An Interview With Michael Grossman

If you’ve turned on the TV in the last twenty five years, there’s a good chance you’ve watched an episode of something directed by Michael Grossman.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Grossman initially had no aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. Little did he know, he would go on to direct for some of the biggest shows on television. Throughout his prolific career, his work has dipped into a number of territories, spanning from drama (Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars) to sci-fi/fantasy (Star Trek: Enterprise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to children’s comedy (Kenan & Kel, Drake & Josh, Zoey 101). His packed resume continues to expand, with recent credits including shows like Cobra Kai and Roswell, New Mexico.

Andrew got to chat with Michael about his journey in the entertainment industry and various work from his career. Check it out below!

What first inspired you to get into filmmaking?

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, which is not a beacon of filmmaking, but I went to Temple University and I had no idea what I was going to do in school or in my life. I was not a film buff of any kind, I had no particular interest in it and I was never introduced to it other than as an audience member. In my third year of college, having declared psychology as my major- only because they forced me to declare a major, I was still feeling like I was floundering. By chance, I ran into somebody at registration while I was looking for what I referred to as an easy off-major elective. He said, “I took this filmmaking class,” and I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I hear you go out with an 8mm camera and shoot film.” I thought, “Oh, well that sounds easy. I’ll do that.” And my career was born, literally.

I went into my first class, and as I’ve often described it, it was as if I was sitting in a room where they were speaking a foreign language in which I had never heard before, yet I understood everything that was being said. It was just in me and I had no idea.

What was it like initially moving out to LA and getting started in the industry?

I had never been to LA. When I went to college, I spent some time trying to save up money because although my parents were frightened, yet supportive of the notion of me going to LA to get into the film industry, they weren’t going to support me indefinitely. So, I spent some time after college saving money and having never even been to LA before, I packed my bags and off I went to get into the industry. This was pre-internet time, so not only was I learning from ground zero how to find potential jobs, but the availability of information about potential jobs was much more scarce than it is today. Essentially, the only access was through Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Each week, I think it would be Thursday in the Hollywood Reporter and Friday in Variety, there would be a section with new productions and that’s how I got started trying to find my way into any job in the industry to get my foot in the door. 

One of your early AD jobs was on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That movie was made with a pretty small budget and wasn’t expected to be successful. What were your expectations going into that film?

Ninja Turtles was definitely a breakthrough moment for me, because although it was low budget for the nature of the film that it was, it was still an eleven million dollar budget which was ten million dollars more than any other movie I had done before then. When I broke the million dollar budget range, I thought I was in, but then when they contacted me about Ninja Turtles, I went in and met with them. Graham Cottle was the executive producer that called me in. He had heard about me and I was not in the Director’s Guild yet. In fact, I didn’t even know what the Director’s Guild was. I was such a virgin in the business that I was literally working and working all the way up to first AD and I hadn’t even encountered the Director’s Guild before. It was a non-DGA film, so I definitely had a reputation as an AD who could get a film done and a big responsibility, especially in the non Guild universe, was to get the film done. In the Director’s Guild, you have a lot of limitations in terms of what you can and can’t do to keep things on track, and in the non-Guild world, you almost become an on-set producer. You have a lot of responsibility to do anything to keep things going. 

Were there any big challenges you faced during production?

There were many. The animatronics we used in the film, nothing like that had ever been done before. The animatronics were inside the suits, which were worn by actors, but the faces were operated by puppeteers at the same time in the same room. It was a technology that had really never been done before. It was very cumbersome, and ultimately we found out very quickly it was prone to breakdown. 

