Laura Belsey: TV director in the spotlight

For this edition of GUMworks, we are pleased to talk to director Laura Belsey. Belsey got her start directing commercials and PSA's, as well as short films and documentaries, before making a mid-career switch into television. She has helmed episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NCIS: New Orleans, Criminal Minds, Arrow, and many other shows.

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We called her up to talk about her incredible varied and fascinating career. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

GUM: Where did you grow up?

Laura Belsey: I was born in New Orleans, but I moved to Switzerland when I was six. I have a mixed, odd background. I lived in Switzerland until I was 19. I went to the College Voltaire in Geneva, and then to NYU.

GUM: How did you end up at NYU?

LB: I was acting as a teenager. I was quote-unquote “professional,” so I did little TV things and one movie. I decided I wanted to be a director, so I came to NYU and went to film school.

GUM: The first class you taught at NYU was about making commercials. You were giving a lecture on directing commercials and it spun off from there. What was it like to develop a class from the ground up?

LB: It was super-fun. I started directing commercials early on, when I was 23. I was in the business for a long time and had seen it evolve. It was fun to be able to distill all of those years of experience and understanding this very peculiar world into a class. The class didn’t just speak about commercials, but spoke about filmmaking through the lens of commercials. Commercials are condensed, so it’s a great way to look at the larger issues of being a director.

GUM: As a commercial director, how do you manage to tell a story in thirty seconds?

LB: Exactly. For this one guest lecture, which is how it all started, I showed a reel of a dozen commercials by a whole range of directors. Some of them are name-brand directors like David Fincher, some are documentary filmmakers like Barbara Kopple. We’d look at the commercial and match the commercial to the director, and then pull apart why is it that director, and how would it have been directed differently if it was another director? What is a director’s voice? In the case of a commercial, they don’t come up with the creative, and yet somehow their stamp is on it.

GUM: You’ve done commercials, but you’ve also done a fair amount of things in the PSA world. What are the differences between a commercial and a PSA?

LB: For a PSA, it’s great when you actually have a message. But it’s the same kind of toolkit. You have thirty seconds or sixty seconds, and you want to pack the most powerful punch you can in a short amount of time.

GUM: One of your PSAs that got a ton of attention was a spot for the New York Coalition for the Homeless.

 

What was the story behind that? Did you do the interviews and get the footage of the people singing? Was that your idea?

LB: That wasn’t my idea. This creative team, Street Smart Advertising, came up with the concept, and they approached me about doing it because I had just given a talk on guerilla filmmaking, and guerilla filmmaking seemed appropriate for this type of thing.

We drove around with a camera – this was shot on 16mm film, because this was back in the day – and would stop when we’d see a homeless person. I’d get out, explain what we were doing, and talk to them about the meaning of the song and see if they’d be willing to participate. We’d sing the song together a little bit, and then shoot them. It was moving, because people really understood what the message was about.

GUM: You did a short film called Spring in 2004, which is about a 9/11 widow.

 

What inspired that film?

LB: It’s a true story. It happened to a person who lived in a building of somebody I knew. This woman lost her husband in 9/11, and she started to collect Christmas trees, believing that she could bring them back to life. She just had a hard time dealing with his death, clearly. And she thought that she was going to re-plant the trees and make them grow again. That story moved me greatly, and I did a short on it.

GUM: Several years later, you did the documentary Katrina’s Children, which is about children affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Was it because you spent your early childhood in New Orleans that you felt a connection to children who had to go through the hurricane?

LB: Yeah. When people think about New Orleans, they think about the music, they think about drinking, they think about this very adult angle on New Orleans – which is a very legitimate and important angle. I mean, New Orleans is about a certain type of knowing how to live [laughs].

But people don’t always connect New Orleans with children. A child’s experience in New Orleans is equally profound and very spiritual too, just different. So capturing the point of view of children and their relationship to New Orleans was very personal to me.

GUM: How did you find the kids? I noticed they were varied in race and class. Was that something you had in mind when choosing subjects?

LB: Yes. That was the goal. I think sometimes New Orleans is misunderstood. It’s a city of very distinct neighborhoods. Socioeconomically, it’s not as simplistic as people think. What we attempted to do was capture the flavor of different angles of New Orleans, and not just, “Here’s the Lower Ninth Ward.” There’s a whole range of kids, and our goal was to explore how it affected all kids in different ways.

GUM: One of the ways the film does that is through the use of their artwork. Why did art play such an important role in getting the kids to express themselves?

LB: At first, it was just to find a way to enter into their world. But what was really surprising was how therapeutic it ended up being. A lot of parents told us later on that it was really healing for the kids. It was incredible to witness that.

GUM: What was the first show you directed for network television?

LB: It was Law & Order: SVU [the episode “Secrets Exhumed,” in 2013].

