INT: So while directing SESAME STREET, you also directed segments of BLACK JOURNAL and the variety series SOUL! Working on three programs at the same time, how did you manage your time in terms of preproduction through post to meet deadlines? And how did this experience serve you later in your career?
SL: Well, you know, I was pretty busy during that time; it was right in the beginning of the '70s [1970s]. I had just gotten to New York. I was flown to New York. I was moved to New York from Boston to direct BLACK JOURNAL, to actually produce for BLACK JOURNAL, because that's a magazine show. So I would produce and direct these documentaries, short documentaries. And soon after I got there, because I was African American and that was a time when it was a lot of talk about equal opportunity and stuff like that, and SESAME STREET was Children's Television Workshop, which had gotten a lot of grants for their budgets, and so they really needed to find more diverse staffing. And so I was... I got there, I was a Director and the word got out and I was soon had... was offered a job there. So at SESAME STREET, I was a Director in the studio with Big Bird and Gordon and Mr. Hooper and Oscar and those folks. But I was able to, because they shot the show in blocks, I would go in on let's say Tuesdays for a month and shoot Tuesday and Wednesday, shoot two days a week and shoot, you know, a lot of different segments. You know, we'd shoot, one day we'd show up and shoot all Big Bird stuff, and the next day we'd shoot stuff with the kids on the street and that kind of thing. So I was able to... that I was able to do, just build into my schedule, because at BLACK JOURNAL I was a Producer, and I was producing my own documentaries. So I was able to kind of just manipulate the two. And I was able to get both shows to agree to let me do the other one, so that worked for me pretty well.
SL: And as far as prep, with SESAME STREET, we'd get a script a few days before, but much of the work was kind of, you know, off the cuff. I mean, it was you know, there was a lot of improving, we had a... in those segments, we'd have a certain lesson to put forth, and there would be a consultant from, you know, child educational consultant that would make sure that we made the points that we needed to make. But for the most part, we would just kinda, trying to move fast and you know, and get a lot of stuff in the can. And it was very, that wasn't too much of a stress because it was easy and it was fun. The other stuff for BLACK JOURNAL, of course, I was doing research, I was setting up shoots and that kind of thing. And that was a little more taxing, but it was something that, you know, I still had control of the schedule. And then did you talk about SOUL!? Did you mention SOUL!? [INT: Yes, yes.] With SOUL!, SOUL! was the show that shadowed Saturdays. We shot... it was a music show for the most part. Or and sometimes they did interviews or they would have a poetry day, night, or something like that. But we shot on Saturdays, and it just all fit into the schedule. We would meet early in the morning on Saturday morning and rehearse all day and set the set, rehearse. And I got to shoot it live on Saturday night. And much of the time it was like musical acts that were in town, appearing somewhere in town. So on Friday night or Thursday night, we'd go to the club, we'd see the act. I would get together with the AD [Associate Director] on the following day at some point, or following night, and we would, based on what we've seen, we would write out a diagram of how we wanted to set it up, and we'd listen to the albums or to the music and plot shots, because that was before the time of going into a club and just shooting the band. You know, it wasn't happening then. That was 50 something--40 something years ago, so.
INT: And for the post-production of those shows [BLACK JOURNAL; SESAME STREET; SOUL!], it wasn't ever an issue where you had to go from one place to edit and then back to--
SL: Not really, I wasn't involved in the post on SESAME STREET. We would just, you know, stock up a lot of material, and they had an editing, you know, a 24-hour editing process going on because they were bringing in outside segments and studio stuff and animation and you know, so that it was really kind of a jigsaw puzzle the way it was put together. [INT: Okay.] I mean if you see the show, you know, you've seen it, I'm sure. You know what I mean, it was just, it was... the editing of all the segments was pretty much a separate kind of entity there.
INT: Okay, so moving on, describing your directing experience on shows like SANFORD AND SON, taking that in mind, on a high profile NBC network show like that, compared to your previous work in public television, were there any surprises in terms of creative control and other issues? And in which phrase, excuse me, in which phase of production on SANFORD AND SON did you have the most creative control?
