TV director Lee Shallat Chemel
TV director Lee Shallat Chemel

Crossposted with permission from DGA Quarterly.

Lee Shallat Chemel was recently directing an episode of the critically acclaimed single-camera comedy The Middle when it suddenly dawned on her how she could squeeze more laughs from a sight gag. It involved a chain of books falling like dominos, culminating with a copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea dropping into a character's waiting hands. The setup was designed to be filmed with a wide shot, but Chemel realized that the bit with the actor at the end should be a surprise. "I wanted it to be tighter," she says about her decision to have the camera pan along the row of cascading books and end with a reveal of the actor. "That way it will have more punch."

When Chemel opts to rethink a shot, it's a decision with more than 30 years of experience as a director behind it. She made her TV directorial debut in 1984 with "Ready or Not," an episode of Family Ties in which a teenage girl considers having sex with her boyfriend. From there she's built a lengthy resume comprised of everything from Murphy Brown to Mad About You to The Bernie Mac Show to Gilmore Girls to Samantha Who? Though she came up through the ranks directing multi-camera shows, the three-time Primetime Emmy Award nominee made the transition into the world of single-camera and has worked in every configuration of shooting style, from the candy-colored, highly stylized Ugly Betty to the faux documentary world of Arrested Development.

Watching Chemel at work, it's easy to see why she is sought after as a director. She has well-honed comedy instincts that allow her to spontaneously figure out how to improve a visual joke, plus an easy way of taking responsibility for any lighting and camera adjustments that need to be made. Even re-dressing a set earns a soothing "It's my bad" from Chemel to the crew so no one is rankled by the sudden switch in game plan.

That Chemel has a reputation for helping get the best performance out of an actor isn't surprising given her unusual career trajectory. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chemel earned master's degrees in theater history and education, an MFA in acting and has done postgraduate work in East Asian Languages -- before becoming a well-respected director on the national repertory theater circuit. It was in the early 1980s that she was contacted by writer-producer Gary David Goldberg. The DGA and its Women's Steering Committee was putting pressure on showrunners and producers to hire more female directors since less than one percent of all available directing jobs from the previous 40 years had gone to women. In wanting to hire a woman, Goldberg felt his new sitcom, Family Ties, would benefit from someone who had experience staging comedy and working with actors in the intimate confines of the theater. Veteran TV producer Joseph Stern, also founder of Los Angeles' The Matrix Theatre Company, told Goldberg he knew the right woman for the job. "It was the most perfect synchronicity," says Chemel.

For the next five months she could be found on the Paramount lot inside the Family Ties soundstage -- the first TV set she'd ever laid eyes on -- getting a crash course in the adrenaline-filled world of live cutting and multi-camera comedy. When she finally got the chance to apply all that she'd absorbed during her observation time, "I was completely lost," says Chemel. "My associate director, Ginger [Grigg], had to guide me through the shoot." In the end, she directed five episodes of the show. She also had the bragging rights that came with directing an episode called "4 Rms Ocn Vu" which featured three enterprising teenagers who rent out the family home, a mob of noisy extras, and a live kangaroo who hopped into frame and inflicted grievous bodily pain on the series' hottest commodity. "It was insane. He kicked Michael J. Fox in the balls," says Chemel, adding that the moment of impact was used as a freeze frame over which the closing credits rolled.

After Family Ties, Chemel was instantly in demand, spending the next six years directing multiple episodes of popular shows like Open House, Head of the Class, and Newhart. But what she recalls about her days as a newbie director was how it was her perseverance that sustained her. "I failed a lot in the beginning," Chemel admits. "I went out of some shows in a body bag. I was horrible. I couldn't get the camera stuff going or I didn't know what I was doing. But it's all about how you handle the failure and somehow I kept bouncing back."

Around the time Chemel was struggling with the multi-camera format, she found a mentor in former DGA vice president and legendary director John Rich. "He took me into the editing room and showed me a lot of stuff," says Chemel, who likes to refer to Rich as "The Fly" because he could absorb so many details at once that it was like he had a thousand eyes. "He'd say, 'Why did I shoot it this way?'"

But it wasn't until Murphy Brown that Chemel felt her understanding of how to stage scenes in multi-cam started to click. During rehearsals she learned to walk around the set, visualizing how the staging looked from each camera angle. "It all happens simultaneously in multi-cam," explains Chemel. "So this notion that I had to keep walking around continuously opened up more possibilities. [I understood] how raking angles offered so much more than just the closeups, and how specific I needed to be with actors so they could get used to where they needed to be for coverage."

Then in 1993, she landed as a director-producer on The Nanny starring Fran Drescher and shot every episode for two years. "That was where I finally began to get my rhythm," says Chemel, who'd met the nasal-voiced, decidedly New York-y Drescher while directing on a short-lived series called Princesses. "Frannie played to the audience a lot -- it sort of reminded me of modern-day Restoration comedy." When Chemel would place the camera too far away, Drescher would object. "[Fran would] say things like, 'Why is the camera way over there in Yonkers? I'm right here.' I had to learn to shoot more presentational, more theatrical."

Just one year earlier, Chemel had been hired to direct an episode of the quirky, Alaska-based Northern Exposure, her first single-camera series. While she found that she preferred the control and creativity that single-camera allows, she understood that her time spent in the multi-camera trenches made her much smarter about the nuts and bolts of how a television show is assembled. "Single-camera is the easiest in terms of how many different skill sets you have to have to make it work," says Chemel, who prefers the single-camera medium because if offers the director more autonomy plus "it looks great and you can be more creative with the camera. I look back on it now and I think of all of the ways of directing TV, [multi-camera] is the hardest."