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In 1971, Steven Spielberg directed the first non-pilot episode of Columbo, revealing how episodic television has long provided directors with a place to hone their craft. In the era of Peak TV, there are now even more opportunities to enter this competitive profession. While the number of women directing feature films is still disproportionately low — out of the top 100 grossing films of 2018 only 4 percent were helmed by women — the figures keep rising in the television. Network, cable, and streaming all offer a wide variety of storytelling options including genre, special effects, and serialized and procedural narrative format.
To celebrate the opportunities this medium offers, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Hanelle Culpepper, Bronwen Hughes, and Diana Valentine, three prolific episodic TV directors, about breaking into this industry, the shows they have recently worked on (including Picard, The Walking Dead, and The 100), how the business has changed, and advice for burgeoning filmmakers. And because everything has ground to a halt since these interviews were first proposed, we also spoke to them about the impact of COVID-19 and the uncertainty Hollywood is facing.
Hanelle Culpepper directed the first three episodes of Picard, setting the tone for the series as a whole. A milestone moment, Culpepper is the first woman to launch a Star Trek TV franchise, but she wasn't aware of this factor when she pitched for and received the job. “I didn't know it until the first press release! I was, and still am, very honored to have been offered this opportunity.” Before Picard, Culpepper had directed episodes of many genre shows including The Flash, Supergirl, Gotham, and Sleepy Hollow. Regardless of the theme, Culpepper’s approach to a project is the same,“[I] learn as much as I can about the show, its style, and the characters' emotional journeys so far.” But if the narrative is VFX and action-heavy this does increase the level of prep time required.
On Picard, Culpepper defined the look and feel of the series, and her directing block was expanded from two to three episodes while the writers broke the story arc. After thinking she was done with her stint in space, she returned for the third episode last summer and this meant more time working with the impressive lead. “He was very collaborative and I wanted to create a supportive safe environment in which he could take these risks,” she explained when discussing Sir Patrick Stewart. “It paid off because Picard in this series feels like the Picard we know and love from TNG, and authentic and honest to where he would be and how he would be feeling at this time.”
The success of this project is something she considered, "As with all my work, I didn't want to be an excuse to deny any other female director or director of color a job," she reflected. "In the day-to-day, it was all about the work and bringing my A+ game to everything." While it is unfair that more pressure is often put on a woman and a person of color to succeed, this is sadly a reality in a business that often changes the rules when it comes to who receives second and third chances if things don't work out.
Every story about breaking into directing is different, but one aspect that links Culpepper, Valentine, and Hughes (other than hard work) is they didn’t go straight into this specific entertainment field. Culpepper interned in ratings research at Columbia Tristar while doing a Master’s degree before becoming an assistant to writer/director/producer Neal Israel. “There are so many ways to find your first gig in this industry if you are open and willing to make the effort,” she added.
Working straight out of film school, Browen Hughes tried her hand at many different jobs including the art department, as an editor, and in script continuity. Directing is where she found her footing and after directing the Harriet the Spy movie in 1996, she was hired by Steven Spielberg to helm the DreamWorks Ben Affleck/Sandara Bullock vehicle Forces of Nature. Describing this as her “lucky break,” she also revealed that Spielberg is “so respectful of filmmakers” because he doesn’t tell you what to do. Juggling movies and television, Hughes noted that the latter is where the bulk of the work is. Referring to being "format-agnostic" in her approach to the work she takes on, Hughes pointed out she has projects “that are designed for theatrical feature film, other ones that are digital streaming, episodic television, and even an interactive project," she said. “Whatever you got, I will tell my story and you can see it any way you want.”
Hughes recently directed the Season 5 premiere of Better Call Saul before taking on the incredibly tense Daryl (Norman Reedus) versus Alpha (Samantha Morton) Season 10 episode of The Walking Dead, in which the dread levels were set to high. “Stalker” deftly balances horror with emotion, utilizing the director’s ability to depict a battle between two formidable opponents and the quieter moments. Television moves at breakneck speed in terms of production, which means it was all hands on deck.
