Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lesli Linka Glatter on "The West Wing"

You've directed a lot of great TV shows. I tried to narrow down just one of the shows you've worked on. And since I'm such an Aaron Sorkin fan --

LESLI: Oh my God, so am I.

Then I hope you'll indulge me and talk about your experiences on The West Wing.


LESLI: I think the reason The West Wing was amazing to do, on a directorial level, was because the producing director on the show -- Tommy Schlamme, a fantastic director and a wonderful person -- encouraged directors to come in and make it their movie.

There are many people who work in TV who want it to look like everybody else's show. But I really think the best shows do what Tommy did. To say to filmmakers, "Come in and make it your movie." And that's what he did.

That's very evident on that show. They're all different.

LESLI: They're all different. As a director, you were encouraged to do what you wanted to do. If you wanted to put five scenes together and do it as one shot, you could. It was great.

It was very intimidating the first time I got Aaron's script and I looked at the first scene I was going to be directing on my first day. It was a seven-page scene, with about ten or eleven characters, and the only stage direction was "He enters."

I just thought, "Oh my God." I had to read it about ten times to figure out what the scene was about: What's the subtext, what's the text, what's really going on underneath here.

It was thrilling and terrifying and exhilarating and amazing.

What is your preparation process like in a case like that? You get the script and then what?

LESLI: The first thing I do in any prep process is I start breaking the script down in terms of what is the theme? What is this really about? Once I figure out the theme, I start to figure out how I'm going to deal with it visually. But until I really know what it's about in a deep way, I can't even begin to figure that out.

How long does that take?

LESLI: That's ongoing. The first couple of days I focus on the script as much as I can. You're going to have to deal with production stuff no matter what. You have to start the casting process and have a concept meeting about if there have to be huge sets built. A lot of The West Wing episodes I did were really big, so there were tons of locations, so there was a lot of scouting. Plus half of the show shoots in Washington, DC, so there were all sorts of production issues and decisions.

Usually what I would do in terms of actual shot lists is that I would come in on the weekend. And I still do that, even though I'd love to have my weekends to myself. I find that during the week, with a TV pre-production schedule, I don't have time to do that. So the weekends are my creative time.

If it takes place on a set, I'll go to the set. I'll walk around, I'll imagine the scene, I'll figure out the angles, I'll see the scene.

For me, it's completely about standing in the space. That's what I do.

I have a lot of director friends who wouldn't even consider going in like that. They think I'm insane. But for me, that's my process. For other TV shows, they just want you to come in and fulfill what they've set up. That doesn't seem too interesting to me.

In the case of The West Wing, how much rehearsal time did you get with the actors?

LESLI: You only get it on the set. That was a show where they would rehearse a lot. This is unusual in TV. You'd get probably an hour. That is considered a long rehearsal. It's not like doing a film.

But then, these actors know the characters. So you have to direct them in the scene, but they're not figuring out who their characters are. They're figuring what their behavior is. So that is a different process.

During post, how involved were you in the editing?

LESLI: Very involved. You have a certain amount of time, per the contract with the Directors Guild, to go in and edit. I didn't have my cuts changed very much. Ultimately, the final cut is Aaron's and Tommy's. When the buck stopped, it stopped with them. But they were respectful. I think they want you to come in having done it well, so that they don't have to re-do it.

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