By Rachel Feldman
In the universe of episodic television directing, the practice of shadowing, also called observing, is an opportunity for a new director to learn the ins-and-outs of a particular TV series and for the producers of that show to determine whether they might want to hire that director. The director is invited to be a “fly on the wall” through pre-production and shooting (sometimes also post-production) and, in a perfect world, the new director is hired to direct a subsequent episode. However, it rarely works that way.
Observing is a wonderful practice for feature film directors, who may not be familiar with the pace, politics and protocol of episodic television, to experience and prepare for its demanding nature. It is also an excellent opportunity for directors who have already been hired on a particular show to become familiar with a new cast and crew.
But over the years, shadowing has become the predominant, default practice used in determining the readiness of directors with whom producers are unfamiliar, a practice that I believe has become a bad habit, used in lieu of serious professional inquiry, and a means to placate an army of directors who are not white men.
Over the last 20 years, TV networks have tried to offset the appalling statistics…
…that reveal unbalanced employment ratios for women and minority directors with shadowing programs. Whether inspired by a genuine desire for equity or simply eager not to appear guilty of gender or racial discrimination, networks created programs that could be pipelines for promising directors of diversity—but sadly, statistics reveal that few actual jobs have resulted.
The truth is that if networks have any serious desire to permanently alter the numbers of working directors of diversity they must add teeth to programs with old-fashioned goals and timetables. Merit is no longer enough because clearly there is a persistent, intangible discrimination against women that interferes with executives’ perceptions of talent. Affirmative action may have become a dirty word, but it may be the only hope of correcting a brutal inequity that permeates our industry.
Over the years, I have had quite a few personal experiences with shadowing that inform my point of view. When I first arrived in LA from NY in 1985, armed with an MFA in film directing from N.Y.U. and several award-winning films that I had written, directed and produced on grants from The NEA and AFI (and later sold to HBO and Showtime).
I felt ready to call “Action!”
I had also worked for several years as a storyboard artist and director’s assistant on big studio features, so I knew my way around sets—both macro and micro. Despite my skills, degrees and awards, however, I quickly learned that without relatives in the business and with no prescribed “ladder to climb” on the journey to becoming a Hollywood director, the route up is often through an invitation to observe.
I had been a professional child actor and spent a good part of my formative years hitting marks and finding my key light, but being on the set solely to observe the director was a thrilling prospect. I was lucky to know someone who introduced me to the producers of “St. Elsewhere.” Their producers had an established shadowing program and had already given several “breaks” to several new and diverse directors. I was jazzed to be invited to join them.
At the same time, I met Karen Arthur, one of the only veteran women TV directors at the time who was kind enough to offer some advice to this fledgling director. She was not a fan of observing and warned me only to visit the set for a few days. She knew that shadowing could eat up a lot of time with no guarantees. She had been burned by empty promises of jobs: “All they can tell is how you drink your coffee, not if you have any talent,” she told me.
She thought the whole practice of standing around on a set was a joke.
Her advice felt jaded to me; I was full of newbie enthusiasm. So for the next several months, from call until wrap, I made observing my full-time job. It was pretty fabulous to befriend the cast and crew, and I learned a great deal from watching expert directors such as Leo Penn, David Anspaugh, Eric Laneuville, and Mark Tinker set up multi-page “oners” and order walls to “fly.”
After several episodes, I felt ready. The producer had compassion for my eagerness, but explained that decisions were made by his supervisor who was shooting a pilot in NY. I would have to wait. By the time six months rolled around, I was practically jumping out of my skin when the man in question arrived on set and sadly, my eagerness ended up sabotaging the time and effort I had put into the experience.
But luck prevailed. Steven Bochco, another producer known to support directors of diversity, saw one of my shorts on HBO and I was hired to direct an episode of “Doogie Howser.” I observed the preceding directors who, as luck would have it, were the amazing Joan Tewkesbury and Eric Laneuville, whom I’d already followed on another show! It was fantastic to watch a confident, competent woman at the helm and it was great to be with Eric again who was super sweet and made me very welcome on the set. Everyone knew I was to be the next director and my presence was welcomed and respected.
The next decade was busy with multiple directing gigs.
I directed “The Commish,” “Sisters,” “Picket Fences” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” as well as several cable movies. Now it was my turn to reciprocate. When observers were on my set, I placed a chair next to mine, shared my preparation and had them prepare their own shot-lists. I enjoyed teaching on my feet, sharing with others what I had learned about the intricacies of directing episodic television.
