Summer 2018


From The Inside Out

Having initially trained as an actor, Dan Attias knows a thing or two about motivation, which has translated into arduous prep and supreme insights as a key director in the burgeoning age of Peak TV


Director Dan Attias. (Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

To get a sense of television's breadth of popularity, excellence and growing stature as a storytelling medium over the last 30 years or so, one need only peruse the directing résumé of DGA Award-winning Dan Attias. Across 80-plus series and more than 200 episodes, Attias' thoughtful handling of so many beloved shows, and rock-solid professionalism, have become a testament to the richness possible when someone dedicates a career to the often-unsung niche of the guest director.

The series, and their genre-spanning reach, speak for themselves: Miami Vice, Beverly Hills 90210, Northern Exposure, Party of Five, Alias, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Lost, Entourage, House, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Killing, Homeland and The Americans, to name a few. Twice Emmy-nominated (for Entourage), Attias earned his DGA Award for The Wire's memorable final-season installment "Transitions." It's an episode title that readily describes one of Attias' strengths: smoothly moving from series to series, absorbing each one's unique attributes, applying his sensibility to it, then artfully and efficiently showing everyone how it's done.

Over an expansive conversation in his Los Angeles home that covered his entrée into the business, varied experiences and recent mentoring of young directors, the suggestion was made that Attias' deliberately nomadic career more closely resembles that of an acting troupe's featured player—enthusiastically embodying, even owning, a wide range of roles. The notion appealed to him. "Doing six or eight different shows in a season to me is refreshing," says Attias. "To let go, and then enter a new world, it is just like an actor."

Attias, in fact, came to the director's chair through the dramatic arts. An English undergrad at Berkeley who scuttled law school plans to study acting at UCLA, Attias eventually fell in love with how directing synthesized all the elements he cherished: self-discovery, storytelling, problem-solving and performance. But it was that brief period as an actor, he says, that proved the best training to succeed as a director. "It taught me empathy, compassion and admiration for the actor, who in some cases is risking everything to enact something for all of us to see. I'm convinced it's why we go to the movies or watch television. We want to see what it would be like to survive things, how we might react, but we don't want to have those feelings ourselves."

(Top) Attias stresses a point to actor Kevin Dillon on the set of Entourage; (Middle) The director finds himself in a sea of extras on location for Deadwood; (Above) A young Attias and an even younger Corey Haim commiserate on Attias' directing debut, Silver Bullet (1985), his sole feature. (Photos: (Top) Claudette Barius/HBO; (Middle) HBO; (Bottom) Courtesy of Dan Attias)

Q: What draws you to direct an episode of a series?

A: What appeals to me about going to different shows is that each one has its own world, sensibility, language, set of actors and its own way of imagining reality. But it's also a way for me to experience myself, in much the way an actor is drawn to a role. When I'm drawn to a show, what I love is I will have to immerse myself in that world, so that I can speak it in my own voice. It's not mimicry. Mimicry means you're not involved.

Q: Is there a reason your filmography is almost devoid of pilots?

A: I've done three of them, and each one has been an unhappy experience. I feel I don't have the support I like to assume I have, because there are so many people anxious about it, and I feel pulled in a lot of different directions. I greatly admire pilot directors who are successful. It's an incredible skill and a gift. I just think my creativity is unleashed a lot more when there are certain things in place, and I can then operate within certain givens and then be free within them.

Q: Again, that's a very actor-ish way of approaching directing.

A: I regard myself as in service to the vision of the show, but I'm hoping to advance it, to complicate it, to deepen it. In that sense, I feel like a co-creator, but I don't take the ego gratification from it. Who needs more ego in the world? It's more in terms of the spiritual component.

Q: What's your approach when you get a script?

