Fall 2014

Perfect Timing

When opportunity knocked, Gail Mancuso walked through the door, and she’s been directing hit comedies like Roseanne, Friends, and Dharma & Greg ever since. With her recent Emmy for Modern Family, she became the first female director to win twice for comedy direction.


DGAQ Director Gail Mancuso
ALL RELATIVE: Mancuso is so well prepared she can’t wait to get to the set. (Photo: Brian Davis)

Recently, on a soundstage on the Fox Studios lot, director Gail Mancuso was shooting a scene in which the parental diplomacy skills of Modern Family’s two gay dads—Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are tested. As they pose for a family portrait, the pair discover that their adopted daughter, Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), keeps flashing a grotesque, lipless smile. Though Anderson-Emmons was obviously excelling at the funny faces requirement, it was also clear that the 7 year old was struggling with the other necessary parts of the scene. In take after take, she dropped or added words, missed her cues, or, after being asked to alter her dialogue slightly, simply ignored the direction and stuck to the original script.

If the oft-repeated W.C. Fields adage about never working with children quickly sprang to mind, Mancuso remained unruffled. Between takes, she’d leave her post in front of two monitors, make the short walk onto the living room set, kneel in front of tiny Anderson-Emmons, and using very simple language explain the arc of the scene to the young actress.

“You can’t take for granted that a child will understand something just because it’s written in the script,” says Mancuso later. “You have to break it down for her. Like, ‘This is why you’re doing this,’ and ‘This is the joke.’” The way Mancuso describes it, teasing a performance out of youngsters is a balancing act that involves keeping them focused, establishing a light, casual on-set vibe and never letting them in on the fact that time is money or that their adult co-stars are wearying of the blunders. In Anderson-Emmons’ case, Mancuso seems to have achieved all three: They finally nail the scene, and during a break between setups, Anderson-Emmons dances around the soundstage with a half-smile on her face, lost in her own little-girl imaginary world. “It’s hard for a kid to be in a grown-up place—and we want to keep it fun for her,” says Mancuso, who also keeps tabs on Anderson-Emmons’ droll delivery and world-weary expressions. “She’s so good in that part. She doesn’t push her performance. She really throws lines away. She’s not a Disney character.”

Mancuso finds directing elementary schoolers so energizing that a couple of months ago, while reviewing the latest batch of TV pilots going to series, she came across Fresh Off the Boat, a new ABC sitcom about a Taiwanese couple and their three children who immigrate to America. What immediately popped into her mind was what she could bring to the show. “I thought, ‘You know what? I could help that kid. I want to be there.’”

DGAQ Gail Mancuso directs Modern Family
Mancuso (third from right) fits right in with the cast of Modern Family. “After all these years of work, I have enough self-confidence to collaborate really well.” (Photo: Peter “Hopper” Stone/ABC)

It’s easy to assume that one of the things that makes Mancuso so successful—she has almost 450 directing credits on her massive résumé—is that where some directors see a problem, she sees the solution. But it’s also having carefully studied directors’ on-set behavior from a variety of vantage points—she was an usher, a script supervisor, and an associate director before making her directorial debut on Roseanne in 1991—she knew that the best ones arrive well prepared. They should be walking encyclopedias when it comes to a series, and never adopt an “I’m the boss” swagger. “I blend in well with the system,” says Mancuso. “After all these years of work, I have enough self-confidence to collaborate really well with the writers and producers and actors. With a show like Modern Family, it’s not just the page that you’re shooting. It’s often, ‘Let’s try this...’ and then letting it breathe.”

Mancuso will spend the next couple of hours on the Modern Family set flanked by showrunner Steven Levitan, cinematographer James R. Bagdonas, and supervising producer-writer Megan Ganz, trading ideas and occasionally suggesting how to improve a joke. “For some reason Ryan Gosling makes me laugh,” says Mancuso, shrugging. So she walks onto the set to tell the sturdily built Stonestreet to swap out a George Clooney reference to one in which he likens himself to the flyweight Notebook heartthrob played by Gosling.