One of the things they didn’t calculate for was that we were shooting in North Carolina in the summer which is extremely hot and humid. The actors inside the suits were sweating so profusely that the salt water from their perspiration was rusting out the servos in their heads literally overnight. Things started breaking down very quickly early on in the film and we had to have a group of people from the Henson Group Creature Shop working through the night to replace parts so that things would hopefully be working the next day. But at any moment on any day, one of the heads could just stop working and sometimes they were quick fixes, sometimes there was radio interference between the puppeteers and the head, and sometimes it was going to be a big breakdown that would take a while. As an AD, I always had to have something in my pocket to keep the camera rolling. “What am I going to do if this stops or if that stops?” There were always scenes that were scheduled that didn’t include everybody as much whenever possible to keep things moving in spite of the fact that there were a lot of technical difficulties. 

I feel like that movie doesn’t get as much credit as it should for its practical effects.

If you watch the film right now… I’ve never thought about it before, but I honestly cannot recall a single visual effect of any significance in the entire film. There might have been a shot where a moon was added or something, but everything that you saw, we did. When the skateboarding was done in the sewer, there was a stunt skateboard person inside a suit really doing that. We really did everything that you see. In fact, if it all wasn’t complicated enough, the original production company was a company called Golden Harvest. I believe they were out of China and their stunt people, who were incredible martial artists, spoke not a single word of English. So just to make matters worse, when we would have our stunt people inside suits, which already made it hard enough for us to hear each other, there was also a language barrier because they didn’t speak a single word of English. 

It was an incredible job though and I had a tremendous amount of growth from it. Ultimately, I was hired back after the film was moving along in post-production because they decided they wanted to do a new opening for the movie. Graham Cottle called and said, “We’d like you to come direct the opening of the movie,” which I suppose was actually my directing debut. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t really aspiring to be a director. I was just being the best assistant director I could be, but Graham smelled it, as I like to say. So off I went to direct the opening of the movie.

What was it like when you later made the transition from doing AD work to directing full time?

In actual fact, the reality of the jobs of assistant directing and directing are that they are very different disciplines. It’s a very right brain versus left brain kind of thing. Often, what brings somebody in as a good assistant director doesn’t necessarily lend them to be a good director. And certainly, someone who can direct, but doesn’t have that other side of the brain for AD-ing, you can’t even begin to try. It just can’t happen. Oddly enough, I came to find out that I had two sides of this brain because I was able to AD and I was able to direct, but I wanted to give you some of that background because there was, and probably still is a prejudice against the idea of assistant directors directing. They’re seen through the lens of these very pragmatic, organizing, administrative jobs as opposed to focusing on dealing with actors, telling story and more artistically oriented things. It sounds like a natural step, but the actual fact is it’s more difficult than other disciplines to become a director after being an assistant director. That made Graham’s perspective on bringing me into that even more like, “Wow!” I wasn’t thinking about it, he just asked and I went and did it. 

Through the next couple of years, other executive producers that were exposed to me as an assistant director were feeling that same thing because there were times where they would need to split off into an additional unit or a second unit. Rather than pulling somebody in from the outside, they were coming to me and that became kind of a regular thing. So then I was becoming established as a second unit director which got me one step closer. There was a point in the process where I realized that directing was likely something I should pursue. I had watched a lot of directors really struggle with directing and I stood off to the side and thought to myself, “I’m not seeing the struggle. It’s very apparent in front of me how to do this.” So it became more and more apparent that this might be something worth trying to make happen. 

So my crossover came in 1995. Earth 2 was a show that NBC picked up and it was a twenty-two episode one season wonder. It was a very, very expensive show for NBC and an executive producer I had worked with before, Tony To, called me and said, “I need you to AD this pilot.” I think they spent like five million dollars just on the pilot, so it was a big thing. They had twenty two episodes picked up already, which is very unusual in network television. I had done a number of second unit directing things for Tony before and that’s when I said to him, “You know what? I’m cool to do that Tony, but especially since you’ve got a full pick-up, could you throw me an episode?” He had no hesitation about it because I had directed for him before and I was trusted. At that point, I figured I’d probably pick up some very late episode, but they had a drop out early in the season and they stuck me in because I was there already and I knew the show. I continued to AD on the show after that and then what would have been my regular slot, I ended up directing as well, so I got to do two episodes. I thought at that point, “Okay, I’m in. This is gonna swing the door open,” and I really went out and started looking. The harsh reality was that the response from the industry was, “You know, it’s solid work, but all you’ve got is two of the same show and that’s not enough.” 

