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Saturday, 30 March 2013

Interview with Director BILL D'ELIA

Bill D'Elia is currently Executive Producer/Director on the TNT show 'Monday Mornings', and the upcoming pilot 'The Crazy Ones', which will see a much anticipated return to series television for Robin Williams. Bill's previous credits as an EP and director include 'Ally McBeal', 'Boston Legal' and 'Harry's Law'.

This is an exciting interview for me. As I explained to Bill - it was while watching 'Ally McBeal' that I really began paying attention to who was directing the episodes -- and it turned out that many of my favourites were directed by him. The same goes for 'Boston Legal' - he was responsible for the unique style of the show, and for many of the greatest episodes. 

When you're in LA, what do you miss most about New York? 

Spontaneity. There is none in L.A. There is plenty in N.Y. You just don't bump into anyone in L.A. unless you both happen to be working on the same stages or the same lot. Whenever I am in N.Y. I invariably run into someone I know and wind up having a dinner, lunch, or drinks. That just never happens in L.A. You have to work on seeing people. Last time I was in N.Y. I ran into two friends from L.A. We live minutes from each other and never see each other in L.A. Had dinner with each and haven't seen them since we're back in L.A.

I was a huge fan of 'Ally McBeal'. And it was the first time I really started noticing directors names on the credits -- I would always be happy when your name came up, because yours tended to be some of the episodes I loved the most. But I realise it's strange to say that, because every director is working within the confines of the established style of the show --- and a director isn't there to put their individual stamp on it with each episode. So I guess what I am asking is, what do you feel a director brings to each episode -- and how does it differ from director to director?

It's actually one of the biggest things. There is a difference. It is hard to define, but the shows that I have done, mostly with David Kelley, have a distinct tone. A blend of comedy and drama that not all directors get. What you look for as an producer hiring those directors is an understanding of the tone and the style, then a hope that they bring something to the show that surprises you. A really good director always, always has a point of view on the material. If you've hired the right person, that point of view enhances the tone of the show. My initial success as a television director was an understanding of the uniqueness of the particular show I was directing, but not allowing it to overwhelm my own sensibilities, my own likes and dislikes. I was (and am) always willing to take chances. You always look for a director that can stay within the established tone and style of the show, and yet somehow surprise you and take chances, think of things you may not have. It's a tricky balance. The reason you may notice one director's episode over another may very well be that the script was better for that episode. But it may also be that particular director brought a unique and particular take to the show. 

Do you ever have big disagreements with the directors you've hired? Even though you hire people who understand the tone and 'get it', these shows are your babies, and I imagine it can be a difficult and complex thing.

There have been times, but only a few, where I've had real disagreements with a director, but I will never interfere with his choices on set. I feel that once he or she is directing I don't want to do anything to undermine that authority. What I will do is take that director aside and quietly give a note, usually trying to do it at the end of the day, or discreetly if it's during a take. When you mention the style of Boston Legal, which was so specific, there were times when the shows I directed were full of that style and other shows were less so. It always depended on the particular story I was telling that week, the particular script. I let the directors know that the style was a tool to use at their discretion. I didn't want it to ever be forced. But what happens is, either they understand how to use that tool or they don't. If they don't, they don't get invited back.

The thing that sticks out for me in David Kelley's shows are the wonderful relationships between characters. I'm thinking mostly about Cage and Fish; Crane and Shore -- they're some of my favourites in television history. It goes without saying that David's writing is hugely responsible for this - but what other elements made them come together?

Having been more intimately involved with Crane and Shore on Boston Legal, I can say that what happened there was that we just caught lightening in a bottle. Something happened there that happens with the greatest comedy teams, a chemistry born of the uniqueness that each of them brought to the show. The actors could not be more different in their approaches to the material, and in real life would not have been friends, although they liked each other. But the pairing of the two dissimilar types, and the mutual respect they had for each other gave us something we never planned. The show was not originally going to be about the two of them. But when we saw what we had, we leaned on it. David has a unique ability to write to an actor's strength and mine it for gold, both comedically and dramatically. He sure did so with Boston Legal.