SL: SANFORD AND SON was a good example because it was already in its second season when I went in to direct. And so they had pretty much gotten their process down. And the process was somewhat dictated by Redd [Redd Foxx] and his work ethic and his schedule. So for me, as a Director, I came in and I'd learned a lot about sitcom directing. It was quite different from the stuff I had done, even SESAME STREET. It was a lot of comedy, a lot of camera work, but this was... now I was in a situation where, you know, in a half-hour comedy, the script rules. The jokes have to work, the Show Runner, really, does have, you know, a large input on the way things are done. And so, for me, I just kinda like tried to fit in, at least for the first few shows. And then after I got kinda comfortable in that environment, I was able to kinda be a little bit more, or maybe quite more involved in things like staging and restaging and that kind of thing. But it was a sitcom, and so, and it was run by a man named Aaron Ruben, he was the Show Runner. And he was an old pro, he had been around for many years before, worked on a lot of shows, Dick Van Dyke and those kind of things. And he, I learned a lot from him. And I learned a lot from Redd, but they were just, you know, two totally different creatures. You know, this guy was from, you know, like had roots in vaudeville and early television, and Redd was a cat that, you know, hung out in clubs, and gambled and you know, he told jokes.
SL: So it [SANFORD AND SON] was interesting cultural experience, but as far as the process is concerned, it was a pretty standard, you know, read, you know, table read, couple days of rehearsal. And in that rehearsal, you just kinda block it and run through it a few times. And with Redd [Redd Foxx], there wasn't a lot of rehearsal, because he was, you know, he didn't do it that way. But he would learn the blocking and then we'd get it. It would really come together pretty much, mainly, in the first camera-blocking day, when now we're getting shots, we're figuring out coverage of jokes and reaction shots and things like that. And that's when we would start to become more precise. Even then, it was kinda loose because that's the way Redd worked. He didn't want to get stale; he didn't want to... he got bored with some of the jokes and that kind of thing. So the shows really sort of exploded when there was an audience in the room. That's when he was at his best and that's when he paid more attention to what was going on. [INT: And so you kinda have to learn how to use that?] I had to learn how to deal with him. It was the first time I'd had a star, you know, a real kind of bona fide star, and I had to learn to deal with the process of running a show, or you know, being in a show that was being run by a really strong Show Runner [Aaron Ruben], who, you know, kinda knew what he wanted. And I... it was, for me, it was a great place to start actually. And the network was something that I had never even been, you know, aware of networks and that kind of thing in the shows that I had done in Boston because it was public television and was a whole different kind of culture. [INT: And this was NBC, for SANFORD AND SON?] This was NBC.
INT: From the mid-‘70s [1970s] through the ‘80s[1980s], you directed one-hour episodic dramas like EIGHT IS ENOUGH, THE WALTONS, REMINGTON STEELE, FALCON CREST, and HILL STREET BLUES. What was your rehearsal process as a guest Director on longer running shows? And how did you work with established ensemble Casts to get the performances that you wanted?
SL: I think my first show was a show called JAMES AT 15 [AKA JAMES AT 16], and I got... what was interesting is that I had shot, I had actually directed a couple of shows for public television in a series called THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY series, and they were short stories that we adapted, you know, as short films. And I had also, by that time, shot a low budget feature film called AMAZING GRACE with Moms Mabley, so I kinda had the filmmaking craft, at least I had, you know, I was... I had actually worked as a film Director, as a single camera Director. And so when I got to the point where I was shooting single camera episodic television, which started with JAMES AT 15, and then right after that I started, you know, directing EIGHT IS ENOUGH and THE WALTONS and FALCON CREST and I got into this Lorimar [Lorimar Television], you know, kinda merry-go-round, and did all of their shows. Did episodes of all of their shows. They kept a few Directors moving around once they found people that they liked. And you know, in the episodic world, there's not a whole lot of time for rehearsal other than the time you take to rehearse a scene that you're about to shoot. There's no table read. It's really kinda instant production. I get a script, I get a week to actually prep the script, and in that week we kinda figure out where we're gonna, you know, we look, we pick our locations, we do the casting. I was involved in casting, you know, heavily involved in the casting for the episode that I would be doing. We'd pick all the locations, we'd pretty much map out how we were gonna shoot in those seven days. You know, what the schedule was gonna be, how we were gonna move around, because it's a very, it’s always tightly scheduled. But rehearsal? Rehearsal was, you know, "Let's... okay, we got a seven o'clock call, let's arrive on the set at seven." Everybody meets on the set, rehearse the first scene, really block the first scene, kinda show everybody what they're doing, so that the Crew sees how they're gonna light it and the camera folks know what they need to do to set it up. And then the Actors kinda get a sense of the scene and they go off to get ready. And while the set is being lit and the cameras are being setup, and they come back and we try to shoot it as quickly as possible. And that's pretty much, that was then and that's pretty much the way it's done now. Episodic television does not give you ample rehearsal time. I think probably some shows have a slightly longer schedule. Some of the bigger, some of the more complex shows, but there's not a whole lot of time spent directly rehearsing. It's more about having people that kinda know who their characters are, know and have a good sense of working together as an ensemble. That's the ideal. And that, come prepared. And there are people that... some people don't come prepared, and you find a way to, you know, accommodate that by the way you kinda set it up. But not a lot of rehearsal time.
