Ian Spanier

Elodie Keene shooting her thesis film at UCLA in 1973.

Courtesy Elodie Keene

Keene with Dylan Walsh on the set of Nip/Tuck’s “Rose and Raven Rosenberg” episode

Courtesy Elodie Keene

Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in the “Full Marital Jacket” episode of L.A. Law


Kyra Sedgwick, Corey Reynolds and Elya Baskin in The Closer

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Fill 1
November 04, 2021
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interviews:  Elodie Keene

From the editing room to the director's chair, Elodie Keene has made inroads for women.

Stephen J. Abramson

When she was growing up in Northern California, Elodie Keene decided that she wanted a career in entertainment, and by her early 30s she'd really broken in — she landed an editing job on the ABC show Hart to Hart, starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. but that was 1982, when "Some people were not at all happy with the idea of a 'girl' being assigned this task," as Keene recalls.

Despite that resistance, she persevered and hit her stride editing notable MTM series St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, which brought about her first Emmy win, for editing, in 1988. That was followed in 1989 by a second Emmy nomination for editing NBC's television movie Roe vs. Wade. Ultimately, she would collect five Emmy nominations and three wins, as an editor and producer.

But it was as a director that Keene ultimately found her home. While editing L.A. Law, she seized an opportunity to produce and direct the show. The transition, she says, worked for her: "You're taking a person who is accustomed to being alone in a dark room and asking them to dance down a road with 100 people and get them on your side and get them to see what you're seeing — it's a whole different skill set. Not every editor is designed to do that."

She was able to bridge that gap, and won two producing Emmys as a result, when L.A. Law was named outstanding drama series in 1990 and 1991. She went on to direct more than 100 episodes of television, including Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue, The Closer with Kyra Sedgwick, Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck and Glee, The Fosters and the 2019 reboot of Dynasty, among many others.

The secret to Keene's directing success? Not surprising, considering her career path: "Make the editor your friend," she says. "By talking to them and giving them the benefit of your storytelling, you can make the show that you want."

Keene is married to Bruce Fortune, a retired sound effects supervisor for feature films; they have two children. She was interviewed in April 2018 by Stephen J. Abramson for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/ Interviews.

Q: When you were younger, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?

A: I changed that idea quite regularly. When I went to college at Berkeley, I changed my major every quarter. I dropped out. I worked and went to Europe, and I made this list of things that I was good at and things I was interested in. As I'm looking at this list, I swear that a giant white light came down onto my head and said, "You're supposed to go into the film business." It felt like the strongest message I'd ever gotten.

So when I finished bumming around Europe, I applied to UCLA. Film School. It took me a year to get in. I was on a mission from that point forward.

Q: Were you drawn to any one aspect of the business?

A: Everybody goes into film school thinking they're going to be a director. But I wasn't comfortable saying, "I am a director." And even though the first time I tried to edit something I was terrified — so terrified that I went out to the sculpture garden and sobbed — editing was the first thing I'd ever done in my life that made time disappear. I figured anything that interested me that much was worth pursuing.

Q: So you decided that editing was the path you'd follow?

A: I did, because I was afraid I would never get an opportunity to direct. So I decided to be an editor, and I was good at it. I was pretty much okay with that. Except there was a little engine that drove inside me all the time.

Q: How did you break into editing for Spelling-Goldberg Productions?

A: Norman Lloyd — who'd been a producer and actor for Alfred Hitchcock — brought this series called Tales of the Unexpected. They allowed me to cut one episode, and some people were not at all happy with the idea of a 'girl' being assigned this task. But Lloyd loved it. So I cut that show for two years.

Sean Penn's dad, Leo Penn, was the director at Tales, and he found out that an editor wanted to take a vacation from the Spelling-Goldberg shows. So he pitched me to them like the Second Coming — unbeknownst to me. They hired me to cut one episode of Hart to Hart and then asked me to stay.

I cut some T.J. Hooker, Fantasy Island, and at that point Norman was cast on St. Elsewhere. The whole Spelling group, they were terrific, but I was hungry for something else. I asked Norman if I could get an interview with the St. Elsewhere people, and they hired me. I cut for them for two years. Across the hall were the Hill Street Blues people, and eventually I went to work for them on L.A. Law.

Q: That was MTM Enterprises. How did that world compare to Spelling-Goldberg?

