#44. A Conversation with Bill D'Elia

Bill D'Elia is an Emmy award winning screenwriter, producer and director of film and television known for his work on Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Northern Exposure, The West Wing, Glee and The Crazy Ones.

Jason Anders: What originally served as your inspiration to become a storyteller?

Bill D'Elia:  Ever since I can remember I have been interested in listening to stories well told, and from the time I could read have gotten lost in novels, films, and television shows. I always had a book in my hand as a child, and am still surrounded by them in my adult life. I grew up in a large extended family where there was always an aunt, uncle, or cousin around- we constantly entertained each other with observations of daily life.

At some point I became fascinated simply by the art of storytelling, and spent quite a bit of time reading novels and watching movies based on those novels, after trying to visualize them myself. I suppose that was the earliest form of directing for me: Visualizing what the writer put on paper. I was a great daydreamer. So, very early on, what I wanted to do was write. I am enamored of the written word. Only as an adult did I realize that my stronger talent was as a director. The solitary existence of the writer could not compare with the chaos of directing. It turns out that part of what I liked as a child was being surrounded by people telling the stories and I was always more comfortable telling stories spontaneously in the middle of a lot of people.

Because I wanted to work in N.Y., I never considered moving to L.A. after college to get into the business. So I wound up in advertising since there was not much of a film business in N.Y. back then, other than commercials. I became an ad agency producer, which led to directing and eventually leaving the agency business to start my own commercial production company.
JA: Tell me about the challenges you faced while independently producing the 1989 film The Feud, which was based on the novel by Thomas Berger- one critic said that it was "like David Lynch doing American Graffiti"; was your final film the result of your original vision, and how did releasing the picture impact your career?

BD: Well, this may sound strange, but the truth is that I woke up one morning, almost a year after reading The Feud and thought "I bet that would make a good movie". It was silly almost how the thought popped into my head fully formed. I was a commercial director and had been trying to figure out how to get into a form of storytelling that was longer than thirty seconds and did not involve selling something, when Berger's novel just woke me up one day. And it was not right after I had read it, but a year later. I became obsessed with the idea. I convinced my partners at the time to option the novel as a company. I really thought back then that it would be the beginning of us being more than a commercial production company. I worked every night on the screenplay until I thought I had something interesting, and I had never adapted anything before, nor did I ever learn how from anyone. I just started doing it.

As an interesting aside to this, I had begun to think I could be a film director after watching and falling in love with a couple of Robert Altman movies. I thought "that's the kind of director I would like to be". When I tried to option the book I found out that it was not available because Robert Altman had the option! I was so happy to be right about myself. We were indeed interested in the same types of stories. The first actor I tried to secure (Paul Dooley) told me of course he would do the picture, Altman had offered him the same role when he had the rights to the book! I sort of felt, "guess I'm on the right track". Kismet. Then came the hard part. I closed my company and tried to find financing. Again, I knew nothing about this and I knew no one in Hollywood. I lived in Montclair, N.J. at the time.

At a friend's house one day, playing cards, I was asked what I was up to. I told my friend I was trying to make a movie. "How much do you need", asked my friend. I told him $1.5 million. He said he could get it for me. I thought it was card game talk.

A few days later he asked me to come to a meeting. He had assembled a group of investors. The meeting was on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center. This was in April of 1988. By July he raised $2 million for me because, as he told me then: "nobody can make a movie for 1.5 million!" That was Frank Scaraggi and he and I are best friends to this day, even though the movie never made a dime. It became my calling card in Hollywood. Everyone loved the picture. And I have to say that the film turned out exactly as I had envisioned when I woke up that morning. It was a fully formed idea from the start.
JA: You went on to direct episodes of Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope and The Practice- do you remember what your first meetings with David E. Kelley were like?

BD:  I remember my first meetings with David very well.  Picket Fences was the first show we did together.  Northern Exposure was a Josh Brand/John Falsey show that I did after directing my first TV show Doogie Howser for Steven Bochco (created by David Kelley). David at first meeting was an intimidating guy. I always had the impression back then that he was constantly twirling stories around in his head and that if you said the wrong thing at the wrong time, the story would get messed up. I was wrong of course. He has a wicked sense of humor and is a great practical joker with a mind like a steel trap. He forgets nothing, has the analytical mind of a great lawyer, the insight of a great psychiatrist, and the soul of an artist. I can't say enough about his talent.

