Most of Battlestar Galactica director Michael Nankin’s previous experience in television directing came on domestic or workplace dramas like Life Goes On and Picket Fences. So perhaps he wasn’t the most obvious choice to make the leap to the sweeping space battles of the gritty sci-fi show (airing the first of its final batch of episodes tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sci-Fi). But he insists the series don’t have that little in common in the end.
“You know, it was kismet,” Nankin said of working on the show. “It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around.”
I sat down with Nankin a few days ago to talk for almost an hour about TV direction in general, directing Battlestar specifically, and some of the other shows on TV he admires.
First, I wanna ask a little about your background. I did see you started out as a writer and then sort of transitioned to being a director.
That’s inaccurate because IMDb doesn’t go back far enough. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done that it doesn’t list, and there’s actually things I haven’t done that it does list, which is strange.
I was one of those kids who was making movies when he was ten. My grandfather gave me a standard eight reel camera, which is the kind that takes 16mm film and you’d run 25 feet and then flip it over and run the other way. So that’s how I started and then I just never stopped. Although it didn’t occur to me that I could make a career making films until college. I grew up in ... there were no artists in my family, so I was going to grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer and make movies on the side. I drew a lot and painted a lot. They were very worried about me.
What was the point where you sort of said, “OK, I could do this for a living?”
It was interesting. I made friends with a guy in high school, at the end of high school, and I went to his house one day, and his dad was a musician. And so we go to his house, it’s this big house, so clearly someone’s making enough money. And he says, “We have to be quiet, my dad’s working.” So we walk by this room, and I peek in, and there’s his dad sitting at the piano, with a blank piece of paper, noodling on the keys and writing down a lyric, and it hit me like a two-by-four. And I thought, “My God, you can, like, do it. You can do that kind of stuff and make a living.” That moment changed everything for me.
To answer your question, I went to film school at UCLA. I wanted to be a director. That’s all I cared about. I’d always written my stuff, but I’d never had an ambition to be a writer because writing just always felt like part of the filmmaking process. OK, I’ve got a movie in my head, and I have to communicate it to people in some way, so I have to write it down. And then I make the movie. But it was never a desire to be the next Steinbeck. Although I wouldn’t mind being the next Steinbeck, but it may be too late.
So how did you get involved in television?
I had a career in features, and I directed one movie and it didn’t do well and things fell apart and no one was hiring me to direct. So I thought, “I’ve gotta sit down and write scripts. No one’s hiring me to direct their projects, so I’ve gotta create my own projects.” I started writing scripts, and I started selling them. Suddenly, I was a movie writer. So I was cooking along, writing scripts and optioning them, and doing rewrites, but I wasn’t any closer back to directing at all because none of them were hits. I was just chugging along.
That was going on for years. I was really frustrated because I was in an enviable position, but I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t on the set. And I’d just gotten married so I couldn’t really quit. And a guy named Rick Rosenthal who directed a movie I wrote called Russkies directed the pilot for a TV show called Life Goes On about 20 years ago. And he called me up and said, “Come see the pilot at the screening. Meet the other writers, and you can come and pitch stories and write some episodes.” My initial reaction was an arrogant one. “Please Rick. I’m a feature guy. How could I possibly do that? Work on a television show! I wouldn’t understand it.” And I went and saw this thing, and it was beautiful, and I read some of the scripts, and I realized this writing is better than the writing I’m doing. It’s better than 95% of the features I’m seeing. It totally turned my head around.
So I wrote one on spec, and then they made me a staff writer. So then I was in, and I was on a TV show. It was all new to me. And then, of course, the first day I showed up and every day after that, I kept pushing, “I want to direct.” I kept saying and kept saying it, and they kept patting me on the head and sending me away. But after a year, they really liked my work, Rick and the other executive producer Michael Braverman fought for me, and I got my first episodic directing job. And I was ready. I was so ready for it.
How common was it for writers to cross over into directing then? I know it’s a little more common now.
It’s hard. It’s hard.
Even in TV?
It’s a different skill set. It’s a leap of faith, on behalf of the studio mostly because they’re writing the checks, and they have to be convinced. Or forced.
