Q&A with Television Director Fred Toye
FRED TOYE has been a director of – wait for it – THE GOOD WIFE, CHUCK, FRINGE, CSI:NY, HAWAII FIVE-O, MELROSE PLACE, LOST, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, GHOST WHISPERER, ALIAS – wow. As well as a producer of FRINGE and ALIAS. Fred’s new show, FALLING SKIES, begins airing in June on TNT.
Fred has taken my Acting for Directors course and the Actor-Director Lab, and is a generous, loving person (who has sent me many prospective students!). He came to our Studio Monday June 6. It was a “round table” format – so Fred could give individual support and advice as well as answer general questions.
One of the things that has been most fascinating to me about our Q&A Series is that the television directors who have so generously shared their knowledge and insight with us, have such deep connections to their work that their advice and stories apply to film directors (and actors) just as much as to TV directors.
Following are a few notes from the evening. Fred gave so much specific advice and information. Thank you, Craig Ouellette, for sharing your notes with me. I just typed them up, so the advice for directors and the advice for actors is sort of mixed in together.
Fred was a P.A. for 5 years, and then an editor 15 years, before directing his first episode.
Actors he is drawn to in auditions have a certain measure of self confidence, which means:
1) they are present,
2) they have made a strong choice,
3) they are open to conversation, and to changing their choice.
He wants actors that take ownership of the role, and that love acting. If you love what you do, it shows.
Getting to know casting directors is still a good way for actors to get called in for roles in television.
A big part of casting for the director is fighting for casting choices. It’s the job of creative people to fight for the right person for the role. He always has a choice, plus 2 alternates. He wants to be in the room, not just look at a casting tape. He always remembers the good ones. He really wants every actor to give their best. Schedule and making the day are NOT the most important thing in TV. It’s telling the story through the actors’ performances. That’s why he goes to the mat on casting.
For him, the favorite part of his job is working with actors. He’s very confident about his work with camera images, cuts etc., but actors are where the magic happens.
TV is exciting now. TV has deadlines, so it WILL get made. Getting the greenlight on a movie goes on forever. When you are new, go in with a positive, forward-looking attitude. Sometimes a script is bad, what to do? He works on it until he turns his attitude around, to, “This is going to be greatest thing I’ll ever do.” Once he understands the scene, what is the coolest way to do this? What’s the coolest in the time we have? If you have to do 6 scenes in one day, blow the doors off the scenes that you can, but probably there will be 2 you will have to do more simply than you would like.
About shaping performances. He doesn't do a lot of shaping of performance; he wants to collaborate, not tell actors how to do their jobs. He wants actors to bring it and he then he can help shape it.
Result direction. He referred many times to the disasters caused by “result direction.” Sometimes he used other terms for it. Sometimes he referred to result direction as “overdirection” or “ridiculous direction” or “overstating” - as in, "When you overstate your ideas to creative people it ruins things."
Rehearsal. Even if there’s only 15-20 minutes, he tries to create an environment of plenty of time. He always sends the crew away, except the DP, AD, and script supervisor.
1) Sit and read scene.
2) Talk about it if necessary.
3) Share what he likes, what’s interesting, what it’s about. Be able to say what it’s about in a simple sentence. Stay relaxed. Let the actors feel it out and don’t step on their process. Give them the chance to find it. Be aware that they might not get it the first time.
Blocking, shot list, camera rehearsal. Before rehearsal, he has an idea of staging and blocking and shot list. He then throws it away for rehearsal. He lets actors read the scene. He says, "I watch humans do the scene, and see how I feel when they move and block – I ask myself, do I believe this?" Then he starts implementing ideas on blocking and comes up with a shot list. After all that, he has the camera rehearsal. He takes a few minutes with the DP before actors come in for camera rehearsal. Tell DP what you have in mind, ask what he/she thinks, clear your ideas with cameraman before setting up the blocking. The TV episodics with bigger budgets have two DPs, some have one. If there are two, you have time to prep with him/her, watch movies and clips together, talk tone and style; if there is only one, there may not be time for that in-depth work with the DP. On set, the DP is your right hand.
Engaging with actors.
He finds that the actors with the most experience who love what they do are the most open to direction.
Actors may be fighting with a role because there’s something too close to home. When actors have a problem, he doesn’t call the writers. If an actor says a line is stupid, he asks, “Why is it stupid?” Fish it out.
