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How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for
Ryan Johnson for Variety

I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations.

But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my career I have learned that the people who really deserve the top prizes are the editors who face badly directed dailies yet somehow manage to bring D material up to a C+ or better.

Bad writers, bad actors, bad producers, bad network execs, bad editors, are all exposed in the competitive world of Hollywood. Their performance, for the most part, is quickly evaluated, and if they’re bad, their work is quickly rejected. But the director’s work on a series is not so easily judged. Even if left without a director, the actors generally know their characters, the DP knows the look, and departments such as art and wardrobe often turn to the showrunner, not the director, for guidance. So in many cases, a bad director’s work is shrouded by astute editing, reshoots and rewrites.

Back in the ’80s I had one of my first assignments as a full-fledged editor cutting a 90-minute pilot for ABC. The director had had some success with a low-budget indie. As dailies came in and I struggled to put the scenes together, I noticed certain scripted beats were missing. I shrugged it off. After all, what the audience doesn’t see won’t hurt it. Then one day the executive producer came by the cutting room to see the dailies, which confirmed his fears. In an act of frustration, he grabbed the door and pounded it so hard it broke off its hinges.

We cobbled together a show that was compelling enough to get a pickup from the network, but executives wanted to replace the star of the show, which meant reshooting 85% of the pilot, and they also wanted to change out the director. In stepped a veteran television director. In a few weeks I was back cutting dailies. 

That pilot reshoot was a revelation for me. Here were the same scenes, but their replacements were worlds apart. Scenes that before were a struggle in terms of pacing or simple geography became a pleasure to cut. I now could find moments, flow, subtext and emotion. The new director did this with greater efficiency, fewer setups and fewer takes than the old one.

When editors get together to kvetch, poor direction is the second-most-popular topic (the first one being long commutes). Over lunch, an Oscar-winning editor told me he was working on a project by a powerful mogul who was going to direct his first high-budget film. On the first day of dailies, my friend was in trouble. Nothing went together, unmotivated camera moves made it impossible to find cut points, and atrocious blocking made for badly designed shots. Even prestigious feature editors are not immune to bad directing.

Then there was the sophisticated European director who made his name on indie features and was “slumming it” on a TV pilot. During pre-production he was the master of gab, name-dropping about his brushes with celebrities at festivals and an evening with Truffaut and Hitchcock. During production we discovered he was bipolar. He turned what was supposed to be a light detective mystery into a Holocaust documentary. 

I also had the pleasure of working with a well-known actor who wanted to take a stab at directing. On his first shooting day, he had all the actors standing in a kumbaya circle like in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare.” He called out “Action!” and “Cut!” with gusto, stepping in to give encouragement to the actors. It was easy to imagine him in jodhpurs and riding boots. But once in the editing room, it was hard to salvage the footage. There was bad blocking, no thought about camera angles, and forget about transitions. Clearly he didn’t do the essential pre-production work of prepping the script and creating shot lists. There are many actor-directors who are successful auteurs, but too many times I have encountered thespians creating brilliant performances as actors but unable to act as good directors.

The editor’s career pays off when he or she is collaborating with brilliant directors. Footage seems to cut itself as beautiful camera moves flow into profound performances, and the editor becomes the master of developing the emotional ebb and flow of the story. But in the shadow of inept directors, the work turns into a turmoil of added hours struggling to create simple continuity. 

During those dark days of frustrating work, my only solace is that possibly the producers will move me up to direct an episode. Then it will be my turn to dump badly designed scenes on an unsuspecting editor. 

Veteran editor Stuart Bass, ACE, has credits that date back to 1985.