Winter 2018

Keeping GMA's Daily Sprint on Course

Lily Olszewski and her team keep the country's leading morning telecast churning ahead of a hyperactive news cycle


Good Morning America's diorama-like set in the heart of New York's Times Square. (Photo: Ida Mae Astute/ABC)

Just before Good Morning America hits the stage at 7 a.m., director Lily Olszewski plants herself in the control room facing a wall of glowing video monitors. There she stands for the next two hours, calling camera shots or prepping an event every few seconds while simultaneously communicating with any of the 50 people looped into her headset.

To her right, the associate director, Joe Beltrano, who keeps track of the timing, has donned his special headset with the left earpiece removed to catch any missives from Olszewski, while remaining tuned, through the other ear, to the crew awaiting his countdowns.

While out on the set, the stage managers take up their starting positions, scrutinizing the cast and crew one final time to determine that everyone is in place and poised for Olszewski's opening command, "roll, track, fade up."

And the sprint begins.

It's always a high-octane morning on Good Morning America—the No. 1 a.m. newscast in total viewers for five years running. The fevered pace and pack-it-in-style of this news and entertainment show necessitates that every directing team player be in constant communication and know exactly what is required of them at all times. Not only must they respond well to pressure, they need to be adaptable, because breaking news could hit anytime, changing everything.

"I do love it. I really do," says Olszewski. "It's a beast, as some people say. But it's variety. And I do so many different things."

It also helps to be a morning person. The sun is still hours away when Olszewski arrives at the GMA studios at 4:30 a.m. on a late October morning to review the graphics and B-roll for the day's show. "We go through it beat by beat," she says.

That's followed by a crew meeting at 5:30 a.m. "Ready for our pumpkin workout today?" Olszewski playfully quips. In a nod to the upcoming Halloween holiday, one quirky segment will feature gym trainers using pumpkins as medicine ball weights.

Lighting directors, stage hands, camera operators, stage managers and prop handlers gather around Olszewski in the ground-floor studio, located in the heart of Times Square. The news-heavy first hour of the show takes place here, with the hosts at the anchor desk taking center stage. Gawkers will soon rush the windows. But for now, with the exception of the unrelenting neon lights and some tourists who rose early to get into the audience line, the strip outside remains drowsy as Olszewski, whose tone is warm yet businesslike, launches into a brisk recitation of today's rundown.

"Mary Bruce live will throw to a tape piece," she notes, as she gets to the biggest story of the day: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake's just announced that he won't be running again while also criticizing President Trump for a "coarsening" political discourse. Olszewski will direct a remote shot set up in front of the U.S. Capitol featuring Bruce, the ABC political correspondent, explaining this latest development.

"That's a two-shot, camera five," she continues, for what's coming next: a live interview of Flake by the anchor, George Stephanopoulos, again by remote.

The daily crew meeting puts everyone on the same page. Olszewski always works to be exacting, having observed another director—remotely covering a fireworks display—not specify to the two field cameras what to shoot. So both operators inadvertently covered the fireworks and there was no talent footage to cut to.

"The lessons you learn through the years," says Olszewski, who is the first woman to direct weekday GMA. She's been at it for five years and much prefers live over taped shows, which involves stopping and starting to redo takes. "Live gives it that edge," she says.

(Top) Director Lily Olszewski and associate director Joe Beltrano juggle the countless elements that go into the daily weekday production of Good Morning America; Eddie Luisi, pointing, says he and his fellow stage managers are "the eyes and ears of Lily, since her view is only through the camera lens;" (Bottom) Brad Hennessy is one of the show's four stage managers, who are purposely dressed in black to blend into the background. (Photos: Paula Lobo/ABC)

Besides GMA's main elements—news, weather, pop culture and entertainment segments, guest interviews and anchor chat—Olszewski must also direct the intros, promos and bumpers that bring the show in and out of commercial breaks.

"And at 7:30," she continues, "it's back to the video of a man texting with the bear," a tease for a news segment on texting. The B-roll, set during the graphics meeting, shows a man so absorbed in his cellphone that he doesn't notice he's walking toward a bear on the loose.

So far this morning, there have been no major disruptions to the rundown. Weeks earlier, the Las Vegas mass shooting turned GMA upside down. "Everything we had planned to do on GMA that morning," says Beltrano, "was tossed aside in order to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the shooting aftermath."

Beltrano coordinates tape, graphics and the playback of pieces. "I count backward a lot," he says. He's also the eyes and ears for information coming in and the mouthpiece for getting information out ahead of the director when needed. In addition, he liaises with the studio that puts GMA out to the affiliates and communicates with the stage managers about the timing of segments and when they need to wrap up. He equates his job "to being the first violin in the orchestra," helping to keep everyone in tune with the conductor, Olszewski.

On the morning after the Las Vegas shooting, however, he had no rundown to help chart their course. "As the story moved, so did we," he says. "You just have to trust that everyone in the control room is on point because there's no road map.

"My job, as always," he continues, "is to keep calm and help communicate to the crew what we're going to do next." At one point, the network nabbed an interview with someone who'd attended the concert with a friend who got shot. "You could tell from his demeanor that he was trying his best to keep it together while he spoke with us," says Beltrano, who found it challenging to remain focused while listening to the man's riveting account. "Those are the moments that stick with you and remind you that we're doing important work here."

