Soap Opera Spy Interview: Daytime Director Scott McKinsey Discusses His Work On ‘General Hospital And ‘DOOL’
Scott McKinsey was born in Oklahoma, but spent most of his childhood in New York City. His mother was Beverlee McKinsey, who, in addition to her iconic role as Alexandra Spaulding on Guiding Light (GL), appeared on Another World, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and General Hospital (GH). Scott attended Brown University for two years before dropping out to work in Los Angeles. Editing provided him with his first jobs, which he credits with teaching him how to approach multi-camera directing. Today he is part of the directing teams at both General Hospital and Days of Our Lives (Days).
SOS: Thank you very much, Scott, for answering some questions to give us glimpse into directing a soap opera.
SM: It’s my pleasure.
SOS: First of all, are you a soap fan?
SM: I am a tremendous fan of the soap medium. That said, I am not a daily viewer of other soaps in addition to the one(s) I am working on. I do enjoy watching the episodes submitted annually for awards, when I have the opportunity to judge for the Emmys, (or in the past, the Director’s Guild of America awards).
SOS: How did you get your start in directing?
SM: My first opportunity to direct in soaps came in 1984, when I was allowed to observe at Guiding Light, where my mom had recently been hired to portray Alexandra Spaulding.
SOS: Can you describe the process of directing an episode of GH or Days, from when you receive a script to when you can say, “This episode is done”?
SM: Preparing a show that I’ve been assigned to direct entails first reading the “outlines” or “breakdowns” of the eventual final script. These are the abbreviated and detailed shorthand descriptions of the actions and dialogue within each scene as structured by the head writers. At this stage of my career, the first read through of this material has less of an emotional reaction for me, as it does a technical one. The elements that jump out at me the most from an outline pertain to the special or unique requirements the script calls for, such as stunt coordination or working in a new set. These elements dictate which departments I may need to contact first in order to begin the coordination process leading up to the shoot. These same elements are the most important to discuss in a weekly lunch meeting the directors attend at the studio with all the heads of the various departments and the producers. Topics such as the amount of background talent we will require or the rearrangement of a day’s shooting schedule can come up in these meetings and get resolved. GH has always had these weekly meetings with the directors, whereas DOOL does not. At DOOL, the producers gather directly with the department heads and determine the needs for each production day. The directors lend any recommendations to the producers by email or phone call, but don’t actually attend the meeting. Next, I read through the unedited script to experience my first real connection to the dramatic material, as it is now fleshed out with full dialogue. I make notes in the script about questions I may have regarding a story point or a character’s motivation for an action suggested in the material, as well as additional technical notes, again based on the additional clarity of the material. Once I receive the final “mimeo’d” script, I can begin the long process of “blocking” the material. Blocking is a soap director’s most intensive homework. For every shot that a viewer sees on an air show, the director has pre-planned the sequence in his/her script. So, it’s my job to write out detailed shot descriptions and notes in the margin of the script for the actor’s actions, both physically and emotionally. Each script, containing some 80-90 pages, will be filled with approximately 500 shot descriptions. I also draw mini diagrams of the sets I’m working in, on every page of the script, and place the characters in the set per my blocking, so that I have a constant reminder of the “map” I will be trying to convey to everyone on the day of the shoot. Because we now shoot more than one show per day, (due to budgetary restrictions), there is very little time to stray from a director’s pre-planning. So, it’s essential that I have a clear and logical plan for each scene so that the execution of the work goes as quickly as possible. If I haven’t planned out the material well, it will take too long to shoot, and then I’m out of a job! That said, I have to remain flexible enough to adjust my work when an actor contributes his/her own ideas to the material on the shoot day. We as directors have windows throughout the shooting day to rehearse with the actors prior to shooting. In those moments, we put our heads together and get on the same page with one another, so that when we next see each other on set, we are prepared to tape the scenes without any further coordination to work out. If we’re all doing our jobs correctly, then the technical crew, which includes the camera operators, sound and lighting departments, all use the same “map” that I have detailed in the shooting script during my homework phase to execute the taping of the scenes as seamlessly as possible. Again, if the language within my prep of a script isn’t clear and logical to the actors, the crew and the producers, then time has to be spent making it more clear and logical. This is time we have very little of.
SOS: What have been some of the most significant stories, episodes, scenes you’ve directed on soaps? Which are you most proud of?