INT: So as a guest Director, you're coming into this place where a lot of the Actors know their characters really well. Broadening it a little bit, you worked on a lot of series with established visual styles, so when you came in, could you talk a little bit about the challenges of, you know, responding to that visual style as well as also, you know, putting yourself in it as well?
SL: Right. Well, that's part of the preparation. If there is established visual style, established, you know, pacing and, you know, when I did HILL STREET BLUES, HILL STREET BLUES had a very specific look that was unique, you know, there was a lot of moving camera, a lot of, you know, rapid dialogue, people… And there was this need to kind of create energy, you know, that was brought by the people in the scenes. You know, there was a... the main set was a crowded police station that was very active and so there was a lot of quick walk and talks and dolly shots where you're dollying on close-ups as opposed to the big wide shot. And so that's something that had been established. It was pretty much established from the get, from the beginning. And so part of the prep was preparing and understanding how to get that, you know, and how to, you know, deliver that.
SL: What happens is you go into a set like, like the police station [on HILL STREET BLUES], you know, there's 50 extras, and you know, there's two or three different scenes that are all meshing together in there. You know, one guy's booking somebody, the other guy is, you know, being accosted or approached by someone with a complaint, and they're all moving around and crossing... So you get to a point where, it took me at least one episode to really kinda catch up with that. But one of the things that happens on shows like that, is that you end up with a Crew that does it all the time, and a Director of Photography who does it all the time, and a First AD [First Assistant Director]. And so there's, you know, they've kind of already mastered by the third or fourth season, and I think I was toward one of the later seasons, they've all kinda mastered, you know, what it takes to get that ready. You know, how many extras you really need, and how many… and the kind of extras, you know. They even would, you know, pick people that were gonna be very responsive and very, you know, work well off camera, or in the background, that kind of thing. They had favorite background people and you just try to put all the elements together and provide for the guest Director a situation that he can easily get into. And it took me at least one or two episodes before I felt comfortable enough to say, "No, I don't want to put it over there, I want to put it over there, and I want to try something a little different," you know, that kind of thing.
SL: But otherwise, the key in all of these situations [duties and responsibilities of a guest Director], as most people know, is that, you know, in these episodic shows, there's a schedule. And the schedule is king. You know, you gotta get, in seven days, you gotta get a show, and you don't want to go, you don't want those days to be longer than they should be. You know, there's probably a 12-hour maximum time that you want to spend, and you know, can get into 13 or 14 hour days. Some people do. Some shows do regularly, but they budget for it. But you know, the key is, so that as a Director part of your job, much of your job is delivering the material on time. And for me, the shows I worked on, you know, HILL STREET BLUES and all of the Lorimar shows--Lorimar was very tight with their budgets. In fact, I think on the Lorimar shows we shot in six and a half days rather than seven. Every other shows were shooting seven and some even longer. But you know, it was very important and it was stressed that, you know, you'll be in favor if you bring it in on time. I even remember that once I was... and it wasn't FALCON CREST, it was one of the shows. Oh, I can't remember the name of the show actually. But I was shooting a scene and I wanted to turn, you know, and do a, turn into and shoot toward a wall that has always been out. You know, it's a four-wall set, but they take out one wall and they leave it out. You know, and you shoot kind of like a three wall set, so that, you know, you kind of load in from that wall. So in order to do that, they would've had to move all the equipment that was there and bring in the wall and put it up and you know. And the Production Manager came to me and said, "Hey Stan, listen. You know, it's gonna take an hour to do that. And we've never done it before, so there's no lights, you know, going in that direction. And so, you know, I don't know if it's worth it, to lose that time, because we got so much more to do." And I looked and I said, and he said, "Let's be frank, you know, it's never been done before, I don't know that you want to be the guy to break that. And have it done and then, you know, and fall behind schedule and all that, 'cause it's gonna happen." So he said, "But it's up to you." So you know, I didn't do it. You know, I said, "Okay, I'll take it. I get it." You know? And... FLAMINGO ROAD, that was the name of the show. Yeah, so it was a long time ago. But that was one of the early lessons, and one of the early teaching moments for me. And… So, yeah.
