Trek Directors' School: Jonathan Frakes
When it comes to the unofficial Star Trek Directors’ School, Jonathan Frakes is the poster boy, as he served as its first student and set the bar for all Trek actors-turned-directors who followed him. He ultimately called the shots on 15 episodes of Trek, spanning The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Discovery, as well as the TNG features, First Contact and Insurrection. Frakes, who’ll be back behind the camera during Discovery’s upcoming second season, recently chatted with StarTrek.com about his Trek Directors’ School experience and subsequent work.
At what point did you realize you actually wanted to direct TNG?
I think it happened very early in the first season. I had done a lot of guest spots, and I always was attracted to, admired, hung around, and watched, and I was curious about the directing position. You can only take so many naps, which used to be one of the greatest parts of being an actor on a television series, was that there would actually be time. If you were working on a scene in the morning and another scene later in the day, you come in early, you get made up and dressed up, and go to work and do a scene. Then, literally, the first AD or somebody would say, "You know what? I'll see you in a few hours." That meant, "Oh my God, I can nap, or I can read, or I can do my emails."
Emails… in the 1980s?
Oh, yeah. Exactly. No emails, then. But the novelty of napping wore off. So, if I was between scenes, not working, I would take my fricking spacesuit off, hang out and watch. That was interesting to me. I've always been kind of a set brat. In the beginning of season two I voiced an interest to Rick (Berman) about directing, and I could feel his eyes roll. He and I were friends, in addition to being working companions, and he said, "Well you know what? You're gonna have to eventually train up. You don't know anything about editing." He comes from an editing background, from Big Blue Marble, when he was a producer and editor. So the major change in my life was to get the permission from, and endorsement of Berman and Bob... I can’t remember his last name.
No. Justman was the one who taught me something I take with me to this day. Justman said, "Never show up at the set without a shot list." That was one of the great pieces of old-school advice he passed on. He was an advocate, right from the beginning, for some reason. His role on the show, it was very much as a keeper of the old, of the Roddenberry, you know? He was a Roddenberry advocate and representative, and he was a gentleman. He knew a lot about production, so that piece of advice I give to all the young directors that'll listen to me, too. Some of them don't do it. Some of them say "Oh, you know, I'm just gonna wing it." I think that's bulls--t.
Was the other Bob... Robert Lewin?
No, I was thinking about the editor Bob. I spent about 300 hours, maybe, in the editing room with different editors at different stages of the cut with them. I’d go in when they were looking at dailies, or when they were actually working on a director’s cut or spend time with Rick when he was doing the finals. That was eye-opening, especially for television because you've got the concept of “This is the minimum these guys need to put a scene together.” They got to have a master. They've got to have a beginning and ending, and everybody in the scene has to be covered, at least, in a two-shot. Anybody who speaks. If you have time, you get singles all around. And on our show, which was very traditional, very little moving camera, lots of closeups, lots of coverage. That was an important element of directing. Then Rick also allowed me, because I showed interest, into pre-production meetings and casting sessions. Never really anything with the intimate breaking of the story, which I later got to do later on Leverage and Librarians.
So, when I was at work I stayed on the set and observed the directors. When I was not working, I’d come into Paramount and spend time in either the editing room, or pre-production, or, my favorite part, the scoring. Dennis McCarthy was one of the only people still using a full orchestra, and I was a musician, so I loved that. That carried over into my experience with Jerry Goldsmith, which was one of the high points of making movies for me. One day, I wasn’t feeling it. I said to my wife, the beautiful and talented Genie Francis, “You know what? I don't feel like driving in today.” We were living in Tarzana then. She said, “You know what? The minute you start not showing up, it'll give Rick an opportunity to say you're really not interested.” So, I got my ass in the car and drove to Paramount.
You mean we all have Genie to thank for this?