SM: Wow. That’s a tough one. First on my list would be anything I ever shot with my mom.
At GH over the years, I invariably directed a lot of the mob “shoot-em-up” sequences. They were a lot of fun to prepare, shoot and edit. If Jason had a gun in has hand, (or in one instance, a gun in each hand), I usually directed it.
I directed the initial sequence of the Elizabeth rape storyline, which placed Lucky firmly in her orbit. That story meant a great deal to the writers, producers and the network. And I thought it was told well. Another very important story was the Stone/Robin AIDS saga, which ultimately led to the creation of the annual Nurses’ Ball. I shot the final day when Stone died in Robin’s arms. That was a tough one to get through.
I also directed the so-called, “clink/boom” episode which juxtaposed the Brenda marrying Jax story with Sonny’s wife, Lilly, being killed in a car bomb. As you may recall, the “clink” was Brenda toasting Jax with champagne glasses after they were married, in the same moment as Lilly’s car ignition turned, “boom”. I was also very proud of the work I did on the two episodes that earned me DGA awards. The first show featured a mob hit at Luke’s club that sent Nikolas to the hospital accompanied by Luke who had always been reluctant to reach out to Nikolas. But on this day, Luke sat vigil with Nikolas and saw him through to recovery. My other awarded show was for Port Charles. It was a special hour-long episode, airing the last day of the year, which featured the two characters being portrayed by Kelly Monaco, becoming one, as well as Alison leaving Rafe at the altar. I was offered to direct two other pilots for NBC, Sunset Beach and Passions, but at the time I was under contract exclusively with ABC, and I was not allowed to work for a competing network. Today, none of the daytime directors are under contract with their shows any longer. This explains my ability to work for GH and DOOL simultaneously.
SOS: How is directing a daytime serial different than directing other television formats, film, or content for the Web?
SM: It’s a tremendous adrenaline rush to work in this medium. There is nothing to compare it with in TV production. The amount of original scripted material we shoot every day far exceeds anything else being produced for TV or film. Professionals within the business who visit our world for the first time (to act in a part for instance), can’t believe what they are witnessing. Most TV and film productions are elated to record 5 – 10 pages of a script in a day’s work on set. We regularly record upwards of 100 pages every day. The most pages I’ve shot in a day is somewhere close to 150.
SOS: Even though I’m a total directing neophyte, I think I know one little thing about directing for daytime: the reaction shot, which I love for some reason. When one character says something, and then the next shot is another character’s face reacting,…and then the scene ends. How important would you say these are to soaps, and how do you go about shooting them?
SM: We call the shots you’re describing as, “tags” or “buttons”. Many scenes in other mediums end with tag shots, but the practice of it in daytime is recognizable for its ongoing contribution to the suspense in our medium. Because the stories of a soap opera never end, the cliffhangers are especially important. The challenge oftentimes for the actors is to play the tag without committing to the action he/she will take when the scene resumes. If, for instance, a character is challenged to admit something at the end of a first scene, he will invariably not reveal his eventual reaction, so as to keep the audience interested in staying with the program, to discover the response later. If we can create ongoing cliffhangers, then presumably we will hold onto our audience. So, the theory goes.
SOS: As soap fans, we tend to concentrate on the writing and acting in expressing our happiness or displeasure with the way a show is going. How much input do you have in how a storyline progresses?
SM: Directors have very little input in the story arcs on soaps. By the time a script makes its way to me, many eyes have already seen the material. These eyes include the Network and the Executive Producer who make the final decisions on the scripts. That said, once we are “putting the material on its feet”, specific moments within a script can be interpreted multiple ways. It is the job of the director and the actors to agree on an “attack” of each scene and each moment that is then presented to the producers in the form of a dress rehearsal on camera. At that point, the producers offer their notes on the performances and the direction of the scene. Then, the director makes every effort to adjust the scene to accommodate those notes and we go about recording what you then see on the air.
SOS: What is one thing you’d like soap fans to know about your job as director of two immensely popular shows (GH and Days)?
SM: I guess I would want the fans to know that I aim to maintain the truth and integrity of each character on the show. And I hope to entertain the audience and keep them hooked on our show. I also want to tell our stories in a way that doesn’t draw attention to my work, but rather draws the audience into the experience.
I hope hearing Scott’s memories, observations, and ideas about directing in daytime was as eye-opening and enjoyable for me as it was for you! What do you think about what he said? Sound of in the comments below!