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10 Things Indie Filmmakers Need to Know About Directing for Television

Photo of Shipra Gupta By Shipra Gupta | Indiewire March 13, 2014 at 11:09AM

For those of you out there who might be interested in directing an episode of television, Miguel Arteta ("Dexter"), Carl Franklin ("House of Cards"), Jeremy Podeswa ("Boardwalk Empire"), Jill Soloway ("Six Feet Under") and Jessica Yu ("Scandal") have some advice.
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'Transparent' and 'Afternoon Delight' director Jill Soloway
WireImage 'Transparent' and 'Afternoon Delight' director Jill Soloway

Film Independent hosted the fifth and final installment of its Directors Close-Up Series yesterday evening at The Landmark in Los Angeles. With awards season over, the discussion appropriately shifted from features over to television -- specifically the oft-ignored topic of TV directing. TV producer-director Alan Poul ("The Newsroom") served as moderator and engaged in conversation with Miguel Arteta ("Enlightened"), Carl Franklin ("House of Cards"), Jeremy Podeswa ("Boardwalk Empire"), Jill Soloway ("Six Feet Under") and Jessica Yu ("Scandal") -- all of who are independent filmmakers with robust sets of television directing credits.

Despite their collective professed nostalgia for the old days of communal viewing, all of the members of the panel, including the moderator, work at the forefront of change -- cable and digital platforms. Their success in these spaces -- Soloway in particular with her Amazon pilot "Transparent," -- appears to have shed light on a unique opportunity for independent filmmakers that is not only lucrative, but also provides an opportunity for creative fulfillment. For those of you out there who might be interested in directing an episode of television, take note of the below:

'Boardwalk Empire': 'William Wilson'
HBO 'Boardwalk Empire': 'William Wilson'

When directing for television, you have to work within a pre-existing framework – which isn’t necessarily bad. Podeswa aptly described this "framework" as the vernacular of the show. Television directors, he said, can incorporate personal perspective into the episode(s) he or she may direct, so long as the episode "stay[s] within the lexicon of the show." Franklin and Yu took Podeswa’s point further as they both stressed how they welcome the challenge of working within the framework of a show. "I think it expands your world," said Franklin. "You try things you wouldn’t normally try. So that’s good to step outside of yourself and the way that you work."

"In television, for every scene, there is one thing that you have to get right for the scene to work, maybe two. And so the hard part is not actually directing the scene -- the hard part is figuring out what that one thing is because you’re really only going to have time to get one thing perfectly right." This quote came from Poul, who credited "In Treatment" producer-director Rodrigo García for coming up with the directing method being described.

You will never have enough money. Whether you're making an episode of TV or a feature film, no matter how big or small the budget, said Franklin, you will always feel like you're in a pinch and wishing you had more to work with. He cited two of his own films as examples of this conundrum -- 1995's "Devil in a Blue Dress" and 2002's "Out of Time." Although both starred Denzel Washington, Franklin was given two radically different budgets, as they were made almost a decade apart. In that time, above-the-line costs, specifically for Denzel, went up considerably. Seven of the $22 million Franklin was given for “Devil in a Blue Dress” were used to cover above-the-line expenses. On "Out of Time," Franklin was given $50 million, but above-the-line costs had increased to around $30 million, which left him with little more than what he had on "Devil in a Blue Dress" to put towards production costs. Although Franklin used very broad language in his discussion of these budgets, his examples seem to suggest the possibility that similar conditions may begin to affect TV production as budgets and above-the-line costs also increase as a result of talent crossover from film and vice versa.

'ER': 'Bygones'
NBC 'ER': 'Bygones'

Your most important job is to make your day (i.e. finish everything on the schedule). That means you have to pick your battles. Yu compared directing an episode of television to doing a puzzle. In both cases, strategy is key. To demonstrate, she gave the example of directing an episode of "E.R." and being given a scene in the administrative area of the hospital -- a frequent location for the show. Yu noted: "You go, 'Oh I’m going to find some way to shoot this differently.' And everyone’s shaking their head like, 'You’re not.'" Sometimes you can find it, but more often that not you have to cut your losses and move on.

Put the scene that you want to spend the most time on at the top of your day. Scheduling is an important component to successfully directing an episode of TV because as it gets later in the day, you become increasingly pressed for time. As Poul put it at one point during the discussion, the sentiment around time on set is that when you arrive, you're already an hour late. Then again, if an actor has an opinion about the shooting schedule -- perhaps he or she does not feel comfortable shooting the scene that you want to shoot at the beginning of the day and instead wants to shoot it at the end -- you'll need to reassess your decision.

"Don’t paint every scene with the same brush." Soloway received this advice from an unnamed "directing guru." As a director, she said, you need to be able to recognize the difference between a meaningful scene and a scene that is just meant to keep you moving through the episode. "One great scene," Soloway pointed out, "can make a whole episode feel like it mattered."

Tone meetings are very important. These are ideation meetings where the showrunner, producer, assistant director and the director go through the episode scene-by-scene and discuss the showrunner and writer’s intention. "They’re giving you little hints and clues on how to treat it," noted Podeswa. These clues can help a director better communicate with the cast and crew.

'House of Cards': 'Chapter 14'
Netflix 'House of Cards': 'Chapter 14'

Talk to people who have directed previous episodes. When you’re coming on to direct an episode of a show that has been on for multiple seasons, directors of previous episodes can help educate you on what to look for. Poul called it "the best form of shorthand."

"Every actor needs a million dollar hug." Arteta received this advice from actor Jerry Lewis. "It might not be an actual hug," he said, “but I do believe that finding the way... what would be the million dollar hug for that person every morning.” In other words, the director’s job is to figure out how he or she can help an actor do his or her best. Some actors want a director to help them make decisions about their performance, whereas others would much rather be left alone. 

Shadow a television director on set. According to Poul, shows have shadow opportunities for those interested in directing for TV. These shadow opportunities allow you to observe the shoot alongside the director from start to finish, as well offering you the opportunity to ask questions during down time. Shadow opportunities are typically given to directors of small independent films or shorts that have caught the attention of someone -- although they can be given to someone with no directing experience whatsoever.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Filmmaker Toolkit, Film Independent , Jill Soloway, Jessica Yu, Miguel Arteta, Jeremy Podeswa, Carl Franklin, Alan Poul





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