So I was really ready. I just hit it out of the park, really, and I just fell in love with episodic television because I got a chance to do so much work. It was interesting. I think it was the first or second season of Life Goes On, and there was a show that was short, and it was about to air, and they just turned to me and said, “We need one more scene. Write this scene, and we’re gonna shoot it tomorrow. It airs in four days.” The theme of the episode was homelessness, so I took this character that was a cook in the restaurant that the father owned, and I gave him this speech about what it’s like to be homeless, and suddenly you discovered that in his youth, he was this homeless guy. He fell into that and brought himself out. And he gives this long speech about what it’s like to be on the street, and what happens after you’re on the street for two days, and you can’t walk into a store. Y’know, a very humanistic speech. It was very from my heart. And then actors were speaking the lines 18 hours later and 25 million people saw it five days later, and I was hooked.
Well, this is from IMDb again, so it might be wrong, but I’m seeing you worked on Life Goes On and then Picket Fences and Chicago Hope for a while. How did you move then from sort of domestic dramas to the science fiction of Battlestar?
Purely accidentally. It’s interesting because I had started out, I was interested in sci-fi early on in my career. I was mentored by Ray Bradbury, who may be the sweetest man on Earth and cured me of writers block forever. And I got together with him, and the first thing I told him was that it was his short stories that I read when I was 11 that made me think that maybe I could write. And I was lucky enough to meet up with him. I latched on to him.
So the movie scripts I’d written were comedies and thrillers. There was one horror movie that kind of got me on the map called The Gate, and then Life Goes On really pegged me as sort of a writer of character drama. Very heartfelt. Somewhat sentimental. And that’s what I was known as for years. I did Chicago Hope and Picket Fences and family and teen dramas as a director. You never really control your career, but that’s what I was known for. And then I directed a show called American Gothic.
Here’s how I got that job. I saw the pilot, and I didn’t know Shaun Cassidy at all, but I saw the pilot, and I just called him up, and I said, “I just wanted to thank you for creating a TV show that’s told visually rather than in the dialogue.” So he said, “Are you kidding? Come and have lunch with me.” So I went and had lunch with him, and pretty soon I was working on the show. A great way to move in the business is call people and compliment them, but only if you mean it.
So I was shooting this episode of American Gothic in North Carolina and the producer on the set was [BSG executive producer] David Eick. So we became pals. And we tried to develop several shows together, and it never panned out. And then I had this idea for a miniseries for Sci Fi. It was actually a movie idea I’d had, but I knew it could easily be a miniseries, and Eick and I pitched it to Sci Fi and they really liked it. So I spent months writing this—y’know, it’s a six hour miniseries, so the outline was, like, 40 pages. You had to work everything out before you write it. So all the heavy lifting’s in the outline, and none of the money’s in the outline. So I spent months writing this outline and making no money, and we finally submitted it to Sci Fi, and they said, “Nah, we don’t really wanna do it.”
And Eick had just started Battlestar, and I said, “David, I’m broke. I just spent three months and made nothing. You gotta give me an episode. I need some cash.” And now I’m the sci-fi guy.
You know, it was kismet. It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around. On the second day of Battlestar, I called Eick and said, “David, get me as many of these as you can. I’m not leaving. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”
One of the things you briefly mentioned was calling up Cassidy about his show being done visually instead of through dialogue. That’s one of the things I notice is that even when I’m writing a review of a TV show, I tend to focus on the script, which is sort of the opposite of how it is in the movie world, where you focus on the director. What has been your role traditionally as a TV director insofar as servicing the scripts or working with them?
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s different on every show. Working with David Kelley on Picket Fences, there’s actually a guy on set who says, “There’s a comma here. You didn’t pause long enough” on one end of the spectrum. And the other end of the spectrum is Battlestar Galactica where they hand me the script and they go away and they say, “Let us know when you’re done making your movie.” And I have lots of freedom. Lots of it.
