Q&A with Television Director Seith Mann
SEITH MANN has been a director of so many quality television shows that I’ll only include here a partial list – DEXTER, CALIFORNICATION, FRINGE, SONS OF ANARCHY, LIE TO ME, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, NURSE JACKIE, GREY’S ANATOMY, ENTOURAGE, THE WIRE – there are many!
He also has a terrific story. His thesis at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the short “five deep breaths,” premiered at 2003 Sundance and screened at many other festivals, often winning awards. “five deep breaths” came to the attention of producers of THE WIRE and Seith was invited to shadow directors during Season Three – and then joined the directing crew of THE WIRE in 2006 (Season Four). Since then, he has directed episodes of many different shows with wide ranging styles. He has received a DGA nomination for a GREY’S ANATOMY episode and Image Award wins and nominations for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE WIRE, and ENTOURAGE.
Seith took my Acting for Directors course in 2005, and is kind enough to credit my workshop with giving him greater confidence in his work with actors. He is one of the sweetest, most generous people in Hollywood.
Seith took time out of his very busy schedule to come to our Studio – and gave his knowledge and experience and insights with so much thoughtfulness and generosity! THANK YOU, SEITH!!! I put together a sprinkling of notes from the evening (with the help of Craig Ouellette and Roger Stigliano) – they can’t convey how encouraging and inspiring Seith was, but here they are:
What do you like most about directing?
1. Working with actors
2. Figuring out the characters and interpreting them visually (which comes out of #1.)
He attended NYU Film School. His thesis film was "five deep breaths."
• It played festivals, and got him an agent.
• The film was seen by the executive producer of THE WIRE, which led to him being asked to shadow on the show.
• Got him into ABC’s director training program in L.A.
Don’t talk too much, but don’t be so silent that no one knows you’re there. Demonstrate that you’re engaged and appreciative of the opportunity. Shadowing can be useful as an opportunity to pick the brains of people on set other than the director. Be aware of protocol; don’t get in the way.
Did grad school prepare you for your career?
In terms of craft, yes, but regarding the business side, no.
He gets the script during prep. Prep is between one and eight days, and he usually gets the script between day one and six. He tries not to hear what the script is about until he reads it, so he can track how the audience will respond. When he receives it, he tries to read it as many times as possible; in order to have ownership of the material, you need to know it well.
Then he scouts locations with the scout. He works out a lot out from what he finds at the locations—he needs to get into the space where he will shoot and start to play with it. Then he returns to locations alone, where he can start to break down the scene, work out the physicality, etc. He decides what “bits” of the scene he really needs to get. Then he creates floor plans of the blocking he’s created in his head.
• Very little rehearsal time in TV.
• He asks the actors to start the scene where he imagined them starting when he blocked in his head at the location. Sometimes the actors move exactly where he thought they would. If they don’t, he revises his plan. But his preliminary blocking/floor plan at least gives him a starting point, and helps insure that even if the blocking changes completely, he will still get the “bits” he needs.
More about how he works with actors:
He talks to actors as little as he needs to, but will connect as much as he thinks they need. He likes to engage with actors, as much as possible given the time constraints.
• When he feels a regular character on a show has a moment that goes outside the usual behavior of the character (“out of character”) and it’s needed for the story, he sometimes has to push the actor until he gets it.
• He directs big stars the same way he does small parts. He’s there to help actors with specific moments.
What do you do if you don’t get the script until late in prep?
• Day 1: He walks the set, meets people.
• Day 2: It depends on the show.
• Day 3: Location panic starts to set in.
Things become tricky when you get a script that’s not a “real” script, and then a new draft arrives that may be 30% different. And sometimes there is a third version.
Since 2006, the pace of TV production has increased. Hour-longs that were shot in 8 days are now shot in 7.
What is your audition process?
He wants to see the actor’s take on the scene first. The actor should come in and attack the scene. He says nothing until he sees their idea—then he may get in and play with it. He will answer a question of theirs—unless it is, “What are you looking for?”
How do you decide between actors of equal talent?
That’s hard to do but it's fun when you have several talented actors to choose from. It’s about what colors the actor can bring to the role. Other factors: credits, word of mouth, the input of the producers.
How much latitude do you have to choose an actor of color in a role where the producers may not have thought of one?
It really depends on the producer, the role, and who shows up in the room. He always goes for the best guy.
How important are credits to you when you’re casting?
It depends on the role. He cares only about talent, but the network/studio has opinions too, and of course, credits can be important for finding financing.
How did you get into film?
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT showed him that black people could make movies. DO THE RIGHT THING convinced him that he should make movies.
Why did THE WIRE producers like your short, “five deep breaths”?
• Good performances—natural and subtle.
• Tone similar to THE WIRE
• Composed grittiness and spare soundtrack
• Testosterone-fueled agenda
• Clear subtext
What was your most enjoyable day of directing and your worst day?
• Worst day: When he was micromanaged by the show’s writer/producer, given comments right after every take.
• Best: He’s had many, when he felt—
- he was in a zone where it’s all clicking
- rapport with the actors was good
- ideas were supported, not resisted, and they paid off
Once on JERICHO, he was working on a long complicated shot that was proving difficult to pull off, and the A.D. asked him what his Plan B was. Seith answered that he had no Plan B. The A.D. was excited to hear that, and threw himself into making the shot work.
What is the most surprising thing he’s learned about himself so far?
• That he has a really good eye—had never considered that his forte.
• The calm and evenness he’s known for on set—that’s actually unlike his off-set volatile temper.
What are some recent movies you liked?
• GUNHILL ROAD
• THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE
• KENYA RWANDA
• MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (hated, loved and appreciated it)
What directors have inspired you?
• Spike Lee
• Sydney Lumet
• David Fincher
What gets you fired up as a director?
• Unexpected things
• Worlds he doesn’t know
• Areas where morality is ambiguous
• Smart scripts that don’t spoon feed the audience
What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?
• Just make films until someone will pay you to make them.
• Focus on the path you think will be best for you, but stay open to other routes to your goal.
"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