If you're a child of the '80s, you'll remember Jerry Levine as Stiles, Michael J. Fox's pal in the movie Teen Wolf...and if you're a child of the '90s, you may have seen him guesting as Joe on Will & Grace. But what you might not know is that Jerry Levine is also one of TV's busiest directors out there—and that he's married to CBS president Nina Tassler! We caught up with Jerry to find out about the life of a TV-biz hyphenate...
You started out as an actor. What was your first directing job?
I had directed a play here in Los Angeles called Big Al, which Showtime saw. Then they asked me to direct it as a movie for Showtime, which I did. And the transition took place as a result of having a piece of film for people to see. It's very hard to get a job as a film director if you don't have any film to show. But when I had film, Michael Pressman—who was the pilot director and show runner of Chicago Hope, a David Kelley series, quite a while ago—saw that I had an ability to work with actors. So, I became a hyphenate, and then opportunities just started to roll in.
Was there any particular moment when you realized you were "in demand" as a director?
Every show that I ever directed on television, I ended up doing multiple episodes of their show—unless the show was canceled—which is a pretty clear indication that you're bringing something to the table. And that happened pretty early on with me.
How did you accumulate the technical knowledge a director needs to do his job?
I've been an actor for 35 years, and I've been in over 100 episodes of television, been a series regular four times, and I've worked with some of the greatest directors out there. But my experience is that you can't learn directing theoretically—you have to stand on a stage and do it. You try to explain the technical aspects of it, where to put the camera, "crossing the line," things like that, but directing is a verb. Acting is a verb. You just have to do it.
In television, what distinguishes the work of a director from the work of a director of photography from the work of an acting coach?
Well, the best acting class I ever had was directing, and the best directing class I ever had was acting. They inform each other. Everybody has an area of expertise, and what I think a really good director does is learn how to inspire those people to step forward and tell the story. There are times when I'm working with an editor where I'll say, cut here and cut there, but I find it's more interesting to say, "Here's what this scene is about..." My approach is not a technical approach—the actor in me approaches everything from the inside out.
Copyright 1985 by The Movie Company/ZUMApress.com
What's your working relationship with the writers of the shows you direct?
I have a tone meeting with someone like Ali LeRoi, the show runner on Everybody Hates Chris. I sit down with the piece of material, and ask questions, I'll break the script down in terms of its tone. My questions led to a job as a producing director on Everybody Hates Chris because I was asking the writers things they might not have thought about.
What does a producing director do?
I direct most of the episodes of the show, though not all, but I work with the writers and Ali in terms of breaking down the script. I'll read it through and go, "Well, the net worth of what I am getting at in this particular scene is this—what are we trying to do for here?” Basically I am a dramaturge, in a way, for the scripts for this show.
And when you do go from show to show, where they may have a new director every week—what's the hardest part of moving around like that?
It's a new first date every week. Have you ever been on a first date?
When you do that, what do you need most from the permanent crew members?
They can be kind to you and understand that you are on a first date. They can treat you hospitably and respectfully. It's like inviting someone over: You want to be courteous and make them feel at home.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be you—who wanted to be a director in 20 years?
Write your own script. If you are trying to get hired onto a movie as a hired gun, you're auditioning to get this movie just like an actor, but if you could control the script and the script is good...As far as breaking into television goes, do something cool on film, and get it seen by executive producing/show running people that can see what you've got, and hopefully someone will give you a shot.