Voters seem awed by pilot show's hurdles

Not too many kudofests mix directors of movies and television in the same category. But the Emmys are a notable exception.

With primary involvement in helping establish a television series from scratch, directors of pilots face challenges that resemble those of feature filmmakers more than they resemble directors of subsequent series episodes.

Essentially, says Richard Shepard, nominated for directing the pilot of ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” a pilot director is making a “mini-movie” — only in less time.

“You’re casting it,” Shepard says. “You’re picking the sets. You’re picking the way the show’s gonna look and sort of the tone it’s going to take. … You can influence the show in a major way.”

Emmy voters seem awed by the hurdles. Since 2004, five of the past six comedy and drama director Emmys have gone to pilot directors — for “Arrested Development,” “Desperate Housewives,” “My Name Is Earl,” “Deadwood” and “Lost.”

Take a poll of the director brotherhood and sisterhood, and you’ll find some support for placing pilot directors in a different category from nonpilot directors come Emmy time because the tasks at hand are that different.

“In practice, I don’t know that it’s really practical,” says nominee David Semel, who got his nod for helming the opening chapter of “Heroes” (before helming later episodes of “Six Degrees” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). “But I do think it’s kind of unfair for episodes to have to compete with a pilot.”

Directors of pilots do have more time and financial support for their efforts than a typical episodic director has — but for good reason. In a television world with more scrapped launches than Cape Canaveral, pilots need all the help they can get. And there are myriad decisions to make even after the pilot script has approval.

Adroitly introducing the characters, storylines and visual template for a series is so important that one can understand why some series creators, given the opportunity, do it themselves.

“I wanted to direct the pilot,” recalls “Friday Night Lights” executive producer Peter Berg. “Kevin Reilly, who was running NBC at the time, gave me a tremendous amount of creative freedom, and I was able to operate very autonomously.”

At the same time, showrunners are perhaps surprisingly willing to put their babies in the hands of freelance directors, with the hopes that a fresh set of eyes will only help.

“I talked about this with (showrunner Tim Kring) from day one,” Semel says. “My approach and everything I did with the pilot was grounding it in reality (so that) an audience would be able to look at it and not just see these great characters but be able to see themselves in these great characters.”

Shepard, who says he got the job on “Betty” in part because he told the producers he felt the show could resemble a Pedro Almodovar movie, also helped make some choices that now seem obvious but were once anything but, such as whether lead actress America Ferrera should wear braces.

Later, Shepard joined in on the last-minute decision to recast the role of show villain Wilhelmina by bringing in Vanessa Williams.

“Literally, we got Vanessa on a plane at 6 p.m. the night before the shooting,” Shepard says. “It’s horrible to replace anyone — obviously, there were some financial implications — but to me, this other actor was not getting the tone. To me, it was, ‘Listen, you can’t have sort of your main baddie be not great, because it’s not gonna hold water here.’ ”

Ken Kwapis, who directed the 2005 pilot of “The Office,” remembers with some amazement the Catch-22 of bringing “The Office” to life.

“Every pilot is difficult, but the challenge of ‘The Office’ was that it obviously was an adaptation of a show that was almost impossible to improve upon,” he says. “To be honest with you, many of my colleagues and friends told me I was on a suicide mission.”

Although many if not most pilot directors prefer finding a pilot vs. directing subsequent episodes of a series, Kwapis has filmed several episodes of “The Office” after directing its pilot — and was nominated this year for “Gay Witch Hunt,” the episode kicking off the series’ third season.

“Yes, you can set a style with the pilot, but it’s really exciting to fill in the drawing, as it were,” Kwapis says.

“There is an assumption that at a certain point, shows sort of run themselves, and I don’t believe that’s the case at all. Just the opposite — the actors are eager, almost desperate, for someone to breathe new life. My experience is that if you come in with new ideas and present them the right way — which is your job — you’d be surprised how open people will be.”

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