You know, in a weird way we do. In a weird way we do. Also, without sounding overly humble, it was pretty clear that... First of all, as we know, I'm at least the second-best actor in my own house. On the show I was fine, but I was certainly not in the top three, if you were going to judge people's acting chops. And I don't know if I knew subconsciously or consciously that there’d be this typecasting. As Leonard Nimoy famously said, "It's better to be typecast than not to be cast at all." But there was a certain thing that happened after the show that you can see evidence of from The Original Series, from our series, Voyager, DS9, Enterprise. The exceptions were Bakula, and Patrick, and Bill and Colm, and Rene and Kate, maybe, to a certain point. Jeri Ryan. More of a handful people were not painted with the Star Trek brush, right? I don't know what you'd call that in your world, but there certainly is ... It was a double-edged sword.
Was the mystery Bob… Robert Lederman?
Yep. Yeah. Bob Lederman.
What directing elements early on were the hardest for you to grasp?
Deciding on the lens sizes was harder then because it was on film. When you shoot now on digital, you can literally change the size of a shot by, maybe, up to 50%. So, if your shot was too wide, you can make it tighter in post-production. If your shot was too wide in the '80s, you missed getting the right coverage. I love big closeups at the right time, so I learned to get enough coverage to put the scene together with some elegance. One of the things that Ed Brown, who was the DP in the first season, said, was, “Never repeat a shot in a scene, if you can help it, when you're cutting." That encouraged me to get more sizes. I love profiles, so I used to like to get profiles. It was the '50s and I was a big fan of the swingle, where you go back and forth between two actors, once to get their dialogue and once to get their reactions. I still use those techniques to get my coverage.
It's really important, especially in the beginning of your career, when you're trying to get these jobs, that you don't find yourself in the editing room, or the producer doesn't find himself in the editing room, after you've turned in your cut looking for shots that you don't have. “Well, where's the close up in this scene?” And the editors say, “Oh yeah, I didn't use it. It's right here.” That's what you want to have. What doesn’t play well is, “Where's the closeup in this scene?” "Oh, he didn't shoot one.”
Who were the directors you shadowed, and why?
I followed Cliff Bole. I followed Bob Scheerer. I followed Rick Kolbe, and I followed Corey Allen, but Corey wasn't with us much after the pilot. I remember when Corey was doing an episode. I guess it was one of our swing sets, and it literally was just caves. It was just gray walls, and he'd sit there on a folding chair and look at the wall, then he'd turn about 45 degrees and he'd look at another wall. I thought, "What the f--k is he looking at? Does he really see a difference between these walls?" I guess, in his heart of hearts, he did. But his passion for the craft was what I took most from Corey.
For your first episode, you got handed “The Offspring.” How helpful was it to you, A, that it was such a great script, and, B, that the episode in many ways, not entirely, was a two-hander?
Yes. Both those are absolutely, in my opinion, what allowed me to continue. I have been so lucky my whole life -- and blessed. On episodic television, you are at the whim of the episode. We did 26 a year. They're not all going to be home runs. There are going to be some real stinkers. When I got “The Offspring,” it was a scheduling situation, because I was light in the episode before it, so that I had time to prep. I had finally, I think by virtue of persistence, broken Rick down. This was the middle of season three, so I'd been shadowing for almost two years. Patiently, consistently. The upside of all that was I was over-prepared, and the company was, for the most part, very much in support of my getting a shot to do this. The sound department gave me a big megaphone that everybody had signed, wishing me luck. All the actors took the piss out of me on the set. But more to your question, it was a Data episode. I’d say your batting average with Data episodes is as high as with any character. The second big thing was the script by Rene Echevarria. It was a spec script, his first script that had been bought. He went on to incredible success. I worked with him again on Castle, where he was running the show. He became one of our writers. He became part of that great lineup -- Brannon, Ron, then we go Rene, Shankar, Coto -- who have continued to be big players in television.
