LOS ANGELES – It sounds as if I won’t be getting a dinner invitation from Alec Baldwin anytime soon.
The hot-headed actor recently said that many TV critics don’t do their homework. If we did, we’d spend less time dissecting the actors and more time focusing on the role of the director.
“The actors really don’t have as much power as you think they have,” he said. “But they’re often handed more of a piece of the bill when the thing gets skewered, if you will, than they deserve.”
With Baldwin’s thoughts in mind, I decided to talk to TV directors about how they operate, especially when it comes to communicating with their actors. Here are some snippets from those conversations.
A TV director’s most important job is helping to develop a pilot, the sample episode that will determine whether a network picks up a series. Directors weigh in on everything from the look of the show to the casting.
Jason Winer, “The Crazy Ones,” “New Girl”: It was my idea to bring Eric Stonestreet back for “Modern Family,” but what happened after that was all Eric. He had a light bulb moment between the initial audition and the callback when he realized the character was his mother.
One person that didn’t sail through was Ty Burrell, who was turned down by ABC three times. What you don’t want to do is ram an actor down the network’s throat. They might eventually acquiesce, but ultimately they won’t be happy with the performance because they can’t take ownership. It’s a delicate dance coaxing approval.
We did a screen test in (creator) Steve Levitan’s backyard. We showed it side by side with a screen test of another notable actor who satisfied ABC’s vision of the perfect dad. When you do that, it’s really undeniable when something’s funny and when it’s not. That’s how we won.
Know your actors’ talents
Most directors are on the set for only about two weeks before handing the reins off to the next director for the ensuing episode. That can make working with actors a little tricky.
Patty Jenkins, “The Killing,” “Entourage”: It’s important to be dedicated to the actor and give them enough chances to be great. That may take eight takes, although that can be pushing it if you’re running out of time.
Nelson McCormick, “ER,” “NYPD Blue”: Everyone wants someone to take charge, call the shots and move the company. No one wants that more than actors. They want a director that’s very clear on what they want. One time I was directing Anthony Edwards on “ER” in its eighth season and I asked him to do another take. He said, “Why?” It’s the best thing that ever happened to me because it taught me that you better have an answer to that. Don’t say let’s go again just for the hell of it.
Paris Barclay, “Sons of Anarchy,” “Glee”: Knowing what’s actually happening between the director and the actors is sort of a secret. In many cases, we help the actor and in some cases we don’t. Dennis Franz in “NYPD Blue” is a perfect example. You don’t really have to direct Dennis. But there would be other people on that show that you literally had to describe where they were, where they’re going, what their intentions are, and then film it over and over again to get a performance that could even be in the same room with Dennis. That’s part of what we do.
It’s TV, not movies
Film directors are often lauded as auteurs, while TV directors continue to be largely anonymous, even if the quality of their work is comparable.
Michael Dinner, “Justified,” “Masters of Sex”: Television was kind of cookie-cutter until Michael Mann did “Miami Vice.” All of a sudden, there was an explosion in point of view. Television is more ambitious now, more cinematic and the public is demanding bigger stories.
Gwyneth Horder-Payton, “The Bridge,” “Once Upon a Time”: The difference between features and television is that sometimes, to their detriment, film directors have so much time to plan that it doesn’t give them the opportunity to come up with something cool at the last minute because something changed on location or somebody acted differently or a dog wandered onto the set.
Challenges for women
Only 14 percent of episodes in the 2012-13 season were helmed by women, according to the Directors Guild of America.
Horder-Payton: As a woman, you just have to prove yourself faster, from the moment you walk on a set. If you can’t make your mark and immediately say, “I am the leader here. Trust me,” then you’ve lost it. They’ll stomp all over you.
Jackie Marcus Schaffer, “The League”: I was once diverted by a new production assistant to the extras tent on my own show. No joke. It happened on a movie I did, as well. A baseball cap and Converse tennis shoes, I’ve learned, are not my friends when it comes to instilling control. I’ve learned I need to speak a little louder and say it with more gusto for people to know I’m serious and I want it the way I want it.