Film is often referred to as a director’s medium, while in television the writer, or at least the showrunner, is the one with the most control. Some select few, though, give themselves the opportunity to be hybrids, not only crafting the story on the page but also stepping behind the camera to shape notable episodes of their shows visually.
Directing, says Alan Yang, “is really having a vision, having a specific tone and world and story in mind, and communicating that vision to a team of expert people who can execute that vision for you and with you. And that feels so much like the job of running a show as well, so they go hand-in-hand.”
Yang recently directed a handful of episodes of his Amazon comedy “Forever,” including the pivotal premiere and finale, as well as the stand-alone, multi-year-spanning “Andre and Sarah” episode. Yang was able to balance his time helming multiple episodes in great part, he says, because he had the “boon of a shorter episode order.” His Maya Rudolph- and Fred Armisen- starrer was eight episodes, and that meant he and co-creator Matt Hubbard “strove to write all of the scripts and be done with all of them before we shot a frame of the show.”
As he was then prepping to direct the premiere episode, he already “knew what the last frame of the last episode was,” he says, which helped carry a cohesive thread.
But for many showrunners who work on the broadcast or even cable schedule, it is the finale episode that offers the greatest options for directing. Such episodes come at the end of the production schedule, when a showrunner’s notes on previous scripts and cuts are close to wrapped.
From a creative standpoint, finales also allow the scribe to punctuate particularly strong emotional moments for the characters.
This proved key for Tanya Saracho, creator and showrunner of Starz’s “Vida,” who made her directorial debut with the second season finale. Her season was scheduled so they shot all the episodes first, in chronological order, and then moved into the editing room to begin the post-production process in chronological order, as well. She also wrote the finale episode, which she says “streamlined” the process for decision-making.
“There’s no middle person there,” she says. “When they’d say, ‘Can we go half an hour longer?’ I would just say yes.”
Ultimately the helmer has to carry out the showrunner’s vision and often takes time to show the showrunner options and get notes.
“When someone comes in for one block or one episode, you do have to set them up so much,” says Saracho. “For us, we always end on a female’s point of view, and sometimes they plan it for the best look or the best acting or the way the set is, but we always have to end it on one of the leads. That’s something that has to get explained.”
But when the director and the showrunner are one and the same, it takes less time to explain plans to the cast and crew.
“We developed a shorthand of understanding what shots I’m going to select, what my taste is,” says Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator and showrunner of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” who directed all four of the show’s finales, including this year’s series-ender.
Showrunner-directors have longer-term relationships with their actors, and that makes it easier to carve out performances, too, Saracho says.
Directing can also teach showrunners about the nuances of their own shows.
“A lot of times producers give notes on things they’ve never had to make work,” McKenna says. “It’s similar to how writers get notes from the network, and they’re maybe not speaking to you in a language you understand. Over time you learn how to translate that into what your action items are, but I felt like for me to really communicate it helps to have the experience. You just get a lot more of a sense of how best to help the people who are working there.”