A Storyteller's Journey
CreativeCOW presents A Storyteller's Journey -- TV & Movie Appreciation Feature

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

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

Lesli's first nomination for a DGA award was actually in 1990, for one of the four episodes she directed of another landmark series, "Twin Peaks." That was near the beginning of a director's journey that, in addition to features, has to date has spanned over 80 TV episodes in virtually every genre, including such highly-regarded series as "ER," "House," "The West Wing," "Gilmore Girls," and scores more.

Twin Peaks

"Twin Peaks," whose creator, David Lynch, is also an AFI graduate.

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?

Mad Men
For her work on 'Mad Men,' Lesli won the Director's Guild of America's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
"I don't go about thinking about trying to fit myself in," she says. "One needs to be aware of what the show is, but, if you're going to continue to be hired, you can't fit into this little box. You've got to really tell the story! The things that jump out, or the episodes that jump out, are ones that push the edge of the envelope. That's how you really tell the story."

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 Homeland (Season 2, Episode 5). Photo Credit: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME
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


Lesli's features include "Now and Then," "The Proposition," "State of Emergency," "True Blood," "Homeland," among others, but she doesn't approach them any differently than she does her work in television. "To me, you have the script, and start from there. Yes, for a series, you need to be aware of what has happened before, and maybe have some idea of where things might be going, but I feel like I'm making an hour-long movie.

"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."

"At the same time," she says, "people are so used to seeing 'big, wide shots' from DVDs on their televisions that those artificial distinctions simply don't matter anymore. People are more sophisticated, visually, than that."

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."


Lesli's career in the arts began as a dancer, and later, a choreographer. Her work took her to Europe for five years, and to Asia for five more. "When I was living in Tokyo, I met a man in his late 70s who told me a series of stories. They were extraordinary," she said. "I knew that I had to pass them on somehow, and I knew it wasn't going to be through dance.

"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."

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories

Photos courtesy US Dept. of Defense, MCA/Univeral Television.

In addition to an Academy Award® nomination, "Tales of Meeting and Parting" found many fans, including Steven Spielberg, who offered Lesli her very next job as a director, for three episodes of -- appropriately enough -- "Amazing Stories."


Chris Schwartz is the Manager of the AFI Conservatory & National Workshops, including the Directing Workshop for Women. He told us, "Lesli comes back every year and teaches a very nuts-and-bolts directing class on designing and blocking shots. She brings a scene from a show that she has directed, passes out just the paper script, and has the participants set up the shots just as they would direct the scene -- then she shows them how she actually directed it.

Lesli Linka Glatter at AFI's Directing Workshop for Women"Her background as a choreographer is very evident in her approach to designing shots, which made her ideal for directing so many episodes of "ER" and "West Wing" -- shows with lots of walking and talking through tracking shots.

"Lesli's classes are also a great example of AFI's approach to training throughout the conservatory and workshops: very practical, very much oriented toward actually making movies, rather than just studying theory. Even the process of imagining blocking feeds into the films that participants are actually shooting during the workshop."


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!

HBO's True Blood "Sunset" (2012)
Stephen Moyer, Deborah Ann Woll.
Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO
"I'm very interested in things not being what they appear to be, stories where you have to dig deeper to find out what's really going on. Visually, that can be very interesting. Another theme is chance and circumstance. I'm interested in 'what if,' in paths not taken. If I had gotten off the train, or missed the train, and walked to the cafe to my right instead of the left, I would have missed the person that would change my life forever.

"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.

"I would never have been a director without it. I wouldn't have had a chance."


Creative COW, LLC announced in 2010 the formation of the Creative COW Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to provide scholarships in media education. The Foundation's first grant of $10,000 to AFI's Directing Workshop for Women reflects 15 years of community-building for media professionals, and Creative COW's founding as a woman-owned business.

"We never started building communities as a business," says Creative COW founder Kathlyn Lindeboom. "In fact, we began because we couldn't find the help we needed for our own production business, and so created the first community for film and video professionals on the web. But as the community grew to now include a website with over 2 million monthly visitors, a magazine, and a DVD series, we needed to create a business to sustain them all.

"At the same time, we have never lost sight of our vision of building communities. The Creative COW Foundation adds another dimension to that vision, by making possible educational opportunities that those students might not have had any other way."

"The Directing Workshop for Women was a perfect example of this," says Creative COW CEO Ron Lindeboom. "We know that it is one of the industry's most respected programs, bringing in students from around the world. We are also honoring the women who were the COW's very first sponsors, who literally made Creative COW possible."

Lesli Linka Glatter is an Alternate Board Member to the National Board of the Directors Guild of America, AFI's AFI Conservatory Board Advisory Committee, the Silver Circle of Women in Film, the Advisory Board of Step Up Women's Network, and is a mentor for the Independent Feature Projects' Project Involve.

In addition to the shows mentioned in this story, she has directed episodes of The Mentalist, Weeds, Heroes, NYPD Blue, Freaks and Geeks, Journeyman, Numb3rs, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Grey's Anatomy.

Lesli Glatter at AFI

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