Helmers don't duck double duty
As Tim Van Patten finished directing the memorable season-five episode of “The Sopranos” in which Adriana gets murdered, he was also prepping the long-awaited series finale of “Sex and the City” set in Paris. He felt more fried than usual.
“Traveling back and forth to Paris, this is not something to complain about, but it was really trying,” Van Patten says. “It was the very end of Adriana, a character nobody wanted to say goodbye to. That was the most solemn day of shooting. And for obvious reasons, the very end of ‘Sex and the City’ was an emotional episode.”
It’s surprisingly uncommon for a director to end one episodic job and start another on a different show over the course of a weekend. The more successful a TV director, the more high-profile offers he or she gets and the more maxed their schedules become.
Van Patten, a six-time Emmy nominee who also directed “Rome” this year, says he typically works 14- to 18-hour days.
“The hardest part is time away from your family,” Van Patten says. “Otherwise, I love the action of it. You finish one and start up another.”
Counting on adrenaline to fuel him, he lands on set and spends a week reviewing recent episodes, scouting locations and devising how to shoot the script. Then production begins. Adaptability is the name of the hurried game.
“You have (to have) great sea legs,” Van Patten says. “It’s when you stop and you get back into it, you say, ‘Whoa, I’m not ready for this.'”
Alik Sakharov, head “Sopranos” cinematographer, multitasks when he’s got two exciting offers at once. He finished photography homework for the second season of “Rome” while his camera rolled on David Chase’s set.
“As I shot ‘Sopranos,’ I had this little BlackBerry thing for research,” Sakharov says. “In a long ‘Sopranos’ scene, if everything is lit, and I know everything is taken care of, I’m going to be sitting there for six hours waiting. So, I would be reading online about some historical perspective of Octavia for ‘Rome.’ ”
Sakharov directed one episode of “Rome” last season, his first foray into TV helming. He hopes to do more.
Concentrating hard on two story worlds, did he ever borrow from one show’s aesthetic to enhance the other?
“No, because it’s like you have a symphony you wrote in D minor, and then you wrote another piece in major,” he says. “Each is a visual tune.”
“The fact that each show is so specific is actually helpful,” Van Patten adds.
It’s essential not to get cocky, no matter your award-nominated track record.
“I’m still nervous before I start any episode,” Van Patten says. “I never feel completely secure, and I love that.”
Jack Bender, Emmy-winning exec producer and director of “Lost,” in the past helmed “Sopranos” and “Alias” episodes back to back. He agrees: Too much confidence kills any TV director’s process.
“The one thing nobody wants is the director who comes in and is either lazy or glib,” Bender says. “Everybody wants somebody to come in and be honest and work as hard as they can work.”
While keeping the self-importance in check, Bender says the TV helmer must rely on his personal instincts, and his time-tested skills as a director — even if that means opposing the exec producers.
When Bender shot the “Sopranos” episode in which Tony brings Carmela to therapy, he opted to break Chase’s only hard and fast rule for him: Whatever you do, do not move the camera during Tony’s therapy session.
“Edie (Falco) said something off camera, and I just dollied the camera around 180, and it went past (James Gandolfini) into Edie,” Bender says. “Everybody said, ‘Oh my God, it’s verboten, don’t do the camera move.’ David Chase ended up leaving it in. It was my instinct that would be an appropriate way to reveal her and break that show rule, since Tony was kind of breaking the rule of therapy.”
For budgeting and scheduling efficiency, TV directors usually shoot one episode, leave for another contract, and maybe return later. They generally have another director’s immediate act to follow.
Brian Kirk, who recently directed “The Tudors” and “The Riches,” says he tries not to think even about the last director on the set.
“It’s tough, actually, because people have established patterns of working,” Kirk says. “You have to put yourself at the center of the action and say, ‘OK, guys, I’m taking responsibility. … I want you all to express yourselves as much as possible along the way, but we’re going over here in this direction now.”
How does the busy director avoid burnout?
“I try not to work more than nine months a year,” Kirk says. “It’s really important to leave the carnival, come outside and remember: It’s not real.”