Interview: Michael Spiller discusses the 'Mindy Project' finale and the job of directing producer
We're many years into the Cult of the Showrunner on TV and nobody would argue, I don't think, that in the vast majority of cases, TV is a writer-producer's medium.
And nobody would argue, I suspect, with the notion that on FOX's "The Mindy Project," the driving creative force is Mindy Kaling, who is the creator and star and leads an extraordinary strong writing stuff of comedy veterans.
With that focus, I've often felt that one of the industry's least understood figures is the directing-producer. Sometimes, like with a Pamela Fryman on "How I Met Your Mother," that person may end up directing ever episode of a series, so their name is easy to notice and retain. Other times, the directing producer may be a frequent director on a series, but they aren't behind the camera on every episode, which makes their involvement a bit nebulous in the mind of some viewers.
Michael Spiller is the producing director on FOX's "The Mindy Project." He didn't direct the original pilot and he's only the credited directed on maybe a third of the episodes, but he's been with the show since before it premiered and he's had day-to-day contributions ever since.
Spiller got his start as a cinematographer on Hal Hartley's '80s and '90s films and made the transition to directing on HBO's "Sex and the City." Since then, he has worked as a frequent director on some of the best single-cam comedies of recent years, including "Scrubs," "Better Off Ted" and "Modern Family," for which he won an Emmy.
"The Mindy Project" wraps its second season on Tuesday (May 6) night with a finale that continues the spring's on-and-off budding romance between Kaling's Mindy and Chris Messina's Danny. The finale even takes the show to a very unexpected place: New York City. Yes, "Mindy" has always been set in New York City, but it's a Hollywood Backlot version of New York City and it's almost shocking to see Kaling and Messina out in locations that couldn't have been faked in the Valley. It's a very satisfying conclusion to a season that has seen "Mindy" become an increasingly consistent pleasure within FOX's Tuesday lineup, if you've been able to keep track of when it's on.
Last week I got on the phone with Spiller to discuss the role of the director-producer, his part in the show's comedic evolution and the opportunity to shoot in New York City, if only for a single day.
It's a different look at the inner-workings of "The Mindy Project"...
HitFix: We always talk so much about TV as the writer/producers medium and the power of the showrunner and all of that. Do you feel like sort of the job of the directing-producer is one of sort of the industry’s big mysteries?
Michael Spiller: It is. I think your average fan probably just assumes that the same person directs every episode of their favorite series, week in and week out. And, you know, that might be true on some multi-camera shows but in single camera comedy and your typical dramas it’s usually not possible -- you know, with the exception of "True Detective" or something -- for a single person to direct all the episodes. And in my role, besides directing individual episodes myself, it's hiring, consulting with, overseeing the other directors who work for us, to make sure that we maintain the tone and the comedy and serve as the liaison between the writing staff and them if they have any questions. So it’s a bit of an unsung position in a way but, I feel like I have a lot of influence over the show and creating the right mood and chemistry on-set, as well as assembling the team that we need to pull this off.
HitFix: And you’d obviously spent sort of a long time as a director-for-hire before you sort of took this capacity on "Mindy." Was it something you were looking for to get into this side of things?
Michael Spiller: Well, I had done a directing producing job before on "Big Day" and "Jake in Progress," and those are two shows where I directed the pilot and stayed with it in series. And, you know, there’s pros and cons to both sides. When you’re bouncing around from show to show, you sort of keep your hands in a lot of pots and you’re fresh on everybody’s mind and you can sort of be, you know, a journeyman. You come in, you do your job and then you hand over your cut and you’re on to the next thing. And that can be exciting but it also feels a bit like you’re a migrant film worker. So having a home is something that I think I really was ready for. Really I take a lot of pride in our show and I make sure that every visiting director feels like they’ve got some autonomy and they’re there for a reason to really elevate the material and not just because the Director’s Guild says you have to hire a director. And I surround them with, you know, we have such an amazing cast and brilliant writers – and our crew is extraordinary. We cherry-picked every single person who’s a part of our team because it’s just so critical to the chemistry on-set and one jerk can spoil the whole thing.
HitFix: Well like you say on those other two shows on "Big Day" and "Jake in Progress," you directed the pilot and then stuck with it. In this case you didn’t direct the pilot. What sort of drew you to "Mindy" and made you know that it was a show that you could put your stamp on?
Michael Spiller: I thought the pilot was amazing and I’ve been a big fan of Mindy’s. And I met Mindy when I directed "The Office" and I had recently signed with the same management company that manages her, so the introduction was easy. It was shortly after I won the Emmy for "Modern Family," so there was some heat on my end too. We hit it off. We had a very nice introductory meeting to talk about the pilot and we were off to the races. We did wind up reshooting probably I think two full days --- probably eight or ten minutes -- of the pilot which I directed those reshoots of. And, you know, the show definitely evolved and I had a part in steering the course of that as well. So although I didn’t direct the pilot I certainly feel a lot of pride in connection to the show. I don’t want to use the term "ownership," because it’s like, "Not in a material way!" but creatively I do feel that. And, like I said, I encourage every one of our team to take that same kind of pride in ownership that this is something special. I mean it’s not like any other show on television right now and, you know, the closest thing I think I’ve ever done to it is "Sex and the City." The stories are big, the emotions are big. We can ride that line and have something really dramatic and moving and then upend it and make it really funny in the next scene. It’s a lot of fun.
