Look at the Emmy nominees for comedy series direction, and you’ll find television veterans who have been involved in some of the medium’s most acclaimed series — “The Sopranos,” “West Wing,” “NYPD Blue,” “Sex and the City.”
And then there’s Jason Winer, who, before directing the Emmy-nominated pilot of “Modern Family,” along with a dozen other episodes of the highly praised ABC freshman comedy series, had helmed next to nothing.
“There’s a lesson to be learned for all of us,” says “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan. “Sometimes hiring somebody with a lot to prove is better than hiring somebody just working you into his or her schedule.”
But when you examine the directing nominees in the comedy and drama series categories, it’s apparent that this lesson goes largely ignored. Not that there’s anything wrong with hiring A-list directors — as Levitan puts it, “They’re A-listers for a reason.” The lack of fresh faces, however, provides an illustration of how difficult it is for newcomers to break into television directing, much less the Emmy circle.
“Some people were asking, ‘Why go with the greener guy?,’ ” says “Modern Family” co-creator Christopher Lloyd of the decision to hire Winer. “And, yes, in terms of experience, there was every reason not to hire him. But Jason had so much enthusiasm for the project and a desire to work with the sort of less-is-more approach we wanted to take with the show. It was a perfect marriage.”
Like a lot of directors beginning their careers, Winer got his start behind the camera making short films and pilots. He began his career as an actor, and once he decided he wanted to direct, he sank his life’s savings into the short film “The Adventures of Big Handsome Guy and His Little Friend.” Winer co-wrote, directed and starred in the short, and it became his calling card in the industry.
“You have to be able to put yourself on the line, whether it’s doing something with your own money or tricking the system a little bit,” Winer says. “Having chutzpah and believing in yourself is fine, but at the end of the day, you have to deliver something to people you are interested in, too.”
Making key connections, of course, can help, as well. Lesli Linka Glatter, nominated for her first Emmy for directing the “Mad Men” episode “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” began her professional career in modern dance. When she decided she wanted to become a storyteller, she enrolled in the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women.
Her first short film, “Tales of Meeting and Parting,” won an Oscar nomination and a meeting with Steven Spielberg, who offered a job directing on the television anthology series “Amazing Stories.” Glatter made Spielberg a counter-offer, asking if she could shadow several directors before helming her own episode.
“So I apprenticed on a couple of ‘Amazing Stories’ — with Steven Spielberg and then Clint Eastwood,” Glatter says, offering her own amazing story. “How could you even plan that? It was an incredible experience.”
Glatter also directed four episodes of “Twin Peaks” in her formative days, describing the experience of working with David Lynch as “life-changing.”
“In terms of my learning progression, David had a huge impact,” Glatter says. “He was so much about being open to the wonderful accidents that can happen.”
If it sounds like Glatter has had it easy, she’s quick to point out that she has watched three feature-film projects fall apart along her circuitous career path.
“You need a lot of tenacity and a little bit of luck here and there,” Glatter says. “But mostly tenacity. No matter how many people say ‘no,’ it only takes one person to say ‘yes.’ ”
Emmy breakthrough for newbie directors | Drama and comedy noms | Variety, music or comedy series noms | Nonfiction noms | Miniseries, movie noms