After 125 episodes and six seasons of “The Vampire Diaries,” Julie Plec, who also serves as showrunner on spinoff “The Originals” and has another pilot in development at the CW, is taking her turn in the director’s chair — a daunting, yet perfectly fit, seat that’s been a long time warming up for Plec.
“I had a moment where I wrote a movie script and it was my first movie job and I was very excited to do it, and my only goal was really not to get fired off of it,” says Plec, who got her start on “Dawson’s Creek” and has worked with frequent co-producer Kevin Williamson on films including “Cursed,” “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” and the “Scream” franchise. “In writing it, I realized that if and when they ever made the movie, I probably would never get to sit down with the director and tell him what I thought it looked like and what I thought it felt like, and the way that I thought the story should be told visually.”
Years later, Plec realized that she’s unintentionally been wearing her director’s hat day-to-day on the sets of her two hit shows, so finally, she decided to add the title to her resume — officially.
“In television, that’s what I do every episode,” she says. “I sit with the director and I talk him through shots I like, I talk him through lens sizes I like, I talk about the actors and their performances and how to massage certain things and what beats to make sure you hit and what the show should look and feel like.”
Plec tells Variety about her directorial debut on the Feb. 19 episode, plus chats about her “Vampire Diaries” cast — Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley — trying their hand at directing.
Were you nervous to finally sit in the director’s chair?
The thing that made me most nervous, which is so dumb, is the call times because I’m a night person and I never, ever, ever get up in the morning. I’m so terrified of being late or missing my alarm clock that I get the worst anxiety, so I basically spent every day filled with anxiety, worrying if I’m going to get enough sleep or if I’m going to sleep through my alarm clock. It’s the dumbest thing, but another director said that to me. It’s a director’s worst nightmare.
Once you made it to set on time, what was the biggest challenge?
It’s an endurance challenge. You’re inevitably on your feet all day running around and tweaking things and moving from set to set and standing and jumping into set. I’m a writer, so I’m used to sitting on my butt for 12 hours at a time, and I haven’t had to be that active on the job. I was a waitress back in the day, so it’s a very similar feeling to coming home at the end of a double shift where every bone is aching and creaking. Physically, that was a challenge. Then creatively, they tell you that time is your biggest enemy and you never realize it until you are there…having to come up with the perfect thing to say in six seconds, especially to an actor, is not easy. That’s the biggest challenge because directing is all about communicating, and everybody needs to be communicated with differently. Actors have their own processes, and if you want to be respectful of their process, you’ve got to communicate with them in the language of their process, and keeping that all straight is a little bit of a head-scratcher.
Has directing been a long time goal of yours?
It’s funny because I always thought I never wanted to be a director because I struggle literally with three-dimensional images so I thought I’ll never be able to figure out blocking and cameras, and therefore, I shouldn’t be a filmmaker — I should just be a writer. And then I remembered that I always said I should never be a writer because I thought I couldn’t write and was terrified of it. And so when that turned out to be so wrong, I thought, ‘Well, I’m probably wrong about this, too.’ Filmmaking is equal parts technical and storytelling, and I got the storytelling part down, so now, the challenge is to conquer the technical hurdles.
What was your favorite part about directing?
My favorite part was stepping onto the set and realizing just how natural it felt to be there. Everybody supported me and I’ve got an amazing crew. They’re so good. They’re a very well-oiled machine. A monkey could get in there probably and direct — I say that with all humility, but they could.
Television directing is largely dominated by men. Was it important to you to step into this role, as a woman?
I do all these panels where people are always talking about the lack of female directors and I have a lot of opinions on that. Here I am in this situation where I actually have the opportunity to make myself a statistic and why not? I think every woman that has the opportunity to take on this type of challenge should and can, so it felt good to be able to do that.
Paul Wesley has directed two episodes on “The Vampire Diaries.” Did he give you any advice?
Paul actually said you’re never going to feel ready, you’re never going to feel like you got everything that you wanted, you’re always going to feel like you’re under the gun and behind schedule and you have to be prepared for anything to go wrong. I had a general meeting with Chad Lowe — another actor-turned-director — and the best thing he said he ever heard was on his first day on set [when] some terrible things were going wrong and he said the assistant director just looked at him and patted him on the back and said, “It’s not your fault, but it is your problem.” And that’s the best piece of advice, because you just have to roll with it. There’s no one you can throw under the bus so you might as well fix it.
Ian Somerhalder is making his directorial debut on episode 16, the week after your episode. How do you choose who gets to direct?
We wanted [the cast] to have this opportunity, but we also wanted them to take it seriously and wanted them to understand it’s not just like, oh you’re the star of the show so you get to direct. We made a bootcamp list of things that they need to have accomplished before. Even if we assigned the episode, we would take it away if they didn’t run through the proper hoops — sitting down with the studio, prepping an episode from start to finish, going to L.A. and sitting with the editors, shadowing directors on set — we had a full-on list and both of them [Paul and Ian] really rose to that challenge and made sure that they really fulfilled those obligations.
Has Nina Dobrev expressed interest in directing?
Nina has, but she’s said very clearly she doesn’t want her first one to be “The Vampire Diaries.” We joke about it all the time because that girl, if she puts her mind to something, she can do anything she wants, and she really wants to produce and direct a short film and has some ideas, and I’ve put her in touch with some of our writers and said if we can come up with idea, I’d write one for her. But she’s super-savv, so I think she wants to try one out there first and then bring that knowledge to the show, as opposed to learning on the set.
Have you been bitten by the directing bug now?
The only problem is that between writing the script and then prepping and directing, it actually takes me out of the game for a couple months, and while you’re trying to juggle two shows, being singularly focused on one task…it really does take its toll on the trains moving, so I think I’d have to be really judicious in how and when I did it. I’d have to do one where I didn’t write it, which is terrifying. Unless I totally crash and burn, then I’d definitely like to do it again.
Have you thought about directing an episode of “The Originals?”
People ask me that and I say no, absolutely not, I’m terrified of directing Daniel Gillies — Sir Daniel, as I call him! Joe [Joseph Morgan] and Daniel are such magnificent actors and really, really smart, and it’s hard enough to make sure that you’ve got the shots and the beats and the tone and all that, but then to take on these two behemoth thespians is terrifying. But I probably will one day for sure.
Season 6, episode 15, “Let Her Go,” airing Feb. 19, marks Plec’s directorial debut.