“I Have Four Days to Edit My Director’s Cut”: Bethany Rooney on Directing TV
I first became aware of director Bethany Rooney’s work via her episodes of two of the most visually arresting series on network television, Arrow and The Originals. On each of these series – specifically, the “State vs Queen” episode of Arrow and the “When the Levee Breaks” episode of The Originals – Rooney exhibited a sophisticated sense of composition, lighting, and color surpassed only by her deft hand with actors. As I dug further into Rooney’s oeuvre while catching up on several other series this fall, I learned that those two shows were the rule, not the exception — performers regularly give their finest performances under Rooney’s direction. This goes not only for youth-oriented genre programs like Arrow and The Originals but dramas (Nashville, Scandal, The Fosters), action series (NCIS), and character-driven mysteries that blend comedy, adventure, and romance (Castle). Over the course of her thirty-year career, there’s virtually no genre Rooney hasn’t mastered and no subject she’s incapable of putting her own spin on; indeed, one of her most impressive gifts is her ability to seamlessly merge her personal aesthetic with the larger demands of whatever show she happens to be directing at any given moment. The more of Rooney’s output I watched and admired, the more I wanted to talk with her and ask about balancing the disparate aesthetic, logistical, and commercial demands of television directing. Luckily, I was able to sit down with her in Los Angeles when she returned home after shooting her 215th hour of TV, an episode of The Mysteries of Laura. Not surprisingly given the fact that Rooney is the co-author (with Mary Lou Belli) of a superb directing textbook, Directors Tell the Story (which will be available in a greatly expanded and updated edition next year), she proved to be a passionate, articulate commentator on her own process.
Filmmaker: One of the things I admire about your career is the range of genres and styles. I’m curious what your starting point is when you get a piece of material. Do you approach comedy differently from drama, for example, or action different from romance, or are you coming at all of it from a similar place?
Bethany Rooney: The starting point for everything is, “What is the story?” I can easily adapt my work to the story I’m telling, both stylistically and in terms of intent – that’s my job, to embrace that 1000 percent. So if I come into a show thinking, “This is not such a great show, I don’t know if I can do a good job here,” by the time I’m done shooting I love the show – I think it’s the greatest show ever made. Maybe that’s naïve on my part, or maybe I’m not making enough critical judgments, but on the other hand that’s my job as a freelance director: to tell the best version of the story that show wants me to tell. I really go into it with an open mind and an open heart, and a great respect for everyone from the showrunner to the writer of my particular episode to the line producer and everybody else who’s there week after week trying to do good work, because nobody is trying to make something bad.
Filmmaker: That speaks to something that strikes me as very challenging, which is that on a typical TV show you’re working with a crew that has been together for weeks or months or even years, and you’re the newcomer but you’re also the person in charge. How do you form relationships with people in that situation, where you need to instantly command their respect and trust?
Rooney: It’s very tricky. Being the person with seven days of prep who is then expected to be in charge by day one of shooting requires great psychologist skills. What I’ve learned is to not come crashing in making a lot of pronouncements; instead, I sit back and I listen. I see who has opinions and who doesn’t, and how the show runs. Who really has the power vs. whose title says they have the power. Once I’ve taken all that in, by day two or three of prep I can start expressing my opinions and mold everything toward the way I feel the story should be told.
Filmmaker: How often are you offered a show that you’ve never seen, and when that happens how do you familiarize yourself with it?
Rooney: Obviously I watch some episodes, but what I really prefer is to read scripts, because then the story lives in my imagination. So let’s say I’m coming in to direct episode nine, and they have four episodes complete and the rest are in script form. I’ll watch the four, and I’ll read the scripts leading up to mine, and then I’m ready to go. If I’m coming in during season five of a show, I’ll probably just watch a couple of episodes and then read the three scripts that come before mine.
Filmmaker: What’s your role as far as the script is concerned? If you see problems in the writing, how do you deal with that?
Rooney: By the time I come on board, I’m not there to make major changes because we’re seven days away from shooting and this is a script that’s been approved by the studio and the showrunner and the network. If I see difficulties, I can express that with a proposed pitch to solve what I see as the problems, but we can’t do a major overhaul. Often it’s logistical: asking the question of whether, instead of shooting a scene at a location where we already have a full day of material to shoot, can we move the scene to another location – explaining to everyone involved why that would be a good idea. I can also express if something isn’t clear, because I’m a fresh set of eyes and that’s a valuable thing; if the intent in a particular piece of action isn’t clear, or if I don’t understand the motivation for a character’s behavior, I can say that, especially if it’s something the writer can fix in an efficient way – and a speedy way, because again, we only have seven days of prep.
