TV Directors and Diversity: Executives, Showrunners Julie Plec, Greg Berlanti Speak Out

Julie Plec Vampire Diaries Directing

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.) 

These excerpts from interviews with executives and showrunners have been edited and condensed.

Julie Plec, executive producer, “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals,” “Containment” (earlier this year, Plec directed an episode of “The Vampire Diaries,” which was her first experience in that role)

What’s funny is, I was always certain that I couldn’t be a director because there are things about the physics of camera and lighting that I fundamentally cannot wrap my head around. And so I thought, “Well, if I can’t be great at every aspect of that job, then why would I do it?” Enough people over the years encouraged me to do it regardless, and they said, “Look, there are some directors who are great with actors. There are some directors who are only good with action. There are some who know everything about the camera but nothing about how to talk to people. And there are some who are just fundamentally great storytellers who rely on the D.P. to tell them if an actor is crossing the shooting axis.” They said, “Just lean into your strengths and lean on everyone else for support in the areas where you fear your weakness is, and see how it goes.”

So that’s what I did, after a lot of prodding from external forces, and it was magnificent. It was one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of my whole career, honestly. I’d be doing it again right now if I wasn’t otherwise occupied. When you’re the showrunner, you’re the person that’s in control of most of the details, and to be able to take all that and then to step right behind the camera and to have a direct line of communication with the crew and with the actors — to not be delivering that through another person — is pretty freeing and extremely stimulating. It was a very precious experience. It was wonderful and I don’t see any reason why people somehow think that men are better directors than women. That doesn’t make any sense to me, because it’s a skill set that’s gender-blind. It’s management, it’s an artistic eye, it’s communication skills, it’s multi-tasking. It’s thinking on your feet. There’s nothing specific about any of those things that says you have to be a man, woman, black or white.

Gary S. Levine, president of programming for Showtime

The directing position is a tricky position, because on the one hand, you hire a director because of their filmmaking abilities and their vision and their talent. And on the other hand, that director needs to realize the vision of the showrunner. So it’s a very delicate dance, where the director is [two things]. You want a visionary and you want someone to service the vison of another. It’s just complicated and not everyone can do both of those things. There are a lot of collaborators in series television. There is the showrunner and the showrunner’s fellow producers, and there are the lead actors who, in a series, hold a lot of sway.

So there are all these countervailing pressures on a director, which are nothing to do with the diversity question. I’m just trying to give you insights into what a difficult slot it is to fill, in some ways, for anybody. My first job was at Columbia Pictures Television a long time ago, and they would have these meetings around the big board table where they would talk about the current programs and they’d have all the different departments – production, post-production, casting, development – and they would float the names of directors the producers wanted to hire for episodes. And the hardest thing was to get a director through, because somebody had an issue with [every person]. It’s really a difficult thing, where you’re both a creative chief and a soldier. And you are a journeyman moving from show to show.

In some ways you strive [to have a limited number of directors on each series]. “Oh man, if we could only have two or three directors do two or three episodes each in a season, it would be so much more stable.” Because if it works, it’s such an elusive formula, you say “It works! Let’s do it again and again.” And yet, going towards that comfort level reduces the number of opportunities, when you do the math. 

There is a little bit of fear of new people. Again, that’s not diversity specific, but obviously it has a huge impact on improving diversity — the fact that people want to work with people they’ve worked with before, with whom they have a comfort level. It’s not just white guys hiring white guys. It’s just producers really desperately grasping for directors that they think will help them get across the finish line that seems impossibly far away and impossible to reach.

To me, the biggest issue is prying open this somewhat circumscribed pool of talent, where people are going to the people they worked with before or going to people who’ve been recommended by people they know and have worked with before. That’s one of the things we do a lot of work on – to expose our producers to new talent. And by the way, this is true in front of the camera, this is true on the writing side but especially true on the directing side. Giving [showrunners] the feeling of confidence, that this is somebody they will enjoy working with, someone they will develop a shorthand with. Someone who does have similar creative sensibilities. 

It’s moving in the right direction, you know. I guarantee you ”Ray Donovan” will do better this coming season than they have done in the past. I give you my personal pledge.

Joanna Klein, senior vice president of scripted development for the CW

If there are more female showrunners and more female executives and more high level women and diverse people in all areas, I think there will be diversity across the board.