INT: So you said that the schedule was king. Sort of switching gears--
SL: Schedule is important, not the king. You know, you still gotta deliver a show that makes sense and that looks good and the Actors feel fulfilled and deliver their best that they can, so. But you know, on schedule, you want to do that in episodic television, across the board.
INT: So speaking about episodic television, as an episodic Director, what would you say is the differences between a one-hour drama and a half-hour comedy, a place you've worked quite a bit, and which do you prefer and--
SL: I like 'em both a lot. I like, in the half-hour drama, I mean, you know, the hour is, you know, shooting a little movie, you know, faster. I kinda liken multi-camera audience based shows as actually shooting a play. You know, I've worked in the theater in a lot, but you're working with a proscenium, a perceived proscenium. You know, there's a fourth wall that you rarely break or see. And there, you know, all of the staging, all of the performance is kinda oriented toward an audience. And cameras have kind of, you know, become a part of that audience. And so it's a whole different kind of, you know, sensibility for Actors and for me, the Director. And usually--and it's definitely comedy, so it's usually staged very... for me, I like to stage it very conventionally, 'cause I think it's about telling jokes and being on the shot when the joke is being told and being on this shot for the reaction. I mean that's generally, I mean you go outside of that, but it's, you know, if you can get people to laugh at the jokes and enjoy the characters and not be so aware of, you know, any kind of fanciness visually, then you're probably doing your job really well.
INT: And sticking with half-hour comedy, you've directed nearly a dozen pilots, including MARTIN, MOESHA, THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW, THE SOUL MAN. As a pilot Director--[SL: REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD.] REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD, indeed. As a pilot Director, what is your level of creative involvement and how much do you contribute from story and script to casting and the creative, the visual style of the show?
SL: Yeah, well in a pilot, in pilot production it's a different being from doing, being in a series. First of all, it's our job, as a team, to, you know, to find the right groove, to find, put the right people in the room. To kinda find a way, a look, or a pacing that works for this particular show, so… and the Director is very involved in that. So from the beginning, my first, my early pilots, I think the first pilot I did was AMEN with Sherman Hemsley and Ed. Weinberger, who was a pretty colorful Show Runner, and I put that, you know, I say that with a grain of salt, so. But he was cool, and he was very smart, he was a very funny guy, he did a lot of the MTM [MTM Enterprises], you know, big show. I think he was also the creator of TAXI and I know he was involved with the Bill Cosby show in the beginning, and so he, working with him was great. And he was very collaborative, especially when it came to actually even designing the sets. I was involved in, you know, in the choice of locations, and you know, helped and had input on the way the sets were laid out, and on the casting outside of Sherman Hemsley and one or two other stars that the network had made the deal with. And that's pretty much the way it works on a pilot. You try to get a Director who's gonna bring something to the table in terms of his awareness of, you know, what might work best in this situation. So… But, you know, I love doing pilots. Most of 'em don't get picked up, you know that, right? Unless you're Jim Burrows [James Burrows]. But even he has his share of unpicked up pilots.
INT: Could you talk a little bit about… in the 1990s, you began to produce series that you directed as well. So did your producing role ever conflict with your directorial responsibilities? And if so, how or why?
SL: I don't think it did. I don't think they ever really conflict. [INT: Why not?] Well, because we're all trying to do the same thing. So as a Producer... and you know, Producers and Directors are not supposed to conflict. You know, I mean the team is designed to make the show, to make it as good as possible. The only time conflict comes along, most of the time, conflict is caused by personality, you know, incompatibility, or a disagreement on direction, or the direction something should go into. But so, you know, like I said, with a pilot, it's usually smart to put together a team that's gonna, you know, work well together or at least understand the, you know, what the goal is, you know, what the prize is and how to get to it. So, for me to say that as a Producer I was conflicted in any way or, you know, no, I don't think so. I think if anything the Director in me is always kinda leading my charge, my personal charge. So, as a Producer, I'm trying to make decisions that will service my directing instincts and thoughts and needs. So it's just part of the challenge. It's great, you know, it's that kind of work that is really the most rewarding is, you know, being able to create something within this structure of television--network television, which is in many cases a very bureaucratic and driven by different, driven by, with different goals on the parts of the networks, and the studio and the production folks, so… but it's still, it's very challenging to come up with a show that's commercial, and funny, and that's gonna appeal to an audience, and sell a whole lot of soap, and soda, and cars and stuff, which is what you're really there for--[INT: Yeah, that's what it's about.]--at the end of the day.