My ideas about approaching an episode of television is that my job is to find the humanity in the story. That’s my starting point always. I’m about to go do a CSI, the most procedural show in the world, and my job is to make it a human experience rather than just people talking about the perp. The director in features or TV is the midwife of the performance, and so that’s what I concentrate on. That’s the fun of it. But dealing with the script, y’know, the script’s a treasure map in the best incarnation of the way this works. You wouldn’t take a treasure map and frame it and say it’s a finished piece of work. It’s gonna lead you to something. It’s full of clues and suggestions for where you should go and what you should do, but it doesn’t contain the treasure. You have to find the treasure. And the treasure is the moment, the moment between two people on the screen.
You mentioned being the midwife of the performance. How is that different on a show where you and the actors have both been working on it for a while, like on Battlestar? After four seasons, what do you say to an actor who maybe feels they really know their character at that point?
It kind of has nothing to do with knowing your character. You start a movie, and they know who their character is on the first day. It’s what’s happening to that character. And everyone’s interpretation of character changes as things go on. It gets deeper and deeper and deeper hopefully. So it’s really about, OK, so we know who this character is, so we don’t have to do that. Now, what does this man or this woman do now in this moment, in this situation. And the actors come with their ideas, all of which are valuable, and I just try to open doors for them that they haven’t thought of and try to create an environment in which they can play and experiment and not be frightened of doing the wrong thing. Fear is what hangs up actors the most. If they don’t trust the director, if they’re afraid someone’s not watching them correctly, then they’ll watch themselves. And you can’t be in the moment and watch yourself at the same time, and the performance is diminished. Fear also makes them afraid to do the wrong thing, and if you create an environment where it’s OK to do the wrong thing, then they’re free to find the unexpected in the scene.
Often, I’ll do a take where we intentionally do the wrong thing. Early on, I’ll say, “OK, what’s the stupidest way to do this scene? What’s the most embarrassing, idiotic way to do it? Let’s do a take that way.” And what happens is they do it, and the world doesn’t end, and everyone laughs, and we move on.
I’m really sad none of those have ended up on the DVD.
And what happens more often than not is we get to the end of the take, and we all look at each other, and we say, “Y’know, we set out to do exactly the wrong thing, but that one part that you did, that was fucking great. Let’s use that.”
Now, there aren’t a lot of TV shows that have a distinct visual style you have to use. Usually, it’s midshots and close-ups and so on. Battlestar has always had that docudrama feel, though. How much of that is mandated?
It’s involved, because there are a number of episodes of Battlestar that have very little of that in it. And I came in to Battlestar resisting it. My background was in visual arts. I was a painter, and so composition was always a really important storytelling tool for me. Suddenly, there’s two cameras going crazy all the time. I’m losing that tool. I can tell the story by where the guy is in the frame, and I was frightened at first. How can I do this? It’s just gonna be a mess.
But it ended up liberating me. I suddenly realized that I could do what I wanted to do without being so carefully controlling over that composition. I could still get it across. Battlestar, there’s two cameras going all the time. Two camera operators. I figured out pretty quickly that there was one camera operator who was just brilliant. He could take this fifty pound camera and whip it around like it was a handycam. Just get stuff I would never think of. And so what I did was I sort of struck a compromise. And so the A camera I could kind of control and make my compositions in, even though it was still handheld and had those nervous little zooms in it. It still had that feeling. But I would say, “Now, this is a wide shot and Adama’s on the left and keep him really small.” I’d still shoot in my sort of normal mode with A camera, but I had the B camera changing it up every take. Slowly, I was sort of able to let go of A camera even and sort of just concentrate on the performances and every once in a while sort of nudge things back to where I wanted them to be. But I started to really love the surprises that I would get. My resistance at first, I just ended up loving it. It became a new tool in my arsenal and got completely spoiled by the brilliance of these camera operators. You can do that with the wrong guys, and it’s a mess. That’s what I was afraid of. But these camera operators are filmmakers, and the important thing is they’re following the story. They’re not just making cool shots. They know the story, and they’re enhancing it. Once I knew that was going on, I was able to relax.
What are the major differences between starting out early in a show’s run like you did on Battlestar and then coming in later on in a show’s run like you’re doing on CSI?
