BY WHITNEY FRIEDLANDER
A forbear of "peak TV" before we could even fathom such a thing would exist, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz's thirtysomething was a phenomenon that spoke to baby boomers struggling with the inevitable harsh realities of middle age, i.e., balancing parenthood with careers, youthful idealism vs. increased responsibility, and navigating the changing roles of gender during the Reagan/Bush era. Both a nighttime soap and a relationship drama, the ABC series ran from 1987 to 1991 and captivated audiences with its realistic portrayals of monogamy as much as with its cutting-edge storytelling.
Thirtysomething was also revolutionary for its creative innovations as one of the first shows to push the directorial envelope with techniques associated with feature filmmaking, and test freshfaced talents behind the camera—often recruiting from its own cast.
Four thirtysomething actors who blossomed into successful directors recently participated in a discussion at the DGA headquarters in Los Angeles. Ken Olin and Melanie Mayron appeared in person, while Timothy Busfield—on location filming an episode of Nashville—joined via Skype. Peter Horton weighed in during a follow-up interview. Below is an edited version of the two-hour talk.
Q: How did each of you first come to direct an episode of the show?
Peter Horton: I think one of the reasons that so many of us on that show became directors is because it's such an intimately performance-driven show. It was important that those subtle parts of a scene are brought forward with both the actor and the camera in just the right way in the right moment.
Timothy Busfield: I did a lot of theater, so the guys like Mike Nichols were directors who weren't intrusive, who didn't impose their shooting style on storytelling. And Ed and Marshall were very much that way.
Ken Olin: I went to Ed and Marshall after the first year, and I asked them if I could—I think once you let one of the cast direct it, the doors are open. Peter led the way. I think they were not only open to the idea of actors directing, [but] I think Ed and Marshall preferred the idea of growing talent from within as opposed to getting a lot of people that were maybe more steeped in traditional television directing.
Melanie Mayron: We all just asked and kept on asking, and you know, end of the third season, they let me. They gave us all the last however many years of our careers because of it.
TB: I was bitterly jealous of Kenny and Peter, and I needed to have everything they have, except for their Porsches… Maybe I imagined it because it was decades ago, but it seemed that they (Ed and Marshall) were more interested in no habits than bad habits.
KO: Television, at the time, was pretty much master over close-up, close-up. Television shows were shot in seven days, and there was not a lot of inventiveness or creativeness about it. And I think they felt they would rather have directors, like Kenny said, that were new, than directors that had brought in those habits. And as the show evolved, editors and writers and a lot of people got shots. And I think the series became stronger because of it.
Q: How did you train for this?
PH: There's no apprentice programming for directing. You don't get to study under a master and then learn your craft in seclusion. Thirtysomething ended up being a place where you could go and work out, and the stakes weren't super high because it was just an episode of the series and not the whole series. It was a chance to really develop the craft in a business that really doesn't provide that opportunity very often.
KO: You have to realize that it was a really steep learning curve. We would all try things, or we would all see who could do the most elaborate oner. I don't know if it felt so much like a departure as much as it felt like, "Oh, this would be cool. Let me see if I can do this scene in one shot with staging." And then we would sort of evaluate how effective that had been in dailies with them.
MM: The show was shot in eight 10-hour days. And they wrote a lot of three- and four- and five-page scenes, which is almost nonexistent today. [Ed and Marshall] used to talk about how much time you needed for lighting. And they'd say, "Well, you light a slice of the pie, and then you just make everybody move back and forth in the pie slice."
KO: Ed and Marshall, first and foremost, thought of themselves as filmmakers and thought of themselves as directors; regardless of what their stronger talents were, that's the school they came from. So the people who were directing their episodes weren't expected to be people that just followed a certain [formula].
TB: I think Tommy Schlamme brought up an interesting thing a while back to me when he said, "Don't forget, we came from radio." And it was a long time before it really took on a visual element. And now, what you see, it's modeled on movies, like what Kenny said. And I think Ed and Marshall have a lot to do with that because they were filmmakers.
MM: TV now, especially with everything on Amazon and Netflix, it's sort of like what the '70s were to movies. But there is also the thing about being writer-driven. But Ed and Marshall, they did empower us, and they did want it to be like a 45-minute movie, not a 45-minute TV show. And I think that one of the things that thirtysomething did do was change the way single-camera, hour-long shows, comedies, dramedies, or dramas and procedurals look like.
