Freelance directors are the substitute teachers of the TV world. They may not get spitballs to the back of their head, but they’ve got to maintain order on a fast-moving set where their power expires inside two weeks.
Despite the challenges, some of the best of the business prefer independence over the pressure and responsibility of being an inhouse director.
“As a gun for hire, you have only your episode to worry about,” says Steve Shill, who won an Emmy last year for helming an episode of “Dexter.” “You can let other people struggle with the big picture.”
Shill, who has also worked on “The Good Wife” and “ER,” notes it’s important to be accommodating, recognizing that producers and writers have been toiling over the script for weeks or even months before he shows up.
“I always try to give minimal notes, addressing points of logic or simple ways to make production easier, knowing that the showrunners are not really looking for a major literary criticism session from a director on a show that is already established and successful,” he says. “I see it as my job to make everything as smooth as possible and to support them.”
Beth McCarthy-Miller, who was hired to do six episodes of “30 Rock” last season, also takes an easy-going, adaptable approach, an ability she honed during her 11-year stint as inhouse director for “Saturday Night Live,” where she had to tailor her directing to serve that week’s host.
“One of the few skills I have is that I read people pretty well,” she says. “I’m the youngest of nine kids, so you have to learn pretty early on how to get along with all kinds of people.”
But beware of being too gentle. Lawrence Trilling, an executive producer and inhouse director for “Parenthood,” says that guest directors who don’t assert themselves run the risk of getting trampled.
“You have to walk a fine line,” he says. “Those who are overly accommodating can lose the faith and confidence from the cast and crew. When someone’s not in charge, that’s when you have a bad set.”
A few years ago, some speculated that guest directors might become an endangered species as budgets took a nosedive. But Trilling says the increase in cable production and the extra time inhouse directors must spend on increasingly ambitious episodes makes freelancers even more necessary.
Trilling only reserves eight episodes a season for himself. During the past season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” about 16 of the 22 episodes went to guns for hire.
But exec producer-director Tony Phelan says the plum assignments, which almost always include premieres and finales, are kept in staff. Phelan directed the much ballyhooed musical episode, one of the most ambitious in the series’ seven-year run.
Producers talked about bringing in an expert on musicals, but realized that with all the necessary prep time (two months) and shooting schedule (a whopping 15 days), it was almost impossible to bring in an outsider. Phelan adds that it’s also easier for the cast and crew when they’re working on something challenging to have a familiar face in the director’s chair.
He says he knew the personnel well enough to organize a banana-split eating contest during the shoot to keep everyone loose.
“I have a shorthand with the actors,” he says. “I can make things go faster.”
But Phelan also says that freelancers can make valuable contributions, bringing new ideas and approaches to a long-running show.
“It’s always fun for the actors and crew to work with someone different. That brings a different energy,” he says.
Trilling praises Adam Davidson’s contributions to an episode of “Parenthood,” especially to a scene in which the characters played by Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia try to patch up their marriage by taking ballroom dancing lessons.
“The storyline was nicely written, but Adam brought an added layer of comedy and emotional depth that I didn’t expect,” Trilling says.
There are limits to what a freelancer can or should do. It’s fine to bend the rules, but breaking them entirely is a no-no. In the end, you’re still a guest in someone else’s home.
Shill recalls his first TV directing job for British sudser “Emmerdale Farm.” He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to capture the style firmed up over 20 years on the air.
“Another director told me that no matter what I did, it would still come out looking like ‘Emmerdale,’?” he says. “In other words, he was telling me that the vehicle was very resilient.”
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