INT: Keeping with the idea of also being Producer and directing, from '96  to 2002 you executive produced THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW and directed all 122 episodes. Could you walk us through, keeping those titles in mind, an episode cycle from pre-production through post, as an Executive Producer and a Director, and describe the challenges and rewards of working on a show like that?
SL: Well, in the beginning we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do this because we were using stand-up comedians. Steve Harvey was, you know, a very well known stand-up comedian--among African American audiences. And after he did DEF COMEDY JAM, he was discovered by, you know, was kinda discovered by Hollywood as somebody that, you know, might have a career ahead of them. And Cedric [Cedric the Entertainer] was his partner, end up being cast as his partner, so, but they were both two stand-up comedians. It was very obvious for us at the time that we had to work on getting them to be more malleable as Actors, as comic Actors. In fact, they would often times, if the two of them were in a scene together, you would see them, if they were standing, you know, talking to each other, they'd kinda gradually turn toward the audience. The other thing was we played in front of an audience, so they found themselves playing to the audience rather than playing out toward the audience, if you know what I mean. So, but they learned very quickly, 'cause they're both extremely talented as we now know, as history has proven.
SL: And so we [THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW], you know, there's this period of time in the beginning of the season when we break stories. The Show Runner, who was Winifred Hervey, would come up with--and her staff--would pitch out storylines. And that would take, you know, maybe a couple of weeks, and they, you know... we got a pickup for 22, so we want to get the first nine or 10 shows at least started to be written, so they pitch out the storylines. In some cases do, you know, kind of a semi outline, and then Writers would go off and write a first draft. And so Writers from the staff would go off and write for a few days or more, and maybe some outside Writers who aren't on the staff would be assigned a script. And they write the first draft, and the first draft comes back, and then there's a period of time when the first draft is now looked at by the entire writing staff, and they begin to shape it more specifically for what we're trying to do, to get it down to time, service the Actors, you know, adjust the storylines. There's usually an A-plot and a B-plot, and maybe a little running gag thing that happens, which we call a runner. And that goes through. Eventually there's what is called the first draft, I guess it's the first Producer's draft, or you know, they have these different titles, the drafts. And that then might go to the network, or it might come to... or I would see it, and then I would kinda give some input that might help with staging, and you know, and thoughts about casting and that kind of stuff. Winifred, the Show Runner and I would get together and kinda put our heads together on that, and then the draft would be adjusted, and eventually the network would see it, or the studio would see it. In this case it was Brillstein-Grey [Brillstein-Grey Entertainment]. They would see it and they'd have their notes. We'd adjust them, the Writers would, and then the network would see it, and the network would give notes. And coming out of the network notes we were pretty close to having what is called a shooting draft. And that's kinda the process, you go from putting the ideas on a list, and through all of the different drafts, you end up with a show that we're now actually casting because the characters are set, and we're actually prepping for that particular show, if there's any special needs or props or sets or that kind of thing. And that could be, you know, the pre-production period for a series could be six, eight weeks, you know, while you get the first few scripts kinda set up and all of the, you know, the choices about casting and sets and so forth. And it’s a, you know, it's a process. Eventually we're standing on a stage rehearsing for the first show, and shooting the first show, and worrying about the second show the very next morning. Gets to be like an assembly line.
INT: Okay, so just circling back to what you were saying about working with Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer, having previously worked with Redd Foxx on SANFORD AND SON, could you talk a little bit about how you work with comedians and specifically working with Actors versus a scripted show or... let me backtrack, sorry. Compare working with Actors used to working on a scripted show versus comedians whose routines evolve and change according to interaction with the audience.
SL: Right. Well, you know there's... every situation's different. And so I don't know that there's such a general answer to that. I think that one of the things--and I was fortunate to be able to have, you know, like intense exposure to all of the African American comedians that were hot at the time, because I was producing and directing DEF POETRY--I mean DEF COMEDY, DEF COMEDY JAM with Russell [Russell Simmons], and we did that for six seasons and you know, a lot of great people came out of there, including Steve Harvey and Cedric [Cedric the Entertainer] and Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac and Martin Lawrence. You know, he had been around a little bit before, but he really blew up on that. And Eddie Griffin and Mike Epps, and it was a whole bunch of people that kind of emerged from that, and a lot of them got opportunities on television. So some were, you know, kinda naturally talented and adapted very well. I think Cedric became a pretty strong performer within the first couple of seasons of television kinda personality, and so did Steve. Steve, nobody's more comfortable in front of a camera than Steve Harvey, but… So for us, it was kinda cool.
