Visiting US director Thomas Schlamme, who has directed on The West Wing, The Americans, Manhattan, Friends and ER, says Australian Directors are missing out on Residual payments that reward ongoing success.
Schlamme, who is advising the recently-unionised Australian Directors Guild, has looked at such shows as The Code, The Secret River, Underbelly and Janet King.
“There is vibrant work being done,” he says.
“But they really need some residuals, tied to the Copyright here. In the States if you direct something and it goes on to be shown elsewhere there are residuals, because the success of the show has something to do with the talent you’ve administered.
“Actors, writers, musicians get residuals, but in Australia directors don’t get residuals. They get something tiny that’s part of the government (framework) but it’s not from the producers.
“In the States if I’m the set-up director of a Pilot then I’m rewarded for the success of that show. But that’s not true here.”
Schlamme is widely recognised for developing the ‘Walk and Talk’ in The West Wing where actors in corridor scenes would have ‘mini-meetings’ on the go. It was an idea borne from Aaron Sorkin’s work, together with his own experience at the White House.
“The words had enormous urgency to them. If you read his text, it has an energy,” he explains.
“There’s a metronome to his writing if your ears are attuned to it. I was excited when I was reading it, flipping pages and reading much faster than normal.
“But much of it was (set) in offices and I felt he was losing part of that, everybody was seated and it felt like everyone was too dense.”
He had also spent 2 nights at the White House, staying in the Lincoln suite, which helped inspire the ‘Walk and Talk,’
“I just remember people going this way and that way –and they may have just been people ordering lunch for all I know– but it felt so dramatic.
“My eyes were seeing people holding big, huge problems very quickly.
“Every space was a meeting, every move was a meeting. We had the largest television set ever built.
“Clearly people walking and talking in movies and television had been done before but The West Wing established it as a real form of the storytelling motif.”
The device would become popularised through other US dramas.
Amongst Schlamme’s other successes was the casting of acclaimed comedy, The Larry Sanders Show.
“I set that whole show up. I had done It’s Gary Shandling and I knew him really well, and he said ‘I have a new idea for a show,'” he recalls.
“I cast it, but I was only going to do the first 6 episodes. We had set up the world and I came up with the integration of the Live part and the backstage part.
“But I got an offer to do a feature, Axe Murderer with Mike Myers. I’m not sure it was the best decision in my life but it was one that led to many other things, so that’s ok.
“It was the last time I ever put movies ahead of television –both in my career and my perception of the world.”
Jeffrey Tambor, currently winning raves for his work in Transparent, nearly wasn’t cast as Sanders’ sideckick, Hank.
“Another actor, David Rasche, was my pick to play that role –a brilliant, comedic actor. But Garry said something, and it was a great education in the longevity of television. In the scene that they had to do, David was absolutely funnier than Jeffrey,” he maintains.
“But Garry said, ‘The idea I have for this show is that guy has to always be second banana.’
“Jeffrey has a quality in his performance that was so right for that idea.
“Now you can’t even imagine that show without Jeffrey.”
Some of his earliest work was on The Wonder Years, a show he still regards with high praise.
“It was one of the best pilots ever made. You didn’t know if it was a drama or a comedy. The pilot was about Winnie’s brother dying in Vietnam, which set up the period and tone of the show.
“It was about a certain time that we can’t capture anymore. It was a beautiful pilot.”
But not everything has fired, including a 2012 Australian-based US saga, The Frontier. Written by Sean Cassidy for NBC it was filmed in Mansfield, Victoria, doubling for US landscapes. Sorkin’s own Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, revolving around a Saturday Night Live-style show, also misfired. But he rejects suggestions it failed because its theme was too-insular.
“It wasn’t true of 30 Rock. It as basically the same backstage with a totally different tone and it was an enormously successful show. I think there were other issues with Studio 60.
“Much like the zeitgeist was the right time for The West Wing.”
On the day we meet Presidential candidate Donald Trump had just appeared on the real Saturday Night Live. It’s a concept that would have been all but inconceivable for West Wing‘s Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). During their 1999 – 2005 run Bill Clinton was in office, but talk show appearances were the exception, not the rule.
“He went and played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. And it was groundbreaking. Why would a President ever go and do something like that? So it had been done but it was the beginnings of that.
“Now it’s saturated the market in such a way that you can’t turn on a talk show during the election season….”