Fall 2018

The Essentials

For students and teachers in the DGA's daylong episodic directors program, no detail is too small

BY T.L. STANLEY


Paris Barclay has taken a leading role in the Guild's First-Time Episodic Director Orientation Program, advocating for straight talk and practical guidance. (Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC)

During the DGA's First-Time Episodic Director Orientation Program last month—a daylong workshop designed to educate first-time episodic directors on their rights and responsibilities—Andi Armaganian, a veteran TV editor, took to heart advice that included arriving on location a day early to get her bearings, and buying her own headphones to have on hand at all times.

When talk turned to footwear, however, she figured she had that part covered. But after just wrapping a grueling shoot in Vancouver for The Flash that involved 15-hour days, and with her feet still aching from her trusty but worn Nikes, Armaganian recently thought back to that conversation in class and saw it differently.

"I didn't fully understand what they meant at the time about having a spare pair of shoes on set," Armaganian tells DGA Quarterly. "Now I totally do."

A guiding principle of the DGA's year-old program is that no detail is too small. From the practical to the psychological, the course aims to equip first-timers with enough insider information from award-winning industry heavyweights so they'll do a competent, maybe even outstanding job—and get hired again.

The DGA built the First-Time Episodic course, with past Guild President Paris Barclay spearheading the effort, to keep as many emerging directors in the fold as possible.

"It's very important that they not fail," Barclay says. "The best way we can help is to educate them about how the system of making TV episodes works, not just the nuts and bolts, but the politics that surround it."

While continuing its own talent outreach and mentoring programs, the DGA negotiated with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to include the First-Time Episodic course in the 2017 Basic Agreement. It makes the orientation a requirement for freshman TV directors.

The goal is to fully prepare new directors for their first assignment by helping them to avoid rookie mistakes that could derail a nascent career, sour them on the profession and leave employers with a bad impression of new blood.

The curriculum includes everything from how to prep for day one, what to contribute in meetings and when to ask for help. Humility and leadership are hot topics—being a decisive captain without letting the ego run wild—as are the mechanics of visual effects and navigating on-set hierarchies.

Janet Mock, who attended the course in April before directing a Season 1 episode of Ryan Murphy's FX drama Pose, latched onto the "little tidbits" as well as the broad strokes.

"They really outline and demystify the process of being a director doing episodic television," she says, including "all these intimate details about the job that you may not know."

Pete Chatmon gleaned so many pearls of wisdom during the class he took last summer that he compiled them into his own personal cheat sheet. And he won't leave home without it.

"I typed my favorite quotes and reminders onto one page, and I bring it with me on set," says Chatmon, who's begun amassing directing credits on Black-ish, Insecure and The Last O.G., among other series. "I read it every morning."

Having a run-through of the new job "alleviated the first-episode jitters for me," says Anu Valia, who attended a May session before directing The Other Two for Comedy Central. "The class dealt in specificity, which I found really cool and really necessary."


Instructor Mary Lou Belli, directing an episode of Station 19. (Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC)

Liftoff

The First-Time Episodic program had been in the works for months before its debut, with Barclay and a group of DGA members brainstorming its structure, which spans pre-prep, prep, shooting and post-production.

"We came up with a gigantic curriculum that could've filled an encyclopedia," Barclay says. "Then we narrowed it to the essentials."

The classes take place regularly in Los Angeles, at the DGA's Sunset Boulevard headquarters, and as needed in New York, with established directors teaching the sessions. Those instructors have included Barclay, Dan Attias, Eric Stoltz, Martha Mitchell and Fred Savage, among the more than 20 veterans who've contributed to the cause.

Emmy winner Mary Lou Belli (NCIS: New Orleans, Station 19), who has been involved since the program's formative stages and has taught three sessions so far, says the Saturday workshops have evolved over time to feature more video, case studies and personal anecdotes from instructors.

"People like to hear what we could've done better," says Belli, who co-authored the primer Directors Tell the Story: Mastering the Craft of Television and Film Directing. "It's like a cautionary tale. We rip off the Band-Aid and talk about where we've made mistakes."

So far, there have been 14 classes with 169 graduates, and the content will continue to morph based on student and teacher feedback. The Guild initially considered hosting four classes a year, but demand quickly surpassed early expectations. There are usually between 15 and 20 participants per workshop, allowing for individual attention and student-instructor interaction.

Belli says she picks up something noteworthy during every workshop by listening to her colleagues' stories and tips.

