There are some directors who flourish because of their tight relationship with actors, or how they speak the same language as the d.p.
Tommy Schlamme fits those criteria well. But what he finds more enticing than conversing with an Emmy winner or even a master cinematographer is the comfort of a long, spacious hallway.
It’s in these spaces — most often found on very large soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot — where Schlamme’s expertise comes to fruition. The director, who earned his latest DGA nom for his work on the pilot of NBC’s first-year drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” developed the “walk and talk” on “Sports Night” and then mastered it on “The West Wing.”
The shot — which features two or more actors moving from one location to another on the set, often from one office to another via a hallway — has become a Schlamme signature. He says the effect is borne more out of necessity than style.
“The West Wing,” for example, was notorious for its latenight hours. The walk and talk became almost a shortcut for bridging multiple scenes into one, and cutting back on hours on the set.
“With the walk and talk, you can have a Steadicam and cover seven or eight pages (of script) in a morning,” says John Wells, who worked with Schlamme on “ER.” “We didn’t have the time to do lighting scene by scene.”
“Instead of doing a scene and then cutting to another, it became fascinating to figure out how to get there from here,” Schlamme explains. “They’re difficult but exciting to do. You think about them in your head, and it somehow falls into place. Earlier on, when we did them we needed more rehearsal, but I feel more comfortable with them now, and the actors trust the process.”
Indeed. Allison Janney, who played press secretary and chief of staff C.J. Cregg on “West Wing,” wasn’t even familiar with the term “walk and talk” before doing the series but became a fan of that shot as the skein went on.
“I loved them because it reminds me of being onstage,” she says.
For Josh Malina, who came aboard the series about halfway though, the process could seem intimidating only because nobody wanted to be the one to screw up a line near the end of the shot and make everyone start from the beginning.
“If you’re not used to it, you can be completely hung up on the technical,” he says, “but what goes through most actors’ minds is, ‘I don’t want to be the one who screws up the last line of the scene.’ ”
Schlamme can relate to the actor’s nightmare and says there was more than one occasion where a day player had to deliver just a couple of lines of dialogue, couldn’t get it right, and everyone had to start from square one.
It would sometimes take 10, 20 or even more takes for a single walk and talk. But, at that point, it becomes a point of pride to get it right.
“The hardest part is the actor who comes in three-fourths into the scene. Guaranteed he’s going to flub his lines,” Schlamme relates. “And the worst part was when we got the shot right, but the actor says, ‘I don’t think my performance was good.’ But they’re right to feel that way, and I wouldn’t want to move on.”
Eight and counting
Schlamme now has been DGA-nominated eight times, with three wins (two for “Sports Night,” one for “West Wing”). Born in Houston, he attended the U. of Texas on a theater scholarship and changed his major to history. However, after walking by the film building too many times and seeing the good times being had by the thespians, he decided he wanted a career in entertainment, if only because “I wanted to hang out with them.”
His career breaks would come directing ABC’s “Afterschool Special” programs and a Bette Midler concert. Eventually, he would form a friendship with Aaron Sorkin that came to a professional fruition when the two were working on “Sports Night.”
(He actually read the “West Wing” script before “Sports Night,” but the networks didn’t want to greenlight “West Wing” during the height of the Monica Lewinsky brouhaha.)
His relationship with Sorkin would bring the two Emmys, critical praise and a unique way to bring out the best in each other.
If Sorkin is the writer who can churn out rat-a-tat dialogue unlike almost anybody else, then Schlamme is his interpreter, especially when it comes to dealing with the cast and getting the best performances out of them.
And whether it’s “Studio 60” or “West Wing” actors, they say Schlamme makes their jobs better, since he’s so focused on the work at hand.
“He’s absolutely the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with,” says “Studio 60” star Matthew Perry. “The best way I can describe how Tommy works is that you show up and you work really hard and really long, and you think there can’t be anymore coverage, (and) there is. And then you see it on TV, and you know he was right.”