Summer 2015

Director Rosemary Rodriguez traces the path of her storied career

Director Rosemary Rodriguez has excelled in directing all sorts of dramatic television, but where she really feels at home is on the set of her own films.


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

Rosemary Rodriguez learned to trust her gut on her first day as a director. Shooting Acts of Worship (2001), a gritty feature about a drug addict, a crewmember immediately questioned her camera set up.

"We were shooting a scene where the main character [Alix] walks into a bodega where they sell drugs and groceries," she says of the independent feature she also produced and wrote based on her personal experience. Rodriguez’s idea was to capture the exchange between the clerk and the customer with a wider shot. "I wanted to set the camera up and let it be, and the producer said, ‘You have to get behind the camera; you need to see [Alix’s] face,’" she says. "I didn’t want to do that, but it’s my first day so I said fine."

The same day while shooting an arrest scene, Rodriguez again wasn’t getting what she wanted. "It took me a couple of takes to say something because I was questioning myself," says Rodriguez, whose previous production experience had been editing and sound mixing on low-budget films.

Later, watching dailies, Rodriguez found that some of the film had fogged, but ironically it was only the shots she didn’t want. "The universe said, listen to your instincts. Nobody’s going to tell the story that I’m going to tell," she says. " I’ve stuck with those instincts ever since."

Rodriguez parlayed the success of Acts of Worship, which premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations, into a career as a prolific episodic TV director.

In the past 15 years, she’s helmed about two dozen television shows including crime dramas like Law & Order, Criminal Minds, and Blue Bloods, as well as the period drama Hell on Wheels, and last season’s smash hit Empire.

Soon after making Worship, Rodriguez received a John Wells fellowship for women and minority directors, which allowed her to shadow directors on six episodes of NBC’s Third Watch. "There was an option in the contract to hire me or not—thank god Christopher Chulack hired me," she says of the show’s director-producer.

Rodriguez helmed two episodes during the show’s sixth and final season and got her first taste of directing action. "It taught me how to do car chases, shootings, and things like that," she says. "We put a car in the East River; we did crazy stuff."

Rodriguez, who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, strives to bring her style of storytelling to each show, even while stepping into well-established series. "A misconception about TV directing is we don’t leave our mark," she says. "I’m not trying to change the show; I’m just trying to bring what I know my strengths are and what I’m confident I can bring.

"Maybe it’s something like an actor hasn’t quite gone there before or there’s a reason in the story to justify a certain shot or angle," she adds. "Every script is different. Even if it’s the same DP, that doesn’t mean you can’t do new things with them" or explore new themes.

For instance, she put a Rosemary’s Baby spin on a 2006 episode of Without a Trace." I had just a real melodramatic, crazy episode about a pregnant woman who goes from HIV positive to having AIDS," she says. "She goes looking for her missing father and finds her missing sister." Rodriguez teamed with the DP, costume designers and crew to create an eerie look with lightening and an amulet for the " wicked mother" to wear.

Close To Home: Rodriguez directs George Hamilton in her upcoming feature Silver Skies, another personal story for her. (Photo: Rich Corbin)

Rodriguez is also adept at adjusting her vision on the fly. While directing a season two episode of The Good Wife, the political drama for which she’s directed 15 episodes, she hit a snag during an action sequence. Her plan was to have private investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) take a baseball bat to each window of her nemesis’ sedan.

"I wanted to do the whole thing in one take: I wanted to shoot her getting out [of her car], walking, and smashing," she says. "So that everybody watching would know that she smashed the window, to show how badass she is."

Panjabi’s practice swings on another car were a smashing success, but when it came time to shoot the scene, the windows wouldn’t crack. "I don’t know what the hell it was," says Rodriguez." We put a spike on the baseball bat but it just wasn’t breaking. It was so frustrating."

A combination of Panjabi’s swings, a stuntman actually breaking the glass, and editing created the effect Rodriguez was after. And thanks to that scene, the episode, "Cleaning House," became a fan favorite and ranked among Entertainment Weekly’s best episodes of 2010." In the end I love the scene," says Rodriguez. "But in the moment it was a disappointment."

Over the years, Rodriguez has learned important lessons from other directors. While on Third Watch, Chulack "taught me that I don’t have to have an answer right away," she says. " It was OK to say I don’t know, or give me five minutes, or I’ll get back to you in an hour. That kind of answer was acceptable."

Watching other directors work also taught Rodriguez the value of a group effort and giving thanks. "Everyone brings their own assets. I want to be collaborative," she says. "Honoring everybody and saying thank-you means a lot to people who bust their ass. It helps people get on the same train and tell the same story."

In addition to mentors like Chulack, Rodriguez credits the DGA for her continued career as a director. "I had to fight for every job I had the first three or four seasons, and those residuals kept me going," she says. "Otherwise, I might have had to give up and take another job doing something else."

Rodriguez has served on Guild committees since 2009, and most recently as an alternate on the National Board and an Eastern Directors Council member. "That’s how I give back," she says, adding, "it’s great to have this community of directors."

Currently, Rodriguez’s dance card is full: She’s directing an upcoming episode of Jessica Jones, Netflix’s next Marvel series, and she and The Good Wife star Alan Cumming are developing Florent, a TV pilot based on New York restaurateur turned AIDS activist Florent Morellet.

But for self-expression, directing her own work is still special. She recently directed, produced, and wrote her second feature, Silver Skies, another personal story, about working-class retirees losing their apartment complex, in part an homage to her father.

"What comes from my heart [are] stories about people who don’t really have voices in the world," Rodriguez says. "When [I’m] on set and it’s my story, it’s heaven. There’s nothing better—nothing in the world."


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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