“My Handiest Trick is to Watch as Many Previous Episodes as You Can — With the Sound Off”: Mary Lou Belli on Directing NCIS: New Orleans
I’ve written elsewhere about my admiration for the filmmaking on NCIS: New Orleans, a procedural that channels the spirit of Rio Bravo-era Howard Hawks to combine laid-back charm and camaraderie with kinetic, expertly choreographed action sequences. Under the guidance of producing director James Hayman, whose “Aftershocks” episode from season three is a clinic in Hitchcockian suspense, NCIS: New Orleans has assembled one of the best rotating companies of directors in episodic television: James Whitmore, Jr., Stacey K. Black, Rob Greenlea, and Bethany Rooney are just some of the superb helmers who have done fine work on the series over the course of its three seasons. I interviewed Rooney for this column a couple of years ago as she was preparing the second edition of her book Directors Tell the Story for publication; that volume stands alongside Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Alexander Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking as one of the best books on directing written by a practitioner of the craft.
Directors Tell the Story was co-authored by Mary Lou Belli, a filmmaker of immense range and talent who never met a genre she didn’t like and couldn’t tackle. Her resume includes everything from sitcoms and melodramas to detective series and teen shows, and she’s another one of NCIS: New Orleans’ go-to directors. The past few years have been incredibly productive ones for Belli: in addition to her excellent work on NCIS: New Orleans she’s directed standout episodes of the deliriously enjoyable Hollywood saga Famous in Love and the groundbreaking female-driven baseball drama Pitch, and in between directing assignments she works as a teacher, mentor and author. (In addition to Directors Tell the Story she has co-written books on acting and television comedy.) Her “Slay the Dragon” episode from NCIS: New Orleans showcases Belli’s chops as a top-notch action filmmaker who’s as adept at shaping performances as she is at ratcheting up suspense and bringing out the humor in her material in a breezy, unaffected manner. On the occasion of the release of NCIS: New Orleans Season Three on DVD, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Belli about her work on that show and others.
Filmmaker: NCIS: New Orleans seems to me to be an unusually challenging show in that it’s strongly dependent on both character-driven scenes and action sequences — you have to be equally adept at performance and visually-oriented set pieces. When you get a script for the show, what are your first steps in terms of thinking about how you’re going to approach it?
Mary Lou Belli: The first thing I do with any script, including NCIS: New Orleans, is read it with fresh eyes and with a focus on being the best audience I can be for that story. I take no notes, and I try to do it with no interruptions. The second read is more like a brainstorming session; I don’t edit or second-guess myself. My notes to myself are just that — notes to myself, free of judgment from me or anyone else. To be honest, I toss away a lot of those ideas, but they come from the most creative part of me, the one who is free from responsibility, time constraints and budgets. It’s when I start to digest it, take notes, think of the big picture — i.e. what is this story about, why is it important, are there any running or recurring themes. But I also jot down on post-its any smaller questions I may have for the episode’s writer, any fun visuals that may pop into my mind — really, anything that I may want to revisit on the next read…my dissecting read.
That next read is actually my favorite because while I do it I construct my “director’s diagram.” This is an invaluable tool taught to me by Bethany Rooney. She actually showed me her first one on the set of a show called South Of Nowhere where I was invited to shadow her by our mutual friend, writer/producer Nancylee Myatt. (Subsequently, Nancylee, Bethany and I have all worked on NCIS New Orleans… never at the same time.) When I do the director’s diagram, I am deconstructing the story into the A, B, and C (or more) stories. At that time, I’m considering whose story is this, what is the structure of this particular episode, what are my big scenes, are they highly dramatic and full of tension, full of action, or full of emotion. Within that diagram I examine act-in and act-outs and I’m already trying to think of interesting visuals for them, especially the signature “phoofs” (freeze frames with postproduction colorization). And since every episode revolves around a crime, I also do a timeline for myself of the clues that the audience knows and in what order they get these clues… I think of it as a sort of partnership or agreement with my audience, that if they want to play the “whodunit” game, I’ve given them all the pieces they need to solve the crime along with the NCIS agents. I can only begin to think about the stunts, because so many of them are location-dependent.
Filmmaker: What kinds of conversations do you have with the producing director in pre-production and throughout the shoot?