"I love learning about how someone else handled a situation or the phrasing they used when dealing with a problem," Belli says. "I've said many times, 'I'm going to use that.' Steal from the best."

They don't have to agree on their approaches and often they don't, instructors say, giving participants several different ways to deal with on-and off-set issues.

By volunteering their time, instructors say it's a way for them to give back to the business, foster a sense of camaraderie among the students and make them aware of the responsibilities and obligations of the director's role in television production.

"This is a chance for new directors to become a support group for each other," says Bethany Rooney (The Originals, NCIS), who's taught the class twice in New York and co-authored Directors Tell the Story with Belli. "So often you can feel like you're toiling out there all by yourself."

Longtime director Andy Wolk (Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, Shadowhunters), another instructor, says the soup-to-nuts course would've been invaluable to him when he was starting out in the field.

"I wish I knew all this years ago," he says. "It would've saved me so much trouble."

Rooney, who has more than 220 episodes on her CV, admits she might've done "everything" differently if she'd had formal training from accomplished directors when she was a newbie.

"It's a complex job, and there's no apprenticeship," she says. "Even watching someone else do it doesn't teach you what you need to know."

The class provides a shortcut to "fill in some of the gaps" in emerging directors' knowledge, Barclay says. If it had existed early in his career, "it would've shaved off five years of mistakes I made in learning how to be a director," he says. "We're trying to condense those five pothole years into one day."


Instructor Bethany Rooney, directing an episode of Criminal Minds. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/CBS)

Directing 101

At a recent workshop in L.A., Wolk talked about interpersonal dynamics on set and the proverbial "who's the boss" debate.

"You have a lot of power, but not all the power," he told the group. "You're the center of the wheel."

Instructors say it's important to dispel certain old myths about the profession straight out of the gate. Barclay refers to it as the "jodhpurs and a bullhorn" image that's cemented from Hollywood lore but doesn't apply to modern TV production.

Thanks to the team of instructors—Wolk, Belli and Mark Tinker (Chicago PD, Deadwood)—tips and suggestions flew out at a dizzying pace during the first hours of the class, with students taking notes on their iPads and following along with the aid of slides and videos. (Printed handouts included shot diagrams, "who's who" on the set, storyboard examples and scene breakdowns.)

There were questions about the chain of command and the danger of overstepping boundaries, with responses making it clear that a director's job involves a significant amount of diplomacy and people skills.

Make room for crew suggestions that might be better than your own, Wolk said, learn everyone's name on set, create a respectful atmosphere and express thanks for jobs well done.

"You want a victory," he told the group, "so that you can go on to direct again."

That involves collaborating, being flexible and admitting what you don't know, he said, while still being confident (not arrogant) and decisive (rather than controlling).

On a few practical matters, Belli advised the group to sign up for an acting class to "understand the process." And in a nod to the social-media age and the 24/7 news and gossip cycle, she said any first-time director should look up the cast on the Internet to see if the actors have been "trending" and why. A director doesn't want to be caught unaware of a social-media beef or news report involving a cast member, she said.

While the instructors covered some obvious spots where freshmen can and do trip up—blowing a budget, missing a deadline—they identified the tone meeting as a make-or-break moment. A poor performance there, they said, has caused many downfalls.

For example, arguing with the executive producer, criticizing the cast or crew and generally sucking the air out of the room by "being a jerk," Tinker said, can amount to career-shortening gaffes. The right way to handle that meeting, instructors said, is to listen attentively, ask pertinent questions and soak up as much information about the episode and series as possible.


Instructor Andy Wolk, directing an episode of Chicago P.D. (Photo: Matt Dinerstein/NBC)

Numbers Tell The Story

One of the goals of the program is to make sure new directors feel supported. This is particularly important as the industry moves toward inclusive hiring and more women and minorities are given opportunities to direct.

The just-released DGA study of the 2017-18 season found that the percentage of first-time female and minority directors has hit a record high: 31% of first-time hires were people of color, up from 27% the previous season and 12% in 2009-10; and 41% were women, up from 33% last season and 11% in 2009-10.

"There's no denying the power of a first break, which can be the launching pad of a long, successful TV directing career," says DGA President Thomas Schlamme. "And as employers heed our longstanding call for inclusive hiring practices, it's gratifying to see more women and directors of color being hired for first-time opportunities. It's a long overdue start."

