Last week, New Girl aired its first episode without female lead and nominal new girl Zooey Deschanel, whose maternity leave coincided with part of the show’s fifth season. This week’s episode marks another first for the Fox sitcom: The directorial debut of Deschanel’s co-star Jake Johnson. He stepped behind the camera to helm “Bob & Carol & Nick & Schmidt,” in which his character, lovable slob Nick Miller, reluctantly agrees to help his cousins (guest stars Bill Burr and Lennon Parham) conceive a child. Just ahead of the episode’s February 2 premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with Johnson about his inaugural outing in the director’s chair.
The A.V. Club: How long have you wanted to direct an episode of New Girl?
Jake Johnson: It wasn’t something I’d given any thought to. [Creator] Liz Meriwether emailed me one day and said, “Would you be interested in directing an episode?” and I thought about it and thought “Sure.” It wasn’t like a bucket-list plan kind of thing.
AVC: What pushed you in the direction of saying yes?
JJ: I wanted to experience the other side of it. We’ve done, at this point, about 105 episodes, and I’d only had experience with one side of [making a network TV show]. I have a production company, so I’ve dealt with the other side of it—notes and executives—and I realized there’s a whole area of my day job that I didn’t know much about it. And so it was great to jump back there and get the keys to the car.
AVC: What surprised you the most about the directorial process?
JJ: I did an episode without Zooey, so it was just another reminder of how strong the ensemble is. If it’s a scene with Hannah Simone and Max Greenfield, it’s really good. Lamorne Morris is really good—nobody needed much direction. Everybody knows what they’re doing.
The absence of Zooey has been an interesting thing for our show. It’s taught me that, truly, our show is an ensemble. It’s a really nice experience to see how deep our group is. “Oh, does this show work?” And then when we’re doing it, we’re like, “Yeah, it works.” The voice of New Girl is stronger than any one character. There’s a tone to it, there’s a feeling of it. If somebody’s not in the episode, the show still goes on.
I didn’t know our show was like that. It started making me feel that way when Damon Wayans Jr. left, came back, left—and the show doesn’t miss a beat. And when guest stars come on as boyfriends or girlfriends, they’re great, then they leave and the show’s exactly the same. And then what happens if you take one of the core people? And then when Zooey left—to me the show’s still the show.
AVC: What’s it like to go from acting alongside those castmates to directing them?
JJ: The direction I did was more technical. What was really enjoyable was I decided when the scene was over and the pace of the day. I like to move quickly. I don’t like the nature of television of just sitting around and overshooting. I like to keep everybody fresh, so in terms of the direction to give them, I would never direct Max or Lamorne or Hannah on how to play their characters, because they know that way more than I do. I would give them an idea for a laugh or a joke—but really it was working more with the crew, and learning how to shoot things as economical as possible so we get everything we need, in a fraction of the time.
AVC: Did you appreciate the fact that your first directing job was on an episode that’s so Nick-focused? There are other Millers in the mix thanks to Bill and Lennon, and they present Nick with a big decision when they ask for a sperm donation.
JJ: I actually would’ve preferred my episode to be less about my character, because it’s a little tricky when you’re in the scene. So one of our producer-directors, Trent O’Donnell, stepped in and he directed me in the scenes.
AVC: You’ve worked a lot of different directors on the show, you’ve worked on multiple features with both Colin Trevorrow and Joe Swanberg—did you try to follow the examples those directors have set, or were following your own lead?
JJ: I was kind of doing my own thing. It’s so different because it’s a television show that I’ve been on for five years, so it doesn’t feel like a movie where it’s a whole new world. It didn’t feel like I had to create my director persona because I know everybody so well and they all know me so well. I’ve had a lot of opinions over the years of how things should be shot and this gave me the power to do that for a week.
AVC: What kind of opinions?
JJ: If you look at a scene, and it’s Bill, Lennon, myself, and Max, the opening line has us on the couch, and then we walk over to the door, then we walk to the door, then we talk at the door, then we move into the dining room area. So I don’t think the audience cares if they see two-and-a-half rooms in this scene—they just want to see the scene, because it’s a two-and-a-half minute scene. So what I would push for is holding Max’s first line until he’s already near the door, and put me and Max on one side and Lennon and Bill on another so you can cross-cover everything. So I can get two two shots at the same time, so we could make the scene as naturalistic as possible, and then you don’t have to worry about the other setups. Along with saving the time, we can now shoot more while we’re actually in the scene.
When a guest director comes in, if they want to block scenes in a way that’s actually just a waste of time, it’s not my job to say anything. I wrote out my game plan on how I wanted to shoot it, and it was all just about limiting the setups in order to have more time shooting, because the enjoyment for me as an actor is in between “action” and “cut.”
AVC: That’s definitely something that stands out about that initial meeting between Nick, Schmidt, and Nick’s cousins.
JJ: I haven’t seen the final version. The craziest thing about TV directing is I turned in a version, and then they made their final changes—so I don’t know what they are. So I’m like, “Ooo, I’m dying to see the final print.”
There’s a way where you can direct where you just isolate everybody into their own single, and so when you edit it, it’s just a bunch of singles. Which I think is fine, but I think a show like New Girl really works because our ensemble is strong, and there’s a chemistry of the show. So put characters in two shots together. Let them interact with each other.
AVC: Do you want to direct more episodes? Do you have a feature idea you’d like to direct?
JJ: I would like to continue directing in some way or another. I do these movies with Joe Swanberg where he directs them, but I get to be involved in that process, and we write them together so that’s really scratching the itch for me right now, because Joe’s such a collaborative guy. So we’ve got a new movie that we’re just finishing editing—it’s called Win It All—and it’s been a really enjoyable experience working with him.
I’ll definitely do other episodic stuff, depending on the show. My day job is acting—I wouldn’t direct something if I didn’t feel passionate about it. I don’t have an interest in being a director-for-hire on sitcoms—but if it’s a really cool show that I thought I could bring something to, I would love to do that.