An Interview with Director and Actress Joan Darling, Pioneer of the 70’s

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Joan Darling (bottom left), part of the cast of Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-1973)

Joan Darling entered show business as an actress on the New York theater scene in the 1960s, then became a fixture of early 70’s television. In 1974, she made the leap from acting to directing and quickly made history as one of the first and most successful women directors in television. She had an instant knack for it—her debut, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap opera parody, has become an enduring cult classic for its dark-edged humor and deep understanding of the desperation and sadness of the American home.

Highlights of her career include a Mary Tyler Moore episode, Chuckles Bites the Dust, which, for its deft tightrope-walk between comedy and pathos, TV Guide calls the greatest television episode ever; a classic M*A*S*H episode, The Nurses, which  revolutionized the way the show portrayed women; and a leading role in an episode of The Psychiatrist, directed by a pre-Jaws, pre-Duel Spielberg.

These days, Joan teaches acting and directing classes at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. She agreed to a phone interview, and in about an hour, I learned more about the arts of acting and directing than I ever thought possible:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the role of women in TV and film and the opportunities for them. This made me think of the work you were doing in the ‘70s—do you think we’re doing better in that regard now than we were around, say, the Mary Tyler Moore era?

Oh yeah. Much, much better. I mean ridiculously better. When I started, I was the only woman who was going to work every day as a director. There were a couple of people, of course—Elaine May was directing and Ida Lupino had directed a couple of times, and early on there was another woman, I can’t remember her last name. Dorothy…

Arzner?

Yeah, Arzner, right. But then there was a big hiatus when no women had been doing it at all. When I started I was really the only one who was doing it; and the reality is that it was not my ambition. I wanted to be an actress. And I was working as an actress but Norman Lear gave me—and that’s a whole story—Mary Hartman, and after I directed Mary Hartman and my agent showed the tapes of it to Grant Tinker, all of a sudden I was offered a whole season at the MTM [Mary Tyler Moore] company, and the only reason I took it was because there was no woman director, and I knew that a woman could do the job, you know, so I went ahead and took the job.

So I guess the best way to really tell you how it’s changed is: I was speaking at AFI right after I had started—I was very fortunate in that for some reason I seem to know how to direct, which was a big surprise to me. So a lot of the early shows got a lot of attention and awards and things like that. So, I was speaking at AFI, and I was saying, “If you’re truly yourself and this is something that you want to do, there’s no reason why you can’t do it, and that anybody who wants to be doing shows like the MTM show and all that, you’re really wanting to be a member of the starting line on the New York Yankees, so you really have to go after it and you really have to make yourself as good as you can be.”

And a woman in the audience raised her hand and said, “Well, that’s all well and good for you superstars,” she said, “but I don’t think it will be equal until there are as many mediocre woman directors as there are mediocre men directors.”

And I just started to laugh. I said, “You’re absolutely right.”

And now I’ve been sitting at home watching a lot of television, because you know you can get everything on Netflix and Hulu and all that, and I began to notice all of the shows, how many women directors there were. You never saw women’s names on the shows. Like Homeland—Lesli Glatter was a student of mine. She came to me because she wanted to be a director; she’s now an associate producer on that show and a director on that show.

If you watch Scandal, I would say there are more women writing and directing for Scandal than there are men. And I know, there was a girl whose name escapes who directed a lot of Roseanne who was around the Mary Hartman set. And she became a director. That was pretty early on, but now if you just sit down and look at the names on the shows of the directors, it might not be to where there are as many mediocre women directors as there are mediocre men directors, but the number of women who are directing now is exponentially larger than when I started.

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How did you wind up with Mary Hartman?

Well, let’s see. I was on a television series [Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law] and it was winding down. And I knew Norman because I had done some writing for him, so I got this idea that I would come up with a Movie of the Week about Golda Meir from the time she was 16 to 60. So I worked out the whole story—nobody had done anything about her at that time. So I went to Norman and I said, “Listen, Norman. I’ve got this idea for a Movie of the Week about Golda Meir,” and I told him this whole story, how the story laid out. And he said to me, “Oh, that’s terrific,” he said, “I want you to tell it to somebody else.” And he brought in his second-in-command, and I thought, “Oh boy, I’m going to get to do this. I’ll get my television movie.” So I told the whole story, and Norm turned to him and said, “I think she’s the one.” And he said, “I think you’re right.”

