Directing any film or television show is a challenging feat, but there are extra complications for those who step in for an episode or two of a longer-running series: They have to lead a group of people who know the ins and outs of the storytelling, and the set itself, better than they do. The skills they need extend beyond leadership and emotional intelligence to the ability to be a utility player.
Veteran director Guy Norman Bee, who got his start on such shows as “ER” and “Third Watch,” and recently helmed episodes of “Take Two” and “Blood & Treasure,” compares the task of traveling from show to show to being a session musician.
“You show up and plug in and ‘OK, let’s go,’ ” he says. “Your ability to shift gears and jump on a moving train, and then jump off elegantly after, is what keeps you surviving — because your reputation gets around.”
Having started his career in the camera department, Bee says he has benefited from having a technical shorthand when he arrives on a new show. “The camera crew doesn’t have to explain a 14mm lens is wide and you never put anything wider than a 35 in the face of a beautiful woman or suddenly it looks like she has a big nose,” he explains. “Those things are so second-nature to me.”
Ryan Case started her career as an editor before transitioning to directing. This television season alone she has worked on everything from “Modern Family” to “You’re the Worst” to “Miracle Workers” and “Atypical.” While she moves from broadcast to cable to streaming series that often have vastly different episode orders, she notes the similarity is that, as an episodic director, your job is “basically to help find the rhythm of the show.” Especially for those with longer episode orders that are run like machines, she says, “You’re coming in to make sure every story point is hit and the performances are good. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, and they know what their audience wants.”
Additionally, television directors have to make sure the showrunners are happy with what they do to visually elevate the words in order to be invited back.
“You can help them realize their vision,” Case says. “You do bring ideas. There are a lot of things directors in television control, like performances. There are so many things you can do in an episode that will help them going forward in the show.”
Claire Scanlon, who recently directed episodes of single-camera comedies including “GLOW,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” adds that it is important to do a lot of research to better understand the “tone and the aesthetic style and pacing” of an existing show. That preparation gives her an idea of showrunner preferences so she can create schematics — “architectural movement of every set, whether it’s location or on stage,” she says — to bring into the tone meetings.
But, as important as that preparation is, so is being open so that the actors and crew can “own the space and feel it out,” allowing for a truly collaborative environment, Scanlon says.
For Patty Jenkins, who directed the first two episodes of TNT limited series “I Am the Night,” an important part of the process was to create a playbook for the directors that followed her. Having had episodic experience (“Arrested Development,” “The Killing”) earlier in her career, she learned the importance of being clued into the shorthand various actors had, let alone various department heads.
“The broad strokes of what I do and what makes me feel comfortable to hand it off is to set the tone really clearly. I happen to be a pretty verbal person with that stuff; I’m talking about it a lot. Then, automatically I was picking directors who I thought the tone came super naturally to, but also had something to bring that I wouldn’t have.” she says. “But you want them to be the best supported they can, to do the best work.”
Directing is a craft, but such artisans do not consider themselves sacrificing their own style for a house style of a show they may parachute into one week; they just adapt it. “If I can do one or two shots a day that has my signature on it, I’m happy,” says Bee.
And in some cases, as with “The Queen” episode of “Castle Rock” that Greg Yaitanes helmed this year, a director can be given more opportunity to create a visual language, even for an existing show. “The Queen” was the seventh episode of the first season of Hulu’s anthology series, but it was a departure, Yaitanes points out, because of its focus on one character, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), through multiple years.
“It was one of the few times in my career I ever stopped shooting to sit and talk and get to the crux of what she needed for the scene. You’re used to the go, go, go of TV, so to stop is an incredible moment,” Yaitanes says. “The performance is what the episode lives and dies on, so I was honored to be able to bring that out.”
While there is no specific formula to being able to successfully command a different set every few weeks, time management skills, as well as being able to calmly but authoritatively deal with different personalities, are crucial.
“You have to ingratiate yourself very delicately because you’re a spoke in a wheel, and the wheel is moving. It is a very delicate balance. You certainly can’t come in like gangbusters,” Scanlon says.
Adds Yaitanes: “You come in in a position of respect and you have to be able to spread that respect back and understand you’re a guest in somebody’s home.”