A: At MTM, with Bruce Paltrow [producer of St. Elsewhere], it could not have been more different. They were really smart, really sarcastic, really judgmental. I loved the show and I wanted to succeed. But they were tough, and they were boys. At this time, there just weren't a lot of women working [behind the camera]. It was hard for them to embrace women into their world, and it was very hard for those of us breaking in. It was a tough two years for me.

Q: What about the shooting style?

A: It was amazing. It was handheld. I had cut the show for a year before I realized that this one cameraman was handholding almost the whole show.

When you're an editor, unless you really force the issue, you don't go down to the stage a lot. So I cut for years without realizing how people were accomplishing it.

Q: Did you move from St. Elsewhere to L.A. Law?

A: Well, I got married and had my first child, and for a while I assisted on movies-of-the-week and did things that would allow me to be at home. When I had to go back to work, I was worried — I had been out for a year and a half. So I started making calls around town. I called Joe Ann Fogle, who had cut the pilot of L.A. Law. She said I should call Greg Hoblit [a producer-director on the series] because they were having trouble making their schedules.

So I called the line producer, Ellen Pressman. She said, "Could you be hereThursday at three o'clock?" I wasn't thinking I would go back quite that quickly, but I went for the interview, and they gave me one episode to cut, no guarantee. It went well. So they hired me. I was there from the eighth show of the first year, in one capacity or another, until the end of the show, eight years later.

Q: You won your first Emmy for editing in 1988, for the L.A. Law episode "Full Marital Jacket." What was that like?

A: L.A. Law was a hit from the beginning. That episode was from the second year, the one in which Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker [as attorneys Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz] get married. It had light and it danced. I thought there was a very good chance that I would win.

But when the Emmys came around, I had just had my 10-and-a-half-pound son. I had been fitted for my dress and shoes, but by the time we got to the event, my feet had shrunk, so my shoes were hanging off me like Minnie Mouse's. The L.A. Law costume designer was also nominated, and she started pulling stuff out of her purse for me. We rubber-banded my shoes onto my feet so that I wouldn't stumble as I walked up, should I win. And indeed, I won. I hobbled up there and it was fantastic.

Q: In season four you became a producer. Did your Emmy win help make that happen?

A: I think it was the spark. By this point, I was overseeing the editing. I went to lunch one day with [producer] Rick Wallace — we were really good friends — and eventually he said, "Every guy and his brother, including the drivers, comes into my office and asks me to direct an episode. Why don't you?"

I said there was another editor who was really chomping at the bit to direct. Besides, it had been 15 years since I'd shot anything, I was good at what I was doing, and I was kind of afraid to do that. He said, "You have to decide whether you want to expand your life, because you're the person I would take a flyer on." I was like, "Can I have a recording of this conversation, please?" This was not to be believed.

Q: And what was the result?

A: We agreed that I would direct two episodes the following year. And then about three months later, at the wrap party, Rick said, "I have an alternate proposal: I want you to help me produce the show."

And I asked, "What does that do to the directing deal?"

He said, "Well, you'd be kind of busy...." I told him, "I won't do it without that, because the only reason I would produce is to direct." So we compromised and agreed that I would direct one episode that following year and I would produce the whole year. I also said, "Look, I get it that you want help in the editing room. I'll do that. But to have this work, I need to spend time on the stage. That's what I don't know."

So the following year, Michael Robin — now mogul emeritus — and I both became producers; he was 23 and I was 40. We traded off shows, and each of us spent our entire episode on the stage with the director. At the end of the year, I directed my first episode.

They empowered me. By the time I finished L.A. Law, I'd shot 20 episodes. They really gave me the opportunity to become a director.

Q: You won two more Emmys as a producer on the show. How did those compare to your earlier Emmy for editing?

A: The editing Emmy is truly close to my heart. The other two were fun — we all went up on stage together. We had worked our tails off all year, and to get that acknowledgment was spectacular.

I have to admit, though, that until recently I was a little embarrassed by having all these Emmys. Then one day I ran into a woman at a quilt show, and I was doing my weird apology about my Emmys. She slapped me and said, "Don't do that! Do you know how great this is, what you've done?" She made me think about being proud of what I've accomplished.

Q: As you began directing more often, did it become easier for other women to direct?

A: Joe Ann Fogle got her directorial opportunity because the experiment had worked with me.

MTM started hiring from within. But not all of them were successes. You're taking a person accustomed to being alone in a dark room and asking them to dance down a road with 100 people and get them on your side and get them to see what you're seeing — it's a whole different skill set. Not every editor is designed to do that.

