Robert Lieberman has been a prominent director in film, television, and commercials over multiple decades. A highlight of his expansive career in television was directing the pilot and Executive Producing the CBS series Gabriel’s Fire, which starred James Earl Jones and garnered three Emmy Awards. In addition to Gabriel’s Fire, he directed the pilot and Executive Produced The Dead Zone (which ran for seven seasons on USA), and Strong Medicine (which ran for six seasons on Lifetime). He was also brought on as a Co-Executive Producer on Ascension for Syfy. Most recently, he received his first Directors Guild of Canada nomination for Best Director in a Dramatic Series for his work on The Expanse.
We had an opportunity to speak with Robert. Check out the interview below.
Hi, Robert! Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. We have quite a few questions, so we’ll get started. Along with The Expanse (2017), your CV lists several sci-fi productions, such as The Dead Zone (2002). Technology has certainly made several strides since 2002. Are there any projects you always wanted to do but couldn’t until technology caught up?
Interestingly enough, I never let innovation hold me back. I tackled my film ideas by being my own innovator, inventing a technique to get the story told. Although I do my fair share of CG, working without it never held me back since I am always just telling stories about people and relationships. Fire in the Sky was made very early in the digital film revolution and was done almost entirely practical, with film tricks, puppets and old fashion technique. The Expanse, on the other hand, could never have been told before CG technology got to its current level of sophistication.
Congrats on your Directors Guild of Canada nomination for Best Director in a Dramatic Series for your work on The Expanse. Working on a series with multiple directors, how did you make your episodes stand out?
First, let me honor all the other marvelous directors who have worked on the show and their brilliant contributions. I first started on The Expanse midway through the first season, and after having read the books I actually envisioned a much different looking show than the one they were making. So, I went to the executive producers and explained my vision which was closer to Alien and Blade Runner than Star Trek. I saw the future as being much grungier and dirty, not so new and shiny. To my surprise, they agreed and embraced my vision, encouraging and supporting me to realize it. Working with the production designer my episodes became much darker, grittier, filled with exposed wiring and ducting. The show ended up adopting many of my recommendations so I feel very satisfied that I could make that level of contribution.
You have directed shows for several high-profile series, such as Dexter, Brothers & Sisters, Eureka, Shark, Haven, Lost Girl and The X-Files. What is the formula for directing a successful show?
It’s always the same, it just requires that you do your very best work every time out. As a visiting director, you have very little to say in the hiring of cast and crew, so you are dependent on the existing production to provide the quality and the content the show is known for. All you can do as a director is bring at your game.
We are a firm believer in knowing your material. Do you agree?
You really can’t operate without knowing the material in depth. To that end, I read all the scripts that lead up to my episodes and watch all the edits to see what improvements I can bring to the performances and what cinematic contributions I can make. In current television, the lead characters’ arc over many weeks. So to jump on that moving train, it is incumbent upon you to know where in those arcs your episodes fall.
Could you discuss the importance of a casting? We believe this is important to a successful show.
First of all, I come out of the theater, so was well trained in casting. I agree with you that casting is possibly the most important part of the process. The late, great John Huston defined directing as just the making up for the mistakes you make in casting. Unfortunately, as a television director, you have limited influence in that process. The regulars have all been cast and there are so many cooks involved in casting the guest stars and day players, that you become just one opinion amongst many, if you are consulted at all. It is much different when I do pilots. In those cases, I am putting together the cast from the ground up and creating the template that will hopefully be followed in many episodes over years.
Do you have any upcoming projects that we haven’t mentioned?
I just turned in my treatment and am in early talks to do a sequel to my hit film, Breakaway, which was at TIFF in 2011 and the #1 highest grossing, English speaking film, of that year.
What are your favorite 5 things you like to have on your film set?
A great script.
A great cast.
A great cinematographer.
A great AD.
A great crew.
And a bottle or two of IZZE.
Do you have a muse?
I really don’t have a muse but I look to all the great directors that came before me and that are currently working for my inspiration. And since my roots are in the theater I see as many plays as I can to recharge my batteries.
If you could choose the most important thing a film student should learn, what would it be?
Unfortunately, the most important things that a film student should learn are not actually taught in film school. The most important quality a film director must have is the ability to communicate his ideas to others and to inspire the people around him. I always tell a crew that I am their biggest fan, because, “the one thing you can trust in human nature is selfishness, so if you do the best work of your lives, I will get all the credit.” They usually laugh.
Complete this sentence, if I had the film budget of my dreams, I would create _______________.
I don’t need the film budget of my dreams, I only need the amount of money it will take to get my story on film. I have never been one to want to spend a lot of money on my projects. I think that comes out of having owned my own commercial production company for over a decade and having worked as an executive producer on many of my own projects. I hate seeing waste.
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