Q&A with Television Director Seith Mann
Seith Mann has been a director of so many quality television shows that I’ll only include here a partial list – DEXTER, CALIFORNICATION, FRINGE, SONS OF ANARCHY, LIE TO ME, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, NURSE JACKIE, GREY’S ANATOMY, ENTOURAGE, THE WIRE – there are many!
He also has a terrific story. His thesis at Tisch NYU, the short “five deep breaths,” went on to premiere at 2003 Sundance and screen at many other festivals, often winning awards. “five deep breaths” came to the attention of producers of THE WIRE and Seith was invited to shadow directors during Season Three – and then joined the directing crew of THE WIRE in 2006 (Season Four). Since then, he has directed episodes of many different shows with wide ranging styles. He has received a DGA nomination for a GREY’S ANATOMY episode and Image Award wins and nominations for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE WIRE, and ENTOURAGE.
Seith took my Acting for Directors course in 2005, and is kind enough to credit my workshop with helping him make a step in confidence in his work with actors. He is one of the sweetest, most generous people in Hollywood.
One more cool thing – one of the actors in Seith’s short that started it all is Anslem Richardson, who has taken my Actor-Director Lab.
Seith was so generous – taking time out of his very busy schedule to come to our Studio – and giving his knowledge and experience and insights with so much thoughtfulness and generosity! THANK YOU, SEITH!!! I put together a sprinkling of notes from the evening (with the help of Craig Ouellette and Roger Stigliano) – they can’t convey how encouraging and inspiring Seith was, but here they are:
What do you like most about directing?
1. Working with actors
2. Figuring out the characters and interpreting them visually (which comes out of #1.)
He attended NYU Film School. His thesis film was five deep breaths.
• It played festivals, and got him an agent.
• The film was seen by the executive producer of The Wire, which led to him being asked to shadow on the show.
• Got him into ABC’s director training program in L. A.
Don’t talk too much, but don’t be so silent that no one knows you’re there. Demonstrate that you’re engaged and appreciative of the opportunity. Can be useful to pick the brains of people on set other than the director. Be aware of protocol, don’t get in the way.
Did grad school prepare you for your career?
In terms of craft, yes, but regarding the business side, no.
He likes to engage with actors, as much as possible given the time constraints.
He gets the script during prep. Prep is between one and eight days, and he usually gets the script between day one and six. He tries not to hear what the script is about until he reads it, so he can track how the audience will respond. When he receives it, he tries to read it as many times as possible—to have ownership of the material, you need to know it well.
Then he scouts locations with the scout. He works a lot out of what he finds at the locations—he needs to get into the space where he will shoot and start to play with it. Then he returns to locations alone, where he can start to break down the scene, work out the physicality, etc. He decides what “bits” of the scene he really needs to get. Then he creates floor plans of the blocking he’s created in his head.
• Very little rehearsal time in TV.
• He asks the actors to start the scene where he imagined them starting when he blocked in his head at the location. Sometimes the actors move exactly where he thought they would. If they don’t, he revises his plan. But his preliminary blocking/floor plan at least gives him a starting point, and helps insure that even if the blocking changes completely, he will still get the “bits” he needs.
More about how he works with actors:
He talks to actors as little as he needs to, but will connect as much as he thinks they need.
• When he feels a regular character on a show has a moment that goes outside the usual behavior of the character (“out of character”) and it’s needed for the story, he sometimes has to push the actor until he gets it.
• He directs big stars the same way he does small parts. He’s there to help actors with specific moments.
What do you do if you don’t get the script until late in prep?
• Day 1: he walks the set, meets people.
• Day 2: It depends on the show.
• Day 3: Location panic starts to set in.
Things become tricky when you get a script that’s not a “real” script. Then a new draft arrives that may be 30% different. And sometimes a third version.
Since 2006, the pace of TV production has increased. Hour-longs that were shot in 8 days are now shot in 7.
What is your audition process?
He wants to see the actor’s take on the scene first. The actor should come in and attack the scene. He says nothing until he sees their idea—then he may get in and play with it. He will answer a question of theirs—unless it is, “What are you looking for?”
How do you decide between actors of equal talent?
That’s hard to do but fun, when you have several talented actors to choose from. It’s about what colors the actor can bring to the role. Other factors: credits, word of mouth, the input of the producers.
How much latitude do you have to choose an actor of color in a role where the producers may not have thought of one?
It really depends on the producer, the role, and who shows up in the room. He always goes for the best guy.
How important are credits to you when you’re casting?
It depends on the role. He cares only about talent, but the network/studio has opinions too, and of course, credits can be important for finding financing.
How did you get into film?
She’s Gotta Have It showed him that black people could make movies. Do The Right Thing convinced him that he should make movies.
Why did the Wire producers like your short, “five deep breaths”?
• Good performances—natural and subtle.
• Tone similar to The Wire
• Composed grittiness and spare soundtrack
• Testosterone-fueled agenda
• Clear subtext
What brought you to Judith?
He read Directing Actors. Then when he moved to L.A., learned that she was here and took Acting for Directors.
What was your most enjoyable day of directing and your worst day?
• Worst day: When he was micromanaged by the show’s writer/producer, given comments right after every take.
• Best: He’s had many, when he felt—
- he was in a zone where it’s all clicking
- rapport with the actors was good
- ideas were supported, not resisted, and they paid off
Once on “Jericho”, working on a long complicated shot that was proving difficult to pull off, the A.D. asked him what his Plan B was, and he answered that he had no Plan B. The A.D. was excited to hear that, and threw himself into making the shot work.
What is the most surprising thing he’s learned about himself so far?
• That he has a really good eye—had never considered that his forte.
• The calm and evenness he’s known for on set—that’s actually unlike his off-set volatile temper.
What are some recent movies you liked?
• Gunhill Road
• The Devil’s Double
• Kenya Rwanda
• Martha, Marcy May, Marlene (hated, loved and appreciated it)
What directors have inspired you?
• Spike Lee
• Sydney Lumet
• David Fincher
What gets you fired up as a director?
• Unexpected things
• Worlds he doesn’t know
• Areas where morality is ambiguous
• Smart scripts that don’t spoon feed the audience
What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?
• Just make films until someone will pay you to make them.
• Focus on the path you think will be best for you, but stay open to other routes to your goal.