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“It Was the Hardest Camp Ever”: TV Directors Reveal Their Biggest Challenges

From a showrunner making her directorial debut (like Lisa Joy on HBO's 'Westworld') to a hired gun stepping in for an episode or two (Oscar nominee Morten Tyldum on Starz's 'Counterpart'), helmers reveal the collaborative tricks of episodic TV: "It's almost like being part of sports team."

There are plenty of differences between feature films and television series, but perhaps the biggest distinction is that there’s just one director on a feature who is there from start to finish to maintain consistency, while a series’ season can be directed by a variety of helmers, some of whom are deeply involved with the project as executive producers or creators, while others are just dropping in for an episode.

The process is like remodeling a kitchen. Showrunners can bring in an outside expert to helm the project and then just hope the hired guns can grasp the show’s vision. Or they can do it all themselves to maintain a consistent tone and style, but that means incorporating the extra work into their already overloaded schedule.

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The simplest solution, according to Mr. Robot executive producer Sam Esmail, is a hybrid approach. For his USA drama’s third season, he decided to “structure everything more like a feature than a TV show. The three stages of a television season — writing, production and post — are treated as separate rather than taking the traditional approach and have them happen at the same time.” By getting all the writing done before production and all the editing done after everything’s been shot, he could focus on directing every episode of the series himself. 

In Mr. Robot’s first year, he’d tried to spread the duties among several guest directors, but then came a moment during the filming of a key scene that convinced Esmail he had to direct every installment of his show.

“We were shooting in New York and I had to be back in Los Angeles doing the mix and color on that week’s episode,” he recalls. “So I had to FaceTime on my phone to a laptop sitting in a director’s chair looking at a monitor so I could give feedback to the director. I remember thinking to myself, ‘It feels like a runaround way of making sure this vision we have makes it to the screen.’ This show has such an idiosyncratic visual language, it’s hard to translate that for guest directors. They were amazing and brilliant, but the creative choices on the show are more accessible when the process is more streamlined.”

So he changed the schedule in order to direct everything himself. The upside? Being able to create a cohesive point of view for the show. And the downside? It’s not so much the exhaustion and “potential loss of sanity” (although he admits to both). Rather, it’s missing out on the camaraderie and collaboration with outside directors because “getting more voices into a show” often can help a series grow creatively.

Modern Family creator and executive producer Steve Levitan agrees that letting independent directors step in every once in a while can be a good thing to shake up a series’ point of view. It’s just that it took him nine seasons to get to that point.

“I’m much more open now to what another director wants to bring to the show,” explains Levitan, who directed two of season nine’s 22 episodes. “In the early days of the show, if something wasn’t always going the right way with a director, I’d try to get in there and tweak it a little. But I’ve learned over the years that there are so many different ways to do a scene, and I’m making more of an effort to respect what other people can bring to the show. That comes from having directed for a while and produced so many episodes. In the beginning, everything had to be perfect, but now I really am trying to make more of an effort to allow for what I’m not seeing at first from another director.”

It’s not just his appreciation for bringing in outside directors that has shifted. His own directing style has changed. Because Modern Family is so ingrained in his DNA at this point, Levitan says he has become “an economical director.” As in, he knows what he wants and relies a lot on the shorthand he’s developed with his cast after nearly a decade of working together.

“I have learned to go where the script takes you,” Levitan explains. “I just do my best to make sure things feel real, that nothing seems forced. And I try to keep things moving. I’ll keep cameras rolling between takes quite often unless there’s a lot to fix. Sometimes that’s just about keeping the energy up. I’d rather just keep rolling rather than burn out actors and having them do the thing we need 10 times.”

As a director who mostly has worked on feature films, John Singleton has had pretty much the opposite experience of Levitan. His talents as a director already were well known thanks to projects like Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning. So when he decided to create and run FX’s Snowfall, he had to learn to cede at least some of the directing work to others and focus more on the overall story for his show.

“I’ve learned I can’t micromanage everything,” he explains. “But I can guide the process with those we hire and help with the feel and look and environment we want to create. I could direct multiple episodes but have found it’s best for the show to sit back, watch and try to guide the other directors.”

He created the series with a very specific world in mind — Los Angeles in the early ’80s — so it was critical for him to spend time on set for each episode in order to convey the vision that was in his head to guest directors. While some showrunners might see each episode as an individual piece of an entire series package, Singleton says he “never compartmentalized” Snowfall. Rather, he always saw the project as “a fully formed arc.”

That explains why it was important for him to direct the final episode of the show’s first season, bringing his vision to completion. It wasn’t just a summation of the Snowfall story he wanted to tell — it was also the opportunity for viewers “to really get the shape of everything I’ve done since my first movie.” 

“A director is a facilitator for the story that’s being told,” Singleton explains. “I think it was Orson Welles who said directors have to be a little bit of everything. You have to know how to use the camera. You have to know acting. You have to know music — all the different parts of a production. And doing Snowfall has made me more bold with all aspects of the process.”

Hiro Murai did not create Atlanta, FX’s Donald Glover-starring series, but he’s an executive producer and the most frequent director on the show, helming seven out of the 11 episodes in the second season, including the much-talked-about “Teddy Perkins” episode, featuring Glover as a Michael Jackson-like character. “I look at each episode as a self-contained story, but I’m also very aware of how that episode works in the context of the season,” he says. “Even if an episode is self-contained, the preceding episodes always affect how the audience takes it in. We try to be mindful of that.”

Murai says he and Glover are “very selective” about who they invite to guest direct episodes. “We try to pick directors who have distinct voices and try to pair them with self-contained arcs in the season that complement their style.”

Lisa Joy also learned a few new tricks when it came to directing an episode of the series she co-created and executive produces, HBO’s Westworld. Although, truth be told, every trick she learned was new given that she’d never directed before.

