MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
NBC debuts the latest incarnation of "Law & Order" tomorrow night. "Law & Order: True Crime" focuses on the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents in 1989. Look for this name among the credits - Lesli Linka Glatter. She directed the first two episodes. She is one of TV's most prolific directors. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spent some time with her. We want to give you a heads up - if you watch the show "Homeland," there is a big spoiler coming up, so maybe step away for the next three minutes or so.
LESLI LINKA GLATTER: And action.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One thing you quickly realize while following Lesli Linka Glatter around on a TV set - you're going to get a lot of exercise.
GLATTER: I never sit.
DEGGANS: She's an energetic presence, hopping up often from behind a bank of TV monitors to run on to the set, a detailed recreation of a Van Nuys courtroom. One moment, she's checking with the star, "Sopranos" alum Edie Falco, who's playing defense attorney Leslie Abramson. The next, she's moving an actor playing a police officer into camera range.
GLATTER: Come with me. You're going to guard a triple murderer.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: OK.
GLATTER: Double murderer.
DEGGANS: Ask how she knows when she's captured the scene just right, and she answers with advice from an early mentor, Steven Spielberg.
GLATTER: One of the first things he said to me is, when you're watching anything, and something's not working, your instincts will go off in the back of your head, and they'll tell you. And if you tell your instincts to shut up, they will. And they won't talk to you anymore. So you have to keep the channel to your instincts really open.
DEGGANS: From her first job in the mid-1980s directing an episode of Spielberg's TV series "Amazing Stories" to landmark episodes of "Mad Men" and "Homeland," Glatter has built a 30-year career as one of TV's most effective directors. Unlike in movies, TV series are often led by writers who serve as the top executive producer. But Glatter says a narrowing of opportunities in film has brought ambitious directors from movies into TV, making shows more adventurous and giving directors more power.
GLATTER: And you have to tell an incredibly visual story. You can't just, like, cut to a close-up - and somebody, you know, coming in the same door, and you change the painting behind them. I, mean it's visual storytelling, but you have to do it quickly.
DEGGANS: Glatter also serves as an executive producer and director on Showtime's "Homeland." She earned an Emmy nomination this year for directing the episode "America First," which featured the death of a character named Peter Quinn, who died protecting the president-elect.
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DEGGANS: But "Homeland" showrunner Alex Gansa cited a different scene as an example of Glatter's talents, a quiet moment when Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, cries after finding a photo of herself in Peter Quinn's personal effects.
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CLAIRE DANES: (As Carrie, crying).
ALEX GANSA: Just the way that Lesli took Claire through that performance was really one of the most beautiful things I've seen on the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")
DANES: (As Carrie, crying).
GANSA: I looked at Claire, and I said, you know, Claire, I hope that someday, when you're producing your own television show, that you will be sitting in the chair and watch your executive producer-director talk to your lead actress through a scene like that because it was so moving just to sit in the chair and watch.
DEGGANS: Glatter's ease with actors is evident on the set of "Law & Order," were star Edie Falco says the director incorporates ideas from anyone and keeps the tone light.
EDIE FALCO: She really knows who she is. She doesn't have anything to prove. She's just doing her thing. She's - you know, I want some of that - what she's got. It was nice to - a great energy to be around.
DEGGANS: A recent study by the Directors Guild of America found just 17 percent of episodes in the 2015-2016 TV season were directed by women. Falco says young, female directors can find a worthy role model in Glatter.
FALCO: I like the idea that if more women shadow Lesli, there will be more great female directors to choose from. It will be a non-issue.
DEGGANS: That's exactly what Glatter has done. She often has up-and-coming female directors shadow her on projects, and she's helping NBC develop an initiative to hire more female directors. Glatter knows mentoring is important because that's how she got started. She was a dancer and choreographer in the early 1980s when she met an elderly Japanese man by chance in a Tokyo coffee shop. She wanted to tell his life story, and an Australian film director encouraged her to make a film. That director's name was George Miller, co-creator of the "Mad Max" film franchise. Miller allowed Glatter to shadow him on a project, handed her a script and told her to sketch out pictures of the shots she would use to tell the story.
GLATTER: And then I started to figure out, how did I want to see this particular scene? Whose point of view was it from? What did I want to say about where I put the camera? You know, with film, you're saying, no, I want you to see it from this point of view. And you better know why.
DEGGANS: The short film Glatter eventually made, "Tales Of Meeting And Parting," was nominated for an Oscar in 1985. That caught the eye of Spielberg, who hired her for "Amazing Stories" and allowed her to shadow him and Clint Eastwood. Then she worked on the surreal drama "Twin Peaks."
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DEGGANS: She asked co-creator and director David Lynch about a scene where two characters spoke to each other around a table where an animal head was sitting.
GLATTER: And he looked at me like I was insane and said, it was there. The set dresser was going to hang it up on the wall. And he saw it laying there. And he said, leave the moose head. So something, like, cracked open for me. Yes, plan everything. But you don't want to miss the magic of the moose head being on the table.
DEGGANS: Glatter has since directed more than 100 hours of television, repaying the mentors who helped start her career by lending a hand to the next generation. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOBACCO'S "SASSY MINISTRIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.