HitFix: Well now as you say, this is a show that really has gone through an evolution that I feel has probably been more visible than on a lot of shows, that we really have been sort of watching every step as the show has gotten honed to what it is now. How have you sort of felt about that evolutionary process and your role in it?
Michael Spiller: I think it’s not uncommon for new television shows to spend certainly the first year, but without a doubt like the first eight or ten episodes, kind of figuring out what the show is. The pilot is a sales tool, it introduces you to the characters and might set the template for what the show is meant to be, but there’s so many boxes you have to check off on a pilot that it can sort of hurt the storytelling in a way. And the show’s got to find its feet and now you’ve got a whole team of writers who are gonna add something and it has to evolve. The other thing is, the notes that you get from the studio and the network are hard to interpret sometimes because, you know, everybody’s operating in a vacuum to a degree. The show and the subsequent episodes after the pilot have not been seen. So there’s a lot of guesswork. Are people gonna like this? Are we skewing too far towards a male audience or a female audience? Or which characters are really gonna pop? So there’s a lot of guesswork and it’s quite a nerve-wracking place to be. There’s reshoots and you change the order of episodes and pull a scene out of one episode and put it in another. And it takes a toll, especially when the showrunner is the star and the main executive producer who’s wearing a lot of hats. So it definitely took us a little while to really fall into a groove. And I feel like we’ve only gotten better and better with each progressive episode.
HitFix: Well now talking a little bit about this season, you guys had that long FOX hiatus while FOX did other things on Tuesday and then you came back. Did that delay give you guys any sort of extra time in post? Did it have any advantages for you guys other than just being off the air and being inconvenient basically I guess.
Michael Spiller: It’s hard to think of any unexpected hiatus as really providing an advantage. But it did give us a little more time in post. We had the opportunity on the finale, as you saw, to go to New York and shoot for a day. We certainly would not have been able to squeeze that in having stuck to our original schedule. I think there might have been maybe one hiatus added to our schedule to give the writers a chance just to sort of catch up and fine tune the scripts that we had left to shoot. But for the most part, on set if you asked our crew, they wouldn’t have noticed anything different because we were still plugging along making our show. And it’s funny, so many of us got sort of phone calls from people expressing their sympathy that we’d been cancelled or we’d been pulled off the air and, you know, it’s like, “What are you talking about? I worked 12 hours today. We’re on, you know, the episode before the finale. We haven’t stopped.” So I think it’s disruptive to our viewers, but I hope they’ll tune in in droves for our finale.
HitFix: Talk a bit about that one day in New York because you got your start as a TV director on "Sex and the City," which was a show that obviously made great use of New York locations. And then you’ve been on "Mindy," a show that’s been doing a lot of faking of New York locations for a while. So what was it like actually getting that day and trying to make the most of that day?
Michael Spiller: That was one of the most fun I’ve had on a shoot days in a while. And I think Mindy and Chris would say the same. First of all we were running all over town. None of us had slept very much. Chris’s movie was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in two days. Mindy’s always doing press and traveling all over the place. So we were all kind of fried and we just hit the ground running. We had perfect weather, even though the night before when I got into JFK at like midnight it was snowing. Like, "You’ve got to be kidding, it’s April." We weren’t recording sound so there’s no pressure to like learn all these different lines. The biggest challenge of the day was, "What outfit are they gonna change into next and where are we gonna have lunch?" But it was also just so great and liberating so that anywhere we planned a camera, there’s New York. And while we’re shooting in LA whether it’s on the back lot or on location, we really have to choose our angles very carefully. And then because I’m from New York, I serve as kind of one of the bulls*** detectors, you know, “Okay, that’s definitely not New York” or “Okay, well this might past for the East Village if, you know, we put a skin on that palm tree or something.” So it was great not to have to think about that. I hadn’t been back to the city in a few years and parts of it actually were starting to look a little bit like LA. I’m just saying.
HitFix: Just sort of as a last question: We all know about Mindy’s obsession level with romantic comedies. But what is yours and what was your approach to the finale in terms of sort of paying tribute to, homage to romantic comedies, et cetera.
Michael Spiller: There are very few people who I think are as obsessive about romantic comedies as Mindy is. I enjoy them but I was nowhere near the level of fan that she was. Hey, I’ve gone back and watched some and that’s been fun, but I didn’t want to get too literal or ever do a shot-by-shot, you know, remake of any particular scene anywhere. In the montage in New York we did visit a couple of spots that are sort of iconic, but again we didn’t really try to replicate anything there frame-by-frame. I love operating in the context of that genre and it’s really fun to think about how things play out and will be read by other fans of that genre. But I also like to just keep it a little bit looser just so that I’m not led down any one particular interpretation of any scene.
"The Mindy Project" finale airs on Tuesday night at 9:30 on FOX.