“Sprinkling a Little ‘Stacey’ On It”: Director Stacey K. Black on How to Excel at Directing Episodic Television
Directing episodic television can be one of the most challenging forms of filmmaking. A tricky balancing act is required by having to simultaneously meet the expectations of the audience, the demands of the network and showrunner, and the desires and opinions of actors and crew, who have been on the show for years — and all while providing a distinctive enough point of view so as to make one’s self essential to the process (and thus get asked back to direct more episodes). Few directors have managed to navigate the intersection between personal expression and mass entertainment as well as Stacey K. Black, who in the past few years has evolved into one of the finest filmmakers in any medium. A supreme visual stylist whose work is distinguished by an expressive use of color, dynamic yet unobtrusive camera movement and framing, and a deft sense of realism and humor in terms of her direction of actors, Black has an unerring sense of how to integrate her voice with the preexisting styles in which she works. She’s particularly strong when it comes to action, which she stages with precision and energy — her work on shows like NCIS: New Orleans and MacGyver feels both spontaneous and purposeful, delivering the kinds of kinetic thrills one used to find on the big screen in the work of Richard Donner and John Badham. I recently sat down with Black (who is also a composer, musician, and award-winning web series director) to find out how she approaches action, where the real power resides on a TV set, and why a background in the hair department is great preparation for directing actors.
Filmmaker: One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is that I think you’ve really mastered the key task in TV directing, which is to assimilate the voice of each show without sacrificing your own directorial personality. When you get a job on a show, what are your first steps in terms of coming up with a visual approach?
Stacey K. Black: Well, the first step is to watch every available episode (if it’s not a first year show), twice, sometimes three times, to study the shooting style already established on the series, and to learn the relationships between characters. For instance, on NCIS: New Orleans the camera is almost always in motion. There’s not much in the way of a static camera on that show, but of course using that at a precise moment is powerful. So when I do my blocking and shotlisting, I think of how to move the actors and the camera to fit the behavior of the characters, the story that is being told, and the visual style already in place by those who designed the show. Then I look for certain spots in the script where I can push the envelope a bit, and add in something a little different. But not too different. It’s a balancing act, for sure. I like to think of it as “Sprinkling a Little Stacey On It.”
Filmmaker: I imagine that some shows match your own sensibility better than others. What’s your method of finding your way in to a series that, either in terms of content or the way it’s shot, is a significant departure from what you’re interested in or how you would do things?
Black: As a director hired to translate an episode of a series from script to screen which has been created by someone else, how I would do things on say, my own show, isn’t a consideration. I have to fit myself into the showrunner’s vision. And again, find spots in the script where I can sprinkle on a little something of my own, that doesn’t veer too far off from his or her initial vision. When it comes to content, the goal for me is to direct as many different types of stories and genres as possible, so my toolbox will be full, and I’ll end up a well-rounded filmmaker. In each script I’m hired to direct, I always find things I love. Sometimes I have to excavate to find those lovable nuggets… but they’re always there.
Filmmaker: Do you find that there’s a lot of variety in the way different shows are set up? In other words, does the balance of power between the show runner, the star, the producing director, etc., shift from series to series?
Black: Fantastic question, and YES! Each show is different and has its own set of built in rules. But one thing remains the same from series to series, the showrunner is the boss. Ultimately, you must please the showrunner. And the producing director. And the actors. Oh, and the studio and network. Who am I forgetting? Oh yeah – me! I have to make sure that I love the episode I direct as well! I can’t let all of that other responsibility muddy up the waters, otherwise the episode loses point of view, and that is a career killer. It takes a deft hand, but, being respectful of the script, the professionals and craftspersons on set, the process, and contributing everything I can to deliver the best possible episode is the only way to survive and deliver the goods.
Many shows have a producing director who is there to guide and support the guest directors, and the person who holds that position is invaluable. James Hayman on NCIS: New Orleans is an immense source of support, great ideas, and guidance. He has earned the respect of cast and crew alike, and he runs that show like one big happy family. So there’s really not a struggle there. We’re happy to follow his lead. He’s a true leader, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been fortunate in that I have so far been hired on mostly kind, supportive shows. Michael Robin and James Duff set the bar high for me on The Closer and Major Crimes, which kept a significant amount of people together for 13 years. If you think about it, that’s like going from kindergarten through graduation together. It’s a family. And like in any family, you have to please Mom and Dad. And again, it’s a pleasure to do so when they are so damn cool.
Filmmaker: What are your first steps when you come on to a show you haven’t directed before? How do you gain the trust and camaraderie of a cast and crew that’s been working together for months or even years when you’re the guest director?
Black: I do my homework. And then I do it again. And again. I know the show, I know the characters, the shooting style, everything that has happened with the characters up to the jumping off point of my script. I immerse myself in the world before I even arrive for day one of prep. And then I prep my ass off, and then shoot every day with a definite plan.
I worked on crews for many years, and I witnessed a lot of directors who would show up NOT having done the homework. Not knowing the characters. Not having a plan. It was so disrespectful of everyone’s time, skills and talents, I couldn’t understand how those people had careers. Fortunately, I think the day of that type of director is close to being over. And now that I’m in this rarified position, where I get to contribute my own specific talents to a creation where people give their all, every day, I show up ready, and I don’t waste the cast or crew’s time. They all show up and give 120% every day, so if the director doesn’t, well that’s a big problem. Again, respect.