The fun of acting is being there. Convince them to play the moment. Especially in episodic - you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
When you need to find patience – the way to find patience is to be in the moment, to love what you are doing in every moment. Being present in the moment is key to life.
Prefers to be by the camera with handheld monitor to check shots. Actors want you present and there and want to know you’re watching. Even confident actors want to know you’re there, watching.
Working with small kids. Kids have no inhibitions. The director must learn how to harness what they give. Over-direction (result direction) will kill a kid’s confidence. When directing kid actors, it’s even more important not to give result direction, because kids shut down. Cultivate what they’re doing. Don’t cast kids on looks; cast the right kids. Have lots of patience and keep shooting. Use action verbs. Be a kind, respectful, caring person.
Fred was asked about the relationship of the director to the Producing Director. He said the Producing Director (if there is one on the show) can be an asset for freelance director, can go and back you up, and also shoot stuff for you. Always navigate your relationship with the Producing Director with tact and gentle hand. The showrunner is usually not on set.
Tell your editor what your POV of each scene is, let them know you hope they’ll find that in the footage you’ve given them. Have a conversation about tone and what the plan was.
Understand the story. Understand your tools and how to use them. Understand the story and tell it the best way you can with the tools you have. “If I don’t understand a story, I will fail.” Make a strong choice on how to tell a story and convince everyone to do it. Let material speak to you and come up with an idea. Allow the material to speak to you. How is this going to come through me. Leave yourself open under any pressures to allow magical things to happen.
Sometimes you have to be alone, sometimes you have to step aside to think.
What a director needs to accomplish: dramatize the moment and get inside each character’s head.
His prep process about understanding a story:
1) Read it, take it in.
2) On the second read, make notes, every scene. Like it. Find connections.
3) Meet with showrunner and writers. Get them to tell you “what is the point” in simple terms, for example, “a crime story about betrayal.”
He was asked whether he uses Judith’s charts [from Directing Actors] as part of his prep. He replied that when he first started directing, he did all the charts, then it began to be easier and quicker and more streamlined.
When asked what he does to nourish his own creativity, Fred said he loves what he does and is excited to be doing it. Watches old movies for inspiration. In the old movies that are good you see the story so clearly.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, Fred!! It was an inspiring evening, full of insight and positive energy and encouragement.
"Judith taught me how to communicate with actors in a completely new way, and what I learned from her has had a huge influence over both my work and my life. She is an incredible communicator, a gifted teacher, and a remarkable human being. I can't recommend her classes highly enough for directors and actors who want to bring more emotional truth to their craft."JULIUS RAMSAY, director, THE WALKING DEAD
"All the scary transformative moments I've had in your class really paid off. And I can never begin to thank you for all that you've done for me. I'm simply not the same person I was when I started my journey with you."ANDREA TOYIAS, Voice Director, Blizzard Entertainment, WORLD OF WARCRAFT / DIABLO / STARCRAFT
“I really wanted to thank you because I know that I could have not done it without the knowledge I got from you. You will always be one of the greatest teachers I've ever had and I'm truly proud to be one of your students. Thank you for teaching me to love my actors.”TANEL TOOM, writer-director, THE CONFESSION (nominated for Academy Award, Live Action Short Film, 2011)
“I took a seminar with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. I learned a key insight to character. She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine, and the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they’re striving for, an itch that they can’t scratch. I took to this like a duck to water.”ANDREW STANTON [from his Feb 2012 TED Talk] writer-director, WALL-E, FINDING NEMO, A BUG’S LIFE; writer, TOY STORY, TOY STORY 2, TOY STORY 3
"Directing my first movie would have been impossible without Judith's book, 'Directing Actors.' Her insights taught me how to audition actors, how to cast intelligently, how to rehearse. When production began, I cribbed a set of Weston reminders on to a 3-by-5 index card, and kept it in my shirt pocket every single day of shooting. She saved me."BILLY RAY, writer-director, SHATTERED GLASS, BREACH; writer, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, THE HUNGER GAMES, STATE OF PLAY, FLIGHTPLAN
"Judith, you're the one that gave me the tools for success with actors!"KAREN GAVIOLA, director, SONS OF ANARCHY, CRIMINAL MINDS, CSI, NCIS, BLUE BLOODS, CSI:MIAMI, CASTLE, PRIVATE PRACTICE, LOST, GHOST WHISPERER, PRISON BREAK, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, NYPD BLUE
“Judith Weston taught me how to listen – what she called ‘listening with your whole body.’ She taught me about the power and the magic of the subconscious world. She showed me doors and windows and portals into creative possibilities I scarcely knew existed. Her wisdom changed the way I write, the way I direct actors – and, with no exaggeration, the way I look at life.”MARK FERGUS, co-writer: CHILDREN OF MEN, IRON MAN; director: FIRST SNOW
"Judith Weston is a great teacher. She's inspired me to be interested in people more than concepts, behavior more than attitudes, process more than results. In her classes I've learned to ask more questions, to trust what is happening, and to always be willing to dig deeper. She is the kind of teacher who makes me excited about taking chances."NORMAN BUCKLEY, director, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, RIZZOLI & ISLES, THE FOSTERS, THE CLIENT LIST, SWITCHED AT BIRTH, GOSSIP GIRL, CHUCK, MELROSE PLACE, 90210, THE O.C.