So, this was Rene's first one, this was my first one, and this was a Data episode. There was the magic of Hallie Todd as Lal, who said to me the first day, "How should I do this?" I said, "If I were playing this, I would literally watch Brent be Data." You could see the light bulb go on, and that's exactly what she did. Her movements, gestures, body language, rhythms, I think, were influenced by Brent's choices he made as Data. It was specific to the fact that Data was building Lal in his own image. Whatever the android version is of that. Also, it was a Whoopi episode, and Whoopi always added a wonderful new element to our show. We loved having her. We loved being on the Ten Forward set. The episode had the right amount of drama and comedy. It was very emotional, just by virtue of being a family episode. And people always say that you felt more emotion around Data, who was the least human of any of us. I’ve always thought that was a great credit to Brent and a great credit to the writing.
So, the short answer is, both of the points of the points that you made are exactly why it went so well, and one of the reasons that I was able to continue. All the stars seemed to line up. Patrick was very supportive. I had a great guest cast. The camera, lighting and grip departments, I had really good working relationships with them. I remember Bob Sordal, the key grip at the time, who was about to retire, said, "You know, Frakes, you tell me what you want. We will build anything you want. Anything."
That's surely good will you’d created as an actor…
I believe that, yeah. I also believe I wasn't arrogant about it, and I certainly felt prepared. So, I think I definitely made the right decision to pursue directing. It was actually one of the best decisions I ever made, because I have another craft. I like it better, and I'm better at directing than acting.
You went on to direct seven more TNGs. At what point did you feel as at home on the set as a director as you did as an actor?
Right from the beginning.
Yep. Yeah. And I got other interesting stories. “Reunion” was the wonderful Worf-centric show with him and his kid. “The Drumhead,” I had Jean Simmons, who was there because she was an enormous Trekkie. “Cause and Effect,” I thought Braga was taking the piss out of me when he set the script down and each act was the same thing. That turned out to be like a directing test, or directing puzzle, or directing challenge, which I really enjoyed. I also did “Sub Rosa,” that wild, sort of off-canon show with Gates and Duncan Regehr as Ronin, with the candle and ghost. I made a cardinal mistake on “The Drumhead” as a director, which I'll share with you.
Michael Dorn had somewhere he had to go, so he whispered in my ear, "Is there any way that you could shoot me out of this scene? I said, "Sure,” because I thought I could get my coverage. It's an unwritten rule that you never let anybody who's in a scene go before you have moved on to the next scene, literally. Even if they're on the other side of the room, anything, you literally are not supposed to let any actors go until that scene is completed. And I, of course, thought, "I know how to do this. I'll shoot Dorn's coverage, and everything will be fine." And it's not like you had an actor who you could just call back in and say, "Come back in,” because this was Turtle Head, and that was 2 1/2 hours in makeup.
Dorn is long gone, and we're doing a piece of coverage, and where Dorn was standing it couldn't be clearer that we would see him. Not only see him, we'd see his face. So, the clever and talented Marvin Rush, who I'm now working with on The Orville, I told him the story. I said, "I screwed up. I let Dorn go." He said, "OK, I got this." We kicked it around, and he got the piece of coverage. I think it was of Jean, actually. Simmons was talking, and we managed to move the camera in a way where we pushed in, dropped down, got a piece of somebody in Dorn's costume, and then came back up on the next person. Then we pulled back out, and we thought we felt Dorn in the shot, but we never had to see his face. Marvin Rush bailed me out, and I've never released an actor until a scene was done since then.
In addition to TNG, you directed DS9, Voyager, First Contact, Insurrection and now Discovery, plus everything else you've done in your career. How grateful are you to Rick and TNG for starting it all for you?
Rick changed all of our lives when we started on TNG, for the better. Rick specifically changed my life by allowing me, and encouraging me, and supporting me as a director. When he chose me to do First Contact, we really got to make that together. Television, he was in the writer's room and I was on the set. But when we were doing First Contact and Insurrection together, it was the best of creative times because we have a similar sensibility and a similar sense of humor, and we like the same kind of music. I talk to him about it every time I see him. And sometimes when I feel something somewhere else, I'll send him a text and thank him. If it wasn't for him, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation.