Summer 2019

Creative Catalysts

Producer/directors seek a unifying vision without sacrificing artistic integrity

By Robert Abele

Station 19 producer/director Paris Barclay, with cap, surveys the action. (Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC)

With episodic television's ever- increasing cinematic aspirations, heightened behind-the-camera creativity and exponentially expanding budgets—steering a series with a continuity of visual style while eliciting the highest caliber of performances from A-list actors demands an exceptionally steady, nurturing hand.

Enter the producer/director, a role whose increasing importance over the past 30 years has mirrored episodic's newly minted Platinum Age, when the challenge of ensuring a successful series depends on steadiness of vision, creative problem-solving and leadership that inspires. Whether a producer/director creates the look of the pilot or joins an existing show, the mandate is the same: protect the show's and its directors' artistic integrity, and make it better.

Mimi Leder (The Morning Show, The Leftovers)—who got her directing break under producing/directing pioneer Greg Hoblit (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and became producer/director on China Beach when the job was in its infancy—says a show without a producer/director "may go off the rails," adding: "You don't want it to be a different show every week visually and emotionally. You want it to live in the world you've created, but to bring it to the next level. That's what we do."

Mimi Leder, filming The Leftovers, says it's always about bringing the world you've created "to the next level." (Photo: HBO)

Building Bridges vs. Building Camps

Producing/directing veteran Norberto Barba (Grimm) says it's a job that depends on a director's vast creative knowledge, and ability to communicate across departments. "The true producer/director is one [who] is actually involved in all aspects of the process, with location scouting, casting, the look of the show and the continuity of the show," explains Barba. "In the best cases, that person becomes a conduit between the writers and production. Where there is true trust, where there is deep collaboration, that producer/director will lift a lot of the weight so (the writer) can concentrate in the writers' room."

Comedy veteran Todd Holland also believes in the power of the producer/director to increase communication, especially when the demands of production often spur suspicions and protectiveness. "I'm a big believer in the more people that know what we're trying to achieve, the more people who know our challenges, the more minds come to solve it," says Holland, who has made a name for himself as a pilot-to-series producer/director with an emphasis on forward momentum: making writers accountable for timely delivery of scripts, hiring a crew that functions harmoniously, preventing power-hoarding fiefdoms from forming, and staying positive in the face of expected first-season scrutiny. "This is a loving army here to do its best work. I'm working hard to build a community. I look at the producer/director as a force of stability, sanity and clarity. There's a lot of mojo [the job] can add to an equation, an alchemy that people feel heard, respected and appreciated."

Andrew Bernstein, who recently served as producer/director for Amazon Prime's costly, globe-trotting Jack Ryan, says the job is particularly important when a visiting director—faced with the pressure of delivering when the learning curve is steep and time is short—needs an ally who knows the lay of the land and speaks the same language.

"As the shows get bigger, and the time and money to produce them isn't always commensurate with that size [of the] show, and directors come into situations where scripts are late or the schedule doesn't fit the work they need to do, who are they going to talk to?" Bernstein asks rhetorically. "You might have a line producer who is going to sympathize with you, but sometimes not. You have a writer who says, 'This is what we wrote, go do it,' and you're kind of left on an island sometimes. Having a producer/director there is really invaluable, in that there's an advocate for you."

As executive producer/director on the eagerly awaited HBO superhero series Watchmen, Nicole Kassell—who directed the pilot for creator Damon Lindelof—finds herself in a position that once did right by her when she was an up-and-coming episodic director on shows led by Paris Barclay, Marcos Siega and Mimi Leder. "I see it from the other side now, and when the fresh energy, the fresh perspective arrives, it's exhilarating," says Kassell, who also looked for words of wisdom from veteran producer/director Thomas Schlamme, whose visionary partnership with writer Aaron Sorkin and guidance of guest directors on The West Wing underscored the job's value. "You really get to put your imprint on a piece of art, so it allows you to be a part of the show as a whole," Kassell adds.

Watchmen director/producer Nicole Kassell says the job "allows you to be a part of the show as a whole." (Photo: Carole Segal/AMC)

Directors' No. 1 Ally

Kassell enjoys flooding incoming Watchmen directors with information on the alternate universe she helped create, while letting them in on where their own imaginations can run free. "Knowledge is power," she says. "To be able to put an episode in somebody's hands, where that is the one thing they need to concentrate on, is a real gift to a production. It's a privilege to watch the show take shape under this umbrella that I establish, yet see how [other directors bring] their touch to it."

That advocacy is as important as ever as studios and networks turn their hiring focus on the previously overlooked, says Michael Spiller, who executive produced/directed The Mindy Project for its entire run. "There's a concerted effort to bring in more directors who have traditionally had a harder time breaking into the field—women, people of color—so we're giving a lot of people their first start," says Spiller. "With that first opportunity, it's useful to have someone there to make sure they will be protected and supported, so their first go-round is a successful one."