The way Mancuso describes it, she got into showbiz as a fluke: Four days after moving from hometown Chicago to major in business at California State University, Northridge, she was in line at a taping of The Dating Game when she asked the guy checking in audience guests how he got his job. Suddenly, she was in the office of the head page, who knew a hardworking, moxie-filled Midwestern girl when he saw one and hired her on the spot. At the time she thought it was just about making some cash when she wasn’t in class. But it opened her eyes to the adrenaline-filled world of live television. After that, she rose through the ranks—from usher on WKRP in Cincinnati to a do-everything PA for Dick Darley, who had directed TV classics like The Spike Jones Show but had moved on to commercials. Becoming a script supervisor in 1984 was also by chance: A director friend told her the union was opening up the roster and if she joined he would hire her to supervise continuity on his new series, Showtime’s Brothers. Looking back today, she thinks of the job as the best sort of film school for an aspiring director because it not only gave her constant contact with actors, but it also put her in a great spot to observe how other directors call the shots. “You work with so many directors and you’re right there listening to them,” says Mancuso, who’d often find herself wondering, “If I was to give that actor a note, what would I say? I just sort of practiced in my head. I took from the best and I ignored the worst.”

DGAQ Gail Mancuso directs Roseanne
Mancuso, directing Johnny Galecki, got her big break on Roseanne. (Photo: Courtesy Gail Mancuso)

In 1991 Mancuso, then an associate director on Roseanne, heard that the multi-camera family comedy’s main director, John Whitesell, was leaving to direct a pilot. She approached star and executive producer Roseanne Barr with a pitch. “I told her, ‘There’s a slot available and I’d like to direct that episode,’” says Mancuso, who can still do a spot-on impersonation of Barr’s ennui-drenched, nasal delivery. “She said, ‘Well, go ahead.’”

The first time the credits rolled with Mancuso’s name listed as director was on “Becky Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a Roseanne episode about a working-class mother’s emotionally strained relationship with her defiant eldest daughter. As funny as it was, there were a lot of moving parts for a new director. But after the airing of Mancuso’s debut, Barr sidled up to her one day and whispered in the brand-new director’s ear, “I want you to do the entire next season.”

In the end, Mancuso directed 51 episodes of the groundbreaking ABC series. If the atmosphere on the Roseanne set was legendarily unpredictable, Mancuso felt that getting accustomed to high drama was in part what made her the director she is today. “It was my best job and my worst job. You have to know how to deal with situations that aren’t going well on a show, how to work with different personalities,” she says. “I learned to be patient and go with the flow. It’s just part of being a director. It’s just another hat you wear.”

Her second big gig—on a then-new NBC ensemble comedy, Friends—opened her eyes to the advantage of directing a multi-camera show shot on film. Says Mancuso, “Roseanne, at the time, was still shot on videotape, so we were actually in a video truck and my notes were translated through an [associate director]. Friends was my first time being on the floor with actors and being able to be close to them and just have a conversation with them. It’s so important. It establishes a stronger bond.” She adds that even today on a single-camera show, in which the director can typically be found off-set in a video village, she always tries to make her suggestions in person. “I think it’s rude to shout out stuff. It’s so nice to have a conversation with the actor as opposed to giving an order or even, ‘Hey, why don’t you try it this way?’”

Mancuso also learned early on that what brought out her A-game was a brand-new series with emotionally complex female characters. “Friends? Modern Family? 30 Rock? I was there from the beginning. I wouldn’t do a show in its fifth season; they’d call me and go, ‘Would you like to direct one of these?’ There’s nothing I could bring to it—that doesn’t appeal to me.”

She’s also adept at determining what shows don’t mesh well with her sensibilities. “I wouldn’t have been any good at directing episodes of Coach,” says Mancuso. “That was a very male-centric show and I’ll be the first to say that there are certain shows where I fit in better and I can help.”

DGAQ Gail Mancuso directs Ground Floor
TAKING CHARGE: As a director and co-executive producer on Ground Floor, she has made it a point to hire a diverse group of directors. (Photo: Hopper Stone/TBS)

In 2001 Mancuso got a call from an old Roseanne colleague, writer-producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, with the offer to direct an episode of her new hourlong series. Gilmore Girls was right in Mancuso’s creative niche. She got a kick out of the humor and sprawling ensemble cast as well as the show’s offbeat vision. For the first time, Mancuso was directing a show in a single-camera format while adhering to a Gilmore Girls stylistic preference. “Part of the drill was that before moving on to coverage, we would get a master shot of the scene that worked from start to finish,” says Mancuso. “It was a really good lesson under combat,” since a typical Gilmore script bulged with 90 pages of dialogue. “It helps me to this day: to shoot a nice, beautiful master that works.”