So Norm turned to me and said, “Do you want to be a director?”

I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.”

And he said to me, “Well that’s what I think you really are.” And he gave me the two pilot scripts of Mary Hartman.

And I said, “Well, let me read these and see if it’s something I can do.” So I went home and read them, and my first reaction was, “I don’t know what this is. This is neither fish nor fowl.” Then I thought, wait a minute—this might be something I’ve never seen before. And I read it again and thought this is really interesting. So I went to Norman and I said, “I don’t know enough about myself to know if I’m a director or not, whether I can deliver someone else’s concept. But, I think I could deliver my own. So my idea about the show is that it’s not a soap opera, but it’s really about how television is destroying America.”

And I laid out to him what was in the show, that I thought this character was obsessed and overwhelmed by all this information that she got on television and that she thought if she lived the way television told her, she would be a happy person. And he said, “Well, I didn’t know if we wrote that, but if you could do it, that’d be great.”

So, I said, “Ok, I’m on board.” And then I must’ve spent about eight weeks casting. Norman gave me enormous power. Nobody was cast in the show unless it was somebody I wanted. And then, I directed the show. He went away on vacation, and I directed the show for two weeks, for two and a half hours [of screen time]. He came back and let me show him what I had done, and he just loved it.

Somebody else was supposed to do the camerawork, and they came in to set the show up. They started to set the first show up and I thought, “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is terrible.” And Norman came up at the end of the day and said, “What do you think about the camerawork?”

And I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about it but it doesn’t look very good to me.” He said, “It’s not. I want you to do the camerawork.”

I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about the camera.” He said, “No, I think you do.”

I said, “Well. The way this first scene should be shot is, you see the three of them, then the two-shot for the joke, then you go over there for the reaction.” He said, “That’s exactly right.” So then he left me alone for two weeks to camera-block the show and shoot it.

And then when I finished that, he said, “Now I’m gonna leave you alone to edit it because that’s where you really learn to direct.” So I worked on the editing and then showed it to him, we worked some more, and then my agent, unbeknownst to me, took the pilot to Grant Tinker before it had ever been on the air. And then Grant hired me for a whole season at MTM.

I think Norman had really wanted and was looking for a woman director. To create one. Now, then, Grant, who was of course very pro-woman, when he saw some of my work, he really liked it and all the guys who were producing liked it. The second show I directed for them was a [Mary Tyler Moore Show] show called “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” which TV Guide named the #1 television episode of all time.

Yeah, that’s everybody’s favorite from that show.

Well, not everybody’s favorite. But because of that, I suddenly was a valuable commodity.

How come you never did another Mary Tyler Moore?

The show was winding down. I could have, but then what happened was I started getting others. I got a M*A*S*H, and I got a Rich Man, Poor Man, and then I got a feature [film, First Love in 1977]. And when I got the feature, then I was out of the market for television, I couldn’t work. I could’ve gone back there—I think they only had one more season left.

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Your M*A*S*H episode [The Nurses], I think, is my favorite of all your work.

Oh, thank you! I really liked that.

It really feels like it’s pushing the boundaries of that show.

Yeah.

And it feels like M*A*S*H never was the same show after that episode. It turned Hot Lips into a human instead of a punch line. Were they trying to do that? Were you trying to do that?

I wasn’t thinking about it as being groundbreaking. What happened was I got that script and—you know, in those days, as a director, you got to have a conference about the script before you actually went to shoot it. So what I said to them was, I felt like there was no real precipitating incident in the script [to cause Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan’s ending monologue about “the rotten way you all have been treating me”.]. And they said to me, “We don’t want it to be conventional in the sense that something bad happens and then something else happens.” They said, “We want her to do it because it’s so hot there, because the whole way everything is, is conspiring.” And I said, “Oh, okay.”

That clued me in that they were—I can say this—serious artists. They weren’t just doing a joke show. They really wanted to do something that you’d be apt to see more in a movie or a play.

And then, the other part of it is, my nature is to really… I feel like my obligation as a director is to the story. The ‘Once upon a time’ image and the believable human quality of the story. So I definitely wanted to create what it was really like for everybody. Actually, Mike Nichols said it great, years later on Inside the Actor’s Studio—somebody asked him, “What is it you’re trying to do when you direct?” And he said, “I try to show it like it really is.” And if I had a motto as a director, that would be my motto. I think that’s why the show felt like it had more substance.

