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.

Lost. Click image to expand.
Lost

The next time you watch Lost, try setting aside the theories of good and evil, the intricacies of electromagnetic fields, the crush you have on Josh Holloway. Focus, instead, on the camera angles.

Consider, for instance, the airplane sequence in this season's premiere, "LA X." It re-created scenes from the 2004 pilot, but with differences small and large: a guy gets one bottle of vodka instead of two; someone's on the plane who wasn't there before; and oh, yes, there's no crash. It was the viewers' first glimpse of an alternate reality, and it was intended to be unsettling and surreal. That's why, for certain shots, director Jack Bender put his camera on a rocker plate, allowing it to tilt and swoop eerily around a character's head. "I just wanted something to be a little off," he told me.

Casual viewers might not have even been conscious of that movement, but Bender knew it would affect the mood in the way he wanted. It's the kind of technical choice that a good director makes, and it's the reason why, in the movie world at least, directors get power, glory, and ample credit for their creativity.

In television, however, directors work in relative obscurity. They're listed at the end of the opening credits but rarely become household names. TV is known as a writer's medium, driven by the people who devise plotlines and character arcs. The auteurs are the show creators and the show runners, who oversee all aspects of production. The Sopranos was considered David Chase's show; Boston Legal was David E. Kelley's; Grey's Anatomy belongs to Shonda Rhimes.

But on ambitious TV shows—an ever growing category—directors are far more than just baby sitters who tell the actors where to stand. Directors help to establish a visual language for individual episodes and for series as a whole. They're responsible for choosing camera positions and drawing out performances from actors. Bender describes his role as cooking a meal from a recipe the writers have provided.

Rod Holcomb is among the career directors who have worked on a broad range of shows, shifting continuously between genres and styles. After starting his career in the ABC mailroom—really!—he worked his way up to a producing position on The Six Million Dollar Man, then started directing episodes of Battlestar Galactica, B.J. and the Bear, and Hill Street Blues. He later became one of a subset of TV directors who specialize in pilots; his include the first episodes of The Greatest American Hero, China Beach, and ER. For the ER pilot in 1994, Holcomb devised the show's trademark verite style. Action scenes were designed to convey a feeling of organized chaos—the camera was constantly moving, and the actors had to work to stay in its view. It was an idea he drew from visits to real emergency rooms, where long stretches of boredom were punctuated by sudden bursts of manic activity.

Pilots establish the look and feel of a series, but early episodes continue that work, and there, too, directors can have a major influence. Bender didn't direct the Lost pilot—that was J.J. Abrams—but he helmed the second episode, "Walkabout," and set some ground rules that have largely endured. Handheld cameras shouldn't be used unless they serve a real dramatic purpose. ("I said, 'OK, let's not become the handheld show,'" Bender says.) Blues and greens, the main colors on the island, should largely be kept out of the flashback scenes. During the filming of "Walkabout," Bender also made subtle changes to the script in order to heighten the drama. One scene, set on the beach amid the ruins of a crashed airplane, called for a knife to fly through the air and land in the trunk of a tree. Bender decided to send the knife into a seat cushion lodged in the sand, while a character sat in the adjacent seat.

Bender is also an executive producer of Lost, overseeing the filming operation in Hawaii (which includes managing the series' other directors) while the writers and show runners toil in Burbank. Show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse leave many of the day-to-day decisions about props and sets to Bender and count on him to maintain a consistent vision and tone. "The ultimate goal—and this is more Jack's responsibility than it is ours—is that when you're watching an episode of Lost, you're immersed in the experience of watching it,'' Lindelof says.

But even directors who swoop in to helm a single episode often have power to block scenes and modify scripts. They just have to learn to navigate different show runners' styles. Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of The West Wing, barely writes stage directions at all, says Lesli Linka Glatter, another longtime TV director. He'll produce pages of dense dialogue and leave directors to sort out the motion. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, by contrast, writes scripts filled with physical descriptions, specifying when Don Draper picks up a glass of Scotch and when he takes a sip.

But Glatter says she's learned that Weiner is open to suggestions, too. She can tell him, "Matt, I understand that Don Draper is taking an emotional beat there. Can he look out the window versus taking a sip of Scotch?" The answer tends to be yes. "He just needs to know you know what the subtext is," Glatter says. "And once you do, he gives you a lot of freedom."

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.