Belli: On my first episode of NCIS: New Orleans, I remember Jim Hayman, the show’s wonderfully supportive and funny director/producer, saying to me, “Go big or go home.” And that’s the essence of what producing directors do… they instruct, guide, and guard the signature of the show while at the same time giving the individual directors the creative space to add on. It’s so easy on NCIS New Orleans to put your complete trust in Jim Hayman, because it is so clear that he has your back and will steer you through any and all relationships effortlessly. He’s very active during prep and present but never imposing during shooting. He is also very collaborative when giving script notes, which we discuss together.
Before I arrive in New Orleans, Jim, production designer Victoria Paul, and location managers Evan Eastham and David Thornsberry and their team have pre-scouted and/or looked at photos of possible locations. This is ridiculously helpful since this team knows New Orleans (and whether a location is film production friendly) better than I could with any amount of research. Also, Joseph Zolfo, the producer, and Eric Hays, the UPM, are invaluable at this stage. I love to be in a room with them all when they are pitching a place they have filmed before, or scouted before, or is next to where they have scouted before, or passed in the van on the way to where they may have eaten when they scouted before… the visual clues are so anecdotal and specific, it could be a front door, a person on the street, the owner of the establishment, a reminder that parking was impossible… the last always leads to us not even visiting that location.
During production, Jim shows up to “open the set.” So he is there for the first rehearsal of the day and there for any other questions I have having to do with the day’s work. If he’s scouting or in meetings for the next show, he will not stick around, but normally, if we are at the studio, and he is upstairs, he’ll come down for any and all blocking rehearsals. He has his finger on the pulse and will always feel free to suggest — he has a million great ideas — but I never feel dictated to.
Filmmaker: Do you find that the collaboration with the producing director is similar on other shows, or does it vary from series to series?
Belli: I’ve been on other shows where the producing director is equally helpful in different ways. Some are fantastic forecasters of what to expect on set from your crew and cast, others encourage you to interact with the writers personally and put your mark on that particular episode. Others are less hands-on but may be involved with post production and overseeing the cuts after your director’s cut is completed. And then there are shows like Famous in Love or American Woman, neither of which has a producing director but have a show runner who is also a director, I. Marlene King, and a Co-Exec (line) producer, Lisa Cochran-Neilan, both of whom are so savvy and director-friendly that having a producing director would seem redundant. There are consistencies among the wonderful producing directors with whom I have worked… they are there to make your life easier, support you and guide you. One for whom I worked even prepped me for my meeting with the studio and network to make sure I hit the right talking points before I even had the job — talk about good looking out!
Filmmaker: How do you acclimate yourself to the visual style of each individual show, especially when there isn’t a showrunner as thorough as Hayman to introduce you to it?
Belli: It’s about homework, and it differs with established shows versus shows that are not yet on the air. With established shows, my handiest trick is to watch as many previous episodes as you can — with the sound off. Also, I always ask the producing director or show runner what episodes they like. On NCIS New Orleans, Jim Hayman has a visual tone meeting and links to particular scenes and episodes that you will discuss together to make sure you deliver the show the network is expecting.
Filmmaker: Do you ever feel constrained by those parameters?
Belli: No, I love it. I think of myself as a person who is given this complicated puzzle, and I love the challenge of assembling it. It’s like I’m asked to make a pizza and deliver it — and I get to choose the toppings as long as I deliver a pizza and not hot wings.
Filmmaker: Are there certain visual principles that NCIS: New Orleans adheres to in terms of when and how to move the camera, when to use hand-held, how much to rely on close-ups, emphasizing wide vs. long lenses, etc.? Do you ever find, here or on other shows, that your own instincts for a scene are at odds with the “rules” of the show?
Belli: I’ve had the good fortune to have not felt at odds with the look of any show… I always think if I do, I haven’t done my homework, which is to ask myself, “If they want it to look this way, why do they want it to look this way?” NCIS: New Orleans swirls with Steadicam masters and then is augmented by hand-held coverage from the operators on rolling stools, and occasionally we use a dolly. The shooting style and speed at which a director can get everything she needs is facilitated by the brilliant and collaborative cinematographer, Gordon Lonsdale, who’s also one of the recurring directors on the show. He lights to facilitate the signature 360-degree shots and then the subsequent coverage needs little or no tweaking. So once you block a scene and he lights it, you move like lightning through the shooting process, often cross shooting and getting as many as three pieces of coverage at the same time. And I’m always looking for every time a piece of coverage can become another piece of coverage, i.e., a close-up with a character crossing behind or standing next to the next character who is speaking so that a simple pan can have one close up fall into the next one. Of course, you have to think ahead and make sure the blocking supports these choices and that the characters’ objectives place them next to each other.
