The Hundred Hour Mentor

It caught me by surprise.

100 hours of television.

A directing milestone.

There it was.

Looming.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t counted the hours sooner. Numbers seem so much more important when you are first starting. After your “first hour,” your focus turns to getting the hard-to-find “second hour.” Then your career-defining “third hour” to “hour seventy five.”

I was at House when I realized it. In the process of transitioning a director named Miguel Sapochnik out of movies and into the more the faster-paced, and to me, more satisfying world of TV. He wanted to shadow me during the filming of an episode. It’s at that point when you realized the years went by fast. That you are passing on the craft to another generation.

Before I counted back, I reflected.

I was 23 and had made a Twilight Zone-esque short that got a great deal of attention. Short films were the ticket in and I had mine. A signed agreement with a big agency quickly followed by a three-picture deal at a major studio. Then nothing. The world of movies is a slow one. There is no urgency to put a project on the fast track to getting made. No one cares or knows or even wants your movie to happen, it seems. The deal of my dreams dried up and I was sorting mail at law firm in downtown LA.

I wanted to be working. Be on the floor. Telling stories.

In 1994, before there were 1000 channels, I recognized that content was king and the TV machine needed to be fed. Networks need their shows. Something had to be on TV day after day, hour after hour. I met with head of Universal Studios Operations, Jim Watters, who was my guiding light when I made my student thesis film. At 23, he gave me a small editing room, cameras and sound mix. A year later, he was giving me a chance to shadow a working director in TV.

The zero hour

Meeting Richard Compton on the set of Sliders would be the start of it all. Richard was “the guy” to learn from according to Jim. One of the best guys working in TV he said. Richard and I went to lunch on the lot. He was a big man with a gruff voice and kind eyes. He said quite simply, “One day I’ll be working for you. This is my pleasure and my responsibility at this point in my career. To give back.” At the time that I met Richard, TV had a high volume of syndicated series that were airing on more obscure cable networks. Syndicated TV was essentially what people now know as “Original Programming” for cable networks. Usually genre-based, syndicated TV was fast and furious. Sometimes 6, or at most, 7 days to complete. A full two days less than broadcast. It was a place to “make your bones” or “cut your teeth.” If you could get it done in syndication, you could get it done anywhere.

To shadow Richard meant that I followed him everywhere. A TV show is made of three parts: Prep. Shooting. Post. I was in every meeting. Stood next to him for every hour of shooting. Watched every frame get edited. I saw the economy of ideas to achieve maximum results. I learned how to manage a day’s work. I saw how to work from your gut. How to motivate a crew. How do you do your best work with what you are given. I respected his calm and how he kept everything straight in his head. Never once did he raise his voice. He told me something I would go on to say for the years that followed: “There are no problems, only solutions.”

The teamwork I saw on Sliders, and what I experienced in my early work in TV, I would often compare to Ed Harris’s character in Apollo 13. When the chips are down, when things seem hopeless for the trapped astronauts, he walks into the conference room with a box of items and spills them on the table. Some tape. A notebook. Rulers and a few other oddball items. “This is what they have up there,” he says. “This is what we can use to get them down.”

TV—at any hour you are directing—is just that. Walking into an impossible situation directing 8 pages in a day (a movie will usually do one or two pages a day) with a crew you never met and a script that is handed you without your choice or input. You need to take all that and make something that will please the producers and advance your career. It’s your mission should you choose to accept it.

Richard had a certain comfort on set, and I loved that in the madness of his day he always stopped to check in and see if I was learning what he hoped I would. I saw more and was learning more in one day on set than four years of film school.

The first two hours

My first job and first two hours of TV came as a result of my student film. An Israeli producer named Tsury Mimon has seen it and wanted me to make an action film in the style I shot my student film. Artsy. The result would be a made-for-HBO karate movie called Hard Justice. A cult classic and the first John Woo knock-off stateside. I had edited my short film the year before next door to John as he was cutting his American debut, Hard Target. We spent a lot of down time together. I would run into him smoking cigarettes just outside our rooms. Over the months we both were editing, our run-ins led to a friendship and also a steady diet of his Hong Kong action films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. John’s indirect mentorship seared into me a style of filming action that I would take with me when HBO’s karate gig came calling. Hard Justice (named for its shameless retelling of Hard Boiled) was a horrible film that cut a great trailer. I set out to make “the Citizen Kane” of action movies and learned (surprise!) there was no such genre. And even after Hard Justice, there still wasn’t. However, I walked away with enough images to get my next gig. Two of my first hundred hours were behind me. Those two hours were childbirth. Painful. Difficult. Draining. Joyous. Life changing.