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I think it’s interesting to look at that and the Mary Tyler Moore one next to each other because the emotional arc of the two of them is really similar. You have this building pressure from an awkward situation and then it blows up in this really great monologue.

Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re absolutely right. Coming to a show like Mary Tyler Moore, if you have any brains at all, you don’t tell these people how to do this show, you just simply lead them. I was just writing about this. When I came into the show, I wanted that [episode]. When I met Grant on the lot, they were going to give me Georgette’s Wedding because I was a woman director, so I was going to get the wedding.

But he had told me about this script about death and I said, “Oh my God would I love to do that.” And when the script arrived at my house, we talked a little bit because a mutual person we knew in common had just died and she’d been a member of Second City, so at the memorial service everybody was making each other laugh. And that was sort of the inspiration for that script.

And when the script was delivered to my house, just the week before I was supposed to shoot, I opened the envelope and it was Chuckles [Bites the Dust]! I remember running in to my husband saying, “Oh my God, Bill, I got Chuckles!” Which I really wanted to do.

And then when I went in, and we were working on the show, about two or three days into it, Mary suddenly stopped in the middle of rehearsal and said, “You know, I don’t know if we should do this show,” she said, “because it’s about death and I don’t know if it’s really funny.”

And I just immediately said, “Well, I feel that it’s a really important show to do. Because everybody finds themselves in that situation when it’s not appropriate to laugh. You’re at a funeral, or you’re a kid and an opera singer comes to your high school.” And I said, “People feel bad about themselves. But if we do a show where that happens to Mary Richards, a lot of people are going to feel a lot better about themselves.”

And there was this pause, and then Mary turned and looked at me and said, “Let’s go to work.”

And I feel like, you know when you say: “What was your contribution to the show?”, I feel like that moment was my contribution to the show. Because then everybody had a real mission. It was a really worthwhile show to do. That and knowing that Mary could do the last moment. I said, “We don’t need to rehearse that last moment. You can do that.” I just knew she could do it, and she believed me and delivered it brilliantly.

I started watching that show, I think, two years ago. And as soon as I mentioned I was watching it, the first one my mom, who had watched it live, brought up, was that episode.

Oh, really? Oh, well tell your mom hello for me!

I will. [I did.] So, you knew going into it that that was a special script?

I knew it even before that. I knew the idea was special. And when I saw script I went, “Holy mackerel, this is fabulous.” And when I was directing it, the way you worked then was you had a late afternoon taped show, which was considered a rehearsal but you taped it, and then you did the evening show. You had lunch and dinner in between, and then you did the evening show. And I was with my husband before we went back over to the studio for the taping and I said, “You know, I don’t think anybody but me knows how funny this show is. This show is so spectacular. If people laugh on this line (and I named the line), they aren’t going to stop laughing.”

Then, on the set, when we were shooting the show, that line came, which was about five lines into the show, and the audience? Huge laugh. And then they were rolling and rolling and rolling and rolling. And I remember [Producer] Jim Brooks coming over to me and saying, “It’s really going well, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yeah!” But it was really true. In my heart and soul, I knew that show was special. And I had the same feeling about Mary Hartman, too. I knew Mary Hartman was something that people really hadn’t seen before.

Mary Hartman’s amazing because it feels like there’s still nothing else that’s quite like it. I mean, that first episode is funny, but it’s still so tense—it feels like Play It As It Lays or something.

Yeah, and see that’s what I mean about your sense, which is really very pleasing to me, about the M*A*S*H, is that Mary Hartman was really what it was really like, even though it was insane. Because it was… I hadn’t looked at it in a couple of years, and I was just doing a thing in Washington where they showed that and I did a Q&A. I looked at the episode, the first one, and I went, “Jesus, the scenes between Tom and Mary are absolutely heartbreaking.” They’re just—anybody who’s been married is going to wince at those scenes. In a good way.

Do you feel like your theory about television bore out?

That it’s destroying America? Oh my God, I feel like a prophet or something. I feel like Cassandra.