Filmmaker: What are your initial steps when you get a script?
Rooney: The first read is hugely important, because at that moment I’m a stand-in for the audience, seeing the show for the first time. Everything I do after that is intended to recreate the emotions I felt reading the script for the first time. On day one the department heads and I have a concept meeting, walk sets and start to look for locations. We talk about how the show will look and how the story will be told in very broad strokes. The process of looking for locations could take a day or many days depending on how complicated they are, and then we start other things like casting and department head meetings in which I’m saying what I like and don’t like – “I like red but not black,” that kind of thing, always keeping in mind that I’m not there to upset the apple cart. I’m there to make the best possible episode of this particular show.
Filmmaker: That seems like another tricky balance, in that you’re being hired for your specific point of view but have to remain faithful to the visual language that has already been established.
Rooney: It comes more naturally than you might think, especially when you’ve been doing it for a while like I have. I’m never going to override what has previously been established, but an episode can’t help but become something that’s expressed through my point of view, because I’m the one making the decisions. All of those decisions are going through the filter of my brain and my experiences and how I think and what I feel, so the show is going to have my stamp on it no matter what.
Filmmaker: At what point do you start planning your shots?
Rooney: Somewhere around day three I start blocking and making a shot list, so that by the time we start shooting on my eighth day I’ve blocked and shot-listed the entire script. That not only helps me figure out the best way to tell the story I’m telling, but if in blocking I discover that I need a certain prop that isn’t in the script, I have time to tell the prop master. The last thing I do in pre-production is create an outline of the script, which you might think would come first, but the priorities in prep are the things that need action – picking locations, casting, all those things I said earlier. So when I get to the end of prep I outline the script, which further helps me understand the story I’m telling and also helps me clearly see the themes and the different threads running throughout the script. It’s like the writer had the seed of an idea that blossomed into this big tree, and I’m going back to try to rediscover what the seed was. I have to fight through the layers to answer the question, “Why are we really telling this story?”
Filmmaker: When you’re doing that blocking and shot-listing, do you have access to the actors at all?
Rooney: No, at that point I’m just relying on my imagination, because they’re all off shooting another episode. Once we start shooting, I remain open to everyone’s ideas – if an actor comes up with something that doesn’t precisely match my preconceived blocking but it works better, or if the D.P. has a better idea, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I can’t be open to new ideas if I haven’t already built a platform to stand on. The better a psychologist you are and the more experience you have, the more likely it is that the scene will block exactly as you had planned it. But then there’s always that 5% of the time where a piece of magic will happen that I did not plan or foresee, and that’s actually one of the big joys.
Filmmaker: As far as the actors go, I would think that on television you’re working with a huge variety of backgrounds and approaches and levels of experience. How do you approach performance as an episodic television director?
Rooney: The essential thing is always the same – once again, it’s about asking what story we’re all telling. Then it’s about asking what each character hopes to achieve in a scene, and what’s their obstacle to achieving that. I have to know those things, but the way I convey them varies depending on my relationship with the actor. It could be straightforward, or it could be in a more jokey way. I’m a big hugger, so sometimes there are a lot of hugs and laughs, but sometimes actors aren’t interested in that and I have to adapt to who they are. I always want them to know that my approach comes from kindness and support for them – actors are so vulnerable, and I love and cherish them for that, so I’m never going to be mean. I’m not even going to be critical, really. I’m just going to work with them to get the most out of every scene. At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at quickly figuring out what an actor needs, because I come into contact with so many people. If you think about it, I do ten episodes of television a year, so that’s hundreds and hundreds of actors and crew people I’m working with. Your ability to understand people and work with them can’t help but get better the more you do that.
Filmmaker: What happens when different actors have different, incompatible approaches?
Rooney: One is always hopeful that if one actor likes to shoot their coverage first the other one doesn’t and that kind of thing, but when that isn’t the case there are overriding factors you have to consider. Who’s number one on the call sheet, and who generally carries scenes more strongly? They should be accommodated. Or, if it isn’t that kind of scene, the actor who has the bulk of the emotional work should be accommodated. Thirdly, it’s all about lighting – which way are we shooting, and let’s continue shooting that direction. But at the end of the day, sometimes you just ask – you say to an actor, “Is it okay if we shoot you first?” Sometimes they’ll say sure, and sometimes they’ll say, “I really need to warm up to this, can you do the other side first?” It’s a negotiation, like almost everything.
