In the middle of my interview with the film and TV director Claire Scanlon, an unexpected guest makes a cameo. Scanlon is currently on her lunch break from shooting an episode of GLOW at Los Angeles Center Studios, just west of downtown. While discussing the intricate, yet mundane process of getting a feature green-lit, Scanlon spots an unidentified friend, hails him over, and before I fully understand what’s happening, one of Hollywood’s brightest ascending stars is on the phone.
“Hey, what’s up? It’s Glen Powell.” Powell, as it happens, is filming the Top Gun sequel on the same lot. Scanlon had run into him enjoying some downtime—more specifically, “roughhousing with one of the other cast members in the middle of the street.” Somehow, he’s able to segue seamlessly from horseplay to singing Scanlon’s praises.
“You know the girl that you have a crush on that doesn’t give you the time of day?” Powell asks. “Claire sort of treats you like that as a director. Not, like, a lot of positive reinforcement, and then at the end of the day—actually, Mike Nichols did that with Dustin Hoffman on The Graduate, where it sort of puts you in your own head in a wonderful way. If you’re someone who’s normally on your front foot, it starts making you on your back foot.” Testimonial given, Powell apologizes to Scanlon—“I’m sorry, I just totally stole your interview!”—offers one last “She’s wonderful!” and heads back to work.
“That never happens in L.A.,” Scanlon marvels once she’s back on the line. The serendipity of running into people exactly when you need to, or when you didn’t know you need to, feels a lot more New York—specifically, the New York of romantic comedies like Scanlon’s debut feature Set It Up, which is why Scanlon pushed to film the movie there even though the initial script set the story in L.A.. Set It Up is one of 11 rom-coms released by Netflix earlier this year, spurring a slew of thinkpieces debating whether the streaming service could revive the somewhat-deflated genre. There’s even an in-house brand name for the boomlet: “Summer of Love.”
But Set It Up, the tale of two workaholic assistants who attempt to matchmake their bosses and end up matchmaking themselves, doesn’t feel like the product of an algorithmic assembly line. There are the requisite meet-cutes and high jinks, but they’re supported by a clever hook and, most importantly, real chemistry. Scanlon feels that, along with the rise of the IP-based franchise and the overall decline of the mid-budget movie, thoughtless formula-following is part of what endangered the rom-com in the first place. “I think people took for granted, ‘Oh, let’s just put two beautiful people in a movie together and it’ll work. Who cares if the writing is bad and it makes no sense?’” she says. Part of what attracted her to Set It Up was its combination of fantasy and modernity. It’s a fairy tale, but one where women have multi-dimensional lives and people of color occupy positions of authority. “If we’re gonna do something that is, in fact, aspirational, the responsibility is on us as filmmakers and storytellers to represent everybody, and to show how the world can be at its best. Which I think we desperately need right now.”
Since directing two episodes of The Office in 2012, Scanlon has assembled a formidable CV with one very clear throughline. From the extended Office universe (The Mindy Project, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) to the ABC family sitcom bloc (The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Speechless) to cable and streaming (Faking It, GLOW, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Scanlon has helmed episodes of virtually every critically acclaimed, single-camera TV comedy of the last half decade. Years of channeling performers’ chemistry and charisma prepared Scanlon so well for the world of rom-coms that she’s almost blasé about the transition. “I would venture to say it’s almost identical,” she says of the filmmaking process versus the show-making one. “It’s just one is longer.”
Set It Up, and Scanlon’s achievement in directing it to critical and popular success, is a veritable bingo board of pop culture in 2018: the streaming giant’s ability to shape the culture; the gradual comeback of the rom-com; the collapsing distinctions between film and television in talent as well as distribution. In lieu of jumping directly to her next feature, Scanlon has spent her fall resuming her onetime routine of “bebop[ing] around from show to show.” So far, she’s done back-to-back returning stints on Fresh Off the Boat, then Black-ish, then Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now, GLOW.
In conversation, Scanlon comes across as pragmatic, grounded, and refreshingly mindful of drawing the best out of her collaborators, rather than imposing her vision onto them. It’s an attitude informed by her time in TV, where the director is traditionally more of a hired hand. “If someone has a good idea, I don’t care if it’s a PA or the DP or the studio head. I would go with it,” she says. “A good idea is a good idea. It can be a democracy on set.” Still, there are limits to this approach: “Not in post. We have to choose one joke!”
