Interview with Call Me Fitz Director Jim Allodi
The conventional wisdom is that television comedy should be brightly lit, the editing should be paced up with a lot of back-and-forth cutting, and dark subjects should be avoided lest the audience be reminded of their own lives. This show does none of those things. It revels in the opposite of those things! It deliberately steps in all those puddles, which is an absolute playground for directors. Lots of shadows, wider, more cinematic compositions, and the scripts regularly visit the characters’ unconscious fears or fantasies, which allows the visual language of the show to get really creative. Just by himself, Fitz could keep a squad of psychoanalysts in business for years. His unconscious is a jungle! Who wouldn’t want to have a little flashlight tour in there?
2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself and the start-to-finish process of directing this episode?
Well, obviously the whole thing starts with the script. What’s it about? What’s at the center of the story? The first read of a script is really key for me, because you’re going to read it fifty times by the end of the process, but you’re only going to have that first, what’s-going-to-happen-next read of the script once, which is exactly how the audience is going to come to the story. So it’s really valuable to hang onto the feeling of that first read and be able to recall both the pleasures and the problems of it throughout the process.
In the case of Fitz, the scripts are wild and rich. In last week’s episode, Fitz wants to regain control of the dealership from his father and Dot, and his plan is to unleash his mother on the situation in a kind of kamikaze family reunion. After reading Dennis Heaton’s script for it, my key thought was,
“I hope I don’t screw this up!” It was extremely clear and specific about each character’s objective, and at the same time, it opened the vault on the bigger questions of the Fitz family history. How exactly did the family fall apart? And how did two people like Ken and Elaine get together in the first place? It’s a kind of autopsy of the Fitz nuclear family. And at the centre of the story is the idea of “memory lane.”
And, of course, once the nuclear family is back together again it triggers spontaneous energies and regressions that none of them can necessarily control. So, to be brief, the rest of the process – finding locations, casting, camera – entails just doggedly delivering the promise of a well-executed script.
3. Can you tell us about your directorial inspiration? Were there any challenges?
The genius of Call Me Fitz and the thing that sets it apart from any other comedy I’ve worked on, is that it’s grounded in a really rich and absolutely realistic emotional family history. No matter how absurd things get, no matter how extreme and hilarious, you can feel that the characters are being driven – usually unconsciously - by these real relationships. Which, come to think of it, is where great dramatists usually go for truth. Shakespeare, Sophocles, whoever. So I don’t know about directorial inspiration, but thematically the script inspired a commitment to this family portrait.
4. What was your favourite scene to shoot? The most difficult? The most fun?
From the moment I read the script, I was probably most looking forward to the scene of Elaine getting out of jail. Dennis had made reference to Cape Fear (Scorsese’s 1991 remake), which brings to mind the idea of this dark, psychopathic bull of a man being unleashed on the world. So here we have the Elaine version, which plays with the same idea, but completely differently. She’s breezing out of there like she’s walking up the red carpet at some five star hotel. Joanna Cassidy has got this unbelievably sexy strut, and she loans it to Elaine for the scene. You can’t learn that walk. And she’s chewing gum!
The hardest scene to get, as it turned out, was the scene in the garage between Josh and Larry where Josh lays out his plan for doing battle with Dot. You have Donovan Stinson and Ernie Grunwald in a scene together, so why worry? Both of those actors are geniuses. Don’t get fancy with the camera, just turn it on and don’t get in their way. Make sure they can overlap on each other’s dialogue, give them space, and let it rip! And they knocked it out of the park (My main challenge was not ruining the take by laughing all over it). And then, for technical reasons, we had to re-shoot the scene! Had to throw it away and do it over again a few days later. What Donovan is doing is incredibly difficult to repeat two takes in a row, let alone two scenes in a row. He’s playing with three unwieldy props and delivering these long chunks of dialogue at spitfire speed. And Ernie’s reactions are incredibly detailed and hilarious. They’re rocket-fueled, these guys. So the idea of having to redo the scene was really depressing. I was afraid we would never find the same beats the second time around. But they just psyched up and did it. Nailed it again. I could watch that scene fifty times.
5. What is it like directing scenes involving the whole Fitz Family?
The Fitz family is so perfectly cast that the chemistry takes care of itself! All of those actors are so strong individually, and then putting them in a scene together, just generates such electricity. What’s beautiful about the family scenes is that they play for truth, so there’s a kind of genuine sadness at the sight of seeing the four of them standing in front of their long abandoned family home (of course it’s a 60’s era bungalow). And, at the same time, it’s hilarious. When Meghan and Fitz start to fight about stealing diaries and stuff that happened in the house thirty years ago, you can literally see them as 10 and 12 year olds. They even start looking and sounding like little kids. They just completely regress. But Jason and Tracy have this perfect ability to be funny without ever disconnecting from the underlying truth of the situation. And it reminds us of ourselves I think. All of us have these tiny resentments and feuds in our families that just seem incapable of dissolving. So we laugh at these two because it’s so familiar, so family. They never ask for laughs, but they’re funny because the characters are so damn insistent on their perspectives. No matter how insane Fitz may sound half the time, we totally believe in how his mind works and where these decisions are coming from.
6. Is there anything you would do differently for this episode in retrospect?
We shot the last scene of the episode just before sunset, so we were incredibly rushed. The sun set about halfway through actually, and Ian Bibby (our Director of Photography), had to maintain the illusion of day. It’s a big scene, especially for Peter MacNeill, who has to have a kind of emotional breakdown, then make out intensely with Elaine, then have a heart attack – all in the space of a minute. So I wouldn’t have done anything differently, I just would have done it earlier! Fortunately, Peter played it beautifully despite the rush.
7. Do you have any advice for aspiring directors out there?
I take inspiration from aspiring directors actually. Lots of young people seem to be adept at editing and putting things together on the fly. Which makes them ideally suited to learn by doing. They’re not waiting for someone to hire them to direct, they’re just making things. You can make a narrative out of still photographs. Put a little sound on top? You’re in business.
8. We've been trying to give fans a bit of a behind-the-scenes perspective – is there any insider info you'd like to share?
I don’t know if this is top secret or not, but the show is edited in the basement of a mansion on a hill. This is not a lie. The walls are made of stone. The two editors (Thorben Bieger and Kim McTaggart) are allowed to leave the mansion, but they virtually never do!