I mean John, you and I are going to be best friends. I gotta tell you, I turn on CNN every day and I watch the manufacturing of this 24-hour news cycle. The manufacturing of disaster—it’s also that thing Michael Moore said: ‘everything that’s broadcast on the news is to scare you’. What it’s costing us in politics—the thing that’s exciting is controversy, so politics has devolved to the point where it’s all about winning and losing. The language is all war-talk or sports-talk. You know, “Obama was crushed today.” The thing with the news, which didn’t happen so much in the days when we were doing Mary Hartman, is the need to stimulate or irritate an audience to keep them watching. It’s so enormous that controversies are created out of… I mean, of course a Congressman would be embarrassed, let’s say a Republican Congressman would be totally embarrassed to support the minimum wage law because he would be characterized as ‘caving’.

The other thing about television is, when I was growing up, to be entertained you had to read a book. You learned that it took you 60 pages, maybe, before it really caught you and was entertaining you. You put a clicker in somebody’s hand, and they are absolutely destroying their ability to concentrate or to look at anything in depth. And don’t get me started about Twitter. A profound thought in 140 words and it isn’t even a haiku.

But I could feel it coming with television. People took what was said on television as if it were the truth. And it’s even worse now. It’s so easy for a politician to lie about anything, and that lie, if it’s spoken enough over a 24-hour cycle, people will believe it.

We all become Mary Hartman staring at the yellow on the floor.

Right, exactly. And she has a speech, it’s not in the first episode, probably in the second or third, where she says (I can’t quote it exactly), ‘My floors have no waxy yellow buildup, my toothpaste has added whiteners, my underarms are so dry they’re flaking. Why won’t Tom sleep with me?’

It’s beautiful but it’s brutal.

Yeah. A lot of what that show was came from my concept, and the collaboration of Louise Lasser, who would do a lot of rewriting on the show.

Really? I didn’t know that.

Oh, yeah. Louise was just incredible. Louise is, as she once put it: “I’m the smartest one in the room and nobody listens to me.” And she was absolutely right. If you listened to Louise, she was so smart. And between us, one of the things I always felt about that character was that Mary Hartman was a dead person walking. And to find an actress who could play that, who was just ashes inside? Louise was just brilliant. I don’t know anybody else who could have done that.

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She reminds me of Shelley Duvall.

Yeah, that sort of otherworldliness. Not landed. She hasn’t landed here on the planet.

You worked with some really incredibly talented ones—do you think she was the top for you?

The top talent? She was the smartest. Well, I’m trying to think, because I worked with some awfully good people. Oh, is that an interesting question! Louise was limited, but not by her… she was limited by her style. Do you know what I mean? In any part she played, there was that Louise Lasser offstage quality.

Yeah, she had sort of a narrow band.

Right, exactly. Exactly. And some other people I worked with had much better range. Marisa Tomei, who I worked with on a show called Supermom’s Daughter, an afterschool special. She played a perfect, button-down, all-A’s student girl whose parents wanted her to go to MIT. She got into MIT and all of that. Then my husband and I a couple years later went to see My Cousin Vinny, and I leaned over to my husband and said, “Where’s Marisa? Is she in this movie?” I didn’t recognize her! Her ability as an actress is, you’re getting into the Kevin Spacey range. You’re getting into the kind of place where the number of different kinds of people you can play with complete believability and honesty is… you know. So she’s certainly up there among the most talented people I worked with.

Do you think honesty is the key to great acting?

Oh, yeah. I teach acting a lot, and one of the things I think is so fascinating about it is that you do need to find in the landscape of your own life experience, metaphorical experiences for the ones that the character goes through in the play. Then you have to kind of arrange them in order. They’re all in you, but they’re not necessarily arranged in the same manner that they are inside the character.

After you’ve done that, it really is all of you and your life experiences, but then you have to deliver it in the kind of style of the character. So that if it’s somebody who’s very quiet or if the character’s very flamboyant, the same things are going on in the flamboyant person or the quiet person, but it’s just style of expression that changes. The act of expression.

So yeah, I think any art, any art that has to be manufactured, if it doesn’t come from yourself, is going to be manufactured from things you’ve seen somewhere else. You know what I mean? You’re a writer, are you a writer mainly?

I direct, too.

Oh, you direct, well, I’m sure you know, when you step on the set, if you’re not willing to really address what a scene is about on its deepest level, you really don’t have any ammunition to help your actors get to that level.

