Rachel is a writer, director, film professor, wife and mother. She’s written and directed: movies, episodic television, shorts, and branded webisodes. She’s a member of the WGA and the DGA where she was Chair of the Women’s Steering Committee. She’s happy to help you navigate the murky waters of a film career in Hollywood. Ask her anything. She’ll tell you the truth.
This week: “Job Shadowing”
What do you think of shadowing to help build a directing career? I’ve been invited to observe on a network series but I have a good paying day job and am not sure it’s worth the loss of income when I don’t know if shadowing will really lead to a job directing on that show.
Signed, Phantom Shadow
Dear Phantom Shadow,
Oh boy, this is a hot button question for me, and yet still tough to give you a black or white answer. Every opportunity in life represents a possibility and you will never know what the outcome could have been if you don’t take advantage of every open door. Also shadowing is a wonderful opportunity to observe the inner workings of professional sets and if you have had little experience on set this is an excellent way simply to see how it all happens. But be prepared for it to be a “waste of time” if your sole objective is to get a job on that show.
Observing has two benefits: one is to learn from the professional director on that show, two is to meet the producers and other creative and technical leaders of that show to build relationships. Both can be tough to achieve but not impossible. Directors can be touchy and not in the state of mind to share their process with you. They are working in a highly pressurized environment, and may not warm to the idea of a stranger in their midst. Producers have many experienced directors eager to work on their show and no matter how charming you may be, this is generally not a conducive situation to talk about your resume or ask to show your films.
And so you ask, then how do I break into episodic television? There is no easy answer. Having a well-connected agent is the single most relevant factor in landing gigs directing episodic television, without one it is nearly impossible to break through. However nabbing that agent is equally tough. This is why shadowing programs sponsored by the studios, networks and guilds are so important, however these programs over the years have proven ineffective. Statistically very few directing opportunities are cultivated from these programs because there is no incentive to hire from this pool. Shadowing programs have been used to satisfy the need to support women and men of diversity by giving them access to shows and showrunners, however it is often little more than an exercise in futility for highly experienced directors who gain little from their time.
I have spent many months of my life as a dedicated observer, from call until wrap, even recently with decades of experience. Many times I learned a great deal and was heartened to believe that I might get a shot, but in every single instance shadowing for me did not end in a job. On the other hand, when I have been in the director’s chair, I have very much enjoyed having observers on the set and because I enjoy teaching. I find the “boots on the ground” approach to instruction, the best way to share my knowledge with burgeoning directors. Also, once hired, spending a few days on the set before directing your own episode is a great way to get to know the cast and crew. I always recommend trying to observe a show or two that precedes your show, when other directors are working, when you have the leisure to study the sets and get in tune with the vibe of that set.
So, in short, while I believe that observing could be a wonderful pipeline for new directors, it is currently not that progressive instrument. If you are earning a good living and wonder if it is worth the loss of income on the chance that you might finally get your break, the odds are miniscule – yet miracles can happen. Good luck, and try to get out from the shadow.
If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on shadowing, CLICK HERE to go to a longer article I wrote about my personal experiences with shadowing.