It's safe to say, without a doubt, Mike Caron is immensely passionate about his job and takes great care and pride in the responsibilities that come with his job. His career longevity speaks volumes about his capabilities, charisma, and talent working in children's programming. With his filmmaking career spanning decades from acting to landing a life and career-changing job as a second assistant director on Nickelodeon's Drake & Josh to forging a lifelong friendship and collaboration with writer Christopher Nowak to taking the helm of the live-action-animation comedy The Fairly OddParents: Fairly Odder - as they say, the rest is history.
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Mike Caron about his career, working in children's programming, to artistically switching genres directing his latest short film The Pick-Up. Mike also shared what his collaborative relationship with Christopher Nowak has been like over the years, navigating creative logistics mixing live-action and animation, directing and collaborating with young actors, and cultivating a safe and trustworthy atmosphere on his sets.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What is it like directing kids, especially for a comedy show like The Fairly OddParents, and how did you make sure that they carried the comedic tone from episode to episode?
Mike Caron: When you direct kids, I always come to it from the point of view that they're kids. A lot of professional actors in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, are people that have had time to grow up and go to high school, go to college, and have real-life experiences; meaning as you go through your life, your experiences start becoming part of what you put into a role. Kids don't have that experience. They're not technical actors - they're instinctual. What they're doing is just what they know how to do. I just try to lean into the fact that they’re kids and I want kids more than anything to always feel comfortable. I want them to feel that they're in a safe environment on stage, that way they can be creative just like they are in school. I encourage them to have ideas.
Tom Hanks gave that wonderful speech about two or three years ago, and I'll never forget it because he said that when he was a young guy doing Shakespeare in the Park, the cast was kind of goofing around one day and the director stopped them all and said, ‘Hey, everybody. We need to get on the same page here. I need three things from you: I need you to show up on time. I need you to know the text. I need you to bring a head full of ideas.’ And that's the first thing I said to the Fairly OddParents kids. ‘Bring me a head full of ideas. If I give you a blocking or line direction in a scene and you have a better idea of something that's funnier, share that with me. And I'll always try it.’ And maybe it won't work because of the rhythm of the scene, but I'll always go for it because again, I want them to be safe. I want them to have fun. And I want them to know that they have ownership of their character. No one else on Earth knows how Roy from Tyler's point of view walks and talks. That's Tyler. So, I always try to encourage the kids that way, and I just try to have a fun set.
Before we even shot, we had a whole week of boot camp in which we all walked into a room together and I said, ‘OK, everybody. Tell me five things about yourself that I don't know.’ And we all just went around the room and we found some common things. We just started building that trust. And I also think that's a big word with kids, too - trust. I always tell any cast I work with, particularly kids, that I'll never embarrass you. I'll never make you look bad on camera. I'll never do anything that's out of the bounds of the character. I will always have your back.
Sadie: Trust is essential. You’ve had a very successful career starting out as an assistant director and moving up the ladder to becoming a television director - what was the initial connection for you to pursue family comedy in the TV space as a director?
Mike: I've always said that probably in a former life, I would have been a school teacher, because I truly enjoy that interaction with kids. I think it's inspiring, it's fun, it's incredibly gratifying. It's like a baton, right? I tell them, ‘You're going to do this,’ and I hand it off to them, and I sit back like a proud parent going, ‘Wow.’ By the end of the first episode, I was looking at Tyler, Imogen, and Audrey and everybody, just like a proud papa.
Way back when I got the initial call to direct I was an assistant director - I started out as an actor, so I've always understood that side of the camera - my friend who called said ‘Hey, this new show over here is a lovely little show about two brothers. It's on Nickelodeon, do you know Nickelodeon?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I've heard of Nickelodeon.’ [laughs] ‘What's it called?’ And she says, ‘Drake and Josh.’ I said, ‘Drake and Josh? That's catchy. I'll do it.’ I showed up and I never left. [laughs] Fifteen years later, who knew that was going to be the hook? But what hooked me from that point of view was seeing the way these kids would grow up as the seasons progressed. I took a lot of pride in seeing them develop not only on camera, but as young adults. I realized early on that directing not only scratches my own creative itch from being an actor, but it makes sense for me. Everything that I'd done came to this one conclusion. I said, ‘This is it. Directing.’ I can do all of these things, from creating the environment to blocking scenes to giving lines and the rhythm. I just love it. I know it's cliche, but I'm whistling all the way to work! I just absolutely adore it. You know that saying, ‘If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life’ - I get it.
