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Series Thrive With a Single Director Instead of a Group

Advantages can outweigh costs in single-director approach

The story of how “How I Met Your Mother’s” Carter Bays and Craig Thomas met Pamela Fryman reads a little like the romantic comedy they were setting out to create.

When the writers of CBS’ newly commissioned multi-cam sitcom started looking for a director, they fully expected to interview a number of them, talk pros and cons, decide which one would helm the pilot, then start hiring a stream of directors for subsequent episodes. Instead, lightning struck.

“It was like a love at first sight moment between the three of us,” says Bays. For her part, Fryman adds: “I quickly realized that there was nothing else I really wanted to do.” Nine years and 196 episodes later, Fryman has become the true mother of the sitcom, helping the showrunners maintain continuity throughout a fairly complex run that included staging elaborate musical numbers, flashbacks and flash-forwards, as well as long-running jokes that entered the show’s vernacular.

“It put less pressure on us as showrunners to make sure that the tone is right from one week to the next,” says Bays. “Also, I think the actors were so much braver because they knew it was just Pam.”

While “HIMYM” is not the only sitcom with predominantly one director, such an arrangement is almost unheard-of in hourlong dramas. The pace of production is too fast. HBO’s eight-episode “True Detective” was an exception, but even with its limited number of episodes, having a single director required tradeoffs.

“The problem you run into with 450 pages of material is there are not enough hours in the day to prep everything before you start shooting,” says Scott Stephens, exec producer of “True Detective,” which was written solely by Nic Pizzolatto and directed entirely by Cary Fukunaga. “By episode 6 we were scouting locations before our workday began, scouting at the end of a 12-hour shoot day.” Using only a single director increased costs as well, says Stephens, since post couldn’t begin until Fukunaga had completed shooting.

It took a year and a half to complete season 1 of “True Detective” — a luxury that won’t be afforded to season 2 — but Stephens says hiring Fukunaga to helm all eight episodes was essential to attract the right people to the project — especially Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. “We wanted to draw in people from the cinema community that don’t normally make television, and the way to do that was to bring in one director,” says Stephens. “Actors in television are used to a round-robin approach with directors. Film actors are not.”

Sitcom guru Chuck Lorre sees the benefit of both approaches, but leans toward sticking with one director on both “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.” “There are so many variables in making a TV show, so many ways it can go wrong. so it’s nice to have that reliability of somebody like James Widdoes or Mark Cendrowski,” says Lorre.

“When a new director’s coming in, he’s looking for cues from the writers and producers and the actors to how we work. He’s coming into a new situation, so he or she has a sharp learning curve. And you’ve got to be respectful of that. When you work with somebody for a long time, there’s a certain understanding that doesn’t require a lot of communication. It’s wonderful to have that shorthand.”

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