The role of the director in television has, historically, always come second to the writer. In the words of Marcos Siega, director/executive producer of “The Following,” there’s a perception of them as “traffic cops.” But in an era when television keeps getting better and better, there’s a shift in that perspective, especially thanks to the influx of A-list directors like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh.
Siega comes from the other side, having worked for over 10 years on shows including “Dexter” and “The Vampire Diaries,” but he doesn’t mind it when the feature guys come to play. At this year’s ATVfest, Indiewire sat down with him to discuss what it can mean to be an “executive producer,” what he feels he does as the lead director of a show and the valuable lessons he learned from being a guest director on “Veronica Mars.”
Talk to me a little bit about what your role is with “The Following,” because being executive producer could mean a whole lot of things at this point.
I know, it’s crazy. There’s a lot of people with credits out there, like “what do they do?” I directed the pilot. Kevin Williamson wrote the pilot. So we were the only two executive producers when we started this journey. My job on the directing side is execution and tone and story; what does the show look like? So I’m the guy interfacing with the actors. Kevin was in L.A. and I was shooting.
There’s this term that people throw around pretty loosely, called showrunner. It’s usually reserved for the writer, and I think there are a lot of guys out there who are true showrunners. And then there are a lot who have that title where… I think it’s a little diluted. With our show it was always about honoring Kevin Williamson’s voice, and my job was to make sure what he saw, what he created, became a reality. So I’m responsible for everything top to bottom. Whether it’s casting, locations, shooting, directing, the title executive producer is just a top title — that’s all it is.
In your eyes, who is the showrunner on “The Following?”
A hundred percent Kevin. And when I say there’s few people who are true showrunners, he’s one of them. He’s no longer on the show day-to-day, so when he left, he left me in charge and then Kevin and I decided to find writers. This season it’s Alexi Hawley and Brett Mahoney. The three of us are called showrunners. They run the writer’s room, they’re breaking story. We talk about stories, we do everything together, but at the end of the day somebody has to put pen to paper and that’s what they’re doing.
It’s like when your parents go out of town and they’re like “you’re the oldest, you’re in charge.”
And what does that really mean?
Brett, Alexi and I operate with full autonomy, so we don’t have to check with Kevin. We are technically running the show. We have to take responsibility; however we do this season, no one can point a finger at Kevin. They can point a finger at us. I think that technically makes you the showrunner because you have the responsibility. But it’s funny, because it’s such a collaborative thing that whenever I hear that term as one person who does “everything” it’s usually not the case. It’s usually a team of people you trust and are like-minded in terms of what the show needs to be, and you attack it together. It’s the only way to get these things done, because they’re monsters.
I think the three of us have made a very good partnership this year. We come from different backgrounds, I’m the one who’s been on the show the longest, but I certainly don’t walk around going, “I’ve been here the longest, I’m the oldest, I need to be in charge.” I think the only way to make it work is that their voice has to come through. I don’t like saying showrunner, for the three of us. But the three of us are executive producers. We’re the ones responsible for this season.
We talk about TV so much in terms of its writing, but not as much in terms of directing, so what do you feel, as a director, you contribute to the show’s voice? What specific elements are there where you can really see you on the screen?
There’s two different questions there and I’ll tell you why. When you’re making a movie, the voice is the director. The director gets a script and that interpretation of the script becomes the movie and the director can put a true signature on it. In television, it’s difficult to do that when you’re a guest director, because you’re being asked to come in to direct an episode of a show that has a look, has a feel. A really great director will come in and elevate material, but still within the parameters of the show. You don’t want that episode to look like something completely different.
[With “The Following,”] I hire all the directors. This year I’m directing six out of the 15, but I hire the other directors and what I say to them is “I’m not going to babysit you. I want you to come, we’ll talk about the script, we’ll talk about the tone, we’ll talk about the things that are important to me, Alexi and Brett when we’re conceiving the stories and make sure we lean into [certain sequences] because we’re trying to build towards X, Y, and Z.” But then the director takes that and directs and puts their imprint. When the directors talk to actors, they’re the ones directing the actors. They make decisions.
Television is tough. Most writers, if they read this, will say, “Well, it’s a writer’s medium.” And I think yes, that is true. It started as a hundred percent a writer’s medium and I think directors are considered more like traffic cops. They come in and make sure everything’s running smoothly and you get the footage and you get what you need.
