Emmy Wrap: Writer/director contenders

3:13 PM PST 08/13/2009 by Alex Ben Block, AP

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When Beth McCarthy-Miller took on the challenge of directing NBC's "30 Rock" episode "Reunion," she had to cope with the realities that face any director, no matter how grand his or her vision. In this case, that meant coping with her star's frenetic schedule.

Even though McCarthy-Miller had been friends with Tina Fey since working with her for several seasons on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," this didn't mean her schedule could be changed.

"Tina shot until 9 p.m. on a Friday night with me," McCarthy-Miller recalls, "and then had to go and rehearse to play Gov. Sarah Palin on 'SNL,' which taped the next night. Then she had to do 'Oprah' and on Sunday had a birthday party for her daughter."

Despite that, McCarthy-Miller managed to make an episode successful enough that it has merited an Emmy nomination for directing this year.

But she is not alone in dealing with a set of challenges that often have nothing to do with the dreams of would-be directors in film schools. Across the board, this year's nominated television directors have had to deal with limited budgets, tough schedules and casts that were often unfamiliar with them -- as just a few of their problems.

For Bill D'Elia, an executive producer on "Boston Legal" and a veteran collaborator with writer-producer David E. Kelley on "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," directing the "Legal" series finale meant figuring out how to wrap five years of storytelling in one two-hour episode.

"It was a very big episode," he recalls. "We had a ton of very large scenes with a lot of people."

One challenge was a scene at a Canadian fishing camp. D'Elia had gone to Canada to shoot a previous episode, but for the finale there wasn't time to go on location. Instead, the crew built a replica of the entire fishing lodge on a soundstage in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

"The backgrounds were all blue screened," he says. "We created the wide open spaces of Canada and nobody could tell the difference."

For some, directing is only part of their involvement with a show. James Bobin had to juggle directing with a host of other chores -- hence he is nominated for directing "The Tough Brets" episode of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords." He also stands to pick up three other Emmys for producing, writing and for creating the song "Carol Brown," along with two others. A win, quips Bobin, "would be very good news for my mantelpiece, which is quite bare."

There's a big difference between those who have been a part of a show as it was created, shaped, staffed and cast, and those who come in from the outside to work on one or a handful of episodes.

Todd Holland is a veteran feature and TV director nominated for helming the "30 Rock" episode "Generalissimo" last season. He was hired on the recommendation of his agent, who also represents the show's executive producer and Fey, and dispatched from Los Angeles to New York.

"I hadn't been a director-for-hire for 10 years, since the pilot for 'Malcolm in the Middle,' " Holland says. "I was going back to that journeyman-for-hire thing and I was kind of scared."

The three-time Emmy winner knew the challenge he faced as an outside director coming in to work on just one episode of a series that had already been humming along through the season with an established rhythm in place. "It's tough," he says. "You have to honor the vibe of the show, work with the existing infrastructure where you don't know the DP, you don't know the cast, you don't know the crew and you have to figure that all out in five days of prep; and then you're supposed to elevate it and make it better but still a familiar version. It's a very difficult job."

Rod Holcomb, nominated for directing the series finale of NBC's "ER" -- and also a director-for-hire -- had worked on the show in its early days but not in recent years before being picked to direct the last episode. He says the director-for-hire must answer to the executive producers and deal with star talent.

"They're the lone soldier out there that is asked to put together the equivalent of a major motion picture in seven or eight days, and to compete with each other (for awards), no matter how much money (is in the budget), and to put on the best and biggest picture they can," he says. "A lot of people don't know how hard it is and don't appreciate the amount of work a director has."

For Millicent Shelton, waiting was perhaps the hardest challenge.

Shelton spent two years in discussions with the producers of "30 Rock" before she was hired to helm the episode "Apollo, Apollo." She left her newborn twins with her husband and flew from her home in L.A. to the Silvercup

Studios in Queens, N.Y. "I'm used to coming into a situation as a new director," says Shelton, who will have the distinction of being the first black woman to nab the comedy directing Emmy should things go her way Sept. 20. "On '30 Rock,' it was very comfortable, a very enjoyable experience. I hadn't been part of the family but I really got into it."
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