Sadie: You’ve worked for a while now with Chris Nowak and now you two are back together on this show. What was the collaboration process like with him and the writers and how did you go about implementing animation into a live environment?
Mike: I think whenever you have collaborated for so long, and Chris and I've been doing this together for 12 years now, (going all the way back to Victorious) you start to develop a shorthand and trust. The first time he called me with The Fairly OddParents premise, he kind of walked me through it– ‘...and we are going to have the animated fairies there…’ As he explained it, two things happened: my learning curve expanded and my instincts kicked in. Obviously, the animated fairies would be added into the room and would be interacting with real people, but my first focus was on the kids. Animated fairies aside, I just needed to deal with the kids and how they're interacting with each other, their parents, and guest cast members or whatever the scenario was. I knew the animation was going to be taken care of. I knew that we were going to put in Cosmo and Wanda, but my first thought was all about the kids.
Well, we got on stage, and I think Audrey was like, ‘OK, so where's Cosmo and Wanda?’ And I'm like, ‘They're just over here.’ And she's like, ‘OK, where?’ This illumination hit me, ‘OK, timeout everybody. Hit the brakes.’ I got together with Chris, our production designer Tristan Dalley, and our other EP Samantha Martin, and said ‘Tristan is going to design two cardboard cutouts of Wanda and Cosmo.’ We had these two amazing actresses, Dre Swain and Jen Kater, who played Wanda and Cosmo on stage now that we had the cardboard cutouts. This way, when I was rehearsing a scene, they were on the set, interacting with the kids. So not only were we able to get the rhythm of the scene and the lines, but we also started building muscle memory from shooting a lot. I just had a camera pointing at an empty frame where Cosmo and Wanda would be later, so the kids’ eyelines would be right. And so that was the beginning of my revelation as it were: the way to properly amalgamate animation with live action is to rehearse them together.
Sadie: You also directed a short thriller film, The Pick-Up, which is definitely not child-friendly. As an artist, what was it like to be able to explore other genres, particularly in short form?
Mike: I love that single-camera medium. Multi-camera is more of a theatrical, live presentation that four cameras capture almost in real-time. You could kind of edit it while you're doing it if you will, after a take, in theory. With single cameras, the camera tells the story and everything else. One of my dear friends Tommy Walker, who played Drex on Henry Danger, had approached me in September of 2019. He was putting together a short little script that was going to become a proof of concept for a larger screenplay that he wanted to do. And it was based on a real story that happened to him. Although my joy and passion is working within children’s programming, sometimes I just want to do something very different from what I’m used to–like most artists. And as Tommy and I got together and talked about it, it jumped out as a really good way for me to explore another way of telling a story. It was a very rewarding experience.
Sadie: As we both know, in TV the writer is king, but I am curious with you directing both the pilot and the season finale, how much influence do you have in setting the initial blueprint tone and making sure it is carried throughout the whole season?
Mike: As a pilot director, when you do the first episode, you are certainly setting a tone with the actors. Take Cosmo and Wanda: my idea how to work with that - every other director that followed me used that system. You'll have different directors because different directors come with a kind of a new look. I established the characters and, I like what you said, the blueprint of how it's made, but different directors come in and they can bring their own sense to it. And to that point, by the time I came back to do episode 13, I was so impressed with how the kids had, just through 12 episodes, developed and grown. The kids came with their heads full of ideas and the directors did the same.
The Fairly OddParents: Fairly Odder is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+.