October 09, 2020
In The Mix

Respect on the Set

A veteran director reflects on strategies that led to success.

Margy Rochlin

Summers spent advising newbie directors at the Sundance Directors Lab could have inspired Ken Kwapis's new book, But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons from a Life Behind the Camera.

But behind the work he calls "part memoir–part tutorial" are also his many seasons on the set, directing pilots and plenty of episodes for series like The Office, The Larry Sanders Show, The Bernie Mac Show and #blackAF. His career also includes slipping a shot-by-shot re-creation of the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest into his feature film debut, Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird.

Kwapis has a lot to impart. "Young directors want to know things like how to create an atmosphere in which people feel acknowledged and respected. You'd think, 'Well, how hard could that be?' But in fact, it's not easy," he says, speaking by phone in his garage, now a pandemic office (and still home to his son's drum kit). "That's not part of a film-school curriculum."

After directing film and TV for 38 years, how did you recall so many on-set details?

I keep all the scripts I've directed and all the call-sheet schedules. I'd pull out the call sheet from a given day, and it's amazing how just looking at the order of the scenes suddenly conjures up the memories so vividly. It's that classic thing of, I could almost smell the cup of coffee I had that morning.

Were you concerned about diluting your methods by giving them away? For example, instead of hollering "Action!" you prefer a gentle "Go ahead…" because it "blurs the line between the scene and real life."

I'm not worried that people will know all my tricks. The goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel like they can be expressive, loose and free. That's not really a trick. It's just a matter of putting out a certain kind of energy.

What about the part where you explain that you don't like sitting in video village because TV executives' texts are a distraction?

Well, okay. That is giving away an important thing. [Laughs] But it occurred to me many years ago that the power center of the set shouldn't be at video monitors. It needs to be right where the action is taking place, at camera. Now, every scene and every shot is different.

But when you're directing fairly intimate scenes, when you're really focused on performance, you shouldn't sit at a monitor, you should be right next to those actors. The actors will feel the difference.

You discovered Phyllis Smith, who played Phyllis on The Office, when she was a casting associate for the series' pilot auditions. What about her said "future star"?

I found myself so taken by her sincerity, how she carried herself in such a non-showy way. So much of our task with The Office was trying to populate this paper company with people who felt real. Nothing against the actors who were auditioning while Phyllis read the off-camera lines, but there was something beautifully effortless about how she read.

You've directed superstars, novices and wide-mouthed fuzzy puppets. Share a tip for navigating every sort of relationship.

There are always going to be people who are incredibly difficult. They will be difficult in any situation. Someone who's making your life needlessly difficult on the set will be just as irritating in line at Trader Joe's. Part of your job as a director is to keep reminding yourself that none of it is about you.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020

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