Empty Nest is now on Laff TV! To celebrat
Associate director Doug Smart worked on Empty Nest throughout its seven-season run. In this interview with Empty Nest Online, Doug talks about the show's weekly production schedule, what it was like working with the cast, and his move to academia.
Empty Nest Online: Let's start at the beginning and talk about how you became involved with Empty Nest.
Doug: I had worked with producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas on Benson and Condo, and they asked me to do a few episodes of the first season of The Golden Girls, as it got off the ground. So when they spun The Golden Girls off into Empty Nest, they asked if I wanted to work on the pilot and, if the show went to series, would I be interested in staying on? I had a great time on the pilot working with director Jay Sandrich, who is a legendary director, so when it came time to do the series, I was definitely on board.
I served as the associate director on the show. Hal Cooper, another legendary director, did most of season one. Steve Zuckerman joined the show at the start of season two and directed the majority of the episodes from that point on. I did direct about a dozen episodes during the run of the series. Other directors, such as James Widdoes, Bob Berlinger and Dinah Manoff, also directed some episodes.
ENO: As an AD, what was a typical week like on the set?
Doug: We shared a crew with The Golden Girls, which was a Monday through Friday show, so the camera crew would work there on Thursdays and Fridays. We were a Wednesday to Tuesday show, meaning we would start a new episode on Wednesday and tape it the following Tuesday. So we would rehearse with the cameras on Monday, shoot on Tuesday, then they would go rehearse and shoot The Golden Girls on Thursday and Friday.
So our week started on Wednesday. We would come in for a production meeting, and all the department heads would go through the script from top to bottom, attacking whatever production issue would come up that week: props, wardrobe, sets, lighting, any kind of special effects, sound effects, anything that might need a day or two to create or wrangle. After that, the cast would come in and have a table read. We would try to get half or a third of the show up on its feet with some rough blocking on Wednesday and the rest on Thursday morning. In the afternoon, we would run through the script with the actors to make sure everything was on its feet. Thursday evening was the first writers’ run-through, so they could see what they'd written performed with the actors moving around on set to resemble what the scene would eventually look like on camera. Based on that, the producers would offer notes, and the writers had their own notes, and the writers would spend Thursday night rewriting. On Friday, we would get a brand new, fresh script, even if the changes were minimal. We would work all day Friday, do an afternoon run-through, and then I would work with the director, usually Stevie Z., designing all the camera shots for the week's episode. We had what we called “the 85% rule,” meaning by the end of Friday, we would try to be certain that 85% of the shots would work. We would iron out the other 15% Monday and Tuesday.
As AD, I would have a meeting with the camera crew first thing Monday morning, translating all the shots we'd written into our scripts for the camera operators. They all had shot cards with roughly 200 to 250 shots per week in the script. The actors would do a "dry blocking" with the cameras, just to work through their paces while saving their energy for the show. At the end of the day on Monday was our first dress rehearsal, the first time the writers and producers could actually see a version of what the show was going to look like on camera, because they would be in a separate control room, watching on TV monitors as we cut the shots together.
We would also time all the wardrobe changes in the dress rehearsal, because when you tape in front of a live audience, you don't want to make the audience wait too long. At the end of the day on Monday, we would get more notes from the producers, and we had the discretion of either adhering to or ignoring them, and it was about a 50/50 mix. Half the notes, we would say, "Okay, that's a decent note," and the other half we just ignored.
Because Tuesday was our "show day," and we would be working late that night, we would come in at 11 a.m. and briefly go through each scene. Then by 3 p.m. the actors would go into makeup and wardrobe, and we would take care of any last-minute production needs.
We would then shoot a show with a live audience at 5 p.m. until about 6:15, break for dinner, get more notes from the writers and producers, and come in with a fresh audience at 7:30 and shoot it again until around 9. If we had any pick-up shots, we'd shoot those after the audience left, between about 10 p.m. and midnight. And then Wednesday, we would start all over again on the next episode.
ENO: It's interesting to hear such a thorough explanation of what goes on behind the scenes, because, as viewers, we only see the actors and the polished final product.
Doug: I have so much admiration for actors, because not only do they get a 40- to 50-page script every week, and have to learn it in five days and act it out in front of an audience on camera to be aired nationally, but they also keep getting revisions. So if the writers felt a joke wasn't working at 5:00 in front of an audience, they would rewrite it and ask the actors to come in at 7:30 in front of another live audience, on camera, and deliver lines they’d never actually rehearsed. So I just have such admiration for actors who can do that week in and week out.
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