Station 19 producer/director Barclay, whose history with the position dates back to NYPD Blue and who credits his approach to a mantra from ER executive producer John Wells ("Make another episode of ER, only a little better"), believes his responsibility is to "give directors all the information they need, the pluses and minuses, the strengths and weaknesses of all the departments and people, because I don't want to see them once they start shooting."

Barclay calls the producer/director a "director protector" job, too. If during a concept or production meeting for an episode, a question is asked that everyone expects him to answer as an executive producer, he notes, "I will say out loud, 'I think that's a question for the director.' Even if I don't love the director's ideas, I will agree with the director, because that's part of empowering them."

Michael Slovis (Preacher, New Amsterdam) says he's turned down many producer/director jobs over a perceived sense that the creators wanted him parked on the set to correct mistakes along the way. "That's policing directors, and that's not how I see the job," he says. "The work is done in prep, not by telling [directors] what to do, but by providing them with the inside information—what the culture of the show, the actors, the writing is—and giving them the tools they need. On our show, we want directors. We don't want people who paint by numbers."

Sometimes, that involves reminding people—even the guest director—of creative-rights issues. Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle, The Real O'Neals) and Daniel Sackheim (The Americans, True Detective) have both been in situations where they've had to explain to executive producers that casting from links out of expediency doesn't preclude freelance directors from having a say in a process that involves choosing people they'll be working with intimately. Holland insists on in-person casting sessions for the directors he hires. "Real O'Neals went all in-person casting because I said, 'This is how we need to do this, this is how we'll get the best result,'" he says. "It's the director who has to explain the value of it, and how [the executive] can still watch links, but we want directors in casting."

(Top) Mike Slovis, on the set of Preacher, eschews the idea of mirco-managing directors on a series; (Bottom) Todd Holland, on the set of The Real O'Neals, views the producer/director position as "a force of stability, sanity and clarity." (Photos: (Top) Alfonso Brescian/AMC/Sony Pictures TV; (Bottom) Jack Rowan/ABC)

Being In Sync with the Writers

When it comes to a producer/director's relationship to the creator/writer, or a writer/executive producer, Andrew Bernstein—currently executive producing/directing The Outsider in Atlanta while executive producer/co-creator Richard Price writes in New York—says trust and honesty are central, particularly when a show is filming in one part of the world but being written in another. "There are going to be bumps and bruises, but we're out for the same thing," he says. "I will do my best to put it on the screen, and if I can't, I will tell [him or her], and we will figure out a way that works.' Sometimes [the writer] doesn't want to talk to the studio, or the actor who has a problem. They want to talk to just one person who has tentacles in all these places, and it allows me to disseminate information in the most efficient way as well."

Norberto Barba describes that back-and-forth with the writers as an opportunity for both sides to push the show in the right direction. On Grimm, Barba established a protocol of watching cuts with the writers, then talking openly about what worked and what didn't. "There's an evaluation and feedback process that makes the incoming episodes better and better," he says.

Jason Winer, a producer-director on such shows as Single Parents and Modern Family, says developing relationships with the writers isn't just about executing it for an episode, but looking for creative ways behind the scenes, too. "That sometimes means a close relationship to the writers' room," he says. "I like to spend time in there so the writers know me as well, and I encourage the writers to meet and talk with the actors. To make sure that's most effective, after a show is picked up and the room is hired, we start scheduling the actors to come in and have lunch with the writers, and I sit there and host a talk show where this actor is my guest, and it's a way to get everybody talking in a structured way that's useful. So many great stories on shows I've directed have come out of these writers' room/actor interviews that have exposed some tidbit about the actor's life that ends up going right into an episode."

Kevin Dowling, whose credits in the job include Necessary Roughness and The Son, likes to think of the relationship between a show's writer/creator and the producing director as analogous to what goes on in a theater company. "There's a writer-in-residence, and you're the artistic director," says Dowling. "That theater company has a standard to which you have to hold everyone, whether that's directors, actors or crew members."

But with the production values of shows at an all-time high, Dowling adds, that theater company is also sometimes responsible for making "an epic film in 10 parts," with all the complexities attendant with that task, including different directors, sophistication on a budget, and more complicated elements from stunts to visual effects.

Michael Spiller dictates the action on The Mindy Project. (Photo: Jordin Althaus/Hulu)

Cultivating Chemistry with the Actors

Readying the freelance director for working with the actors is another case of the producer/director acting like a thoughtful party host. Daniel Sackheim likes to schedule face time for guest directors during prep with each cast member. "It's really helpful so that a visiting director doesn't walk on set and say, 'Hi, my name's John Smith. Action!'" Because as much as it's about art and commerce, it's also about interpersonal relationships. And if I'm doing my job well, I'm helping forge those relationships with the writer, the key crew and the cast."

