Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Directors Are It For Me

In my review of the Ray-Romano-on-the-road documentary 95 Miles to Go, I go into two-paragraph detail about my sole interest at a taping of the fourth-to-final episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, that sole interest being director Gary Halvorson. While the rest of the audience likely watched the actors, I watched Halvorson at his monitors, watching the scene, seeing how it played, thinking of what might need to be improved in certain lines, and what emphasis should follow in the next scene. Between scenes, while the rest of the audience likely turned their attention to the warm-up comic or chatted with whoever they were with, I watched Halvorson conferring with the actors on how to play the scene. I specifically remember deep into the taping, the actors on the kitchen set way on the other side of the soundstage, and I could see only Brad Garrett's head moving around.

Directors have always interested me, more than actors, possibly even more than screenwriters. On a sitcom, the executive producers are king and the director is a hired hand, but the director is still in charge of making the taping successful, giving producers and writers what they want, and adding in a bit of his or her own flair. Soon enough, depending on the sitcom, they become a trusted member of the production, such as director Pamela Fryman is with How I Met Your Mother and director James Widdoes (who played fraternity president Robert Hoover in Animal House) is with Two and a Half Men. How do they stay organized? How much advice do they give during rehearsals? Do they keep things loose enough so that the actors feel relaxed enough before taping day, or do they have a set list that they want to follow, that they know how they want the "A" story and "B" story of the episode to be told? It's why in the third and fourth season DVD sets of That '70s Show (reviews here and here), the audio commentaries that series director David Trainer did solo were vastly disappointing because he offered no insight into his directing style, or a typical day on the set of the show, from what he has to do when he walks into work to when he leaves. Nothing.

Right now, I'm reviewing the fifth and sixth seasons, and the sixth season set has two audio commentaries from Trainer that I hope are better. Many of these sitcom directors probably think that no one would be interested in how they work and so they might do what Trainer does, in just recounting what happens in the episode as it's happening. They're dead wrong. There's a lot of value and wisdom to be had from their experiences. It's why I think preeminent sitcom director James Burrows should write a memoir, but knowing his style of directing (head down, walking the floor, listening to the dialogue and calling out "Cut!" in the middle of a scene, before the punchline is reached, if it's not working for him. He'll even kick a camera a few inches to get the right angle while he's walking), and how reserved he appears to be about his work, that's never going to happen. He seems like he prefers to let his work speak for itself. Disappointing for those like me interested in all kinds of directors, but understandable coming from him.

At that taping, I never stopped watching Halvorson. The actors would seem to have more work to do than him, but he has his fair share of work too. And it was interesting watching him watch the monitors and then call out "Cut!" and go to the actors. My biggest disappointment about the experience was that I wanted to get his autograph on the two-page program we were given for the episode, but those pages at Warner Bros. were real bitches. I didn't want Romano's autograph or Garrett's or anyone else in the cast. Just Halvorson's. Contrast that with today when audiences at The Big Bang Theory get posters and TV Guide issues and t-shirts and figurines regularly autographed. I think maybe it's the attitude of each production. Perhaps the Chuck Lorre productions are more open and more appreciative of having an audience, and not so dismissive.

Halvorson was involved with Everybody Loves Raymond long before the end, directing, for example, the two-part episode set in Italy. But he does have the distinction of directing not only that series finale, but also the series finale of Roseanne, which isn't saying much because of how that final season turned out, but it's still notable. I can't speak to whether he had the same rapport with the cast of Roseanne that he seemed to have with the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond, but whoever was in charge of choosing directors on Roseanne, be it her or one of the other executive producers, they must have liked Halvorson enough to ask him to direct the series finale. I always wondered about that process of choosing directors for sitcoms, what goes into it. I know that every pilot season, James Burrows gets a mountain of scripts to choose from, being that famous for his work, and that every pilot he directs has a much bigger chance of being ordered to series. He's rich enough now from his stakes in Cheers and Friends that he doesn't have to work anymore if he doesn't want to. He could retire, but he doesn't, and every pilot he chooses to direct is simply out of love for the work. The sitcom world is lucky to still have him, the Yoda to all of them.

It was different when we went to a taping of three episodes of the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament a few years ago. The director there is Kevin McCarthy who has directed well over 900 episodes from 1994 to today. He was sitting in the control room above the audience seating. I never saw him. He had no need to go to the stage, because he had John Lauderdale, the stage manager, to relay instructions as necessary. When done right, there's little editing needed on Jeopardy!, though I could be wrong. But as I saw it, McCarthy kept track of the cameras and commanded when to cut to whichever camera, thereby doing the editing while taping the episode. It seems likely because operation of the game board is heavily regimented, and Michele Lee Hampton, who is the operator, has to work quickly and efficiently so that the clues are seen right away.

