Director Lesli Linka Glatter started her career as a choreographer, but after a serendipitous series of events, Glatter found her way to film and TV. Since then, Glatter has directed everything from Homeland to Gilmore Girls, West Wing to Freaks and Geeks, Grey’s Anatomy to Mad Men.
TV nerds Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen sat down with Glatter to talk about how directing for film and television are different, and what it’s like to work on shows with strong, complex women leads.
Tricia Bobeda: How did you first become a professional storyteller?
Lesli Linka Glatter: Nobody has the same path to directing. Everyone you talk to in film has a different way they started out, and there’s not one right path to follow. And mine’s really strange, I have to say.
I was a modern dancer and choreographer. I had been living in Europe for six years, working with different dance companies there, and then I got a grant to teach — choreograph — and perform through the Far East. I was based in Tokyo, Japan.
I loved what I was doing, and I was not looking for a career change. But one day in Tokyo, I was in Shibuya-ku, and I wanted a cup of coffee. There was a coffee shop on the right, and one on the left. I went into the one on the right, very arbitrarily. And in that coffee shop, there was only one seat available with an older Japanese gentleman. He kind of waved me over, saying, “take this seat with me.” We ended up spending the afternoon in that coffee shop together. He turned out to be an extraordinary person, and he and his wife kind of became my Japanese parents and mentors.
Eventually, he told me a series of six stories that happened to him, and what they had in common was that they all happened on Christmas Eve, all during different wars, and they were stories about the human condition. And when he told me these stories, I knew I had to pass them on, and I knew it wasn’t going to be through dance.
If I had walked into the coffee shop on the left, I might very well still be a choreographer.
But I felt compelled. These stories were so profound, and I felt as if he had somehow given them to me for a reason. I met a film director and told him these stories, and he said, “Um, that’s a film.” And he was actually the first director I ever apprenticed with, and that was George Miller of Road Warrior fame.
Greta Johnsen: And you ended up getting your first break with Steven Spielberg, right?
Glatter: So I did this film, Tales of Meeting and Parting, and it was literally everything I was told not to do if I wanted a job in Hollywood. It was three-quarters in Japanese with subtitles, it had flashbacks and narration, it was a period piece set in World War II. These are not things that make up a commercial project, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tell this story, and I did.
I worked on the film in the program I was in, the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, and when I finish it, it got nominated for an Academy Award, which was really crazy, a fluke of nature.
Steven Spielberg saw the film on a plane, and he called me up. I thought it was a prank call from one of my friends and hung up. I hung up on Steven Spielberg! Thank goodness he called me back.
Bobeda: Let’s talk about Claire Dane’s character, Carrie, in Homeland. She’s such a complicated and unique lead. What’s it like to build a world around a character who has a reality that’s very complex, and then also a kind of alternate reality that’s living in her mind?
Glatter: Carrie Mathison is a very complicated, layered and complex character. She’s brilliant, and she’s also bipolar. The last few seasons, she has been medicated, and part of that is to explore both sides of the condition.
Claire has done a lot of research, and she is an amazing partner in crime. She is fearless and not scared to explore anything, and yet she’s nothing like Carrie Mathison as a person. Claire is fun and funny and the most wonderful number one on the call sheet. She makes it a great working environment for other actors. She’s very generous. So it’s interesting to see this very different person, Claire Danes, become this other person, Carrie Mathison, and you really see how subtle and skilled she is.
But, what I think, what has kept her so excited about the character is this layer of complexity. Carrie doesn’t always make the right choices, in fact, she makes a lot of complicated choices, but she is always interesting and compelling.
We’re so used to allowing men to have that many aspects to them — I think it’s great that in television now we see women who are equally complicated. And I love that.
Bobeda: You’ve directed both films and in television. What are the main differences?
Glatter: When I’m approaching a story, I don’t approach it any differently. And what’s happened with TV now is that it has to be a cinematic experience and a visual storytelling experience. We’re so used to seeing films on TV and iPads, and not just in the theater. So I think the storytelling experience is very similar.
What’s very different about TV is the amount of time you have to shoot it. Because if you only have 10 days to shoot your episode, that’s not a lot of time. So you have to know the dollar scene — what’s the scene that’s going to determine whether the story works? And what’s the 25 cent scene — the scene that you’re going to have to move quickly through?
I think what it does for directors working in television is that it makes you really clarify your skills as a storyteller and know what your story is about: What the themes are, what the subtext is, how you’re going to organize your day.
Johnsen: I can’t stop thinking about how you described directing when you come into a show that’s been around for a couple of seasons — you said you have to play well with others, but also have a point of view. Do you ever think about what other jobs you’d be qualified to do with the skillsets you have? To me, you kind of seem like the Olivia Pope of directing.
Glatter: But boy, is she dressed well!
I think a director has to be able to be and do a lot of different things. LIke I think, “Oh yeah, maybe I should go into therapy.” That would be a good one. And certainly producing or creating events, because you have to keep the big picture going all the time, but also the detail. And I could probably also work at Starbucks. I think I could handle the pressure of a nonfat vanilla extra hot extra foamy latte too.
Johnsen: Is that something you ever daydream about during really crazy days at work?
Glatter: Yes. My fantasy, when it’s an insane day and things are completely out of control, is, “OK, I could open a poetry reading bookstore slash flower shop that’s maybe also a 24 hour shoe store.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.