Though she was 10 years into an already thriving career—at this point, she’d directed multiple episodes of everything from The Nanny to Ellen to Dharma & GregGilmore Girls convinced her that she needed to scale back on multi-camera assignments, even though they’re more lucrative because the brief production schedule allows for back-to-back episodes. “I needed to go back to the trenches and learn a single-camera skill set,” says Mancuso. “It was a huge decision on my part, but the investment changed my career.”

She quickly adapted to single-camera, but Modern Family, which shoots mock-documentary style, was Mancuso’s dream vehicle because it blended both formats. And in 2014, she was nominated for a DGA Award. “The show is kind of multi-camera because we have two cameras going and we have to kind of block it in a way that you can get multiple angles at the same time,” says Mancuso, adding that she imagines scenes in “two to four cameras anyway.” As for prep, she believes that her full-bore, hyper-thorough approach is the reason she never has first-day jitters on a new set. “I’m like a schoolgirl,” she says. “I read the scripts, I draw diagrams. I think about the stories and the characters and their point of view. I think about blocking and where I want the actors to be. I’m so prepared, so ready for it, that I can’t wait to start shooting.”

If, at the 2014 Emmy Awards, Mancuso radiated an aura of jubilance when she accepted her Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series trophy for the Modern Family episode called “Vegas,” it wasn’t because she was just the third woman ever to receive the award. (She was also the second, having won last year for Modern Family; the first female prizewinner was Betty Thomas for an episode of Dream On in 1993.) What made this year’s victory even sweeter was the intricacy of “Vegas,” which was shot partly on location at the Mandalay Bay hotel and partly on a soundstage and was patterned after French farce.

“We wanted it to be as close to a stage production as possible,” says Mancuso, who mapped out all the precisely timed entrances and exits in a huge, color-coded diagram. The hotel hallway, which served as a main artery and functioned almost as a character itself, was tinted purple. “Mitch and Cam’s adjoining suite was orange. Jay and Gloria’s was pink. Claire and Phil’s was yellow,” says Mancuso, adding that at one point Eric Stonestreet said to her: “It’s in your hands. I just gotta believe that you know which door is which.”

At the tone meetings—“Vegas” required two of them—it was decided that the episode would start off at a normal clip, then careen out of control by the third act. Since they shot out of order, Mancuso had to keep reminding the actors where they were in the story and repeating the same note: “Now we’re in the third act.” Just to be safe, she’d have them do an extra take in which they’d recite their dialogue super-fast. “We had to make sure that the cadence was fitting. The performances had to be internally paced up. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”

DGAQ Director Gail Mancuso directs Modern Family
GOOD LOOKING: Mancuso, setting up a shot with assistant cameraman John Stradling on Modern Family, found the single-camera, mock-documentary style made the show a dream vehicle for her. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

Lately, Mancuso has been sifting through scripts, getting ready to take another leap and make her feature film debut. “I just feel like after directing all these years, I’m ripe,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to hire a [TV director who specializes in comedy]? We talk to actors every day, we know all about comic timing. I would love to have a feature under my belt.”

Another thing she’s intent on is helping more women get a foothold in the industry. “The numbers are terrible—you can’t not be aware of that,” says Mancuso, who believes it’s key that executive producers and studio executives go the extra mile. “I’m a co-executive producer on [TBS’ multi-cam comedy] Ground Floor and I told them, ‘It’s really up to us to [create diversity].’” Mancuso, who had directed all eight episodes in the series’ first season, made sure that the second season included multiple directing opportunities for women and minority directors. “It’s up to us to look for talent and to have meetings with them, and it’s up to the studios to okay them. That will get the numbers up,” says Mancuso. “That, and seeing a woman direct because the more often you see them, the more it becomes normalized.”

Then there’s the message Mancuso sends walking onstage to accept her Emmys. “Maybe little girls at home see me and think, ‘Oh, there are other jobs out there. I don’t have to be Beyoncé. I could work behind the camera. That could be my career choice.’”

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