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WWSD? (What Would Spielberg Do?) by Joe Menendez

Spielberg’s Savage Staging.  Guest Post By Joe Menendez

When people in Hollywood say: “I’m looking for the next Steven Spielberg”, or “so-and-so is the next Steven Spielberg”, they’re usually referring to box-office success, or to a type of blockbuster movie typically associated with Spielberg. What they hardly ever mean is that they’re looking for somebody with Spielberg’s directorial prowess. Somebody with complete and total command of his or her craft.

I’m the producer/director on the TV series SIREN for Freeform, and as season 3 ramped up, I was tasked with helping find directors for seven of our 10-episode order (I was directing the other three). While there are numerous factors that go into who gets hired to direct episodes of any given television series, I dutifully watched every submission sent to us.
I intended to find the next Steven Spielberg.
However, because of the nature of television, it’s a bit of a challenge to distinguish one TV director from another, let alone find the next Spielberg. TV directors tend to be chameleons, changing their colors from show to show. The ones with the most credits are usually those who best adapt, assimilate and follow a show’s preset template.

So how was I supposed to glean what a director contributed if ostensibly they were just another cog in the TV series wheel, stylistically directing the show just as the director before them had, and the director after them would? I also noticed a pattern with most TV directors. I found many of them shot a lot of “stand-and-talks” or “sit-and-talks.” They would then cover these scenes in a collection of masters, matching overs and singles.

It seemed to me that most TV directors, at least in their dialogue scenes, defaulted to this type of blocking and staging almost every time. And I get why. It’s sensible. Faster. They make their days. So, I don’t blame them. Typically, in TV, you’re shooting 5 to 8 pages a day (sometimes more). Which means: during their allotted 12-hour day on set, they’re in survival-mode right at call, just trying to somehow record what’s scripted, and hoping they get something good in the end.

However, even though all TV directors have the same 12-hour day to contend with, some do navigate these constraints differently. Some excel, despite the tremendous limitations of your standard TV day, and produce elevated work.

So, as I watched reel after reel, (turns out my watching the actual work is a rare thing these days) the directors who stood out to me were the ones who crafted episodes with inventive blocking and staging, and imbued scenes with a solid point of view. Even within the confines of television, when a director had it, I knew it. I could feel the guiding hand of these filmmakers, conveying the intent (and emotion) of the scene through WHAT they deliberately showed me (and weren’t showing me) on camera.

Which again brought me back to Steven Spielberg.

As a director, I’ve studied Steven Spielberg’s work for decades. Deconstructed all of his movies and TV shows. Analyzed them. And Spielberg rarely falls into conventional staging, blocking, or coverage. You always feel Spielberg is steering you into a particular direction. He’s telling you a specific story.
No, he’s showing you a story, nudging, prodding, provoking you to look where his active and engaged camera leads you. Spielberg is like the author who has command of the written word, and can craft a sentence in such a way, that every letter and bit of punctuation is completely thought out. Nothing is arbitrary. Some authors are so specific, they can fashion a suspenseful moment to fall at the bottom of the page, obligating the reader to flip the page -- to literally make a physical move, simply to find out what happens next. That’s craftsmanship.

Good directors do this as well. They apply cinematic grammar (even in television) to express whatever emotion they’re after.

There’s an oft-used term: “Shoot for the edit”, which means film enough material that cuts together easily and smoothly. But Spielberg “designs for the edit.” His imagery harmoniously links together chronologically, wherein shot A seamlessly leads to Shot B which naturally leads to Shot C, etc. His virtuoso staging and blocking is so organically done, that it just feels inevitable. Everything in Spielberg’s work is measured — yet bold. Designed — yet energetic. Said another way: his scene-work is innovative. Each of his shots, more often than not, evolve and resolve in unexpected ways. Which means: what starts off as a CU, could end as a wide shot. And in between all of that, there are mediums, and overs, and 50/50s. All in one shot. He has this ability to stage a fluid master, and then pop off nimble, economic coverage. In my view, that’s what separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls: directors who can do this. And Spielberg has had this deft touch with his work since his earliest days in television.  His work is never just a collection of cool shots that get cobbled together into a visual pastiche. There is always a specificity to his scene-work.

I suspect his long-time editor Michael Kahn (or any of his editors) have never had to “find” Spielberg’s show in editing. The way Spielberg shoots, it’s all there in dailies.
Fully formed.

What’s unclear to me is whether he plans out his sequences ahead of time, or on set. Spielberg claims to often-times come to set and just... work out a scene on the spot. He’s said in numerous interviews that this is how he does his best work. This mystifies me. I’d like to know if he’s always worked this way, or if this is a luxury he was afforded once he became THE Steven Spielberg? Post-Jaws.

Personally, I can’t work that way. While I have discarded plans when on-set inspiration strikes, I always need to have/know the design ahead of time. I adjust best to a fabulous new idea, when I have a plan going in. Which is why I always shot-list the whole episode or movie. So, I can either A.) shoot what I designed or B.) pivot to a better idea, knowing where I’d intended to go with a scene back in prep. So, this notion that Spielberg comes up with one spectacularly staged scene after the other ON THE DAY, is a testament to his brilliance.

So, why do Spielberg’s dialogue scenes work so well? In a humble attempt to answer that question, I’ve broken down a scene from Spielberg’s days in TV, when he wasn’t yet blockbuster director Steven Spielberg. When he was just a TV director (he directed two episodes of AMAZING STORIES in the late 80s, but he was already THE Steven Spielberg by then). In the early 1970s, he’d just started directing one-hours. Other than being insanely young when he got his break on Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY (22 or 23 years old) he wasn’t considered anything special (yet).
He had to make his day just like any other TV director. He was shackled by the same constraints every other TV director had to contend with in his day (and admittedly do to this day) — which means: shoot the pages that were scheduled in 12-hours. And stay on budget. The Spielberg of this era wasn’t (yet) the guy with the loyal crew, dutifully anticipating his every need. This Spielberg was just another guest director (if that can even be imagined).

