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Top TV Showrunners Pull Double Duty as Directors

After Alec Berg and Mike Judge finished the first season of their HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” the showrunners made a decision to take on even more work for the current year: they’d alternate writing and directing episodes, rather than hiring guest directors.

“It’s an extension of the same process,” Berg says. “When you’re running a show, you consult on all the directorial stuff to an extent anyway. The guest directors we used last year were super-talented people, (but) ultimately, I have to be there anyway, so I may as well just be a hog and do it all.”

Because the lines between TV directing and writing continue to blur, Berg and Judge aren’t the only showrunners moving seamlessly between the two. Writer-directors say the two disciplines complement each other in a way that makes for a better show overall.

“They’re both connected,” says writer-director Jonathan Krisel of IFC’s “Portlandia.” “It’s coming up with the idea, putting it into words, and then making the visual representation of it come to life, being able to capture whatever made you laugh about the idea in the first place.”

John Ridley of ABC’s “American Crime” finds the process of directing his own script allows him to step back from his words.

“One of the things that I found myself doing a lot of on the set was cutting dialogue and saying, ‘You know what? We don’t need this. We’ve got it in these performers, we’ve got it in the way the scene is framed, we’ve got it in the production design,” Ridley says. “This can sell the story right here.’ ”

Whether drama or comedy, often what works on the page doesn’t on set, so having the ability to tweak a line on the fly makes for an easier shoot.

“For a lot of guest directors, the mandate is ‘OK, here’s the script. You shoot this,’ ” Berg says. “But you can’t just do the best you can because comedy is binary at a certain point. So as writers we’re constantly rewriting and that’s the job of a director as well. I’m used to that, ‘It’s not the way we were shooting it or the way it’s being performed, it’s the way it was written, so let’s change it.’”

Krisel agrees that when it comes to creating the best final product there’s no room for being precious about the script.

“You see a lot of comedic content that’s not funny, and you can tell that it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s actually not funny,” Krisel says. “You have to leave room at the edges (for) timing. One second here and there will make all the difference between something being funny and not being funny. That’s why I like going, ‘Well, we wrote that six months ago, and it was funny one time we read it, but it’s not funny anymore. So what? Just dump it.’”

Per Ridley, allowing room for those on-set discoveries is part of the benefit of writing and directing.

“In television, because directors tend to get scripts late, they don’t have a lot of time to prep,” he says. “When I’m directing, I try to allow for enough space that other departments can bring things to the table and don’t feel like it’s a rush. Being a writer-director can work very well if in every aspect you’re open about what’s happening. I think the big danger is when you get impatient because, ‘This is the way I wrote it and how I’m going to shoot it,’ and you don’t give anybody an opportunity to catch up. As (people) discover things, they may find things that you never even thought of.”

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