It’s been an eventful half year for Thomas Schlamme as the 26h president of the Directors Guild of America after succeeding Paris Barclay last summer.
“Steven Soderbergh took me to lunch recently and asked me about it and I said ‘It’s a little more than I expected,'” Schlamme said. “I take this really seriously. It’s an enormous responsibility.”
That’s quite a statement for someone who’s won nine Emmys and three DGA awards — along with serving as the co-chair for the guild’s bargaining committee at the last two master contract negotiations. Schlamme is best known as a TV director who teamed with Aaron Sorkin on directing and executive producing “The West Wing,” “Sports Night,” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
But he admits the entertainment industry’s sexual harassment scandal has presented a daunting challenge.
“We have to take a very strong stand against sexual harassment and celebrate the brave voices,” Schlamme said. “Six months ago, I was not aware that this was going to be a dominant part of my job.”
On Oct. 21, the DGA announced that it had launched disciplinary proceedings to expel Harvey Weinstein as a member, two weeks after the extensive revelations of alleged sexual abuse. The DGA has a long-standing practice of not commenting on internal union matters, but decided to make an exception in this case. Weinstein resigned a month later.
Schlamme also issued a statement as DGA president on Oct. 21: “As a man in this industry, I have a responsibility to not just condemn the actions of others, but to look inside myself. I ask all of us to do the same. Unless we recognize what has become so acceptable in our culture and how we possibly, even unconsciously, are participants, everything else will be meaningless. Changing culture is a long and difficult journey, but the first step towards that is acknowledgment.”
Schlamme said in a recent interview that the issue will remain front and center. He added, “We all have a responsibility to deal with this.”
Schlamme singled out DGA National Executive Director Russell Hollander, who succeeded Jay Roth in May, for adjusting quickly to the new role. He was also particularly pleased with the membership selecting Guillermo del Toro, Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele as nominees for the DGA’s top feature award.
“It thrills me that 60% of our nominees are directed by women or people of color and that 50% of our board is women,” he noted. “But I’m not relaxed about these issues.”
As for Saturday’s 70th Annual DGA Awards ceremonies at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Schlamme is genuinely thrilled.
“Those evenings were always my favorites as a DGA members,” he said. “It was a like massive living room with Carl Reiner as your uncle. It was inspirational because it reflects what’s best about the DGA — with all of the team included in the awards nominations.”
Schlamme reached out to Don Mischer — winner of 15 Emmys and 10 DGA awards — to serve as awards chair and to Judd Apatow to host. He approached Apatow after seeing him perform at the Comedy Cellar in New York City last summer.
“We go back to the days of ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ and and I know there’s no better host,” Schlamme said. “He’s very topical and self-effacing.”
He also discovered that the DGA president can nominate someone for a life membership so he nominated secretary Michael Apted.
“Michael had asked me to lunch when I had started on ‘The West Wing’ and said I should get more involved with the guild,” Schlamme recalled. “He completely tricked me.”
Schlamme wound up serving twice as co-chair with Apted on the negotiating committee and winning last year’s Robert Aldrich award for service to the DGA. In the 2016 round of negotiations, the guild has able to address the growth in streaming and bargain for a tripling of the residual rates in subscription VOD services such as Netflix.
“That’s where virtually all the growth is right now,” he added.