FYIG recently got the chance to talk to director Robert Lieberman. Find out about his new TV show The Expanse, his secret to developing great pilots, what he didn’t like about his reality TV experience, and a whole lot more! Robert also talks about his experience directing the Disney classic, D3: The Mighty Ducks. Read on to find out more about this storied director!
How did you get your start in the film industry?
It’s a pretty long story but I will just give you the highlights. Being from Buffalo, N.Y. and wanting to be a film director offered quite a challenge. The only filmmaking being done in town were for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. In fact, when I went out to Hollywood at 21, after graduating from the University at Buffalo, I had never been to California or knowingly had ever met anyone who had been to California. While at UB, I opened up the Yellow Pages and found one film company, I interviewed with them and got the job. They had the contract to do the coaching films for the Buffalo Bills, so I got to travel with the team on their private plane and was back at school every Monday morning. When I got to LA, not knowing a soul, it took me about six months to finally land a job as an assistant editor at a commercial house. I made a name as their editor and they elevated me to director by the time I was 21. I then went on to be the very first recipient of the Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Commercial Director, was nominated three more times and won it a second time. That launched me into television, pilots, and features.
You directed the pilot and were the executive producer on Gabriel‘s Fire. What was it like working with James Earl Jones and how did it feel to see the show win three Emmy awards in 1991?
It was one of the highlights of my career working intimately for a year with the great James Earl Jones. We had a wonderful relationship and are still friends. I just saw him on Broadway, afterward having a joyful reunion in his dressing room. I was the first director to ever be given sole showrunner status. Shows are usually run by writers. I also directed many of the episodes, so, I took particular pride in having the show win the three Emmys for acting, James Earl, the late great Madge Sinclair and the late renowned character actor, David Opatashu.
You‘re working on a new series called The Expanse in which you‘ve been nominated for a Directors Guild of Canada award. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you felt about the nomination?
Working on the show was a joy. I love science fiction, having done Fire In The Sky among other films of that genre and working with the smart writers and producers of The Expanse allowed me to paint with the greatest of freedom. Working on shows of that quality are an inspiration. Being the first director to be nominated for the DGC award is one of the greatest honors considering the number of truly amazing directors they have had directing for the past two seasons. This is my first DGC nomination and I am deeply flattered that they considered my work in such high regard.
The Expanse is based on a book series. Had you read any of those books before working on the TV series? If you did, did those books influence your decision to be a part of the series?
I loved the books and was excited to be part of interpreting them onto film. I came on board half way through their first season and tried to bring a fresh eye to the work. I made many suggestions which surprisingly were all embraced by the creatives. I am very proud of my contribution to the series.
You‘ve worked on a ton of television commercials over your career. How does working on that type of a project differ from a movie or TV series?
Each form of filmmaking has its own discipline and although you are making moving picture generally with actors acting in them, they are very different from each other. In commercials, I was considered a “storyteller” so that bode well for me in the other forms. Although the mechanics stay about the same the difference comes in the amount of time you have to tell your story and the amount of time and money you have to shoot your story. In commercials, you usually have an extravagant budget, a great deal of time to shoot (2-3 days) considering that the end product is only a :30 or :60 film, but you must use an economy of filmic language to get your story told in that short a time. Movies can range in budget but usually require shooting four to eight pages a day so you have to work faster, get less coverage, but in this case, you have ample time to tell the story. Television is the most challenging insomuch as your story has to be told in a shorter than feature format, usually about 42- 46 minutes, a very tight budget which means you have to shoot anywhere from 7 to 14 pages a day. That is why quite often quality suffers in television. But, with the advent of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. and their generous budgets, premium cable and streaming pay-per-view’s quality in some cases is actually better than features. I think that The Expanse is of that high quality.
Do you have a favourite commercial that you‘ve worked on?
I have directed close to 2000 of them so it is difficult to pick a favorite. But the ones that won me the DGA awards I quite like. They were for McDonald’s, Hallmark, and Merrill Lynch.
You directed D3: The Mighty Ducks back in 1996 (one of my childhood favourites). What was it like to take the reigns of such a beloved series?
I loved the first two so to be given the opportunity to direct the third, I jumped at it. To get the job I pitched Disney that I was not there to reinvent the wheel, I just wanted to paint the franchise on the outside of a balloon and inflate it with a few breaths. It got me the job.
Did you know at that point that it would be the final movie in the series? Did you feel that it was a fitting end?
No, I had no idea it would be the last but I am very proud of what I did with it. Being from Buffalo, I have always been a hockey fanatic so I took great pride in making sure the audience understood exactly what was going on in every game. You could follow the puck and see the plays develop. That required sitting with a professional coach and mapping out each play so I could repeat the action over and over again as I filmed it from many different angles. Cut together it all matched up.
You went back to the ice in 2011 for Breakaway, a unique movie about a Sikh hockey team. How did that concept come together?
The script was sent to me by my agent. It was being produced by the Virmanis a very successful Indo-Canadian family and it starred the son. I loved the idea of a Bollywood/hockey mashup and because the Virmanis love my D3:The Mighty Ducks so much they came after me. We are now in talks to do the sequel, Breakaway 2.
Are you a hockey fan? If you are, did that knowledge help you with these movies? If you aren‘t was it difficult to jump into that world?
As I have already mentioned, I am a huge hockey fan, season ticket holder, can’t get enough kind of fan. So, having that detailed understanding of all the nuances of the game gave me a great advantage in directing these films.
I was reading your IMDb bio and it stated that 16 of your 19 TV pilots have sold through to series. What‘s your secret to producing that compelling first episode?
It is simple. A pilot is a sales film to sell one or a small group on buying twelve more and that’s the way I always looked at them. Coming out of commercials, I saw them as just longer commercials. Secondly, I would imbue them with feature film like qualities cinematically, editorially and performance wise. There is an old joke that goes like this. A man is about to die and is visited by a representative of the afterlife. The representative asks him if he would like to go to heaven or hell, but before the man can answer, the representative tells him he can show him film of each to help him decide. First, he shows him the film of heaven. It is just a bunch of angels lounging around on clouds playing harps, boring. Then he shows him the film of hell and this out of control pool party with beautiful women in tiny bikinis running around with drinks with little umbrellas in them. The man easily decides on hell. The representative takes his hand and they board the elevator down. When the elevator doors open, they reveal people screaming in pain, burning in the flames of fire and brimstone. The man looks confused at the representative, “What’s this? This wasn’t the film you showed me.” The representative just replied, “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you that was the pilot.”
You co–developed The Casino with Mark Burnett. How did the reality TV experience differ from traditional television?
I didn’t like it at all. I am trained and use to creating filmic reality this was supposed to be more like a documentary. I am a student of documentaries so initially was very interested in doing it, since it was my idea but the real reality is that the producers contrived everything which wasn’t nearly as interesting as what was really going on. So, once the show launched, I bailed and went back to doing what I was more comfortable with, a four-hour fantasy mini-series, Earthsea.
You‘ve had a career that has spanned three decades. What‘s the key to your longevity?
Staying up with all the trends and technical innovation and totally reinventing myself every day.
In your career, you‘ve worked on some of the biggest shows on TV (Dexter, The X–Files, The Dead Zone, Haven, etc.) and great movies (Fire in the Sky, All I Want for Christmas, Table for Five, etc.). What is left on your film and television bucket list?
Well, I got to do one a couple of years back. I always wanted to do a period English piece in England and my dream finally came true when I spent ten weeks in Manchester/Liverpool doing two episodes of the Fox series Houdini & Doyle.
Let everyone know where to find you on social media.
Robert Lieberman on Facebook as well as a page I manage, The Civility Project.