Filmmaker: You began in 30-minute comedies like Charles in Charge and The Hughleys, which seem like things that would require a very different skill set from a procedural like NCIS: New Orleans. Was it challenging — both from a creative point of view and from a professional one (in terms of overcoming people’s assumptions about you) — to transition from one style of filmmaking to another?
Belli: Working with actors and knowing their language is similar in both arenas, but so many of the other skills are vastly different. I facilitated the transition from multi-camera sitcom, which is more like staging a play that is seen by an audience, in two ways. I studied and I shadowed generous, established TV directors and learned by observing. I would haul my butt to the AFI library and read a book (often suggested by the librarian) about something I didn’t know well enough. Or I hired a script supervisor with tons of experience to fill in my gaps.
I often say doing hour-long episodic is ten times harder and 100 percent more rewarding. The challenging part was getting folks in the industry to think of me as something other than a sitcom director. I tried to make that easier for them by going back to my roots and directing some plays; I always feel when a credible source (outside of your agent who benefits when you get work) says you’re good – i.e. a good play review in Variety – it’s easier for a person to hire you. I’ve also had actors who requested me and directors vouch for my skill set. Those endorsements are priceless — thank you, Scott Bakula and Jim Hayman!
Filmmaker: Take me through the casting process of guest stars. On NCIS: New Orleans, for example, are you able to audition actors in a room, or is it done largely online these days?
Belli: Although I prefer to do all casting in the room in order to give the actors adjustments and interact with them personally, geography gets in the way…. So, on NCIS: New Orleans, I cast the Los Angeles actors online. I do call casting before I leave Los Angeles and offer to come to any session they might be having… but that’s usually too far ahead for Susan Bluestein and Jason Kennedy, our wonderful, actor-friendly casting directors, so that has never yet worked out. But they send me amazing choices once I reach New Orleans, and Jim Hayman and I do attend local casting in New Orleans in person.
Filmmaker: How does your work as an actor inform your approach as a director?
Belli: The simple answer is empathy. I was an actor. I know how hard it is to be one and to do the work. I also think they are incredibly brave because the characters they play are through their personal lens, so they are choosing to share their innermost thoughts, fears, attributes and flaws with strangers. So my job is to, first, know their process, then, protect them and their process. Luckily, my training covered many different schools of acting (Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Richard Boleslavsky, Actors Studio), so I have an extensive acting vocabulary. If a director hasn’t studied acting, I strongly urge them to.
The most common mistake a director can make with actors is talking too much. Once I suggest something to an actor, I watch for that spark that says to me that they know what they want to try next. Let them do that ASAP. Any further explanation after they say, “OK” or “Got it,” will dissipate that actor’s creative spark. I also try to give them as much information as possible. Before we block a scene in the squad room on NCIS: New Orleans, I show the actors the computer graphics or videos generated during prep so that they know how specifically their dialogue will tie into what’s on the computer screens. Also, on any show, a director should trust that an actor knows more about his or her character than she does… and relish that insight.
Filmmaker: In terms of planning your shots, do you come to set with a strong idea of how you’re going to block a scene and then try to convey that to the actors, or do you let them do what comes naturally and then conform your shots to that blocking?
Belli: I always come into a scene with a plan of how to block it, and that plan is hopefully well informed, (i.e., whose desk is whose?). And I never ask for a move that is not motivated. My experience has been that if you know the five Ws — Who is this character?, What does he want?, Why does he want it?, and When and Where is he? (as that relates to the scene) — an actor will move if he or she agrees with the given circumstances. And if they don’t you better be able to defend your rationale, and more important, seize that wonderful opportunity to figure out what specifically you disagree about, because that will only lead to more clarity about the character and the story going forward. And it is always give and take… directors are not dictators. They should be collaborative leaders who have done their homework and are willing to listen.
