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Helmers huddle on how to get ahead

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director

To manage both their projects at hand and their career ambitions, visiting directors on TV series have to be versatile.

But with a lot of drive, adaptability, talent and luck, directors can prove to be so invaluable that they’ll land a steady gig on a series of their own.

“TV is a great place to get your feet wet, since it is a continuum — most people are there on the set week in and week out,” says Michael Spiller, who spent the past season directing episodes of “New Girl,” “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23” and, most frequently, “Modern Family.”

“Not that you’re directing traffic, but you’re not directing something from the ground up. You feel like you’re walking on tightrope, but I had the entire cast and crew saying, ‘We’ve got you, Mike.’ ”

Spiller got into directing after working as a director of photography on “Sex and the City,” eventually helming seven episodes of the HBO comedy.

“As a d.p. I worked with a lot of directors, and each have their strengths and weaknesses. You learn to fill in the blanks on those weaknesses. (Being a d.p.) is great training: You’re not responsible, but you learn elements of the craft.”

Relocating to Los Angeles, he worked on such shows as “Ugly Betty,” “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Scrubs,” before getting a couple of assignments on the first season of “Modern Family.” That led to the lion’s share of season two’s episodes and Emmy and DGA awards for his episode “Halloween.”

Greg Yaitanes followed a similar route to success. A guest director on such series as “Bones,” “Heroes” and “Lost,” his career would change immeasurably after he was hired for a first-season episode of “House,” which led to the fourth-season episode “House’s Head.” That won him an Emmy and the subsequent assignment of producing director on “House.”

Yaitanes ended up directing 30 episodes of the series, including this season’s innovative “Nobody’s Fault,” which he calls “literally a dream come true and the perfect way to end my work with the series.” He’s currently working on “Banshee” for Cinemax.

“As a guest director, you can’t expect to exercise too much control,” Yaitanes says. “After my Emmy win, I hungered more to produce other directors. More than ever, the role of producer-director is becoming more important as the ambition and scope is increasing in television. It’s important for a director to develop his own material and work with a writer-showrunner — each can bring something to the table in terms of vision.”

By contrast, Tim Van Patten came to directing via a more circuitous route. He began his career as an actor, and Bruce Paltrow, who created “The White Shadow,” in which Van Patten starred, encouraged him to pursue directing.

Van Patten went from such early helming gigs as “Touched by an Angel” to handling some of TV’s edgiest material, including “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” on which he’s also an exec producer. He won an Emmy as one of the producers of the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” for which he directed an installment.

“I’ve definitely worked on opposite ends of the spectrum,” he says. “When you start out, you’re hungry to take any job. I didn’t go to film school — I went from high school to a show about high school and on to directing.

“As you move along, it’s about choices,” he continues. “Once you’ve gathered enough credits, you have to be more specific. You have to know what level of show you want to work on and be willing to turn down a lot of work to have the career you want.”

All three men agree that a mentor is crucial to a successful directing career, and that they were blessed with mentors who went above and beyond the call of duty. That has inspired them to pay it forward and seek out proteges to help in their careers. Spiller and Van Patten interview aspiring directors to gauge their level of passion. “It’s a joy,” Van Patten says.

Yaitanes mentored Julian Higgins and hired him to direct an episode of “House’s” final season.

“This kid comes as advertised,” Yaitanes says. “He can hold his own with Hugh Laurie.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director
A-Listers get schooled on set | Helmers huddle on how to get ahead | Nonfiction directors make strange bedfellows at Emmys | Crisis chat
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