Filmmaker: How extensively do you predesign your shots in prep? Do you shot list or storyboard, or do you remain open and make those choices on the day with the cinematographer?
Black: It’s a combo platter. I have specific blocking and shot lists for every scene, which I usually go over with the cinematographer during prep. But as a rule, I don’t share my shot lists, because production is fluid, and I need the freedom to change my mind on the day if I see something that’s going to work better. Or if the cinematographer has a brilliant idea, or an actor. Or anyone. I’ll listen to great ideas from anyone who has them. It’s a collaboration, and the sought after result is a fantastic episode.
Storyboards are good for big action sequences, but I usually use them to lock my own vision into my brain during prep, and rarely look at them again while we’re shooting. It would be very easy to get stuck in shooting the storyboards and totally miss something amazing due to being rigid. So many things happen while shooting, and you want to be open and receptive to take full advantage of those magic moments!
Filmmaker: How is directing actors on a series different from a movie? Does the fact that they have owned these characters for so long alter the way that you have to direct them?
Black: I think regular actors on long-running series have a wonderful grasp of who their characters are, and don’t need as much direction in that regard. But each episode’s story is different, and as in real life, characters have relationships with other characters, and those relationships have ups and downs. So if I can help the actors navigate those bumpy roads, then yay! I find communicating with actors to be the best part of directing. And as long as my ideas aren’t completely wonky, I find that most are receptive. Sometimes they’ll have a different idea for how something should be played, and if it’s better for the show, then great. If it’s not, then I need to quickly figure out how to convince them that they will be happier with the performance if they do it my way. It’s tricky! There’s no set “way.” You need to be genuine and communicate with each actor and not try to manipulate them. Dude, they will smell that a mile away and you’ll be done before you start.
Filmmaker: Do you ever run into conflicts between what different key people — the showrunner, star, and/or producing director — want, and if so how do you deal with that?
Black: If there is a power struggle between say a showrunner and an actor, that’s a tricky spot for a director to be in. I’m a guest in their home. But, I also have a tight schedule to keep. The production train keeps chugging along. So… if I sense danger coming, I will pre-empt as best I can and hope like hell the train isn’t derailed.
Filmmaker: I want to get into specifics in terms of your action direction. On the last NCIS: New Orleans you directed there were some extremely elaborate stunts and chases. How do you design those?
Black: Like I design any scene. I have to watch the movie in my head, and then figure out what shots I need to create that scene. Then make sure they are going to flow well from one scene to the next. And yeah, wow, did we have some amazing stunt pieces on “The Last Mile” episode of NCIS: New Orleans. The opening car chase and jump was the most fun I’ve had directing to date. Gordon Lonsdale is the cinematographer on that show, and he is spectacular. Working on these big stunt pieces with him and stunt coordinator Johnny Arthur was a blast.
Filmmaker: Do you ever run into a case where something like that doesn’t go as planned, and how do you adapt?
Black: Yes, things do go wrong sometimes, and you have to quickly edit in your head and figure out what you need to shoot to get everything you need to make the scene work. On “The Last Mile,” we had a problem with the last big stunt piece, when Driscoll’s Cadillac gets T-boned by the truck. Something didn’t go as planned in the first take, and we didn’t get the crash the way we wanted it. So Gordon and I edited in our heads, and realized we could shoot the moment of impact separately, and it would cut. And it did. Like butter.
The biggest challenge is always schedule, schedule, schedule. We shot that episode in New Orleans in the winter, so we only had 10 hours of daylight each day, and a major portion of that script was daylight exteriors. We shot the big highway shootout, and the T-bone of Driscoll’s caddy, on the same day. Within 10 hours of daylight! Again, singing the praises of Gordon, by the time we got to the last shot of Pride, Sebastian, Isler and Percy witnessing that Driscoll was dead in the car, it was pretty much dark. But you’d never know by looking at the episode. Gordon and gaffer Paulie Olinde performed some camera voodoo with exposure and stops, and voila! Daylight.
Filmmaker: Your background is in hair and makeup, and you’re also a musician. How do those skills influence your approach to directing?
Black: It’s all storytelling, if you think about it. Even hairstyling. My approach was to always style the hair, as if the character was styling the hair. So how did that character wake up this morning? What are her plans for the day? Is she planning on getting a visit from the big boss who intimidates her? No? Okay then, let’s do her hair in a way that resembles a little girl. Vulnerable. It would add to the character’s discomfort. I love making characters uncomfortable. I think that is delicious for the audience. And making music — storytelling. Writing songs — stories set to music. Directing — storytelling. I love stories. I love to read, watch, sing, write, and absorb stories as many ways as I can.
Filmmaker: How much did you learn while doing hair and makeup that you apply to your job now?
Black: I spent many many years talking to actors about their characters. Their wants, desires, likes, dislikes. I listened when actors would talk about directors, and what they loved about them — and what they didn’t love. I soaked it up. I use it all. All the time.
Filmmaker: What are the greatest pleasures of being an episodic director? What are the frustrations and limitations?
Black: I am playing in a giant sandbox, with incredibly talented professionals. We get to build intricate sandcastles together. Then smash them apart, and build again. We get to tell stories together. I could not be happier.
Frustrations and limitations? Hmmm… I get frustrated with myself, usually. At the end of a shoot, I look back and think of things I missed — which we all do, but still — and I can’t help but feel I could have done a better job, so I guess that’s a good thing. I should keep that edge, so I never become complacent.
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.