“You've taught me the essential tools so I could carry on with the visions that haunt me day and night and to embrace the process which I will continue to learn. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”DEJA PREM, writer/producer/director/actor, at Green Coco Production
“Your workshop was wonderful in letting me know that many of the things I am already doing are the correct way of dealing with actors and taught me other things that add to that knowledge. And your patience and unbridled energy and passion for what you teach is more than admirable, it is inspiring. So thank you once again for this wonderful experience, one I will never forget and that will continue to help me on this path on which I am forever learning about new and wonderful things.”MICHAEL TRIM, director, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, WEEDS, PARKS AND RECREATION
"Judith Weston is not a drama teacher, she is an art teacher. She understands that at the heart of great drama is a powerful mystery. What she shows you in her workshops and her book are simple and effective tools that help you get deeper and deeper into that rich, complex and surprising place."DAVID JACOBSON, writer-director, DOWN IN THE VALLEY, DAHMER
“In your classes I learned to love actors and acting. The experience opened for me the secret door to the magic I witnessed when actor and material find each other in just the right way. What I once thought were 'happy accidents' and performance miracles are now the kernels of creativity I relentlessly pursue with an actor finding a performance. You helped me find that part I could play in the process and how to capture it.”FRED TOYE, director, THE GOOD WIFE, PERSON OF INTEREST, RIZZOLI & ISLES, FRINGE, CHUCK, CSI:NY, LOST, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, GHOST WHISPERER, CHUCK
“Judith Weston gave me the greatest gift you can give to a first-time director - she gave me confidence in my ability to work with actors. I will be forever grateful for her extremely hands on and applicable advice for directing actors and I know I will use it for the rest of my career. She has a contagious love of the process and an unbelievable understanding of human emotion. I would not be where I am today if it had not been for her.”SHANA FESTE, writer-director, ENDLESS LOVE, COUNTRY STRONG, THE GREATEST
"Judith's method is wonderful because it is practical. She has given me numerous tools to solve problems on the set and to earn the trust of actors. Her classes and her book are invaluable resources to any director."LAWRENCE TRILLING, director, MASTERS OF SEX, PARENTHOOD, PUSHING DAISIES, DAMAGES, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, NIP/TUCK, MONK, SCRUBS, INVASION, ALIAS, FELICITY
"Every time I step on a set, I think of what Judith taught me. Every time I begin a project, I review a notebook I kept during the years I studied with her. Every time I'm in rehearsal, I'm using her techniques. Every time I'm in a bind within a scene, I go back to the foundation she gave me. I didn't go to film school. I sat in Judith Weston's workshops, took everything she said to heart, then went out and started telling my stories. I'm so grateful for that path - and for her."AVA DuVERNAY, director, SELMA (2015 Golden Globe nominee for Best Film, and Best Director), SCANDAL, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance Film Festival and the I
"Judith's ideas and principles are incredibly useful when it comes to giving clear, actionable direction to actors. To anyone aspiring to direct, I would recommend making her classroom one of your first stops."LEV L. SPIRO, director, MODERN FAMILY, UGLY BETTY, WEEDS, EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, ARLI$$, THE O.C., EVERWOOD, GILMORE GIRLS
"Everything you taught me was more than useful. I am deeply grateful."ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU, director, BIRDMAN, BIUTIFUL, BABEL, 21 GRAMS, AMORES PERROS