Fall/Winter 2016-17

The Outside Story

Fresh Off the Boat directors relate to their characters' need to belong


Interchangeable Lynn Shelton, with actor Randall Park, hails from a micro-budget indie background, but sees little difference between directing features and television. "I'm utilizing the same skills," she says. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

As the first sitcom in more than 20 years to star an Asian American cast, Fresh Off the Boat endured intense scrutiny from the moment it was announced. "It's impossible to be all things to all people, so we took that out of the equation right away," says Nahnatchka Khan, who created the show and worked behind the camera on a couple of episodes. The ABC series centers on the Huangs, a Taiwanese American family that relocates from D.C.'s Chinatown to the Orlando suburbs in the 1990s. "We're trying to tell universal stories of growing up when your parents are not from here, and you're that bridge generation. That's what drove our storytelling, and ultimately the directing."

The show, now in its third season, is groundbreaking both for who's in front of the cameras and who's behind the scenes. "I wanted people who felt, for whatever reason, that they didn't belong," says Khan. "From an Indian American, to me being Persian, to African-American, to Korean, to Taiwanese, to Chinese, there are so many diverse backgrounds in the writers room, and yet there are so many universal experiences."

She's equally inclusive with her directors, half of whom have been women. Lynn Shelton directed the pilot, and has shot six episodes since. "I never had the dream of intersecting with Hollywood at all," says the Seattle-based Shelton, who attended grad school for photography. That led to working in experimental film, video art and eventually independent features, on which she had complete creative control.

After Shelton's third film, Humpday, got into Sundance, her horizons expanded. She decided to try directing an episode or two of television a year. Her first job out of the gate was Mad Men. Next came New Girl.

The other Fresh EPs, Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar, who worked with Shelton on New Girl, brought her to Khan's attention. "I liked that she didn't come from a traditional family sitcom background because neither did I," says Khan, who previously created the sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. "The DNA of the show is that the family are outsiders in the white suburbs of Orlando. Lynn instantly got it. She has the best sense of humor, and she has a great demeanor with kids."

Shelton sees little difference between directing features and TV. "I'm utilizing the same skills," she says. "You have to be constantly making decisions about what's in the frame, you're trying to find the shape of the scene with the actors, and you're collaborating heavily with all of the department heads."

For Shelton, the big distinction is that, as a guest director on an episodic television show, she is "the captain of the ship but not the admiral of the fleet."Director Bill Purple, with multiple Fresh episodes under his belt, has earned his captain's stripes.

Purple had worked as an AD on studio features for years, from Charlie's Angels to Tropic Thunder. "ADing is a great career," he explains. "You get to work directly with so many amazing directors, and learn not only how to do things the right way, but also learn from their mistakes and pitfalls."

While being an AD isn't necessarily a springboard to directing, it's not an impediment either. "It's actually a hard stigma to erase," he says. "But the AD is really the one that deals with every element of the process, understanding how each decision is made," adding that "making quick decisions so you can move forward" is key.

At the Helm: (Top) Creator Nahnatchka Khan, far right, also directed two episodes; (Middle) Jude Weng, center, had not directed scripted TV prior to Fresh Off the Boat; (Bottom) Director Bill Purple, center, hailed from a 1st AD background. (Photos: (Top and Bottom) Eric McCandless/ABC; (Middle) Michael Ansell/ABC)

Purple was 1st AD on a short-lived Shonda Rhimes show, Off the Map, and shot second unit. That led to directing an episode of Private Practice. Then Kasdan, a mentor, asked him to work on New Girl. Working his way up the ladder had its benefits. "It's made me super-organized and efficient, probably more than I naturally would have been."

During Fresh's first season, he shot a second unit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-type fantasy basketball sequence. Khan liked his work, so when the show was picked up, she gave him a call. His first episode had a Halloween theme, "Miracle on Dead Street." "He killed it," says Khan. "So we were like, 'How many more can you do?'"

During one of his episodes, Jude Weng, who hadn't directed scripted television before, asked if she could shadow him. "She was professional, respectful, asked a lot of questions," Purple recalls of the experience. "What was great is that immediately, Natch [Khan] asked me about her. I said she was fantastic. Natch followed it up with, 'Let's give her a shot.'"

As with Purple, it was a long time coming. After 10 years of theater directing in San Francisco, Weng moved to Los Angeles and worked in the music department at New Line Cinema.

She eventually earned a scholarship to AFI's Directing Workshop for Women and went on to direct music videos and commercials all over the world. She then heard about a new TV series set to shoot in Borneo. "I interviewed for Survivor, and the showrunner said, 'Everybody and their mother wants to work on this show. Why should I hire you?' I said, 'My father is a former assassin for the Taiwanese government, and he's taught me all kinds of things, like knife fighting and pressure points, that may come in handy in the jungle.' Totally true." She was hired on the spot as a challenge producer, and quickly became co-head writer.

Survivor won the first of seven Emmys, and Weng's services were in demand. She produced a number of reality shows, directing all of her episodes. "You have to understand the narrative, the A and B and C storylines that are going to play out. That's really where I cut my teeth as a director."

When people ask about the transition from reality to scripted, "I don't want to say it was easy, because it was challenging on a whole different level, but from a technical aspect, I feel like I was ready to be a single-camera director after directing 16 to 32 cameras."

It took five years to make the shift. During that time, she went through the ABC-Disney/DGA and Warner Bros. directing programs. "I'm absolutely a product of diversity programs, and I'm a firm believer in them."

When it comes to scripted shows, Weng found the prep was no different from non-scripted. "I begin with the end in mind, really understanding where I want to end up, breaking down the script, figuring out what the super-emotional moments are."

With half the cast members under 13, the directors figure their limitations into the schedule. Khan remembers learning the term 'pumpkining,' referring to when the kids vanish. Scenes are cross-shot whenever possible, to save time. "Sometimes when it's going to be super kid-heavy, we'll plan it with the first ADs and our producer to do their coverage first, because we're going to lose them," says Weng. "What I like to do with kids is to make sure that they know that there are no mistakes," Purple says. "They don't have to feel the pressure. If you have to say the line a thousand times, it's fine."

That Khan directed the season finale herself is a result of a "natural evolution," she explains. It marked only her second time at the helm; her first was on Don't Trust the B----. Jokes Khan, "It turned out to be the series finale, but I hope it wasn't because of the directing."


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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