Action is hard to execute and if you do it well, action leads to action. Chases, fake karate, gunplay were my thing because I did them well. But I wanted to make physiological dramas and I dreamed of directing a piece of theater for TV. Two people across the table talking. The dream. The goal.

Wherever you start is part of your path. I never forget that. Year one. Two hours behind me.

Daily calls, networking, sending of my reel, taking meetings, kicking open any door of opportunity would eventually pay off.

The third hour

In year two came 7 segments of America’s Most Wanted, totaling another hour of my hundred. Turns out criminals like to get chased in cars, fight the cops with karate, shoot and blow things up.

More action.

More hustling.

During this time I would stay close with Richard. He would check in with me, I with him. Seeing his travels could possibly lead to a gig for me. He was looking out and wanting to give me a shot but was largely freelancing himself, not able to make the hires for directors.

The four, fifth and sixth

Year three brought three episodes. Action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean films) was turning to TV and his first show was called Soldier of Fortune. Before he made CSI, he made a small series about soldiers for hire on the mission of the week. It was my first actual TV episode and it was an amazing ride. I had a knack for getting exciting visuals not yet seen in TV in 1995 with the added bonus of being able to do so quickly. Putting the camera in an interesting place takes as much time as putting it in a boring place. I used wider-angled lenses and started a “faces-and-places” type of shooting. Big wides. Tight, intense close-ups. The effect was both cinematic in scale but peppered with small screen moments of intimacy for the actors. A reputation was born. The crew liked my calm. I like the speed of shooting. I felt I was channeling Richard when I ran the set. Following his focus. Taking my cues from what I saw a few years before.

I didn’t love directing action but I loved that I was doing. I always made the most of every shot I got. I wanted more. I wanted to make my art and found that genre shows off the grid made it hard for anyone to shine. Shows are plot-driven and not character-driven. The more cars I blew up, the less people thought I could direct actors. The backhanded compliment of being a “shooter” was hung on me. Meaning, I could make great shots but that’s where it ended. True or not, it’s how you get pigeonholed. On the flip side, if I started making indie film dramas, no one would trust my fake karate skills.

The seventh hour to the seventeenth

Action led to more action. Off-network episodes of The Invisible Man and ten (yes, ten) episodes of girly romp VIP.

Syndication is a circuit. Eventually you’ve hit everyone and worked everywhere. You can make the rounds again, and then again, or you can have your mentor Richard Compton call you out of the blue one day and say, “I have a shot for you.”

The eighteenth hour

Richard was now the Producing Director for a short-lived NBC showed called Players. (Now only noted for introducing Ice T’s beloved character from SVU.) Dick Wolf was producing and I hoped this would lead to drama. Courtroom drama. Dick had (then) Law and Order. Getting called from syndication to work for one of the “the bigs” (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX) was exactly like the call asking a ball player to leave a farm team and go to the majors. In my case, the majors had more time to shoot and more money to execute.

When this call came I had a healthy amount of hours and experience behind me. TV was starting to “get good” in the eyes of the public. Movie-quality stories where getting told in the late 90’s with CSI being a major game changer.

Players went great. It didn’t lead to Law and Order and even though Dick produced both, I was still met with “yeah but that’s an acting show”. So Law and Order or anything dramatic would not happen for some time.

Nineteenth to thirty-ninth hours

The shows Martial Law, Nash Bridges, The Invisible Man, Cleopatra 2525, Going to California, The Black Sash, Skin, a failed pilot called “Hotel,” another HBO action movie called Double Tap, and a straight-to-video comedy called Plan B would make up my next twenty hours. I would stay busy all the time and most of the shows I worked on, no one heard of, and as a result—no one watched.

If I had downtime I would observe on other shows. I spent some time at the David Kelly camp watching The Practice and Boston Legal shot. Richard was terrific in helping make intros to his network. He was constantly giving of himself and what he learned, and asked nothing back. This selflessness and non-competitiveness was a quality that I had not always seen especially in my peers. I am not a competitive person by nature. Never excelled at sports, instead just wanted to have fun and play. I would later quote Tony Soprano when asked why I was like that. I’d reply, “There’s plenty of garbage for everyone.” Meaning, there is plenty of work. I can only do so much and need to worry about good work and not what other people are doing. Richard taught me that where you were is where you belonged and you would move on when the time was right.

Then the time was right.