I've tried tracking down a copy of your first film, 'The Feud', but to no avail. How do you feel about it now, looking back? What did you get right? What went completely wrong?

That movie is only available on VHS and it is hard to find now. But I can say that, for me, I got it right. there are probably a million and one things that I might do differently were I to make that movie today, but I am extremely proud of it still. I was able to set a tone with that picture that is a through line in all my work and a reason I think I clicked with David Kelley's writing. Thomas Berger, the author of the novel on which it is based, like David, has a similar comedic take on life that definitely is in line with my own.

I'd love to know more specifically what your role tends to encompass as an Executive Producer. For example, with 'Monday Mornings', what specifically were you/are you doing?

Well it encompasses everything from beginning to end on every episode. Whether I am directing or not, my fingerprints are all over every episode. I try to give every director the knowledge that I have about the mechanics of how the show works...creatively and practically. From how the actors approach their work, to how the crew works. Essentially I act as the Artistic Director of the company. In essence I am the show runner and I am involved in every aspect except the writing of the scripts. That's David's domain. I will give notes on the script, work with the director of that episode, and then after I get that director's cut I will finish every episode with the editor, all the way through the music selection and final sound mix and color correction. At a certain point in the making of any series I am working on as many as six or seven episodes in various stages of production from pre planning to final delivery.

I was disappointed, as many were, when 'Harry's Law' came to an abrupt end. In future years - do you think shows like that will find new ways of surviving? It makes me think of 'Arrested Development' on Netflix and the way new shows like 'House of Cards' are produced.

We are in the midst of a sea change in how television is distributed. I liken it to when television showed up and radio and movie theaters were affected. We will adapt, but no one is sure exactly how. And it is changing rapidly. It's a fun time to be making television.

When you come in and direct a single episode of a show, like 'Glee' or 'The West Wing', how does it differ from a show you've been more involved with; I imagine it can be quite a challenge?

Mostly it is easier to come in as a visiting director now since I am so aware of the problems the producers may have running their show. I can focus on directing without worrying about producing so I feel like my load is lightened.

Your collaborations with David span back more than 20 years. Why is it that you work so well together?

I'm never quite sure how to answer that question, but part of the answer is embedded in some of my previous answers. First of all, I get his writing, which is some of the smartest in the history of television. I have a great respect for the written word and David is a great writer. I am first and foremost a director and I look at things that way. David is first and foremost a writer. We compliment each other's strengths. In addition we have great respect for each other. We have developed a real short hand over the years that makes things run smoothly between us in the fast paced world of television production. And as David has said "We may reject each others ideas, but we never reject each other." He lets me run the show and it frees him up to write without worry. Then together we finish each episode, each looking at it with a different set of sensibilities, yet somehow in sync with each other, collaborating on the finished product.

Going back to 'Boston Legal', which I rewatched in it's entirety very recently. It was really fascinating to me how you were quite ruthless with characters. As seasons end; people would be chopped out. And even new characters, after a few episodes, if you didn't feel their stories were developing, they'd swiftly disappear. Was there a change in attitude towards this compared with previous shows? I felt that in 'Ally Mcbeal', you'd keep people around a little longer, even after they'd run out of juice, story-wise.

Boston Legal was unique in that we really were making it up as we went along. It was the first show I did with David where I was in from the beginning and I think perhaps for that reason more of my sensibility comes through on that series. I joined Chicago Hope in season two as an Executive Producer (and ran it with John Tinker, David left it to us to make the show) and Ally McBeal in season three. I directed the pilot to Boston Legal and hadn't on the previous shows. Because it was a spin off of The Practice, BL in the beginning was all about finding the tone: how funny? how serious? It took us a while I think, and we were lucky we had James and Bill at the center to hold the show together as we found it.

As far as the changing cast, that's part of it. As the show evolved into mainly the stories between Shore and Crane, the other members of the ensemble changed a bit from season to season.

