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Bethany Rooney Talks TV Directing And Women In The Industry

Ryan David McRee |
July 13, 2015 | 12:43 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

TV Director Bethany Rooney (Twitter).
TV Director Bethany Rooney (Twitter).

“Action.” “Cut.” There are a great deal of people outside the film and television industries who don’t know a whole lot about the job of a director other than uttering those two familiar words. We’ve all seen them work, their invisible hand guiding the visual storytelling and performance of a show or a movie, but how do they do it? What exactly is in the job description of a director? And most importantly for those who are familiar with the art of directing and want to do it, how does one become a professional, working director in the industry? 

Neon Tommy sat down with Bethany Rooney, a talented and extremely prolific director with diverse credits in television on shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Parenthood,” “90210,” “One Tree Hill,” and many more, to discuss the role of a television director, how she got her start in the business and how the many young women who aspire to accomplish what she has can also get their foot in the door.

Neon Tommy: In addition to your very prolific and eclectic directing career thus far, I know you’re also a teacher.

Bethany Rooney: Yes.

NT: And you’ve taught at a lot of universities and I know you give a Warner Bros. workshop… What value do you see in teaching? What does that extra role mean to you?

BR: That’s a big question! Well here’s the thing. What they teach in film school can’t be the way we do it in real life, because real life is different. And it’s such a high-stakes business. The money is so huge, the pressure is so huge, that the studios and networks haven’t been letting younger people in. And in about ten years or so, when myself and others like me who came into the business at the same time will start to phase out, there will be a gap in the pipeline. There aren’t television directors to take our place.

NT: Because they haven’t been working? 

BR: And they don’t know really how to do it, when they do get in. I mean, everybody has a learning curve, we all had to start that way. But I feel like if I can teach emerging directors how to do the job and have respect for the craft and focus mainly on working with actors, because I think that’s the primary responsibility of a director, then when they get their opportunities, they’ll do it well and achieve.

NT: Were there any experiences you had or background you came in with that informed your ability to work with actors and gave you that particular emphasis?

BR: I took an acting class for five years. My teacher was Gordon Hunt, who was Helen Hunt’s father, and really well-known director in his own right. The thing is, you can have a great shot but if the performances aren’t good your film is going to stink. There’s no way around it. It’s about 60-40. 60 percent performance and 40 percent visual, using the camera. So the most important thing for the director is focusing on the performance because no one else is doing that. There’s a director of photography, there are camera operators, there are people to light the set, there are people who take care of or supervise the shot once you tell them what shot you have designed. But after that, there’s no one else to mold performance except the director. So a lot of what I teach is… Well, picture this: you’re the director, you’ve said action, you say cut, and the scene isn’t very good. How do you fix it? What do you do? What do you say to the actors so they’ll understand what it is you need to do? That can be taught.

NT: And knowing the vocabulary with which to communicate with them.

BR: Yes.

NT: Looking over your credits I know that you’ve worked primarily on television shows or TV movies. What has, in your experience, been the primary difference between the two?

BR: Well when you walk into a TV movie there’s nothing in place. So as the director of that you’re hiring actors, you’re really involved in production design, and primarily TV movies are shot in practical locations and not on sets. And you’re picking up the responsibility of improving every visual element in the film. In episodic television, a lot of that stuff is already in place, so then the episodic television director’s job becomes fitting into that world and still doing a wonderful, creative job, but maintaining the paradigms that the show has set up, which is very difficult.

NT: When coming onto a new show, is it a challenge coming into an environment where everyone knows each other as someone totally new?

BR: Yeah. You get pretty good at learning names and assessing where the power is.

NT: Is that different on every set?

BR: People in different positions have standard responsibilities, but there are people who are influential by their opinion. On some shows, it’s the key grip. If the grip thinks I’m a good director, then that will disseminate through and through and once he’s given his approval, things will be good. I have to figure out who that is. Sometimes it’s the lead actor, sometimes it’s the executive producer who has the finance title, and sometimes it’s the Craft service person! You just don’t know. So you have to assess their power structure.

NT: It is an odd trade, being a television director, isn’t it? Just jumping from show to show.

BR: It is, but you know what’s cool about it? I come in, I do my work in the best possible way and I go out, and I’m sort of skating along the top in terms of the political nature of the environment And I meet so many wonderful people and get to work with so many wonderful actors.

NT: Are there any actors you’ve had a particularly memorable time working with?

