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Why 'This Is a Damn Good Time To Be a Director In Television': Discussing Directing for the Small Screen

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire July 28, 2013 at 5:13PM

After a late cancellation from one of the big networks at this summer's TCA press tour, a few panels were put together to fill a day that turned out to be unexpectedly great, offering an informative look at the actual workings of television rather than just the content. Following a talk with several TV and film producers who are now working on digital series, FX produced a group of episode directors from the network's various series to discuss directing for television and the role directors play in a medium commonly thought of as ruled by writers.
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Prashant Gupta/FX 'Sons of Anarchy'

After a late cancellation from one of the big networks at this summer's TCA press tour, a few panels were put together to fill a day that turned out to be unexpectedly great, offering an informative look at the actual workings of television rather than just the content. Following a talk with several TV and film producers who are now working on digital series, FX produced a group of episode directors from the network's various series to discuss directing for television and the role directors play in a medium commonly thought of as ruled by writers. DGA president Paris Barclay ("Sons of Anarchy"), Michael Dinner ('Justified"), Randall Einhorn ("Wilfred"), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon ("American Horror Story"), Gwyneth Horder-Payton ("The Bridge"), Dan Sackheim ("The Americans"), and Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Schaffer ("The League") made up the panel.

"This is a damn good time to be a director in television," said Barclay in his opening remarks, pointing out that what "used to be a very difficult job" had gotten more fun as TV has become more cinematic: "There's a creative challenge to directing now... In this brave new world, we're making little movies." He said that while showrunners, creators and writers get due attention, "there's actually a major contribution that directors provide," which can include improving how an episode turns out when a script is less than stellar: "We can come in and save the baby."

Ian A. Mosley/TCA

"The role of the director in television has become more and more important over the years," agreed Dinner, who cited Michael Mann as a major force in that change, saying that TV before "Miami Vice" had been "cookie cutter" but that now, not only is it "more cinematic," "the audience and the public have a demand for big stories."

Asked whether anyone on the panel could be picked out by the stylistic approaches in their work alone, Barclay cited Gomez-Rejon and Horder-Payton for their distinctive touches. "You have to bring your own sensibilities to it -- you have to bring your own point of view," said Gomez-Rejon.

One of the things that's helped the shift in TV being taken more seriously by both those who make it and those who watch it, said Jackie Schaffer, is that "Television used to be seen as such an ephemeral vision." Now on services like Netflix and HBO Go, "television, movies, it's all there together" and people are spending a lot more time revisiting and rewatching things, with TV no longer seeming so disposable.

"We get calls from our peers on the feature side" asking "how do we do what you're doing," Dinner went on, explaining that with film development often taking years, the regularity and swiftness of TV production can have a major appeal. That said, the move from film to television isn't always a seamless one, given the schedule the small screen can involve: "Television is really hard. You have to make decisions really quickly -- you have a limited amount of time and a limited budget, and you start running 100 miles per hour." You've also "got to love writers," added Barclay, which "takes some getting used to." "It's not going to be all about your point of view," he continued, and when you're given scripts, they're "going to expect to more or less see" them in what's shot. A lot of feature directors, he said, have a kind of "automatic resistance" to writers that can make this a challenge for them.

'The League'

There are also differences between TV directing gigs -- like if you're able to direct a pilot, which can be a very different experience from being a guest director. It's more like "doing a movie in a compressed amount of time," Dinner mused, and you're able to set a lot of the visual style of the series: "In a way, you're the architect of the show," and "you have a lot longer time that you're prepping."

If you're also a producer, as Barclay is for "Sons of Anarchy," you can end up coordinating with, managing and preparing the various guest directors who come in to handle episodes: "It's my job to prepare the directors and give them all the information they need. Some writer-producers don't even want to talk to the director."

Guest directors don't always get to communicate amongst themselves, though sometimes that can be helpful, with Sachheim noting that he tries "to huddle with the director who precedes me," and that when heading to "Longmire" after Horder-Payton recently directed an episode, "we sat down and talked at some length about approaches of dealing with the actors."

And as with film, TV production has changed with new technology, with Einhorn revealing that "Wilfred" is shot on DSLR cameras and Jackie Schaffer noting that the improvised "The League" typically has three cameras going to capture the action, with episodes shooting in just three and a half days. With the shift to digital from film, "we don't have to cut as often," added Barclay, saying that when shooting "In Treatment" "we went to a hard drive -- we could do 20 minutes, just film it as if it were a play."

This article is related to: Television, TV News, TCA Summer 2013, FX