Lessons from a Veteran Director: Joel Zwick on Set

1 - Lessons from a Veteran Director: Joel Zwick on Set

Director Joel Zwick standing beside the A camera on set of the Disney
Channel series, Jessie.

“Quiet, please.” A perfectly lit soundstage falls silent. The director calls, “action.” Talent goes to work. I sit behind the monitors, practically holding my breath so as not to spoil the sound on this take. A joke is told. Everyone in video village busts out laughing. Producers, the director, even the 1st AD chuckle. I wince assuming they’ll have to go again from the top, but to my surprise, the actors just trudge ahead with the scene. Laughing during the scene was not only encouraged, I was told it was essential to the performers on the stage and to the editors in post. Why? Because this was a multi-cam set.

I recently had the opportunity to shadow veteran director Joel Zwick on the set of the Disney Channel sitcom, Jessie.  “Veteran” is a mild qualifier for Joel’s career. He has been directing television since the seventies. From Laverne and Shirley to Bosom Buddies to Perfect Strangers to Full House to Family Matters to the Suite Life On Deck, he’s helmed hundreds of TV hours. If you were born in the eighties, he practically programmed your childhood. (He also directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the highest grossing low budget film of all-time that wasn’t a horror film or X rated.) On February 24, 2014, you’ll also have the opportunity to soak up some of his wisdom when he comes to campus for SFTV’s Monday Nights Series.

Within 20-minutes of watching Joel run the set, I discovered there’s life in multi-cam absent from conventional production. The steady stream of laughter keeps the mood lighter. On every other set, the actor will only know if something is working when the director tells them, after the take. Here, they have the instant gratification that a joke played and how well it played. As such, multi-cam feels more like an extension of radio and theater than feature filmmaking. There, sets have a tendency to be heavy, unhappy places. For the crew members, this is the office. Perhaps, it was the subject matter or the familial rapport among the crew, but this was one of the happiest sets I’ve ever set foot on. In film school, we romanticize the image of director as tortured auteur. A lot of directors approach filmmaking as a defense of their vision against a world bent on stifling it. They’re suspicious of outside input. They treat each day as an assault on their dream instead of acknowledging that they are, in fact, living their dream by directing. Sound familiar?

As an old pro, you would think Joel would approach the day casually. Anything but. Zwick carried a boundless enthusiasm with him. He was specific about the shots he wanted, but grateful when the technicians delivered. He gave adjustments to the actors and affirmed the performance by laughing loudest. A multi-cam shoot is well rehearsed on familiar, controlled environments for maximum efficiency. The day I visited, they knocked out 24 pages of material.

Television is certainly a writer’s medium. The writers of the episode hung out behind video village along with the showrunner to oversee the execution of their pages. A director’s job in television is to make those pages work. The benefit of multi-cam is the instant feedback as to whether or not a joke is playing and the ability to quickly revise a line. Part of the quick shooting comes from the ability to shoot up to four cameras on a single take. Essentially, multi-cam was devised as a way to speed the filming process. Hence, the 24-page shoot day.

The director has an interesting challenge of watching the scene transpire on all four cameras in a large monitor referred to as “the quad.” Your eyes largely have to watch the scene covered as a whole to make sure you’re getting all the pieces you need. Every student interested in directing should gain the experience of shooting someone else’s material. By the same token, every writer should see what it’s like to have someone else handle their script. TV is a true collaborative medium. If you don’t play well with others, you won’t play at all.

The number one lesson on directing that I gathered from shadowing Joel Zwick, which I gladly pass along to you good students…directing is fun. Why not? It’s the greatest job in the world. Why else would everyone in town (the whole world) want it? Sure there are countless pressures, but what else do you expect from a position of constant decision-making. If you don’t enjoy your work, find a different line of work. Directors are not tortured artists painting a portrait using grips for a paintbrush. They’re more like a baseball manager determining the lineup and letting the players play. They set the tone for a day’s work. The crew will take their cues from a director. No one will care more about the project than a director. When I asked Joel what his greatest asset as a director, he simply stated: “I’m passionate.” You can’t get through 24 pages in a day without loving what you do.

Joel Zwick will be visiting SFTV on Monday, February 24th, 7:30 p.m. for our Monday Nights Series: Four Decades of Comedy Writing with Joel Zwick. RSVP here.