Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before Made for Love was unfortunately canceled - the first two seasons are available to stream on HBO Max (and well worth your viewing time).
Unbeknownst to many television viewers, Wendey Stanzler's name has more than likely appeared on your TV screens repeatedly, having directed some of your favorite, most-watched, and most binge-worthy television programs to date. There is an argument to be made that her name should in fact be a household name, as she is one of the most prolific female directors working in the industry. Wendey has been a veteran of her craft in both the film and television for over three decades, first getting her start on a low-budget horror film from the minds of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell as a sound editor, to editing the groundbreaking documentary Roger & Me, and iconic shows like Sex and the City.
While editing Sex and the City, she shifted creative gears, making her television directorial debut on the beloved series, to helming episodes of Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Monk, The Vampire Diaries, The Flash, GLOW and so much more.
Having just come off directing episodes seven and eight for HBO Max's Made for Love, Wendey had a lot to share about how she tackled those two very pivotal episodes, how she got started in the business, and why an emotional hook is essential for her as both a director and viewer.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the creative process like for you jumping into those two last episodes of Made for Love?
Wendey Stanzler: They were both really different - tonally they shared a lot, but stylistically, they were pretty different. The first one was just such an incredibly moving and emotional, featuring Ray Romano, speaking of an unsung dramatic actor, the guy's range, he's incredible. And so, the two of them just delivered on this emotional ending to that storyline, or so we think. Cristin's kind of having to balance out two characters and the evolution of the other was so masterful and so original. That was the thing about that episode, it was kind of figuring out how evolved was the other that she was because she was truly emotional.
And then the visuals, we really tried to get pretty epic about it, and I think that the storyline arched in episode eight. It was a true collaboration between the writers, Christina [Lee] and Alissa [Nutting] who are fabulous, Jordan Ferrer the production designer, Nate Goodman, who's the DP and sort of trying to develop what ideally the visuals might look like if we're able to accomplish it, you know? It's not Game of Thrones - we don't have that kind of money, but we wanted it to feel exotic and epic. And how were we meant to do that, and certainly having a background where visual effects were a big part of things that I did and action, and then having Nate and Jordan, we really put our heads together and spent a long time scouting and figuring out what environments would hold up the kind of exotic and fascinating ride that Cristin's character was on to kind of find her way back to herself. And it was really fun because it was basically something that we all participated in, it didn't exist. It's not like, ‘Let’s build this set.’ Aside from the mirror stuff, which we obviously had to build, the rest of it was just, ‘What can we do that's kind of out there and fun and evocative?’ It was a really fun process of prepping that episode.
Sadie: It seems so simple, going from a white cyc soundstage to being in the middle of a desert. It's movie magic at its finest.
Wendey: You don't know when you're doing it, 'Is this going to work?' [laughs] And I appreciate that in your kind of seasoned and heightened viewers mind because obviously, this is where you live as well, that it did. That makes me really happy.
Sadie: Oh, thank you! In your career you’ve taken on many different genres from comedy, and drama, to action, and sci-fi, like in Made for Love - when you're approaching material as a director, is there a North Star for you to connect to as you're reading the script? Do you focus more on the character development or plot? Or is it something even more granular for you?
Wendey: I really do feel like it just comes down to emotion. And if there's an emotional hook, if you care about the characters, if you're invested, which I think Made for Love viewers are very invested, I do feel like as strange and original as the world is that came out of Alissa's amazing brain, it's all based on emotion. They're flawed characters that have these complicated issues, familial issues, love issues; and in some weird way, she's really been successful making all those things relatable. And I think that that's what works. I think the closest thing I have done to it is Future Man. And similarly, I do feel like there is this necessity to be able to feel whatever the emotional trajectory is, and then the rest of it you kind of buy into and welcome it because it's highly entertaining, right?
Sadie: Right. It’s important to find that emotional hook. I feel like you have this additional heightened superpower because you are also an editor - how much do you use that to your advantage of not only saving time for production, but are you also storyboarding ahead of time – essentially with a cut already in mind before you get to post?
Wendey: That's a really good question. The first thing I did was Sex and the City. And then the second thing was the first season of Grey's Anatomy and I remember working with this writing team, and they were like, 'Gosh, being on set with you is so different than other directors. Must be because you're an editor.' I go into a situation with as clear an idea as I can, with how I'd like things to be. It is a collaborative process and I'm not the only one with ideas, especially when you're working with actresses like Cristin Milioti. She has worked so hard as well, and comes to set with ideas and is prepared, and sometimes if you're lucky, you get to work with somebody like that - you collaborate and find this path together that's even better than what you came with.