A: The main thing I need to do is develop an insight into what I care about in a particular story being told. If I can't care passionately about it, I can't do a very good job directing it. It's what I tell young directors: If you don't care about it, nobody else will. I studied with Stella Adler, and something I carry with me from that time is that she said, when you're examining a piece of a scene, and you're trying to determine what it's about, to whatever extent you can, make it about something universal. Make it about something big. A typical example is, you can make a scene about a guy who just wants a girlfriend. That's not going to be very interesting. Why does he want the girlfriend? Who is he? What does he hope to have? Does his life stop then? Does he want a family? You have to dig deep. That's my job in prep. That's why I love tone meetings.

Q: In a tone meeting, what do you do if you're dealing with an opaque script?

A: I'll badger the writers. Then I get to hear what their thought process was, because the best writing has subtext. The best scripts are very oblique, very elliptical, and there's this richness underneath the surface. Now, you may not know that when you're reading it.

Then you've got to battle through the "Gee, they're going to think I'm a dummy for not getting it" feeling. I love a good three-hour tone meeting. In fact, that's short for me, because I've given the script a good deal of thought. That's where revisions can happen, and often writers will make changes I suggest.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: On The Americans' final season episode "Urban Transport Planning," the showrunners talked about how this was when Philip (Matthew Rhys' Soviet sleeper agent character) makes a very key decision to risk his marriage by being willing to spy on his wife (Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell), and he's very ambivalent about this. He wants to find out, is Elizabeth really so anti-Gorbachev? There are a few scenes prior, where he's trying to flush it out, where they have a falling out about Gorbachev, about how they view their daughter. But there's no interstitial scene before he goes to talk to Costa (Ronin, who plays the Soviet character Oleg) at the end of the episode. There was a beat missing for me. I said, "This has to be excruciatingly difficult and painful for him, so let's put in a moment before, a quiet scene. Elizabeth's gone to bed. Philip's in the bathroom, mulling, am I going to be able to do this? He's on the cusp of making this decision, and he just comes out of the bathroom and looks at her as she's asleep. So that we see a sense of grief, the cost of him making this decision." Now it's about the pain of having to separate, to deceive his wife. It enriches the characters, and the stories.

Q: What about when the script has a scene that you're just not feeling, but you still have to shoot?

A: I had this electrifying experience on "IHOP" from the fifth season of The Americans. Frank Langella's character Gabriel, the KGB supervisor, had left the show, and there was a scene in which Philip goes to see a priest named Father Gregory, to show that Philip was picking up Gabriel's clients. Father Gregory gives a report. It made no sense to me, and it was boring. In the tone meeting, I said, "Why is it here?" And the showrunners, Joe (Weisberg) and Joel (Fields), said, "Well, we wanted to show that Russian Orthodox priests had to spy for the KGB, and what happened to Gabriel's clients, since this was something Philip now had to do." But why was it taking up so much real estate? Then they said, "Well, we also need him for the next episode, when Philip lines up this priest to marry Elizabeth."

Q: The real reason comes out, and it's because later Philip wants his arranged marriage to finally become real in the eyes of the Soviet Union. And now you're stuck with a scene that's really about the next director's episode.

A: Right, I'm not winning that battle. It's got to be there. And yet I feel that a string I'm trying to hold taut in my episode drops to the floor when this scene comes on. So I worked with the actors, and then something hits me, and it comes back to inquiring, to the overarching story. Who is Philip? He's struggling, he doesn't like this work anymore. He has a spiritual concern. Well, here's a man of God in Father Gregory. In the tone meeting, they told me, "The priest is lonely now because Gabriel was his only friend." So I've got a man of God, and a man searching for God. Well, what if Gabriel needed those conversations, too? What if Father Gregory sees that in Philip? There was a line in the script when he looks at Philip and says, "You know, we could see each other." So I said to Matthew, "When he says that, I want you to think he sees something." Now it's a scene not about a craven connection, but about the whole big arc of The Americans, and it made sense as to why Philip would then ask him to marry them in the next episode. Philip thinks, "This man knows something outside the games we play, that speaks to exactly what I've been struggling with."

