REEL Ladies features Director Bethany Rooney.
Director Bethany Rooney is a television director who has worked on over three dozen television series and made-for-television movies.
Since her directorial debut in 1989 in an episode of CBS Summer Playhouse, she has directed multiple episodes from a vast number of television series, most notably Beverly Hills, 90210, The Starter Wife, Melrose Place, Ally McBeal, One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls whilst other credits include Las Vegas, Desperate Housewives, Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy.
RL: WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A DIRECTOR AND HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO GET YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR?
BR: I was working as the associate producer (responsible for post-production) on the MTM show “St. Elsewhere.” The scripts were wonderful, the actors were phenomenal, and I knew I wanted to be there on the stage, helping to make the film I was seeing daily in the editing room come into being. I feel very blessed that Bruce Paltrow, the Executive Producer of “St. Elsewhere,” gave me that chance. At that time, I had been his assistant for 3 years on “The White Shadow” and had worked on “St. Elsewhere” for four seasons.
I had seen every frame of over 100 episodes of the show, I knew when the director had told the story or when he (because it was always a he) had not; I knew when we could manipulate the film to tell the story. I felt that my post-production experience was invaluable in learning how to visually tell the story. Then I took five years of acting classes. The teacher was Gordon Hunt, and he taught me so much. (I never intended to be an actor, but I wanted to walk in the actors’ shoes, so I did the scene study rather than observe.) Actors have their own vocabulary, which I needed to learn. I also had to understand how an actor feels when facing that camera and how vulnerable they are.
So in the 4th season of “St. Elsewhere,” (1985), I was given an episode to direct. The “A” storyline featured Denzel Washington and Alfre Woodard falling in love – it was such a gift, as the episode was bound to be brilliant, no matter what mistakes I made. I still remember those seven days as being the most present, the most alive, I will ever be. I was practically vibrating with excitement (though I started each day by throwing up in fear.)
RL: DESCRIBE YOUR DIRECTING STYLE.
BR: Because of my post-production experience, my film always cuts well. That is, all the pieces are there, and there is an elegant flow to each scene. I always block out the entire script before day one of shooting, and I would say that about 80 per cent of the time, we end of shooting it just as I had visualized. The other twenty percent of the time, I incorporate other, better ideas (from the actors or the DP or whomever offers it) because filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
I would say that my style is loving and nurturing to all – cast and crew – while still being decisive. All anyone on that set wants of a director is someone who has a clear vision, the means to communicate it, and an appreciation of each person’s input. The first step, the clear vision, results from understanding the script and knowing how to bring it to life, first through the actors’ performance, and secondly through the use and placement of the camera to record those performances. The second step, communication, means that I know what I want and say it precisely. This requires an understanding of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Thirdly, appreciating everyone’s input means that I know that everyone on that set makes a valuable contribution. I’m especially aware that every actor feels vulnerable because they are making creative choices in front of everyone that will be judged (what else is it, when a director says “Print it” or instead, “Let’s go again”?) I try to have everyone pulling together to make this piece of film, and that means that everyone feels honored and valued.
RL: HOW HAS IT CHANGED?
BR: The first director I ever saw was a man named Jackie Cooper. He wore cowboy boots, smoked a cigar and swore a blue streak. I thought, “That’s what a director acts like.” And having no female role models, it took me a long time to understand that I could be myself – decidedly anti-male in the Cooper mold — and still be a good director. I could bring all my best qualities to the job, rather than feeling like I had to fit some pre-determined set of requirements. I could be secure without being ego-driven. I could be kind without being a wimp. I could be creative without being undisciplined.
Today, there are more women directors to mentor those who are upcoming. And there are no crew or cast members today who resist being lead by a woman. (Though there is still some prejudice in getting hired for the job; there is still an insidious feeling amongst buyers/producers/studios that a director should be a man.)
The other thing that has changed is that the whole approach to making an episode of network television is more complex and unwieldy now. We used to take seven days to shoot an episode. Now we take nine or ten. Like everything else, the budgets are much more expensive than they used to be. There seems to be also a lack of training in all job categories in the craft of the work, and I include actors in that statement. The whole thing – that is, the making of a television drama – seems to have gotten bigger but less professional now.
RL: EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIRECTING FOR A SERIES VS. DIRECTING FOR A TV MOVIE.
BR: Directing a TV movie is exactly the same process as directing a small-budget feature. That is, there is nothing in place except for the script when the director starts. No sets, no locations, no cast, no crew. Everything must be found, created, cast, hired.
On a series, unless you are directing the pilot, most of the elements are in place. It is up to the director to fit in with an existing template of style and storytelling, to merge with the crew, to get the cast to trust a stranger, and to deliver an episode that meets the producers’ and the studios’ expectations.
RL: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT DIRECTING?
BR: My favorite thing is to feel at the end of the day that I have elevated the material, I have sparked the actors’ creativity, I have created something that is visually interesting and tells the story, and I have been in charge of a set that had a warm, happy environment.
RL: WHAT IS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE THING?
BR: My least favorite thing is to get embroiled in some political power play. There are plenty of those in any organization, especially ones with many layers of accountability and an emotional underpinning to the work.
RL: WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO A PROJECT?
BR: I am attracted to any job that I take. Even if I go into it thinking it’s a sub-par piece of material, I have to quickly jettison that thought and embrace the project wholeheartedly, without judgment. I have to give a thousand per cent. I prefer material that is character-driven and intimate, but sometimes it’s fun to do something completely different!
RL: WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON CURRENTLY?
BR: This season so far, I’ve directed “The Starter Wife,” “Private Practice,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Brothers and Sisters.” All of them were wonderful experiences!!!!
RL: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN ON HOW TO ACHIEVE LONGEVITY?
BR: Keep learning. Keep expanding. Remember that it’s supposed to be fun. Embrace the new, and know that you grow by acknowledging the fear but doing it anyway. Go forward. Be brave. Love yourself, appreciate yourself, and then give that to others.