SL: And on STEVE HARVEY [THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW], for instance, we had Wendy Raquel Robinson, and she was a, you know, really experienced comic Actress. And she was in the mix. And then Terri Vaughn [Terri J. Vaughn] was also really strong Actor. So we were able to kinda mix them and match 'em and they got funnier and Steve and Cedric [Cedric the Entertainer]... no, the girls got funnier, and Steve and Cedric got, you know, more skilled at, you know, at the craft, just by putting them together and having them so tightly wound for six seasons. By the time we got to season four and five, you know, we were like, we were rolling as far as the comedy was concerned. You know, it's like anything else. You do it all the time, you do it on a regular basis with people that really care about what they're doing, and they'll get better, and it gets easier to do. And you find yourself, you know, actually by the time we were into the third and fourth seasons when many shows are getting stale, we were just kinda picking up steam and the stories that we did were a little more complex. At first it was kind of a little just, you know, kinda sitcom that was funny, but by the time we got to seasons three, four, five, four, five, six, we were doing some pretty interesting stuff and subject matter and all of that, and the Cast just kept growing. And so… And the same thing with MOESHA. MOESHA, you know... Brandy [Brandy Norwood] was a very talented young girl, but within half a season she became a real strong Actress who kinda understood, you know, very complex things about character development and character arc and stuff like that. And I was always amazed how she would attack a part or a given part in a given episode, and in, you know, a few days really bring depth to the whole experience, you know?
INT: So THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW and MOESHA were both multi-cam series, and you eventually started working on a single camera comedy series, REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD and--[SL: Eventually. That was 30 years later, 35 years later, okay. So 30, something like that.] Could you compare directing single versus multi-camera series?
SL: Yeah. I'd actually done a couple of single camera comedy series. I did a single camera comedy series called 1ST & TEN, which was an HBO show. I shot, they shot four seasons back in the ‘80s [1980s]. It's like one of their first comedy series, and it was very kinda raw, I mean, can I say raw? I mean it was very adult, and it was about a football team. It actually starred O.J. Simpson prior to his, you know, his real famous outing. And that was... I learned a lot on that because we shot a 14-show season, and we would actually schedule it so that we were scheduling all 14 shows at the same time. It was like shooting a 14, a seven-hour movie. So that it's about a football team, so when we did football scenes, we did the football scenes for all seven episodes, all 14 episodes. So we'd be at the football stadium and the football locker room for like two weeks. But we'd have everything. And we did that, the only way we could do that, of course, was having all the scripts written and approved before we even began pre-production, so that would take a year to do almost. And then we'd go into pre-production for a couple of months and then we'd shoot spans, from 14... I think it was like 12 weeks; we’d get 14 shows, something like that.
SL: And then with REAL HUSBANDS [REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD], the biggest adjustment, with REAL HUSBANDS it was kind of influenced a little bit by CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, where we wanted... But it was more influenced by REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA, and the kind of hijinks and the outrageous interaction between those women. And we wanted it to feel like a reality show, so it's totally handheld and it's shooting three cameras at the same time, but it was very tightly scripted, and we try to make it look like it's not. And we do a lot of improv, but not as much as you would think on the show. It's an ensemble, everybody's really cool, so that's my REAL HUSBANDS experience. It's very intense involvement for a Director and a Cast to do a show like that on a tight schedule. [INT: It's interesting that you say that it's tightly scripted, 'cause it does look--] Tighter than you would think, yeah. Yeah. And that's important. When you, you know, when you have to actually deliver a half-hour show and really deliver, well we shot 10 half-hour shows in five weeks, you can't improv that stuff and get, you know, anything that's gonna be useable. You have to start with a really strong roadmap. And in this case, we have, you know, the scripting on that show is pretty tight. And so that, and everybody can work faster, because now we have not only the Actors have an idea of what they're doing, but we also have an idea of how to stage it and we can shoot it fast, and you know, that kind of thing, so. Yeah, I think it's pretty good at seeming, in some cases, like it's not scripted or that it's loosely scripted. But it's pretty outrageous too, so I mean we always, we want it to be larger than life, we want to take what they do on these reality shows and blow it up even more. You know, so the fights are, you know, just kinda bigger and the stupid stuff is more stupid. You know, so...