The survey also found that of the 202 first-time directors hired in 2017-18, 117 were "series affiliated," meaning they already worked on the show they were directing (more than half were actors, writer-producers or crew members). Only 70 were "career-track" directors unaffiliated with the show they were hired to direct.

The DGA's research shows that "series-affiliated" directors are more likely to be one-and-done, meaning they direct a single TV episode and then never direct again. "Career-track" directors, on the other hand, overwhelmingly stay in the field.


 Graduates of the day-long workshop, which has been offered since July of last year. (Photos: DGA)

First Person

Being an episodic director involves navigating the challenging tightrope of bringing your own individuality to a show that existed before you and will exist beyond your work. Instructors say the trick is exercising the unique creative vision that you were hired for within the context of the overall style, tone and pacing of the series. (Hint: Do your homework.) It's not the place to flex your auteur muscles or experiment on the job.

From hearing that in his class, Chatmon also responded to the next bit of advice that came quickly on its heels—about adding a unique spin to an existing show.

"You're not just a traffic cop, and the job isn't just about moving the camera," he says. "They told us to find ourselves in the story, and that really made an impression on me."

Other tips that have stayed with him include standing where you want the camera to be during rehearsals so the actors will direct their performance toward you, helping frame the shots, and making (and sharing) a shot list with the crew, which he'd previously failed to do on a digital series. (Consequences ensued.)

"It wasn't about me making the days, it was about the discomfort the crew felt," he says. "They don't know what's in my mind. Now I always make a shot list."

Chatmon, who has an upcoming episode of Grey's Anatomy on his to-do list, says it would've been "exponentially harder" to learn the craft and avoid missteps without the First-Time Episodic workshop.

Valia, whose background is in web series and independent projects, felt more grounded in the knowledge that she would have "a voice in every creative aspect of production."

And she'd never rifle through a script while location scouting. "It wastes time, it's distracting," she says, "and it doesn't make people feel confident that you know or care about what you're doing."

Instead, as the instructors suggested, she jots ideas on note cards that she can easily refer to. Tips like those, along with "knowing what to expect" on the job, likely helped her snag the next five episodes (for Paramount Network and PopTV) she'll be directing later this year, she says.

Writer-producer Mock, a graduate of an April workshop in L.A., picked up on pragmatic advice like eating breakfast and drinking coffee before hitting the set, and arriving at least 30 minutes early each day. It was an eye opener when the teachers "hammered into our heads that we are in charge" and stressed the importance of "setting the tone as a leader every single day."

She liked hearing various opinions on where to sit in the van on location scouting trips, with some instructor-directors insisting that shotgun is the best spot. It's a not-so-subtle power move, they say, while others prefer to embed with the crew. (She chose the first row behind the driver for her directing debut on Pose.)

Mock says she understands better how to communicate with actors, with advice like: "Keep your instructions short and be very direct and clear about what you want from them," she says, "and keep it as simple and precise as possible."

She didn't know to ask for private rehearsals, which she called one of many "intangible" lessons, but she learned she should "fight for that, no matter how much time pressure that you may be under."

Armaganian, whose class last August came shortly after she'd completed the Warner Bros. directing program, says it drove home the concept of giving credit where it's due.

"The class emphasized that you need to appreciate all the hard work going on around you—the crews that are breaking their backs for you," she says. "Gratitude goes a long way, and you can never forget that."


  
Graduates of the day-long workshop, which has been offered since July of last year. (Photos: DGA)

BEST PRACTICES

⇒ Embrace simplicity: Less is more

⇒ Read previous show scripts (not just the one you're directing)

⇒ Watch the series with the sound off (analyze its visual style)

⇒ Visit the set before you direct

⇒ Never gossip

⇒ Go to auditions and pay attention (no texting!)

⇒ Learn to adapt (curveballs will abound)

⇒ Build a support network


  
Graduates of the day-long workshop, which has been offered since July of last year. (Photos: DGA)

ORIENTATION INSTRUCTORS TO DATE

Daniel Attias Michael Pressman
Paris Barclay Michael M. Robin
David Barrett Bethany Rooney
Mary Lou Belli Fred Savage
Kevin Dowling Michael Slovis
Lesli Linka Glatter Bryan Spicer
Nelson McCormick/td> Michael Spiller
Vincent A. Misiano Eric Stoltz
Martha Mitchell Mark Tinker
Christine Moore Tom Verica
Trent O'Donnell Ken Whittingham
Matthew Penn Andy Wolk
The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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