1 TV Director Talks On the Changing TV Landscape

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Photo Source: Jan Thijs

Director Patricia Riggen had a number of film credits to her name when she decided she wanted in on the episodic television action. She started with the big leagues: Amazon’s CIA thriller “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” the first season of which is now streaming in full. Riggen spoke with Backstage about relinquishing some control when helming television versus film, how her relationship to actors changes medium to medium, and her advice for actors stepping foot on set for the first time.

What inspired you to make the leap from directing film to television?
There’s so much happening on the television front. There’s great writing, there’s great actors, everyone’s talking about TV shows. Part of our everyday conversation is following those storylines, so I wanted to experience it, and I was very thankful that I got the opportunity to jump right in. Since [“Jack Ryan”], I have already shot two more pilots.

READ: How to Become a TV Director

What’s a major difference in directing film opposed to TV?
One of the things is as a TV director you don’t participate in the development or in the post [-production] phase of the storytelling, so in television, you basically come in and you shoot. It’s limited to that. In movies, you oversee the entire process; therefore, the vision is very much yours. In the case of television, the vision is the showrunner’s, it’s the writers’, and you’re one of their tools to help craft that story.

Is it a relief in some ways to not have to worry about the broader picture when directing TV?
Not for me. That’s what I do. I made five movies before TV, so that’s who I am. I love development of the script and the characters, and of course for me it’s very important to be in the editing room, which is where the story really gets made. It’s just a different experience.

“Jack Ryan” is a big-scale action series; what specific challenges did you encounter?
It was great to have the opportunity to work in a different genre than I’ve worked in before, and it was very satisfying for me. I’m used to working outside the country and in different locations, so it was very much like a movie. The challenging thing was, it was a really big project with a lot of producers and a lot of voices. That was the part that was more challenging, navigating that kind of system.

How does your relationship to actors change in film versus television?
In film, you have much more time to build a relationship with the actors. You cast them directly, so you know them from the beginning. You also have rehearsals, so you really build that relationship, and then you get to spend a month or two or more of your life with them. In television, it’s a quicker approach. Sometimes you can get a little rehearsal time, then you jump right in. Actors in television are very experienced and very fast and know the thing very well, so it’s a little bit easier in that sense.

When you are auditioning actors, what are the things that make them stand out?
A lot of times, it has to do—and actors know this—with if you fit the role or not. Sometimes they can be a great actor, but they’re just not what the character needs. Many times, we’re faced with the big heartache of not hiring a great actor because he’s not perfect, he’s not right for the role. But of course, it’s important for them to know their lines, that’s already a great advantage. And to be at ease. It’s very hard, because I feel like the audition process is not very human, it’s not very kind. That’s why I have so much respect for actors, because they go through that every day, and it’s not fun. But in a way, we all go through it. I walk into meetings and I’m being cast, I’m being auditioned in a different way. It’s kind of part of our business. The more they do it, the more at ease they can be to just show who they are and what they have.

In either television or film, do you have any advice for actors stepping on set for the first time?
Preparation is super important. And be nice! Be nice and friendly to everyone, because everyone is always under so much stress. Learn as much as they can, observe, and then they’ll be called again. That’s something to always keep in mind: If you’re generous with your time, with your willingness to do things, people remember that and people acknowledge that.

Women are still severely underrepresented in behind-the-scenes roles such as directing. Do you have any advice for women specifically to break into direction?
This is a very good time. There’s a renewed consciousness of gender discrimination. I believe that this year and the next year or two, all the decision-makers are going to be much more conscious of how they hire people, they’re going to be open to letting women through the door. You have to do all the hard work anyway. You don’t get a free ride because you’re a woman. You have to work twice as much and that’s the truth, because we don’t get breaks and we don’t get anything. We’re held up to the highest standard at every single minute, and you just have to be prepared for that.

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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