Crossposted with permission from DGA Quarterly.
Lee Shallat Chemel was recently directing an episode of the critically acclaimed single-camera comedy The Middle when it suddenly dawned on her how she could squeeze more laughs from a sight gag. It involved a chain of books falling like dominos, culminating with a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea dropping into a character’s waiting hands. The setup was designed to be filmed with a wide shot, but Chemel realized that the bit with the actor at the end should be a surprise. “I wanted it to be tighter,” she says about her decision to have the camera pan along the row of cascading books and end with a reveal of the actor. “That way it will have more punch.”
When Chemel opts to rethink a shot, it’s a decision with more than 30 years of experience as a director behind it. She made her TV directorial debut in 1984 with “Ready or Not,” an episode of Family Ties in which a teenage girl considers having sex with her boyfriend. From there she’s built a lengthy resume comprised of everything from Murphy Brown to Mad About You to The Bernie Mac Show to Gilmore Girls to Samantha Who? Though she came up through the ranks directing multi-camera shows, the three-time Primetime Emmy Award nominee made the transition into the world of single-camera and has worked in every configuration of shooting style, from the candy-colored, highly stylized Ugly Betty to the faux documentary world of Arrested Development.
Watching Chemel at work, it’s easy to see why she is sought after as a director. She has well-honed comedy instincts that allow her to spontaneously figure out how to improve a visual joke, plus an easy way of taking responsibility for any lighting and camera adjustments that need to be made. Even re-dressing a set earns a soothing “It’s my bad” from Chemel to the crew so no one is rankled by the sudden switch in game plan.
That Chemel has a reputation for helping get the best performance out of an actor isn’t surprising given her unusual career trajectory. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chemel earned master’s degrees in theater history and education, an MFA in acting and has done postgraduate work in East Asian Languages — before becoming a well-respected director on the national repertory theater circuit. It was in the early 1980s that she was contacted by writer-producer Gary David Goldberg. The DGA and its Women’s Steering Committee was putting pressure on showrunners and producers to hire more female directors since less than one percent of all available directing jobs from the previous 40 years had gone to women. In wanting to hire a woman, Goldberg felt his new sitcom, Family Ties, would benefit from someone who had experience staging comedy and working with actors in the intimate confines of the theater. Veteran TV producer Joseph Stern, also founder of Los Angeles’ The Matrix Theatre Company, told Goldberg he knew the right woman for the job. “It was the most perfect synchronicity,” says Chemel.
For the next five months she could be found on the Paramount lot inside the Family Ties soundstage — the first TV set she’d ever laid eyes on — getting a crash course in the adrenaline-filled world of live cutting and multi-camera comedy. When she finally got the chance to apply all that she’d absorbed during her observation time, “I was completely lost,” says Chemel. “My associate director, Ginger [Grigg], had to guide me through the shoot.” In the end, she directed five episodes of the show. She also had the bragging rights that came with directing an episode called “4 Rms Ocn Vu” which featured three enterprising teenagers who rent out the family home, a mob of noisy extras, and a live kangaroo who hopped into frame and inflicted grievous bodily pain on the series’ hottest commodity. “It was insane. He kicked Michael J. Fox in the balls,” says Chemel, adding that the moment of impact was used as a freeze frame over which the closing credits rolled.
After Family Ties, Chemel was instantly in demand, spending the next six years directing multiple episodes of popular shows like Open House, Head of the Class, and Newhart. But what she recalls about her days as a newbie director was how it was her perseverance that sustained her. “I failed a lot in the beginning,” Chemel admits. “I went out of some shows in a body bag. I was horrible. I couldn’t get the camera stuff going or I didn’t know what I was doing. But it’s all about how you handle the failure and somehow I kept bouncing back.”
Around the time Chemel was struggling with the multi-camera format, she found a mentor in former DGA vice president and legendary director John Rich. “He took me into the editing room and showed me a lot of stuff,” says Chemel, who likes to refer to Rich as “The Fly” because he could absorb so many details at once that it was like he had a thousand eyes. “He’d say, ‘Why did I shoot it this way?'”