Attias calls the shots on (Top) Big Love; (Middle) Manhattan; (Above) The Wire. (Photos: (Top to Bottom) Courtesy of Dan Attias; Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Q: So you shot the scene as written, but now it had resonance. What did the showrunners think?

A: Joel Fields told me, "One of my favorite moments in this whole seven years was that call you made about how excited you were that you found this thing." But it was in the written lines. That's why I do this. I connected to what they had set up, then furthered it, made it a better story, and it's still the story they wanted to tell.

Q: It stands to reason you work twice as hard, then, on a show that's troubled, or not buttressed by obvious quality.

A: Twice would be a relief. When something doesn't work, I can't let it be. Early in my career, I came up with these images. On a good show, I'm so energized to rise to meet the occasion, it's like you're in a wonderful flowing river of riches that just keeps washing over you, and you get to emerge glistening. Whereas a bad show, the image that came to me was like the old Frankenstein films with the electric wires and the corpse, and it's "Is it alive yet? No? More! More!" Something that just sits there dead is so depressing.

Q: How do you talk to actors who have lived with characters longer than you have?

A: Working with actors above all requires establishing trust. In the episodic world, I can't think of anything more important to establish trust than to be able to demonstrate, to embody, a complete familiarity with everything that's gone before on the show, everything they've done, and in the moment of giving a note, what they were trying to do in the previous take that you want to adjust. But it has to come from my knowledge of what the scene needs, and what the story is. "Remember, you just found out so-and-so stabbed you in the back, so you're not inclined to assume this person has great motives." Often the actor hasn't even thought of that. They're so busy, shooting out of sequence, making a choice. Your job as director is to hold the whole story, hold that vision.

Q: Do you ever turn that extensive familiarity with a show into a visual shout-out?

A: A place I added a visual touch as a callback to a past episode was in the scene in The Wire episode "Transitions" between Herc and Carver, when they share a beer in the parking lot outside the precinct. In my prep, I recalled a moment in a previous season in which it was established that cops having a beer after work would ritually hurl their empty cans onto the roof above the station. As an entry into the scene, I thought it might ground the moment if I asked the art department to litter the rooftop with squashed beer cans, then begin the scene panning over that roof to see Herc and Carver below. I felt this would add history and depth to the conversation by establishing it as a ritualized moment.

Q: This was also the episode—spoiler alert, for those who haven't watched The Wire—when you had to kill off a major character.

A: What most excited me about the episode was the Marlo and Prop Joe storyline, and since it was an episode about transitions, I was intrigued with the chance to dramatize how difficult it is, in moments of transition, to ride the current and emerge still in control. Joe would fail, but not before doing everything he could to befriend Marlo, and even become a surrogate father. The scene of Joe's execution is probably my favorite among any of the episodes I directed. We found a beautiful old row house inhabited by an African-American still photographer who'd been mentored by Gordon Parks. I even bought six of his prints, which still adorn my home office. The house exuded dignity, and the set dressers made Joe's environment a sort of museum to the black history of Baltimore. It added to the terrible poignance of this history—represented by Joe—that was being ignored and sacrificed through the emergence of the pitiless Marlo. The Wire was so great a show, with such sophisticated social analysis, that I was always aware of the great privilege it was to direct it.

Q: You started out as an actor. But were you a good actor?

A: For three years, I was doing serious acting studies, and I fell in love with the self-discovery I could experience in acting. I studied with a wonderful teacher, Jeff Corey, a blacklisted actor who taught Jack Nicholson, and as I mentioned, I also took from Stella Adler, who would come to Los Angeles for the summers. I found I was a pretty good actor when my inner life matched the needs of the character in the scene. I was good at understanding and analyzing, but I was disastrously ill-equipped at manipulating my inner experience, at creating that feeling within myself. I was determined to be an actor, but I was miserable.

Q: How did it segue to directing?

