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Emmy director interview

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By Roberta G. Wax
Louis J. Horvitz is doing something right. The upcoming 55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards show September 21, will be the 10th he has directed. Add to that seven years directing the Academy Awards, 12 of the People’s Choice and 10 of American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Awards and you have an impressive record indeed. Horvitz—a three-time Emmy winner himself—has also directed the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors and the Daytime Emmy Awards. Other directing credits: VH-1’s Divas Duets, Concert for New York City, Solid Gold, Norman Lear’s cult classic Fernwood Tonight, and music shows for U2 (at the Super Bowl), Paul Simon (in Central Park), The Rolling Stones and The Judds. He discussed his work with Below the Line.

Below the Line: How does the crew add to the success of a live telecast?
Horvitz: I studied film and TV at UCLA and was a cinematographer and cameraman early in my career. I come from the ranks of knowing what it takes to make a picture. My camera and audio crew know what I’ve done what they’re doing, that I’ve done the difficult shots I might ask of them. I think they appreciate having a cameraman’s director at the helm. My shows are very complex, especially the awards shows. I have a lot of requirements of camera operators; I have specific assignments in mind with alternative plays if I change cue while on the air. We’re like a football team. I’m the coach/quarterback. My six handhelds are the frontline, tackles and guards—their job is to get the nominee shot and winners. I like to tell a story. For example, if Kelsey Grammer wins, I want to get David Hyde Pierce and the producer. The cameras have a zone, so if your person wins you stick with them. If [they] don’t win, I need that camera to get over to the other performers. I want to tell the audience at home a deeper story. The crew, especially the camera crew, has a lot to do with the success of what I can show you at home.
BTL: Do you usually work with same crew?
Horvitz: Yes. I try through the years to maintain continuity on big shows. Again, it’s like a football team. Once you learn how to be the tight end and go up the middle, you know how to execute that play. Dave Eastwood, my Steadicam guy, can go up the middle like a running back. There are a lot of players who go from big show to big show as long as they don’t overlap. I’ve been with some of these guys 30 years. In the last 10 to 12 years, I tried to pick up new players who are capable of being on my Super Bowl team. Most of my big show crews are half Los Angeles, half New York, with some from Texas and Nashville. I utilize crews from all over the U.S.
BTL: What qualities do you look for in crew?
Horvitz: If I were to look a for new camera operator now, I’d look for somebody with the technical ability to zoom/focus, to move fast, hold focus; someone who can go immediately to the shot I want. I look for speed, with no delay. I want tele-thinkers, people who know immediately what I want if I get jammed. Like at the Academy Awards, that moment between Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier. As soon as Denzel, on stage, talks about Sidney, in the audience, my guys know immediately that I would want that relationship shot from Denzel to Sidney. Collectively, we know what it takes to tell a story quickly. I also want someone who listens to what I say and does it. I know what I want. Keep your headset shut, don’t talk. I don’t like a lot of chatter on the headsets.
BTL: Would you look for different qualities if working on different types of shows?
Horvitz: Yes. I did sitcoms as cameraman and director. For those shows, I look for the ability to stay extremely focused. A sitcom might have 135 to 200 shots per 15 to 20 minutes. They come really fast and those guys really excel at that. My guys play the zone, not marked numbers. They’re sharp, but loose, because we’re live. We’ve got to capture (the scene) as it unfolds, and it’s as much a mystery to us [as it is to the viewer.]
BTL: How long do you work with a crew before a major show?
Horvitz: We drill hard. We have very tight schedules now because the economics of the industry have changed so much. We used to have a day for a look-see, maybe two full days of rehearsal, another day of walk through with talent, and the fourth day would be the show. On bigger shows, like the Emmys and Oscars, you might get that. But most of the time you have the same day they set up their equipment, the day of rehearsal. So you have to utilize every moment available. We’re drilling pretty continuously with extensive camera meetings. We prepare a heavily marked script that has every usage – where the microphones are, what the zones are, what each camera is getting, where tapes are playing back, where are entrances, etc. It’s all written out. It’s like studying the game film the week before you play. The process is exhausting.
BTL: Who are you using at the Emmys this year in key areas?
Horvitz: Our technical director is John B. Field; associate directors are Jim Tanker and Deborah Read; key camera players who are specialized are Dave Eastwood, Steadicam; Marc Hunter, lead jib operator; Bill Philbin and Hector Ramirez, handhelds; Ed Green, audio; and Mark Sanford, video.
BTL: What criteria do you use to choose these key positions?
Horvitz: I look for technical ability, speed, quiet, telethinking and a high intelligence level. These guys are not only smart in the technical and engineering aspects, but also in knowing the actors. They think, “how can I help Lou tell the story, how can we get him out of this jam?” They can listen to the speeches and find the relationship shots. To be on my crews you must be the total player. Every time we go on live television it’s the main event. If you make a mistake, there are a lot of people talking about it the next day. The adrenaline and pressure are immense. People, I think, categorize me as demanding but fair. I strive for excellence. I want to win every race. I know that every one of my crew wants to do just as well as I do. They want to be great that night, just like I do. And that’s why I love them.

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