BY MARGY ROCHLIN
Director Zetna Fuentes (Photo: Brian Davis)
Recently, while directing an episode of the CBS thriller series Zoo, Zetna Fuentes came up against the limitations of her non-human cast. The script called for an action sequence in which a menacing leopard leaps on a truck
and smashes into the windshield. The animal wrangler, however, called for a dose of reality. "He said, ‘It’s not going to happen,’"; says Fuentes. "‘The leopard is not going to do what the script wants it to do. None of the things [in the script] are in a leopard’s behavior.’";
On the set, the Zoo writers, who had grown flexible working on episodes with wolves, bears, and marauding lions, told Fuentes to come up with whatever Plan B she liked. "They said, ‘Just make it really exciting and scary.’"; Her solution was to rip a page from Sam Peckinpah’s violence playbook. Using three Arri Alexa cameras, she shot footage of leopards sprinting at top speed, and separately filmed reaction shots of terrified villagers being attacked. She then edited the pieces together to create a fear-inducing montage. "The face of the leopard as it runs through the frame really fast—or the suggestion of it—is so great that when you put it all together it really works.";
Back when Fuentes was a child growing up in the South Bronx, it’s unlikely that she ever imagined that one day she’d be directing daytime serials (Guiding Light, One Life to Live), stylized, plot-stuffed primetime dramas (Scandal, Jane the Virgin) and be the person in charge of problem solving on a New Orleans-based set standing in for Zambia and hollering "Action!"; at oversized jungle cats as she did in Zoo. Though she’d fallen in love with visual storytelling by watching movies on TV with her janitor dad (he cherished classics like The Maltese Falcon), becoming a director wasn’t yet on her agenda.
"I was filled with all these ideas about movies in a very abstract way. But it was nothing that I thought I’d ever do,"; says Fuentes, who studied hard in school and hoped to become a lawyer. She can’t even remember how, after graduating from Vermont’s Middlebury College, she landed a job on Nueba Yol, a 1996 Spanish-language romantic comedy that was filming in New York. But it was so low budget that after exuding boundless enthusiasm, she was promoted from PA (which she knew nothing about) to location manager (which she knew even less about). By the time the film wrapped, she knew she wanted to forge a career in entertainment, but the possibilities seemed almost too limitless. "I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I didn’t really understand what a director did. I didn’t feel like I was a writer. And then I thought, ‘Do I want to be an editor?’ So I started trying different things.";
Though Fuentes’ quest began with personal assistant gigs, the way she really came to grasp the fundamentals of directing, acting and the dramatic arts was by working as an assistant director at Michael Imperioli’s 65-seat off-Broadway theater, Studio Dante. "There’s no better place to be [than] in the theater world if you want to direct, because you are there for everything,"; says Fuentes.
Exposed to all manner of Studio Dante’s established directors, Fuentes began to collect mentors. One, Kevin Kittle, used to constantly challenge her, asking, "‘What kind of director do you want
to be? Do you want to be the director who is concerned with actor behavior?’ And I would say to him, ‘That’s the only kind of director that I want to be.’ He instilled in me the idea of everything else is secondary. If you are not helping the actor to tell the story then nothing else matters. So every day on set, to this day, working in television, I think about that all the time.";
It was through another mentor, Brian Mertes, who toggled between directing theater and television soap operas, that she was introduced to the warp-speed four-camera universe of Guiding Light, where she shadowed fabled daytime directors JoAnne Sedwick, Tracey Hanley Bryggman, and Ellen Wheeler. Eight months passed before she was allowed to sit inthe booth and take a stab at directing two segments, each comprising three scenes involving two actors sitting together in a bar. After that, Fuentes spent the next four years directing episodes for Guiding Light, as well as One Life to Live.
In 2010, many of even the most august soaps were receiving cancellation notices, Fuentes sensed that the end was near and she needed to reinvent herself as a single-cam primetime director. Ready to go back to square one, she entered Disney/ABC’s two-year directing program for women and minorities just as she discovered she was pregnant. Commuting between New York and Los Angeles, she began shadowing directors like Lesli Linka Glatter and Ken Whittingham on ratings toppers including Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. She was on the set of Brothers & Sisters watching Bethany Rooney helm an episode when the concept of single-camera blocking clicked for her. "I was looking at the physical space and it just changed for me,"; recalls Fuentes. "I suddenly thought, ‘I know how to move actors around this space, anything is possible. It still gives me the chills thinking about it. I know it sounds corny but it’s true.";
Ultimately, it was ABC Family’s adolescent melodramas—Pretty Little Liars and Switched at Birth—that seemed the best fit to her. "Because of soap operas, I [was comfortable] with soapy twists and story lines, and I’d worked with lots of teen actors. I thought, ‘I have
to use all this as a positive,’"; says Fuentes. After landing a directing assignment on Pretty Little Liars, she packed up and relocated to the West Coast with her acting coach husband and toddler son.
Arriving in L.A., Fuentes applied the same strategy she did when she joined the DGA in 2007, calling the Guild to find out what committees she could join. In New York she’d served on the Eastern Directors Council from 2009 to 2012 and the Eastern Diversity Steering Committee from 2010 to 2012. "I loved the Guild in New York. Everyone was so friendly, supportive, and I could go and get involved,"; says Fuentes, who, among other things, helped organize a series of master classes on directing with help from now-DGA president Paris Barclay.
Becoming an alternate on the Western Directors Council, an alternate National Board member and a co-chair on the Latino Committee meant she was not only building relationships in a brand-new town but aiding other women and minority members. "We celebrate the accomplishments of Latino members,"; says Fuentes, recalling an evening that spotlighted the work of Roxann Dawson, Norberto Barba, Miguel Arteta, and Linda Mendoza. "It was a great night, and we had a panel discussion and a Q&A,"; she says. "If you are celebrating the accomplishments of one individual, or five, hopefully it’s inspiring and gets people thinking, ‘If that person has done it, I can do it too.’"