More than just talent is needed to be a director, says Bobby Roth who has helmed 97 episodes of TV shows including Lost, Revenge, Criminal Minds, Prison Break, The Mentalist, Grey’s Anatomy, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D and Hawaii Five-0. This is something he learnt later in his career.
“How you talk to people is more important than your talent as a filmmaker. Yes, few people are so talented that they can survive their own bad personality, but most people cannot because there are so many people who are good and nice. Why would you want to deal with somebody who’s good (at his job), but a jerk?” shared Roth, who was in Kuala Lumpur to teach a five-day Directing Masterclass organised by Edu Assist Foundation Malaysia.
“I’m much nicer today,” added the 69-year-old, with a twinkle in his eyes, while speaking softly but eloquently. “It’s my desire in life to harness my energy, not waste it.
“I’ll give you an example. When I was young, I wanted to see every costume of every actor, every day of the show. But it’s a waste of time. What makes more sense, is you get a great costume designer, and you trust that person. Then, you spend your energy instead with the cinematographer, with the actors, and really think about how you can elevate the material.
“Don’t worry about the little details because nobody is going to say, well, the story’s done, but I really liked that sport jacket.”
Although he grew up in Los Angeles – the hub of filmmaking – Roth had no inclination of venturing into showbiz. He thought he’d follow in the footsteps of his father who sold carpets.
However, he became aware of the political activities that was happening around him in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and started writing poetries about the state of the world which is how he ended up studying Philosophy and Creative Writing in University of California, Berkeley.
Upon discovering writing is a solitary job, he looked into filmmaking as he figured making documentaries would incite change. He then got his Bachelor of Arts in Cinemas from University of Southern California.
But his path to filmmaking really began after writing and directing a dramatic movie as a film student in University of California, Los Angeles, and falling in loving with telling stories visually. He pursued that dream by shooting his first film titled Independence Day in 1976, which took him to Chicago International Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival.
Since then, his movies (Heartbreakers, Jack The Dog, Manhood, Berkeley) have been shown in many film festivals around the world, five of which have premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m almost finished with a new movie called Pearl, which I hope will be in film festivals this coming year. I just heard the end song this morning which was done by Bruce Springsteen’s wife (Patti Scialfa) who is a wonderful writer and singer. Bruce Springsteen is my brother-in-law,” said the independent film auteur who’s married to Springsteen’s younger sister, Pamela.
“She wrote and performed the song, and I just heard it for the first time; it made me cry. It’s so beautiful. It’s everything I want my movie to be. I feel very lucky because I have a lot of friends who’ve helped me.”
One of those friends is director Michael Mann, who created the 1980s hit show Miami Vice and gave Roth his first chance to direct an episode of the TV show back in 1984.
“I only did Miami Vice because I was friends with Michael and I did it for fun. Little did I know that I would do 97 episodes of television shows after that.”
While his first love remains making indie movies, Roth knows only too well the road to making such films is challenging; most of them don’t make money, and even more difficult to get financing. So he takes on the director-for-hire gig to finance his films.
“One year, I think it was 2006, I did 11 shows: six episodes of Prison Break; two Lost; went to Canada for a sci-fi series, came back and did two episodes of Lincoln Heights. It was great. I mean, it killed me and it probably wrecked my marriage, but, I was working all the time … I’m a better filmmaker because I did so much work,” stated Roth, father to a 34-year-old son with first wife Leslie Tobin Bacon, and a 16-year-old daughter with his current partner.
“Don’t go in this business if you don’t want to work hard. That’s what I’ve learned. I see how my brother-in-law works, nobody works harder than Bruce. He is one of the richest men in showbusiness, and yet it doesn’t make a difference to him at all. He just works so hard,” he said.
Roth also recalled that before he flew to Hawaii to direct an episode of Lost, during the show’s third season, he watched all the previous episodes. “I watched 55 episodes in two days. This was on Wednesday and Thursday because on Friday, I was going to get on an airplane to go direct an episode.”
According to Roth, it’s OK to make mistakes along the way in one’s career. He admits to making a lot of them in his younger days and some mistakes had hurt his career.
“But you know, the thing is, sometimes the mistakes you made are necessary to go forward.”
Here’s a transcript of the interview.
Having directed 97 TV episodes, what has been the most profound change about TV?
