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About 10 years ago, I was in the throes of a semi-comic recurring meltdown at work, expressing my certainty that this was the draft for which I would be fired or at least deemed a fraud, when my friend and fellow writer Jenna Bans tilted her head at me, furrowed her brow and warmly remarked, “Y’know KV, your level of success is oddly incongruous with your level of insecurity.” I smiled at her, “Survive my childhood, Jenna, then it’ll all make sense.”
But Jenna was right and her words chewed on me because in that moment I’d realized that it wasn’t cute anymore. I was already a decade into my writing and producing career and I had aged out of it being cute. So, I got more therapy, and I got it in hand. I claimed my success. I claimed my talent. I claimed my seat at the table. I stopped threatening to quit every time a draft was due. I worked hard both on myself and at my job, and now I’m able to say — and even to put in print — that I’m a damn good showrunner. Grey’s Anatomy is thriving creatively and it comes in on time and on budget. I clocked Malcolm Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours a long time ago. My success and my confidence level are no longer incongruous. Or they weren’t. Until our producing director, Debbie Allen, suggested that I direct an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Oh, my God, the terror. It’s almost indescribable. It was so big that I said no to Debbie for nearly a year after the suggestion first came up. It was so big that the night before my first day of shooting, all the blood drained from my face and I lost the ability to form words after a friend posed the question, “Are you excited?” I just sat there, silent, paralyzed and pale.
I went home and thought about pulling out. “I’m the showrunner,” I thought, “I’m the boss. I can pull out and Debbie can direct the episode and I don’t even have to explain myself!”
I might have done it too, were it not for stupid Jenna Bans and her stupid words and all the stupid therapy and the congratulatory orchid [Grey’s creator] Shonda Rhimes had already sent me and the fact that I did survive my childhood and if I can do that, I can damn well show up on the set and call “action” and “cut.” This was the pep talk I gave myself while I didn’t sleep at all.
I have no idea how imposter syndrome works in general as I have not put in my 10,000 hours as a mental health professional, but here’s how it works in me: I give tremendous weight to any skill set I don’t naturally possess and zero weight to all the skill sets that come naturally to me.
When I was in high school and I was winning awards for papers I was effortlessly writing, my thought was always, “Wow. I totally pulled one over on them!” It never occurred to me that I had a gift for writing. But the math and science award winners? I thought those people were geniuses. I was so committed to thinking that my gifts were not gifts that I didn’t even study writing in college. I studied acting because it was harder for me. It made me feel anxious and insecure, whereas writing just felt organic. It took me a long time to understand that some people have a really hard time writing. It took me a long time to recognize what came to me naturally as valuable.
Here’s what I was terrified of as a director: geometry and geography. I barely passed geometry when I took it in the 10th grade, and that same year I told a guy I liked that my family drove through Georgia once on our way from California to Utah. So … maps? Charts? Spatial relationships? Angles? Not my jam.
Directing requires a fair amount of geometry and geography and that is all I could think about, as I didn’t sleep that night. I had drawn lots of little pictures in the pages of my script. I had prepped. I had shot listed. I had a script written by Elisabeth Finch, which means it was spun of word-gold. And I had national treasure Debbie Allen on my side. And still, there was very real terror. Why? It’s not like I’d never done this before.
My directing journey actually started five years ago when I went to Sundance and saw Jill Soloway’s incredible, award-winning film Afternoon Delight. I had worked with Jill at Grey’s and I approached her after and said something along the lines of, “Holy shit, Jill, how did you do that???” Jill said, “It’s simple. Stop giving your work to men to direct. You have it in you. You’re afraid because of the lenses but fuck the lenses. You have a DP for that. You’re a storyteller. Go tell your own story.”
I was so inspired that I went home and immediately wrote and directed a short film. I cast Emmy-caliber friends from all the pilots I’ve made that never aired. I funded it myself so that it could be entirely mine. I directed the hell out of that story — and loved every minute of it.
So why was I so scared now? Because an hour of Grey’s Anatomy is a far more public venture than a short film that you fund yourself. I have worked hard to earn the respect of my peers in my writing and producing career. What if I just … fail publicly? That was the terror. Fear of failure. Fear of humiliation. Fear that all the people who are fighting for a little more gender balance in Hollywood’s director assignments would look at my work and be like, “Um … thanks for trying, I guess?” And fear that the people protecting the status quo would say, “See?”
I know that particular terror isn’t unique to me, which is why I’m writing about it here. Because this town is full of powerful women who want to tell their own stories and are afraid to try. And because we so rarely talk about our fear in Hollywood, a town built on confidence and bluster. And because those director statistics are still so woefully imbalanced.
A couple of years ago, I was casting a pilot and the studio sent me a list of “network-approved pilot directors.” On that list, there were 72 men, and six women. I sent the list back to them. I said I wouldn’t look at it until there were more female names on it. The executive wrote me back and said, “approvable female pilot directors — that’s a tough mark to hit.” Now, we can and must help by mentoring and hiring and promoting and supporting women. But we can also take a page from Jill’s book and become approvable female pilot directors ourselves. Because we are storytellers who have been taught that our gifts are somehow not gifts.
As it turns out, I have natural skill sets that matter more than geography. My acting degree lends me ease in working with actors. My tens of thousands of hours in writers’ rooms have made me a good listener and an effective collaborator. I think visually, I communicate easily and thanks to years of my life spent in post on other directors’ episodes, I know what will come together in an editing room and what won’t. And that chaotic childhood I survived? It made me one hell of an improviser, which comes in really handy when you’re chasing daylight.
I felt the fear. I felt it big. And I then I showed up and did all the things I’m good at. And our incredible DP, Carlos Gonzalez, handled the geometry.
Krista Vernoff is the showrunner on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.
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