Summer 2013

Office Work

The director of the pilot and finale of The Office reflects on the unconventional beginning and wistful ending of the popular series.


MERRY CHRISTMAS: On the last day of the pilot, The Office gang, with Kwapis in the middle, posed for a network promo shot as if it were a holiday card.

I reported for work on The Office finale, and the first person to greet me was the showrunner, Greg Daniels.

“Oh no!” he cried.

“What?” I replied, immediately concerned I’d done something wrong. (I was raised Catholic, what can I say?)

“I’m happy to see you,” Greg continued. “But you’re like the Angel of Death. The fact that you’re here means the show is about to end.”

This was my first visit to the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin in a long time, 100 episodes to be exact. I directed the pilot, and now I was back to bring down the curtain. As Greg announced at the table reading, “We’re happy to have Ken with us. He was the country vet who birthed this puppy, and now he’s returned to put the old dog down.” Everyone laughed, but I felt certain that ‘putting the old dog down’ was going to be a very emotional experience.

Nine years earlier, nothing about this show was certain. Pundits predicted that a remake of the dark, edgy British original was doomed to failure. Colleagues warned me that the venture was a mistake. A certain spouse of mine said, “They’re going to kill you.”

In a rare, once in a blue moon moment, the powers that be at NBC decided The Office wouldn’t succeed unless it behaved...a little differently. Part of my job was to pave that new path.

Though the “mockumentary” has a long, mischievous history (think of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds), it was far from typical NBC fare. It was important for me to announce to the crew that certain kinds of “mistakes” were quite welcome. At our production meeting I said, “Things that would normally get you fired on another show are encouraged here.” The goal was to create the illusion that we were trying to keep up with the action, not always successfully. I worked with the DP to choreograph mistakes. For example, the operator might pan to the “wrong person,” missing a key line of dialogue, arriving in time only for a mute reaction.

LAST CALL: Showrunner Greg Daniels (left) announced at the table read for the finale that Kwapis was “the country vet who’s returned to put the old dog down.”

There’s something wonderfully cheeky about intentional mistakes. I directed two episodes of the short-lived Freaks and Geeks. Director Jake Kasdan, who set the template for the show, gave me the perverse directive to compose shots like amateur photographs in a family album, with “way too much head room.” I could never bring myself to actually do it, but I loved that note.

Our casting choices for The Office were not standard-issue. We wanted to populate Dunder Mifflin with unknowns; moreover, we wanted people who didn’t look like they belonged on prime-time television at all. The audition process itself was unorthodox. Rather than parade our actors in front of a roomful of stone-faced executives, we shot days of improvisation, mixing and matching different candidates. Greg felt certain the show’s uncomfortable, cringe-inducing humor would never play well in front of the suits. He was right. I’ve been to plenty of network auditions and watched even the most understated performers turn into vaudevillians, desperate to sell jokes to executives who are doing everything in their power not to reach for their handheld devices. The Office demanded a completely different approach—it required a kind of anti-performance. Jenna Fischer asked casting director Allison Jones for advice about how to win the role of Pam. Allison replied, “Just go in there…and bore them.” Perfect.

Even the shooting schedule was unusual. In order to give the pilot a lived-in feel, I told all cast members to report to work even if they weren’t in a scene. Everyone arrived at 7:00 a.m. and sat at their desks all day—as if they were actually employees of a paper company. I recall somebody saying, “This is nuts. The cast will mutiny.” In fact, the opposite happened. The actors took the opportunity to personalize their desks and improvise sales calls on dummy telephones. It was a chance for the group to immerse itself in the daily grind of Dunder Mifflin—and the actors grabbed at it.

Each day began with me shooting general views of people at work in the office. The shots were incredibly dull (e.g., Oscar making copies; Stanley pouring a cup of coffee). Only a couple of them made it into the pilot, but the point was to set a tone: this was a show about mundane lives. Also, this was a show in which action would be “captured” as opposed to “staged” for the viewer. Even if a scene needed intense rehearsal and complicated blocking, the goal was to create the feeling that it was caught on the fly.

The last day of the pilot, NBC sent a photographer to do publicity stills. Here we faced an aesthetic conundrum. Our show was a “documentary.” The last thing we wanted was a cutesy publicity shot with everyone in funny poses (or, worse, jumping in the air). A staged photo was antithetical to the whole point of the show, but we had to make some concession. The network had to sell the damn thing, after all.

We wanted a rationale for the group photo, something to make it organic. So, we purchased cheesy decorations and did a Dunder Mifflin Christmas card shot. There was one final issue, which for me, at that moment, was of moral significance. The network photographer insisted that Steve Carell stand in the foreground, and he wanted to employ a wide-angle lens to exaggerate Steve’s prominence. The message was: “This is a show starring Steve Carell and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of.” If I did anything useful that day, it was to insist on the opposite: Steve should stand with the rest of the cast. “Plus,” I implored, “please put away the wide-angle lens. Nothing should scream ‘comedy.’ Just use a normal focal length and take a nice Christmas shot of the employees.”

If I’d been a tad bolder, I might also have said, “While you’re at it, add a little too much head room.”

Nine seasons later, were any of these unorthodox ideas still in use? Not really. But that’s OK. Each show develops its own language, its own metabolism, but I do feel those early choices became part of the show’s DNA. After nine years The Office was still misbehaving marvelously.

It was now time to close The Office, and there was more than a little pressure for all of us to go out with a bang. The night before I began shooting I had my usual directorial anxiety dream. (I’m confident that readers of this magazine will commiserate.) I’ve had variations of this dream for 30 years, ever since I first signed my DGA application. The basic theme is that I’m hopelessly unprepared for the day’s work, and I spend the entire dream trying to convince everyone that I know what the hell I’m doing. In this latest version, I am taking a nap in a production van, headed for location. I wake up and look at the script on my lap, only to discover—to my horror—that it’s in French. I don’t speak French. Worse, the entire crew is French, and it turns out I’m not even directing The Office, but rather a remake of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (go figure). I woke up in a cold sweat; it was 4:15 a.m.

The Office finale turned out to be one of the toughest episodic jobs I’ve ever done. Forget the task of juggling story lines for nearly eighteen characters. Forget the challenge of telling a sprawling tale that takes place one year after the previous episode. The real job was keeping the cast from crying all the time. It was hard, especially on that final day. As exhausted as the ensemble was, no one wanted it to end.

Greg wrote a beautiful speech for Andy (Ed Helms): “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” It seemed the entire group realized what they were about to leave behind, and no one wanted to let go. When we did Jenna’s final talking head, Greg kept asking for more takes. If we stayed there long enough, he told me, we might discover a whole new direction.

The final shot was quite simple: an insert of Pam’s watercolor painting of the Dunder Mifflin building. The employees troop past—they are really blurs in the foreground. After three takes, I turned to Greg and gave him a sad little nod.

“What am I supposed to do now?” he asked.

For my last act as director of the show, I needed to give the showrunner some direction.

I said, “Call everyone in. Tell them we’re finished.”

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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