A: I had transferred out of the PhD program in English at UCLA to the critical studies program, just so I could do acting. And part of that was making a Super 8 film. I wrote it, called upon some of my acting friends, and as I made this film, I had an epiphany. I got in the editing room, put two pieces of film together, and realized I could communicate the way I see to another human being, [that] I didn't have to personally be on the line at the moment in which they see something I want them to see. That was electrifying to me, and that was when I committed full on to be a director.

Q: When you started out, you were in the DGA's assistant director training program.

A: I worked as a trainee AD for two years, and then I became a 2nd AD to make a little money. I had some fantastic experiences. As a trainee, I worked on Airplane! I worked on E.T. as a key 2nd, I worked on One From the Heart with Coppola. I worked for Sam Fuller on White Dog.

Attias commands the set on (Top) The Killing; (Above) It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (Photos: (From Top) Carole Segal; FX)

Q: What was the great Sam Fuller like?

A: He would always be chomping on his cigar. After one take, if the camera hadn't fallen over, and the actors had said something close to the lines they were supposed to say, he would turn to the operator and say in his gruff voice, "Didja get it?" If the operator nodded his head, Fuller would then say, "Forget it!" And we'd move on to the next setup.

Q: Did everyone working on E.T. feel as if a classic was being made?

A: Everyone associated with it knew it was a special film, but none of us knew it was going to capture people's imaginations. This was a little movie, and there was no money for any special effects. So for example, the famous shot when E.T. boards the spaceship at the end, and the door closes?

Q: The one that looks like an aperture closing, with five moving parts?

A: That shot was achieved by members of the crew standing on various parts of scaffolding behind the wall set of the spaceship, holding something like a broomstick, each with one section of the door attached to the end. Then they'd have to count down, simultaneously, so it looks like it's automatic. This is the level of budget that [movie] had. As is often the case, when you have financial limitations, that's when the real spark of creativity gets lit. You're forced to think differently.

Q: Your career is extensive enough to have witnessed the major shift in how we perceive television, and its emergence as a prestigious medium. How did you experience it from your perspective?

A: When I started, I loved all the great films of the '70s, the independent filmmakers. That's what I wanted to be. And my first job after being an assistant director was a feature film, the only feature I've ever done, which was [the 1985 Stephen King adaptation] Silver Bullet. That came about because I'd made a short that won a bunch of film festivals. There's a lot about it I feel proud of, but at the time, I was pretty much mortified at the critical reception it received. But I didn't want to do another feature like that, and television, in the mid-'80s, was kind of a fallback. "Okay, let's get a job." So it's funny to me—I was hired on Miami Vice in 1986 because they fancied themselves only working with feature directors. But what I know about directing now, compared to what I knew then, is shocking. I really cut my teeth on Beverly Hills 90210. I directed 20 episodes in the first three years, but I battled that kind of dismissal of myself as a director while I was doing episodic. I started to feel a turn when I did Northern Exposure, which I think could stack up against any show then or now. What really changed, and it's not a new thought, was The Sopranos. It introduced a new animal, the serialized show with no obligation to have a beginning, middle and end on any particular story, that could really just deal with nuances of character. That was the beginning of it. Then somewhere in the early 2000s, you felt for the first time, a crossover of talent going from features to TV.

Q: Did that first Sopranos episode you directed, "46 Long," the second episode of the first season, have that aura of something less constricted?

A: Absolutely. I looked at David Chase's first episode, and thought, "Wow, I love the adventurousness of it." So I was a kid in the candy store with that episode of The Sopranos. I'd never felt freer to just find fascinating camera angles and extreme lenses. I loved not having to have tons of coverage, not having to go to close-ups. I remember playing with the opening sequence when Tony is trying to deal with the theft of this car, and his mother calling with the mushrooms burning, and the women are dancing behind Tony. It was fun to think of that wide-angle close-up, so we see these naked women dancing behind his head as he's talking on the phone with his mother. It really appealed to me. I have a literature background as an undergraduate, so making something dense with levels and layers was so much fun.