While discussing this fight sequence, she explained that she chose a riverbank as a setting to switch up the visual tension from a woodland visage. She also went into detail regarding how physical the prep can get on a show like The Walking Dead, “I'm standing there in snake boots, anti-mosquito and tick clothing, rolling in the riverbank sand,” she laughed. “Getting the stuntman to pin me by my shoulder to see if my idea for a face-off between the titans [Daryl and Alpha] mid-action sequence might work.” Rather than just talking about the ability, acting it out on location is a vital piece of prep when there isn’t time for storyboarding.
An episodic TV director will take on shows in their infancy as Culpepper did with Picard, but they will often come on board when the language of the show has been long established. Diana Valentine recently worked on the forthcoming seventh season of The 100 and was working on an episode of NCIS (currently in its 17th season) when production was shut down because of COVID-19.
Originally entering show business as an actor, Valentine switched to stunts before becoming a script supervisor. “Having dealt with VFX as a script supervisor on shows like Charmed, I already knew the basics of what was needed,” Valentine pointed out the connection from her past role to the present when discussing working on The 100. This was also her first experience using a drone to direct with, “I got to talk to the drone operator while watching on a monitor and finesse the shot in real-time!”
Along with evolving technology, the industry continues to slowly shift and the three directors all agree that in terms of diversity, it is getting better. Culpepper participated in a Sundance panel earlier this year called “Women on the Frontlines: Changing the Game” and we asked why these discussions are still vital. Optics and encouragement are a huge part of it. “I think we need to keep having these discussions until we reach 50-50. We've come a long way, but still have a ways to go so it's important to keep this discussion front and center,” she reflected. “I also think it's important for aspiring women out there. The stats can really get you down, so it's great for them to see that if you hang in there and keep working at it, success can happen.”
Speaking to the numbers of women increasing each year in episodic TV directing, Hughes noted there has been a shift from when she first started and how this will have a positive knock-on effect as more women work in these roles, "The biggest change was more like a floodgate opened two seasons ago and now the numbers of episodic directorial slots are filled by females, which of course is great," she said. “Within one more season, all of those new females will be experienced and then they'll be even better.” She pointed out that while it is improving there are still ways to go regarding getting financing for movies and TV shows, competition is still tough. Valentine spoke with enthusiasm about the uptick in diversity and mentor programs that are helping aspiring directors in ways which weren’t around when she was making her move into directing before adding why we need this, “I think the more diverse voices we hear from, the better we are as a society.”
Meanwhile, Culpepper was working on a Kung Fu reboot for The CW, which she gave us a brief hint at what we can expect. “I can tell you that my mantra for Kung Fu is the same as my mantra for Picard — to balance the epic with the intimate. We're going to have some cool fight sequences, but the intimacy they feel with our lead character, her emotional journey and her relationship with her family ultimately keeps the audience engaged.” Before the COVID-19 shutdown, they had shot a lot of the intimate scenes so Culpepper is excited to get back to shoot the action sequences.
Projects all three women were working on have ground to a halt after sets shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hughes had just spent an unusually long period of time working from home on a screenplay before the shelter in place mandate was ordered. Thinking about her long term plans she explained that she will have to figure out which shows she can do when everyone goes back to work, but it might reduce the amount of work as there will likely be scheduling overlaps. “I can only do one. They usually line up one after the other, after the other. That's how you make a living.”
Adapting to this unprecedented situation is what everyone in the entertainment industry is trying to figure out as people make art from within their homes. When we asked what tips these filmmakers would give to someone with directorial aspirations all three women spoke of perseverance and making your own work, Valentine said to "Make your movies or shorts. Shoot them on your phone if you have to, but find a way to tell your story!" Hughes suggested looking at the Nowness global video channel as a point of inspiration for developing a highlights reel, as well as suggesting using accessible technology to film your vision. The words Hanelle Culpepper spoke were about pursuing your dream, but also double for what is going on right now, which gives us a much-needed boost of optimism as we face uncertain times, “This truly is an industry of resilience and never giving up!”