By Chelsea Fung
For Emmy Award-Winning Producer Stephanie Laing her road to the industry began from behind the glass, as a bank teller, in Cincinnati, Ohio when she was presented with an opportunity to work on The Public Eye as a Production Assistant. From there she has graduated to producing Eastbound and Down, Little Britain USA, Banshee and Veep.
Today, Stephanie has ordained a new role; directing. For her directorial debut, she adapted Patrick Somerville’s ‘Trouble & the Shadowy Deathblow’ starring Tony Hale as Jim Funkle, a man who has trouble with feeling mediocre. Recently, Laing has directed an episode of HBO’s Veep and doesn’t plan on stopping there. In her downtime, she also writes on her blog Put Your Pretty On, about being a parent, the duality of producing and directing, and all of the gritty moments in-between.
Tell me about how you got your start:
I’m from Cincinnati, when I was in college I was a bank teller. One of my customers was a Business Manager for a commercial production company. I was going to college for journalism, she ended up hiring me to be a production assistant on commercials such as the Cincinnati Bengals commercials, Cincinnati Red commercials that’s how I got started.
A film came into town The Public Eye with Joe Pesci in 1991. I had a little bit of experience they hired me to be the film apprentice on the film. Since the unit photographer was taking prop photos in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Los Angeles I ended up going with them and I basically left Cincinnati and didn’t go back. From there we went to Chicago for 6 weeks and then I moved to Los Angeles. I was making about 200 dollars a week, but I stayed in Los Angeles and worked as a Production Assistant and eventually made it as an assistant to a producer and director. From there I ended up production coordinating for the HBO Network.
Tracey Ullman was really who made me a producer on her TV series in the 90’s. I won an Emmy with that show in 1997. It was a complete surprise, everyone in the audience was like “what the hell is this show?” I stayed with Tracey for 10 years, I got married, had three kids and I kept my foot in the door by doing comedy specials once a year and went back full time once my youngest was a year old and I started producing comedy series once again. I produced the American version of Little Britain and I produced Eastbound and Down. During my third season of producing Eastbound I directed an episode of Veep. That is when I started looking into directing. We had additional materials to do for the second unit and that meant going to D.C. There is a lot of car work, because obviously Veep is a show about the Vice President. I learned that I like it and at season four of Eastbound and Down I remember turning to David Gordon Green and saying I think I want to direct a short film. This is what led me to direct Trouble & the Shadowy Deathblow.
So you said that you initially majored in Journalism how did that lead to the film industry?
For me, I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to write for Rolling Stone. I knew I wanted to do entertainment and I knew I would have to move to New York or Los Angeles. Now, 20 years later I’ve lived in both places. At the time when I was living in Cincinnati I was just thinking about how I could get into television or film. It wasn’t a direct path.
How did you go about casting for your short? Your Son makes an appearance in it, how was it directing your son?
I auctioned the short story by Patrick Somerville. He wrote it 7 years ago and I auctioned the story 4 years ago, at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. Actually, the short story ends in a completely different way. We added a scene in the end, we only did for the short. I was attracted to it because it was dark, a little twisted, and it’s about mediocrity. Male or female we all feel mediocre at times, I liked that character. Tony Hale was always in my mind for Jim Funkle. Luckily, when I asked him to do it, he said yes straight away. I got very lucky because of my relationship with him from Veep.
At first I was very excited and then I thought ‘oh god I’m going to throw up, now I have to make it.’ I got really lucky because the cast I have a relationship with. Everyone I asked said yes. My son is also in it. He really wanted to be in it, he did a great job, I’m very proud of him.
Mark Wootton, I produced a show for him on Showtime. I produced an episode of Banshee and that’s how I know Frankie Faison and Andy Buckley he’s been in a ton of movies, he came in to guest star. Honestly, Mark Wootton told me I should be directing and when I called him and told him to be in the short I reminded him that he inspired me to direct so now he has to be in my short.
Tell me about what led you to take the leap from producing to directing:
I just directed an episode of Veep. IT has been a tremendous opportunity, I’m very grateful we have very talented writers and directors and obviously Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I think we have the best cast on television.
I never thought I wanted to direct, I wasn’t setting out to direct I love producing and I’ve been doing it for so long. Honestly, on the Veep pilot I thought I will just try it and I was doing cars so I didn’t have to worry about eye line so that was easy and from there no one told me to stop so I kept doing second unit. When I went to do the short I said to David Gordon Green “if nothing else, I will be a better producer, maybe I will hate directing maybe I won’t maybe I will be good or maybe I will suck, but if nothing else I will be better at my job as a producer”
How did your background with producing impact your role as a director? What was similar, different, which one do you find more challenging?
I think being a producer for so long enriches my role as a director. Since I’ve been producing for so long I understand from a producer’s standpoint. What to say when a line producer is coming toward you. It’s also made me pretty resourceful. I also think when I’m directing that I know if I’m being bullshitted because I produced for so long. I think it enhances it but it uses a completely different side of my brain. You know you can’t worry about parking or the location you just have to close that off, and that the crew is being fed and know that someone is doing that job and you can just focus on getting the story captured.
After having been in both roles, which do you prefer?
I love producing, but I’m sure I will continue to do that, but I know I will also continue to direct. Directing is still new to me and challenging I’m just excited to expand that side of my career and I will never stop producing.
What is next for you? More directing for Veep?
Not sure what’s next. I’m working on editing the episode and then I will go back to producing the series. I’m going to executive produce a new series starring Danny McBride called Vice Principal. We start filming next April. Vice Principal is set at a high school so you set Danny McBride and other comedians together and it will be good. Really looking forward to that. I would like to direct an independent feature. Right now, I’m open to whatever comes my way.
How do you go about finding feature material?
My agent said it best:” shop for a script like you would a wedding dress” I’m looking for that right now. I’m not exactly sure what it will be.
Since your Son acted in Trouble & The Shadowy Deathblow will he be making an appearance in more of your upcoming projects? What about your other children are they pursuing acting as well?
My youngest son plays drums, my oldest son acts, and my daughter who is 9 we just got done writing a book together called ‘Girls Don’t Burp’ were hoping to get that publish. Next would be Girl’s Don’t Do Math, Girls Don’t Do Science. Obviously the point is that they do.
What advice do you have to your fellow filmmakers?
Enjoy the process and explore doors that open. I don’t think that there is a direct path anymore, I don’t think maybe there ever was. A to B isn’t so specific. There are a lot of different channels for filmmakers and people who want to be filmmakers, writers, directors, I think it’s an amazing time to have your own material, but you can’t lose sight of the path that you’re on. Enjoy the path to where you are and where you want to be. The one thing I would say to directors, which comes up for me, is ‘don’t give up your shot and go with your instincts, if you want it you fight for the edit and if you don’t you’ll be mad you didn't’ get it.”