My first meeting with him scared the crap out of me. It was a Picket episode that I was directing for the first time. We were having our tone meeting where you discuss the way the story and scenes should be played. The ending of the episode was very emotional and heart wrenching. David finished the meeting by looking at me, a guy he had never worked with before and he said "Well, go ahead and make us cry.... but for the right reasons". It made me laugh, but like I said, intimidating. That was the beginning of a great relationship. He made me laugh, I made him cry, but for the right reasons. I always felt though, from the beginning of our working together, that he didn't have to tell me anything really. I just got his stuff, understood it.

JA: Let's talk about a few episodes of Ally McBeal, a series where you not only directed but served as executive producer as well.  Your first episode to direct was Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost- where did the idea to make a musical with Randy Newman come from?

BD:  I had just joined the show as Executive Producer several episodes before the season finale that was The Musical. David called me and said that he wanted to be sure that I directed the finale because it was going to be a complete musical. I had received an Emmy nomination for the musical episode of Chicago Hope I directed, and he and I had a shared love of musical theater and movies. David contacted Randy Newman and we used all his songs and he appeared in the episode as well. It was a bit scary because, in theory, the Executive Producer/ Director of a series should need less prep and post time than another director because he is a part of the show. He or she knows it better than anyone else. But in my case I had just gotten to the show and was still learning the sets, the characters, and the actors. I was thrown immediately into this daunting task with very little prep and virtually no post. Creating music for an episode, getting the music and tone right for the characters, getting the actors to a studio to pre-record, or deciding to do it live, requires a lot of thought and time.

We had no time and had to think quickly. The logistics of getting it done were enormous. I remember getting the recordings the night before shooting them, listening to the songs in my car on the way home and on the way back to work. I would visualize the scenes in my head, kind of a mental story board to the music. By the time I got to work, I had the scenes figured out. It was all done on the fly. I had one day to final cut the episode and David was not available to see it before it was done. So it was up to me to approve the final cut and send it out- on a show I had just joined. I will never forget the faith that David had in me for that episode. And I received another Emmy nomination for directing that one.
JA: A lot of great directors worked on this show, including Kenny Ortega, Jack Bender, Arlene Sanford, and even Peter MacNicol.  Do you have a favorite episode of the series, and also, which filmmakers inspire you as a director?

BD: If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would have to be The Musical, although there was an episode with Robert Downey, Jr. that I loved called The Last Virgin. Those are two that come to mind because they are the favorites of the ones I directed, but the episodes with Sting or with Elton John were pretty spectacular. And every Christmas show was a killer. As far as favorite directors, there are too many to mention, but I take particular inspiration from three feature guys: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Bob Fosse.

JA: Another episode that stands out in the series is one called "The Getaway" which you directed- was the idea for this episode difficult to pitch since it did not feature Calista and most of the main cast?

BD: Not difficult to pitch at all. The network wanted extra episodes and we pitched to David that the only way to do it would be if he was able to write an episode that did not have the whole cast in it. Then we could shoot two episodes at the same time, which is what we did. The other trick to it was to send them away, off the sets that we normally shoot in. So the boys went to L.A. and we were able to still shoot an episode at the same time back on the stages. And Bernadette Peters is a delight to work with. We hired her again for Boston Legal to play a judge.

JA: What are your fondest memories of being on the set of Ally McBeal?

BD: Well, they were all a lovely bunch of coconuts. Calista is one of the most talented actresses I've worked with. The rest of the cast was like catching lightning in a bottle. To get that many talented people on one show is extraordinary. That was one amazing ensemble. Every one of them was capable of being the lead in their own show. And some of my fondest, enduring memories on that show are from that season with Robert Downey, Jr. I have a habit, when I'm directing, of getting to the set very early, before anyone else. I like to sit in the space quietly the day of, and imagine the scene. The only time I ever got to a set and found someone else there before me was that year on Ally. It was Robert. Doing the same thing I was. Trying to imagine the space before we inhabited it on the day.
One of the other stand out moments for me was directing the legendary Carl Reiner in the Bygones episode. During a rehearsal, Carl asked me which way was a funnier way to play a particular scene. Carl Reiner turned to me and asked "Bill, which is funnier, this way? Or this way?" I almost couldn't answer. Carl Reiner asking me which is funnier? That's like Frank Sinatra asking you how he should sing. Well I did answer, and Carl agreed. A real lasting memory for me. A comic genius asking me what's funny. Taye Diggs was a regular on Ally for a while and he is a real professional. Easy going and fun to work with.

