Michael Schultz

Michael Schultz

The CW
Michael Schultz

Michael Schultz directs Greata Onieogou and Shawn Stockman of Boy II Men in All American.

Ser Baffo/ The CW
Fill 1
Fill 1
May 30, 2023
In The Mix

Direct Effect with Michael Schultz

"Things are getting better," says longtime director Michael Schultz, now in his sixth decade of bringing Black stories to the screen.

Malcolm Venable

Long before director Michael Schultz came to helm a dozen (and counting!) episodes of The CW's high-school drama All American, now in its fifth season, he directed another coming-of-age hit about a group of Black high school kids: the revered 1975 comedy Cooley High.

He began his directorial journey in theater, first with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1968, which led to adapting Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a TV movie with Ruby Dee and Blythe Danner in 1972. Schultz went on, however, to make his biggest mark in Hollywood.

Over five decades, he has directed enduring films (Car Wash , Krush Groove) and episodes of beloved television series including L.A. Law, Felicity, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Gilmore Girls and black-ish.

Generations of viewers and filmmakers have been affected by his work, and he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1991. With no plans to slow down anytime soon, Schultz is likely to continue influencing generations more. Emmy contributor Malcolm Venable caught up with him to talk about All American, the changes he's seen over his storied career and his hopes for the future.

Why did you get involved with All American?

I really loved the idea of telling the story of two different cultures: the hood in the Crenshaw area, and Beverly Hills. I know both of those worlds very well. I thought, "What a great platform to have this conversation about the similarities and differences between cultures." And I thought using school as a way to enter that conversation was really interesting.

You've seen a couple of generations of Black youth and the different challenges and circumstances they face. Do you think the problems the kids on All American deal with are unique to their generation, or is it the same stuff happening over and over again?

That's an interesting question. I think through history and time, the basic problems are the same. The differences are the means and media of communication. And with those changes come a different set of problems. The whole problem of technology didn't exist when I was growing up. The things kids are dealing with today are very different, but the way human beings handle those problems is basically the same.

Speaking of technology, how, in a broad sense, have advancements in technology affected the way you do your job?

The most dramatic impact that technological advances have had on the work I do in television is digital editing. Now you can get from the camera to the editors at a speed that has been sextupled. I see the work I've done much faster. That allows me and the editor to do a lot of fine-tuning that we would not have had time to do three or four years ago. When I was directing movies back in the day, everything was on film. I would sit behind the editor as he cut a piece of film from one end to another, put it in a bin and taped it together, and then we'd look at it in the Moviola. I used to sit there dying of boredom, saying there ought to be a way that we can edit as fast as I can shoot. And we're getting close to that now.

What do actors or younger directors ask your advice on? Is there something that comes up frequently?

I do have aspiring directors shadow me on almost every show. I take them through the whole process, the way I think, and let them do some of the blocking and work out problems, and then we talk about more efficient ways to get the job done. I enjoy imparting whatever knowledge I've picked up along the way — like to focus on the actor. Because if the material is good, it's the actor who delivers. In television especially, you can come up with all kinds of cool shots and angles to display your wares as an artiste. But if it takes too much time, nobody cares. What I try to impart to people is: find the ways to work efficiently. Don't wear the actors out with multiple takes. If they know what they're doing, they should be able to do it in one take.

I'm impressed with the cast of All American. It's a group of young actors who are so focused and committed and really know what they're doing. They come equipped and [have an] ability to go deep emotionally.

So many people quit this business and get disillusioned because it's so tough. Why have you stayed in it?

I enjoy solving problems. I enjoy the creative challenge of telling stories in a way that keeps the audience glued to the screen. I find if you bring a certain amount of self-assuredness and joy to the process, people want to work with you. I like working with people who like to work and who treat people well. And I'm at an age where life is too short to work with people who give everybody a hard time.

You're one of a few well-known Black directors working in television. Why are there so few? And are things getting better?

Things are getting better, actually. There was a period where you would see the ebb and flow of the industry, and there would be a lot of us. And then, you know, the stories would disappear, the crews would disappear and another wave of Black creativity would come about. But thanks to more Black executives being in those boardrooms where the real decisions are being made, there are more champions of Black talent on all sides of the camera than there were ten years ago. That's very heartening.

A lot of Black filmmakers consider their work a form of activism or feel duty-bound to make their work more resonant. Do you feel that way — that your work needs to be a form of activism or protest?

That was the whole reason for me wanting to tell Black stories. Before I even knew how to get into the business, I was sitting in the back of a little theater in Madison, Wisconsin, in my sophomore year [at the University of Wisconsin–Madison], not knowing what I was going to do with my life and watching all these great storytellers — Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman. We have so many stories that need to be told so that we can bridge this false divide that exists between us.

My agenda has always been to bring to the screen characters who might be Black in skin tone but are so three-dimensional that people of any skin tone could walk in their shoes and live their lives and feel what they felt. I think it's a very important thing that we as storytellers do.

In what ways do you think All American fits into that ambition?

Well, in All American the audience has a chance to walk in the shoes of a Black man [Billy Baker, played by Taye Diggs] who's trying to make his way in the world as a coach of young Black men. They also walk in the shoes of Spencer's very talented gay friend — living in her world and seeing the heartbreak that exists. [Actress-rapper Bre-Z plays Tamia Cooper, the gay best friend of Spencer James, played by Daniel Ezra.] All American has put characters on the screen that people hadn't seen before.

What is your hope for the next generation of directors and creators?

My hope is that eventually there will be a solid enough core of talented people on every level to have a truly Black film structure that isn't always dependent on [existing networks]. There are certain bottlenecks through which any of the ideas that young filmmakers come up with have to go through. Let's have a conduit that is not restricted by how other people see who we are.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2023, under the title, "Direct Effect."

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