What You Can Learn from Shadowing on 'Homeland'

I loved this article so much that I wanted to repost it. Anyone interested in getting into TV directing will love it to. If you get the opportunity to shadow a TV directed please take it!

Claire Danes in "Homeland"

Claire Danes in "Homeland"

Guest Post: What I Learned Shadowing on 'Homeland'

By Susan Youssef | Women and Hollywood February 29, 2016 at 3:11PM

A year ago, I went to a "diversity" lunch at Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. I was hesitant to attend, because the overwhelming majority of those who currently fill this position are white men, but I am one of many women and people of color striving towards coveted work as an episodic director. 

I had been invited to attend by the Fox Global Directors Initiative (FDI), a lab for episodic directing of which I am a member. Attendees of the lunch included some of the most prominent directors working in serialized television and I was glad to be seated at a table with Lesli Linka Glatter, the executive producer and director of  Showtime's "Homeland."

There are so few women who do what Lesli does, she is a director AND an executive producer of the show. Lesli exudes the essence of what people always say they want in a director: laid-back confidence. Lesli invited me to the "Homeland" set in Berlin, as a "shadow" which literally means I would shadow a director working on a set, from preproduction through production. When I notified Fox Audience Strategy (who lead the Fox Lab), the women, Nicole Bernard and Gina Reyes, who know the uphill struggle it is to get into episodic directing, were able to organize support for me for my time. It was a win win for them because I am part of the lab but also because "Homeland" is produced by one of Fox's studios.  

As an Arab American, "Homeland" is a complicated show. While I admire the feminist bend of the show, it has an unusual leading female protagonist, yet the show includes some angles about the Middle East and Islamic civilization which are challenging, if not problematic.

But everyone close to me told me that I needed to take this opportunity. There are so few Arab American directors working in Hollywood and, this would be an empowering moment for me, as I would be working closely with Lesli. She was not asking me about my background or ideas. She was asking me if I’d wanted to learn more about episodic directing. I had never been on a serialized drama set before. I took this gracious opportunity, it was a gift I needed to receive.

I am a filmmaker who has lived and worked throughout the Middle East. My first feature film, "Habibi,"  is the story of an artist declaring his love through graffiti on the walls of the Gaza Strip.  As it turned out, the "Homeland" episode I observed, "Super Powers," was exclusively set in Berlin, and didn’t have anything directly to do with Arabic content or characters. That was good for me, because that let me focus exclusively on learning the technical craft.  

So, how exactly does shadowing work? Shadowing is an opportunity to watch veterans do their work well, and to ask many questions. I would stand by the side of the director and watch the day to day minutiae of making the episode. I got to witness a 70- person crew operate. I observed that the entire set maneuvered around facilitating the actors’ abilities to do their work. There was a moment when one actor had serious qualms about the blocking of a scene. The director, director of photography and first assistant director stepped in to provide solutions in a positive, nurturing way. Within mere seconds, the issue was resolved.

That’s the key theme -- the set barely ever missed a beat. I watched Claire Danes throw herself on the ground in the woods for a rehearsal before the team had a chance to lie down a mat for her. It was a moment of complete and utter selfless professionalism. Everyone was there to work. It was not glamorous. It was not luxurious. It was a job. The set is super busy and the hours are incredibly long.

I asked hundreds of questions in my first few days. People got comfortable with me and wanted to tell me things. I would also overhear many things. I quickly discovered that no matter how perfect a situation can be, someone will always have an opinion. I have learned to not make subjective comments about other people’s work on a set. Likewise, shadowing is not the time to make pitches.

As Lesli is also the executive producer, and cannot direct every episode, she matched me with the gentle and modest Keith Griffin Gordon, who was the director of "Super Powers," which was the third episode of the series' fifth season.

When I observed Keith interacting with the writing team, I noticed that he asked every question possible about intention, practically line by line of the script. I understood that Keith was working to deliver performances based on the writers’ motivations for the scene as part of the overall theme of the series. Lesli expressed that I must not just be loyal to the writers’ ideas, but to be able to elevate them visually.