But television is so good today, there’s so much competition. You need the best in every department. You want the best directors, who can elevate, who can take a story, read a scene and say, “There’s drama there. What’s gonna pull it out?” Sometimes pulling it out is what a director will do on set. Everything from blocking to what you’re asking the actors to do, how you’re pushing the actors and in what direction you’re pushing them, and knowing how you want them to work from scene to scene. The only person who can really affect that is the person directing. So it’s complicated.
It is such an interesting paradigm shift, because we talk about “Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick,'” even though he is not the showrunner on that.
But when you look at that show, don’t you see his imprint?
He’s an auteur filmmaker.
It’s proof that this is becoming a really cinematic medium. Going down your IMDB profile, I saw that you directed some key episodes of “Veronica Mars,” a show that had a strongly defined visual style before you came into it. Looking back on that experience, what was your approach in terms of slipping into the world of that show?
That show informed me of how I wanted to run shows, when I became in a position to run a show. Rob Thomas was so generous, in the sense that he hired people that he thought would elevate the show. He never sat on set and dictated anything. He wrote these great scripts and he said, “I want these to be little movies, we’re on a small network and this is an underdog type show and we’re not gonna get the numbers that everyone gets, so let’s make it the best it can be.” And that attitude of “every week you’re going to make something special” empowers directors to dive in and do that.
I would watch every episode and think every episode is great. It was so great, because it’s all the same series, but I could see the passion that people put into it. I think I did four episodes in Season 1, I could be wrong, I don’t remember exactly. But whatever it was, I’d get a script and I’d be so excited, like, “I’m gonna go make my little movie.” I do consider Rob a showrunner who had a voice and vision, but he also wanted people to come in and elevate.
I’m resisting the temptation to ask you who you don’t think should be considered a show runner. If you would answer that, I’d be fascinated, but I also don’t think you will.
Well, here’s the thing, I make that comment based on conversations I have with other directors. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with Alan Ball, Clyde Phillips, Rob Thomas, Kevin Williamson, and then guest directing on “Cold Case” it was Meredith Stiehm. Everyone I’ve worked with, I think, has that voice. But when I say that there’s some people who shouldn’t, it’s just there’s so many titles being thrown around. I think it’s sometimes confusing to understand sometimes, what it is someone does. But if you look at my IMDB I don’t think there’s anyone I’m somewhat under who didn’t have a voice. These are people who have a real point of view, a real voice, and they have success for that reason.
In terms of voice, coming into “The Following” — where Kevin Williamson so clearly sets out what he wants to do — do you feel like you’re singing a duet with him?
I hope so. I think Kevin’s brilliant. When he sent me the pilot script for “The Following” I was blown away, it was the best pilot script I had ever read. Not just pilots I was being considered for, but just across the board. And I was sure someone bigger than me was going to come and do it. And the day we hired Kevin Bacon, Kevin Bacon asked Kevin Williamson — because he hadn’t met me yet — “Do you think we could get David Fincher to do this?” And I had to sit down and tell him that that wasn’t happening, that I was doing it, but that’s how good the material was. Kevin Bacon expected it would be some big director doing it.
As someone who came from television directing, are you at all concerned about the influx of film directors coming into the space?
No, it’s exciting because first of all, I want to see which of these film directors actually wants to stick it out and be a part of the show from beginning to end… Or are they just doing a pilot? I see that as sort of the sex factor. [Networks] want a big sexy name to do their pilots. The fundamental problem with that is that you can spend a lot of money on a big name, come out of the box with a tremendous pilot, but then you have to produce that show week to week, and how do you maintain that?
And I don’t mean the quality of directing. I just mean the resources that that first big director needed to accomplish what they accomplished. My philosophy on pilots has always been that when I do the pilot, I want to do it in a way where every week the show will stay the same. We’re not gonna regress because we don’t have the big sexy start.
I think that there’s a tendency now to hire big directors and you look at the pilots and they’re great and you look at the shows and there’s a clear drop, and it’s not the directors who are coming after them, it’s just the resources those first directors are given. I want to see which directors who come out of the big movie world will stick it out and do the whole thing.
“The Following” Season 3 premieres tonight at 10pm on Fox.
READ MORE: Sundance Review: Kevin Bacon Takes on Troublemaking Kids in Entertaining ‘Cop Car’