I storyboard action. So, if I have a big action scene, like I have done a lot of DC and Marvel stuff, if I have big action scenes, mostly for time because I don't want to shoot a bunch of stuff that wastes a lot of time on things that are less important or are shorter beats. It's, again, finding those things that I think are the most important beat visuals or story points and really making sure that I protect the time that I need for those, while wowing at the same time. I think you want to wow, to kind of expand on whatever the visual expectation is. So, it's a balancing act, and it's super fun. And each show is different.
Sadie: Tell us about your filmmaking journey and what that transition was like from editing one of the greatest documentaries ever made to becoming a television director.
Wendey: That documentary that sort of started everything for me was about my hometown as well as Michael Moore's hometown. So, equally as driven with a deep emotional drive to tell the story of the people that made a corporation, were abandoned by a corporation and the effects on people's lives, and it was very personal, and it was a labor of love. But it also was something that I had been thinking about for a while. I love film. I love television. But I felt like, ‘How is that ever going to connect to me? I'm in Flint, Michigan.’ So, between that and ultimately taking a film class at community college where there was a flyer up - they were looking for some free help on a movie in Detroit starring Sam Raimi and produced by Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell was the sound editor. [laughs] So I ended up going there and working on this horror film, it was such an incredible experience. Then I found my way to a graduate program that I then dropped out of to work on Roger and Me, and then moved to New York and eventually realized that I love documentaries. I really, truly do. But there's nothing harder than editing a documentary. My hat's off to all the great documentary editors, and maybe someday I'll find my way back. But I really felt as a viewer, narrative storytelling was something that I also love and wanted to kind of try to make my way into.
Then I became an editor on Sex and the City and they gave me an opportunity to direct. I would never have kind of said that I wanted to do that out loud because it felt so entitled and crazy, like, ‘How could I ever direct? I'm lucky to be here.’ And I asked them and they gave me the shot and it was incredible. I spent multiple seasons editing those fabulous actresses and just falling in love with the characters and falling in love with Michael Patrick King's writing and thinking, this is the greatest thing in the world, nothing's going to ever be as good as this. But they gave me the opportunity to direct [on the final season] and directing has been the best thing in the world. It's such a treat, it is such a privilege. And I love telling stories. I love collaborating with talented writers and actors and cinematographers and production designers and trying to connect with people and entertain them and move them. I was pregnant when I got my break as a director, and I had a boy and so as my directing career evolved, he was growing into a young boy and I thought, ‘OK, I'm gonna do action stuff, he’ll like that.’ [laughs] Your audience can be big and small. And so, it's sort of this path that has been really fascinating.
This year, I had the real true honor, just before Made for Love to work on a couple of Apple series, of which I'm a huge fan of one of them, For All Mankind. And then I was hired by Carlton Cuse and John Ridley to be their third director on a limited release series that will be out in the fall, called Five Days at Memorial, which is something that I'm really, really proud to have been a part of, and look forward to people getting a chance to see to that. It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning author's work about a hospital in New Orleans during Katrina where a doctor made really questionable moral judgments on people's lives. So, it's just been a great year. It's been a really fun year. It's been a very serious dramatic year with stuff like that. And Made for Love, which is like zany and really stretches you creatively. And I just did the finale for the reboot of Party Down. So, go make sense of all of that. [laughs] It’s so insane.
Sadie: [laughs] Well, I think it's just a testament to you and your work ethic and being a creative chameleon and working on projects that have an emotional resonance for you. From editing to directing and finding those beats for those emotional highs and lows. It's not easy.
Wendey: Well, you know, it really can't be done unless you have talented folks. I've been really lucky but it's true. I watch other things and you know when things can really ring false and untrue and I have no interest in that at all. So yeah, my heart is on my sleeve. And I like going through life that way. I feel like I don't miss out on connecting with people and feeling things - like a painting or a piece of music or whatever, it just makes life way better.
Sadie: Yeah, I totally agree. I noticed that most of your credits to date have been working as a television director, and there seems to be a feature on the horizon, but what has been the attraction for you to stay on the career path as a television director?
Wendey: I would love to do a feature. I’m developing a couple that I really hope get to see the screen. But I had no idea I would fall in love with television. I always wanted to be involved in film, but I would never leave television ever, ever, ever. It's so immediate. There's nothing better than that. People say, ‘It’s the golden era, it’s the golden era.’ And it is the golden era of television. It's almost too much [laughs] as a viewer I'm overwhelmed sometimes, I'm back to like Masterpiece Theater because you’re always going around the bend looking for that thing to hook you. I feel really lucky that I became a television director when I did, just because of who's involved in television now - the writers and the producers and everybody's kind of going back and forth. So, I'm hoping maybe I'll be one of them someday.