Still, my greatest lesson from Lesli came via her attitude. She was nothing but completely positive the entire time. I asked her if the positivity was a trained muscle. She said it was. She works twelve hours a day, for months on end, and constantly had a glowing face for everyone on set. I aspire to develop that kind, loving, professional muscle. What the director can most contribute is respectful and joyous leadership.

On the "Homeland"set in Berlin, the other Arabs and Muslims that I met were in the transportation department. I had a great time joking around with them. We ate together sometimes. I felt like I had a behind-the-scenes cheerleading squad as I was working to break in.

My producer from my first feature now lives in Berlin and took me out on weekends in the Lebanese neighborhood of Neukölln. I felt privileged. A woman with my background -- not only as an Arab but also someone raised working class -- was getting so close to TV directing. And I could feel everyone around me wanting me to get there. It is my obligation to do whatever I can --  to honor my background and to achieve my dreams. 

The reality is that there are only rare occasions when an open directing position becomes available in situations such as this. The producers find the shadowing director to be a great match, and the studio and network agree. Actually, at this moment, four out of the twenty women of our lab have broken into episodic directing.

In the coming month, I am beginning production of my second feature film, "Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf," an expansion of my short film that was an official selection in the Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, with the backing of the Fox Global Directors Initiative, I will be directing a Fox branded short, which I have written, that will be circulated to Fox executives upon completion.

As a director, my job is to create my dream. My experience on "Homeland" got me closer to that dream. 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes! And Hollywood seemed to not always prefer male screenwriters.

We spend so much time focusing on how Hollywood keeps the ladies down in the industry, and that is of course mostly true! But I do think it is important to remember that female screenwriters have left their mark in Hollywood since the beginning. Let's look at Anita Loos, who penned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and who turned out 200 screenplays between 1912 - 1917; 200 screenplays! Can you even imagine this!

But there are others, like Frances Marion, who held the box office in 1930 with her film Anna Christie.

Below is an article by Matthew Hammett Knott listing some of the most important and influential female screenwriters of our time. What I find interesting is that many came up in the early days of cinema. It is as if we as an industry regressed.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos

Frances Marion with Mary Pickford

Frances Marion with Mary Pickford

Heroines of Cinema: 10 Female Screenwriters You Should Know

By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire

Most of us could do with knowing more screenwriters, male and female. It is a role that continues to get criminally little attention compared to directors, some of whom will happily claim the possessory “A film by...” credit even when that film has been entirely scripted by someone else. Nevertheless, female screenwriters in Hollywood, where 88% of screenplays produced last year were written by men, must contend not only with the usual entrenched sexism, but enduring fears and prejudices towards any script with identifiably "female" themes (should this be what they choose to write).

Despite this, many women have succeeded in grappling successfully with the Hollywood beast, since the earliest days of the industry. This article is not intended as a list of the "greatest" female screenwriters of all time - always a dubious exercise in an industry so rife with structural prejudice - but simply as a very short introduction to ten names more than worthy of attention.

Naturally, such a list requires leaving out many deserving writers, particularly Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and everyone from Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) to Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”). Feel free to add any others below. I have not included writer / directors other than those who have written screenplays for other directors. And yes, racial diversity is lacking. While women such as Shonda Rimes (“Gray’s Anatomy”), Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), Felicia D. Henderson (“Soul Food”) and Aisha Muharrar (“Parks and Recreation”) have earned significant creative freedom working in television, the feature film industry, and studio system in particular, has a far weaker record. The only non-white woman ever nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, Suzanne de Passe, was not a screenwriter by trade.

As for who does best represent modern Hollywood, there were numerous contenders, with Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) chief among them. In the end, I opted for someone who is vocally engaged with feminist concerns, and therefore perhaps the most natural heir to the women who preceded her.

JUNE MATHIS (1889 - 1927)

Signature work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Her story: June Mathis may not be a well-known name, but she is one of the most influential characters in Hollywood history. Appointed head of Metro’s script department in 1920, she became the first ever female executive in the industry, and one of the most powerful overall. Her claims to fame include discovering Rudolph Valentino, who she insisted on casting as her heroic lead in “The Four Horsemen”, despite fears he was “too ethnic and too fat”, in D.W. Griffith’s charming indictment of the future international sex symbol. Aside from being a female pioneer, Mathis is also considered one of the greatest influences on the modern screenplay format - one of the first screenwriters to include stage directions and physical settings in her work, her insistence on unity of plot and theme drove forward the development of silent film as a narrative form and remains a hallmark of Hollywood storytelling to this day. Her relative obscurity can be attributed in part to her early death from a heart attack aged just 38, by which time she had already accumulated 113 film credits.

