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TV Directors and Diversity: The Helmers Speak Out

For an in-depth story on the quest to diversify the ranks of television directors, Variety spoke with dozens of industry professionals and is posting transcripts of a selection of those interviews. Below are excerpts from an array of interviews done with directors working in television. (Here are links to the entire series of interviews related to the story on directors and diversity.) 

As a point of reference, here is a DGA study on first-time TV directors, and here are the overall DGA statistics for three recent television seasons the guild tracked:

Stats covering the 2010-2011 season
Total episodes shot: 2,900+
Episodes directed by white men: 72 percent
Episodes directed by white women: 11 percent
Episodes directed by non-white men: 14 percent
Episodes directed by non-white women: 3 percent
Stats covering the 2012-2013 season
Total episodes shot: 3,300+
Episodes directed by white men: 72 percent
Episodes directed by white women: 12 percent
Episodes directed by non-white men: 14 percent
Episodes directed by non-white women: 2 percent
Stats covering 2014-2015 season
Total episodes shot: 3,900+
Episodes directed by white men: 69 percent
Episodes directed by white women: 13 percent
Episodes directed by non-white men: 15 percent
Episodes directed by non-white women: 3 percent

Note: Some directors did not want their names used, and some directors contributed input and observations but did not want their quotes used in the story or in this roundup. Variety thanks all of them for their willingness to contribute to the reporting for the story and for adding to the conversation about this topic. These excerpts have been edited and condensed.

A female director of films and TV

For a long time, I thought, “I’m never going to go with the excuse that being a woman makes any difference.” But what that meant was, I internalized it if anything went wrong. I would think it was my fault. I would just think, “I screwed up,” even if everyone was happy with my work and it was only something I noticed. But now, the last few years, I’ve had many male crew members tell me, “They treat you differently. If a man had made that suggestion they would have acted on it. They treat you worse.”

When I was interviewed by the ACLU, they would stop me when I was telling stories and say, “Do you know that’s illegal?” I didn’t know. I’ve been in unbelievable denial. I just told myself, even though no one complained about my work, if something wasn’t right, I must be a crappy director and it must have been my fault. I would take it on board as if there was something wrong with me.

White guys will say, “I don’t want those jobs being taken from me because of someone’s gender or race.” OK, well, what if you’re one of the people whose only opportunity is one of those few slots? That one episode out of 22?

I talked to my agent’s assistant, and she told me, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard showrunners say, in conversations with the agent, ‘Don’t pitch me any women. Women aren’t good for our show. We’re not going to have any women directors.’” She told me, “Every time I heard it I would throw up a little.”

Everybody has always just said, “Well, that’s how Hollywood works. Anything is allowed, and everyone is so afraid of being excluded that all this behavior is permitted.” This is what they came to Hollywood for — to be in their own version of “Entourage.” All that advice — “Go take these guys out for a drink.” Seriously? They don’t want to go out for a drink with me! They would see through that immediately, but with a guy they wouldn’t.

A white male director said to me once, “Don’t you love it when you come on set and you say, ‘I don’t really know what to do with this scene, does anyone have any ideas?’” My jaw dropped to the floor. If I ever said that in my career, I would never work again.

Taking a flier on a new director is scary. So much is expected of directors in such a short amount of time. Every day that I work, I think, “Thank God it’s not my first picnic, because this is hard every day.” Experience really does help.

But where do we give people the opportunity to enter the business? It’s definitely harder, especially now, given the loss of the feature world. Everyone wants to do TV now — and actors and crew members want to direct too. Shows are giving jobs to new directors but they’re still going to white males — they’re hiring from within the cast and crew.

And when women and people of color direct, they are judged differently. When I walk on a set, I’m always thinking, “How can I be what they want?” That’s not the first place a white man’s mind goes to when they come in. But for me, it’s “How are they going to judge me?”

When producers or showrunners or whoever says, “We don’t care if it’s a woman or a person of color, we just hire the best person for the job.” Well, no, you don’t. You don’t even know what scripts those people are going to get — you are just hiring for a slot. You don’t even know what episode they’re going to get, so how could you even know which director is the right person for the job?

