‘Empire’ Boss on Director Diversity: It’s the ‘Right Thing to Do’

Empire Spinoff
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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. (Here are links to the entire series of interviews related to the story on directors and diversity.) 

Below is an interview with “Empire” executive producer Ilene ChaikenAs a point of reference, according to the DGA, 82 percent of the directors hired for “Empire’s” first season were men and women of color, placing it on the Guild’s annual “Best of TV” list in terms of diversity (the guild’s site has links to reports and “Best of” and “Worst of” lists for 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011).

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Most of “Empire’s” directors were African-American and female in season 1. Can you talk about how you got there? Because “Empire’s” stats are basically the opposite of how most shows’ stats look.

First it starts with the premise and the will to do it, because it’s not a given. When you start with the premise that 30 percent is the leftovers — the leftover [diversity] slots — that’s not a good place to start. I start in the other place. And “Empire” is unique. [The director roster began from] my worldview and my approach to staffing anything that I’ve done, but also [co-creator] Lee Daniels made it very clear how important it was for him that most of the episodic directors on “Empire” are African-American. So that was our starting premise. “We need to find the best black directors who do episodic television and staff this show primarily with those directors.”

As we were mounting the show in the first season, [co-creator] Danny Strong said to me, it’s really, really important to him that we staff as many women directors as we can. It’s also really important to me. So clearly there are fewer black directors and fewer women directors than there are white guys, but they certainly are out there. It’s always the case that the really good directors that we want for our shows are very busy, and certainly since there are fewer black directors and fewer women directors [since many shows] have a wish to diversify, those directors do get booked very, very quickly. But we just made sure to get out there and find the best directors that were right for the show and book them.

Did you look at people who were already in the DGA, or did you cast your net more widely than that? How did you actually get those people onto your radar?

Some were already on my radar, but I also talked to people, largely people on my writing staff, who had worked on other shows. Also the studio and the network recommended people. Francie Calfo at Imagine recommended people. We made a deep list. We made sure that we were aware of everybody that would be right for the show and exciting for the show. And we went to great effort to make sure that we had all of those people on our radar.

I have talked to many showrunners who want to diversify their directing rosters but they try to book people and everyone is booked, or they can’t get people approved or whatever. What would you say to those fellow showrunners about making this effort?

I don’t know the particular challenges are that they face. I mean, I know that people are booked and sometimes it just takes more risk, more advocacy, not being willing to settle. Fox has been incredibly supportive, but they would have been happy – not happy but, you know, fine — if I had booked a bunch of really good white guys they worked with before. If I had booked no African American filmmakers they would have said something. They wouldn’t have pushed back if I had a predominantly white male roster with just some good representation of diversity. They would have been fine. I had to work a little harder to make sure to find the filmmakers that I thought were right to direct “Empire.”

In broadcast television in particular – it’s a bit true in cable but even more in broadcast – the networks have their list. You have to have certain things on your resume. The studios tend to like to work with directors they’ve worked with before. So it’s hard to break a new director in television.

But I would say two things. One, the diversity programs really work. I was specifically looking for more women directors. I had a harder time this year. The women that I was interested in working with were booked. I was able to hire a director this year called Cherien Dabis, and I knew Cherien well. I actually have worked with her as a writer on “The L Word.”  She went on to become a really good filmmaker but she had never directed an episode of television. She wouldn’t have been approvable, except that she got into the Fox diversity program and Fox was really excited about staffing a director from their program and giving her her first episode of television.

But getting that first gig is really impossible. It’s that classic Catch-22 that plagues us in the television business. You can’t do it unless you’ve already done it.

I’ve talked to people who had good experiences in those programs, but one issue with them is that they only take a few people. Do you wish they could be bigger?

I don’t know enough about how the programs work and whether they could be bigger or whether that would dilute the effectiveness of the program. But I certainly wish that there were more of them and that there were a bigger pool. But there are other ways to go about it too.

It takes a lot of effort. It takes advocacy. We’ve brought filmmakers who weren’t television directors but who were really in some cases revered and experienced filmmakers. For example, John Singleton had never directed an episode of television before he directed “Empire” last year. I think it was an episode that Lee was going to direct and then he had to step away because he had other commitments, and he said “Ilene, I want John Singleton to replace me.”

