Nominees Alan Ball, Alan Poul, moderator Michael Pressman and nominee Jon Cassar.

Meet the Nominees: Dramatic Series Night

56th Annual DGA Awards
Dramatic tone makes all the difference — even if your stories are killer, your characters heart-stopping and your setting (and not pace) is funereal. So say the directors of Six Feet Under, who this year walked away with three of five DGA nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series. "It feels gratifying to be singled out by directors with, collectively, three nominations for the show," said Alan Poul, one of the troika of directors of the HBO show about the operators and clientele of a family funeral home.

Show directors/producers Poul and Alan Ball as well as director/actress Kathy Bates were nominated for the episodes "Nobody Sleeps," "I'm Sorry I'm Lost" and "Twilight," respectively. The remaining two nominations went to Jon Cassar for Fox's "7:00 AM–8:00 AM" episode of 24 and Christopher Misiano for the "25" episode of NBC's The West Wing.

"The show is tone, and tone derives from characters," Poul told those who attended a discussion on January 24 that was moderated by director Michael Pressman and interspersed with clips from the nominated shows. "Aside from us," Poul added, "we are successful in director hiring. The directors have had to establish tone. Each episode shifts to a different tone. You have to make sure you're walking that fine line."

"Absolutely," Ball agreed. "You have to know what that tone is from the beginning. You have to make sure that the comedy isn't being played for laughs, therefore killing it. Then, too, the tone can be too somber, or too emotional, and that can be problematic, as well."

Cassar's guidelines are prescribed and rigid only in that 24 is shot in "real time," and in its reliance on up to 40 percent and 50 percent of coverage of telephone conversations. These are often depicted via a multi split-screen technique. Cassar said the show relies on handheld cinematography with its moving, so-called "dirty" frame.

"Individual directors get a lesson in how to shoot," said Cassar, who has directed about a third of the episodes of 24. "Some of them have trouble going back to the standard three-camera lighting setups for series. The environment is in-the-moment all the time, because of all the coverage. As a director, you have to keep all of this constant juggling in control. [Actor] Kiefer Sutherland says that he treats the handheld guy as one of the actors. We hide behind things, peering in for the audience. We're sneaky. We do none of the standard mediums, close-ups and overs.

"Stephen Hopkins directed the pilot and, looking at the script, noticed all of the phone calls ahead to shoot. These phone calls have been recognized as a nice signature for the show," Cassar explained. "All of the actors are there for the opposing phone calls, and Kiefer is there for that, too. We have to have all of the phone calls in synch and found out in the first year, when some of the phone calls weren't in synch, that we had to have the actors on the other end. We've had huge performance moments on phones."

Cassar said that continuity on the show is helped by the fact that one director is assigned to back-to-back episodes; his "7:00 AM–8:00 AM" was the finale, but he also directed the preceding "6:00 AM–7:00 AM" episode. "It's like shooting a two-hour movie," he said, adding that the same locations and "splinter" unit are usually used for both episodes.

Procedures are less "fixed" on Six Feet Under. For one thing, HBO isn't locked into the weekly grind that has historically impacted network TV and sent high-achieving shows to hiatus rather than deliver an inferior product. Poul and Ball said that episodes sometimes clocked in at more than an hour, but have also been as short as 49 minutes. The writers, Poul said, convene in October, the show begins shooting in December, and is on the cable net by June. Post-production wraps in July.

Ball, who won the DGA Award last year for directing the Six Feet Under pilot, cited individual directors' approaches as significant. "Kathy Bates approaches actors very specifically," he said. Bates, along with Misiano, were unable to attend the discussion. "She'll say, 'This is how I need to talk to Peter. Now, this is how I need to talk to Penelope.' "

"We come in with a shot list," Poul said. "Kathy, on the other hand, unless there's a montage moment, will not. She will prep the shot as it is in the script and block it out with [director of photography] Alan Caso. Then, with two takes, she's got it. She's one of those actors who gets it in her head and in to her heart. She really knows what she's doing. Actors are often the emotional center, and the director articulates that."

Poul came to directing via producing, Bates from acting and Ball from writing, most famously the Academy Award-winning screenplay for American Beauty, which also received the 1999 DGA Award for Feature Film Directing by Sam Mendes. Cassar came to the vocation after being a Steadycam operator. He said that the question he gets asked most as a director is what he says to help individual actors in their performance.

"I have an assistant who's ambitious," Cassar explained. "When he sees me whisper anything to Kiefer, he's there, asking, 'What'd you say?' I had never thought that much about it, because what I've said has been natural and instinctive. A lot of it has to do with the story we're telling — what tone the actor should have. Kiefer relies on me to be his check, and I can offer only what I think is true to the tone."

Poul, Pressman and Cassar all feel that the trend in episodic has been toward fewer freelance directorial assignments. "This used to be a writer's medium," Poul said. "By keeping directors in place, it helps maintain consistency. Because we do so few shows a year and have such a large stable of directors, we could book up a year with the same directors. But we always keep our eyes open for new talent, to expand the universe of our directors."