GUM: What was that like, as your very first time on a TV set?

LB: Well, it wasn’t my first time on a TV set. It took a long time to break into TV. I shadowed for seven years before getting my first break. I spent a lot of time watching other directors before I finally got the chance. And it was great training, I have to say.

I started directing commercials when I was 23, so I taught myself what it meant to be a director. Being mid-career and going, “You know what? I want to try something new and start from zero” was humbling and wonderful. It was like, here you go, you’re a white belt now. It took a lot more time than I thought it would, but that was time well spent, because I learned an enormous amount. Television is its own animal, and you pick up a lot of things from just watching.

The first show I shadowed on was The Wire. People were like, “How’d you get on The Wire?” “Uh, I cold-called.” [Laughs] Apparently there wasn’t a long line of people waiting to hang out in the middle of the ghetto doing night shoots in January. It was one of my favorite shows. So to be there and watch was amazing.

GUM: What was that seven year period like? Were there points where you were very discouraged and on the verge of giving up?

LB: I never was on the verge of giving up, though it did cross my mind that there was a possibility I was delusional [laughs]. There was a moment around the seven year mark where you run into people and they say, “Hey, what are you doing? Oh, you’re still shadowing?” “Yep.” [Laughs]. But it paid off.

GUM: On procedurals, the cast and most of the crew stays steady, and the directors change frequently. What kind of atmosphere does that create for a director?

LB: Well, the first day is always like the first day of school. TV directing is a very peculiar craft. It’s unlike other directing, because you are first and foremost a guest, but you’re also the director, so you’re a guest director. You’ve invited into somebody else’s home, essentially. And when you’re a guest, you don’t just sit there and break plates because you want to.

You have to understand the culture of a show. Every show is different, each culture is different. That’s actually part of what I love about it, is essentially being like an anthropologist. In a very short amount of time, you have to be able to understand the dynamics and the politics of a show, not to mention the visual language of a show, the storylines – there’s a lot to know. How far can you push it visually? There’s so much to absorb in a very short amount of time.

There’s something very strange, but to me satisfying about being kind of a traveler. It’s like you’re a migrant worker, working from show to show to show, and each one is different. Every one has its own set of challenges, it’s own dynamics, and it’s fascinating.

GUM: Some of the episodes you’ve directed existed all or almost all in very confined spaces – the SVU interrogation room, for example. How can you make that visually interesting?

 

LB: What a great question! It was a wonderful challenge, actually. I think three-fifths of the show took place in interrogation. So how does it not become dull or repetitive? Well, first of all, you have great actors. Mariska [Hargitay] is just amazing, and of course I had Marcia Gay Harden.

Visually, it was really fun for me, because I love thinking metaphorically. I tried to understand, what is the scene about, and how can I best capture this, obviously through the performance, but also visually.

So with that SVU episode, for example, I had a very specific game plan for each scene. For one scene, she’s in control, so I framed her in power positions, center frame, solid. Then, as she loses control a little bit, the camera becomes a little more uncertain. The framing starts to be off. One scene may be all wide-angle lenses, and another scene where it gets really intense and intimate, you go into long, long lenses where the rest of the world falls away and it’s just about the intensity of their faces. So it’s all about finding metaphors.

GUM: You mentioned you’re working on an episode of Arrow right now. What was it like jumping into the superhero realm?

LB: It was fun. I love dealing with actors, but I’m also super-visual. So being able to do some action was a real treat for me. Shooting at night in the rain in Vancouver, it’s beautiful. It’s wet, but it’s beautiful.

GUM: A lot of the people in the PSAs and commercials you’ve done are non-actors. What are some of the challenges of working with regular people?

LB: I did that for years. I was actually pigeonholed as a “real person” director for a long time, because I did it well. But I always was dying to do more drama and work with actors, which is what I’m doing now. In commercials or anything you do, if you do a lot of it, that becomes who you are.

I always used to say that when I’m working with a real person, you don’t want them to act, because acting is bad, acting is false. What you want them to do is react. So I would be the actor, and they would be the reactor. I would provoke them to get the reaction I wanted. By my behavior, I would be able to influence them.

It was fun. It was very much like a dance. I would have a sense of where I wanted to go with the questions, but I wouldn’t start with a list of hard questions because that would throw the dynamic off. It was about really being present and being able to engage with them.

GUM: What are your upcoming plans?

LB: Right now, my focus is TV. I’m also developing some personal projects of mine that I’m not quite ready to talk about. Some of them are fairly large and epic. To be honest, I feel like I’m just starting.

GUM: Finally, when you go to a film or television studio, what kinds of things do you look for?

LB: Silence [laughs]. Not to name names, but I’ve been in many studios that were very loud.

written by Shawn Setaro