During this thriving part of my directing career, I was still asked to observe. I shadowed five different brilliant directors over five different seasons of ER: Chris Chulack, Jonathan Kaplan, and Ken Kwapis were amazingly generous with their insights about directing the show, yet despite many folks pulling for me at the highest levels, the gig was never to happen. The problem was that there was no one with whom to engage in discourse about my skills. It was like what Karen Arthur had described years before:
All they knew was that I understood how to stay out of the way and that I liked milk in my coffee.
I also shadowed Dave Semel on “American Dreams,” a fantastic filmmaker and generous guy who made introductions for me at the network and studio level, but here, too– the experience just did not culminate in a job.
Having two babies and working as a writer on features took me out of the director rotation for a short time and it didn’t take long for the A-list opportunities to run dry. I was fortunate to discover the niche of teen programming and subsequently directed many episodes of “Lizzie Mcguire,” “The Jersey,” “Beyond Belief,” and “Beyond the Break.” In these fun-loving environments, I often turned our “video village” into an impromptu film school for the young actors who wanted to learn more about film-making.
During this time, I met Paris Barclay at a diversity event at the DGA. He immediately understood the value of my resume and instantly appreciated that I was an experienced director who had fallen off the grid. He offered me an opportunity to observe “Cold Case” and hoped that this experience might help pave my way back into network gigs. Unfortunately, the director I shadowed and I were not a good match. A very private person, she did not welcome the added attention of an observer. The experience did not end the way we’d hoped.
My writing career began to take the lead. I sold several cable movies, developed features and pilots and began teaching directing in the MFA program at USC. I was introduced to Ken Olin, who was running “Brothers and Sisters,” by a mutual friend and executive at the studio. Ken and I discussed a directing slot on “Brothers and Sisters” when he invited me to observe. He said that while he appreciated the breadth of my experience, he knew that I hadn’t directed for over a year and felt that I might want some “refreshing.”
For the first time, I respectfully articulated my hesitation. I told him I would do whatever it took to land a job directing his show, but that I did not believe that one year “out of the saddle” had somehow dried up my skill-set. He was not put off by my candor, but he was not going to budge.
I had the great pleasure to observe the lovely and talented Laura Innes direct. And as luck would have it, I had many fans on this set. I had worked with several of the show’s writers on previous shows; I knew a few of the actors and the production designer had PD’d an independent feature for me. They all put in strong recommendations, but here too, the time spent observing did not result in a job.
I write this article in the hopes of dispelling the myth of observing as a route to directing. Of course, it has worked out well for some directors, but by and large, I believe there are inherent flaws in the concept of shadowing as a training tool for new directors and feel very strongly that it must not be the primary means by which directors of diversity are evaluated.
Directors are, by nature, excitable characters, curious and passionate, yet the task of a shadow is to be invisible. How ironic that women directors, and men of color, who have often spent a lifetime sublimating their ambition, are asked to be a shadow instead of taking claim for their talents. Many directors of diversity are experienced, talented filmmakers, well-trained with solid credits. Sometimes all they are missing is a powerful advocate to push for them. There must be a more respectful method of engaging and evaluating these filmmakers who have worked so diligently to achieve their goals.
Being a strong director requires many skills: the ability to read deeply and interpret material, to plan for contingencies, collaborate in a group, lead with grace under pressure, have an organic understanding of editing, pre-visualization, the language of lenses, a talent for blocking, understanding coverage and the ability to nurture actors and create authentic performances. Many of these abilities and sensitivities can be communicated through conversation.
Why don’t we expect current network executives to engage in the kind of serious inquiry that is perhaps a better judge of talent than how one drinks one’s coffee? Development executives have certainly become quite savvy in the language of writers! As a professor, I am often able to ascertain which of my students will make more sophisticated films simply from the way they discuss plan – it’s not impossible.
I applaud every company that spends valuable dollars on the effort to boost the ranks of directors of diversity, but my hope is that we enlist a superior mode of deciphering future directors other than shadowing. The game, and it is one, is sadly all style over content and the bottom line is that I do not believe observing is an effective or respectful method of evaluating professional directors.
Rachel Feldman is currently in development on a feature film based on the life of Lilly Ledbetter. She has been a director member of the DGA since 1985 and has directed over 60 hours of network television. She is also a WGA screenwriter, an adjunct professor in directing in the MFA program at USC School of Cinematic Arts and co-chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee. Rachel writes and speaks about gender parity for women directors. She has been published in Variety, IndieWire.com <http://IndieWire.com> , Women&Hollywood.com, VitaminW.com <http://VitaminW.com> , Jezebel.com <http://Jezebel.com> and HuffPost Live.