Directors who aren’t willing to experience what the moment is that they’re asking for from their actors, they’ll never get it from the actor, because they’ll sense that there’s a reluctance to go there.

Your bio says that your workshop is about teaching directors how to communicate their vision to the actors and to the crew. Is that what you mean by this?

Yeah. It’s more, it’s called “How To Direct The Actor, or How To Run the Most Important Piece of Equipment on the Set.” Basically what I do, at Sundance for instance when I do that, the first thing I do is I run a little mini acting class, and get the directors to learn some immediate techniques for acting that get connected and put them through the experience of being directed. And that’s very educational for a lot of directors.

One of the things they do is I give them what’s called a generic scene that’s two pages, it could be anything, and first they have to direct the scene, and then the director has to act in the same scene, for a different director. So what happens is they go through both experiences. My favorite example is, at Sundance one day, at the end of that exercise I asked the actors to tell the director what the experience was like, to tell the director anything that the director said or did that was helpful to them, and then I have them tell anything that director could have said or done differently that might have been more helpful.

And I remember this one woman director who had just been directed said, “Oh, I learned so much! He asked me to cry in the scene,” she said. “I got so frightened. I’ll never ask an actor to do that again.” I find, when a director comes through working with me they tend to be much more compassionate to the actors. They find out how hard it is, and they come out a little kinder to the actors, which oftentimes is all you really need to be, to be a good director. Just be nice to somebody.

Do you think directing changed your concept of what it takes to be a good actor, at all?

It made me much more aware of story. I always had a concept of the role, but I also wanted to please my director. So once I started directing, I started developing much fuller concepts of my character. In other words, I would look at the piece and I would say, “What does this character have to be or do to fulfill what the whole play needs?” I absolutely do think it improved my acting, because I started looking at it with more responsibility for what the part was.

So when I started working with an actor, as a director, I started to make sure that they were congruent with what the piece was about. So as an actress, if I’m taking a job, and I’ve just taken it and we haven’t really sat down to figure out if we’re congruent with each other, I do believe it’s my responsibility to do what that director needs to the best of my ability. I’ll make the best case I can for what it is.

It’s also really weird. I’ll tell you, one of the really interesting changes about having been an actor first, and then after having had some success as a director, I’d occasionally go off on an acting role. And I realized I didn’t have the right personality anymore to get a job as an actress. I was much too much of a boss. That wonderful ‘please let me please you’ Joan Darling had converted into ‘could we put the cloth over there, and then you guys do that’.  Totally different person. And it’s really funny because in my house, when I do an acting job, I tend to revert back to an actress mentality. I’ll come home and my husband will say to me, “When is the director coming back?”

So do you agree with what Norman Lear told you, that editing is where you learn to direct?

Oh, God yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I’m sure you’ve probably had the experience. You get in the editing room and you start putting together the story, and you realize what you didn’t shoot. You realize that awful moment when you look and you remember that on set you were saying to yourself, “This isn’t really right,” and then you moved on. And that moment that isn’t right is going to burn your heart every time you look at the piece.

I learned to be just absolutely dogged in getting, to the best of my ability, what I understood I needed for a scene. It made me much braver. Figuring, “Oh, I’ll just make up the time somewhere else, because if I don’t get this I don’t have my movie.” And I’m sure we all sit there and go “Oh no.”

In the old days, when you had a really good one, they’d pull on your sleeve and say, “Joan, you really want to get that close-up.” You’d say, “Well, we’re losing the light and I’ve got to get that…” “No, Joan, you’ll be sorry.” It’s what they used to say to us: “You’ll be sorry.” Then you’re in the editing room going, “Oh, am I sorry.

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One of your later directorial efforts was this Amazing Stories episode, “What If“—do you remember that one, it’s about the kid?

I sure do.

Oh, I love that. I feel like it’s Mary Hartman with a child.

Oh, thank you. I’m so glad. Yeah, I loved that one too. I knew Spielberg because my husband and I had been really close [to him] for years before any of us made it. So, working for him was just a dream.

You knew Spielberg before you guys made it?

Yeah.

Did you know he was going to become, you know, Spielberg?