The fortieth hour to the forty-sixth

My syndicated work for Sci-Fi channel (Invisible Man and Cleopatra 2525) led to a call to direct a six-hour adaptation of the 2nd and 3rd novels in the Dune series. The mini-series, Children of Dune, would be the gig that would change the game for me. It was a blend of drama and action and building of a world. I was hired less for my talents and more for my talent in being able to deal with “demanding” producers. And by demanding I mean screaming-difficult-to-work-with personalities. I dealt with “demanding” well and could execute under difficult conditions. I left for Prague to shoot for six months and I would return feeling Children of Dune was everything I wanted. A rewarding blend of all the elements. It would introduce the talents of James McAvoy to America, which was something else I found I loved. I discovered new talents (Emma Stone and Emily Blunt would also make their debuts with me.)

Forty-seventh hour to the seventy-fifth

I would emerge working fairly non-stop in the years that would follow. The CSI’s, Cold Case, Las Vegas, The Closer, Lost, Heroes, House and the pilot to Bones are some of the highlights.

I was so into my work, I only looked up occasionally. When I did, I had thoughts of finding a young director who would appreciate what I had to offer and want to be mentored himself. Who was hungry. Who was talented. I wanted to give back one day. Hoped to mentor.

And then it happened.

Richard had been sick for many years battling cancer. It was Jim Watters that called me with the news of his death. I was on set of a series called Drive, in the thick of my 76th hour. Richard was way too young with way too much left to give when he was taken. I was left stunned and left at a loss. I didn’t know the man behind the man, just his work presence. At his memorial, I got to see and meet the people he touched. Saw pictures of his life away from work and his family.

The death of someone you know brings a reevaluation of things. My deal with the studio was up and I chose to exercise my creative freedom again by going back to where I started and freelance. I wanted the excitement and rush of working with new people each week and having new challenges. I emerged after Richard’s death with twice the creativity and more to say with my work.

The eightieth hour

The Emmy® award win for an episode of House I directed would happen that next year after Richard dying. The men who shaped my life. A supportive father. A deceased mentor. My former professor. A Hong Kong director. My helping hands. All of them were up there with me in spirit. My Emmy speech paid tribute to my newborn son and I said that I wanted to thank those that helped me privately, which I did.

The Emmy® award led to a producing job as the in for House as the in-house director. I had turned away several pilot offers to stay at the show that would creatively change my life.

Eighty-first hour to the ninety-ninth hour

The hours were racking up behind me on this journey. I would spend three years directing back-to-back episodes for House. Exploring every inch of working with a great cast and being in my comfort zone of making medical thrillers each week (anyone who watched House knows that there is a strong action component to the show).

But there I was.

When Miguel wanted to shadow me I asked myself why. What did I have to offer? Why now? What made me someone that should be teaching another what I had learned? Was it time? At (then 40 years old) could I bring something to the table for another? It wasn’t that he was looking for a mentor. He was already an established talent in directing movies. I was realizing that mentoring could take many forms. Most importantly, it was about making a safe and creative space for those around me.

To answer those questions I counted hours.

99 hours of TV. Counted again, then again.

Checked the math.

The hundredth hour

As I embarked on my 100th hour, TV would be a gift. Writers Liz Friedman and Sara Hess penned what most fans know as the “House/Cuddy break up episode” entitled, “Bombshells.��� The writing was brilliant. Cuddy had a medical scare and through a series of anxiety-ridden dreams realizes that House is not the man for her. Each dream was a different genre. The result is you get so sucked into the world that the break up is truly a bombshell. You never saw it coming.

The hundredth hour was epic in scope.

It took 16 years to get there. To achieve it.

I took stock of what I was. A TV director. If you asked the 20-year old me what the 40-year old me was doing, he’d have thought you were crazy. The 20-year old me was sure that 40-year old me was directing big movies.

TV was where it was. Smaller screen. Bigger rewards. I had gotten to work with more producers than a lifetime of filmmaking could accomplish. Had my work seen by millions more than any movie.

TV was home.

The one hundred and ten hour epilogue

When the House script “Nobody’s Fault” landed on my desk I would finally get to make my dream project. Two actors across the table. Acting. I would cast Jeffery Wright to be on the other side of the table from Hugh. It was theater and TV wrapped together. It was as powerful in the acting as it was visually. It took years to get there, but it happened. And I loved every minute of it.

Funny how things work.

I was so satisfied with the experience that I wanted it to be my last episode at House. House had truly been a home and wanted to go out on a high creative note. Yet I was booked for another episode.

Early in the last season of House, I presented the student Emmy® award in the directing category. The winner was 25-year-old Julian Higgins whose graduate AFI thesis called “Thief” blew me away. After the ceremony, I invited Julian to come shadow me during the season opener. He came and never left. Prep. Shooting. Post. He was hungry. Talented. Smart about the material we were working with. He had been groomed and he was ready.

With my last slot up for grabs I made the call.

“I have a shot for you...”

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Greg Yaitanes’s story.