I think it was important for me not to get frustrated with any of that because directing was never an intended goal. It was sort of a tributary that I had found. So I went back to AD-ing and continued to look for opportunities. You kind of have to start building until it’s a little bit more difficult for someone to say, “You just have one of these and one of those.” Although they do that for a long time [laughs]. But experience wins the day. You’re responsible for a lot of money as a director and every decision that you make is right on the table. Proven success is much more important than looking for the new good thing. That’s how I did it. 

You did some work with Nickelodeon early in your directing career. Something interesting I read was that you directed Milton Berle’s last on-screen appearance in Kenan & Kel: Two Heads Are Better Than None. 

I did! Sadly, it’s a very obscure movie because those guys are awesome and it’s really fun. You can find it, but it’s not around like so many other things are. I got to do the Kenan & Kel movie because I was doing a series on HBO called Arli$$ and [Mike] Tollin and [Brian] Robbins were the producers on it, and they had a show on Nickelodeon called Cousin Skeeter. My daughter was seven or eight at the time and Cousin Skeeter was right in her wheelhouse. It was the first opportunity I had to do something that was accessible to her where she could actually come to the set, know the characters because she had seen the show before, and see the finished product. I had a great time doing it and that’s how I wound up on the radar of Nickelodeon and then Tollin/Robbins wanted me to do the Kenan & Kel movie. The whole thing was so much fun to do. We didn’t have a ton of money, we didn’t have a ton of time, but we had a great time doing it and yes, it was Milton Berle’s last on-screen performance.

Do you know how he got cast?

It wasn’t me, although I’ve gotten iconic people like that into guest parts on things before. I’ve gotten Joan Rivers, and a bunch of others. But in the case of Milton Berle, I don’t know how it came to be, but what I remember is although it was a really cool idea that it was happening, I was very fearful. We had so little time and I didn’t get the impression that someone like Milton Berle would move very quickly. I was very concerned about that, but ultimately it was a wonderful experience. I think what I’ll go onto from there is that it reminds me of when I did the Drake & Josh Christmas movie for Nickelodeon. They came into my office one day and said, “We got Kimbo Slice!” And I’m like, “What’s that?” They’re like, “He’s this cagefighting guy!” And I’m like, “Oh, okay… great? Does he act?” [laughs]

Wasn’t Henry Winkler also in the Drake & Josh movie?

Henry Winkler played the judge, yes. Henry Winkler was someone who we really went after. If I remember right, at the time we did the movie… I’m not speaking officially, but I don’t think Henry was working a lot. I think they sort of made what we often refer to as a stunt casting list, where you go after people who are going to bring some notoriety, but you might otherwise not be interested in. So we approached him and he was in, and he ended up playing the judge.

Going into sci-fi territory, you worked on a few episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. What was it like being a part of a huge franchise like Star Trek?

Doing Star Trek… actually before I get into Star Trek, I’m gonna jump back a bit. I don’t know if it’s beneficial to you or not, but a big jumpstart in my career was when I got involved in a very small show called The Invisible Man which starred Vincent Ventresca and Paul Ben-Victor and was on the original USA Network. It was basic cable and it was a very low budget show. The reason I bring that up is because we were shooting in San Diego where Comic Con happens every year. We were having a presence at Comic Con and they asked me to come along with the actors. I was fine with that and I figured, “Who gives a shit about me? I’ll sit there and they’ll talk to the actors and that’s that.” But we were in this packed room and the third question out was someone asking me who my biggest science fiction influence was. And I don’t have one! [laughs]  But I didn’t say that. You reminded me when you mentioned Star Trek that I said “Gene Rodenberry,” because it seemed in the space I was in like it was a winning answer. They didn’t seem the type that would take well to me saying, “I don’t really have one. I’m kind of a hired gun.” 