In her own words: If you are vibrating on the right plane, you will inevitably come in contact with others who can help you. It's like tuning in on your radio. If you get the right wave-length, you have your station.

FRANCES MARION (1888 - 1973)

Signature work: Anna Christie (1930)

Her story: “Anna Christie”, the highest grossing feature of 1930, is famous as the film which revealed the voice of silent film star Greta Garbo for the first time. What is less known is that its writer Frances Marion was one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood at the time. Despite enjoying enormous creative freedom under a long-term contract at MGM, Marion was never fully enamored with the Hollywood system - discussing “Pollyanna”, one of her many hit collaborations with superstar Mary Pickford, she describes how “we proceeded with the dull routine of making a picture we both thought nauseating. I hated writing it, Mary hated playing it”. In 1930 she became the first woman to win a screenwriting Oscar for “The Big House”, but by the mid-1940s she had decided to leave behind Hollywood altogether to concentrate on a career as a playwright.

In her own words: The newspapers sure have loused me up, calling me a sexpot! Where'd they ever get such a screwy idea?

JOAN HARRISON (1907 - 1994)

Signature work: Rebecca (1941)

Her story: Joan Harrison studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne before becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary, soon progressing to writing and eventually producing scripts for him. For a time she was the only woman producing feature films in Hollywood. Twice Oscar-nominated, including for Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, she is one of several women deeply involved in Hitchcock’s output and yet rarely celebrated (two other collaborators, Peggy Robertson and his wife Alma, were belatedly recognized in last year’s biopic “Hitchcock”). Unlike those two however, Harrison’s ascendency through Hitchcock’s ranks ultimately led her beyond his stable to a writing and producing career of her own.

In her own words: No production which does not satisfy the feminine point of view is a success.

RUTH GORDON (1896 - 1985)

Signature work: Adam's Rib (1949)

Her story: Ruth Gordon is best known for her acting roles in later life, most famously “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Harold and Maude”, but her preceding career had a fascinating trajectory. An actor of moderate success in mostly supporting roles, in 1942, aged 46, she married 30 year old writer Garson Kanin and the pair embarked on a joint screenwriting career. Their greatest success was the classic Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy romantic comedy “Adam’s Rib” - the couple were close friends with Hepburn and Tracy, and able to fine tune the screenplay to their personalities. The collaboration resulted in a hit film and Gordon’s second Oscar nomination. Her total of three screenwriting nominations make her the all-time most nominated woman for original writing.

In her own words: If you believe, then you hang on. If you believe, it means you've got imagination, you don't need stuff thrown out on a blueprint, and don't face facts - what can stop you? If I don't make it today, I'll come in tomorrow.

BETTY COMDEN (1917 - 2006)

Signature work: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Her story: In 1930s New York, aspiring actors Betty Comden and Adolph Green were introduced, and began a legendary six-decade collaboration that has been called the longest-running creative partnership in Hollywood history. "It's a kind of radar," Comden explained. "We don't divide the work up, taking different scenes. We sit in the same room always. I sit at the typewriter. Adolph paces more. A lot of people don't believe this, but at the end of the day we usually don't remember who thought up what". Despite common misconception, the pairing was never romantic. Spanning Broadway and Hollywood (with seven Tony awards from twelve nominations being a sign of Comden’s success in the former arena), their biggest success came with “Singin’ in the Rain”, commonly hailed as the greatest film musical ever made.

In her own words: There is something about the creative process... which is that you can't talk about it. You try to think of anecdotes about it, and you try to explain, but you're never really saying what happened.