I’ll tell you, I’ve been lucky. Most of the directing I’ve done in television has been early in the first season. As a matter of fact, I try to get my agents the two times I’ve had the option to choose, I always want to go to the show that’s just starting up because no one really knows anything, and I get the option to be more of a filmmaker. I feel like especially after this great experience on Battlestar, I feel, like, “Fine, what’s your style? I’ll do your style. I don’t have to come here and change your show.” It’s fantastic.
And I also find that showrunners all hang on to their vision to different degrees. I’ll find that I go onto a show, and people will say, “Well, here’s how we do it,” and I’ll say, “Great.” And in the course of prep, I’ll get ideas of my own, and I’ll sit down with them, and I’ll say, “Well, how about this? What if we did this?” I’ve found that almost everyone’s open to new ideas. Very few people say, “No no no. We can’t do that. We always put a closeup there.” Very few people are like that. Most people are excited with new ideas. And I’ve found that as long as everyone knows what they’re doing, as long as you sit down with them and talk about your ideas, people are open. A couple of times, I’ve surprised them. I’ve said, “OK, they’re gonna say no to this so I’ll just do it.” And that’s bad. People feel you’re working behind their back.
Or what I’ll do is I’ll do things two ways. Y’know, time permitting, I’ll do it their way, and then I’ll do my crazy shot. They have a choice in the editing room. If they like it, fine. If they don’t, fine.
Now, just by virtue of how little time there is to produce an episode of TV than a feature, the writer has always been more important in the TV production process generally. What are some ways that you think TV could maybe move over more to that visual directorial language while still saying on this tight production schedule?
Basically, you have to write to your budget. I just did Sarah Connor, and it was written bigger than their budget, so all the effort went into just getting it accomplished. Y’know, if you’ve got, like, In Treatment. In Treatment is a show about two people talking in a room. What’s beautiful about that is that the budget’s small, but the requirements are small, so within that small budget, it’s actually luxurious because you don’t have to move your set, you don’t have to bring in the trains, you don’t have to do any of that stuff. So you have time to work the performance. That’s what it’s all about. If shows are realistic about what they can accomplish so that you actually have time to deal with it, then you can be cinematic in any venue, directorially.
Although the more I work, the more I question what that really means. The best description of the job I’ve ever heard was that the director is the audience’s representative on the set. I can’t remember who said that. The guy who walks in and says, “This is my vision. This is my personal vision,” you don’t want that guy. Because he’s just asserting himself. You want someone to assert for the audience. Now the audience may want these incredible shots and sweeping camera and poetry and all that stuff, given the material. I was lucky coming up because I made all my student films in the 70s, and the only way to show it was to project it. There was no tape. There was no DVD. There was none of it. You could only show it by projecting it. So very early on, I had to gather groups of people in dark rooms and screen it. And, of course, I was a movie geek. I went to thousands and thousands of movies and talked about them with my friends. And then in film school, I was at UCLA where they screened everything in a theater. All of those hours and hours and hours in a dark room gives you a sense of audience. Showing your film and watching with an audience, thinking, “Man, that seems slow. It seemed great in the cutting room. Now it seems slow. They didn’t get that joke. Why didn’t they get that joke? They’re ahead of the story. How’d they get ahead of the story?” Over thousands of hours and hours, you develop a second sense. You know how they’re gonna react. So that’s how you make all your decisions on the set.
The audience is always trying to get ahead of the story, and so that’s a tool. Sometimes, you want them to get ahead and pull the rug out from under them. Sometimes, you want to make a left turn and leave them behind so they have to catch up. That’s part of the drama. I teach directing at the Art Institute in Santa Monica, and my big thing is always trying to get these kids to go sit in theaters among the audience. And it gets hard to do in TV because you just ship it. You don’t have to screen it.
Hasn’t Battlestar had several big screen screenings? Have you made it to one of those?
How does it play?
It plays great. David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, a writing team for Battlestar who’ve written most of the episodes I’ve done, they have these frak parties because David lives out in Paradise Cove in Malibu, in this big upscale trailer park with this big rec room, and they take over the rec room the night the episode airs, and they have a big screening, and they invite all these fans and people from the show and stuff, and I’m always there. And I’m usually not watching the show. I’m usually standing near the screen watching the audience. Because I’ve seen the show. I know the show.