Other crew members also get affected. "First of all, the feeling on the set changes," says the stage manager, Eddie Luisi. "We feel the sadness and pain too."

Those adrenalin moments, however, when the show is being reassembled on the fly, are when Olszewski and her crew kick into high gear. "Breaking news," says Olszewski, "is, oddly enough, easier.

"It's freeing," she explains, "because you don't have a script. You're watching it unfold. What do we have? We have a picture of the guy. New shots come in. Oh, we've got a live shot of the suspect's house. Let's mix that in." She says, "I love storytelling with pictures. That's really what we do."

Recently, after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc over Houston, the GMA producers asked Olszewski to break the show format entirely and substitute a fundraising telethon for the second hour featuring celebrities like MLB star Alex Rodriguez and actor John Leguizamo. Olszewski shot it with Steadicams, following the anchors, especially Robin Roberts, who loves to engage with people, as they walked around chatting with guests manning phones. "That's what adapting is all about," says Olszewski.

Typically, however, the second hour of GMA is devoted to lighter fare, such as food, health and entertainment segments. Everybody shifts to the upstairs studio, designed to accommodate a live audience. Before the first hour ends, in fact, stage managers have trooped in people who've been waiting outside and instructed them on how to interpret their applause signals. They've also sussed out a few who seem like they'd engage well with the hosts and they've pointed them out to Olszewski so she can place them on her radar and make sure they are well lit.

"We are the eyes and ears for Lily since her view is only through the camera lens," says Luisi. "We see the whole floor." Luisi has worked on GMA for more than 30 years and still loves it. Especially, he says, "To have a front-row view on history, news, sports and entertainment." He also genuinely likes the hours, always rising early enough to savor quiet time at his local chapel before heading to work.

Four stage managers are assigned to GMA. The team, which dresses in black to blend into the background, includes Brad Hennessy, Angie Morreale and Alfonso Pena. Each manages their allocated portion of the set, ensuring that the cameras, audio, props, carpenters and electric are stationed where they're supposed to be. "We have a zone defense," says Luisi.

They also wrangle the talent and cue them, both on the floor and outside during weather breaks or concerts. For hard cues going to certain network breaks, they tend to do a 10-second countdown using both hands. "As for our wrap, we like to wave bye-bye," says Luisi, who, when he's cueing, slides his eyeglasses onto his forehead where they miraculously stick. "We seldom give the traditional 'cut' cue," he adds, "unless we really need to stop them."

When it can get tough, says Luisi, "are quick set changes and getting talent in and out in two minutes." There was also that time he tried to do a favor for a guest by removing a stray thread on his pants. "I went to pull it," recalls Luisi, "and he yelled 'no! Too late.' I pulled the thread and his whole seam opened up. I yelled to the director at the time, 'Shoot him tight!'"

Directing GMA has grown more complicated over the years. Social media, including a tweeting president, has sped up conversations around the news, which in turn affects the rundown. "It's constant action and reaction," says Beltrano.

Also, more and more graphics get sandwiched in. Most recently, they installed rolling banners in each studio, which Olszewski must update throughout the broadcast. "Before, sets were made out of scenery," she says. "Nowadays, every piece of wall is covered by a monitor."

In order to call graphics and camera shots while simultaneously listening to what the hosts and guests are saying—and also communicating with scores of other people over her headset—Olszewski has to exert tremendous focus and a sort of tunnel vision. Sometimes after a broadcast, someone will remark about a detail in a news story that wasn't pertinent to her juggling, "And I'm like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about,'" she says.

"Lily is fantastic," says Beltrano. "I'm still not quite sure how she keeps it all in her head." After growing up in the U.S. and Argentina, Olszewski got her first broadcast job at an L.A. Spanish-language station. After that, she began directing a range of network and cable shows, including Donahue and The Real World.

Not one to get easily flustered or distracted, she auditioned for the weekend GMA slot in '06 by directing a segment of This Week, then under the supervision of the former ABC news director, Roger Goodman. Before she started the audition, she recalls, "Little did I know that Roger, to test me, was going around behind my back and asking the crew to screw up to see how I'd react." One camera went completely dark and she was thinking, "God, these people are idiots," until Goodman explained everything afterward, and told her she'd passed.

At various points in her career, she says, "I've been told to yell more because that's how directors got respect." But she believes people make more mistakes that way. "I'll yell when I need to yell. But my crew, we're very tight. And if I don't have them on my side, I'm lost."

As soon as the crew meeting ends this morning, she turns her attention to rehearsing any segments using props. That includes the pumpkin workout. It takes her about one second to assess that the pumpkin stems pose a safety hazard to anyone doing pushups on them and must be removed. She also reduces the number of trainers from six to three. "I don't cut willy nilly," she says, but extra people means extra props to move in and out in a short time.

"We have a good rapport," she says, of the morning segment producers who tend to be younger and less experienced. "I come at it with an overall vision of what the show is.

"Okay, let's move on," says Olszewski, for the umpteenth time that morning. Because there is no time to waste. She's got a show to direct.

News Directing
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