Scanlon grew up in Chicago, which is home to such institutions as Second City and The Onion and is arguably the comedy capital of the country. Still, Scanlon didn’t set out to break into the comedy world, apart from the occasional improv show that acquainted her with a pre–SNL fame Chris Farley. “Improv is so often done so poorly, and that’s just the nature of improv,” she recounts. “I just remember being like, ‘Wow, that’s what good improv looks like. That’s someone making it look easy when it’s so, so difficult.’”
Instead she began her career in documentary editing, working under Arnold Glassman, a director-editor who specialized in surveys of show-business history. (Glassman directed Visions of Light, the canonical tribute to cinematography that’s served as a gateway drug for self-taught film lovers since its release in 1992.) Scanlon’s first assistant editing gig out of school was on Frank Capra’s American Dream; slowly, her subjects started to shift from classic Hollywood stars like Cary Grant to comics like Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett. “When you do documentaries, you have to be comprehensive and watch everything [the subject has] ever done,” Scanlon points out. “Subliminally, through osmosis, I was getting my comedy doctorate—graduate degree, rather. Watching the best of the best, comprehensively seeing everything they’ve ever done. So as a result, I kept working towards comedy.”
Editing also afforded Scanlon other skills that easily transferred over to comedy. “They have a joke with editors: If you can’t dance, you’ll be a bad editor, because you have to have good rhythm. It’s kind of a joke, and it’s kind of true,” Scanlon observes. Both comedy and editing are art forms driven by a precise, often intuitive sense of timing: how long to draw out a pause, or when to insert a jump cut for maximum impact. “It’s kind of the inverse of writing, if you think about it. If writing is painting, then editing is working with negative space. You’re peeling away, like a sculptor. You’re seeing all the good stuff, and then you’re kind of honing it.”
Scanlon’s transition into directing came gradually, then all at once. “A friend of mine was like, ‘Hey, they’re doing this spinoff of The Office. Can you put my name in the hat as an editor?’ Because they knew I was friends with [writer-actor] Paul Lieberstein. So I called Paul, and Paul said, ‘Hey, how about putting your own name in the hat?’ I was like, ‘OK,’ and then I got the job. Which my friend was fine with,” Scanlon says with a laugh. The job in question was taking over for editor-producer Dean Holland, who was transferring over to Parks and Recreation. “I thanked Dean, because as a result of that, I got to work on The Office for five years as an editor, and I directed two episodes [in 2012].” Just like that, Scanlon was a comedy director.
According to Scanlon, her documentary experience taught her about what not to do as a director. “A lot of the times, when you see a scene, you’re like, ‘Let’s just get everything,’” she says. “But then you tire out your actors and your crew. If you have more of a point of view—‘We only need this, this, this, and this’—[and] more of a strong sense of how you’re telling the story before you even get on set, then you don’t tire everybody out, and you don’t confuse the editor with too many choices. Which actually becomes no choice, because you just hosed down a scene with no real vision. It’s useless. I’ve been on the receiving end of that as an editor, someone who’s like, ‘I’m gonna shoot everything!’ You think that would be great, but it’s not. It’s really not.”
Throughout our interview, Scanlon reiterates that she sees herself more as a conduit for the various talents that go into a show or film than a top-down field marshal. “I don’t buy the auteur theory,” she remarks, unprompted. “I don’t have an ego, really; I have a strong point of view,” she says about fielding suggestions on set. And if there’s ever a conflict between the look of the show, her ostensible purview, and the quality of the comedy, she always chooses the latter. Almost every scene on The Office was cross-covered, meaning that cameras were positioned to cover a conversation from multiple angles at once, capturing a response along with a line reading. This is typically an efficiency measure, but Scanlon sees the technique as the best way to motivate her performers: “That just makes everyone fresh, on point: knowing that everything matters, all the time.”
“A DP’s job is to protect the look of the show, but my job is to make people care about the characters and the people,” Scanlon argues. “Because if no one cares about the people, no one’s watching the show, no matter how pretty they look.’”
