Directing the Bottle
Episodic television can be a very expensive proposition. While
some episodes cost more than others, there is a desire on everyone's
part to hit a target budget by the end of the season. As a
cable series with a limited amount of money to spend, our philosophy
has been to spend more money on the first and last two episodes of
each season. For the past three seasons, I have had the pleasure
of directing these big-spending opening and closing episodes, all
filled with drama and physical action. These are the "sexy" episodes,
the ones that garner the most attention. In them, characters are
introduced and killed off. There is more time allotted to
their production, more locations, more speaking roles. They're
the episodes that any director wants to be offered.
Then there is the bottle episode. The sad little step child
episode, spare on money, locations, sets and guest cast. (The
sad little step child whose allowance is docked in order to buy big
brother a new pair of sneaks.) We scrimp on the bottle episode
in order to afford the extravagant season openers and closers. The
bottle episode is the one guest directors don't want to be offered.
They feel punished. Why cast a guest actor when a series regular
can say the line? It's cheaper. Why go on location
when you can shoot the same scene on stage? It's cheaper. It
is often a recipe for a mediocre episode - quiet, interior, no drive.
Not so on The Shield. We've had some enormously successful
bottle episodes, directed by Nick Gomez in Season One, Scott Winant
in Season Two and Peter Horton in Season Three. The success
of a bottle episode relies on two equally important elements: a
great script and a great cast. These are critical for any
directing experience, but in a bottle show, every flaw in the script
is magnified, any misinterpretation of a moment by an actor is obvious.
There are no flashy action sequences to distract from the mistakes.
As Executive Producer on the series, I've been able to hog most
of the splashy opening and closing episodes. I got to be with
Michael Chiklis at the end of Season One when he gave an Emmy worthy
performance. Vic arrives home to find his family has fled and he
breaks down on the kitchen floor. I had the pleasure of directing
Glenn Close in this season's premier when she established her character,
Monica Rawling. A quiet, intelligent performance that, I hope,
forces a viewer to watch episode two to find out what she was thinking,
where she would lead Vic and the remnants of the Strike Team.
I am the luckiest fucking episodic director to have done this season's
bottle episode. It blows these experiences away. The
script, written by Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, was packed with potential
-- a loaded gun held to the temple of each character, an omni-present
threat of emotional violence. Each moment brimmed with the
danger of a life lived so close to the edge that catastrophe was
likely. The cast embraced it with their usual relish.
Michael had so much to accomplish. Vic tries desperately
to save his Strike Team as they disintegrate internally. He
conveys his dilemma quietly, subtly (not being able to show any of
it to Monica). This, of course, makes you want to get the
camera in his face to watch all the secrets, lies and danger living
in his eyes - they're the most expressive eyes on television
Glenn's strong and private Monica shares nothing - and everything
- in her quiet, intense glances. She gives just enough to
make you demand more. It is one of her gifts - damn her - you
must keep watching because you are never fully satisfied.
Anthony Anderson, working for a paupers wage, came to the show to
prove that he is a suburb dramatic actor. Like the series
itself, his performance of Antwon screams "Look at me! I will
not be ignored! I will be respected. I will be noticed." And
he is. His performance boils with rage as Antwon demands respect
from Monica and Vic. When he gets none, he travels through
a range of emotions usually only seen over a lifetime. He
takes us on this journey while never leaving his chair.
Benito Martinez shines this season like none before. While
he had only three scenes in this episode, he lays himself bare emotionally
and psychologically. It is usually a director's job to make
the cast feel safe. In this case, it was my job to make sure
Benito felt precarious. In Season Three, Aceveda was raped
at gunpoint. I know Benito felt threatened and unsafe by the
position in which the writers put his character, but that doesn't
compare to the danger he imposed on himself in this episode. What
incredible courage he has to be willing to explore the most dangerous
place - an emotional freefall with no safety net.
Walton Goggins is brilliant, raw, exciting and a method actor to
the point of distraction. Yet he is accessible. Walton,
as Shane, coveys something - don't ask him how, he won't know - to
which every man aspires. He is strong and masculine, yet vulnerable.
Noble yet misguided. Always searching for someone's honest
has betrayed every character on the show yet they all seem to care
about him. They see so much of themselves in him.
Kenneth Johnson, a man of few words but great presence, conveys
so much fear while searching for the strength to become a man - finally
a peer of Vic's.
CCH Pounder's Claudette tries to find the balance between noble
honesty and manipulation while interrogating the innocent sister
of a suspected serial killer. She delicately shows us crass "cop
moves" while letting us know how it pains her to do so.
Jay Karnes is my alter ego. He would say I am his. Maybe,
between us, there is a whole person. He is timid yet willing
to take Dutch to a place he's never been. At first, Jay was
concerned the audience wouldn't understand where Dutch was in this
episode, that his emotional state hadn't been properly set up. But
then he gave in, let go of his fears and delivered a performance
that let us know how self-tortured Dutch has been since strangling
the cat in Season Three.
Catherine Dent and Michael Jace had the job of carrying the "comic
runner" of the episode. A thankless job, as in an episode
such as this one, the comedic storyline is usually the first to hit
the cutting room floor. Yet Catherine and Michael so deftly
navigated the absurd comedic circumstances with which they were confronted,
never losing sight of the underlying tension created by murder of
two fellow officers, that they elevated the material to a level that
These tremendous performances were superbly captured by Rohn Schmidt,
our intuitive and inspired Director of Photography, and Bill Gierhart
and Rich Cantu, our camera operators. Every subtle detail
was squeezed out of the film by our passionate editor, Hunter Via.
All of which brings us to a new and interesting problem for The
Shield. The editors cut was 17 minutes longer than acceptable
broadcast length. That means we would need to CUT OUT 17 minutes
of story, character and passion. Well, that's TV. Everything
is usually better when it's tighter. Sometimes, beloved scenes
are sacrificed for the good of the whole episode. I was able
to make five minutes worth of cuts before walking down the hall to
tell Shawn Ryan that I just couldn't cut anymore, he had to weigh
In addition to creating the show, Shawn has been the driving creative
force behind every episode. He has a finely tuned bullshit meter
and cuts material from episodes mercilessly to get to the core. He
finds the most honest place where each scene must live. I asked
for his thoughts on the show before I cut further. To my surprise,
at midnight, I received a copy of an email he sent to the network and
studio requesting an extra half hour of broadcast time. He sent
me a separate email telling me to put back what I had cut and to stop
wrecking it by tightening. Now, Shawn avoids work better than
anyone I know. He was the kid in college that wrote the paper
an hour before class and still managed an A. I knew this was
his way of buying a couple more days before being forced to make the
requisite cuts. I was quite wrong. He made an impassioned
plea to the network to play it as a 90 minute episode. After
seeing the directors cut, they agreed with Shawn. And in what
now seems to be typical fashion for a highly regarded renegade network,
FX President John Landgraf made it happen. It is impossible
to estimate how many network chairs spun around trying to figure out
his decision. Bluntly, he liked the episode. He has taken
a risk, inspired by the work of many enormously gifted individuals.