Josh Groban's story is interesting. David was at a charity function and he heard Josh sing, he was unknown at the time. He wrote a part in that Wedding episode for Josh based on that one charity performance. It was an episode that I directed. The role required some real acting from Josh, everything from emotional scenes to slapstick comedy. I thought David was nuts asking so much from a kid that never acted. I was wrong of course. Josh was a natural at every aspect of the craft right from the start and was terrific in the episode. Of course, when I heard him sing... well, that was that- the whole world knows that now, but he was a real discovery then. And as a post script to all that, in the liner notes on Josh's first CD, he thanked David and I.
JA: You would go on to produce and direct Boston Legal with David E. Kelley, which brought together yet another amazing ensemble cast with James Spader, Candice Bergen, and William Shatner; one of the unique aspects of the characters in the series is their tendency to break the fourth wall with the audience, examples being Denny Crane saying to another character "I've hardly seen you this episode", or Jerry Espenson singing the opening music to Candice Bergen. What have been a few of your favorite experiences on the set of Boston Legal, and do you have a favorite episode of the series?

BD: Well it's tough talking about Boston Legal as it is so recent an experience and I miss the show. All shows are tough to do, especially in the first year. This one was nuts. We didn't know how funny we were going to be. We didn't know how serious we were going to be. We had a hard time finding the right balance. The scripts were totally all over the place: funny, ridiculous, serious, emotional, over the top, melodramatic. The answer, of course, came when we realized we could be all those things. And sometimes all at once. Then it became a unique show, one unlike any on TV. And stylistically I took my lumps from many people that balked at the camera work. I held firm as I believed it supported the wackiness that was going on at Crane, Poole, and Schmidt. And George Bush helped us find way too many stories that we never could have planned on when the show started. I felt that we became a descendant of The Smothers Brothers or All in The Family.
We were as topical now as they were back then. We suddenly realized we were the only show left on network television that dared to speak out on real issues. On cable there's John Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's topical shows. On network now there are none. We were very proud of that, and more Emmy nominations followed, also a Peabody. And a special Emmy for "television with a conscience". I received another directing nomination for the episode Son of the Defender. By the time it ended we had somehow become part of the cultural landscape. People yell "Denny Crane' when they see Bill Shatner now, not "Captain Kirk". So it became more than a job to be at the helm of all that. It was a blast.

David Kelley's scripts? Well, I've been involved in a lot of television over the years. His scripts are the only ones I've ever gotten that were shooting scripts from the first draft. Most writers give you a draft and it means it's a work in progress. David's drafts are shootable. I've had scripts from him that I haven't liked that shoot better than I ever imagined they would. He has an ear for dialog, pace, and timing that is unparalleled.
One scary thing for a director is that his scripts tell you nothing except dialog. Hardly any screen direction. Just "LAW OFFICE: DAY. ALAN AND DENNY", then dialog. No description of what they are doing. Go work it out. Very interesting for me as I only read the dialog the first time I read a script to glean information about character. I skip the screen direction on a first read because I want to see if the characters voices speak to me in a way that lets me I understand their motivation. Quite often the way a person is written makes it easy for me to determine what he or she should be physically doing in a scene. In that way I can find real behavior. You can always find a shot that supports the actor, but not always the other way around.

One other thing about Boston Legal: It was the best job I ever had. On Boston Legal, David ceded all day-to-day creative decisions to me. I ran the show. Of course I spoke to him every day. And of course he let me know when he disagreed. That's the most fun part of a collaboration. But we were on the same page so often. Over the years we have developed a real short hand way of communicating. Most of the time we agreed when something worked or it didn't. He of course created the unique characters and settings, but I created the distinctive look of the show. He let me run with my ideas on how the show should look and feel.
David lives and has an office in Northern California and the show was shot in Southern California. He had just moved up north when the show started. So, although he would occasionally fly down to the studio, he was away most of the time. He would of course look at dailies and call me with his notes on everything from casting to final cuts. But day-to-day, I took care of everything. That's the way David set it up, the way he wanted it. And that's rare in television.

JA: Will you be involved on David E. Kelley's newest series Legally Mad?

BD: If it gets picked up, I'll be directing. But I'm not producing that one with him.

JA: Finally, tell me about your work on Judging Amy, a show which you not only co-created but were a writer for as well.

BD: Judging Amy is a show I co-created with John Tinker, a great writer. John and I created the characters and the template for the show and then moved on. We wrote the story of the pilot and left the show before it went on the air. All credit past that belongs to Barbara Hall, who ran the writing staff on that show and made it the successful series it was.
JA: Are there other shows that you would like to develop into your own series?

BD: I have several things in development right now and you never know what will get the green light, but I am always in there pitching. You know, I've been lucky in television. So much of what I'm good at depends on tone and character. You can't always find a lot of that on TV, but somehow it has found me.

Follow Bill D'Elia on Twitter: @BillDElia