The bad news about the plethora of options available during peak TV is that the DVRs of television directors are just as backed up as everyone else’s. The good news is that this increase in television production offers more opportunities for said directors to land jobs.
“I try to be selective in what I choose to do and I try to find the shows that seem to be the most interesting,” says Daniel Attias, who’s helmed episodes of “Homeland,” “Masters of Sex” and “Ray Donovan.” “I have to rely on word-of-mouth to just be clued into what I should investigate or I happen to see them on my own. When I’m interested in a show, or when I investigate it and find that it is interesting to me, I have to get acquainted with it. Sometimes that happens after I’ve been hired. If and when that does occur, I have to immerse myself with it by watching all the episodes I can and read all the scripts of the season.”
Attias’ latest and upcoming credits include such new series as AMC’s “Feed the Beast,” Amazon’s “Good Girls Revolt” and Hulu’s “Chance,” as well as fan-favorite “The Americans” on FX.
And he isn’t the only one with an eclectic resume. The influx in new programming has given many seasoned directors an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help set the look and feel for new projects. Director Nicole Kassell sat through “very long, in-depth tone meetings” where “I just asked and asked and asked a lot of questions” to figure out the design of her episode from the first season of HBO’s “Vinyl.”
“The pilot was already shot and I didn’t see a complete cut of it [when I signed on]; as early as possible, I went to see it,” says Kassell, whose recent credits also include “The Americans,” HBO’s “The Leftovers” and SundanceTV’s “Rectify.” “That was really the source for the look and style of it. It was very much [pilot director and series executive producer Martin] Scorsese’s body of work, whether it was ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’ or ‘Taxi Driver.’ As a lover of film and a film student, all of those films are in my DNA already.”
Kassell and Attias both say the lines between basic and premium cable have blurred and she says the only real difference is budgets — which, for her purposes, “translates to time.”
“The budgets are at the opposite extremes of the spectrum,” Kassell says. “I think it’s a fantastic experience going from ‘Vinyl’ to ‘The Americans’ because, to me, it gives me so much respect to all of these shows that find a way to deliver fantastic stories and cinematic pieces of art within their budgets. With ‘Vinyl’ and ‘The Leftovers,’ it was truly like making a movie.”
Uta Briesewitz, whose diverse resume spans Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” to Starz’s “Black Sails,” says because she’s directed so many cable shows she has “not felt as handcuffed as you might on other shows.” This is something she’s grown used to; she spent part of her early career as a cinematographer on HBO’s “The Wire” where she had “always been given freedom.”
The ample television options have also allowed some helmers to brand themselves and be choosy, carving out careers in which living in Los Angeles or New York is not mandatory. Lynn Shelton, for example, directed the pilot episode of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” but chose not to take on a directing producer title so that she could continue to live in Seattle. She still frequently travels to L.A. to film episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” and other series like Showtime’s “Shameless” and Fox’s “New Girl.” She also flies to New York to direct episodes of Netflix’s “Master of None.”
“I do think I know funny, but I’m also interested in actors,” Shelton says. “I’m really interested in performances that are grounded and have authentic feelings and that’s where the humor comes from instead of a broader approach. That’s something that I think all of the shows that I’ve worked on have … I always think of it as a dramatic-comedic mix.”
Shelton also scans projects to make sure they fit her qualifications for diversity and says she has “definitely looked at scripts that didn’t seem diverse enough, frankly.”
“I like to work on shows that I feel are adding to the conversation, culturally, instead of regurgitating the same old stuff,” she says.
The need for female and minority representation in Hollywood has been a heated topic in recent years, especially for DGA members as the focus is often on filling these roles behind the camera. Fast-rising stars on the directing circuit include Anthony Hemingway [FX’s “American Crime Story” and WGN’s “Underground”] and Deborah Chow [USA’s “Mr. Robot” and The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries”].
Some series, like the Jenji Kohan-created “OITNB” and Jennie Snyder Urman’s CW series “Jane the Virgin” have a reputation for hiring female helmers. Briesewitz has worked on both and is appreciative of those opportunities, but notes, “I don’t want to be put on a show that just has a lot of female characters because it’s almost like I am saying I agree to be excluded from the action-hero type shows.”
Briesewitz is prepping for her episode of Netflix’s upcoming Marvel installment, “Iron Fist.”
Of course, with so many TV series and so many seasoned directors snagging the jobs, younger, less-experienced helmers are now struggling to break into the industry. Attias, who has often mentored novice directors, has attempted to combat this problem by encouraging producers to take risks with new talent. This year, he offered to shadow Steph Green on set in exchange for allowing her a chance to direct an episode of “The Americans.”
It worked and her episode aired in May.
“Once you get the first credit, people are more willing to take the chance,” Attias says. He understands producers’ reluctance to take a gamble on such an expensive project, but adds, “it’s a big problem and I think it’s going to take people stepping up and sponsoring people to get them to break in.”