Yeah. We sure did. I knew. The way I met him was I had done an episode of The Psychiatrist [called “Par for the Course”] when I was out here [in California] acting, where I played a woman whose husband was very ill. And I had quit the business, or was trying to quit the business, because I just couldn’t get a record as an actress and I had some really good films, and nothing much was happening, so I went back and was living on Cape Cod. And I got a call from the guy who had been my agent saying they had a part at Universal and they couldn’t… I guess the person who was supposed to do it couldn’t do it? They asked could I be in Los Angeles the next morning. I said, “Oh, I don’t know, let me look.”

So I looked up plane schedules and I could make it, but I couldn’t be on the set by noon because my plane landed at ten in the morning. But I had just made it to the set at noon, and it was the story of a golfer who was dying of cancer, and I was playing his wife. It was a big-time professional golfer. And I walked onto the set and I read the script, it was a really nice part. And I walked onto the set, and there was this kid in a cowboy hat directing.

So I went over to listen to him direct—this was the second thing that Stevie had ever done—I listened to him direct and I just went, “Oh my God, this is really a director.” I went over and sat under a tree just making sure I knew the lines for the scene I was going to do, and he came over and introduced himself and I introduced myself and then he said, “You know, this scene, it’s kind of like… you remember when Kennedy was shot, you remember the way Jackie Kennedy—” Because it was the scene where the golfer collapses on the golf course and I come running in. I just put my hand up and said, “Don’t say anything else, I know exactly what you want.” So I did the scene and it was exactly what he wanted.

He said later, “You know, you almost ruined me. I thought everything was going to be that easy to direct.” Because all he said was half a sentence to me and I knew exactly what he wanted. It turns out at the time this was a well-known, incredibly well-reviewed episode. And because of working together on that, we became friends, and he met my husband, and we used to go to movies together all the time. We just spent a lot of time together.

And then, he directed Duel. And we hadn’t been in town enough to be as close as we had been, but we would go on the set. We were watching him direct and my husband says to me, “This guy is going to rule the world.” And we tried to get him a job at American International, Roger Corman’s company. My husband said to them, “You want to grab him now, because he’s going to be the biggest thing to hit this town.”

So we knew. Just being around him, you knew. And having been directed by him, I knew. And seeing how sophisticated he was.

I loved it when, when I first got my first feature, I called up Steven and said, “Listen, Steven. I’m going to be a director, what should I do?”

And he said, “Get a very good pair of shoes.”

I said, “So when the archivists call me up and say ‘What did Steven say,’ you want me to say, ‘Get a very good pair of shoes’?”

And he said, “Well, you really need them. And don’t shoot a lot of people coming in and out of doors.”

And I said, “Oh. Okay. Now, is that what you want me to tell the archivists?”

And he said, “Well, you know, it really doesn’t work.”

We spent a lot of time together when we were really good pals.

I can’t believe Roger Corman missed the boat on him. His instincts are usually so good.

I forget what it was, but it was some picture where they were looking for a director and we kept saying “You’ve got to hire this kid.” But nobody knew him then. But, you knew. He’s just one of those people. He’s a really nice guy, and so knowledgeable about music and art and, you know, all the elements you really need to master to be a good director. He really always had this incredible abiding curiosity about everything.

Clu Gulager was in that episode, who I always thought was such a good actor.

Yeah, you know, you can’t get it. I’ve been trying to get a copy for years, even Steven tried. It’s disappeared! There are a couple of biographies of Steven where they talk about that episode at length, about the acting in that episode and how great it was and what a great episode it was. But I don’t know why it disappeared. Even Sid Sheinberg couldn’t get me a copy of it.

How did you wind up on Amazing Stories, then? Was that a bit of a reunion?

Because once Steven decided to do a television series, I guess we were always coming by when the other one was working and I was hanging out and he said, “Do you want to do one?”

I said, “Sure.” And the first one I did was called “The Sitter.”

The Netflix copy is all jerky, so I couldn’t finish that one.

That was a really cute one about a young mother whose kids are wild and she can’t control them, and then a nanny appears who comes in and straightens out the whole household. So that was the first one I did, and then the second one [“What If?”], Steven’s sister wrote. Did you know that? His sister Annie wrote that.

I just loved that. I had a sense of what a special piece that was. I just thought it was so magical and so lovely. I had a great time doing that one.

I like the look of it a lot, that really cavernous look.