But it wasn’t until Murphy Brown that Chemel felt her understanding of how to stage scenes in multi-cam started to click. During rehearsals she learned to walk around the set, visualizing how the staging looked from each camera angle. “It all happens simultaneously in multi-cam,” explains Chemel. “So this notion that I had to keep walking around continuously opened up more possibilities. [I understood] how raking angles offered so much more than just the closeups, and how specific I needed to be with actors so they could get used to where they needed to be for coverage.”
Then in 1993, she landed as a director-producer on The Nanny starring Fran Drescher and shot every episode for two years. “That was where I finally began to get my rhythm,” says Chemel, who’d met the nasal-voiced, decidedly New York-y Drescher while directing on a short-lived series called Princesses. “Frannie played to the audience a lot — it sort of reminded me of modern-day Restoration comedy.” When Chemel would place the camera too far away, Drescher would object. “[Fran would] say things like, ‘Why is the camera way over there in Yonkers? I’m right here.’ I had to learn to shoot more presentational, more theatrical.”
Just one year earlier, Chemel had been hired to direct an episode of the quirky, Alaska-based Northern Exposure, her first single-camera series. While she found that she preferred the control and creativity that single-camera allows, she understood that her time spent in the multi-camera trenches made her much smarter about the nuts and bolts of how a television show is assembled. “Single-camera is the easiest in terms of how many different skill sets you have to have to make it work,” says Chemel, who prefers the single-camera medium because if offers the director more autonomy plus “it looks great and you can be more creative with the camera. I look back on it now and I think of all of the ways of directing TV, [multi-camera] is the hardest.”
More often than not, Chemel makes repeated appearances on her shows (since 2009, for example, she’s directed more than 40 episodes of The Middle). But for those first-time gigs, she has a time-tested way of prepping. She starts by familiarizing herself with the series by getting the executive producer to send at least five favorite episodes. Then she sits in on the tone meeting so she can wrap her head around what the executive producer hopes to accomplish with her particular installment. “When you’re a freelancer on an existing show, you’re not there to come in and do your own thing,” says Chemel, “you’re there to understand what they want the show to look like; how they want it to feel.” If there’s time, she’ll prepare a meticulously composed shot list — one that includes details of exactly how she plans to stage and shoot each scene as well as a floor plan diagram of the set.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, Lee is a little O.C.D. with her shot list,” says Chemel who learned to love mapping out coverage, shot descriptions, and which cameras to use, when Bernie Mac director-producer Ken Kwapis showed her how much written information he passed along to the production crew. “He said to me, ‘This is how I set it up,’ and that got me started describing things very specifically. It forces me to discover what I might not have discovered until I got on the set — and it’s too late to fix. I feel good about it because I go in with a plan. In my experience, everybody is happy when you come in prepared.”
Chemel also uses the tone meeting as an opportunity to quiz the executive producer about the cast, asking questions like, “Do you have any difficult actors?” “Do you have any actors that you think need some help?” and “Is there anybody that you have to work hard with to get what you want?” If there’s room in her schedule, she puts in some discreet observation time on the set. “It’s really important to watch how the actors relate to the director and how the crew works. I love to be a fly on the wall and watch the whole thing.”
Many years and countless landmark shows later, when asked how her directing style has evolved, Chemel insists that she has no signature flourishes; the way she measures a job well done is a relaxed set, a happy cast and crew and when finished, the episode has been shot in a way that lives up to the script’s promise. “I don’t think I have a style; my style is what the show’s style is,” she says, adding that some of her sweetest memories involve figuring out how to add what she calls “frosting” to an already hilarious script. By way of example, she points to a moment in an Arrested Development episode, where she came up with a bit where a boozy matriarch chills her lukewarm cocktail by pilfering cubes from an old-fashioned ice bag resting on her sick daughter’s head. “That sort of subliminal business?” says Chemel. “If I can find something like that, it makes my life worth living.”
