Fall 2013

Taking Off

David Nutter has directed 19 pilots and an unprecedented 17 have been picked up for series. How does he do it? By following his instincts, respecting his collaborators, and sticking to stories that move him.

Photographed by Scott Council

Producer Steven Bochco once compared television to baseball, noting that if you get a hit one out of three times at bat, you’ll wind up in the Hall of Fame. Based on that math, it’s difficult to determine in exactly what league one would place David Nutter.

The director has a near-unparalleled knack for overseeing pilots that wind up surviving the Darwinian development process and being ordered as a series. Since he began directing prototypes in the mid-1990s, 17 (out of 19 at-bats) have achieved that feat, including Arrow (2012), Smallville (2001), and The Mentalist (2008), which is currently one of the highest-rated scripted series throughout the world. He’s had a pilot earn a primetime slot 16 of the last 18 years, and in 2003 accomplished the rare feat of going two-for-two.

In the process, Nutter has worked with a who’s who of writers and producers, and toiled in a wide variety of genres—from science fiction (which has become something of a specialty) to drama to crime procedurals. He cut his teeth on 21 Jump Street before landing on The X-Files, directing several of the memorable early episodes. Starting with Space: Above and Beyond (1995), pilots began to dominate his time, and made him one of TV’s most in-demand directors. Yet he still finds time to direct episodes of ongoing franchises—perhaps most memorably the much-buzzed-about “Red Wedding” installment of Game of Thrones. Series co-creator David Benioff later commented that Nutter “directed the living hell out of it.”

Soft-spoken and passionate about his work, Nutter—a four-time DGA Award nominee (twice for Entourage, The Sopranos and the mini-series The Pacific)—discussed the consuming nature of the birthing process, his unsatisfying brush with features and the art and importance of collaboration.

BRIAN LOWRY: You’ve become known as ‘the pilot whisperer,’ a director who knows how to get series on the air. How did that start? 

DAVID NUTTER: Fortunately, my first pilot opportunity was given to me by [producers] Glen Morgan and Jim Wong, who had fought to get me on The X-Files. Their first pilot was my first pilot—Space: Above and Beyond. From there, I got a chance to work with Chris Carter on the Millennium pilot, and then I got to the point of beginning to choose things I wanted to do

Q: Is there an art to choosing pilots?

A: I guess the simplest answer I can give you is that I’ve got to fall in love with it. It’s got to move me in some way. I’ve got to be touched emotionally by something. It can’t be just flash and no substance or, ‘Just the facts ma’am,’ without any heart. And at the end of it I say to myself, ‘Do I want to watch the next episode?’ That’s really what it’s all about.

Q: Obviously you have more input on a pilot than you do coming in on an established show.

A: I look at it as a little movie. I’m there from the very beginning stages of the process, and I’m basically there to create a template and look for the show. I also put the crew together. The writers and I have to have an agreement—we have to be hand-in-hand all the way throughout the process. Since Millennium I’ve been fortunate to get an executive producer credit as well. I’m there from the very early stages and I’m the guy sitting there [at the end] when they do the layback and take the multi-track down to the two-track and turn it in. I’m there every second of the process: for the mix, color-correction, editing, all the postproduction, all the different audience viewings—all of that. For me, it’s my all-consuming life. I don’t like to juggle a lot of different things; I don’t have six things in development. I’m a director, that’s what I do, and it takes all of me to do that.

 MASSACRE: (top) Nutter, with Michelle Fairley, staged the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones like it was an opera. (above) Working on the comedy Entourage, with Kevin Dillon, was a change of pace. 

Q: In general, how do you approach the material?

A: I [keep in mind what] the script tells me. As a director I like to be very invisible. I don’t like to be noticed. I don’t want to be someone whose shot takes you out of the dramatic sequence or takes you out of the emotional story that you’re trying to tell or says, ‘Hey, look at this cool shot I have here.’ To me, that’s not right. It’s about, how do you hang on to the hearts of the audience? How do you [get] them to actually give a shit and care?

Q: When you’re doing a pilot, how do you prep for it? Do you block out every scene?

A: I spend a lot of time with the writer trying to figure out what their intent is with a sequence. I may have an idea to adjust it or move it along, and we work on that as far as the tonality is concerned. I want to get in my head what the scene really means.