When Spielberg set up a company and you worked and talked about what you wanted, it wasn’t like any other television show. Because I remember you had time to sit down with the cinematographer and I said, “This show is really about light. This show is about the heavenly light.” So the cinematographer built in, if you go look at it now, their bed in the master bedroom glows underneath it, because he goes into the light and comes back and is reborn. Like when the door opens [at the end] and the doctor says “It’s a boy,” and it just goes into white.

That must’ve been a totally different experience.

Yeah, because there was a lot for me to do. Like I said, the biggest thing on those [Mary Tyler Moore style] shows where the actors were so good and writing was so good, was to be respectful. And that’s not to say you didn’t make contributions, you did. A lot of it, a lot of the contribution to the M*A*S*H was how much I knew about acting. So I could really help the actors, not necessarily by telling them things, but I created a situation where Loretta Swit just got smacked by what was going on. And then I didn’t let her rehearse it, I shot it right away.

That’s the same thing you did with Mary!

Yeah, right! Maybe the secret of my directing is not doing anything.

It seems like you have a good instinct from when to let an emotion sizzle.

Yeah, and that comes from teaching acting for so long. In fact, I started teaching acting at 18 because I couldn’t find any teachers that I liked. So I was trying to figure out how we did it. And then when I got to New York, I ran into some really good teachers.

Why did you leave directing?

I did it for a long time. I did it for about fifteen years. Then I started getting more acting opportunities, and I was kind of entertained by the acting for a while. The two things, though, that really stopped me—one is I really didn’t like hustling for a job. One job after another, I really worked a lot. But to do the better pieces, it really meant having to get out and sell and sell and sell, and I’d done a lot of that. Within the framework of certain jobs, you have to do a lot of sell to preserve the integrity of the work and all that. So I grew tired from that.

And then, at the time that I kind of drifted—I just sort of drifted away from it—what happened was, television had changed. You know, when you were really a big part of a collaboration, with The Mary Tyler Moore company, or the M*A*S*H, or even Magnum [P.I.], in that era you were really an integral part of it. But directing got to a period where it was really trapped, and the writer/producers were doing most of what you’d consider the director’s job. I worked for a company and they had worked for a system where you had to come in before you met with the actors and script, and give them all the shots. And then you had to sign a piece of paper agreeing to do all those shots. And then if something happened, some marvelous moment happened on set, and you wanted to shoot it, you had to stop production and call one of the producers down to get it approved.

So, I mean, this was really nuts. It sounds like you get the way that I work. You really have to create the life first, and then get the picture of it—you don’t shove the life into a series of pictures that you have in your head.

One person I worked with was very cliché. I would come in with a shot—which was totally against my nature—and he would say “Why don’t you rack focus from the door?” And I would say “Tell me how that tells the story.” And they would have no answer; they just thought racking focus was cool. So I just got—I’m maybe too old to fight those battles anymore. I just got too tired of it.

Now television has sort of come back, with some really good stuff, and strangely enough I just a few days ago finished a screenplay. And then I’ve also, I created a one-woman show, a Shakespeare show, which I did in New York and I did in L.A. which was very successful and which I occasionally do in different parts of the country. So I kind of got involved in the acting, and my husband who’s a screenwriter and playwright, we had a venue where every year we’d do a new play. So needless to say, all the good lines go to me. If you’re an actress you should definitely marry a playwright.

So I’ve been busy doing plays and busy acting, but I didn’t want to pursue the fighting that went into directing in that period when television was so mechanical. But, as I said, the times have swung around again. And the work I do at Sundance is very rewarding. That’s a lot of mentoring both when you’re at the lab teaching and then afterwards.

And it takes as much energy and commitment to do something you don’t love as to do something you do love, so, I didn’t want to put my energy towards things that I didn’t really care about.

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3 Responses to An Interview with Director and Actress Joan Darling, Pioneer of the 70’s

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  3. Joan Packer says:

    Met you through the Golden Bear in Vail ……enjoyed some dinners with you and Bill (and Eric)…….some wonderful visits …..then you got hurt skiing and left Vail and disappeared. We had some common friends/acquaintances from the past (Brooks Jones from Conn. for one.) Anyway……I was browsing on line to get away from the debates and Hurricane Matthew…….and ran across your name. Had to say “Hello” and call if you’re ever in Vail…….(970) 477-0153……we’ll have a glass of wine!!!!!!

    Fondly——
    Joan(Packer)

    Joan (Packer)

    Fondly……..Joan Packer

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