Gail Mancuso, recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series (for Modern Family’s “Las Vegas” episode) is no stranger to the awards ceremony. This is her third Emmy nod (her prior two, in 2011 and 2013, were also for Modern Family), and in 2013 she won for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series, making her the second woman in history to conquer the category. Mancuso has directed more than 300 episodes of television, including work on Roseanne, Friends, Gilmore Girls, and 30 Rock.
I recently chatted with Mancuso about all things television. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
On how she got her start in television directing: I came on board at Roseanne during the second season as an associate director, and as an AD you get the chance to work with various directors. When a director would give actor notes, I would always think “What would I say?” and I would mouth my direction to myself to give myself practice, as a mind game. I felt like I was getting ready. One of directors had to get let out of an episode he was supposed to direct to go direct a pilot. I knew there would be a spot open, so I went up to Roseanne herself and told her I would like to direct the open episode. Roseanne said, “Well, go ahead” [note: Gail does a dead-on Roseanne]. After we shot that episode, Roseanne leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’m going to give you the whole next season.” To this day I give Roseanne props. She gave a lot of people their breaks; she hired a lot of writers in the room; she always believed in people; she believed in genuine people; she just had a gut instinct. She was the whole nine yards.
On working on Modern Family: I’ve now done a few episodes of the show. I feel like Modern Family is becoming my family. They work really fast on the show. It’s documentary-style shooting. It’s not single-cam beauty shots. It’s almost a hybrid of multi-cam and single-cam. I love being able to capture the comedy as it happens. The shooting style means I don’t have to try to recapture chemistry. Because you have two cameras going, you don’t get clean entries. Whatever the actor says brings the camera over. The Modern Family team are great people to be working with. They have such intelligent writers on the staff. If it’s great on the page, it’ll be my problem to screw it up.
On directing this year’s Emmy-nominated episode “Vegas”: “Vegas” was probably one of the most challenging episodes. It’s a farce, and we shot most of it in Vegas, and part of it on a soundstage back in Los Angeles. The episode is about three adjoining rooms at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and the comedy that ensues. The thing about a farce is ideally you want to shoot this on a live stage. If it were on a stage, you’d see people going in and out of doors. You just can’t do that on a single-cam show. But we came very close — I made a map for myself and highlighted it in different colors. It was very, very, very complicated. Story-wise, the episode starts out slow by design so we can set up stakes, and then it builds to a crazy third act where all this confusion amongst the characters happens. It turned out super funny. Eric Stonestreet [who plays Cameron Tucker] at one point said, “I don’t know what your doing, but I trust it.”
On going to the Emmys: Last year, we made the Emmys a family affair. My one son and his girlfriend came from San Francisco, and my other son came from Denver. My sons made a playlist to listen to in the car on the way to the Nokia Theatre. I requested “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, and we all practiced our poker faces in case someone else won my category. Then we rocked out to “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. But nothing can match last year. This year my sons are watching from home, and I’m going with my husband as my prom date. We’re just going to have fun. I’m so honored to be invited to the party.
The 66th annual Primetime Emmy Awards air Monday, August 25 at 5 p.m. on NBC. Visit emmys.com for a full list of nominees.
[UPDATE: 9.2.14 — Mancuso won the Emmy for Outstanding Director.]