William H. Macy: Directing 'Shameless' Was the "Hardest Thing I've Ever Done"

The Showtime star steps behind the camera for this Sunday's episode.
Chuck Hodes

William H. Macy is no stranger to directing but the first time he stepped behind the camera in such a position on Showtime's Shameless — where he plays one of TV's worst fathers — wasn't until the seventh episode of season five.

One might assume that's because his workload playing Gallagher patriarch Frank is so heavy on its own that it's hard to carve out time in production for him to split focus so he can begin prepping — and then actually shooting — a directorial spot. And that's true, as Macy learned with the episode he actually took on to direct, "Tell Me You F—ing Need Me," juggling both acting and directing full-time, at the same time, on the same show is its own special skill set.

"It's an odd job directing television because you're not the king of the hill; you're not an auteur the way you are in film. Other people do a lot of the work; it's very collaborative; you're one part of a big machine, and you're not the last word," Macy told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done!"

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Macy teased his directorial turn for THR and also provided insight to an exclusive first look clip from a key scene from his episode, above.

This episode is full of turning points for the various Gallaghers. How did it come about that this was the script you directed?

[Showrunner] John Wells is the guy who schedules it, and [he] is a big champion of actors directing, and he's done it on many of his shows. A lot of the guys on ER ended up directing sooner or later and a lot of those guys are still directing to this day because of John Wells. But at any rate, at the beginning of the season I put my hat in the ring and said I'd love to direct one ... and John picked the episode. It was just my good fortune that I got one that Nancy [Pimental] wrote.

What was the most challenging part of taking on this episode?

The most difficult thing is just the relentlessness of the pace. Television is fast, and Shameless is fast television. I think we probably out-shoot every other show out there, and I wouldn't want to be on the one that beats us! My first day of shooting [as director] was nine and three-quarters pages; second day was nine and half; it was over nine pages for my first three days. For my fourth day of shooting, it settled into an easy-peasy eight and change. A big feature will shoot anywhere from three-quarters of a page to two and a half or three pages in one day. We pack a lot of plot into 59 or 60 minutes. We'll put as much plot in one of our episodes as some other shows put in three of theirs.

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So what did you come to rely on to help you adjust to that pace, since you're not usually in every scene and therefore on set for all of those pages each day?

I found it quite moving to see the crew hustle along. Ethan [Cutkosky, who plays Carl] really jumped in and was wrangling the other kids. I found it really moving that he would get my back like that, and he doesn't always do that, but he was making sure everybody was hitting their marks.

What about the content of the episode: which storyline was most challenging for you to take on?

Technically the scene where Sammi [Emily Bergl] shoots me was tough. I had a grand design for that, and I overreached a little bit. I had to cut some shots from the way I wanted to do it. It was a big set piece with a blood gag, a gun, there's kids on the set, and all of those things take a long time. [But] there's also a sex scene, which for a Lutheran, I had to screw up my courage and just talk loud and fast! Sheila [Joan Cusack] has a lot of sex toys, and we borrowed one [and] it's a very realistic phallus. (Laughs) Truthfully I have not seen the finished episode, so I don't know what we got past the ratings board, but it was there in my cut!

This is also a particularly big episode for Fiona (Emmy Rossum) and Jimmy/Steve/Jack (Justin Chatwin).

Those were tough scenes! Those scenes are very tricky for Emmy, I think. They're very complicated. You know, she's in love with one guy, sort of in love with another, and trying to move forward in life and keep the bad boys away, and it's pretty clever the way the writers and John have moved Justin's character. He went from being such a sweet guy to sort of revealing himself as a veteran hustler, and he'll never shake that. They brought that aspect of his personality out, and that's what Fiona is struggling with.

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There's an inherent physicality to their relationship — they're always either fighting or having sex — and any movement in scenes certainly adds another layer when directing.

I think it's probably difficult for an audience to understand that something like [the fight in the restaurant in the episode, of which THR has an exclusive first look above] that goes by so quickly can eat up so much time when shooting. A punch, the table breaking, it's got to be right. Every time you get a stunt like that, you can eat up a quarter of the day before you know it [but] we got lucky on this one. Justin threw himself onto the table, and it broke, and dishes went everywhere. That's not the way it was scripted [but] thank goodness I had good people around me. We looked at the playback in the camera with no sound about four times, and we looked at each other and we said, "We're done. It's never going to get any better than that!"

Frank is such a specific character but you know him so well after all these seasons; how did directing yourself feel?

Directing myself I found a bore. If I direct another Shameless I'll have to direct myself but I don't like it. I don't have the skill to do both [act and direct at same time]; I think something's going to suffer. The both times I've done it, I think I end up being sort of mediocre in both roles. I don't know how people do it! I have trouble keeping all of this stuff in my head anyway, so splitting my focus, I don't like.

Part of the fun of directing has to be making decisions for characters that then other episodes have to refer to, though.

Debbie's boyfriend [Luca Oriel] had to have a car, and so I got to choose the car. I said, "Let's make him a hip guy; let's get him a convertible." So all the other directors are now going to be stuck with a convertible in Chicago in winter. (Laughs)

How did you handle those story elements that really were just planted seeds in this episode, that will be more fully pay off later, in an episode of which someone else is at the helm?

There was stuff where I would call John or any of the people who might know, like Nancy, and say "Where is this heading? Is there anything I should know?" and a lot of the times they didn't know because if I was doing [episode] seven, 11 and 12 were outlined but changing a lot, and even nine and 10 were still going through rewrites. So it's an interesting storytelling dilemma that you don't know exactly how the story's going to end.

Shameless airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime. What are you most looking forward to seeing the Gallaghers get up to this week? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @danielletbd