'Grab a camera, go shooting, tell the story' an interview with director Anton Cropper

Best known for directing the US comedy TV series Blackish, Monk and producing the hit show Suits, the award winning director Anton Cropper talks to Mandy News about his career so far and what the life of a director is like. 

10th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Anton, please tell us how you got into the industry?
I’m a director and producer but started in the business as a production assistant - over the course of many years, I worked my way up to a second assistant director, first assistant director and eventually landed a position on a show called Monk.

After being there a few seasons, the executive producer, Randy Zisk, asked me what I ultimately wanted to do. I said I wanted to direct. It took about a year and a half, but he got approvals from studio network and from all the other producers and I got my first job, directing on Monk. I haven’t looked back since.

Did you always want to be involved in the film and TV industry?
No. I was born in Sweden and lived there until I was five, my mum’s Swedish, my dad’s American – from Chicago. 
My dad was a stills photographer and worked as a camera assistant on television, so I grew up on set; things like Moonlighting and Dallas and he worked on movies like Jazz Singer. He wasn’t a big-time producer or director – he was a camera assistant. So for me after school hanging out on the set of Dallas…I wasn’t enamoured by it, it was a job, it was what my dad did. I thought it was cool of course, but it wasn’t something that I was completely enamoured with. 

So growing-up in LA, when I was in high school, my sister’s boyfriend had started a music video company and on the weekends I worked as a production assistant, just to make some money and I did that a couple of times. And our first assistant director on the Ice Cube Video that F. Gary Grey directed, came up to me after the shoot and said to me ‘I want you to be our second assistant director’. I said ‘I don’t even know what a second assistant director does’ and he said ‘just do what you did today and you’ll be fine’ and sure enough, a week later he called me for a King T and the Alcoholics video.

It was great, I started working in music videos whilst I was going to college and then eventually within a year I started 1st APing music videos and then I did a movie called The Show with Brian Robins. Long story short, I sort of segued into the music business, bits of tour managing with Warren G, at one-point Snoop wanted me to run his record label, but I decided that was not the world and life I wanted to live. I wanted to work back on TV and so I started over. 

I called Brian Robins up and I said ‘I need a job’ and he said ‘I don’t have anything except for a production assistant and I know you don’t want to do that’, I said ‘I’ll take it’. I stared over and worked my way back up through television again until I got the opportunity on Monk.

If you think music videos would be a good career choice for you then you can look here for jobs.

How did you get involved in Blackish?
When I started directing I never wanted to be like ‘that guy just works on CBS shows, or only does HBO shows, he only does one hour or only comedy.’ I wanted to do all of it, I wanted to do Networked and Cable, half hour and one hour. For me storytelling and filmmaking is you telling a story. 
Before Blackish, I’d done much more one hour. Kenya Barris who created the show – we went to junior high together - when the pilot first got picked-up he called me and asked if I could come and do an episode. 

I was producing Suits at the time, so I wasn’t available till the second to last episode of the first season. So I went over and did one and loved it and loved the cast and crew and the writing. It such a smart, insightful and well-done show. So not only was it an honour to work with a friend, but an honour to work on that show.

How quickly does a half hour format get from script to screen?
For a half-hour format you have around four days. So you walk in on a Tuesday, they hand you a script and you have four days to find any locations, casting, figure out how you want to block and film the scenes. So from Tuesday to Friday you’re having all of your meetings, location scouting, you’re having all of your conversations, looking at casting and then come Monday morning, you’re on the set. And then there are five days of filming - from Monday to Friday. Then later during the week after, you get an editor’s cut and you have two days to edit the episode, based on what the editor has done. And that goes to the producers, who work on it and then it goes on to studio and network. It’s quite a process - but it’s also very quick.

How do you decide which project you want to be a producer and which one a director?
They’re two very different positions that get incorporated as one when I am an executive producer or a producing director on a show. In that position, I am the guide for the other directors - the visual guide for the show. I always say that I’m ultimately responsible for everything that ends up on screen, along with the writers and creators of the show. 
We become a team and ultimately they write it and it’s up to everyone to bring it to life - it’s up to me to make sure that the visual language, performances and overall style, aesthetics and feel of the show stay consistent, with so many guest directors coming in. 
Directors are hired to direct and I believe that’s what they should do and it’s my job to try to prepare them, so when they get to the set, they have full understanding and control and can really guide the ship. 
When I’m working as a director, like on Blackish, then the responsibilities are very different. I’m responsible for that one episode, I believe I’ve directed more Blackish episodes than any other director.

I have a really good relationship with everyone there, but I’m still a guest and even though I direct a lot of episodes and know everyone, my position as a guest director is different because I’m only responsible for that episode and my job is to make that episode the best I can. 
How do you elevate the material, how do you take the script? 

My favourite compliments to get are when a writer who has envisioned this and put it on paper says to me ‘wow this is even way better than I saw it. To me – as a guest director – that is what I’m there to do, my job is to know that script and know that episode better than anyone else, anyone, even the person who wrote it and the actors who are performing it. They know their characters, but it’s hard when you’re an actor when you’re doing 22 episodes you may not know every nuance. You may not have six months with that script, so my job is to guide them as well and make sure the moments that are important are landing, the comedy and drama are landing, that all of these things are working so cohesively that the episode feels organic and has a great flow to it.

A lot of work and responsibility for one person …
In a lot of ways, it is, but it’s not just me, I’m not on an island - there’s a big team. It takes everyone coming together, but there has to be the captain of the ship and that is very much what the directing position is. Many directors have joked - and there have been horrible quotes: someone once said ‘it’s my job to answer 3,000 questions a day ‘and really a lot of times that’s what it is. 
By the time it’s the first day on set, my job is to have already seen the episode, it’s just a matter now of articulating it to everyone else, so we can put it on film. 

What’s great with Blackish is, because they tackle so many fantastic subjects and is also a comedy that’s rooted and grounded in real-life events, as a director who does drama and comedy, it allows me to flex both of those muscles and come in and make sure that we are telling the dramatic story and doing justice to the reality. Whilst also having fun and being able to address issues in a comedic way, which often makes them feel safe to talk about.

You’ve just finished working on Jessica Jones, in what capacity?
I was a director for an episode, I was there for a month. On a one hour show it takes about three weeks to a month. The Marvel and Netflix people and everyone on Jessica Jones are really fantastic. And then after that, I directed a pilot earlier this year called LA’s Finest and it was picked-up by Charter Communications - which is the second largest cable provider in the country. They are launching a new network called Spectrum and we are their flagship show. So we are very, very excited, we’re doing thirteen episodes. 
It’s a streaming platform, so all, or some of the episodes will be available at one time. It’s Jessica Alba, Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Martin, Zach Gilford, Ernie Hudson, Ryan McPartlin. It’s Gabrielle Union reprising her role from Bad Boys 2, so essentially we’re a TV spin-off, what I always say is ‘we are born from the Bad Boys universe, but we are creating our own world.’

Advice for up-coming directors and producers?
Grab a camera, go shooting, tell the story you want to tell and do it in a way you feel does it justice. 

You don’t necessarily have to conform. Know your audience, know who you’re making your product for – whether you’re making it for yourself, or for a select few. Also remember, no matter what the format, how it’s airing, what it’s filmed on, how it’s made – you’re telling a story. We’re ultimately storytellers and that’s what we do.

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