Filmmaker: That idea of letting the direction of the lighting dictate the order of your shots leads to something else I wanted to ask you about. It seems to me that in television you have less money and less time than in studio features, yet you’re expected to get the same results. A show like Arrow, for example, is competing with studio comic book movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the viewer doesn’t know or care that you had fewer resources than your big studio counterparts.
Rooney: It’s very difficult, especially in this day and age when everybody wants more for less. What you have to do is think about moments, because great moments are what people remember. My job is to identify moments that are iconic or important and make sure I execute those as effectively as possible, whether we’re talking about an action sequence or an intimate emotional scene, I want to find the biggest and best possible expression of that particular moment. If you have those moments, people are going to think it’s a good episode, and then you can spend a little less time on some of the less consequential scenes. It’s about allocating your resources to where they have the greatest emotional and dramatic impact.
Filmmaker: How important is the director of photography in helping you find those moments? Are you collaborating with him or her extensively in preproduction to discuss those things, or…?
Rooney: It depends. There has been a trend toward D.P.s alternating episodes, in which case you might get some prep time with a director of photography. If you’re on a show where one D.P. is shooting all the episodes, you might not really be working together until the first day of production, because while you’re prepping he’s shooting. (I say “he” because most of the directors of photography that I’ve worked with are men.) Ideally you’ll have the D.P. with you while you’re location scouting, because then he can talk about where the sun will be at the time of day you’re planning to shoot, and give his thoughts on the best way to approach the location or what types of special equipment we might need to order. That doesn’t always happen, and if the D.P. is shooting while I’m prepping I might try to pull him aside during lunch and say, “Can I show you some photographs of the location and talk about them with you?” Thankfully the process does seem to be evolving more toward the alternating D.P. model, which is always preferable.
Filmmaker: Leaving aside the issue of a show’s preexisting style, what’s your preferred way to shoot? Your best shows seem to rely less on quick cutting and more on a refined compositional style.
Rooney: I do prefer a more elegant way of shooting, where characters are tied together within the frame and it’s less about cutting from one close-up to another. The same goes for an insert – I’d rather tag an insert within the shot than cut to it – and it extends to POV shots. I like to establish what the character’s going to be looking at with the character still in the frame rather than just cutting to a clean POV. The longer the takes and the more choreography you can do within the frame the better, in my opinion – but then I’ll get on a show where the style is cut-cut-cut-cut, and I have to adapt to that.
Filmmaker: I happen to agree with you. Philosophically, I just prefer a more expressive, elegant frame to what Gordon Willis used to call “dump truck” directing, where you shoot a bunch of close-ups from a bunch of different angles and let it get sorted out in the editing room. Where do you suppose you acquired that taste? Did you always want to be a director?
Rooney: No, I started in the business as a secretary to Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker on a show called The White Shadow. When they created St. Elsewhere they promoted me to associate producer. That meant I supervised all the post-production, which taught me how to tell a story visually, because I saw every frame of every episode a hundred times. I saw if the director told the story properly or did not. If they didn’t, I learned ways of manipulating the film to correct it, and my visual sense evolved out of that without me even realizing it. Bruce was a wonderful mentor who taught me to tell the story first and foremost, but to do it with the time and money allotted – to make choices that are creative while also making your day. To be a great television director you need to know how to tell the story with your performances and your camera, but almost as important is the ability to be a good leader – you can’t do it by yourself, so you have to pull people together. In my mind, being a good leader means being inclusive and kind but also firm and decisive – and that’s just dealing with the cast and crew on set. You also have to put your psychologist hat on when you’re working with the producers and showrunners and the people from the network, which is a whole other side of the process.
Filmmaker: And I would imagine those people are weighing in when you get to post-production.
Rooney: I have four days to edit my director’s cut, though that can be speeded up if we’re up against a tight airdate. Once I turn that in, there are all kinds of factors that can affect the final episode that have nothing to do with me and which I might not even be aware of – the studio might take out a fantastic shot I designed and keep something less wonderful because it sets up a plot development that’s coming four episodes down the line. Sometimes shows are written long and therefore delivered long, and then when I watch the episode that airs I’m really surprised by what they cut and what they kept.