I read in an interview that Corwin did that he watches every episode three times in editing to get everything the way he and the producers want it. There's a lot more shots involved in Wheel of Fortune it seems, and on the official website, there's a video interview to be found with him when the show taped in Las Vegas in which he says that at home, in the studio, he's in a control room, but on location, he's in a mobile unit parked near the theater, calling out camera switches to the technical director sitting next to him.

This brings me to later today, what I hoped to see, but probably won't, based on Corwin's insight. Mom, Dad, Meridith and I are going to American Idol's final broadcast in Las Vegas, the second live show here, in which the remaining guys will be competing. It's in the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage, and we've never been to an American Idol taping before. Even though the Santa Clarita Valley is merely 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, "merely" is a misnomer. If you want to go to Downtown Disney in Anaheim, or IKEA in Burbank, or drive through Beverly Hills, or go to Ventura Harbor Village in Ventura, you have to make a day of it. You have to leave early enough in the day so you at least have a few hours where you want to be, and don't expect to get back to Santa Clarita until after dark.

We couldn't go to a regular taping of American Idol at CBS Television City anyway, since it was always the middle of the week. The school day ended at 3:10 p.m. at La Mesa, where Dad worked, but he usually wouldn't be out of work until 3:30 or 3:40. Far too late to get there, and it wouldn't have been worth the trip anyway, not after that treatment at Everybody Loves Raymond. That's not to say that the audience coordinators at Idol would have been as short with those who had come to see the show, but in Hollywood, you can never be sure of such a thing. In Hollywood, hope is for the weak.

(We did enter various contests to try to win tickets to go to the season finales, but never won.)

This time, it's local, the first time American Idol has been in Las Vegas, I think for the past three weeks now, an attempt to goose the ratings, which have been way below what they used to be. Only 13+ million watched last week's episodes, though we'll see if the first live show gives an uptick in the ratings. I should think that with ratings being like that, the production would be grateful for anyone watching the show, not to mention all that they're doing to switch around how it used to be, first with these shows here in my home, but also with that SuperVote that allows you to vote 50 times at once for one contestant or spread out your votes for different contestants. Maybe because of this, the audience coordinators will be friendlier than how I've seen them in the past. Not just the pages at Everybody Loves Raymond, but it felt a little like we all were a hassle at Jeopardy!. Mom said that it was interesting to see how it was done, but if she was ever to go to a taping of Wheel of Fortune, her favorite game show, it would not be at Sony Pictures Studios. The Jeopardy! set looks much smaller in person than it does on TV, and she doesn't want to be surprised by that at Wheel of Fortune. So if Wheel of Fortune comes back to Las Vegas (the last time they were here, we weren't), we'll do everything we possibly can to get tickets because it'll be in an entirely different setting and nothing about the show would be ruined for Mom since we'll be here at home for it.

Mind you, the printout we have for American Idol only guarantees us access to the line to wait to get in. We might not even get in. But I'm not sure if that's even possible because with how low the ratings are, and the fact that it's midweek during a typically slow time of the tourist season (not to mention that residents are working, and those residents who might have been able to come are those who probably just got off work and are dead tired and want to go home to sleep), means that we may very well get in. I've never watched a full season of Idol. I've sat through many episodes, but I can't tell you anything of what happened. I only know about Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry and Ace Young and Justin Guarini because they're Meridith's favorites.

I don't mind waiting in line and then filing into the Beatles Love theater and then sitting through a two-hour live broadcast, because I'm curious about what goes on during the commercials, and what the judges do during performances and during commercials, such as it was with last night's episode when Nicki Minaj had to run to her dressing room to get something and was eager to get offstage before they even cut to commercial. I've read taping reports of past episodes out of curiosity, but I want to see it all for myself. I do wonder if there are camera rehearsals for the audience to sit through before the live broadcast, and that would seem likely because they'd need to gauge the audience, see what angles they want, and whatever else they have to do.

I know that Idol has been directed since 2011 by Gregg Gelfand, and I wonder, if there are camera rehearsals, if he'll be on stage conferring with whoever he needs to in order to be sure that he gets what he needs for the live broadcast. I hope it'll be like that, the same way it was when I watched Gary Halvorson at work. I know that Gelfand will not be in the theater during the live broadcast, but in that mobile unit outside the Mirage, maybe in that parking lot in the back where the early voting trailer was that we went to to vote early in the presidential election last year (in salute to the Mirage being the first hotel-casino we went to the first time we were in Las Vegas in 2007), directing the show from there. I'm curious about how it all works, how it sounds differently compared to watching it on TV, and just all the little things that go into making it happen. Even though I don't care about Idol, I'm interested in the inner workings of any production. I wonder what it takes to make this one work. I hope we get in for that reason.

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