The initial response was the kind of the automatic response, which is, “We can’t, he’s never done it before. He doesn’t know.” But John had decided that he wanted to direct episodic television. He wanted to create and produce and work much more in television. He already shadowed somebody on another show. He put in the work and we had to advocate for him. I said, “I have great confidence.” I know John, but I talked to him specifically about directing “Empire.”  The things that he said to me indicated that he understood the rigors of television directing. He’s perfect for this show. Our cast will be excited to work with him.

Then I sent him in to meet the production people and he went through a series of interviews and he went about making everybody comfortable in the way he made me comfortable. And then we gave him that opportunity that doesn’t usually get given. But it absolutely takes advocacy. It takes a willingness to fight a little bit of the fight and take the chance and put yourself on the line and say, “I’m going to vouch for this. I know that this is a good choice. Let’s do it.”

The initial response you were referring to — “He’s never done it before.” Where was that response coming from? You or someone else in the process?

It wasn’t my response. I knew that that’s what I would face, and I don’t want to point fingers because Fox has been amazing. Fox has been not only supportive but really excited about the fact that we have a truly diverse roster of directors and writers on the show. But it’s about the responsibility that various people have to make sure that their departments are working optimally. Directing television is a rigorous gig. You have to be able to bring your show in on time and on budget. You have to know how to move through a day. It’s a real craft and it’s a craft that you hone over the course of years getting that experience.

So it’s the initial response particularly of the production folks to say, “I’m not comfortable with it. She’s never done it before. How do I know she’s going to be able to do it?” And they’ve had, I’m sure, their fair share of very challenging situations. It’s costly to them when they approve someone who turns out not to be qualified and able to manage the rigors of directing an episode. So that’s the initial response but it’s also creative. Everybody weighs in. Everybody needs to feel confident and everybody has been willing to be open to those propositions and take the meetings and hear from the creative individuals, directors in this case, that we’re putting forward.

And in any case, as you say, directing a film is different from directing TV.

The prep process in film is endless and meandering, and the deadlines are always murky. Your movie can get pushed back. It’s not as if you have an air date and you simply have to stay right on that schedule or you disrupt an entire schedule for a season of television. You have to turn up on Day 1 ready to get to work, and your prep is seven or eight days. Movies usually have months of prep.

Sometimes in these kinds of conversations, people will say, “Why does it matter? Why does it matter that African-American men and women direct a show that’s primarily about an African-American family. Couldn’t anyone do that?”

No. It matters in dozens of ways. It matters because they’re telling culturally specific stories. There are plenty of non-African American filmmakers who direct “Empire” and they do a great job. They don’t do a less good job. But sometimes there are cultural nuances that might be missed.

It’s also about the feeling on the set, about the interaction with the cast and the sense that this is a show that’s being made by people who are equally invested in the stories they’re telling and have those insights and know the secret knowledge. It’s all of those things are really important in filmmaking. All of those things are really important and it’s also important because it’s just simply the right thing to do and it makes the world better.

Do you see that mentality changing at all in the industry or do you think that the status quo is not changing much?

I think it changes slowly. But I do think it’s changing. I think that it’s less likely to change from the top down and more likely to change with the creators who have the ability to change it with the people on the ground who are making television.

So would that require more diverse creators? More diverse executive producers? Is that what you’re saying?

Oh, I don’t think it would require that but I think that that is a good thing and will and should happen. And certainly as that happens, it will change more quickly.

At any company, sometimes priorities shift. Progress on a certain front might be happening but it could backtrack with the passage of time and regime changes. Do you think that that’s realistic, to wonder how sustained the progress will be?

I think that that’s the way that culture evolves. We take steps forward and then sometimes we backslide a little so I think that it wouldn’t be surprising if we were to [backtrack]. But I think that overall culture is progressive and we’re moving forward.

Studios and networks — their priority is success and that’s not a bad thing. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re supposed to be making successful television. The thing that’s making the biggest difference and hopefully will continue to is the recognition that this is what’s going to make us all successful. That telling new stories with new voices and diversity and representation and exciting voices that haven’t been heard is what’s going to continue to make really good dynamic television.

It’s not just an activist mission, it’s what I do in large part because that’s my creative instinct about what’s going to be really, really good. It’s what excites me, and I know that that’s one of the reasons why “Empire” is working like it is.