November 8, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Ken Kwapis
By Claire Wong
Ken Kwapis is an award-winning director of motion pictures and television. He is most notable for his work on The Office, The Larry Sanders Show, The Bernie Mac Show, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, He’s Just Not That Into You and Big Miracle. He has been in the industry for nearly 40 years and has gained powerful insight and grace over the decades. Ken recently published his memoir But What I Really Want To Do is Direct, reflecting upon his experience and advising others working in the industry. In this month's Alumni Spotlight, Ken joins us to discuss his book as well as the director’s craft.
As there are various paths within the industry, what led you to pursue directing?
When I was a boy, my parents were bewildered and often annoyed by my habit of going to see the same movie over and over again. To my father, it was a waste of money. For me, it was an education. I needed to figure out why one film was more compelling than another, and that required multiple viewings. It didn’t take me long to realize that the quality of a film was determined by choices made…behind the camera. What were those choices? And, most important, who made them? That youthful inquiry set me on my path.
You won the Student Academy Award in Dramatic Achievement for your USC thesis film, For Heaven’s Sake. How did student projects and your education prepare you for your career today?
As USC Cinema students in the early 1980s, the 480 project was our first opportunity to use synchronous sound; that is, it gave us a chance to direct actors…talking. Everyone at school envisaged 480 as a ticket to a directing career. I vividly recall classmates discussing how critical it was to impress upon a potential employer that you had the ability to direct dialogue. Feeling a bit cheeky, I did the opposite. I directed a musical. Collaborating with a friend who was getting his masters degree in conducting at USC, I took a dive into the operatic repertoire and found a one-act Mozart opera entitled “The Impresario,” something Mozart probably dashed off between lunch and dinner. I didn’t know the first thing about opera, but I threw caution to the winds and the result was an offbeat film that disarmed viewers. The moral of the story, one that I should heed more often, is that it’s better to venture out onto thin ice than to make a safe choice — the one you feel you should make.
What prompted you to write your book BUT WHAT I REALLY WANT TO DO IS DIRECT on your experience in directing? Why is this topic important to discuss?
I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring young filmmakers, and what they most often ask me is how to comport oneself as a director. How do you oversee a crew? How do you create an environment in which people feel acknowledged, respected, and safe? How do you give truly productive feedback? These were not topics taught in any filmmaking class I ever took, so I started jotting down notes about how, through trial and error, I developed such skills. And the notes grew into a book.
You say, "Your goal is to be in the business but not of it." How do you balance the creative and business aspects of the industry?
It’s critical to keep abreast of what’s happening in the business, but it’s equally important to distinguish between facts and scuttlebutt. Unfortunately, much of what passes for news in the entertainment business is hearsay, and what passes for thoughtful commentary is usually little more than snark. Simply put: a steady diet of hearsay and snark will not serve you well as a creative person. All it will do is make you doubt your talent, so try to steer clear of situations and conversations that produce a lot of negative self-talk.
Throughout the book, you discuss how to create a respectful environment on set. Why do you think it’s important to create an inclusive environment?
At the start of my career, I received wildly different advice about how to run a set. A veteran producer told me, “It’s important to instill fear in the crew, and the best way to do that is to fire someone on the first day of shooting.” Quite different was the advice I received during my first job, directing a children’s film for television. One day I spent my lunch hour alone in a high school hallway, struggling to figure out how to shoot the afternoon’s work. A veteran crew member, easily twenty years my senior, sat beside me and shared a nugget of wisdom. “You see that?” he said, gesturing to a wall lined with lockers. “If you respect the crew, and you tell us you need that wall moved…we’ll move it.” Needless to say, I have followed the latter advice to this day. How do you empower your teammates to bring their full creativity to the work? Not by being a tin tyrant or a panic merchant. Respect the team, and they will bring their A game.
You advise readers to learn to "devise [their] own measuring stick for success." What is your personal measuring stick for success?
There are a lot of things you cannot control in your career. You cannot control whether people buy a ticket to see your film. You cannot control whether viewers tune in to watch your show. You have no say over what critics will write. The only thing you can control is the process of making your work, and my personal yardstick for success is whether I can improve the process from job to job. The improvements can take myriad forms. Can I manage my time better on the set? Can I come up with more imaginative notes for the cast? Can I represent my intentions more precisely when talking to the cinematographer? Can I become more conversant in an aspect of the craft I’m less confident about? What I’ve discovered is the more process-oriented I am, the easier it is to weather the innumerable ups and downs of this hurly-burly business.
How do you balance telling stories that are true to your authenticity yet entertaining for large audiences?
If I read a script and recognize some part of myself in a character, I feel confident that viewers will find the character relatable as well. Sometimes painfully relatable. In He’s Just Not That Into You, Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi yearns for romance, but she makes one cringe-inducing blunder after another. Because I’ve committed many of the same faux pas in my time, I was certain moviegoers would also experience a shock of recognition. We cringe at her behavior because it’s authentic and messy, but we also root for Gigi to come to her senses.
You have been directing for over 40 years. What keeps you driven and passionate about your job for such a long period of time?
In the face of innumerable obstacles and continual setbacks, two things keep me going. First, I revisit the films that fired my imagination as a young person — I recollect the cinematic epiphanies that formed my original passion. Second, I try to stay curious. Indeed, after directing film and television for decades, I still consider myself a beginner, just scratching the surface of what I can do.
What advice would you give to creatives aspiring to enter the film industry?
First and foremost, lead with your passion. When you meet a prospective employer or financier, don’t say, “I want to direct this film.” Instead, say, “I have to direct this film,” and proceed to argue that there is no one more personally invested in this story than yourself. Trust me, passion wins the day every time.