A TV Director's Open Letter to Anne Sweeney: It's All About the Shoes (Guest Column)
Forget the Disney executive suite. A director's chair is the most powerful place in television — just as long as you follow these simple guidelines from Bruce Leddy ("Cougar Town").
This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On March 11, veteran Disney/ABC Executive Anne Sweeney revealed in The Hollywood Reporter that she will step down to become a television director. Naturally, a seasoned TV director offered to provide some (unsolicited) advice.
I was excited to read you're giving up Titandom to join us in the world of TV directing! As you know, many creative and powerful people in Hollywood have chosen TV directing as their milieu. I can't think of any of them at the moment -- nor do searches on Google, Yahoo or Bing turn anything up -- but I'm quite sure of this fact. TV may be considered a "writers' medium," but by someone of your stature joining our ranks, you have elevated TV directors considerably, putting us solidly within the top 35 most important people on a TV series.
First, you'll need to get yourself a job! Definitely call showrunner Shonda Rhimes and book an episode of Grey's Anatomy. Common sense might say a one-hour drama is a tough way to start a directing career but -- in a Malcolm Gladwell-esque reversal of expectations -- I'm here to tell you the opposite is true.
Shows that are new, low-budget or involve children and animals are harrowing to direct. This means virtually all Disney shows are off the table (and I say this purely to be helpful and not at all because I'm still hoping to get hired for more episodes of Dog With a Blog and I don't need the competition). But Grey's Anatomy is perfect: The series is in approximately its 26th season and basically shoots itself. It's like a player piano; all you have to do is sit there and waggle your hands over the keys while beautiful music comes out.
Second, you'll need to reboot your image. You're in the Army now, soldier! Television directing is a complex job that requires stamina, diplomacy and top-notch footwear. In fact, it is one of the only professions where proper shoes are the single most determining factor for success (bowling is the other). A director who sports breathable boots with memory foam and customized orthotic inserts commands authority and admiration on set, while a director who is constantly fighting back tears from the pain of fashionable kicks is subject to snickering derision.
You'll be on your feet all day, so unless you've been at one of those treadmill desks in the Disney boardroom, you'll need to do some serious conditioning. Most A-list TV directors have enormous calf muscles, which is why their Facebook profile pictures show them in shorts with their feet up on a desk. (There's a guy on Doheny Drive who makes custom flared pants for directors like Pam Fryman and Paris Barclay, whose calves are spectacular. I'll get you his number.)
As for the rest of your wardrobe, you'll need to mix and match to appeal to all the different groups you'll work with, from actors to the crew to the network execs. For you, I'd recommend a sharp pencil skirt with a bold flannel snowboarding hoodie, fishnet thigh-highs and used Doc Martens. Remember, many of Hollywood's stages were built in the 1930s and must still run on some kind of ice- and/or coal-driven system, so you need to constantly adapt -- adding or subtracting sleeves and hoods, opening Velcro armpit vents, turning on battery-powered hot socks, etc. Maintain your temperature at all times! You don't want to be giving an important note to Jon Hamm while sweat falls from your nose onto his midcentury desk, ruining the vintage Look magazines. That's a career-ender.
A word about hats: I don't subscribe to the tired cliche that a director must wear a baseball cap at all times. However, I do recommend a helmet of some kind. Things can get ugly at the monitors when the producers and execs sitting behind you want to express displeasure at an actor's performance and start flinging whatever is at hand (doughnuts, sushi, car keys) so as not to spoil the audio with obscenities.
And that's it! You're good to go. "But wait," you say. "Doesn't TV directing require lots of creative and technical stuff?" No, that's a myth. There are seasoned professionals (cinematographers, producers, grips, etc.) for that. Directing TV is really quite simple. In fact, I heard Google has not only invented a car that can drive itself, now the car drives itself to the studio and directs a sitcom using infrared and radar and such. When it hears the last line of a scene, it automatically calls out, "Cut! That was perfect! Let's do another take." And if a car can handle it, I feel very confident that someone who ran a 10,000-employee empire will have no problem at all!
Anne, I love my job and my flared pants, and so will you. So grab your boots, your protective headgear and your parka with zip-off sleeves and best of luck with your TV directing career!
Break a leg,
Bruce Leddy is a comedy TV director. His credits include Cougar Town, Good Luck Charlie and Dog With a Blog.