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TV’s Top Female Directors Reveal Their On-Set Secrets

Tasked with bringing a script to life on the screen, television directors must juggle the realities of production while channeling their own creative visions. Variety gathered five directors at the top of their game to learn the secrets of their craft: Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge”), Lesli Linka Glatter (“Homeland”), Michelle MacLaren (“Better Call Saul,” “The Leftovers”), Gail Mancuso (“Modern Family”) and Jill Soloway (“Transparent”). One question, and they were off and running.

Variety: How do you approach a script when you first get it?
Michelle MacLaren: I read it once and I always have a pencil with me because any idea that comes to my head immediately, I write it down beside it. And I find that 90% of the time when I then go back to break down the shot list, and I come out with an idea, I’ll look at that pencil marking, and it’s the same.
Lesli Linka Glatter: Because you only have those instincts the first time. I do that, and then I read it like three or four times, to know what the subtext is. What is the story really about? Because I can’t even begin to start figuring out how I’m going to shoot it till I really know what story I’m telling.
MacLaren: I find that I have to have the pencil because exactly what you just said, really good writing inspires you visually. And I want that instant visual reaction, I want to remember that. Because you might forget that initial instinct. But I do try to read it in its entirety, but I’m not breaking it down, it’s just that gut reaction.

Billy Kidd for Variety

Lisa Cholodenko: I’m never able to do that. I’ll always think I’m going to do it that way, and then I’m like, “Wait,” in my head. Here’s an idea.
Glatter: That’s what’s exciting about what we do, being storytellers, is these ideas, especially if the material’s good. If the material’s not good, I have no ideas.
Cholodenko: Then you hopefully don’t have to do it.
Jill Soloway: I find in some ways directing is like creating the tools that allow you to grab all of the ideas as they’re coming. When I was first directing, I would be on the set and I would have those ideas. They’re almost like little birds. My first instinct would be to make those thoughts go away because I’m trying to watch. These are the ways that you want to adjust the scene. So then I started making sure I had a pad and pen in front of me while I’m watching the monitor. I have to be able to grab all those little ideas. They’re your instincts, they’re your impulses.
Glatter: Which are gifts.
Soloway: Exactly. They’re gifts and you have to realize that.
Gail Mancuso: First of all, I’m so relieved that all you carry pencils because I’ve been feeling like Bob Dole, I always have to have a pencil in my hand, even when I’m directing. I always do my notes on Post-its.
Glatter: I do, too. Multicolored Post-its.
Mancuso: Because if script changes come in, I can just take that idea down. Don’t write your shot list on your script.
Glatter: Because then you get new
pages and …
Soloway: That shot list is gone.
Cholodenko: I worked with somebody who used to say to me, “Go back to that first, best thought.” It stuck with me. We want to censor ourselves but that impulsive instinct is the purest.
Soloway: There’s a lot of velocity there. There’s a lot of power there.
Mancuso: It’s like, don’t ever go back and change your answer on the SAT.
Glatter: I think if you can keep those channels open to your instincts, they will save you. They will keep you going in the right direction. When those channels become all clogged up because you’re behind schedule or it’s starting to rain or the million problems that we all have to deal with as problem solvers, you can put those instincts aside.
Cholodenko: Or that the actor or a producer or somebody comes in and is arguing with you, for expedience’s sake you’re like rethinking, “Well, wait a minute.”
MacLaren: You have to listen to that little voice in your head. I find that, too, when you do a take, all that pressure of we’ve got to go, we’re losing the light, and you know you don’t quite have it, if I don’t do it again, the number of times I’ve sat in the editing room, I’ve gone, “I remember that! Why didn’t I (do another take)? I knew it right then and there.” So every time I try to remember to listen to that little voice.
Mancuso: I also have a theory, if you’re under pressure and they’re like, “You’re not going to make your day” — in a month from now, when you’re looking at the episode, and the episode is great, no one’s going to remember whether you made your day.
Glatter: And if you don’t fix it, then you will hate yourself. Because you knew you heard it, and I think if you tell those instincts to shut up, they will. And they won’t talk to you anymore.
Soloway: The little voice, it’s so important, not just when you’re on the set, but I find that sometimes when I’m writing or when I’m looking at a script for the first time and I’ll see a scene or a half of a scene and go, “This could go. But I’ll leave it for now, it always can go.” If you even know from the first time you see it that it’s going to get cut, if you think it might get cut, it’s going to get cut. The only thing that you can’t get rid of is what you know you can’t get rid of.
Glatter: You probably should. Even if it’s your favorite scene. Because sometimes it is.
Soloway: Yes. If it doesn’t go in the script, and if it doesn’t go on the set, it’s going to go in the edit.
Glatter: I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks. I’m a planner. I like to know I’ve thought through everything, but then I totally want to be open to the moment. I hope that the actors come in with something I could have never thought of alone, in a room or on a soundstage or out on location by myself. And that is what, especially as I’ve been doing this now a while, that’s the most exciting thing are those incredible surprises.
MacLaren: That’s the magic.
Cholodenko: I think that you can only be receptive to those if you’re really clear what’s there. What the story is, what you have, what you need.
MacLaren: And then comes the planning. I always come in with a shot list. And then I’m prepared to throw my shot list out. Because if I know what’s the arc of the scene, whose point of view I want to be in, how I’m getting in, how I’m getting out, whatever happens, whatever evolves, you’re ready for it.
Cholodenko: But the worst thing, and this might be revealing too much about myself, is where you haven’t planned well, and everybody’s looking at you like, “So where are we going? What are we doing?” And you know, that’s a recipe for really shooting yourself in the foot.
Glatter: Or somebody hands you pages that morning. I haven’t had that in a while. But I’ve definitely been handed eight pages in the morning and then you’re like, “Oh, OK, the only thing I want to know, has this couple slept together? Oh yes, they have.” And then you find out when you get the pages, no they haven’t. It’s like, oh, that’s an interesting one. But there’s something kind of exhilarating about it.
Cholodenko: There is, and also you’re off the hook.
Mancuso: Sometimes you don’t know until you get it on its feet. And sometimes if you are struggling in prep, you can’t block the scene, or you’re not sure why that scene is there, and I’ve been in these situations before, there’s just something wrong. I can’t block it, I can’t picture it. And it ultimately turns out that it is the page. It’s kind of a domino effect.
Glatter: Absolutely. Sometimes a scene just tells you what it needs to be.

Watch the full conversation below.

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