Recently I was talking with another editor-turned-director, and they were saying that they never really let go of the editing room. I did let go. I am comfortable on the stage. I can't wait to get there. It was a positive transition for me. I felt like this is what I was supposed to be doing.

Q: After L.A. Law, ER came along. How did that happen?

A: I got booked by [producer-director] Rod Holcomb. ER was a brand-new show. When I looked at the pilot I was like, "Oh my God; how am I going to do this?"

L.A. Law was big and stodgy. It took forever to light; it took forever to work out the camera moves. And now I had to go onto this show that used Steadicam 50 to 60 percent of the time. To get out there in that first year was quite a challenge. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to translate what I had learned — that I would only be able to do L.A. Law. But we had pretty much encountered everything in the course of those eight years, and I did have the tools to move on.

Q: Was Nip/Tuck your first series with Ryan Murphy?

A: No. I had shot Ryan's teen show, Popular. Ryan is unique. On Nip/Tuck he wanted to do things that blew my mind. It was so far away from the normal, over-the-shoulder storytelling. It was outrageous and hysterical. He was like a new language for me.

Q: The blow-your-mind aspect — did that include content?

A: Yes, the visuals and the content. The situations he had me deal with were mind-blowing. On every episode, a part of my brain was going, "I don't think my mother thought that this is what I was going to be doing at this point in my life." I am eternally grateful to have those years on Nip/Tuck.

Q: On The Closer, Kyra Sedgwick was the strong female lead. What was the significance of that casting?

A: Kyra is a goddamn genius. And I believe that Kyra and that show are responsible for the current fashion of bringing women with maturity to head up shows.

On L.A. Law, we would occasionally have a great part for a woman of a certain age. Women would come out of the woodwork to audition for that part, because there was no work for them. Aaron Spelling was the first guy who realized what a wealth [of female talent] he had available. He did it differently than we all might, but he employed women.

And then there was a long drought of significant work for 40-year-old women. Angela Lansbury had that kind of stature on Murder, She Wrote, but that was an anomaly.

Kyra had not done television before The Closer, and the first year she was exhausted. She hadn't learned — like we all have to learn — how to marshal your energy. She got far more sophisticated about that. This is the case with directors, whether they understand it or not — their job is to give actors room and protect them and let them do what they are better at than anybody else.

Q: On Pretty Little Liars, the character Emily (Shay Mitchell) had an on-screen kiss with her girlfriend in an episode you directed, "To Kill a Mocking Girl."

A: Yes, and let's talk about timing. On L.A. Law, I shot a kiss between two women [played by Michele Greene and Amanda Donohoe]. That was the first lesbian kiss ever [on U.S. primetime network television]. It was a big deal. At parties, women would come up to me and say, "Do you know what you've done for our community?" I didn't. I knew it was momentous, because it was hard to achieve. But I didn't realize that it would have such a remarkable rippling effect.

By the time I got to Pretty Little Liars, it was a whole different culture. It didn't seem as difficult to me.

Q: What do you like about directing?

A: It uses all my tools — it engages me on all levels. When I was young, I considered a lot of occupations, including becoming a psychologist. In directing, if you can get an actor to trust you and to step out on a ledge and do something that surprises you and surprises them, that is the ultimate form of therapy. The gratification is instantaneous.

I also love coming up with something that interests everybody, that makes the grips pay attention. They put their phones down and they watch. And sometimes, when I'm trying to work something out, one of the crew will come up and ask me if it's okay if they make a suggestion, because they'd noticed something. The fact that I have engaged that collection of people and got them to dance down this road with me — that is a satisfying experience. If that has happened, I go home feeling good.

Q: What advice have you received that's helped you as a director?

A: I got a lot of good advice from Rick Wallace. For one, if you think there's something wrong, stop and fix it. Also, don't listen to what they're saying behind you. Everybody behind you has an agenda. They want to go home to their kids. They think they should be a director. If you listen, it will paralyze you, and your job is to keep going forward, no matter what.

My advice would be to make the editor your friend. By empowering them, talking to them, giving them the benefit of your storytelling, you can make the show that you want. And editors work really hard in those little rooms! They deserve credit.

And do the job you're given as well as you possibly can — better than anybody expects you to. If you do that, you will have made somebody else's life easier because you took on part of their responsibility. They will help you and push you into the next circle. My experience and my career are really a set of interlocking circles — I go around and around, and something happens and pulls me into the next one.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2021

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