INT: As a Director, are you open to improvisation? Do you budget time for improvisation when you're on set or--
SL: Yeah. And once again, in sitcoms, there's not a whole lot of, you know, in the conventional sitcoms, there's not a whole lot of improv. You might find something in rehearsal, but then you'll most likely keep that. You know, write it in rather than think that we're gonna continue to go off script. In REAL HUSBANDS [REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD], what we would do, what we usually do is we'll shoot a scene as written, keep the dialogue as close as possible, and then somewhere, and then after a take or two, we'll go ahead and you know, let the guys do other stuff. But even that is done with, you know, with a certain amount of restraint, because you get a few Actors improving, if they're not really in sync and if they're not really on point, it just turns into goobly-gop. So we do that, but even our improv turns into something that we... "Okay, that's good, let's keep that, but let's try it again and this time, you know, maybe don't say as much." Or, you know, "Get it out faster, and then you answer...," you know, that kind of thing, so that we still have some structure and some control over what we're doing.
INT: So switching gears a little bit to your experience with movies for television. You have directed movies for television including THE TRIAL OF THE MOKE, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, and THE CHILD SAVER to name a few. Could you compare the rehearsal processes for movies for television versus episodic series? And how did you work with the Cast of these TV movies to get the performance that you wanted?
SL: You know, in TV movie, we usually had... and I've done, I don't know where you... that list is not my favorite list, but that's fine, because this is not about the resume as much as it is about the process. We... in the prep time, we would always try to build in time for cast rehearsal. A period of time, like, you know, usually--so if you're shooting, and if we shot on location, well, all of those were shot on location. And then another one, another film, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN [AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE: TO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN], which was a James Baldwin story that was shot for AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE, which is a PBS, was a PBS series back in the ‘90s [1990s] I guess. ‘80s [1980s], actually. And we shot that in Atlanta, and there was about... and so we had to do things like bring in a dialogue coach, so that all the Actors... And it was set in Mississippi and Chicago and that kind of thing. We brought in a dialogue coach to kinda get them, get all the Actors to hopefully sound like they come from the same region. You know, if they're speaking with a Southern accent. And then we rehearsed for a few days, rehearsed all the scenes, rehearsed the whole piece. Kind of got it--that helped everybody kinda understand where their characters were coming from. And just give us all, me, the Camera Operator, I mean the DP [Director of Photography] and the Producers and Writer, that's the chance to hear the words and kinda think about how to shoot it. But I try to rehearse. Whenever I can rehearse, I'll take advantage of it. But oftentimes, you'll find in low budget filmmaking, even, that there's a whole concern about how long this Actor is on location, you know, bringing him in, paying him per day, putting him up. These are things that you kinda wish for and then as you get closer to actually shooting, that week that you wanted to rehearse is now down to three days because, you know, so-and-so's not, the lead Actor is not gonna arrive until Wednesday instead of Monday, that kind of thing. And then there's a whole lot of things that have to be done: They have to get fitted for costumes, they have to get physicals… And it's hard to schedule unless you got really ample money, and usually that's one of those things that gets short changed.
INT: Could you speak a little bit about the post-production process and some of your ideas about it for the single camera comedies and single camera hour-long dramas as well?