I’m also a great believer in rehearsals and blocking rehearsals. I do extensive storyboards so people can get a sense of what we’re doing, and what the attitude and tone is. I work a lot with the actors. I like to go to sets or locations with them before shooting so that they know what they’ll be doing on the day. I have found actors really do like to know about blocking, etc., before the shoot day comes. I want them to walk on the set and feel a sense of confidence.

Q: How important is it to you who you’re going to be working with on a show?

A: Since Smallville, I’ve worked at Warner Bros. Television. I knew [president] Peter Roth from the Fox days. So when he came to Warner Bros., and I came to Warner Bros. to do the Smallville pilot, we kind of started a deal where each year I’d direct a pilot for him. And oftentimes I get a chance to look at different scripts; talk to different writers. By doing that I get to feel out who I’m going to be working with.

CRUSADER: Nutter, who loved comic books as a kid, directing Stephen Amell in the pilot for Arrow, based on a DC Comics superhero.

Q: What about your crew?

A: I have to have a real connection with who the crew will be and have to agree to that before I get involved in something. You try to get the people that you’ve worked with before, but it depends on availability a lot of the time. With ADs on a series, my initial objective is to get the lowdown on everyone and everything; what to look out for and how best to achieve our goals on that particular episode. Babu Subramaniam became a real hero to me when he guided me through my first episode of ER when it was the number one show on television. He was truly my knight in shining armor. And I’ve done 10 pilots with my editor, Paul Karasick. Bill Roe is a terrific director of photography and on something like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, I knew I needed a DP who could really kick ass.

Q: When you’re trying to decide on a project, can a pitch from the producers sway you? Will the studio ever say, ‘We have a lot riding on this one?’

A: Well, interestingly enough, this year is the first time I’ve said yes to a pilot before the script was finished. That was for The Flash [a spinoff from Arrow]. But I did that after having worked with Greg Berlanti on Jack & Bobby, and Andrew Kreisberg and Berlanti on the Arrow pilot, which was a wonderful experience. But beyond that, I only go with my gut instincts. I hear a lot of pitches, but I wait until I read the script, which has been the bottom line for me. I don’t really care who’s producing or if a person [is] a big name; I can’t look at that. If it’s not on the page, I can’t formulate it.

Q: You’ve done all kinds of shows, but you have done a considerable amount in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Is that something you have a special feel for?

A: I think a lot of that was just one project leading to another. What happened is that after I did The X-Files people would come to me and they’d say, ‘Oh, let’s go do something more wild and more crazy than The X-Files.’ And I would explain, that’s not what the secret of The X-Files was. The secret of The X-Files was that you were creating a real- world situation with real people and real situations, and viewers could actually have an affinity for them; [there was] an accessibility. The frame of the television would in a sense dissipate and you could actually lean into the show. The framing would fall away, and most importantly, you’d begin to care. And once you began to care about what you were watching, and believed what you were watching, then we’d throw the paranormal at them. Or we’d throw something else at the audience that would affect them in an emotional way—not unlike the reaction to Game of Thrones. So to me, if you make it smart and look up to the audience, that’s the secret. It’s really all about giving the audience characters that they can relate to.

Q: Do you think your pilots have anything in common?

A: If there’s a common thread to the ones that I choose, it’s that I’m attracted to shows where the characters have a void in their life. It’s that deep emotional thing the audience can grasp onto that I try to bring out as a director.

Q: On a pilot, the actors are still finding their character. How do you work with them?

A: I think of Sidney Lumet and Mark Rydell—directors of that nature and that quality. When you saw their films, you knew that you’d be seeing wonderful performances. It’s about finding someone you feel inhabits that character; you don’t want them to take too long a trail to get there as far as who the character is. So when I work with actors, my job is to let them know that I’m there to catch them when they fall. I don’t sit back in video village and yell instructions. I have two little monitors, I sit next to the camera, and I do extensive rehearsals. I’m big into that, so that everyone is comfortable with where they’re headed, and the actors can get an idea on blocking and understand what’s happening before the crew is even there. Because once they know the dance moves, then they can get into the character even better. And I spend a lot of time with actors talking about tonalities. The writer and I will sit down with them and go through every specific thing so that they feel confident in what they’re going to be doing—and how they’re going to be doing it.

