'Big Bang Theory' Director Reflects on Emotional Final Episode: "I Felt a Lot of Pressure"

The Big Bang Theory BTS_Publicity-H 2019
Michael Yarish/CBS

With 244 episodes of CBS' hit comedy under his belt, Emmy-nominated helmer Mark Cendrowski breaks down how he shot the tearjerker ending.

Mark Cendrowski's second Emmy nomination comes with a lot of weight attached to it. The go-to director of CBS' The Big Bang Theory (he helmed 244 out of its 280 episodes) boasts one of only three nominations (including editing and technical direction) that the long-running nerdy comedy earned for its 12th and final season. The series signed off May 16 as the No. 1 scripted comedy in the adults 18-to-49 demographic and as TV's longest-running multicamera comedy ever (besting Cheers).

Cendrowski earned his first Emmy nom in 2018 in an unusual fashion: Seven hours after the nominations were announced, the TV Academy revealed he'd been left off the list because a new rule requiring that at least one multicamera director be included in the category was overlooked. For the second year, he's the lone multicamera director nominated in the comedy field.

When it came time to craft the finale for the Chuck Lorre series, Cendrowski called up Cheers co-creator and director Jim Burrows, who gave him a key piece of advice: "Enjoy the tears."

How was directing the series finale different than the 240-plus other episodes you helmed?

I wanted to keep it from being too emotional. What we did all year, because we ran for 12 years, the way we celebrated onstage was we made it our high school senior year. We did a yearbook, class pictures, had a prom. We tried to keep things light all year. With five weeks left, [recurring guest star] Wil Wheaton did his last episode and delivered a beautiful speech to the cast and crew when he wrapped. I could see people tearing up and hugging each other, but we still had quite a few episodes to go. In approaching the last episode, we knew the table read was going to be emotional. We pre-shot the entire episode. We only had two days on camera, and I got a third day so we could put the whole episode in the can. That took pressure off the cast when it came time to shoot in front of the studio audience. At the very end, it hit me when Chuck Lorre went up to do the last slate of the very last scene. He thought it would be a neat thing to do and got very choked up.

With a show built around a character like Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who doesn't understand or often express emotion, how do you ensure those big emotional moments of the finale landed?

Sheldon's non-emotion amplified everyone else. You could get frustrated with Sheldon, but then you saw how it affected Leonard (Johnny Galecki) when he'd be upset. That's what I'd lean into. That universe spinning around him had to be real and honest. I felt a lot of pressure because it had been building up all year. The episode had a lot of great challenges — we had 300 extras and had to shoot an auditorium scene to make it look like 3,000 people attending the Nobel Prize ceremony. That was a vast scene that also had to play emotionally and close to the heart.

How did having new sets and locations shake things up for you?

Being out of the living room, which was always the go-to, was a challenge. We had to avoid how we usually prepped. We did run-throughs and rehearsals on another stage where we had the airplane and auditorium set up. We treated it with a single-camera mentality and set-ups, and none of those scenes were filmed in front of the audience.

The pinnacle of the series was Sheldon winning the Nobel and delivering a heartfelt speech giving credit to his friends. What went into that scene when working with Jim?

My mantra to Jim throughout the years was, "Jim, it's only Thursday." We start rehearsals on Wednesday, and if he wasn't nailing things on the second day, he'd get upset that it wasn't working. We don't shoot until Tuesday, and that's what this was. We did a table read, which was emotional, on Wednesday, and we had this buildup to shooting the finale. We saw at the table read how the scene affected everyone and knew we didn't need to do too much more on camera to make it work. The approach was not to overwork it, not to beat it to death and find every nuance. My biggest challenge was steering Jim from Wednesday to the last day of shooting on Monday.

Big Bang was not recognized in the acting, writing or series categories for its final season. Why not?

Multicamera is considered old-fashioned. In the last five to 10 years, network execs wanted single-cam or hybrid comedies because that's what's hip. The multicam format and making people laugh and feel emotions is the hardest thing to do. That's hard to accomplish, and I don't think the TV Academy recognizes how difficult that is to do.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.