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Northwestern Alumnus and Director Joe Chappelle Leads Class On Directing

Known for his work directing The Wire, Fringe, CSI Miami and Chicago Fire, Northwestern School of Communication alumnus Joe Chappelle led a masterclass for enthusiastic undergraduates on acting for the camera and directing for the screen.

Chappelle (GC86) showed clips from his most recent work on the set of Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire and walked the students through the basics of directing, including how to prep actors for scenes and the importance of arriving on set prepared.

“Come in with a plan so that if nobody said anything to you and you didn’t find any new inspiration on set, you’d be able to get the scene,” Chappelle, in a new Wirtz Center black box space on April 6, advised. “Now, have your plan, but also be able to adapt. Actors are going to have opinions… and you might find something interesting happening in a scene, like the way an actor is hitting the light. Come in with a plan, but be able to adapt.”

Chappelle said a huge part of being a successful director is getting along well with others.

“A lot of the job is human interaction skills,” he said. “You want the actors to trust you, and you don’t want them second-guessing you. And if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve worked out a plan, and know the script inside and out, then they will. It’s a confidence thing. Cast and crew can smell insecurity, and they’ll know if you’re not confident.”

Chappelle delved into life on set, and how a director is always conscious of time.

“Everyone is trying to squeeze as much out of production time as they can,” he said. “In television, especially, you’re running up against the clock. On dialogue scene days… you might have to shoot six to seven pages of the script.”

He showed the students a scene from a recent episode of Chicago Fire, where a man was caught dangling from the edge of the iconic Marina City Towers (Chicago’s “corncob” buildings). This, he said, might eat up production time. Yet the opening scene, where fire trucks arrived in the span of less than a minute, took just forty-five minutes to shoot, since they had to close part of Wacker Drive and make sure pedestrians didn’t wander onto the set. Action scenes can be labor and time intensive, and can make it difficult to improvise on set. Yet Chappelle said he does try to pad the schedule to allow for unplanned scenes.

“Because time is such a factor, at minimum, I say a director needs a shot list,” he said. “I’ll plan ninety minutes for a scene, but in my mind’s eye I might be thinking it’ll just take sixty, and if we get ahead of schedule, then we might be able to add another shot.”

Chappelle discussed, too, how his time as a grad student in an erstwhile Department of Radio/Television/Film MFA program (three newer programs took its place) helped him hone his directing skills. He talked about how he met his wife, Colleen (GC88), who now works as a producer, and how he came to learn the hard way about nailing some cinematagraphic basics, such as plotting action axis in a shot (also known as the 180-degree rule), or finding its pivotal center.

“When I came here in 1982, I had no directing experience, and I learned so much on my first video project,” he said. “I shot all this film, and then when I looked at it, I realized I’d flipped the action axis on nearly every shot.”

That, for film neophytes, is a no-no; clearly, Chappelle recovered.

He suggested that students watch classic movies with the sound off to understand how scenes cut together so they’re consistent and make sense. “The older movies are so simple,” he said. “Modern films are so fast-paced that it’s hard to keep up, but if you watch the classic movies, you can start to see how basic film works.”

Senior Theater major Kali Skatchke said she found the class informative and said it was exciting to learn from a director with Chappelle’s extensive experience.

“I learned so much,” said Skatchke, who wants to act when she graduates. “I’ve never been on set, and so it was so cool to hear what it’s like. He’s been doing this for years, and I really appreciate what he has to say. I want to do film and television, so it was really great to get this mental picture of what the set was like and how the show comes together.”

Students in attendance represented the Acting for the Screen and Directing for the Screen undergraduate modules, where in-class learning is married with out-of-class activities, internships, advisement, and capstone portfolio. Modules allow more depth and focus in School of Communication majors’ studies. The visit was coordinated and sponsored by EPICS.

-Cara Lockwood