On a first-season show, it’s really hard, because everybody on the show, particularly the showrunners, will want to work with people that they’ve worked with before, because there are so many risks. Then in the later seasons of a show, they tend to have found the directors that they like and they cycle those people through. They have relationships with those people and also a comfort level with those people. So it’s our job to meet with directors who have other experience that we feel might help the show, whether it be in a short films or in a feature. [To demonstrate to showrunners that these candidates have] something that is just as valuable as episodic experience, to try to just bring them in the tent.

Andrew Kreisberg, executive producer, “Supergirl,” “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”

The sort of notion that it should be an all-boys club because [a show] has punching and kicking and flying is nonsense, especially in this day and age. That was antiquated 20 years ago. So today it’s even more ridiculous.

Ali Adler, executive producer, “Supergirl”

[The lack of diversity] is absolutely still an issue and it would be a mistake to pretend that it’s not. But the only way to address the issue on the level that we can – it’s about who we hire.

Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, senior vice president for entertainment diversity and communications at CBS

Is the industry changing as fast as I would like? Heck no! However, it is changing. The industry on a whole is diversifying in front of the camera as well as behind the camera and it’s not fair to only look back and see no change, as opposed to looking to right now and onward and share and magnify that change. We have witnessed growth and recognize this is an industry issue that we are tackling on a daily [basis], and yes, much more needs to be done on all levels.

I do believe participating in a network/studio access program provides a better advantage of getting a shot at directing. Many of the programs not only allow one an opportunity to shadow on a show, it allows [participants] to sit down and get to know all the current executives who cover the shows, who in turn become advocates. Our program works at building a strategy to coach the directors into establishing meaningful and productive relationships with everyone involved on the show. The more time they spend on a show, the more comfortable the crew, talent, and producers become with having them there. These directors are ready now and it’s about eliminating the perception of  “risk.”

Greg Berlanti, executive producer, “Supergirl,” “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” “Blindspot,” “Mysteries of Laura”

The biggest obstacle is the same one that exists in our society forever, unfortunately, which is, people are more comfortable with what they know than with what they don’t know. As an inspiration, Shondaland [Shonda Rhimes‘ production company] has been incredible across the board, in front of the camera and behind the camera, in production. We now have them to point to and say, “Look, it’s working, it’s successful.”

A senior executive at a broadcast network

In the process [of hiring directors], you have to say, I’m not living with the same old, same old. I want to see new talent, and whatever the new talent is, gender or color, I want it to reflect society. You, in your 22 or 13 episodes, whatever it is, you have figure out a way of reflecting that.

Once something is embedded in a culture, it takes a lot longer for it to backslide. The quest of that person who temporarily is in the [network president] chair is to try to embed in the culture the right way to do business. Then you have a better shot of it surviving, and the backsliding will take a lot longer to happen. It will take at least two or three new executives in that chair before it occurs.

You have to be actually willing to expand the talent pool and give someone a crack. Give that A.D. a crack. Give that young independent filmmaker a crack. It may not always work out and you may pay a price for it, but more times than not it will, and then you’ve created an expanded base to work off of, so that you always have really great directors who want to work on your shows.

Those who point fingers — “It’s the showrunner, it’s the studio, it’s this, it’s that” — bullshit! It’s all of us getting on the same page. Everyone has to get on the bandwagon so that everybody is included in all of these endeavors. That’s the only way it’s going to work. It’s not “This person has to do this and that person didn’t do that.” It’s all of us.

Tim McNeal, vice president of creative talent development and inclusion at ABC

When I first came [to ABC], I could not get my creative executives on the phone to talk about diversity. Now they call me every year. They participate in our selection process for our directing program and for our writing program. And they’re thoroughly invested in the process. I think part of it probably is, they’ve heard it from the top that this is important. [ABC president] Paul [Lee] has made it clear to all of them that your performance is in part based on your ability to make sure that diversity is a big part of the shows that you cover, that you develop. And so whether it’s for their own financial gain or not, they’re invested in the process.

A final note: The CW’s “Supernatural,” which has landed on the DGA’s “Worst of TV” list many times, has booked an African-American man, a Hispanic man and a Hispanic woman to direct episodes in its current season. Regarding “Supernatural,” a senior CW executive said, “We always want more improvement. We’re making progress. We think next year’s DGA stats will be better.”