David Semel: From 'Heroes' to 'American Horror Story'

A few white lies got director David Semel into the editing room, but years of consistently producing good work landed him gigs on shows like Heroes, Homeland, and House, as well as two Primetime Emmy nominations. 


Credit: FXCredit: FXBefore he directed episodes of Hemlock Grove, American Horror Story, Homeland, and CSI, David Semel was a Los Angeles film student just trying to gain experience. Interning for free on a small indie film, Semel got his first real exposure to post-production by lying his way into the editing room.

I was working for the prop master and he really was frankly kind of an asshole,” Semel recalls. “I went to the production manager and said, ‘Hey look, I’m happy to be working here for free but is there anybody else I could work for?’ and he said, ‘No. Too bad you don’t know how to sync dailies, because we lost our apprentice editor.’ I said, ‘Oh, I totally know how to sync dailies.’”

After convincing the soon-to-be-gone apprentice editor to teach him how to do the job, Semel secured himself an editing position then slowly began moving up the chain, from editing to associate production work on the original 90210 to producing Dawson’s Creek to directing gigs on seminal shows including Party of Five, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Boston Public.

That’s kind of how I approached every job I ever got in Hollywood, which was say I knew how to do it, then went back after the fact and figured it out or found somebody who knew how to do it,” Semel says. “I don’t think it’s an uncommon story in Hollywood, because there’s just not a very clear trajectory. A lot of the work you do, especially in any creative capacity, is you end up finding your own methodology. There aren’t really manuals.”

Today Semel is one of the most highly sought-after television directors and executive producers with credits ranging from Heroes to House M.D., both of which earned him Emmy nods, and a deal to direct the first two post-pilot episodes of The Strain, Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming FX series.

Get In Media: Would you mind walking us through the process of directing a single episode of television? I think it surprises a lot of people that television shows don’t have a single director.

David Semel: Right. The process can be about two weeks of prep. While one director is prepping an episode, the company is shooting. As one director finishes and the prepping director takes over, a new director comes in so there’s overlap. I’ve done shows and I’ve also produced, where sometimes I would do every third episode and it’s just an exhausting, exhausting process. It’s physically impossible to do every episode and it’s mostly impossible to do more than a couple. What happens then as a result is that directors will typically go around from show to show to show to sort of spread their seed.

You’ll typically come in and you’ll prep and theoretically before you come in, a script is done, or at least a writer’s draft that you can start to work on. You go through all the processes that you typically go through, location scouting or casting, meeting with all the department heads, scheduling how you’re going to shoot it, because you have typically seven days or eight days, in some cases nine days, to shoot an episode. During that time, you table read, you do all those kinds of things. When it’s your turn you start shooting, you shoot for those eight or nine days. When that’s done, the editor will turn over the cut first to the director and the director will take up to four days to polish, deliver, and cut to the producers who will then take it and usually they’ll finish it. Everybody works a little differently. When I’m running a show or co-running a show, I try to keep those directors involved all the way through the edit or at least offer that option to them simply because I think at that point they know the film better than anybody. I also think that there’s a degree of authorship you’d like them to feel now that it’s gone from being a script to being a film.

GIM: When you go into do a single or a couple episodes of a television show do you take any specific steps to ensure the continuity of the show?

DS: A lot of times shows will be providing or compiling an ongoing bible to people who come into the show, not just directors, but actors or whoever might come into the show, that just basically says this is who we are, this is what we do, these are our sets, this is our wardrobe, this is our story, maybe there’s a synopsis.

GIM: You’ve stated that there’s an inherent conflict between a writer and a director. Would you mind explaining that and talking about how you balance the two?

DS: I think that both the writer and the director have to be very conscious of trying to avoid conflict or really working hard to find common ground because inherently we all just see the world differently. There are areas where we see things similarly, but even with similar viewpoints, we come at them in a very different way. If the writer is the chief voice behind the script and theoretically the director is the chief voice behind what happens on the set, it’s very often, and maybe likely, that specifically what the writer sees and what the director sees in their mind when they read the script or wrote the script is very different.

You read a slug line that says, “Interior: library, day.”  When I just said that, you pictured in your mind a library with daylight. I did too. They’re both libraries. It’s day in both cases. They’re both inside, but I guarantee you that your version of that library and my version of that library are very different. It’s about trying to find that common ground between the library that you saw in your head and the library that I saw in my head and making sure that that’s where we’re moving forward and trying to execute and achieve. I’ve found that the way to try to not get caught in the conflict but actually use that conflict to your benefit is to try to come up with some version of a library that is actually partially what you saw in your head and partially what I saw in my head, because then it’s maybe the best of all worlds and it’s even a little bit unique. But I do think that to pretend that there’s not an inherent conflict is the first step towards the road to ruin in conflict.

GIM: You’ve done a lot of work in the horror or supernatural genres. How do you know where the line is in terms of what you can put on television and what you can’t?

DS: There are entire departments of people who will very clearly tell you what you can and cannot do, and no matter how clearly they do it, it’s still ultimately up for interpretation. There’s still guidelines. What you try to do is present it in a way that you still have flexibility to push for a fight or acquiesce when you’re in post, shaving frames here and there.

[American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy] thought the show was not particularly scary [in its second season]. I directed an episode, and there were sequences with Zach Quinto … that were so terrifying even I was creeped. We put our cut together, me and [Murphy], and he said that he was freaked out. We internally pulled it back. He didn’t wait for some censor to tell him that we went too far. I was a little disappointed but also flattered at the same time.

Zach Quinto, American Horror Story: Asylum

GIM: You were nominated for a Primetime Emmy for the Heroes pilot. When you were doing that project, did you have a sense that it would be Emmy worthy?

DS: I knew that we were doing something really great. I don’t think I ever go into anything thinking, “Ooh, this is going to get all kinds of awards.” My brain doesn’t think that way. I tend to focus on the things that are not working. I try not to be dismissive of the things that are working. I try to highlight them and applaud the people who caused them to be successful, but I tend to focus on the things that are not working, trying to get them in the former category. As a result, I usually finish something thinking it’s not very good. I don’t spend my time thinking about how good something is.

GIM: What do you recommend in terms of networking? How do you stay on top of a producer’s radar for the next project?

DS: That’s a great question, and if I knew the answer I’d probably be employed a bit more. The truth be told is, like everything in this business, you have to find what is your own path and your own way of doing things and I think all the way to the end, we all question a little bit the methods that we employ.

You can’t lose sight of the fact that the whole intention of networking is to be able to do good work so that the thing that you get the most attention for is doing good work and being good at what you do. We live in a different age now than when I was coming up, when you have the Internet. You have the ability to reach people. But A: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and B: Just because you can hit a mass e-mailing, I think there’s a degree to which people might feel the lack of personal effort put into something.

GIM: What advice do you have for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

DS: Get a camera. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. When I was coming up, when I was a kid, I had a Super 8 camera. It would take me a couple weeks of working at the local hardware store to make up enough money to be able to buy a couple rolls of film. Now, with not a tremendous amount of money, you can buy a camera and a computer with an editing program on it that is a relatively sophisticated little studio you’ve got on your hands. I always marvel at people who spend a lot of their energy networking, and while I think that’s a good thing, I always say that networking, if you don’t have the goods to back it up, doesn’t do anything. It’s finding the time to do all the things that you need do from a business standpoint, but never forgetting the reason why you’re really doing it.

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