One of Scanlon’s favorite stories from her crash course in old-school show business is an exchange between Frank Capra and his frequent screenwriter Robert Riskin. Capra famously coined the mantra of “one man, one film,” which attributes every feature primarily to its director. Riskin, fed up, “threw a ream of white paper at him and said, ‘Let’s see the Frank Capra touch on this,’ because he couldn’t write!” Scanlon laughs. “I have a huge, deep, profound appreciation for people who can create a world out of nothing, out of their imagination.”
Writing is what initially drew Scanlon to Set It Up. Much to her former colleague Mindy Kaling’s chagrin, Scanlon is not, in fact, a frequent viewer of romantic comedies. But she was intrigued by writer Katie Silberman’s ability to update the tropes of a rom-com to the present day without feeling forced. Even now, says Scanlon,“I swear, people are going: ‘Here’s a script we had that came out 20 years ago. You can just update it for 2019!’ And it’s like, no? There’s a huge, seismic shift in the way we view everything in the year 2018, 19. You can’t just update an old script.”
Set It Up, on the other hand, manages to avoid some of the genre’s pitfalls. The main obstacle facing Set It Up protagonist Harper (Zoey Deutch) isn’t being unlucky in love, or as Scanlon puts it, “Girl needs guy; she has nothing else going for her in her life but this guy.” It’s standing up to her sportswriter boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu) so Harper can get out of her dead-end apprenticeship and start doing some journalism. Any resemblances between Harper’s boss and my own, by the way, are “100 percent” intentional; Scanlon opens our interview by confirming that “Bill Simmons is an absolute model for [fictional site] The Lineup, so it’d be creepy not to have this conversation.”
Scanlon signed on to direct the film when it was slated for a more traditional theatrical release through MGM with Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke attached to star. When Clarke’s day job led to unavoidable scheduling conflicts, MGM dropped the project, leaving Scanlon and Powell—“He didn’t have to have anything to do with the film after it fell apart, but he stuck by my side and the producers’ side like glue, and I think it’s that kind of dedication and kindness that will keep him working forever”—to shop Set It Up around until it finally landed at Netflix. Scanlon describes Netflix’s involvement as typically hands off: “[Executive] Matt Brodlie was like, ‘Yeah, so we want to make this movie.’ After the meeting we were like, ‘So … is that a go?’ I actually took a commercial right in the middle of prep, because I just didn’t believe them. And then I found myself in New York, shooting the movie. So I guess that was a go.”
Even after the film’s release, Netflix has remained as vague about the specifics of the film’s performance with Scanlon as they have with the general public, apart from making clear they’ve been very happy with Set It Up’s reception among their subscribers. The streaming service has told her that the feature was its top-performing film in more than 200 countries for a good portion of the summer, beating out even popular acquired titles like Star Wars—but not what that achievement translates into. Still, the positive feedback is enough for Scanlon, though she’s not especially interested in sticking around for a potential sequel. “Frankly, I feel like doing a sequel is like hosting the Emmys,” she says. “Where are the pros? I just don’t know that that’s a film that needs to be made. Because then, the bar is so high! The bar was so nice and low.”
Scanlon knows she wants to stick with comedy; after working on so many family sitcoms, she’s also interested in working with children in a different context. Scanlon herself is a mother of two and was pregnant while shooting Set It Up, an experience she insisted didn’t affect her day-to-day much—she had already worked through her first pregnancy while filming The Last Man on Earth—though she admits it could be useful. “If anything, it kept people’s attitudes better on set,” she admits. “It’s kind of hard to complain around a nine-months-pregnant woman. ‘Oh, I’m so annoyed that I had to come in early!’ ‘Oh, really? You’re so annoyed?’ And I’d just, like, slowly turn.”
Besides, kids remind Scanlon of one of her earliest, most formative professional experiences. “One of my favorite jobs was a camp counselor,” she says. “If you think about it, directing, in some ways, is very much like being a camp counselor. You’ve gotta keep people’s spirits up, remind them that we’re having fun, we’re playing games, it’s ridiculous that this is our life and we’re just telling stories.” Even when she’s riding a professional peak, Scanlon is careful to look up and take stock.