Getting back to Enterprise, it’s funny. I have a very distinct memory. One of the things that was very distinct about Enterprise was that the bridge of the ship was very much like the original series. I’m not a Star Trek aficionado, but I remember on my first day walking onto the bridge of the ship on Star Trek: Enterprise and it was in that moment that I thought, “Okay. This is cool. This is cool.” I really felt like I was on the bridge of the Enterprise because it really looked just like it. It was a blast. Scott Bakula was awesome, the entire cast was incredible. I was really fortunate that my first episode was one where they actually went back to Earth, which was very unusual for the show. 

It was really fun to immerse myself in that franchise. The passion that the fans have for it… it wasn’t pre-internet, but we didn’t have the kind of feedback we do now. Now you get instant feedback. When I was doing Pretty Little Liars, there was a huge following on Twitter and we would get instant feedback on episodes. When I did Star Trek, I remember we were still shooting when it was announced that it was canceled. I remember driving through picket lines at the gates of Paramount and the picket lines were fans trying to save Star Trek. But doing it was just a blast. It was a show that was always having fun as a cast and crew. It was a fun space to be in and it felt very much like a family. 

When joining a show, is it ever challenging to integrate with a cast and crew who sometimes have been working together for years and have an established rapport?

Well, one of the huge job responsibilities of being an episodic director is being able to step in seamlessly on your first episode. You get your eight days to make a show and you don’t get a warmup day. You don’t get a day to feel it out. You gotta hit the ground as good as you are on the last day as the first day. You have to be very quick to learn because actors are all different, they all respond differently. The operation of the set is what it is, but as far as the actors go, you have to be a very quick learner. I always found that when actors feel that you are collaborating with them as opposed to showing up for the first time and telling them something, it really opens up the door and once they trust you, they won’t think about it anymore. Rather than just saying, “I think you need to be angrier here,” I’ll say, “You know, you guys know your characters better than I do. Would this get hotter or would that be out of character for you?” That’s a legitimate question and as soon as they get that, it creates a space where there’s a collaboration and that’s my way. I want to make sure I collaborate with them. 

To what extent do you feel the need to familiarize yourself with a show’s history and previous storylines when coming onboard?

It really differs from show to show. The one that really comes to mind with the hugest amount of baggage- and I don’t mean baggage in a bad way, was The Originals, the Julie Plec spin-off of the Vampire Diaries. What happens is you get your script, and you can’t possibly… if I had to be a fan of every show I’ve directed, it’s impossible. You can’t be. You just need to be a good storyteller. So when I get my script, I’ll usually read a few of the scripts that precede that one I’m doing, but it becomes apparent where there are story arcs that are happening or when characters have something from their past that’s being referenced, I’ll rely on the writer and say, “What’s this about? What happened with these people and where are you going with it?” It’s one of my responsibilities as a visiting director to suss those things out and ask about them. 

The Originals just had this whole bible. In the world of The Originals, there was an answer for everything. Nobody was just winging it. There were all these different rules and types of creatures and it was a very detailed show. But for the most part, it usually has to do with establishing existing story arcs, past story arcs, and then what the rules of that universe are. If you’re doing Invisible Man, what can he do when he’s invisible? So you have to establish the rules of engagement so to speak and after that, they become the vase in which the flowers just get rearranged, the flowers being the actors. 

You directed the backdoor pilot for the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice. What kind of preparation goes into shooting a pilot versus a regular episode of a show?

I think the biggest difference between preparation for a pilot versus an existing show is that you’re going to be establishing a visual style. I did Grey’s before I did the pilot, and I watched a few episodes and saw what the visual style is. An important part of being a visiting director is not to reinvent the show. The important part is to get the best version of the show they’ve already created. In the case of a pilot, you are in fact creating the show. There was more face to face time with Shonda Rhimes for that then there would be for Grey’s because in Grey’s, I would get face time with Shonda to go over story points. In the case of Private Practice, number one, we were establishing new characters that no ones ever seen before so there’d be more conversation about that, and number two, we’re going to establish a visual style for that show. I think that’s really the biggest difference.

