two-shots?' 'Are we going to use a lot of coverage?' The actors are trying to find their characters. By season four, there's less of an interest in pulling 14-, 15-hour days when it can be done in 10 or 11 hours. So I don't spend any time on set imagining what we're going to shoot. I read the script, I know the set. I execute my shot list. And as a result, the actors feel like they're not wasting any time sitting on set while I'm going, 'Hmmmm. I wonder what we're going to do?' And because of that, they tend to be happier."

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