“However, the truth is that I’ve always been guilty of directing from the page with the scripts I’ve written,” says Joy, who co-showruns the series with Jonathan Nolan. “That approach has its merits with television, where you have episodic directors coming in and out. You have to be very specific with the suggestions of how you want to show things, not just with dialogue but also place and mood. I write all of that as very vivid guidelines so directors can come in and do what they will with them.”

Given this approach, the transition to directing for the first time proved to be much more seamless than it might otherwise have been. And as she shot her directorial debut, the fourth episode of the second season, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” it became very clear how much her visual sense matched up with her literary style. 

“The sensibility I brought to directing was similar to what I bring when I write,” explains Joy. “When I first began writing, it was not in screenwriting but in poetry. That form was so evocative, all about the image and the emotion captured in a Polaroid-like smattering of words. That is what carried over into my scripts and now to directing. I see my work behind the camera as the actualization of a poem. I like to linger on images, conveying things through stillness.”

Of course, being able to direct a show where you also serve as executive producer makes the work easier since you already understand the ins and outs of every story and every character. That’s an experience Lesli Linka Glatter has had on Homeland, where she’s an EP who directed four episodes of the Showtime series’ seventh season. Throughout her 30-year career, she’s also seen things from the other side as a hired gun who has stepped in for individual episodes of series like The West Wing, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and The Leftovers. Those experiences have given her a better understanding of how to work with the outsiders who directed episodes of Homeland.

“I like the fact that other directors can come in to do what amounts to their chapter of a whole novel because it shakes things up,” explains Glatter. “As a producing director, I’ve always believed that you have this whole, but you want directors to come in and tell one of our stories in their own way. I’m a big planner who thinks through every scene in every way I can, but it’s nice to have other voices that can suggest something we as producers haven’t thought of. You want to be open to the opportunities that others may bring to your show rather than be tied to just one way of doing things.”

She uses that same collaborative approach whether her job is producing an episode with another director or directing an episode herself. However, while the former requires working with just one other person, the latter involves a much larger group.

“When you’re on set working with actors, you have to be what’s necessary to get the best possible performance from them — the stern dad, the understanding mom, the therapist,” Glatter says. “Then there’s collaborating with the director of photography or your assistant director or your set designer. You have to have the bigger vision for your episode, but at the same time, you have to know how all the minute details fit together in order to tell that story. This is an art form that uses the talents of many, but on set you need someone to be captain of the ship, and that’s the director.”

Still, at least in episodic television, that captain tends to jump ship once he or she completes a single leg of the voyage. When episodes are directed by people who don’t double as executive producers, it can be difficult for that series to find some stylistic consistency. HBO’s Game of Thrones has found a way around this situation — having all of a season’s directors come to its European sets at the same time.

It’s a unique approach that took Matt Shakman by surprise. He’s directed episodes of major series like Mad Men and Fargo, which have a guest director come to set to prep his or her episode just as the director of the previous episode is finishing up. In order to direct the “Spoils of War” episode of Game of Thrones, though, Shakman had to spend six months overseas sharing office space and ideas with all his directing peers.

“It felt like camp,” he says. “Of course, it was the hardest camp ever. And it was all very collegial. We were all going to the same sets, facing similar challenges. … I loved the opportunity to pick the brains of the veterans who had directed on the show before. It helped that all of the scripts get done months before, so we as directors take them and things can evolve.”

The reason for this summer camp approach is simple. Shooting Game of Thrones is such a massive undertaking, everyone needs to pull together as part of one giant team even if they are outsiders coming in for a single episode. Which means that while directors are free to bring their own personal flair to their installments, they must always remember that the show is much bigger than a single episode.

“You don’t necessarily want to bring a distinctive visual style to Game of Thrones,” Shakman says. “If Guy Ritchie did an episode, for instance, it would feel dissonant from the series because of his particular way of directing. Coming into a show that’s operated for seven successful seasons, you’re more like an art student. You learn to paint like Rembrandt and get new tools you can add to your toolkit when you work elsewhere.”

That’s a very different approach from when he’s working on TV pilots, where directors are doing just one episode, but because it’s the first one, they have a lot of authority over how a show will look after they’ve moved on.

“It’s a different kind of pressure but also very satisfying knowing you are starting something that will live on,” explains Morten Tyldum, who directed the pilot for the Starz series Counterpart. “You create a template for other directors to follow. You create a visual language. I don’t see it as creating a first act of something, and somebody comes in to a second act and yet another director does a third. For me, it’s like doing a one-hour movie that sets the style for future one-hour movies.”

That chance to work for a few weeks yet create something that could live on for years is what attracted Jon Favreau to the opportunity to direct the pilot episode of Seth MacFarlane’s Fox series The Orville.

“With feature films, there is a sense of closure at the end,” says Favreau, whose movie directing credits include the first two Iron Man films, The Jungle Book and Elf. “TV is more of a living, breathing thing that goes on. And with television, there’s that intimacy of seeing shows in your home on a regular basis, developing relationships with characters you like. So it was fun for me to be part of creating a vision for a series, assembling a cast, going from nothing to something. It was almost like being a part of a sports team.”

And whether a TV director operates more like a playercoach, supervising an entire series while also digging in to helm specific episodes, or the all-star free agent brought in for a brief engagement, the work itself is ultimately the same. Make your episode the same as all the other episodes but also make sure it’s different. In other words, just do everything.

“A television director does everything necessary to get the very best version of a script onto the screen,” Levitan explains. “You have to be a choreographer, a therapist, an editor, an art director and, at times, a writer trying to track the entire story for not just a show but a whole series. A good TV director has to answer 10,000 questions a day. And, maybe most importantly, be prepared to sit down and stand up more than anyone in the entire production.”

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.