Do you have a favorite show of all the ones you’ve worked on?

You know, it’s an often asked question and a really hard one to answer and it sounds corny, but I genuinely love what I do and each time I get to do it- and doing it in different venues has its different experiences, it just… it varies. I mean, there’s definitely shows that I was more jazzed with doing once I did them and gained the experience. Just as an example, I did an episode of Gilmore Girls. The time I did Gilmore, it was a hugely popular show. If you don’t understand that show, you can’t really do that show.

I know it had a very specific style of dialogue delivery.

Oh my goodness, yes. It was like monologues. They were half page monologues where the actors were required to get every single word right. It wasn’t poetry, but it had a tempo and a beat, and it didn’t rhyme, but it still had a rhythm. It was really very technical that way, where in other instances it’s easier to look toward shaping performances because there’s more flexibility. The requirement to achieve Gilmore Girls was so much more about the template so I found it to be a bit more restrictive and difficult for me. 

What are some of the biggest ways you’ve seen the industry change since you started out?

Well there’s no question that the change from the network dominance of a primetime series that would start in the fall and end in May, and then go into reruns over the summer and a new season would come out, that template is gone. There’s new stuff all the time everywhere. Reruns are things people choose to watch because they like the episode, not because it just happens to be on now. There’s no question that expectations visually and cinematically have grown over the years I’ve been in the business. They were large when I got there, but they never got smaller, they only got bigger. Yet, at the same time, everything moves even faster. Television’s always been a fast moving technical medium in terms of getting things done, but we move even faster now. Network shows always had a minimum of eight days. I say minimum, because a big show like Grey’s, if they wanted to take nine or ten days, they would do it. But most shows now are on a very rigid budget. It used to be eight days, then it definitely went down to seven on a lot of shows. Some even try to get by on six sometimes so it moves even faster than it did before. It went from a big machine to a speedcar. We always moved fast within it, but everything’s faster now and turnaround times are very quick. But that said, there’s a lot more material that needs to get made which is great.

What projects are you working on currently? 

A lot of things in the last two years really turned upside down with Covid and I started writing more because I found myself to be just too idle. So I’ve been spending more time writing in the past couple of years and I actually developed a class that I started to teach during the first year of Covid at the University of Houston because they were starting to do virtual learning. Lectures in the college environment are bad enough, but lectures in the college environment on Zoom seemed impossible to me. The way during Covid that we were making things is we would prep remotely. We were in our own space, we would do everything on Zoom, and then we would get together and shoot. I created this class, along with Keith Houk who’s a professor there, where we pulled in a team of senior production assistants and made them crew members and they were servicing me as the director. The idea was to give them the exact experience they would have in the professional space. It made the Zoom classes more interesting because they weren’t lectures. We were prepping just like I would prep for anything and then I would shoot. 

The last thing I shot, which will be coming out soon, was I directed an episode of Roswell, New Mexico for WB, season four. I think that season probably premieres next month and that’s the last thing I’ve directed.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think the main thing I always put out there when I’m talking to students or anybody is that if this industry is lacking in anything, it’s a respect and an embrace of mentorship. I think those of us who get into the industry and get to do what we do, there’s a certain amount of talent and luck, but ultimately we’re very lucky to get to do this thing we love so much. I think it shouldn’t be, “We’re on the inside of the walls and you’re on the outside.” I really try to reach out to graduating film students and help them find that bridge between getting out of school and finding their way in the industry. It shouldn’t be the mystery that it was for me. We’re not doing a magic trick where you can’t reveal how you saw someone in half. If people have the talent, give them the tools they need to find their way in the business. I really encourage more mentoring in this business. I don’t think there’s enough of it and I think every department should be doing it because that’s how you find passionate people and help them find their way into the business.

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