Shorthand, Graffiti and Logistics: The Biggest Challenges of Directing TV

Pamela Fryman, Tony Yacenda and Sara St. Onge discuss the pros and cons of directing full seasons of TV with THR's Daniel Fienberg.
Courtesy of ATX Festival
Pamela Fryman

Pamela Fryman, Tony Yacenda and Sara St. Onge sat down with The Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg at the ATX Television Festival for a conversation about how they've been able to put their stamp on different series by directing full seasons of television.

In addition to years on Just Shoot Me and Frasier, Fryman notably directed all but 11 episodes of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. American Vandal co-creator Yacenda also directed every episode of his Netflix true-crime spoof, and St. Onge took over as director for the second and third seasons of Audience Network sitcom You Me Her, about a suburban couple that introduces a third person to their marriage. While single-episode gigs are standard for television direction, Fryman said working with the same people over the course of a season (or nine seasons, in the case of HIMYM) allows the cast and crew to develop a production shorthand.

"You do get to know what's happening, what's coming down the line, and what you're doing that day is influenced by what's up ahead and something that's happened in the past. The machine runs better," she explained. "You foster a relationship with the actors and with the crew that you don't get when you're just there for one week.... It's sort of a dream, I think."

Before American Vandal, Yacenda had previously mostly directed shorts. "All the short stuff I've done online has had a comedic tone to it, where it's really committing to a certain genre and it's not joke first, so it's just really taking what we were doing in three-, four-minute segments and flushing it out into four hours of television," he said.

With American Vandal, "the direction was baked into what we were doing at its conception because it was this weird, complete commitment to a true-crime aesthetic." He wanted to take the tools that his favorite documentarians used and deploy them in a sincere way.

"Instead of making fun of them, [we knew] if we used the tools to tell the story in an earnest way that we could actually make audiences care about this medium-stakes crime and forget in the moment that they're watching a dick joke," he said.

St. Onge's experience on You Me Her was unusual in that she came in to direct the second season and was able to completely overhaul many things.

"They allowed me to put my own mark on it," she said. "I really changed the tone going into season two. I changed the main house even though we come back in real time.... I had a lot of freedom to do my own thing with it, which is unheard of in season 2 of a show."

The experience of You Me Her wasn't unlike her experience working in low-budget features, considering the 10 episodes were shot out of order in one long 38-day shoot. "We do all the prep upfront and shoot for 38 days, cross-boarded, out of order," she explained. "I don't think anything can prepare you for that, but it turns out I am a wizard," she joked. "The momentum keeps you going. You can't stop and freak out. You can go cry in your car, but then you have to come back."

While Yacenda wouldn't admit to crying in his car, both he and Fryman said they understood the need for an outlet to release frustration. They also stressed the importance of being able to enjoy when they're doing. Said St. Onge to a young audience member who asked for advice on her first directing gig: "Don't forget to laugh."

"It's a really fun process, and when it does work it's so gratifying," said Fryman of directing comedies.

The panelists and audience were reminded of the importance of laughter shortly after, when the trio discussed some of the biggest difficulties they faced while directing their series. Fryman's most difficult experience directing HIMYM was the tricky logistics involved in the "Subway Wars" episode, but St. Onge's and Yacenda's experiences were a little more scandalous. St. Onge's biggest difficulties involve shooting threesomes, while Yacenda's was negotiating with schools about showing graffiti dicks on their property along with the specificity of drawing the different types of dicks.