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TV Director Seeks Good Writing, Human Stories

Jul 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Most aspiring directors go to film school and then head West to Los Angeles to pursue fame and fortune. Nelson McCormick aced the first part, but his journey to L.A. was via Iceland, Germany and France, to name a few locales.
Mr. McCormick joined the U.S. Air Force as an officer right out of film school at the University of Maryland.
“I started out as a combat cameraman,” he said. “I shot documentaries for the Air Force. It was the best film school you could imagine. We covered troop deployments, bombing missions, aerial refueling, humanitarian aid. That’s where I got the bug. Making those little movies was like a drug. I knew that that was the career field I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.”
Now Mr. McCormick, 35, is a sought-after television director whose credits include “Third Watch,” “ER,” “Alias” and “NYPD Blue.” This season he will direct episodes of “Third Watch,” “ER,” “CSI” and FX’s new series “Nip/Tuck.”
“Sometimes I scratch my head and I can’t believe I’m doing this stuff, because it wasn’t that long ago that I was directing commercials with talking blobs of margarine,” he said.
Tour of Duty
Mr. McCormick said he chose the military because his father was in the Navy and he was exposed to the career field at an early age. As a kid living overseas, he would hang out at the American Forces Radio and Television Service and TV stations and sometimes get the chance to be a disc jockey on a radio show or run the camera on the news show.
“I knew the military had that career field,” he said. “While my contemporaries were runners on movies and making sure the coffee was loaded and the copier machine had toner in it [when I was] working as PAs, I was out making these little movies. It was a great experience and a very practical way to gain lots of experience. It took me around the world.”
After finishing his tour in the military Mr. McCormick moved to L.A. and attended the American Film Institute for a year before establishing himself as a commercial director for products such as Nike, the Yellow Pages and Master Lock.
“Commercials really taught me a great lesson-attention to detail,” he said. “When you look at the work of any of the directors who come out of commercials, you see that sense of exactness. It’s a great place to work your chops. Plus, it forces you to really think in terms of who your customer is.”
Commercials soon led to TV jobs such as directing a few movies of the week for UPN in 1999 and episodes of the syndicated show “VIP” starring Pamela Anderson.
“The fun thing about syndicated shows is it really teaches you the tricks of episodic television,” Mr. McCormick said. “How to get by with less and make it look like more. Out of those constraints come real methods of innovation. You learn the cheats and how to create the illusion of a bigger scope than you actually have.”
Mr. McCormick’s big break came when he met “Third Watch” executive producer Chris Chulak, who hired him to direct his first prime-time broadcast hour. In a roundabout way, Mr. McCormick has his wife, Dana, to thank for that.
Dana quit her job to help Mr. McCormick find work and to promote him while he concentrated on the creative side. They wrote down the names of all the working directors on TV shows and then looked up their names in the Directors Guild of America directory to find out who their agents were. “We decided those are the agents we want, if they have clients who are working, so we sent all those agents copies of my reel and credits,” he said.
Out of 100 inquiries they sent out, five agents responded, one of whom was Ken Gross, who became Mr. McCormick’s manager. Mr. Gross introduced him to Mr. Chulak two years ago and that was, as they say, the start of a beautiful relationship.
On His `Watch’
“[`Third Watch’] reminded me of the Air Force documentaries I used to do, because they were very human stories about people and the challenges they overcome, hardworking blue-collar lives,” Mr. McCormick said. “Something clicked personally and professionally for me. For the first time, I was making something that mattered. The shows were going to leave the audience feeling something meaningful.”
Andrew Stearn, executive VP of John Wells Productions, which produces “Third Watch,” “ER” and “The West Wing,” said Mr. McCormick’s syndication background, personality and ability to get work done on a tight schedule caught his eye and led him to sign Mr. McCormick to a nonexclusive deal that set him up with an office at the production company.
“[He has] more of your rock ‘n’ roll sensibility,” Mr. Stearn said. “He’s new to episodic. He’s got a fresh eye. It’s not only about the performances; he’s got a soundtrack in his head as well.”
“He possesses the ability to really care about what he’s directing,” Mr. Stearn added. “You have to set the pattern for the show and be able to direct that show and bring your own personal style to it at the same time.”
Directing episodic television is a hard gig because directors enter a foreign atmosphere where they are the guest on the set. Mr. McCormick said it can be a little intimidating to walk onto a set where the cast and crew have jelled from working together for a long time. He makes it a habit to watch numerous episodes of a show he is going to direct and always does a lot of research about the direction the show is headed.
“You’re the pitcher who is coming out of the bullpen to start that game,” he said. “Your job is to get that game won, and somebody else is going to pitch that next game.”
Name Game
He also doesn’t forget the small things-he memorizes the crew list on every show he does before he gets there. When a director walks onto a set, “Everyone knows your name,” he said. “Having been a crew member, I know when somebody remembers your name it does something for your motivation.”
Alex Kurtzman-Counter and Bob Orci, executive producers of “Alias,” said Mr. McCormick stood out because of his stylish reel and military training-something that turned out to be helpful for the action-packed “Alias.”
“He’s also very respectful of the scripts we write,” Mr. Kurtzman-Counter said, but at the same time, “he always brings his own vision to the material.”
In one episode Mr. McCormick directed, the opening scene showed Irina (played by Lena Olin) in her cell watching a fly, which she then grabbed. Instead of focusing on Irina, Mr. McCormick shot the entire scene from the fly’s point of view. “He really brought this weird, creepy edge to the scene as opposed to watching her grab the fly,” Mr. Kurtzman-Counter said.
“It turned out to be one of the more stylized openings we ever had,” Mr. Orci added.
Mr. McCormick said there are numerous other shows such as “West Wing” that he would like to direct. “The two biggest things I am looking for is to be challenged and where the best writing is,” he said. “Wherever that is is wherever I want to go.”