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Lev L. Spiro

9/29/09
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!!!

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    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
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    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.
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  • "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
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