Kodak InCamera Web Exclusives: David Nutter: A Director’s Perspective
[Original article here]
Director David Nutter and script supervisor Kathleen Mulligan go over script with Eric Close (center) who stars in “Without a Trace.” (Photo by Gale Adler/CBS © 2002 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
David Nutter: A Director’s Perspective
David Nutter is a director and producer of compelling television programming who specializes in pilots. He has directed 15 pilots for television series, and all 15 have been picked up for production as series – an unparalleled record of success. Nutter attended high school in Dunedin, Florida, and studied at the University of Miami, where he realized that his dream of being the next Billy Joel might not pan out. He took a film-related class, loved the process, and decided to pursue a career in motion pictures. His first directorial effort, Cease Fire, met with critical acclaim and led to a shot at directing episodic television. Since then he has earned three Emmy® nominations as a director, and shared an Emmy for Best Direction for his chapter of the Band of Brothers miniseries. His credits include episodes of Entourage, The X-Files, The West Wing, ER, Nip/Tuck, The Mentalist, Without a Trace, Millennium and The Sopranos. He also directed the feature film Disturbing Behavior.
Question: How did you become interested in a career in filmmaking?
Nutter: I loved music, and I always wanted to touch the audience’s emotions. I love drawing that out of people, and found that I could do it with my directing style and the way stories and images work together. Music and storytelling with images both require rhythm. In 1981, I was making decisions about what I wanted to do with my life and I saw a movie called Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and photographed by Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC). It was such a powerful experience for me, not just because of the story it told, but how the images and the visual style of the storytelling went hand in hand. It was so wonderfully dramatic, powerful and emotional, and the images felt so delicate. I find that when film comes across as a delicate thing, that makes it precious. I am always trying to find the precious part of the story, and trying to expose that as much as possible, because it is what people will want to see.
Question: How did you break in?
Nutter: When I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t get arrested directing traffic. I was out here for a year. One day, I played golf with a few friends and a guy happened to join us. His name was Patrick Hasburgh. He had just created a show called 21 Jump Street. I had directed a low budget movie that had received some critical acclaim, but not much else. We played 18 holes, and afterward he called his producer and told him to hire me to direct an episode. I really owe so much – everything – to him, and all because of a golf game. Those are the steps that you make in your life; you go with your gut. I almost didn’t go golfing that day, and it’s taken me to this part of my life. You never know what it’s going to be or when it’s going to happen, but you always have to be prepared to grab onto that ring.
Question: What do you look for in a cinematographer?
Nutter: I look for someone who really understands the story and what is necessary to tell it. It’s all about telling a story where there is no curtain; where we as filmmakers are invisible. I believe the camera should be invisible. The tone should be fitting for the story. The attitude of the camera, and the feeling we’re trying to put across to make that emotional connection with the audience has to be seamless. It’s not always about this or that particular shot. It’s about a series of shots, like a series of notes that builds to the final crescendo. I also need someone who understands that there is so much material one needs to get in a limited amount of time. With the crazy schedules we work under, I need someone who is responsible and pragmatic as well.
Question: How did you connect with cinematographer Bill Roe (ASC)?
Nutter: I met Bill when I was preparing to direct Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was the biggest pilot at Warner Bros. at that time, and it was my second project with Jim Cameron’s fingerprints on it. I had previously done Dark Angel. It was very important to work with someone who got it, who was fast, and who understood the scope and integrity of the material. Bill and I had crossed paths many times, but never had a chance to work with each other. He was one of the guys who had survived The X Files for many years in Los Angeles, and had made it so perfect and made it look so wonderful.
Question: Describe your collaboration with Bill.
Nutter: For me, the performance is most important. But I am also a big believer in blocking the actors. I have ideas and suggestions relating to every piece of the puzzle that I need to sell a particular sequence or story. When you’re working with someone fantastic like Bill Roe, you create a shorthand with each other. When we began working on Sarah Connor Chronicles, we watched a lot of different films and talked about still frames from different movies. We talked about every situation, including densities and exposures, layers of the images, everything. Then, we just jumped in and did it. I had seen so much of Bill’s work and respected him so much that I knew he had the ability to make it fantastic. Now, it’s surprising how little we speak. We bring our ideas and collaborate on putting the pieces together.
Question: You’ve done 15 pilots, and every one has been picked up. Also, every one has been originated on film. Why is shooting on film important to you?
Nutter: In the case of Eastwick, Bill and I felt it was important because that story needed to be lush. We were telling a story of beauty with these women, who were going to be right out there for the audience. We wanted to give it a sense of majesty and a mystical feeling. I thought that the best way possible to do that, of course, was film. Warner Bros. recognized the necessity of giving this pilot the pop that it needed. I just don’t feel that video is at that level, where it can be matched one on one with film. Maybe it will happen eventually, but I haven’t experienced it yet. I think with respect to portability, and depth and richness, film might be matched someday, but never improved upon. Today, you can do so much with the latitude and the sense of light you get with film. You have so much flexibility in color correction to make things seamless. It all goes back to evoking that emotional response.
Question: Take us through the post process, and how you extend your storytelling using those tools.
Nutter: I’m there every day for the editing and sound mixing process. Editing and sound, as well shooting, are things that I take very seriously and personally. When it comes to color correction, Bill has used Tony Smith at Riot in Santa Monica going back to The X Files. We talk to Tony about the style and tone of the images. We gave Eastwick, for instance, a real burst of color. Bill comes in and spends time with Tony, and then I come in and we’ll all watch together. There is a tremendous amount of work that gets done in editing. There are so many opinions about the best way of doing something, especially when you are trying to sell a pilot. I’m often fighting to keep it as close as possible to how I originally envisioned it. You are also dealing with the clock – not so much how much time you have to do it, but the amount of time you have to tell the story.
Question: What is your advice to aspiring filmmakers who are just starting out?
Nutter: The world today is so very different with respect to making films. It’s not for just the privileged or the people who have the money to go to film school. You can grab a camera and just shoot stuff and put it on YouTube. So again, I think it’s about content and finding something that is interesting. With respect to technical things and also many creative things, there will always be someone who is better at what they do than you are. But what they don’t have is you. I always tell people to find themselves, and find out what they are most capable of doing – what they like to do the most – and try to tackle that. All the young students want to be directors but they are not all going to become directors. The key is honing in on the specifics of what really turns them on and really attacking that.