Q: Do you remember shots that you were particularly proud of?
MM: I remember I was directing Polly [Draper], and they wrote her a page monologue on the phone. So I was like, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" Thirtysomething did a lot of dance floor, too; they would put down all these boards, and they would mark it. And the camera would just move… Polly and I wound up doing 22 camera moves [for] a oner of her on the phone. The camera got close. It got behind her. As she turned into it, it was on her back. It was really complicated, but it was sort of all in the head of "Wow, what can we do?"
TB: It was the first episode I think I did [where] I had flashbacks of Polly's character. And I went to [Ed and Marshall], and I said, "Hey, I want to shoot these handheld." And they went, "Oh." I said, "I want to shoot them black and white." And they went, "Oh." I said, "I want to shoot them at 30 frames." And they went, "Agh." And they went, "You know what? It's your movie."
Q: How do you know when an actor is ready to direct?
PH: I always have a test. What I say to the actor who wants to direct, and to see if it's a serious desire, I say I'm open to it. "Make a short. Let me see it." If they're willing to do that, I'm willing to look at the short and seriously consider them to direct an episode.
TB: [As a director] I've sometimes given [opportunities] to certain actors because I wanted them to change their attitude and behavior on set. Actors who are chronically late and only think about themselves create ripples in the harmony of our team. I'll give them an episode, they'd come to me and say, "Oh my God. I'm holding things up and I'm late!" And now, they're on time.
MM: As an actor, you're on set all the time, so if you have any interest in it, you're paying attention to the shots.
Q: Were there mentors who helped you?
PH: I spent years before that following directors on set. I followed Brian De Palma around for a while and this director, Joe Sargent. And I'd follow them on a set and listen to them talk and then follow them into the editing room to see what they shot and what problems that created for them in the editing room and how they'd solved those problems.
Q: What do you look for when chooing TV projects to direct?
PH: I want to do something that's meaningful. That could be anything from as amorphous as it makes you feel good about humans to it's got a message. The last thing I did, American Odyssey, was a real meditation on power: Do we still have power in a democracy, or has that power been flitted away to other interests?
TB: I think what you're going to see are directors that have had writers write episodes for them and then shot those six or 10 [episodes] that they already have. True Detective and pieces like that have one director across the board [and] make a continuous film—not have 10 different directors. I think you're going to start seeing the directors create the projects, hire the writers, deliver the material and shoot it all at once.
KO: As a director, probably the thing that I love the most is that ongoing relationship with the cast and the development of a show and the continuity of that. I've had some success doing pilots, but I find them to be mostly terrible experiences. And so when you find a home with people, I like that.
MM: I've been director for hire, so I've been hopping around on a lot of shows over the years, and I co-wrote a movie that we're still trying to raise the money for. And I'm supposed to do a little indie movie in June. I'm attached to a couple more movies. Now, I'm acting on Jane the Virgin, which is great, and directing several episodes [of that show]. So I think I'm just covering all the bases (laughs).
KO: Do you think you spend too much time hustling?
MM: No, I'm working. In this day and age with texts and emails, you can kind of keep a lot of spinning plates going.
Q: How has being a DGA member helped your careers?
MM: Well, it's paid for my life. I have kids, so that's been huge. It's been my life saver.
KO: I'm very proud, actually, to be a member of the DGA. Politically, I've always felt that it represents my values. But I also think, of all the guilds, it's the guild that deports itself as an adult to me. I was a producing director through a couple of strikes and potential strikes. And the DGA was the only guild that deported itself in a manner that I think [fit].
TB: My wife [Melissa Gilbert] was a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the anger and rage, and can't-get-enough people [and] out-of-work actors only thinking, "I want this, and I want that." And at the DGA, you don't hear a lot of "I," you hear a lot of "we."
PH: Without the DGA, in this sort of unbridled capitalist climate that we're in, we'd be screwed. There's such a cellular and innate value system in capitalist culture like the one we're in now that [says] "Pay as little as possible to the people who work for you and get as much profit as possible for the company," and therefore, those at the top.
It's why we have such a big, big income gap in this country. And that pressure, that sensibility, if we didn't have something like the Directors Guild protecting us from it, we'd be separated and exploited in ways that none of us would like.