BATTLEFIELD: In between pilots, Nutter works on projects that interest him, like the mini-series The Pacific; (opposite) Nutter, with Simon Baker, had only nine weeks to prep, shoot and edit the pilot for The Mentalist.

Q: You’ve worked with a lot of different writers. Have they generally understood the director’s role and the nature of the collaboration?

A: I’ve been very lucky in that regard. A lot of times, you’ve got to suss out who you’re working with a little bit beforehand—before you even say yes. I like to lay all the cards on the table and say, ‘This is what I want to do and this is what we can do together to make it greater. If you want to go, let’s go.’ I think collaboration is everything.

Q: I’ve talked to enough directors to know that not every writer is as receptive to those suggestions.

A: That’s very true. I’ve had meetings with people where I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to be involved in that.’ I thrive best when I’m in a positive situation—that’s the most important thing. I did a movie several years ago, Disturbing Behavior, that was a terrible experience for me because it was just like they wanted the young X-Files director to do an X-Files for teenagers, and I said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ And then basically, there was just a year and a half with writers, producers, and the studio. It’s the worst experience I ever had in my life.

I just said, ‘I can’t do this again.’ And the great thing was within a year I got a chance to do the Roswell pilot with Jason Katims. It was probably the most emotionally satisfying thing I’ve ever done, because it was basically coming off of a failure in some respects, and taking that same sensibility to make something that I think was quite special; it tested through the roof. So to me it’s all about positive energy. I don’t like to have arguments and fights. That just doesn’t work.

Q: How invested are you in a project beyond the pilot stage in terms of letting the baby walk on its own?

A: I realized a while back that I’m not a great producer-director. I don’t like that position because in one respect when you’re making a pilot you’re one thing—you’re more of a creative voice. I’m not good at looking over other directors’ shoulders. [It’s] the old Clint Eastwood line [from Magnum Force], ‘A man needs to know his limitations.’

Q: Do you interact with the directors who follow you after the pilot?

A: I was very happy with what I did last year with the Arrow pilot. A lot of times directors in television will come to a series, and they kind of feel like the odd man out. They come in with no direction, no feeling of family, no sense of camaraderie, no feeling of teamwork, no feeling of ‘we’re all making this great thing together.’ They come in almost like the lone soldier. No one’s there to guide them and take them through it.

So last year, and I’ve tried to do this before, I helped with suggestions for [hiring] directors for the first 13 episodes. I put together a big breakfast, and I made sure everyone watched the pilot. I sat down with maybe 10 of the directors at once, and then I met with the other few directors on my own. I brought in [series creators] Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, and we all sat down and talked about the show—we wanted each director to be invested. [We said], ‘We’re going to make sure you get all the scripts. If you’re directing episode five, make sure you read one through four.’ That kind of thing. As a result, the directors really felt like it was something of a community. I think that’s sorely missing a lot of the time in television, and it’s something I was very proud to get going. I want to try to continue doing it for pilots I do in the future.

Q: Some of the serialized dramas on TV now are so intricate. Is it more complicated for an episodic director coming on a show like Homeland because it has so many moving parts?

A: I think it is much more daunting because of the fact that so many of them have huge through lines in the storytelling. It’s not like the murder case of the week. I’m in a great situation in that after I finish a pilot, I get a chance to do [an established show] that I want to do. A show that I respect, a show that I can learn from and hopefully become a better director. By doing that, I’ve realized that even though you walk on to something like Homeland with Claire Danes or The Sopranos with James Gandolfini, actors want to be directed. So you have to come in and direct.

On Homeland, the thing that impressed me so much about Claire was the fact that Carrie Mathison is such a complicated character, fighting with so many demons. Claire can do that, turn that switch on, and when she’s done with the scene, she doesn’t live there. She knows how to turn that switch on and off. And I can also talk to her about technical things, like head turns. That stuff matters as well.

Q: When you’re coming onto an established show, how do you work with an actor of that caliber?

A: Actors want to know that what they’re doing, the choices they’re making, are the right ones. So the most important thing I can bring to it is to let them know I’m really there watching them. I have my monitors, but I’m close enough to be there to watch. I’m focused on what they’re doing. No matter what I do as a director, unless you have the actors to bring it together, you’ve got nothing. I often feel that I’m an artist with no hands or eyes, because the actors are really what it’s all about. It’s simply about treating them with respect.

