Directors spotlight: Television

Small-screen helmers discuss their latest projects.

Richard Shepard
Shepard directed several indie feature projects, including 2005's "The Matador" (which he also wrote), before venturing into television with his direction of the pilot for the CBS drama series "Criminal Minds" and for the hit ABC comedy "Ugly Betty."

"I have to say that directing TV series pilots is the greatest gig in the world. You come in and work your ass off for two months, help create the look and style of the thing, then move on. It's really very much like a minifeature in a way. It's short and sweet. Everybody is still friendly. The egos are in check. That's certainly how it was with the 'Ugly Betty' pilot, which had that question mark going in as to whether it could connect with the audience in the U.S. after being such a hit elsewhere.

"The challenge in making the pilot was in how to present something that was funny, and campy, and comedic, and heartfelt and dramatic all at the same time. It was such a hybrid. We called it a 'comma,' as in 'comedy-drama.' It helped a lot to have an actress as talented as America Ferrera starring in it because that's really the dirty little secret of directing. You're really only as good as the actors you have. But working on a TV pilot is a lot different from film -- a lot faster pace and a lot more difficult in that you're having to set up the series that follows.

"The best part about making 'Ugly Betty,' besides having a hand in something that's been so successful, is being able to work with such a talented cast, from America on down the line. Everybody went the extra mile, just as they did on the 'Criminal Minds' pilot I'd worked on before. Those are the only two TV jobs I've had thus far, in part because now that I'm two-for-two on these shows, I figure I shouldn't risk screwing up my perfect record."

David Semel
Semel is a veteran episodic TV director and producer whose credits include everything from "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Party of Five" and "Chicago Hope" to "Boston Public," "American Dreams" and "House." He directed the acclaimed two-hour pilot for the rookie NBC hit "Heroes."

"I've directed seven TV series pilots in my career but never anything as challenging and rewarding as 'Heroes.' It was the biggest thing any of us ever had been involved in. For one thing, it had been pegged as an hour, but once the international co-financiers got involved, it grew to two hours because they wanted to run it as a movie in the event it didn't go to series. An hour is a stressful, brutal thing to try to make in itself. This was off the charts: an enormous undertaking loaded with effects and characters and locations. By TV and pilot standards, it was huge. But I'm incredibly proud of the way it turned out.

"It was basically like making a feature with every bit of the scale and ambition, but at a fraction of the budget. Getting put inside that box really enforces creativity. But it winds up serving as a catalyst instead of a ball and chain. It helped that (creator-executive producer) Tim Kring wrote a phenomenal script.

"But what's especially tough about directing a pilot is the responsibility of having to create a template for something that could be done 100 times over in terms of episodes. As an episodic director, your job is to honor what's already been created. But when you work on a pilot, you get to establish all of it directorially. It can be grueling, but the sense of accomplishment is just enormous. And when you make pilots, it allows people to see you as someone who crafts an original vision and look from scratch. Once it goes to series, it becomes more about feeding the machine. But that doesn't mean there isn't an enormous amount of great directing being done in television right now."

Peter Markle
Markle's directorial career stretches back to the 1982 indie feature "The Personals" -- which he also wrote -- and includes a resume packed with TV episodic dramas, including "Homicide: Life on the Street," NBC's "ER," CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami" and "Without a Trace" and made-for-TV movies such as 2003's "Saving Jessica Lynch," 2005's "Faith of My Fathers" and this year's Sept. 11 saga from A&E, "Flight 93," which earned him his first Emmy nomination.

"There was definitely a lot more pressure on us while making 'Flight 93' because of the sensitive subject matter, obviously, but also because there were no living witnesses to the tragedy. We were obliged to reconstruct the story using a timeline, (Federal Aviation Administration) transcripts, the voice-data recorder and conversations of those who perished with their loved ones on the ground. In directing it, I was careful to keep things as grounded in reality as possible, beginning with the way it was played by the actors, who inhabited their roles as best they could.

"You could feel a genuine tension on the set because the actors were so into it, so professional. They understood this was a special project, one that called for a certain improvisation. This was a very emotional experience for the people onscreen. It was pretty emotional for me, too. It was like we all were reliving that horrible day for several weeks, yet at the same time, we kept reminding ourselves that we never could really walk in the shoes of the people on that plane. It was simply impossible to re-create what went on. All we could do is the best we could.

"What we never forgot while shooting this film was that the heroics of the people on the flight are timeless and historic. The thing that's the most fascinating and probably resonated more powerfully than any other aspect of the picture was that these all were civilians. We're so used to seeing the Delta Force and Army Rangers swoop in to risk their necks, but these guys who knew this plane would never be landing safely had no idea what they were dealing with. They were just regular people who had the courage and fortitude to do an unbelievable thing."