Filmmaker: Virtually all of the episodes of NCIS: New Orleans are shot by Gordon Lonsdale. Talk a little bit more about your collaboration with him. Have you worked on other shows that had alternating D.P.s? If so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each way of doing things?
Belli: It is always easier to shoot with alternating D.P.s, especially on a show that spends more time out (on location) then in (standing sets at the sound stage), because he or she is with you for your whole prep including location scouting. But Gordon Lonsdale makes it all work. He’s always available while I’m prepping for a specific question, he knows the standing sets inside and out, he’s been there since the show began, and he comes on the tech scout. When Gordon is directing or gone for the next episode’s tech scout the gaffer, Paul Olinde, moves up to D.P.
Filmmaker: What are the differences between coming on to a show like NCIS: New Orleans, which is part of a popular franchise with a clearly defined style, and working on a show like Famous in Love or Pitch, where it’s the show’s first season and you may not have even gotten a chance to see any episodes?
Belli: Famous in Love and Pitch as well as The Quad were three new shows that I began in their first season. Luckily, all of them had their own iconic look due in no small part to their pilot directors. And I did study all of the pilots before I directed. From the first continuous shot of Ginny’s walk from her hotel room to her car in Pitch, director Paris Barclay set the look of the show. And since Major League Baseball was also part of the show, Paris augmented the standard MLB shooting positions for games with the inside shots on the field where the viewers get inside Ginny and Mike’s perspective. He communicated his vision both verbally and visually and then, very supportively and with his witty sense of humor, told me to “Make him look good!”
On Famous in Love, I watched the pilot, read Rebecca Serle’s novels, and figured out from director Miguel Arteta’s glamorous vision of Hollywood that they were selling the fantasy. And Larry Reibman, the DP who shot the pilot, was also my DP on the episode I directed. On The Quad, I not only watched the pilot, but I watched director Rob Hardy’s film Stomp the Yard, since the episode I got involved a “battle of the bands.” I got the feel of the show before starting and then during prep I had a visual tone meeting with Rob, who was very specific about the look and rhythm of the show. Also Felicia D. Henderson, who created the show with Rob, was very specific in how she wanted the scenes to begin… she wanted very small but key visuals teasing the audience before the viewers would know where they were and what the scene was about.
As for working with the actors in the first season of a show — it could be my favorite thing about directing episodic TV. It’s here that I feel I can make a difference in the genesis of a character, and every decision the actor makes can help define their character arc over the future seasons. It is when I can instill great working habits and help build confidence with the less experienced actors, and hopefully contribute to the complexity of the character for seasoned performers. For example, one of my happiest moments on Pitch was when Kylie Bunbury disagreed with me on a direction I gave her. Now, it was evident that Kylie was a star of immense talent when I saw the pilot. And she was collaborative, and prepared, and fun every moment on set. But that happy moment for me was when I knew she had taken complete ownership of who her character was and where and how she wanted that character to behave and grow. It reminded me of one of my teachers who always said to me, “my job is to make you independent of me.”
Filmmaker: I know that you are active with the DGA and that you mentor young directors. What kind of programs do you participate in, and do you feel that this kind of work makes you a better director? How much of directing do you feel can actually be taught and how much comes down to taste and instinct?
Belli: Right now, I serve as the co-chair of the Women’s Steering Committee at the DGA. Also there, I have helped with instruction on the First Time Directors workshop and the Director Development Initiative. I have also taught workshops at AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, the Alliance of Women Directors, and I help Bethany Rooney with the fantastic curriculum she designed for the Warner Bros. Directing Workshop. I do panels whenever time allows and I’m also on the faculty of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Teaching and particularly co-authoring both editions of Directors Tell the Story has definitely made me a better director. I was told early on, if you can teach it, you know how to do it better. That is so true. Also I just love breaking down the skill sets needed to direct into manageable exercises that build sequentially on each other. So to answer this last question, I think you can be taught to be better director. But the secret ingredient to being a leader is something that you have to feel and take responsibility for…and if you are missing that, you’ll never succeed. And as far as taste and instinct, I think that comes from being well read, studying TV and films, and living a full life… and that’s the perk of being a director. Every moment you are awake can contribute to your success.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.