I’ve noticed that the show has gone to more of an epic feel. The miniseries was very epic, but the series started out kind of small. Was that a budgetary thing or was there a conscious choice to move in that direction?
I don’t think it was budgetary, although there’s always a battle. You have to start big to get the audience. And then I think it’s a combination of things. Part of it is, this is a really well-crafted 80-hour movie, and sometimes, you just have to slow down and lay the groundwork for what’s gonna happen. You have to sow the fields because you’re gonna reap them later. I think it’s part of a function of storytelling. I also think it’s part of a function of the fact that the writers didn’t know in season two really where it was going. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, trying to find what works. It takes a lot longer. I did an episode called “Faith,” which is just Roslin and this patient sitting over a bed for, like, 25 pages. It was like an episode of In Treatment.
Do you find that you tend to be drawn to episodes that are more like that? I’ve noticed that Rymer shoots a lot of the big space battle episodes.
That’s because he gets to pick and choose. I’m drawn to anything I haven’t done before. Anything new. I’m still waiting to make that Western. I wanna do a movie about jazz players. All these movies I’d love that I haven’t gotten to do. And quality. Writing that has subtext. Something that means something. Whether it’s big or small. When I’m out there with the cranes and the cars, and the sun’s going down, I say, “Just give me two people in a room. I wanna put two people in a room. Let me get out of this stage and shoot something fun.” But maybe I’m just a malcontent.
Looking back on your work on the show, what are some of your favorite scenes or episodes you worked on?
Well, “Maelstrom.” My favorite are the unaired shows, actually, but “Maelstrom” was all about digging really deep into Starbuck’s character. And Katee Sackhoff and I recognized early on that we were gonna have to bring our best game for this episode. We just get each other. We’re a really good team. I understand the way she works; I understand her. She likes the way I work. There wasn’t a get to know you period. There wasn’t a period of fear. It was all about, let’s see how far we can go. It was very intimate, mostly from my side. I saw things in her. She was dragging up stuff from her real childhood. She was dragging up stuff from her darkest fears, her weakest moments. And I was there watching, helping her get to it. It was very intimate and very courageous on her part. She was so game. She was naked in front of everybody, in every sense of the word. And that was a very intense experience.
I usually shoot stills on set. I always have my own camera, and I’m shooting stills. And on that episode, I never touched my still camera. I was so in the moment, in the work. I didn’t want to do anything other than make that episode. And it turned out well. That intense experience is part of my favorite experience in itself. It’s all on the screen. Sort of the Christmas Carol scene where she’s led back into this point in her life and she observes herself. To be able to do a scene where an actress plays two different versions of her character six years apart and is able to comment on herself, it was so deep and so tricky. It was so much fun because it was a challenge beyond what we usually did. What we’d ever done.
The show that airs (tonight) is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and is my favorite for a lot of other reasons. It’s very sad. And I love sad drama. If I could just do tragedies all the time. Y’know, cathartic tragedies that elevate you. So when we shot “Sometimes a Great Notion,” we shot during the writers strike, and all during prep, we didn’t know whether we’d be allowed to shoot it or not. So we just prepped it. And we didn’t know until the night before whether we were just gonna go home or shoot the episode. And we got the green light. And Ron Moore and the writers all went home. Couldn’t be there. And nobody knew how long the strike would be. We felt certain that if the strike went longer than six months, this would be the last episode of Battlestar ever. They wouldn’t hold these stages for six months. They’d lose everybody. That’d be it. And there was a very good chance because of all of the anger and the mood of the industry, we thought it was probably likely that this was the last time we’d ever be together and this would be the end of the show. And we couldn’t change anything because the writers were on strike. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about what way we could recut this footage to make a satisfying ending, and of course, there wasn’t any way. We had all of these crazy ideas, but none of them were any good.
So what happened was that everybody—and I think this was mostly through the leadership of Eddie Olmos—decided to do the best work of their lives. Because everyone thought, this is our last hurrah. This could be it. So let’s bring up our game. And this is a show where the bar’s set pretty high to begin with. Everyone said, “Let’s do the best work we’ve ever fucking done. Nobody slacks off.” I’ve never seen anything like it.