Boston Legal had such a unique visual style; which still feels fresh today. How did that particular look and shooting style come about?

I am so happy to hear your comments on that. I had a real take on how I wanted the show to look and feel. It was born out of character and tone. It felt to me like the characters in the show were off center and shot from the hip as lawyers and I wanted the look to reflect that. I thought "What if we shot it like a documentary, but glossy and pretty? What if the camera was restless and moving, capturing it in a different style?" I have to say it was a battle at first as I had it all in my head. The network was resistant and David, God bless him, just let me loose to do it. I refused to change the look, even when the network pushed me to do so, at one point even telling them that if they wanted the show to look different then they would have to get someone else to do it because I wouldn't. Funny looking back on it now. In addition, I did the same with the music. I told Danny Lux, our composer, that although the show was set in Boston, let's make it sound like it was in New Orleans, which led him to our jazz like theme and score.

The music was great. I remember when I first watched the show; I was a bit cynical I guess, unsure about the music and visuals. But of course, I grew to love them completely. And when I re-watched recently I remember thinking around season three or four that "oh, they've toned down the music a bit and the camera is less crazy," but then I'd refer back to the earlier episodes and no, you hadn't, you'd stuck to the style. And it still feels really bold, and as I was saying, fresh! Has working with the networks got easier over the years, or is it always a battle? Do you have to pick and choose your battles?

Although it varies depending on the network because they all have different philosophies, for the most part working with the broadcast networks has not gotten any easier. When you are in sync it's great. When you are not, it's awful. And there is nothing worse than bad ratings. That's when everyone has ideas on how to fix it. And I am not saying the network notes are always wrong, they can be really helpful. It's just that sometimes the show you want to make is slightly different than the one they want to make. That's just a kind of hell for everyone. However, making a cable show for TNT was a different experience. We made ten episodes, finished them, then they aired. They were extremely supportive and loved what we were doing. It's the first time I directed a pilot that my cut went to air without changes. It's probably also important to note that there is a real difference in the business model. A network makes many many shows that need to last 22 episodes a season, season after season. And because of that, they expect many to fail. The cable networks make fewer shows and fewer episodes of those shows, many times expecting them to last for only a few seasons. The sheer volume of broadcast production is staggering. They have a lot to deal with and a lot of people to answer to. I'm sure that has something to do with the difference in the cultures between cable and network.

Was the Jerry Espenson opening credit sequence your idea? I loved that.
It's actually my ringtone! 

 I remember it very well. That was David's idea. Those silly ideas, breaking the fourth wall for example, were almost always from him. There were so many of them and I loved them.

And now you're working on a new comedy pilot, with Robin Williams. That's interesting to me because I've been talking a lot recently with friends, about how the great comedy actors are only as good as the material. Robin Williams, for me, is one of the all time comedy greats - but in recent years; the material he's had to work with has been hit and miss I feel. So the idea of him doing a comedy sitcom with you is extremely exciting to me. How is the pilot going? It must be exciting -- and you are building a great cast around him too...

Robin is indeed a one of a kind genius. It is evident from the moment you meet him. The potential of his return to series television is an exciting thing to be a part of. When we discussed the series at first, we thought that maybe it would be wise to go out to the networks with an actor attached. Ken Miller, our casting director suggested Robin might be looking for a television series, and although it seemed a long shot we sent him the script. He loved it, met with David, and was on board immediately. Much the same thing happened with Kathy Bates on Harry's Law. We thought it was a long shot for her to do a series, sent her the script, and she said yes within a week. David's writing is a powerful magnet for actors in search of great material. The new show is called The Crazy Ones and it is set in the world of advertising. Robin plays the legendary head of an ad agency. In a strange reflection on real life, I started my career in advertising, moving to directing out of that. I directed hundreds of television commercials back in the 80's, culminating in my adaptation of The Feud, which brought me to TV. Full circle. Crazy huh?

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