In a show's first year, finding that tone is an essential responsibility of the producer/director when transitioning from the pilot to a season's worth of episodes. In the world of half-hour comedy, it's especially important, says Jason Winer. "It takes time to cultivate the tone of a comedy, and that sense of ensemble that makes the best comedies last," says Winer, who directed half of Modern Family's first-season episodes. "The idea was to create a consistency for the actors, because a visiting director isn't going to feel comfortable coming in and creating a process the actors aren't used to or haven't been exposed to. That first season, especially, is a process of constant evaluation."

Producer/director Daniel Sackheim on the set of the third season of True Detective. (Photo: Warrick Page/HBO)

Being Mindful of the Producer Credit

Because the producer/director position has been widely interpreted over the years, and is often dependent on the particular DNA of a show—procedurals being different from fantasy shows being different from single-camera comedies being different from anti-hero dramas, and so on—the DGA has instituted workshops that put members with experience in front of those eager to do it. Andrew Bernstein says prospective producer/directors need to take seriously the first word in the job title.

"Sometimes people do see it as you get to direct the most episodes, and by default we usually get the first episode of a season, the last episode or the biggest episode, because we have more time to prep it and talk about it, so that makes sense," he says. "But in my mind, if you end up directing too many episodes, you're forced to neglect some of your producing responsibilities."

Kevin Dowling concurs, saying that to be the most effective conduit between resource-minded producers and big-thinking writers, knowledge of the financials—how to read a budget, how to analyze a hot cost sheet—is a must. "If you don't understand a budget, and you leave that to your line producer without consultation, how are you going to know what's important?" he says, citing the ways AMC's The Son, a large-scale Western set in three different time periods, was its own unique animal: ambitious but tightly budgeted. What could be done with the money allocated was a constant issue.

"We had shootings, forging rivers, Comanche attacks, horses, wranglers, and if a line producer comes to me and says, 'We're $400,000 over for the first three episodes,' I had to know whether that's accurate, and if there's a way to solve it," says Dowling. "Even [co-executive producer] Henry Bronchtein on The Son had to admit at the end of the first season, the moves I made probably saved a quarter million dollars, and yet we got everything we had to get. Of course, then we made a bigger second season, and they didn't make our budget any bigger!"

Grasping how to finesse a production process while calming the fears of a studio looking at the bottom line, is key to the producing part. When Michael Pressman was handling Picket Fences, then-newbie show creator David E. Kelley wanted time in post-production after seeing a director's cut to write additional scenes or rewrite storylines, a seeming luxury when extra shooting is likely involved, but one that Pressman worked hard at building into each episode's schedule. "In terms of the studio, they were freaking out, but they ultimately left us alone, because we brought everything in on budget," Pressman recounts.

New Amsterdam executive producer/director Michael Slovis says that when the relationship between the top creative partners is a healthy one, production-minded feedback benefits everyone. Recently, in an attempt to address the issue of directors being required to shoot scenes that don't make it into an episode, Slovis created a season-overview spreadsheet of editor's cut times and director's cut times on New Amsterdam, versus numbers of scenes and pages in a script. "I gave [executive producers David Schulner and Peter Horton] 22 episodes' worth of data, and they were so receptive," says Slovis. "Their response was, 'Okay, this is great, what's our hotspot for numbers of pages? Numbers of scenes? How are we doing this for next season?' It opened up a discussion. We need executive producers to respect the feedback we give them so things can change. There has to be respect in both directions."

Producer/director Jason Winer on Single Parents. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC)

More Opportunity Means More Responsibility

With streaming services now fully in the ring competing alongside cable and broadcast for the eyes of viewers, there would seem to be more opportunities than ever for the know-how and quality control that producer/directors bring to a series. But many producer/directors still get a sense that the director's creative rights aren't fully understood, and that launching an expensive, ambitious show on a tightly budgeted schedule is still seen as well within the workload of a creator/writer/producer.

There may be more producer/directors than ever, but it doesn't mean hiring one is a given. "I think being a [writer/exec producer] is an incredibly difficult job," says Daniel Sackheim. "It's difficult enough being a writer, let alone having the added responsibility of management, organizing, being responsible for production rewrites, budgetary issues, your writing staff, and being accountable to the studios, the networks, and the for the creative outlook and production efficiencies of a series. And a lot of writers are being promoted at a younger and younger age to this position. They're not properly seasoned, don't have much experience working with directors, and I think the result of that is an unintentional overstepping on the director's meaningful input. What I believe the most ideal scenario is, that produces the best work, is a collaborative one."

And if some of the greatest show creators, writers and producers of this still-bursting era of episodic—from Steven Bochco to Shonda Rhimes, from Aaron Sorkin to Damon Lindelof—put their faith in the value of partnering with producer/directors, doesn't that signal something?

"It's very rare that a top show on television doesn't have a producer/director," says Paris Barclay. "Because a producer/director is part of the insurance policy that keeps that show as strong as it can be."


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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The latest DGA Quarterly includes our cover story on Streaming's Expanding Landscape, the DGA Interview featuring Jean-Marc Vallée, features on televisions's producer/directors, Homeland, Game of Thrones, American Ninja Warrior and more!