Well, the biggest change, I think, is that the writing has gotten so much better. When I started, the writing for television was not very good, and not very artistic. And not just the writing. It’s everything about it has become more cinematic. I don’t even know if you call Game Of Thrones television. It’s not a movie. But it’s better than most movies.
I used to watch 300 movies a year when I was in film school, because there was no other way to see a movie except to go watch them … That was the only way you could watch them, you didn’t have a phone. You watched them on the big screen. It was wonderful.
So students today, if they see 20 movies a year in the cinema, that’s a lot. And it’s different, the experience is different than watching something on your phone, on your computer, it’s just not as good to me. I love the concentration. And I love the use of the medium for the cinema. And I think some of that has been taken out by television.
When I did Prison Break, or Lost, they wanted the shows to be cinematic. They wanted to tell the story with images, even though they still did, for me, too many close ups they at least honoured the storytelling visually.
So that’s the biggest change. And then you get things like Breaking Bad or, The Sopranos which was the beginning of what’s now today, Game of Thrones, Black Mirror, whatever. I mean, there’s there’s a lot of really cinematic stuff on. So I don’t know if you call it on television.
You see a lot of movie stars going to television now …
It’s because of the writing. Everybody wants to go where the good writing is.
The problem with movies has always been that it’s hard to get them made. They’re expensive. They’re one off, you know … whereas the thing I love about TV was that, come Friday night, Hawaii Five-O is on.They’re not going to not show anything; there’s going to be a Hawaii Five-0 in that slot.
Do you think there’s just so many TV shows now that we can’t keep up?
I don’t think there’s really more, it seems like that because the shows are smaller, they’re only maybe 10 episodes as opposed to 23 or 24 previously. And we watch British TV, we watch Danish TV, etc. So I don’t really think there’s that much more, it can feel this way.
I think what’s happening is few things have become so expensive, like going to the movies is expensive, going to a basketball game is expensive. Now in Los Angeles, a normal person can’t afford it, the tickets are too expensive. So you pay whatever it is $10, $12, a month for Netflix, and you can watch all kinds of stuff. So I think the market is just shifting as to how people are watching TV …
Speaking of that, what’s your view on people watching shows and movies on their phones and tablets.
I tell this story that a few years ago, I was on an airplane, and I’m sitting in the aisle seat, and the guy in the aisle seat next to me is watching something on his phone. And I kind of look at it, and realised it’s a show I directed. He was watching Prison Break.
And I thought I never intended anybody to see it this big. I mean, I thought at least it would be on television. And, then I thought no wonder, part of the reason the show was popular, was because it was all close-ups, so many tight close ups, which look better on the phone, right? And so much energy, so that even if children are crying, are you around, you know you’re on the bus, it’s still kind of commands your attention.
And so I think the way people are watching, and where they are watching is determining a little bit the content of the show. I personally am not happy about it, but you have to go with the way the world is … I hope that the world will shift back.
Fans of Game Of Thrones spoke out vocally, on the Internet, at the way the series was handled recently. Did you face such things when you were directing Lost?
When I’m directing a show, I’m not authoring it, I’m interpreting what the writers do. So I get asked to tell a story in a certain way. It has an effect for sure, because when I was doing Lost – I remember, the first episode I ever did was a very important episode, it was Ben’s backstory (The Man Behind The Curtain, Season 3, Ep 20) and it was a big challenge, because it was like a horror movie. It was very frightening.
In the script it says: “all hell breaks loose”. And then you’re the director, and they say, Do whatever you want. But what does that mean – and all hell breaks loose? So I did it a bit like a horror movie where objects spun around and bottles came up flying off on their own, and the lantern goes on the floor and starts a fire. And it was fun. It was a challenge.
But when we were doing it, they didn’t ever tell me if Jacob was actually there or not. Which is a big thing for directors, either there is a person in the chair, or there’s nobody in the chair.
So I call the producers, they’re in Los Angeles and I am in Hawaii, and I said, “well, is he there or not?” And they said, “What do you think?” And I go, I don’t want this responsibility. Right? But I have to because I’m the director.
So I say OK, I’m going to shoot it both ways. I’m going to shoot it with an empty chair and make the chair move with no person. And then I’m going to try to put a person but there was no actor.
So what I did was I looked around the set, the scariest looking person was the prop guy. He had a very thin face, he had long hair. So I put a lot of makeup on him. And I had him sit in the chair for like, two minutes. When we cut it, there was only eight frames. That’s a third of a second. That’s the only time he’s on camera. One third of a second.