Q: David Chase had a rule that the camera couldn't move in the therapy scenes between Tony and Dr. Melfi. How did you work around that?

A: What I loved about those therapy scenes was doing a lot of high angles looking down on each of them. This kind of oppressive feeling, almost like he's a specimen you're looking at, like a scientist.

Q: What are your thoughts on coverage, and the fact that digital allows so many things to be figured out later in editing?

A: You can tell the difference between directors who are storytellers, who have a sense of how it's going to cut, with those who shoot every actor from all angles. You don't need to do that if you really know the story you're telling. Frankly, I love digital. I love that you don't have to stop to reload the camera as often as you do. I love that you have a much better idea of what the image is when you're looking at the monitor. You have greater capacity in post to blow things up, if it's shot in 4K, and no one's really going to know. Now, I've heard some shows say, "Don't shoot close-ups, just shoot the one size because we'll blow it up for the close-up." I don't subscribe to that. I want every shot to be specific. Sometimes, you can be too clever by half.

Q: Are you averse to doing another feature film?

A: I would want to develop it myself, which I haven't really done. There's so much I love about working in television. The fact that you get to connect to a deep, wonderful, flowing story. I don't like to be stuck on one show. I like to move around, and work relatively quickly.

(Top) Attias confers with actors Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys while filming The Americans; (Middle) Things get heady on location for Homeland; (Above) Attias, with presenter Amy Adams, displays his DGA Award for directing The Wire in 2009. (Photos: (Top to Bottom) FX; David Bloomer/Showtime; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Q: What has the DGA meant to you?

A: I love the DGA. I feel privileged to be a member of so incredible a guild that has always upheld values that I look up to myself, that has prioritized creative rights over economic rights, which is something not every guild does. It's got very talented, competent people at its head, historically and presently. The people who founded it are mensches, and they're people I feel an obligation, a responsibility, to contribute now in a way that I didn't always feel called upon to do. Because it's difficult, when you're developing your career, to carve out the time to give back. Now I've begun to make that turn toward prioritizing that.

Q: You've also taken the time to mentor young directors. How did that come about?

A: I had a series of young people shadowing me, and a few of them struck me as really on the ball. Their names are Max Joseph, Andrew Oh and a woman named Logan Kibens. They had certain qualities. They were not right out of college, they'd been at it for a while, and they were committed to the business. They were willing to get their hands dirty and work. And it hit me that there's a gap between film school and working that nobody fills, and I wanted to fill it for this group. So around six or eight years ago, I started a mentoring group where we'd meet once every four or six weeks for about a year. I was directing House at the time, and I got permission from the producers to bring them to the set on the weekend. I'd give them a script, tell them to pick a scene, and figure out how to stage it. We had the whole hospital floor. I said, "Let's pretend Friday you get the call sheet, the new scenes, and Monday morning you have to show up, work with the actors, and have staging in mind." Then we'd break it down. "If you're going to have Hugh Laurie start here and go there, why?" Questions an actor would ask. Then, maybe it'd be, "Let's talk about what you just set up. I count nine shots for a one-and-a-half-page scene. I don't think we're going to have time. Can you consolidate your coverage?" All the things they don't teach in film school, we would work on that level.

Q: You've also been directly instrumental in getting some of them past the hurdle of getting hired for their first episodic.

A: I got a call from a young director named Steph Green, who was in the Fox interning program and wanted to shadow me on The Americans. She'd made a short that got nominated for an Academy Award and had moved to Ireland and made a feature with Will Forte. So I said yes to shadowing me. Then I watched her feature, and I was in tears at how beautiful it was. I said, "Steph, you're great, you're on your way." Then six or eight months later, I called her and said, "Is your agent getting you in?" She said she was in another intern program, and shadowing on Scandal. And that drove me nuts to hear.

