‘Homeland’ Exec Producer Lesli Linka Glatter on TV Diversity: Nothing’s Changed in 25 Years

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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 at all levels and at many companies, 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.) 

Lesli Linka Glatter has been one of the most in-demand directors in the television industry for years. Now an executive producer and director on “Homeland,” she has directed “Mad Men,” “The West Wing,” “Justified,” “Gilmore Girls,” “NYPD Blue” and “Twin Peaks,” among many other credits. She is also on the board of the Directors Guild of America. 

She has written in the past about bias and discrimination in Hollywood, a subject she spoke to Variety about in a phone call from Berlin, where “Homeland” is based this season. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

I’d love to get your perspective on why things haven’t really changed regarding who directs TV.

Well listen, if I could tell you really why, you know, then we would have the solution. It’s honestly insane that this has not changed since I started directing 25 years ago. If you would have asked me 25 years ago, would we still be having this conversation, I would have absolutely said there’s no way, this will be a non-issue and it should be a non-issue. You know, the amount of women directors in the DGA remains very low. Only 14% of directing members are women. That’s really low. We have to get more women directing. And when new directors are hired, they’re also being hired at this same kind of rate. That’s crazy.

It was an eye-opening statistic that came out recently from the DGA, that during the past six years, when it came to first-time directors, 82% of were males and 86% white.

Yes. There is discrimination going on. I don’t think anyone is sitting in a room twirling mustaches.  I think it’s more ingrained than that.  I don’t believe directing is easy for anyone.  It is not for the faint of heart, but it should not be harder for women to direct than men.  It should be an equal playing field.  This should not be an issue.  But the fact that it’s being talked about so much has to be a good thing.  We have to deal with the studio and networks that hire because that’s where change will take place. That’s who is making the hiring decisions.

When people are hired, obviously it’s not one person who gets to make these decisions.  It is the showrunner, the producing director, the studio and the network. There are a lot of voices.  So women need to be on [all those staffs].  They need to be on the [director] lists of studios and networks to be considered. There are a lot of really, really qualified women directors.  I hear way too often, “Oh, there are just no women directors.” It’s not true.  It’s just not true. Maybe there’s a handful of people that get hired all the time, but you have to look a little harder than that and they’re there. You don’t have to look very hard, just a little bit harder than the obvious.

Something that I’ve heard is that if someone’s credits are not recent, they are not considered a strong candidate in many places. Is that something you think is true?

I would say that I think that is probably true, in a general way.  If you haven’t worked in five years, that’s a long time.  That would be a long time for a male director.  So I don’t think that has to do with gender. I think that a male director would have a similar difficult time if they had older credits. If you don’t have any directing credits for a long time, I think that’s hard regardless of gender. You need to stay in the game and that game can be something that you do by yourself.  You don’t need to get a studio movie.

If I have been working with one particular group of people for a long period of time and that show goes [away], or all of a sudden, the three shows that you were working on, they’re all off the air.  You have to go out and meet everyone all over again like you were just starting out.  And that’s just how it is.  I can’t see any way around it.  I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had to do that, where you just have to buck it up and go out and meet everyone again.  Because even though you’ve been working, you know, that situation has changed. I have a lot of director friends and a lot of women director friends. And things never stay the same.  Everything will be great and then it’ll change and then things will be really hard and then it will change.  But definitely I have had to go back to the drawing board numerous times over a long career, where you have to do the dog and pony show again.

One thing I heard from a woman of color director who has directed an indie feature — she can’t get representation, she can’t get her first TV directing job. I talked to a few who said similar things — that it’s hard to see someone who hasn’t done a feature or who has done less than them getting opportunities to direct.

You’re absolutely right.  That’s absolutely true. Very rarely does a woman just come off from doing an indie film get offered “Star Trek.”  But that did happen for a guy, you know. The individuals always have to be considered in everything, but that is where there are differences. There’s no question that it is just not an equal playing field and it should be. We have people shadowing on every episode of “Homeland.”  I feel like it’s the least you can do to grab the hand of a wonderful director and give them an opportunity to meet everyone on the set, to be there, to observe. I did it. I shadowed on a number of things before I actually directed, because you get to be there and learn. 

You’ve written about the studio programs that give shadowing opportunities to women and people of color, and you said that these program slots should result in paid work. 

Definitely.  Listen, the best program that ever existed which is no longer in existence — [it was created by producer/director] John Wells. You would shadow on six episodes and then you were guaranteed to direct an episode.  To me, that is the most effective [route], if you know that you have work at the end of that. “This is going to result in a job.”

This is a bigger issue we’re talking about is — this is something that hasn’t changed in way too long.  You would think that Hollywood would be at the forefront of this and that this would not be an issue here and in our very liberal working environment.  And it certainly is an issue, and I’m glad it’s being talked about.

I really wonder if all the efforts of these programs, and the efforts of the DGA, is it enough to overcome that deeply entrenched system of how it has always worked?

It hasn’t worked so far.  People hire who they know and who they’re comfortable with. Listen, [pursuing inclusion] is better for storytelling.  Forget about any of the other [reasons].  I think the more different perspectives you have on telling stories, the better it is for storytelling on a creative level.  This is really important. 

But I understand the other side of this.  If someone is running a show and they’ve had a really good experience with a director, why wouldn’t they go back to that director? But everyone has had a first chance.  Everyone had someone put out a hand and open the door.  And then you need to walk through and do a great job.

Is there more that the DGA could do, in your opinion?

Sure.  I think there’s more that everyone can do.  I always thing that when you have a problem, there is always more to do until it is no longer a problem.  But I think it’s a bigger issue and we need to be dealing with the employers who need to change their hiring practices.

I think in many cases, what happens is that they don’t want to ruffle the feathers of showrunners, especially ones that are powerful.

Yes, probably true.

So what would be some strategies for changing things?

We need to improve those numbers in the Guild.  That needs to go up. We need to get more women directors. There are women graduating from film school.  There are mid-career women who are not working. That’s a huge issue — a mid-career director who hasn’t worked for a couple of years.  How do you get those people who are qualified directors back in? And of course all the people who are graduating from film school every year, going through the Sundance directing workshop.  It’s about opening the doors wider.

Listen, I think it would be great if there was one fix-all [solution].  I don’t think there is, or it would have been done.  Anyone who’s in a position to hire needs to be aware of it. I do think this is now something that is being talked about all the time.  And that is a great thing because I think a lot of people felt that the problem had been solved.

In reporting this story, it tends to feel like a circular maze. There are women directors and directors of color who are certainly not working all the time or even getting that first job. The DGA will say, “Well, we don’t do hiring.” The studios will talk about how the showrunners and the DGA could do more. The showrunners will say they want to hire diversely but everyone’s booked. It is always somebody else in the chain that is the problem.

I haven’t had that general conversation, but I would imagine no one wants to feel like they’re discriminating against people.  I’m sure when you’re talking to someone at the network or the studio they don’t want to feel that.  They don’t want to think that.  They want to think that they’re being inclusive.  And obviously the numbers indicate that that is not happening.  So I understand the human instinct to want to pass the buck, but there’s a point where we all can’t continue to do that.