And when it comes time to roll camera, Chemel prefers to sit by herself rather than be hemmed in by producers, a script supervisor, and a director of photography. “I call this my ‘happy place,'” she says of her portable video village alternative — a pair of stacked wireless monitors mounted on a tripod which can be easily moved around the set. “I need to be on my own and to find a way that I could make sure I am listening to my notes in my head before I hear other people’s notes,” says Chemel, who also likes being as close to the actors as possible. “The old way, the directors didn’t look through a monitor; they would sit right there next to the camera so that they’re looking at the actors as they’re acting. But now because of all sorts of exigencies, that’s not good or practical. But at least I am there so I can get to them fast. I don’t have to run all the way from video village to the actors. I don’t want to feel so distant from them. I don’t like to yell out, ‘Hey, do it this way.’ I like to go to them. I like to be right there so I can say, ‘Try that again, Charlie’ without yelling from another room.”
Indeed, from her station in a corner of a lumpy couch on the Burbank-based set of The Middle, it takes mere seconds for her to reach actress Patricia Heaton, who plays Frankie, a harried Indiana-based housewife on the series, and Eden Sher, who plays Sue, her oddball daughter. Heaton and Sher are lying on their backs on the floor of a dingy, shag-carpeted living room, staring at the ceiling. As awkward Sue worries aloud that her station in life will never improve, it’s clear that Frankie is lost in thought, not hearing a word. Chemel kneels alongside them and holds a brief mini-conference, after which they resume what ends up being a witty, touching and delicately calibrated exchange. Chemel has decided to shoot most of the scene — a couple of two-shots and two singles — from a bird’s-eye view. “For the moment when Frankie looks over and sees Sue’s mouth going and going, I shot her from the side,” Chemel explains later. “She’s in her own little world.”
Later in the day, Chemel will shoot a bathroom scene where Frankie complains to her husband that her life has become impossibly dull. “[Heaton] was playing it like [in slow, monotonal voice] ‘I’m so bored,'” says Chemel. “So I told her when Chekov’s Masha [in Three Sisters] says, ‘I am so bored,’ it should be the opposite of boring. What they’re trying to do is break away from the boredom. It should be played like [loud and exasperated voice] ‘I am so bored.’ It took about seven takes. The highest water for any director is to have an actor trust you enough that you can pummel them every so often — which I rarely have to do with her. But I was convinced that it had to be another way and she sensed that. It took me saying, ‘It’s not there yet. It’s not there yet.'”
Over the years, Chemel, who served eight years on the DGA National Board, five years on the Western Directors Council and three years on the Negotiating Committee, has become her own one-woman mentorship program, taking aspiring directors under her wing and teaching them how to be professional TV directors. “I don’t go through programs or anything — I do it myself,” says Chemel, who has been known to energetically horse trade on her charge’s behalf. For example, when asked to return to Hannah Montana after directing the pilot, she agreed to do a few more episodes if the producers were willing to also assign one to Shannon Flynn, a Chemel protege who has now directed shows for ABC Family and Nickelodeon.
Her latest protege, Melissa Kosar — who doubles as Chemel’s baseball- capped personal assistant — just made her directorial debut with an episode of Raising Hope. “She just killed it,” says Chemel, who has helped Kosar and other women (and a man) get into the DGA. She does it not just to recognize the key role played by the DGA and its Women’s Steering Committee in helping her get into the business, but also to do what she can to level the gender playing field.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Chemel. “There’s some inherent fear that a woman isn’t going to be able to command the team and it’s just absurd. You don’t have to be a ball-buster to be a good director; the best directors aren’t. Yet there’s still this old-fashioned notion that some men have that if you aren’t yelling, you’re not going to get their respect. There are so many women directors that I know who are really, really good. Melissa knew how to talk to the actors and talk to the crew and she directed one of the best episodes of Raising Hope ever,” says Chemel, whose typically upbeat voice now displays a level of focused seriousness. “There are a billion ways to gain respect and run a ship. Not just one.”