Lev L. Spiro
Q&A with Television Director Lev L. Spiro
LEV L. SPIRO has directed multiple episodes of WEEDS, EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, UGLY BETTY, PSYCH, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, MY NAME IS EARL, THE O.C., GILMORE GIRLS, DAWSON’S CREEK, and has been making a shift to long-form with, most recently, WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE THE MOVIE, and 2008’s MINUTEMEN (nominated by the Director’s Guild for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programs), both for the Disney Channel.
Lev has taken a number of classes with Judith, including the Acting for Directors workshop, the Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques workshop, and multiple sessions of the Actor-Director Lab. He spoke and answered questions at a free event on September 29, at our Studio.
Everyone who attended was so energized they seemed sort of high afterwards! He gave so much generous and important insight and advice for directors and actors. He was super articulate and funny – but the key to his humor is that it is never at someone else’s expense. In fact what seemed to me to be at the heart of everything he talked about – besides his intense work ethic – was the way he described every interaction - with producers, writers, showrunners, series regulars, guest stars, and dayplayers – in an unfailingly positive light. My favorite quote of the night: “You don’t have to be a dick to be a good director.”
Lev told me afterwards that it was exhilarating for him too, because he got to talk about aspects of his directing experience that he’d never discussed with other groups.
Following are a few notes I’ve cobbled together about Lev’s responses to questions, although my notes feel very inadequate to describe the energy of the occasion:
Directors and series regulars. It works best if an actor who is a series regular takes up any major issues he has about the episode with the showrunner before the director arrives for rehearsal. The director should not resent the special relationship that series regulars have with the showrunner and producer. Lev firmly believes there should be only one person talking to the actors, so once he is on set, he asks producers to tell him any direction they want to give actors, rather than going directly to actors. If it becomes unavoidable that a producer is going to talk directly to the actors, he advises directors to ask diplomatically at least to be present during those discussions.
Guest stars and day players. If an actor cast as a guest star or day player on an established series has questions but is confused about who is in charge (e.g., the director or a producer), you should always ask the director.
A director must always come to rehearsal with ideas. The first rehearsal a director gets with an episodic cast is typically the blocking rehearsal, aka camera rehearsal. Actors hate it if you come to blocking rehearsal without ideas. But if the actors don’t feel good about one of his ideas, he changes it, figures out something else on the spot. Then, when the crew comes in to set lights and camera moves, there is time to work a bit with the actors. At this point, Lev talks to actors about their characters’ objectives. The through-line (objective) is the most important thing for the actors to have.
Whenever talking to actors, whether about his blocking ideas, or his ideas about emotional content, he uses questions: What if we try…? How would it be if…? This is not the same as a director who comes in without ideas and asks the actors, Where do you want to move? Actors hate that, especially in television where there is so little time. Directors must be prepared with ideas.
Lev’s insistence on being really prepared was unequivocally bonded to his commitment to treat actors (and everyone else) with respect and allow room for their input and creativity. He was living proof that a strong vision goes hand in hand with a full commitment to openness and collaboration with actors.
During whatever amount of prep days he gets for a show (the time between getting the script and starting shooting), he needs a day and a half to spend alone, studying the script, coming up with his ideas. He listed some of the duties that must be accomplished in the director’s prep days, and then someone asked him, "Of all the things he wants to get done in prep, what is it that he will not give up?" Lev replied, his time alone to think. He tells producers and technicians he has to have that, they can’t give that time away to meetings, or else he won’t have any answers for them in the meetings.
He also tries to make sure he gets a tone meeting with the producers/showrunner early. Often they are scheduled for the end of prep, but he asks for them at the beginning.
When he is hired on an established series, he watches or reads as many of the existing episodes as he can.
Casting. He likes actors that come in with strong choices. When actors try to play it cautious, it’s a turn-off.
On set, he tries to stay next to the camera whenever possible, to be close to the actors. When the logistics of a shot require him to stand at a monitor, he never calls out to the actors from the monitor, but always goes up to all of the actors after each take. If the reason for the next take is technical and there is no adjustment to give, he says to the actors, "It’s going great, just keep listening to each other."
When asked which is more important – getting good performances or making your day (completing all the shots needed on that shooting day), he said: Both.
Early in the evening he had told us about the personal connection he unexpectedly had when reading the script of one of his earliest television directing jobs, and how that gave him the emotional hook that made him feel confident he could do this. Toward the end of the evening someone asked him whether he had shared this personal story with his cast, and he said yes.
All in all, Lev pretty much made the case for me, that even in the fast-paced world of episodic television, the collaborative and process-oriented tools and principles can work like a charm. Thank you, Lev!!!
"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
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"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
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“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