Q: Because you felt she should be getting hired.

A: Right. So, at this point, it's August 2016, and I'm supposed to do an episode of The Americans in January, and I was talking to Joe and Joel. This was around the time FX was being cited [for not hiring female directors]. I said, "What about Steph? You met her last year when she shadowed me." They said, "Has she done an episode of anything?" I said no, and they said, "We can't. She'd never get accepted by the network." So I said, "What if you hire Steph, and I will be with her the entire time she preps and shoots. I guarantee you she will not go over budget or miss a story beat, and you don't have to pay me." It was just a moment. I thought, "If I'm not working, I'm not working, but this woman should be working."

Q: How did that resolve itself?

A: They came back and said, "We want to move you into an earlier slot, have her shadow you again, then she can take the one you were going to do, and you're with her." I said, "But she did just shadow me." They said, "Yeah, but just one more time." So she did her episode, and now she's directed, like, 15 episodes, shows like Billions, The Man in the High Castle and The Deuce. As soon as The Americans gave her validation, suddenly Scandal called her up. It was a total game-changer for Steph. Few things in my life professionally, maybe none, have been as gratifying as knowing this woman has a career now.

Q: And you've done that again, since?

A: It's not easy, because you have to get a show to essentially book two episodes, hopefully pretty close to each other, where they can shadow me, then shortly after that, I would be with them. But what did happen is FX made this sea change also. They were really appreciative, and they started really bringing in women. We set it up again with Snowfall, and I said, "Why don't we do it again with Logan Kibens?" Logan had gone on to make a feature called Operator that played at South by Southwest, but she couldn't get arrested in TV. They met with Logan, were very impressed, and said, "Let's do it." Logan was with me on the first episode of the second season, and it was great, because the producers called me toward the end of prep on her episode and said, "We think she's going to be just fine on her own. It'd be nice if you could be in the wings, but we'd like her to feel free to do it." So I stayed away. I watched dailies, but she basically did it on her own.

Q: How do you sponsor a young director when they're working on their episode?

A: There's an art to it, because I don't want to disempower. With Steph, we talked through everything. It would be kind of Socratic. "What do you think this is about?" And I would never give her a note in front of the actors.

Q: Do you believe there's an ideal way to shadow a director?

A: One of my regrets from being a trainee and assistant director myself is that while I had an opportunity to watch great directors work, I didn't try to figure out how I would approach a scene before I came to set to watch Coppola or Spielberg or Wim Wenders solve problems. I would have benefited myself much more if I'd tried to solve the creative problems myself, then watched the solution these other directors came up with. So now I advise people shadowing me: "Do your own shot lists. You might have a better solution, or it might show you a solution, or something you might have conceived as an issue wasn't even an issue in my mind and didn't need addressing. But you don't really learn until you practice yourself having to make choices. As best as possible, figure out your own take on the material—point of view, angles, key moments, staging, number of shots."

Q: You're also involved with the DGA's First-Time Episodic Director Orientation Program, which was born out of the last contract negotiation.

A: Several working directors met to hammer out a course syllabus, which we felt would cover all the areas an inexperienced director would benefit from learning about: who the players are, their responsibilities, how they can help. It also takes first-timers through a typical prep period, the need to break down the script, to learn what your questions are and how to get them answered. Shooting is discussed in as much detail as possible, as well as the post process. From all I've heard, it is working out spectacularly well, in that nearly everyone has derived great benefit and confidence from the experience, which is what we as teachers have as our priority. It also builds in a respect for the job that's being given. The Directors Guild wants to make clear that it's a privilege and a responsibility to get an episode to direct. We want to give you the best chance to succeed, but also, if you don't already have it, an appreciation for the job you're getting to do.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly features a focus on television, including a DGA Interview with director Dan Attias, articles about crime comedies, late night talk shows, the documentary series American Masters, a Shot to Remember featuring Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée, and more!