Heather Cappiello (“Criminal Minds,” “Blue Bloods,” “Saving Grace”)

[The primary obstacles for women and people of color getting their first TV directing are] gender and race. The first thing we are judged on is how we look. There is a pre-judgement that occurs even before we walk in the room, a prejudice that women do not have the experience or expertise to compete with male directors. I have heard many times producers, executives, writers, agents, male and female, say to me, “That show does not hire female directors,” or “They only hire men.” It’s difficult to even get past the gender to get to the real qualifier: the talent. A producer I worked with for several years actually said to me after I directed my first TV episode, “You direct like a man!” He meant it as a compliment…

The fact that it is still an anomaly to be a female director means that we are a quota at best and a token at worst. For instance, if there is a 22-episode order for a network show and not even half of those episodes are directed by women or a person of color, then it is difficult for us to grow our careers because we do not have as many opportunities as the men do. Cable shows are even harder because the episode orders are smaller.

Showrunners are definitely in a position to lead the charge in changing who gets hired to direct their episodes. Shonda Rhimes has single-handedly moved the pendulum on her shows and ABC as a whole. Most showrunners that I know or have worked with do care about the issue of inclusivity and want to be a part of the change. In many ways, from my experience working as a script supervisor and now director, showrunners have the greatest amount of hiring power.

A woman of color who has directed an independent feature and has not yet broken into TV

The problem really is at all parts of the food chain. On one end, agents aren’t interested in representing women directors. A network exec I met with told me they recently asked agents for their lists of female directors and the results were pitiful. I’ve had two meetings with directing agents, both women. The first one had to be strong-armed into speaking with me by an established EP-level writer. She told me my best shot at getting into the TV directing pool was to partner up with an established writer and create a show. (Just as easy as that!) The second agent was incredibly kind and positive about my work but told me straight-up she wouldn’t rep me because she wouldn’t be able to get me my first job, and she admitted to already repping directors (of both genders) with less experience than me (i.e., they’ve not yet directed feature films).

At the other end, networks are reluctant to approve the hiring of women directors. I was told the other day by a higher-up at an action-heavy show that they’ve tried to get female directors approved by the network and it’s basically been impossible. They’ve yet to have a female director on their show, and they’re going into a new season with another all-male list.

I’ve also had an executive claim a lot of reluctance on the part of showrunners. I’ve observed this to varying degrees. There are showrunners that want things to change, and a couple of them have been especially supportive in trying to help me, but most I think are fine to live with the way things are, and they’re not going to fight too hard with the network for the right to bring on an “unproven” director if they want to stay on the air. Everyone’s aware, but few people are really in a position to do something about it, or have the motivation to do so. And in network TV in particular, new blood seems really rare among directors, regardless of gender or race.

The entertainment industry can feel like a club. As network execs and writers alike have put it to me, showrunners hire their friends. If they’re going to take a chance on a new person, who will take a job in place of a friend of theirs, it’s likely going to be someone that’s similar to them. And when it comes to directors, even women can’t or won’t necessarily hire more women. As they say, men are hired on their potential, women are hired on their experience.

Laura Belsey (“Law & Order: SVU,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Criminal Minds”)

It’s not an easy business for anybody to pierce, and often first-time directors have deep personal relationship with a show (as a writer, actor, D.P. or editor). Each TV show is its own culture, and understanding the culture of a show is essential, especially for a first time director. This is a risk-adverse business, and any first-time director is obviously a risk.

That said, women and people of color undeniably face bias, but I believe what makes this issue difficult is that this bias is for the most part unconscious, and therefore challenging to address.

Showrunners are ultimately who decide who gets hired and they obviously want to best directors for their show. That is their priority, as it should be. But showrunners also need to go beyond their comfort zone or there will be no change from the status quo.

A woman of color director

What’s hard to prove is when people say, “It’s really about talent. We can’t tell our showrunners who they think fits with the show or not. It’s about the vibe, it’s about fitting in.” Under that umbrella, you can do all kinds of stuff.

When you look at the numbers that the DGA puts out for TV, it basically goes like this: We will always hire a white man first. That’s our first choice, even if he has only done a chewing-gum commercial. If we must fulfill a diversity mandate, we will always go to a man of color. Preferably not a black man, but a Latino man. Then the producers seem to dig in their heels and say, “We already have two men of color,” If they’re pushed again, they hire one white woman. There is some really sick thing going on with women of color. There is such incredible resistance to the idea of a non-white woman being the leader on set. What does that say not just about Hollywood, but about our culture?

There was a head of department who tried to sabotage me before I even got [to a TV set]. He was trying to make the actors not like me. It was a nightmare. I threw up some days, because it was like warfare. You walk into a job where everybody hates you and tries to sabotage you, because they want your job. All the department heads have been asking to direct episodes. What do you think happens? They do not like you at all. They’re all gunning for your job. You’re this bullshit diversity hire that they brought on.

