Q&A with Television Producer/Director Larry Trilling
LARRY TRILLING, producer and director of hugely successful television shows, came to our studio, to speak and answer questions at a free event on January 12. Larry is co-executive producer and a director on the new Ron Howard/Brian Grazer TV show PARENTHOOD. He has been co-executive producer of PUSHING DAISIES and INVASION, supervising producer on ALIAS, and producer on FELICITY. Larry’s directing career is equally inspiring. He has directed episodes of all the shows on which he was producer – 5 episodes of PUSHING DAISIES, 6 of INVASION, 15 episodes of ALIAS, 14 of FELICITY, and will direct 4 of the first-season PARENTHOOD episodes. He has also directed episodes of DAMAGES, MERCY, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, LIFE, NIP/TUCK, and many other TV shows, as well as 3 feature films, THE GROUP, PORN ‘N CHICKEN, and DINNER AND DRIVING.
Larry has been a generous supporter of my classes and books ever since the first class and consultations he took with me in 1996. He has stayed in touch regularly ever since then, and has probably referred more directors to my classes and books than any other single person. It was so sweet of him to take the time from his packed schedule for this Q&A event – it was invaluable for directors and actors! Everything Larry said was useful and inspiring – concise, articulate, on-point – and profound – delivered with humor and grace, and with great generosity and total love for his craft and for actors and crew.
Larry brought sneak preview clips of scenes from his new show PARENTHOOD – they were wonderful, poignant, funny – don’t miss this show!! And he described how he made his scene analysis preparation for these scenes, and how he worked with the actors in shooting them – making clear that each scene was really about what’s not being said (subtext).
Now – here are a few notes that I put together (with the help of Craig Ouellette – thanks CraigO!). Some of them are for actors, some for directors.
A director on series TV can bring new energy to the show – in fact, that’s your job. In the first season of a TV series there’s a lot of discovery; by the fourth season, there may be malaise, but a director can bring in new specific ideas to infuse the actors of a long running show with simple energy and purpose.
After Larry calls, "Cut," he goes first to the actors, before going to the camera people. If the take was good and he has no adjustments for the actors, he’ll tell them to trust what they’re doing, or at least tell them that he’s not giving a note because it’s going well.
What he looks for in actors (when he is casting): confidence, vulnerability, fearlessness, openness. And they need to look good on camera – but what that really means is that they are able to have an intimacy with the camera (which is more important than perfect looks).
Advice for actors during an audition. Don’t stop in the middle. If you flub a line, keep going. Make a choice.
As a producer, he wants the series regulars to tell him right away if they have a problem with script, not wait until director comes on the project.
When dealing with television actors/series regulars who don’t trust the director because they have been burned by bad directors, Larry says: Encourage them. Give them notes anyway. He always lets the actors know he’s paying attention to what they’re doing.
A TV director should bring a point of view to the show. How to find your POV is to ask yourself, what am I interested in? Is it here? In TV episodics, a director can still bring a lot, can tell the story of this episode, can find something that the producers didn’t think of.
Commit to every bit and every choice.
Once hired as a director on a TV show, find out who runs the show – it might be the creator, it might be one of the other producers, or a certain writer, it might be the star. Go observe a show before you work on it, see who is in power. Talking to the AD is usually helpful. Meet the actors informally while you are in prep.
If you come in as a director on an established series, you should understand the tone of the show.
Preparation. Get the script to make sense to you. Know the script better than everyone, including whoever wrote it. Be prepared, VERY prepared, then let go.
Larry shared with us his Scene Analysis template, which includes places to make notes about:
the scene/moment preceding this scene;
the scene/moment after this scene;
visual transition into this scene;
intention/objective of each character (multiple options);
[JW: I couldn’t help noticing this list has many similarities to lists/charts in my book “Directing Actors”…]
He recommended that directors take Judith’s Rehearsal Techniques class, which he took a number of years ago [now called the Directors Rehearsal Intensive].
Speak to actors in the language of permission. Give ownership of the parts.
Blocking. Find a way to get on the set the weekend before shooting and block all the scenes. Draw a set diagram. Then abandon your diagram when the actors show up with ideas.
How to get crew support. First, know their names. Just because there is a chain of command, doesn’t mean there should be a chain of respect. Treat EVERYONE with respect. You want them to feel a part of something. He always gets along with crew, always. He won’t hire jerks; he won't tolerate any yelling; he insists on a basic level of respect.
Be excited to be there, don’t complain; a director’s energy is infectious. It’s okay to not know stuff, to enlist others, to ask, how do we figure it out? Don’t pretend you know anything if you don’t – ask for help and they’ll help you.
Be present. Make a choice even if it’s the wrong choice.
In order to make the day. Ask the AD, Given the crew here, how long do we have for each scene? When you prep with the AD, make sure the first scenes are ones you can nail. Then hit the tough stuff. Be proactive to schedule show. Let them know you’re involved with each scene and what you need. Find out, how serious is this show about making the days? (it’s real important for some shows, for others, it’s not) If you want something for a scene that is difficult and/or costly, decide how important the scene is and then how hard you want to fight for it. That specifically means you need to have some ideas how to make the following scene easier.
In casting sessions, directors should be encouraging to all auditioning actors. Make note of good actors you meet in casting sessions even if they’re not right for this role – they might be right for future things.
Using more that one camera. The creator of PARENTHOOD also created FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, which uses 4 cameras, no marks, no rehearsal. In PARENTHOOD they light the spaces, not the actors, that gives a lot of freedom to actors. Overlap talking is okay. Naturalism. PARENTHOOD uses 2 cameras. PARENTHOOD is more scripted than FRI NIGHT LIGHTS.
He tries to stand next to the cameras during takes as much as possible. It’s better.
After a take, he asks the actors if they’re good with the take. Maybe he’ll say, "I’m good with that, are you?" Maybe he’ll say, "Let’s do one more for fun, because we have it. Let’s rock and roll."
If actors are having issues, you can take 5 minutes to clear set to have time with actors.
Larry loves the AS IF adjustment.
All of the people who have come to speak at these Q&A’s are hard-workers – and all of them are actively open to the input of others. The way Larry talked about his work made it clear that the foundation for confidence is a strong work ethic. Also listening to the ideas and needs of all your collaborators. His enthusiasm and commitment was indeed infectious to all of us present. So generous. And did I mention that he was funny? It was a glorious evening! Thank you, Larry!!!
"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