Elephants never forget, and, apparently, the same can be said for the elite tier of TV producer/directors. Case in point is Tommy Schlamme, who while visiting New York City as a youngster, was struck by the 40-foot Kodak Colorama decorating Grand Central Station. Several decades later, and at the top tier of network show runners Schlamme and cinematographer John Lindley, ASC, were both seduced by those same images in Grand Central, using the Kodak Colorama as a reference point to help establish the look for the new 1960’s period series Pan Am, Schlamme was directing.
The Texas-born filmmaker says he’s always been a good mental note-taker. While trying to break into the industry, he drove a cab at night in New York City, and studied the many nuances of human behavior; those same character details would later show up in Schlamme shows like Spin City and The Larry Sanders Show
When he was invited to the White House during the Clinton Administration (sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom, no less) Schlamme filed away his impressions of the staff, later hauling out those recollections to help bring a new level of authenticity to network television for Aaron Sorkin’s series, The West Wing.
Pauline Rogers caught up the with the “brains” behind such hit series as Boston Public, Invasion, Parenthood, Mr. Sunshine, Sports Night, and Studio 60, as he was preparing to direct the first episode of NBC’s Pan Am. Here’s what the nine-time Emmy winner, three-time DGA winner, and two-time Peabody Award winner had to say.
ICG: What’s like being both a producer and director on a network pilot and series? Tommy Schlamme: There is a moment that I learned when I started directing: I cannot be my own producer. I have to really shut that down and just do what I need to do. I don’t want to think about, ‘Oh the producer in me is saying you can do this and this and this and you can make your day’ while I am directing. As a producer to other directors, I want to be the producer that I wanted when I was directing. How do you be supportive? How can you help? Rather than tell me my problems, how can you help me find solutions? To have been on the floor directing is enormously beneficial — knowing what that feels like, especially in television.
Has the producer in you ever gone to battle with the director? I have to be a little more mature as the director. For the final episode of Studio 60, we sort of knew we were being canceled, at least Aaron [Sorkin] and I did. I moved an episode that was going to air before the last one that I could [direct], instead of the finale so I could do it in six days because that was all the money we had left. I kind of fell on the sword as a director. The producer in me said let someone else do the finale. Do this last and get everyone’s spirit up. Do it much more from what the producer needed than the director looking at the script.
Is there a difference between directing comedies like Sports Night and dramas like The West Wing? No difference for me since everything is based in reality. I have used this quote many times: “I’ve never woken up one morning and gone “this is a half-hour comedy day” or “this is a one hour drama day.” Life is just really mixed up. That’s probably because I was lucky to enter television at the moment when M.A.S.H. and Bonnie and Clyde, the films I responded to, were an interesting blend.
Both were famous for mixing comedy and drama. Right. I remember, early on in my career when I was doing half-hour television, the producers would huddle in the corner and say, “Be careful, he’s going to be making it too dramatic.” When I would do an hour drama the producers would huddle and say, “Be careful, he’s going to be making it too comedic!” It’s kind of the way I see things. I am better at material that has a balance. Although I’m aware enough that if I’m doing a comedy, I would never sabotage a good laugh. But there are times when you have to look and ask how far can you blow up that balloon before it’s just broad comedy. There’s a style to that. It just isn’t one I usually gravitate to or do very well.
Is there a difference between shooting film or digital? There was before Pan Am [shot on the ARRI ALEXA]. I had resisted it for quite a while. Not just how it looked, but I found [digital] just wasn’t as sophisticated. I didn’t like in the early days where your director of photography is in a tent and it felt like you were shooting Lawrence of Arabia. What’s a DP doing in a tent!? I also didn’t like the idea [when shooting digital] that you have to be aware of not just looking at the scene and saying, “The lighting feels right to me”, but you’re also looking at the monitor like, “Oh no, you need to put in another shadow.” I’m looking at performance, and that becomes one more decision on the set.
Tell us about working with John Lindley. We used the ALEXA for Pan Am, and I was actually getting a much more exciting look because of that camera. John was able to be right next to me. The body of the camera was the only thing that was different. One thing I do like, and I’ve done this in film, is to just keep the takes rolling. I will be talking to the actor and it’s being recorded. I’m doing this because I want my editors to hear so they are getting at least what I am trying to get to in the scene. It’s a wonderful tool for an editor to hear that direction.
What is the difference between directing a pilot and series? A pilot is more like doing a movie. No one knows what it looks like, sounds like, or what performances are going to be like. It is completely starting from scratch. As a creator, it is far more fulfilling. But there is sometimes a lot of baggage you have to do in pilots. You have to set the audience up for the world that they are about to watch. Where [in a series episode], that exposition has already been pushed up the hill and you can tell a more aggressive story. The responsibility for the director of a pilot increases – so much so that I think there should be an award for pilot director and an award for episode director.
Is one harder than the other, per se? Episodic directing is the hardest form of directing in any format. You walk in and have to shoot an episode in eight days. I’m now shooting the first episode of Pan Am in half the amount of time and less than half the amount of money we had for the pilot, and yet I want it to look and feel the same as the pilot. Pan Am is not a form that anyone has seen before. There are a lot of international locations, so we had to figure out very creatively how to do that on an episodic budget.
Why are the 1960s so hot? Is it the Mad Men phenomenon? I don’t think it has as anything to do with the period. It certainly wasn’t, “Oh let’s develop a period show because Mad Men has shown that it could work in the 60s.” It is a great way to tell an American tale of this small corporation and the small group of people who worked for it. Truthfully, when we thought of Pan Am, it was do we tell it in the 1930s when the company first started, or in the 1970s when there was already this cultural change? That period was chosen because the metaphor of what was about to happen to our country was a similar metaphor to what is about to happen to the women in the show.
Does the period impact the issues you will tackle? You have to be sensitive. We can see people smoking, but it’s not as much as I would prefer. Back in those days it was smoking while you were eating, and smoking all over the plane! It was so culturally different. If my children see someone on an airplane smoking a cigarette or lighting a match – that would be far more stunning than the clothes they are wearing or the fact that the time period was more misogynistic and sexist. Having said that, I don’t think there are any issues we aren’t going to deal with. We’re going to deal with race very soon. We specifically have a white cast right now because [integrating the cast] needs to be part of storyline. What a big deal it was at a company like that at that moment in time.
What do you look for in a cinematographer? I am never looking for a DP that knows how to light the scene. I am looking for someone who knows how to light the story. John Lindley is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever worked with. What’s in the scene? What’s the scene about? How should we shoot it? Even as I was blocking I would look at him as a barometer. “Did you buy that, John?” And he’d say, “I’m not sure I did, Tommy.” John was an incredible sort of conscience.
So the cinematographer, especially in the pilot, is a key part of the storytelling to come? Absolutely. I have to have [a DP] that can translate lighting into story. When we set up The West Wing, Tom del Ruth [ASC] perfectly understood the contrast of the good and bad, and that the characters in this story were all trying to do their best. [The West Wing] had a sort of heightened romanticism. There were shafts of light that they could go through. It was confusing at times, but Tom was so masterful at using that. Honestly, at this point in my career, it’s really great when you have a DP who is in sync with all of those things – and also, of course, has a great sense of humor!
Interview by Pauline Rogers. Photo by Patrick Harbron/ABC.