I know this is an episode you didn’t direct, but in “Revelations,” I’m wondering if you know anything about the process that led to the long tracking shot at the ending? Was that in the script? It’s not something you see on TV a lot.
It’s kind of in the script, not the fact that it’s all one shot. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about it. We were at that beach for three days, during which, I had to do all of my stuff for “Sometimes a Great Notion,” so I actually had to give up shooting time for his big tracking show. Once we realized that we were in such chaos leading up to it, there was talk at one time of him shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes and then there was talk of my shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes. And then we sort of looked at each other, and we both sort of said at the same time, “I wanna keep my own stuff. I’m not giving you this.” But what we had to do was spend some time thinking of what the look was going to be, because it was in both of our episodes, and we had to establish it. And what we did was sit down with the DP, Steve McNutt, and the first thing I said was, “Ingmar Bergman,” and he said, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” and that was the end of the discussion. And so we shot it like Death on the Beach. We tried to make it a black and white movie.
But the long tracking shot was Rymer’s idea.
Now, you have tonight’s episode coming up. Do you have more in the final batch?
Yeah, there’s another one called “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which is five or six episodes later, which was my swan song. It’s funny because it was the last episode for me, and it was the last episode for David and Bradley, the writers. Battlestar had become a family. So I was doing this scene with Adama and Laura, and David and Bradley are there, and I look up, and David has this odd look on his face, and he comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulder, and he says, “This is our last Laura/Adama scene ever.” And he started to cry. I said, “David, I understand, but I can’t go there. I have to direct this scene. I cannot go there with you. I am right there, but you have to go away. Let me finish this scene, and then I’ll be there with you. But please.” That’s how tight we all were. We felt the love, and the end of something magical.
You’ve been on a few long-running shows as they came to their end. Is that frequently how it is or are people like, “God, I can’t wait to leave this show”?
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I killed the show. (laughter) Yeah, yeah, a few times, yeah. Life Goes On was like that. Life Goes On went four seasons, but we didn’t know at the end of the fourth season whether it was the end or not. But we had kind of a wrap-up. We were on ABC, and ABC was going to dump it, but there was talk of NBC picking it up. So we were filled with hope that we were gonna keep going, so it wasn’t quite the same as knowing it was going to be a goodbye. Everyone just sort of scattered when everyone found out we weren’t coming back, which is the way it is for most shows.
More generally, you’ve mentioned In Treatment as a show you think is directed pretty well. What are some other TV shows you think have good directing?
Mad Men, without a doubt. One of the best directed shows on TV. Best-written. Best acted. Also, that’s not an expensive show. Like I said before, that’s a seven day shoot. It’s all interiors. Small scenes. And knowing what their budget is, they write to it, so they’re able to shoot it small. One of the greatest luxuries in episodic TV is to be able to reshoot a scene. Most shows say, “Forget about it. It’s never gonna happen.” But that’s what you get to do in features to bring up the quality. You shoot. You cut it together. And you say, “These two scenes could be much better,” and you go back and bring it up. That’s ideal. So every once in a while, you get a chance to do that in episodic, and that’s the greatest luxury.
That’s why I don’t watch dailies when I shoot, because I can’t do anything about it. So either I look at what I shot, and I go, “Oh, it’s fantastic,” or I go, “Ugh. I have to reshoot that scene,” but I know I can’t. It’s frustrating.
Has the culture where everyone knows everything that’s going on because of the Internet affected that at all? Is that something that is taken into consideration? Is there concern about that?
I didn’t think so, but I thought I’d ask.
You’re right, though, it’s like everybody’s in show business now. It’s interesting because I was watching TV last night, and there was a trailer for The Reader, and the trailer went on for 15 seconds, and then there was an interview with Kate (Winslet) talking about the role, and my 18-year-old son looked at me and goes, “Why would they do the behind-the-scenes interview in a trailer?” It’s because everyone’s in show business now. Everyone knows all about the making of it. Everyone’s always been fascinated in it, but now there’s so many roads in.
