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10 Things Indie Filmmakers Need to Know About Directing for Television

10 Things Indie Filmmakers Need to Know About Directing for Television

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.

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:

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.

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
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.

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.

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