What do directors of TV series like Lost and Mad Men do? Are they like movie directors?

What do directors of TV series like Lost and Mad Men do? Are they like movie directors?

What do directors of TV series like Lost and Mad Men do? Are they like movie directors?

What you're watching.
April 15 2010 9:42 AM

What Do TV Directors Do?

Just about everything movie directors do, only faster.

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On a series like Mad Men, that freedom translates into the ability to direct what is essentially a small independent film, choosing shots that set a tone and send a message. In the Season 3 episode "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency"— for which she won a Directors Guild of America award—Glatter made the decision to film a charged scene between Don and Joan Holloway as a "two-shot," without cutaways or close-ups. She also storyboarded the grotesque-yet-hilarious sequence when a runaway lawnmower crosses the Sterling Cooper offices and runs over the foot of a British executive. For the pivotal moment when blood spatters onto three Sterling Cooper employees, Glatter pulled a trick to ensure that the actors would look genuinely shocked. She told them fake blood would be thrown on them on the count of three. Then, when the camera was running, she had it thrown on "two."

It was jolting, but also just right—as Glatter notes, the entire episode "was about expectation and uncertainty." A director's job, she says, is to establish that kind of overarching theme and to do so at the breakneck pace of television production. Compared with film directors, TV directors work through a lot more material, a lot more quickly. On many shows, directors have a scant eight days to prepare for an hour-long episode and eight more to shoot it; two-hour feature films are often produced over the course of months.


"You need to know what the $5 scene is and what the $1 scene is," Glatter says. "You have to know … the scene that turns your story and what you want to spend your time on."

Sometimes it's the small scenes that benefit most from a director's touch. Holcomb has directed his share of boffo action sequences, but he also talks with pride about a segment in a recent episode of The Good Wife, the CBS legal procedural starring Julianna Margulies as a politician's wife who returns to the work force after her husband gets caught in a scandal. The scene features Margulies and Josh Charles, who plays a law school friend—and possibly an old flame—who is now her boss. They're discussing her role at the firm, but there's ample subtext: jealousy, mistrust, and unrequited love.

"I want to be here," she says.
"I want you to be here," he replies.
"Then … then I'm here," she says.
"OK," he says.

The dialogue is spare but the scene takes up a lot of time. Holcomb says his chief contribution was to insist that the actors not rush it: "I just simply said, 'Too fast. Too fast. Slower.' " When the camera lingers on their faces—the slight smile on Margulies' lips, the wistful look in Charles' eyes—it's clear that the director knew what he was doing.

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Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.