[Editor’s Note: Remy Auberjonois has been around TV sets his entire life, and from “The Sopranos” to “Veep,” he has had guest starring roles on virtually every great series of the last two decades. Wanting to try his hand a directing television, the actor realized to break in he’d have to make a detour into indie film to prove himself. It’s a path that has led him to making “Blood Stripe” — the story of a female marine veteran who flees suburbia when she returns from Afghanistan — which premiered this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival. We asked Auberjonois to reflect on his winding path to becoming a TV director and what he learned from shooting his feature debut.]
I’ve been a professional actor for many years, dating back to my first experience on television as a 6 year-old extra in an episode of “Benson.” That first experience, and a part on “LA Law” (“The Son Also Rises” episode) that was written for me to act out with my father by his old friend Steven Bochco, have been the most blatant and obvious examples of how nepotism has allowed me to have this career. My father, Rene Auberjonois, is an accomplished actor whose career has spanned several Golden Ages: he was doing theater in the ’60s, film in the ’70s, and TV series starting in the ’80s. Since my early experiences working in TV and on stage, I cannot deny that my last name has served me very well. I honestly don’t think I have gotten jobs simply because of who my father is, more that my name has lent a familiarity that has ensured that I’ve gotten a second look when my picture and resume comes across a desk, perhaps a curious beat when I’ve walked into an audition room.
As we’ve come to understand, branding is a powerful suggestive tool in our world. I don’t take the name for granted. But while I am confident of my own talents and craft as an actor, and have spent many years working on Broadway and on sets far from the space my father inhabits in LA, in many ways I have never stepped out from the large shadow he has cast. Furthermore, there has always been some part of me that has had an urge to make a different kind of contribution to the process of storytelling.
I’ve always admired other actors who can put on blinders and just focus exclusively on their character’s journey/moment/POV. For myself, I am usually aware, to varying degrees, of the purpose in the narrative of the character and the moment. It’s a way in for me. I have been told many times that I have a director’s perspective. It hasn’t always served me: when Mike Nichols told me that it was in a helpful effort to get me to be more present. After awhile I started to feel like I had more to offer than just hitting my marks. I wanted to utilize that awareness and that approach. I kind of wanted to be in charge of the storytelling, rather than just being aware of the needs of the story and serving it that way. I determined to try my hand at directing.
I didn’t at first have a burning urge to make an independent film. I specifically thought it might be a lot of fun to direct a TV show. The system is in place, the crews and cast are versed in the look and style of the show, there is a producing machine that provides a “superstructure” to the process, and the director’s task seemed to me from the outside as a lot less producerial than on an indie. Obviously some of our most beloved filmmakers are migrating to creating episodic content, and the number of outlets producing long form drama has multiplied many times over in the past few years. Our traditional notion of “TV” is opening up to include shows on PS3 and Hulu, alongside the more familiar broadcast and cable networks, not to mention the new behemoths for original programming Netflix and Amazon. There is work to be had, there are boundaries being pushed, and there are resources to be marshaled. But you can’t just raise your hand and say “I want to direct your project.” You’ve got to point to something other than an impulse and an approach to work.
I needed a “proof of concept” that I not only thought like a director, but that I could function as one as well. So the impetus to make my first film, “Blood Stripe,” really came from an urge to try my hand at directing television. And while my name might have gotten me a second look in the audition room, which I could then capitalize on through my own hard work and craft, I knew that making a transition into being a director would require more than the lucky fact of my paternity and the benefit of the doubt.
The models I’ve had for directors of episodic seem to follow a few scripts. The directors I have worked with on such shows as “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos,” “Pan Am,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The Good Wife” (to name a few), have been both TV pros and folks who’ve migrated from the world of film. Sometimes an actor on a long-running show is invited to try their hand at helming an episode, as was the case with my father on “DS9.” Some directors come through the the system as DPs or Assistant Directors. I spoke with one very accomplished director I worked with who said you pretty much have to get on a mysterious (and most likely figurative) “list” that the executives have of people who are desirable to hire. It seemed that many of the directors I’ve worked with and admired did have a feature to their credit early on, which most likely gained them either representation and/or fans within the system who chose to give them a shot. Since I have never landed the regular role on a series, it seemed that this would be the most likely route for me, and that my experience on many well made shows might serve to bolster a case for my understanding of how TV sets are run.
The holistic experience of making an independent film is hard to match. You design the train, build it, lay the tracks, then drive it out of the station. It’s an incredibly rewarding and challenging experience. This comes with tremendous freedom and also responsibility. The film is as much an organic expression that grew from what tools we were able to marshal as it is an expression of the story we set out to tell.
The process of making the movie took me further away from the original impulse to prove that I might work within the TV system, and closer to simply answering my collaborators and my own narrative and creative impulses within the confines of our budget and timeline. There was no other option or way to work. The experience feels completely unique, like it could only have existed given the particulars of this film. It was entirely draining, taking all my focus and energy; and also entirely galvanizing, connecting me to untapped resources I could only dimly conceive of when I started the process. I learned that I do have the capacity to run a set, tell a story visually, communicate with actors and other collaborators, and hopefully leave an audience moved.
My father being present on the set, and in the film, really made it that much richer an experience. It also took me closer to defining myself as an artist than ever before, a journey that continues for me throughout my life. The spark came from a somewhat calculated search for a legitimate calling card, but it has become something more: really a process of self-definition that happened in the course of serving a story much larger than myself or any of us involved.