Editor’s Note: There are so many different paths to becoming a movie director, but a career in late night isn’t one of the more common ones. Rob Burnett spent 30 years working for David Letterman, rising from intern to executive producer, before directing Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez in the upcoming Netflix release “The Fundamentals of Caring.” We asked the writer/director what lessons he took from “The Late Show” and how did it prepare him for being a filmmaker. What we got was the following essay, which is a great insight into the mindset it takes to direct a feature film.
During one of the Q&A sessions after “The Fundamentals of Caring” screened at Sundance, someone asked me what influence my work in television has had on me as a filmmaker. It was a great question, and one for which I oddly didn’t have an immediate answer. So in the heat of the moment I did what I normally do in that situation: I blabbered on and on nonsensically until someone else raised their hand with a simpler question: “Is Paul Rudd nice?” (Easy one: Yes!)
I thought I might give it a more considered try here.
Some quick background on me: I began my career as an intern at “Late Night with David Letterman” (which eventually became “Late Show”) in 1985. I had just turned 23. I went on to be a writer, then head writer, and then eventually executive producer. Along the way, I also co-created with the great Jon Beckerman a show called “Ed,” which aired on NBC from 2000-2004.
Here are three lessons my TV travels bestowed upon me that have helped me as a filmmaker. Apologies to the woman in the smart red ski jacket in Park City that I couldn’t come up with any of these at the time.
1. The right kind of fear is good for you.
I was made the head writer of “Late Night with David Letterman” at the age of 29, which was quite simply, insane. To make matters worse, the man who decided to leave, Steve O’Donnell, was and is by all accounts a genius. And the head writer before him, Merrill Markoe, basically created the whole darn thing. So this all felt ridiculous to me – like asking a little leaguer to grab a bat and get up behind Ruth and Gehrig. Additionally, the room was filled with some of the brightest comedy writing minds in the country (spend two minutes with Gerard Mulligan and you’ll understand what an actual funny person sounds like), and somehow, impossibly, I was in charge.
Terror is not strong enough a word. I felt like a monkey being shot into space. But in time I realized that the fear I felt was a good fear. It was a fear that meant you were being forced to grow, being forced way outside of your comfort zone. Eventually I found my bearings for no other reason than that I had no choice. And while there was daily nausea involved, I wouldn’t trade that early head writing experience for anything in the world. It toughened my soul.
I was also asked at a Q&A if I get nervous when I walk on set as the director of a movie with big stars like Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, and a crew of 150. Sure, a little, but the feeling in my gut takes me right back to my early head writer days. On set, I am actually comforted by the discomfort. So embrace the butterflies; they are doing good work inside of you, shoring up your stomach and psyche for the long and twisty road ahead.
2. Be collaborative, but not tentative.
A writers’ room on a TV show is the epitome of collaboration, especially in comedy/variety. While there are some exceptions, it is usually a bunch of maladjusted, poorly dressed, sleep deprived, vitamin D-deficient men and women sitting around a conference room table filled with crappy takeout food deep into the night. Oh, how I miss it! What is great is that you’re all in it together, and it doesn’t matter who had any particular idea. Ownership doesn’t make sense because everyone’s hands are on everything. It’s like asking Vikings on a Viking ship: “Who had that really good stroke a few miles back?” It’s rarely just one person and moreover, who cares? Just keep moving the boat.
However, when you move from rowing the boat to being in charge of the boat, you realize something rather quickly: Being tentative helps no one. It is up to you to keep people focused and on track and moving toward your vision. If you don’t like an idea, you can’t spend time pursuing it. No one wants to row in circles.
This maps perfectly onto directing a film. To the extent there is time, I will listen to anyone that has anything to offer: From actors to production assistants to the guy working the craft service table. Good ideas are everywhere, and all I ever care about is getting the best idea. Sometimes the best idea is mine, often it is not. How stupid would I be if I didn’t hear the thoughts of my cinematographer Giles Nuttgens on how to improve a shot? Or consider script changes from my Academy Award winning producer Donna Gigliotti? Or listen to Paul Rudd’s feelings on a better way to block a scene? (Answer: very stupid.)
But just as in that overlit, pungent writers’ room, the end vision can only be yours. Listen, listen, listen, but then you have to decide. Their idea, your idea, a new idea – all is fine, but you have to be the one that makes that decision because a set cannot be run as a democracy. It must be a benevolent dictatorship. (Some directors may not believe in the “benevolent” part, but I strongly do.) Every department head on a movie knows more about their department than you do. They are experts in their areas. But as you are sitting in that director’s chair, know that not one of the 150 people working there understands the full picture the way you do. They are all making beautiful tiles, but you are the one cementing them into the mosaic. They want and need you to be in charge.
3. The more prepared you are, the more flexible you can be.
Here I need to move past “Late Show” and onto my experience at “Ed,” which is where I cut my directing chops. “Ed” was a one-hour scripted show shot on film, and anyone that has ever done one-hour scripted television (especially for a network where 22 episodes comprises a season) will tell you that it is extraordinarily challenging. You are often shooting eight pages a day.
I learned a ton on “Ed” from our great cinematographer (and now a great director in his own right) Michael Slovis. He was effortlessly efficient. =He forced me to think about how to get work done quickly without compromising quality, a skill that served me every single day on “Fundamentals” and my first indie film “We Made This Movie.” I found when directing “Ed” the more prepared I was going into the day, the more I was able to call audibles as needed for time. I now routinely go into every directing day with a list of shots broken down into three categories: “need to have,” “want to have,” “if time permits.”
The first category includes the shots that are essential to telling your story. Literally, without these, your story will not make sense. The second category is comprised of the shots you want to have to tell your story well. The third category contains the shots that are purely for style that make everything better. So, as a quick example: A shot of the guy firing the gun (first category); a shot of the guy nervously fiddling with his necklace before firing the gun (second category); a silhouetted long shot of the guy waiting to fire the gun (third category).
In “The Fundamentals of Caring,” there is an important sequence near the end of the movie where we need to be with Trevor and all he is feeling before making a turn. I had great plans here: A 19-shot sequence choreographed in tone with a score that had not yet been written, but was firmly in my head (and would be exceeded months later by our composer Ryan Miller). There was only one problem: We were running out of time, and the location – a quarry outside of Atlanta – was way too expensive to revisit. It was just not going to happen.
I looked at my categories: There were three shots that were essential to the story (for spoiler purposes I’m leaving out the specifics of these). The rest really were about pace – all category two and three stuff. I decided I could achieve the emotional downbeat by simply extending one of the category two shots: Craig and Paul sitting in the van. (With lesser actors this would never have worked, but these guys give you something every second.) And you know what? Not only did we make our day, but this version is actually better than what I had planned. It’s simpler and more intimate. Less about the camera, more about the actors, which is almost always better.
These are three lessons, but truth be told, I could actually come up with dozens more. Nightly and episodic television is a boot camp of sorts, and one that absolutely prepares you for filmmaking. There are so many paths to becoming a filmmaker that no one path can ever really be considered unusual. My particular journey went through the demanding and sometimes downright ugly world of television, and I’m glad it did. I feel it, reference it, and rely on it every single moment I am making a film.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” premieres on Netflix on June 24.