Except people are so crazy about Lost that the next day on the internet, they froze the frames, and they blew them up. And there was a whole controversy. Who is this?
So the producers say to me, what have you done? And I said, No, I didn’t do anything. Because you didn’t have to put it on TV. You know? I mean, you saw it first, right? We were laughing. And that’s the way it is on TV.
Then the next year, they cast an actor Mark Pellegrino, to play Jacob, right. And I knew him, but I knew him from Prison Break. And I didn’t know he was going to be the guy. I had no idea who’s going to be the guy.
And obviously, he didn’t look at all like the Jacob that I used, you know. But that’s the thing that’s fun, but I think a little surprising to people is, we’re not sure what we’re doing. Because it’s art. So we try things. And those producers were pretty open.
When directing shows that you feel doesn’t fit you, do you look back at that episode and think I could’ve done better?
Well, I’ll be honest with you, I think they could have done better because they edited my show. Often on those shows the final version is not what you shot. How it works is, we do the show, and then I cut my version. And the producers look at it and then they re-cut it. And I usually judge how well I did by how much is mine.
So with Lost, the final versions looked very much like what I gave them. Because they’re they were pretty interesting guys, and they weren’t really so driven by their ego. If they liked it, they let it stay. Steven Bochco was like that, he changed very little.
I’m like most people, I like having the control. I thought those are better. Because they were my version.
I did a show, I’m not going to tell you the name, in Canada once, and what I shot was not at all what was on TV, and I hated it. I just had a difference of opinion … you’re not gonna connect with everybody.
So do you at that point, let it go?
You have to. Sometimes I never see the final version. OK, if I really have a bad situation like, like this show I’m talking about … it was so not what I wanted. But you can’t take your name off the show. You’re just not allowed to do that. They kind of buy your name. And so you just try to forget it and move on.
If there’s one thing that you can tell your younger self, what would be what would be?
Unfortunately, I’ve learned so much there’s a lot I would tell my younger self. But you know, the problem is sometimes the mistakes you made, are necessary to go forward. Because sometimes I find myself being timid. And when I was young, I just there was no one I wouldn’t go after. And I mean, if I wanted an actor, they could be a big star. And I would find a way to get to him.
When I was 24, 25, I got very lucky. And I got an invitation to show my film to the head of Paramount Studios. And I think he watched the whole movie. And it was my first feature. And he didn’t like it at all. And he said to me, “You have no talent. He said you should go into your father’s business.” And because I was young and arrogant, I walked out of his office and I thought, well, he doesn’t know anything.
Now, the older me might say, Oh, my God, they had a Paramount head tell me I should I should not make films anymore. But I just thought, screw him. I mean, he doesn’t know anything. I probably wouldn’t do that today. I think the important thing is I didn’t listen enough. And I fought. I fought over everything. Now I try to think more about what’s the point of the battle.
So they say to you, you have to cut this character, you have to cut this line, and you think they’re wrong. You have to really think about the fact that you work for them. And your job is not to fight them. Your job is to either show them you’re right, or take their note and make the show better with their note.
So that’s very different than my youth. I just thought I just said no, it should be this way. I was very arrogant. And I made a lot of mistakes. And they hurt me.
I’ll tell you one quick story on the show Fringe, I was doing an episode. And one night, I’m in New York, it’s late and it’s freezing. I’ve been shooting all night, it’s one in the morning. Meanwhile, in LA, where the producers are, it’s warm, and it’s only 10 at night.
I get into the van, and get a call from the producers. They want to give me some criticism from what I shot the day before. OK, I’m in a bad mood and I have a big mouth. I say things on that call that I wish I hadn’t said. Because the guy said, ‘You know, I was envisioning a shot, like Hitchcock through the window.’ And I said, ‘Do you know that there’s no window in the real place that we shot that we didn’t have an exterior? So how would I do that?’
That’s not the way to talk to them. I should have said, that’s a great idea, I would do that next time.
If I had done that, my career would be very different. And I don’t know if it would have been better or worse, but I think it would’ve been better.
But when I got older, I made it a priority to make people who you’re working with to feel good. Nobody wants to know that you’re smarter than them. And that they’re stupid for their ideas. That’s just bad. And so that’s one of the bigger lessons I would tell my younger self.