Directing is a very hard job. The pace is very fast and you’re trying to give something to it and add something to the episode — and to get bullied and mocked on set? Every director argues, but when it’s a woman, she’s “difficult.” The “difficult” reputation kind of kills us.

Being in Hollywood to me, as a female director of color — it’s like playing musical chairs with rugby rules. But you’re the only girl, and there’s a whole team of guys and they’ve known each other for years.

A Hispanic director

I called my agent all excited [about a potential job on a new show]. He’s like, “Hold on, slow down. If you get on, you’ll probably get one of the back nine.” I hadn’t done any network episodic before. I went and [met the showrunner], totally hit it off with him. I got the second episode of the new season.

I think the bottleneck comes with the writers having their core people they want to use, and there’s a shorthand that they’re going to want to have. Those relationships exist and you can’t really get around that kind of thing.

Michael Nankin (“Defiance,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Black Sails,” Hell on Wheels,” “The Mentalist”)

Many first-time directors are promoted from within the ranks of the show–writers, producers, D.P.s, actors, editors. I have not seen evidence that it’s harder for women or minority directors to break in, other than perhaps the fact that they are underrepresented in the other departments.

What I mostly see is people being hired for their reputation, talent and experience. Most producers just want a great show and hire people they think can deliver it. I have never seen, in 30 years, anyone not get a job because of their sex or race. It’s a very pragmatic business. If someone can deliver, they are hired. Historically, women and minorities have been slow to gain equal footing as directors, so those groups overall represent less experience — and that may be a factor. But all the women and minority directors I know who are any good work all the time.

It feels to me that we are heading in the right direction. Progress is slow, but it is real. I don’t know anyone in the business who would hire a mediocre white male director over a wonderful woman director. If anything, there is more pressure throughout the industry to make diversity hires. But the bottom line for everyone is to hire someone who can deliver a great episode on schedule and budget. This is not a skill set that is unique to one race or sex.

A female writer/director

Representation plays a big part. Agents need to advocate for clients and not just throw them on a list. I have never been sent out on a single director meeting by my agents.

My first directing job came in [a number of years ago] when [a network] approved me to helm a movie I’d written. The network was pleased with my work and I remember walking into my then-agency, eager to score the next gig, only to have my agent tell me, “You know, the second film is the hard one to get.” It was so deflating. There’s such a steep learning curve on the set that you really want to roll from one project to the next. It was another ten years before I got my second film, and I only got that because a friend was running the network and approved me.

Look, there’s deep bias in our culture. Studies have shown that it’s harder for women to lead and be liked, which makes it harder to direct and get asked back a second time.

A female director

Directors as a whole have a problem. There are a lot of white male directors that can’t get jobs. It’s all about who you know and who’s going to rep you or invest in your career or help you. My first job, I had a director guarantee me, which was unheard of. “She’ll direct, but if she fails, I will guarantee her.” Directing is [a situation where] you’re giving a lump sum of money to run with. It makes sense that people are wary of that.

There are a lot of directors out there, and let’s say there’s a new show and obviously the showrunners who want to hire the people that they know. But then they also need to hire other people that they don’t. They get a bunch of names that they don’t know, and how do they weed those names out? There’s no real [system] in terms of checking out a name, aside from calling their friends, people they already know.

Within seven days of prep, you have to win everyone over. They’ll tell everyone on set whether you’re any good or not. On Day 1, everyone has already decided.

A woman of color director

When an animal can smell the fear — the same thing happens on set. If that happens, you’re dead.

I guy I know came up to me and said, “They want me to direct an episode in December, but that’s when I have family time.” I said, “Well, you probably have the opportunity to do that. Me, personally, I would take that episode — if you don’t take that episode, they may not offer you another one.”

You can just drop off the map, and then you’ve got to get back in there. And God forbid that a woman have a baby and take off time. I had kids. I just kept working. At one point, my husband and I divorced and I had babysitters around the clock. I couldn’t ever pass up a job. “I wanted to give her a job, but she couldn’t do it.” You’ve got to just take that job. “You OK to take that job?” “Yeah, I can fly out of town tomorrow.”

There’s always a rotten egg somewhere. If we’re just lumped together as women or as minorities, and there’s one of us who’s a rotten egg, we all go down. Whereas if the others have a rotten egg, it’s OK. “Well, sometimes that’s just how it is.”

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