ELAINE MAY (born 1932)

Signature work: Tootsie (1981)

Her story: Like Gordon and Comden, Elaine May initially rose to prominence as one half of a duo, in this case with Mike Nichols. The pair developed an improvisational comedy act in 1950s New York which was considered groundbreaking and highly acclaimed, but in 1961 at the height of their fame, the pair decided to head in separate directions - Nichols as a director, May as a writer. May did subsequently direct films herself as well as working as a writer-for-hire - her work on “Tootsie” went uncredited, but as the sole woman involved in the creative process, there are many lines in the final film that one suspects bear her touch. She resumed her collaboration with Mike Nichols after a more than thirty year absence by writing the screenplay for his 1996 remake of “The Birdcage” - still the most financially successful film ever with a gay lead character.

In her own words: What is important in life and art? You know, when I was very young, I thought it didn't matter what happened to me when I died so long as my work was immortal. As I age, I think, Well, perhaps if I had to trade dying right now and being immortal was just living on, I would choose living on.


NORA EPHRON (1941 - 2012)

Signature work: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Her story: Nora Ephron was born into the business - her parents Henry and Phoebe were a screenwriting duo, while two of her sisters became screenwriters. Despite this, Ephron herself went into journalism, a career at which she thrived until the day she helped her then-husband Carl Bernstein re-write the screenplay adaptation of his book All the President’s Men. Her version of the script was never used, but it led to her first screenwriting work in television, and Hollywood came calling soon after. Her screenplay to “When Harry Met Sally” is considered a classic of the genre, while scripts she directed herself range from “Sleepless in Seattle” to her final film “Julie and Julia”. Despite the occasional misfire (The "Bewitched" remake), she remained until her death last year one of pitifully few women in Hollywood regularly entrusted with large budgets to tell original tales.

In her own words: Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.

CALLIE KHOURI (born 1957)

Signature work: Thelma and Louise (1990)

Her story: Callie Khouri’s current hit television series “Nashville” has been acclaimed for its multi-layered female leads, but such praise can be no surprise to the woman best known as the writer of “Thelma and Louise”. Her first produced screenplay, it made Khouri the first woman to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for a solo-authored script. She has frequently spoken of her desire to create flawed female characters, explaining of Hayden Panettiere’s character in “Nashville” that “I’m putting out a character right now who needs a serious talking to about the way she deals with people and the way she so happily exploits herself. But I’m also showing that she’s more than that”. “Thelma and Louise” may not have turned out to be the game-changer for women’s representation in Hollywood that many hoped it might be, but it remains an iconic and enduring classic, both on feminist and purely cinematic terms.

In her own words: Let them get their deal worked out about the way women are treated in films before they start hassling me about the way men are treated. There's a whole genre of films based on the degradation of women, and until there's a sub genre of women doing the same thing to men in numbers too numerous to court, then just shut the fuck up.


Signature work: Howard's End (1992)

Her story: The only woman to win two Oscars for screenwriting (for “Howard’s End” and “A Room with a View”), and the only person to win both the Booker Prize and an Academy Award, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was one third of the legendary production outfit Merchant Ivory. Along with producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory, their output in the 1980s and 1990s was so prolific and distinctive that the term “Merchant Ivory” became shorthand for a genre. An acclaimed novelist, Jhabvala did not even consider filmmaking until approached by Merchant and Ivory well into her thirties. Despite her huge subsequent success in the field, with twenty three screenplay credits, she retained a self-deprecating disdain for the discipline, listing “writing film scripts” among her recreations in her Who’s Who entry.

In her own words: I told them I’d never done anything like this before. But they said 'It doesn’t matter. We haven’t either’.

DIABLO CODY (born 1978)

Signature work: Juno (2007)

Her story: Diablo Cody matched Callie Khouri’s achievement in winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for her debut produced screenplay. Cody has faced plenty of criticism, but she is one of very few women in Hollywood succeeding in seeing her original screenplays produced on a regular basis. This is no mean feat - as Cody describes, “the attitude toward women in this industry is nauseating. There are all sorts of porcine executives who are uncomfortable with a woman doing anything subversive. They want the movie about the beautiful girl who trips and falls, the adorable klutz”. This only makes it more impressive that Cody’s output includes screenplays such as “Young Adult”, a film featuring a female anti-hero in a mould almost always male.

In her own words: Only male writers can afford to be coy and self-deprecating.