Upon starting a new show, a lot of guest directors will go into survival-mode. They factor in hours, page count and devise a plan to get through it. The safe choice is always to cover each scene conventionally, and not waste a whole lot of time with complex shots and extra time-killing set-ups. Nobody in TV wants to die on the “artist” hill, indulging a cool shot. Everyone wants to be invited back to do another episode.
Yet... I feel Spielberg cracked the TV code. He figured out how to do both: make his day, and STILL stage his scenes in imaginative and artful ways.

So, let’s see how television director Steven Spielberg blocked and staged a scene from his seldomly-seen pilot from 1973 that didn’t go to series called “SAVAGE. Because so much of Spielberg’s work is well-known, rather than go with something more recognizable like DUEL or COLUMBO, I intentionally chose an obscure Spielberg episode to analyze.

The scene I’m breaking down features Martin Landau, Will Geer and Paul Richards. It’s a simple one where Richards escorts Landau into Geer’s study to introduce the men. No action. Just a lot of dialogue. Yet, Spielberg makes the scene eminently watchable.
The scene opens on a single of Will Geer and cuts to a two shot of Landau and Richards entering the room. So far, two set-ups.
After cutting back and forth between these first two set ups, we cut to this shot, where the camera is in between Landau and Richards onto Geer. This is the 3rd set up.
The 4th set up of this scene was surely the master (which means this is probably what Spielberg shot first). The shot begins just off to the right of Geer’s shoulder. Landau and Richards are in the BG. Geer then turns to us, and the camera counters with Geer to the right:
The camera moves back and right, as Geer moves left, showing Landau his collection of books. Landau steps into this shot.
A beat later, Richards steps into the shot. But then Geer moves left again. So, we slide right, countering with the whole group.
Geer heads up some steps, and shows off his library.
We cut to the 5th set up onto Landau, over Richards.
We cut to the 6th set up: Geer staged between Richards & Landau.
Landau looks up at Geer, and we cut back to the 6th set up, except we PUSH IN onto Geer, as he steps forward to Landau.
Then, back to the master.
(As a reminder, this is still the EXACT same shot that started back over Geer’s right shoulder with Landau and Richards in the BG.)
Nevertheless, we now PULL BACK with Geer and Landau in a mini walk-and-talk. Richards is in the BG.
They land in a 50/50, which Richards steps into.
Then, in a bold move, rather than resort to shot, reverse-shot (a “stand and talk”) of Geer and Landau, Spielberg’s 7th set up punches in on axis into a wide-n-close profile of Landau. And when Geer goes to speak, Spielberg PANS LEFT onto Geer.
Then, we cut back out to the master. Landau exits frame left, and Geer steps into a BIG (short-sided) CU to speak to him.
There’s a reverse of Landau at the door, for the 8th and final set up of this scene. We cut back to Geer (again in the master), but the camera has moved closer, watching Landau exit.
Back to Geer in CU, he turns away. We’re now over his shoulder, but the shot immediately evolves into a tight 50/50.
And as Richards helps Geer with his coat, it ends as a two shot. Again, worth repeating: This was Spielberg’s master. This final two shot started clear on the other side of the room, followed actors around the space, and ended here. Where this masterly master started and where it ended are two entirely different shots. That’s how you craft a scene!
Eight set ups. Single-cam. Nowadays, every show runs two cameras by default. Not back then. He did all of this with one camera.

Surely, Spielberg had a line-producer over his shoulder, tapping his watch, telling him to hurry up. Again remember: this wasn’t yet the Spielberg of today. TV-Spielberg had no power. This was Spielberg the (sorta) journeyman TV director, who had to adhere to the same restrictions as every other director. Yet, despite all of this, Spielberg consistently produced this type of layered blocking and staging in ALL of his TV work.
Which is truly impressive, and inspiring.

So where did Spielberg pick up this visual language? Why is there such purity to his staging? By his own admission, he was a student of the classics. One only has to watch a director like Michael Curtiz to see one of Spielberg’s primary influences. From the wider lens choices, to the musical roaming camera, the same formalism you find in Curtiz’s films, with his use of extended shots with clear spatial geography, you also find in Spielberg’s work, even back in his early days as a TV director.

To be fair, there are directors working today who pull off this type of impressive mise-en-scéne:
JJ Abrams (when he was doing TV) comes to mind. Michelle MacLaren, Miguel Sapochnik, Daniel Sackheim to name a few others. And John Badham (another legend) came in and directed a few episodes of SIREN for us, and he is also masterful with this type of intricate staging. What a personal joy it was to see Badham energetically craft his episodes in person.

So, did I ever find the next Steven Spielberg? Of course not. There’s only one Steven Spielberg. There will never be another like him.

But he was showing us way back in the early 70s what was possible in TV, creatively. That it was achievable to be artful, yet responsible at the same time. He was showing us that directing television isn’t (and never should be) about surviving the day. It’s about cracking the code like Spielberg did, using craft, applying cinematic language and having a strong point of view to make compelling, entertaining and elevated television.

Well... that’s what Spielberg would do.

Joe Menendez is a multi-genre veteran of drama, action, horror, Sci-Fi, comedy, family and rom-com. His numerous and varied credits show that he is a skilled craftsman and an accomplished, versatile storyteller. He has directed over 110 hours of television, written a handful of teleplays, produced several TV series and films, and has directed nine feature films and TV movies so far.

Currently, Menendez is the Co-Executive Producer/Director of the hit one-hour drama SIREN for Freeform.
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