SL: See what's interesting is I can talk about how it was when I first came out here. I think I mentioned before, but that when we did SANFORD AND SON, we would shoot a dress rehearsal in front of an audience; it would be like at four o'clock in the afternoon--four to five, something like that. And then they would go to dinner and we'd come back and then we'd shoot what we called the air show. It was a dress and the air. And we'd shoot two shows, and we would then pick the best of each or we would pick whichever show. And it turns out, that with Redd Foxx, at least, most of the time the dress show was the better show, because in the second show, he might've had a couple of extra drinks or something in between at dinnertime. But sometimes it would be brilliant because he was that kind of a performer. And we would only shoot with one ISO. In other words, we'd have a line cut, which is the cut that you do during the show, cutting from one camera to another. And then we would have one camera that would always be on, so that when we finished we'd have a line cut and an ISO. Nowadays, you record all the cameras so that you can go back and totally recut the show. In this case you could only change, you could only use the scene as shot and maybe make one little adjustment on a shot. So we would actually, after the show, it was Friday night, the second show would be over, like it would shoot it from eight to about 10, because we didn't stick around long after. Sometimes when you're shooting these shows, if there's a lot of mistakes, you stay until you fix 'em, and sometimes you don't finish till 11 or 12 or even later. After the show we would go to the editing bay, which was pretty primitive by today's standards, and we'd watch both shows and we'd pick the takes, the scenes that we wanted to put together from show one and show two, and we'd figure out and, "Oh this shot, we missed this shot, and maybe, hopefully the ISO will be shooting something that we can put instead." So much of the shaping of the show, of the finished show was done right afterwards. I remember being with Aaron Ruben in a little room at NBC, downstairs somewhere, picking out the cuts. Then later, I'd be invited--later meaning a few days later, I'd be invited to--or maybe even the next day, because it was pretty straight forward stuff, to sit and watch the first cut. But I would watch it with Aaron because, you know, it was pretty simple, pretty straight forward stuff, and I was more learning the process and learning the keys to timing and all that kind of stuff, so… and that was pretty primitive compared to what we have today. So, and I did a little, you know, I did SANFORD AND SON and BARNEY MILLER. You know, I only did one BARNEY MILLER, but I learned a lot from that. And THAT'S MY MAMA, and shows like that. So and that's the way we did it.
SL: And then when I started doing the episodic, the single camera hours, and this was I guess late '70s [1970s], they were still, it was, you know, for the Director, I would, you know, I didn't screen with dailies or anything with the Editor, but the Editor would put together what, you know, a first, an Editor's cut; they call it the Editor's cut. And I'd go in and I'd sit with him, and he would be showing me the scene, the film on a Moviola, which was a big monstrous editing machine. It made a lot of noise, and you watched the film on a little screen and you would, you know, if I made changes he would splice it right there and we'd take another look at it and that kind of stuff. So that was more hands-on because of the technology. I spent more time with the Editor in the room, giving notes and he fixed many of them right there. And sometimes he would write 'em down and say, “Okay, come back, I'll cut this scene and come back and we'll show it.” And it was, once again, anything that I did was what it was called the Director's cut, and then the Producers would get that cut, and they would make their own changes. And often times, they would change stuff totally back, stuff that I had fixed one way, they would do it another way. And that's not something that, you know, bothered me at all because it's kind of the process. It's still pretty prevalent that after the Director's cut, the Producers come in; they have to get it down to time. My show might be long; they have to make decisions about what goes out. And in doing that, you have to adjust other things. So a Director's cut does--and then the network, after the Producers turn in their cut, this is all of the different formats, whether it's tape, and whether it's, you know, multi-camera or single camera, after the Producer's cut, the network, I mean the production company, which could be NBC Films, I mean NBC Productions, as opposed to NBC, the network. So they'll come in and do a cut, and then there's another cut which is a network cut. Now it doesn't change a whole lot between these cuts, but there could be very specific notes that take things, certain scenes in a different direction. So by the time the film is locked, the Director's cut is like four layers removed from what might be on the air. And in many cases, it's not that removed, it's just, you know, maybe it's a question of, you know, the Standards and Practices might say, “Hey, you can't say that, we might get sued. So we have to change that line out,” and that kind of stuff.
SL: So REAL HUSBANDS [REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD] is one show because of the way we shoot it where I let the--and because the Editors have been with us for four seasons, I let the Editor do what is essentially an assembly. Assemble all the scenes together in a slight kind of, you know, adjustment cuts wise, she might even pick what takes she likes the best and so forth. Then they send me a cut, they send me a file, actually, that I'll look at and then go in and sit with her for maybe a day or two, giving notes about, you know, changes that I want to make to what she did. Or in some cases, I'll like a lot what she did, but sometimes I'll look at all the takes to see if I like the way he read this joke in one take as opposed to the one that's in there, that kind of thing. But once again, I'm one of the Producers on that show, so I'm a little more involved in the details of the process. But when I go in to do a show, like I did a show called UNCLE BUCK, that's this season, I didn't have a whole lot of... I didn't spend a whole lot of time trying to, you know, fix or change things that were done in post 'cause it was shot in a certain way that you could only do 'em, you know, kinda had to follow my process, you know, in the actual choice of shots and so forth. And there you go.
INT: Thank you Stan-Stanley Lathan.
SL: Thank you, as well. [LAUGH]
INT: My name is Oz Scott. Today is Tuesday, September 29th, 2015. I've just completed an interview with Stan Lathan for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program. We are at the DGA in Los Angeles, California.