Q: You directed the ‘Red Wedding’ episode of Game of Thrones, which became a huge sensation. Did you have a sense going in how significant that episode was going to be?

A: What happened originally was I met with [producers] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] and got a chance to direct a really big sequence for season two, which was going to be the big Lannister riot where Joffrey gets a cow pie in his face. It was a big sequence we shot in Croatia. And they liked what I did; they liked how I handled it. So they started talking to me about coming back to do ‘Red Wedding’ for the end of season 3.

Q: They were thinking that far in advance?

A: Oh, absolutely, because they knew how important it was. And I was like, ‘OK, well, that’s very nice, thank you.’ Then I started to hear more about this. And basically I started to bear this huge weight that got larger and larger on my back, realizing how important this is going to be. So for about nine months it was like, ‘I’m going to have to do the “Red Wedding,’’’ and finally I got the script and understood what was going on. I didn’t want to read the books past the screenplay’s format because they wanted that to be my first impression of what it was going to be. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I knew some things that were going on superficially, but I had no idea it would have that kind of effect.

Q: I understand you shot the banquet massacre sequentially. Can you talk about how you built to that climatic moment, and made it feel as shocking as it was?

A: In some respects, I looked at it almost as an opera. It was all about how I set up the tables in the room, how I positioned who was going to sit where. It was important to shoot as much as possible in order so we didn’t have to go back and reshoot something really intense. It was important to focus on what areas of the sequence I would need wide shots for. It was sort of like dominos, where we could keep the tonality going so when we got to the really intense stuff, we were shooting it one after the other and building on top of the drama—building to a climax.

I rehearsed with the actors two or three days before, and then with all the stunt people. It was important for them so they didn’t have to worry about the small things and could focus on the drama of it. It was not unlike a football coach outlining his plays on a chalkboard. Basically, I told everybody, ‘You’re going to sit here, you’re going to sit there, and this is going to happen.’

Q: For such an intense scene, were there any special directions you gave to the actors?

A: I remember I was talking to Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark, and I was directing him to go through this intense moment—which was wordless but full of emotion—and I said to him, ‘Even though there’s no dialogue here, this is almost a soliloquy concerning your love for Talisa.’ And we shot that moment between Robb and his bride and it was great.

Q: Was it as emotional to shoot as it was for the audience to watch?

A: The characters were so beloved, not just for the audience, but even the crew involved with the process. This was a letting go of family members who were leaving the show for good. I remember the sequence [in which the character of Robb Stark dies], and when it was over, David Benioff turned to the script supervisor and said, ‘Did we get that?’ And she was crying her eyes out. It was really quite special, because everyone was feeling it. If everyone on the set can feel what you’re doing, keeping the integrity of it, it will translate to the screen.

Q: Just the number of locations on that show had to be dizzying, in terms of managing everything that’s going on in all the disparate spots and keeping track of them.

A: It’s truly amazing to me. They’re able to organize and to schedule this like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re not only scheduling four continents on occasion, they’re also scheduling 10 episodes that are interspersed with each other, and all the actors and their availabilities. It’s an amazing chess game that I have never seen done better. But it is quite daunting. I look at it like how pyramids are built with one stone at a time. Two years ago, I spent three and a half months in Belfast, Croatia, and Iceland. Last year I was gone for four months in Belfast, Morocco and Croatia, so it’s quite involved.

Q: Up next for you is The Flash, a new take on the DC Comics superhero and a spinoff of Arrow, for which you also did the pilot. Were you steeped in comic books as a kid, or is this something that you’ve had to familiarize yourself with?

A: My father died when I was a year-and-a-half old and my mother raised me as a single parent. I lived in West Virginia and the one thing I used to do as a child was buy comic books. I would cut out the characters, and their angles, and how they looked and so forth, and create my own characters for these stories. I’d have Captain America, or Iron Man, or The Flash, or Superman, and I’d create my own stories.

Q: You were thinking visually even then.

A: Yes, I guess I was.

Q: What made you want to become a director?

A: When I grew up, I wanted to be the next Frank Sinatra. But once I got to college, I realized that I wasn’t going to be that. So I needed to find out how I was going to fulfill that part of me. How do I move people? How do I move myself? Then in 1980 I took a Super 8 film class to think about maybe writing music for films, but realized, ‘Hey, I can just grab this camera, roll up my sleeves, and go make this happen.’ The movie that really was the crossroads of my life, when I actually said to myself, ‘I want to become a director,’ was the Warren Beatty film Reds. It came out around that time and had such a profound effect on me.

