The real reason showrunners rarely direct
EmptyTV actors talk about directing their own shows
When Vince Gilligan chose to direct a second episode of AMC's "Breaking Bad," the series he created and executive produces, he didn't turn to other TV directors for advice; instead, he went to Sergio Leone -- or rather, to a frequently viewed copy of "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) that he keeps in his office.
"Barely a word is said," the producer notes, speaking of the spaghetti Western's first 15 minutes. "There are three nasty-looking cowboy bounty hunters waiting for a train. The wide tableaux are intercut with great close-up details -- a guy with a fly on his cheek, a drop of water (that) spatters onto a cowboy hat. It's great inspiration."
Gilligan drew on that inspiration when he directed the Season 3 finale, something he hadn't done since the pilot. "The movie puts me in the mood of the show," he says, "a Wild West state of mind -- dry, desolate. The look and tone of that movie is what we attempt to emulate."
But directing for television -- especially when you are in charge of the whole show -- is very different from directing a movie. Despite the innumerable TV writers and producers who enjoy directing, few do. For showrunners, time is against them and so is the reality of running a writers' room, an operation that keeps going when most series are shooting.
Alan Ball has only directed the pilot and season finale of each season of HBO's "True Blood." J.J. Abrams helmed only the two-part pilot of the now-departed "Lost" (ABC). And Matthew Weiner of AMC's "Mad Men" directs just the last episode of each season -- though his role as producer covers many of the tasks a director might handle in a film.
"Matthew Weiner is making a small movie every week in 'Mad Men,' " says Chuck Lorre, who exec produces CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" and who feels little need to direct.
For Lorre, a half-hour sitcom just doesn't require the same directorial care as an hourlong drama. "We're filming a play, and as such the words and performances are everything. You've got two people sitting on a couch and four cameras. It's kind of tough to miss them."
Doug Ellin -- who had credits as a feature film director before he got his first encounter with television on "Entourage," the show he created and now runs -- has directed only two episodes of the HBO comedy, including the upcoming Season 7 premiere set for June 27.
"The only reason I don't direct more is because we're writing the scripts and we only have two writers," he says -- though he then acknowledges another reason: As showrunner, he exerts much of the power a feature director would: "At the end of the day, I like when I'm in total charge. I'm sort of a psycho egomaniac."
He calls directing "his favorite part," but admits that when a show has an established look and tone, it isn't crucial that he do it. "I try and bring what I can to it, but the director's job isn't to create a new show week-to-week."
Katie Jacobs (Fox's "House") is one of the few other showrunners to have embraced directing; even so, she has directed only five episodes of the 129 she's executive produced. Unlike most showrunners, she's helped by the fact that she doesn't write, though she frequently steps in to run the writers' room when creator David Shore has his hands full.
Jacobs took on one of the most ambitious episodes of "House" for her sixth directorial effort, last fall's two-hour stand-alone season premiere. The dark, highly stylized installment had House (Hugh Laurie) in rehab for Vicodin addiction; it had none of the musical cues or opening credits of a regular episode and barely any series regulars.
"It was a big risk," Jacobs says of the 18-day shoot. When the network executives saw it, "They were definitely freaked. And rightly so. It was a big enterprise and if people get turned off from the get-go, you're screwed." Perhaps because of that, she adds: "I'd rather it be me taking all those chances. If someone's gonna f*** it up, it should be me."
She didn't. The episode earned strong ratings and the network is considering doing another one like it next season.
That "House" episode was unusual in its size and scope, and for the departures Jacobs was able to make from her series' formula. Most TV directors never have the authority to change things that much. The uniformity required by a series limits a director's individuality -- even a filmic miniseries like HBO's "The Pacific," made at a whopping
$19 million per episode, spread itself across six directors, something unthinkable on a feature film.
Every episode of the serialized "Brothers and Sisters" requires a more standard look and feel, says executive producer Ken Olin. And Olin very clearly mandates what that look and feel should be.
"The director has become more important," he reflects. "But I'm not sure that the director in television will ever supersede the writer. I don't think it's possible, when you must generate this amount of material."
Olin takes on several of a feature director's chores, like editing. "I lock the episodes, I do the editing," he says.
In stark contrast, "Glee's" Ryan Murphy has directed 10 of the Fox show's first 22 episodes, including April's huge Madonna tribute. (He also made time last year to helm the upcoming Julia Roberts feature "Eat Pray Love.") But now that "Glee's" musical-dramedy brand is fully formed, he feels less of an urge to direct.
"I don't have to do it," he says. "I want to provide opportunities for women and minorities to direct. It's so hard to break into directing, and the show will benefit from a diversified approach. It's not brain surgery anymore."
Maybe that's why "Breaking Bad's" Gilligan was able to add directing to his showrunner chores.
He calls the eight-day shoot "grueling" and notes he would never have done it if the show's shooting schedule hadn't allowed for a holiday break: Over Christmas, he went home to Virginia to write and prep the last two episodes, before directing the final one.
The shoot itself was spread over six days on locations around Albuequerque and two days on-set at "Breaking Bad's" New Mexico soundstages.
Despite the struggle, "The episode looks great," Gilligan notes.
So, will he do it again? "I'd love to," he says. "At the beginning of each season, I tell myself: 'Come hell or high water, I will at least direct the finale!' But the hardest thing is, I usually can't think that far in advance."