How that all affects me is more, I don’t know what size screen someone’s gonna watch the work on. Am I doing this shot for a 60-inch plasma or a cellphone? And it’s an unanswerable question, so I just shoot for the 60-inch plasma. Fuck those people with their cellphones. (laughs) They shouldn’t be watching there anyway!
And that was what I was going to ask next was how the many different viewing platforms affect the director.
There’s so many, and it’s unpredictable, and there’s not enough information to make an intelligent choice. The answer is you don’t know. It’s affected, in a weird way, subconsciously, by the size of the monitor on the set. We watch it on a high-def monitor that’s a 20-inch monitor. And I’m always trying to move beyond that and not make it perfect for that. And also, I try not to watch the monitor. I try to watch the actors. I find I have a more critical eye watching them in person, than through the lens. But it’s something I’ve gone over and over and talked to other directors about. “Well, what are we shooting for?” We don’t know. Let’s just make it beautiful. But, y’know, even on my little TV, even on my credit-card sized window on my computer, if I put up Lawrence of Arabia, there’s that big wide shot, and even if this camel’s one little pixel, it still works.
And also, there’s performance. Performance is different from big screen to small screen. You can just drive yourself crazy trying to overthink it.
I have seen a few other TV episodes blown up, and TV acting sometimes does really translate and sometimes doesn’t.
What I find is that the smaller the screen gets, the more important story is. If you’re in a movie theater, the spectacle, the fact that your whole field of vision is taken up by just looking around the frame, it makes it a visual experience. But as the screen gets smaller, then there’s less and less of that, and so the story comes to the foreground. That’s why writers are so important in television, because you can film the spectacle, but a lot of people aren’t getting it.
So you mentioned that you’re going on to do CSI, and you said earlier that you’re doing a pilot for Fox and a miniseries for AMC. What are some things that you’d like to do beyond what you have on your plate?
Direct pilots and features. I miss the feature world. I miss telling stories that end. Although people can die on Battlestar. I’ve killed my share of characters on Battlestar. On that show, I was known as the Grim Reaper, because every time I showed up, a character would die. The actors would all run when I showed up. I miss the three acts and you’re out kind of storytelling. And I want to direct pilots because there’s so much more invention involved, and so much more money involved. If you direct a pilot, and the series goes, you get a check for like $5,000 for every episode, whether you do anything or not. It’s a great deal.
Has TV directing changed appreciably now that so many series are like Lost or Battlestar Galactica where every story is connected into a larger story from the days of Life Goes On or Picket Fences where there was less of that?
Well, the doors have opened more for serialization, which I’m very happy about, because then instead of resetting and going again, you get to move on. Networks still don’t like it. Cable networks do like it. What the broadcast networks fight is the fact that if people miss a certain amount, they never come to it. They feel they’ve missed too much. You can’t just drop in on a serialized show. The cable networks like the novella sort of feel. They feel like they have smaller audiences that can drop in and get hooked. I prefer the serialization in the storytelling. It’s like a long movie. Although I also love the original Star Trek, where no one ever did anything different. They always reset to the same place like nothing had ever happened.
I know the serialization has really tamped down on freelance writers coming into a series because everyone needs to know what’s going on. Has that affected the freelance directing for television?
No, because you have time to catch up. The freelance writer has the disadvantage of not being in the room, the writing room, during all the discussions of where it’s been and where it’s going and where it almost went. They don’t have all of that. So generally on shows with stand-alone episodes, they’re fine, but in serialization, they’re so far behind the curve that they’ll get an episode and they’ll write an episode, and it’ll have to be totally rewritten because it’s outdated by the time it gets there. Whereas as a director, I don’t have to do that. I just sit down and watch all the DVDs leading up to it. I don’t have to start from scratch. It’s more of an act of art and craft than writing.
What are you most proud of in your run on the series?
My work with the actors. The performances I was able to get. That’s what I’m proudest of. What I’m most grateful for was the freedom I was given because in that freedom, I was able to grow and experiment. When you’re hamstrung, when it’s like, “Do it this way,” there’s no room for experimentation, so you can’t fail. You can’t learn. On Battlestar, some of my experiments were just totally terrible, and then they make that all right. I learned a great deal as a filmmaker, immensely, on Battlestar.