Q: In television you don’t usually get to see the audience reacting, but for ‘Red Wedding’ there were more than 9 million YouTube views for a video in which people taped unsuspecting friends reacting to the carnage. That must have been a satisfying experience for you.

A: I just felt so grateful that I could actually see what I’d done and how it affected people, because from the first time I ever did dramatic storytelling, I hoped people would react in some way. I believe the audience walks into a theater or turns on a television set to exercise their own emotions. It’s not a selfish process, it’s not that at all. To me, it’s all about the audience, the audience, the audience. What will they feel about something? What will their first impression be? I once read an article about Stanley Kubrick that said when he would read a book, after each chapter he would write down his first impression, because he’d never have that impression again. Whenever I do anything, I always think about what the audience’s first impression will be. Because a lot of the time you can over-think stuff. When you’re telling a story, you’re often cutting out time. Do you really need this kind of a setup? Do you need this light out? Do you need this? No, they don’t need it all that. Let’s get right to the point—the dramatic storytelling parts of it.

Q: Nowadays you often hear about a $10 million or $12 million pilot, where the series is front-loaded. In terms of directing a pilot, is the extra time more important than the money?

A: I would say time is probably the best part of it—because there’s never enough money. And it’s always a situation where they give you this much to start, then you have a budget constraint meeting, and you have to tighten it up again. So the money always shrinks down to where there’s barely enough to make it. But time is the one thing that can be helpful, and that really depends on the situation. When I did The Mentalist pilot, it happened right after the Writers’ Strike. So I basically had three weeks to prep—the cast, everything—three weeks to shoot it, and three weeks to cut, post, and finish it. This was a nine-week process. But the great thing was Bruno [Heller] wrote a brilliant script.

Q: You’ve been nominated for four DGA Awards. Was that recognition from your peers special for you?

A: You have no idea. Success is always so very fleeting, but to have the respect of your peers is something that is the greatest honor of all. So many of the people I’ve met through the Guild are my heroes, people that I look up to. Some really wonderful directors that I’ve got a chance to talk to because of that opportunity.

Q: You had a chance to meet one of your idols, Bob Butler, when you were starting out.

A: Yes, I went to the Beverly Glen Market one day, and I had seen him accept the Emmy for Hill Street Blues, so I knew what he looked like. I walked over to him while he was in the checkout line and said, ‘My name is David Nutter and I’m a huge fan of your work,’ and he ripped off a copy of his check deposit slip that had his address and phone number and said, ‘Give me a call.’ He agreed to sit down and have lunch with me, and he just gave me hope. When I hear about people talking about me and pilots, I have to laugh. Because he was the true king—the all-time king of pilots.

Q: You mentioned how disappointing your experience with Disturbing Behavior was. Did that put you off directing features?

A: Yeah, a lot of people come at me to direct features, especially after successes that I’ve had in the past, most recently with Game of Thrones. I just have more creative control and more creative involvement in the pilots that I do than I could ever get on a feature. To me, it’s not about the size, and the scope, and the success. It’s all about the caliber of the storytelling. I couldn’t see myself working on something of such immensity that I’m just a cog in the wheel rather than being someone that’s helping to drive it, which is something that really matters to me. I’m very content in what I do: telling the stories. It’s always about trying to do things that I can at least have enough control over so if it doesn’t work out, I can let it go and say, ‘It didn’t work out.’ But with directing movies today, especially where things are going, so much of it’s by chance. You can make a great movie, and if it opens on the same weekend as Saving Private Ryan or something else, it’s not a good movie anymore. And that judgment of what’s good and what’s not is something I don’t see as being best for me as a human being.

Q: At what point did you realize that in an industry so heavily predicated on failure and disappointment that you were bucking the trend?

A: Every time I read a script, every time I walk on a set, every night before I shoot a scene, I’m scared and I hope to do a good job. It means that much to me. That’s exactly how I’ve always worked, and how I’ve always been. And I never get caught up thinking about how something might not succeed. Because each pilot is a new adventure; it’s a new birthing process.

DGA Interviews

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

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