BR: Well, something recent was reuniting with Mark Harmon because he and I worked together in the 1980s on a show called St. Elsewhere. He was an actor and I was the Associate Producer and I started directing there. And we were good buddies then. And thirty years goes by, and here we are again, in the same positions, director and actor, but we’ve both come so far and learned so much and gotten older. And that’s nice, to renew our friendship and working relationships.

NT: Earlier, you said you’ve taken five years of acting classes. Was that in the interest of becoming an actor or directing actors?

BR: Directing.

NT: When did you know you wanted to be a director?

BR: Well, I started in the business as a secretary, and I typed all the scripts and answered phones and that kind of thing, and as you do that you start looking around and saying, “Where would I fit best?” So it was pretty early on that I thought, “Huh. I could do that.” And my first directing job was in 1985 on “St. Elsewhere.” I was 28 years old. And what was great was that I was Associate Producer on “St. Elsewhere,” so I got to supervise post-production. And that’s a great place to learn how to be a director, because I saw every frame of every shot a zillion times. I saw how it was cut together, I saw how the director shot it well or did not. And how you can manipulate the film to do that if the director didn’t. So that’s the best education you can get if you can combine it with learning how to direct actors.

NT: Have you ever had any interest in going into feature filmmaking or theatre as a director?

BR: Theatre no, just because I feel like that’s a whole other world, an entirely different craft. Features, you know, everybody is supposed to want that, but the thing with features is that you only get to do one every two to three years. I get to direct ten or eleven hours of filming every single year. I get to do what I love to do, and millions of people see it. Why should I want something different?

NT: This is always an awful question, but what are your favorite elements of being a director?

BR: There’s no better feeling than when you’re on set and watching a rehearsal or watching a tape and the actor does something that you hadn’t foreseen, and that gives you, the director, an idea and you say “Hey, oh my gosh, what if you did this? What if you added a little this to what you just did?” and they do that and it becomes just a little bit better and then you have this creative collaboration that’s so exciting, and it gives you a real creative high. I love that.

NT: So you’re the co-chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, and I was wondering what that organization is doing regarding the issues of underrepresentation in Hollywood and what your take is on the lack of female directors in both television and Hollywood?

BR: I have three parts of my life in which I’m working to try to raise the profile of emerging women directors. One is teaching the Warner Bros. directing workshop, where I teach emerging men of color and women the craft and help them get jobs. Two, I’m the co-chair on the Women’s Steering Committee, where there’s been a lot of discussion lately about how few women get to do what I’ve been blessed to do all these years. In the 2013-2014 season in episodic television, just 14% of the shows were directed by women. And I’m also co-chair of the DGA Diversity task force, which has been formed to help bring public attention to this disparity in gender and minority hiring within the business itself. So those are the three areas I’m doing my best to try to help.

NT: Based on your teaching experiences, do you think there are more and more young women interested in going into the field than there have been before?

BR: I suppose so, mainly because that door seems to be opening a little bit.

NT: Inch by inch.

BR: Inch by inch is right. It’s very difficult to get in. As I said, the stakes are so high. No one wants to hand over their baby, their show, to a less experienced person. Well it’s a Catch-22: how do you get experience if you don’t have experience? So we’re trying to help by having DGA members mentor emerging directors, to help teach them and bring them along, and stand up for them, recommend them to the people who can hire them. And if necessary I’ll be there to look over their shoulder and help.

NT: What advice do you have for young women who are trying to emerge in the industry? 

BR: I have two pieces of advice. One—shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. Because it’s only by doing that you can learn the craft. And it’s so easy today because you can shoot stuff on your phone. The second piece of advice is get a mentor, because you’re going to need a hand-up. You can’t do it by yourself. But you’ve just got to keep doing it until you get some entry-level position, and be a good sport about it, and get coffee with a smile and learn what you can learn. Let people know and ask for their advice and one day someone will want to help you.

NT: On one final note, I was wondering if you could talk about your book a bit. I know you’re coming out with a second edition soon; what inspired you to write it in the first place?

BR: What inspired me to write it was going around from show to show, where someone from the cast or crew would say to me, “You would not believe what the last director did.” I got a lot of bad reports about directors. And I took that a little personally, because they lump us all into one category. So I thought, “What can I do about it?” I could stew about it, I could complain about it, or I can help. I can write down everything I know, and I enlisted the help and support of Mary Lou Belli who co-wrote it with me, because she had written two textbooks before that and understood what publishers were looking for. So now we’re adding to it, additional information we didn’t put in before, the experiences of other “insiders” about their perspective on the business. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to be a director.

Bethany’s book is entitled “Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing,” and will soon be coming out with a second edition.

Reach Theater Editor Ryan David McRee here.



 

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