A Storyteller's Journey
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Lesli Linka Glatter : A Storyteller's Journey
It's possible that nobody was more surprised to hear Lesli Linka Glatter's name called as the winner of the 2010 Director's Guild of America's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series...than Lesli. She had been nominated for her work on "Mad Men," for the episode, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency." The other nominees for Outstanding Directorial Achievement included two other directors who had been nominated for their own episodes of "Mad Men."
"I assumed that we would all cancel each other out!" she laughs.
Lesli's award for for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series from the Directors Guild of America was presented by Chris Waltz, winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Photo courtesy of Joe Coomber/DGA
A common thread through these series is a very distinctive visual style, and in many cases, unusually elevated dialog that strongly influences the show's rhythm. The question is, where does an individual director find her own way in environments like these, working on series produced by such strong hands as David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, John Wells, Aaron Sorkin, and Amy Sherman-Palladino, among others?
While there may be visual rules on specific shows -- for example, no steadicam allowed on "Mad Men" -- Lesli says, "Make sure you understand what the theme is. You need to know what's on the surface and what's underneath. That's going to determine what the visual style is. Take those words and give them life in a visual way. It starts on the page. That's the beginning of everything. Hopefully, you get fantastic writing and directing together, and you have STORYTELLING."
We asked her about getting to choose scripts when working on a TV series, to which she quickly replied, "No, no, it doesn't work that way. I will get a call from 'Mad Men' or 'True Blood,' or 'The Good Wife' or whatever, that they would book me for episode 18. What kind of script you get is totally luck of the draw. You don't get to look at it and say, 'Uhhh, that's kind of nasty -- I'll pass.' No. You make the commitment. If you get a great script, wow, how fantastic, and if you get one that's not so great, the job is to make it better. You have to embrace that challenge.
"Not that I'm not going to take something blind. With people I know, whose work I respect, that's really exciting. For example, I'm about to direct an episode of 'The Good Wife.' I looked at the pilot and said 'This is really good. I love Juliana Margulies, who I worked with on 'ER.' The producers are fantastic. I'd love to be part of it!'
"But I definitely want to see the show I'm being asked to direct, and see that I have a particular affinity with it, or am interested in that subject matter and think I could embrace it, and do a good job for them. If I don't feel that I relate to the story, or the characters, or the genre, I will pass on it. They need to get someone in there who really connects with it."
Damian Lewis as Nicholas "Nick" Brody and Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn in 2012's Homeland Season 2, Episode 5, directed by Lesli. Photo Credit: Kent Smith/ SHOWTIME
TELEVISION AND MOVIES
"There are stories that I feel really committed to tell in both mediums. Television reaches huge numbers of people, and you get to deal with an ongoing story and ongoing characters. Because it comes into your home, it's very direct. With film, you know there are certain subject matters that you want on a big screen. Sometimes you want to complete a story in two hours."
She also observes that stereotypes about the visual style dictated by the two media are no longer true. While the idea has been that television is best suited to close-ups and movies are best suited to vistas, Lesli doesn't agree. "Close-ups are very powerful on the big screen," she says. "I'm very interested in spaces and faces -- I love the juxtaposition. I think the environment that people function in is critically important to who they are and how they move through the world, so to me, the bigger the better."
Lines are blurring between the visual styles of television and film at the same time as, and for the same reasons that, the lines between TV and movie storytelling are blurring. "For a while, it was very distinctive, and there were strong differences in the people who worked in one or the other. I would say 20 years ago, if you directed TV, you probably weren't directing films. Now, TV directors are doing film, film directors are doing TV, and everybody wants to do pilots. If there's a good story, whether it's being made for film or television, people want to do it."
TALES OF MEETING AND PARTING
"When I finally moved back to America, a friend told me about AFI's Directing Workshop for Women. I didn't know anything about film, didn't have any connection with the film business at all, but as I read about it, I thought, 'Well, that could be interesting.' I was lucky enough to get in -- and of course, NOW I panicked, because I didn't know anything about film!
"One great thing about dance is that you can't cheat. Your leg goes up in the air or it doesn't. You have to go from A to B to C to D because you can't skip anything. I didn't know anything about film, but I knew I'd better learn -- so I worked on, like, ten of the other women's films, taking all kinds of jobs, so I would learn the process.
"And when it was time to do my own film through the Directing Workshop for Women, I did everything I was told NOT to do if I ever wanted a job!" she laughs. "The film is called 'Tales of Meeting and Parting,' and is set in Hong Kong during World War II. It has flashback, narration, it is a period piece, has subtitles, is three-quarters in Japanese, and has one white person in it -- not commercial in any way. But it was my mentor's stories, and I really felt that I had to tell them. Once I did, I realized that I loved it, and that, well, this is my path."
STORIES TO BE TOLD
Among the over 100 hours that Lesli has directed, "There are definitely certain themes that I keep coming back to," she says, adding with a laugh, "Maybe I'll continue to explore them until I work them all out!
"For what's next in the TV world, I had a pilot picked up that I loved doing; I loved the people I worked with. The subject matter was wonderful and wicked, and it's called 'Pretty Little Liars.' It's from Warner Bros. -- Warner Horizon Television -- for ABC Family. It's kind of different than what ABC Family has previously done, pushing the edge of their envelope, and I'm really happy with it. Next I'm going to do 'The Good Wife,' then 'True Blood,' then back to 'Mad Men.'
"I'm also in development on various film projects that are slowly creeping forward, including one that's very personal, that has to do with something that happened to me growing up. I also have a period piece that I'm absolutely passionate about.
Lesli has directed over 100 episodes of TV for shows including Weeds, ER, The West Wing, and, more recently, True Blood and Homeland, winner of the 2012 Emmy Award for Best Drama. Above, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, also awarded Emmys® in 2012 for their work on Homeland.
"It all started for me with the Directing Workshop for Women. It really is an extraordinary program. I love the whole AFI family, and the fact that people who graduate are really committed to going back.
Title image photo credits: Lie to Me: Season 2, Episode 21 Darkness and Light
Homeland Season 2, Episode 5, directed by Lesli. Photo Credit: Kent Smith/ SHOWTIME
True Blood Sunset (2012) Photo with Stephen Moyer, Deborah Ann Woll. Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO