A year ago, I went to a “diversity” lunch at Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. I was hesitant to attend, because the overwhelming majority of those who currently fill this position are white men, but I am one of many women and people of color striving towards coveted work as an episodic director.
I had been invited to attend by the Fox Global Directors Initiative (FDI), a lab for episodic directing of which I am a member. Attendees of the lunch included some of the most prominent directors working in serialized television and I was glad to be seated at a table with Lesli Linka Glatter, the executive producer and director of Showtime’s “Homeland.”
There are so few women who do what Lesli does, she is a director AND an executive producer of the show. Lesli exudes the essence of what people always say they want in a director: laid-back confidence. Lesli invited me to the “Homeland” set in Berlin, as a “shadow” which literally means I would shadow a director working on a set, from preproduction through production. When I notified Fox Audience Strategy (who lead the Fox Lab), the women, Nicole Bernard and Gina Reyes, who know the uphill struggle it is to get into episodic directing, were able to organize support for me for my time. It was a win win for them because I am part of the lab but also because “Homeland” is produced by one of Fox’s studios.
As an Arab American, “Homeland” is a complicated show. While I admire the feminist bend of the show, it has an unusual leading female protagonist, yet the show includes some angles about the Middle East and Islamic civilization which are challenging, if not problematic.
But everyone close to me told me that I needed to take this opportunity. There are so few Arab American directors working in Hollywood and, this would be an empowering moment for me, as I would be working closely with Lesli. She was not asking me about my background or ideas. She was asking me if I’d wanted to learn more about episodic directing. I had never been on a serialized drama set before. I took this gracious opportunity, it was a gift I needed to receive.
I am a filmmaker who has lived and worked throughout the Middle East. My first feature film, “Habibi,” is the story of an artist declaring his love through graffiti on the walls of the Gaza Strip. As it turned out, the “Homeland” episode I observed, “Super Powers,” was exclusively set in Berlin, and didn’t have anything directly to do with Arabic content or characters. That was good for me, because that let me focus exclusively on learning the technical craft.
So, how exactly does shadowing work? Shadowing is an opportunity to watch veterans do their work well, and to ask many questions. I would stand by the side of the director and watch the day to day minutiae of making the episode. I got to witness a 70- person crew operate. I observed that the entire set maneuvered around facilitating the actors’ abilities to do their work. There was a moment when one actor had serious qualms about the blocking of a scene. The director, director of photography and first assistant director stepped in to provide solutions in a positive, nurturing way. Within mere seconds, the issue was resolved.
That’s the key theme — the set barely ever missed a beat. I watched Claire Danes throw herself on the ground in the woods for a rehearsal before the team had a chance to lie down a mat for her. It was a moment of complete and utter selfless professionalism. Everyone was there to work. It was not glamorous. It was not luxurious. It was a job. The set is super busy and the hours are incredibly long.
I asked hundreds of questions in my first few days. People got comfortable with me and wanted to tell me things. I would also overhear many things. I quickly discovered that no matter how perfect a situation can be, someone will always have an opinion. I have learned to not make subjective comments about other people’s work on a set. Likewise, shadowing is not the time to make pitches.
As Lesli is also the executive producer, and cannot direct every episode, she matched me with the gentle and modest Keith Griffin Gordon, who was the director of “Super Powers,” which was the third episode of the series’ fifth season.
When I observed Keith interacting with the writing team, I noticed that he asked every question possible about intention, practically line by line of the script. I understood that Keith was working to deliver performances based on the writers’ motivations for the scene as part of the overall theme of the series. Lesli expressed that I must not just be loyal to the writers’ ideas, but to be able to elevate them visually.
Still, my greatest lesson from Lesli came via her attitude. She was nothing but completely positive the entire time. I asked her if the positivity was a trained muscle. She said it was. She works twelve hours a day, for months on end, and constantly had a glowing face for everyone on set. I aspire to develop that kind, loving, professional muscle. What the director can most contribute is respectful and joyous leadership.
On the “Homeland”set in Berlin, the other Arabs and Muslims that I met were in the transportation department. I had a great time joking around with them. We ate together sometimes. I felt like I had a behind-the-scenes cheerleading squad as I was working to break in.
My producer from my first feature now lives in Berlin and took me out on weekends in the Lebanese neighborhood of Neukölln. I felt privileged. A woman with my background — not only as an Arab but also someone raised working class — was getting so close to TV directing. And I could feel everyone around me wanting me to get there. It is my obligation to do whatever I can — to honor my background and to achieve my dreams.
The reality is that there are only rare occasions when an open directing position becomes available in situations such as this. The producers find the shadowing director to be a great match, and the studio and network agree. Actually, at this moment, four out of the twenty women of our lab have broken into episodic directing.
In the coming month, I am beginning production of my second feature film, “Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf,” an expansion of my short film that was an official selection in the Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, with the backing of the Fox Global Directors Initiative, I will be directing a Fox branded short, which I have written, that will be circulated to Fox executives upon completion.
As a director, my job is to create my dream. My experience on “Homeland” got me closer to that dream.