Eric Stoltz: How 'Glee' gave me a new direction
The actor who got his start in classic high school comedies (''Fast Times at Ridgemont High,'' ''Some Kind of Wonderful'') is now the go-to director for Fox's hit teen comedy
When I first came to to the Glee set last season, I could tell they’d been through a great deal — the actors were close-knit and a bit guarded, and rightly so. Who was this redheaded stranger coming into their world, asking questions and taking notes? Before I start directing a show, I try to spend a few weeks hanging around the set, getting to know the crew and talking to the actors about how they like to work. Who is fussy? Who is left-handed? Who wants to go home early, and who is the perfectionist? There is no ”right” way to work, and familiarizing myself with everyone’s method is a respectful place to start. And it’s also a lot of fun stealing Jane Lynch’s journal and reading it in the bathroom.
So how did I get here? My first film as an actor was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a glorious experience that spoiled me for future films. A collection of young actors eager to be taken seriously and do good work — it was wonderful to be a part of. The world that Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling created was my first and best lesson as to how a set could be — a happy, open, and improvisatory place where everyone was allowed to express his or her ideas. Sadly, that was one of the last times it would happen. The ’80s were a time of technical wonder in filmmaking; unfortunately, some colleges didn’t integrate their film and theater departments — so you had actors who were afraid of the camera, and directors who couldn’t talk to the actors. I can count on one hand the directors who actually directed me. Thankfully the ’90s arrived, and with them the indie-film movement, which I loved (still do) beyond reason.
As the ’90s departed, during a particularly grim breakup with an ex, the subject of our two dogs came up. I offered joint custody, but the message came back through her assistant (a lovely woman with the unfortunate nickname of ”Wormy”) that she didn’t want to see them anymore. Suddenly I had 150 pounds of dogs to care for. Oddly, this was my first step toward adulthood. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But you should know that most actors are intentionally infantilized; people bring you food and clothes (cleaned and pressed!), and give you smart, funny lines to say. It’s no surprise that one comes to expect this kind of treatment from the world, and this may also be why I don’t enjoy camping.
In any case, I found this shift in perspective (the world is not centered around me?) a relief, and began to become interested in life behind the camera. To this day I overprepare. I draw storyboards for every scene — chicken scratches so crude that they amuse and horrify the crew. I send out shot lists, act out the scenes, and search for a theme that I can relate to. It’s my favorite time of the process. Then I get on set, and inevitably an actor says, ”Wait, why would I do that?” and I realize they’re right. So all my prep gets tossed out, and I find myself improvising. Still, those are the moments that resonate — whether it’s Artie rolling himself into the pool or Brittany nudging a lonely meatball across a plate with her nose. These little moments of unscripted behavior stay with me.
Once we get the script, we begin the tedious job of getting the songs from page to screen. There are pre-records, recordings, dance rehearsals…and then sometimes when we start shooting, Ryan Murphy and the producers say they had another vision for the scene, and we’re back to square one. But other times, it all clicks; the transformative power of music works its magic and we are overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of it all. That’s what we live for, and when it happens, we’re the happiest crew in town.
Working on Glee has given me a chance to take my small frustrations over not having been directed so long ago and resolve them — by not only directing these wonderful actors but by listening to them, respecting them, and honoring their talents on a show with a message of love and tolerance. I consider myself a very lucky man indeed.