THE CONNERS is now in its third season, Wednesday nights on ABC. To celebrate Halloween, the half-hour comedy series airs the episode “Halloween and the Election Vs. the Pandemic” on Wednesday, October 28. This marks the narrative directorial debut of THE CONNERS regular Michael Fishman, who originated his role of D.J. Conner in the original nine seasons of ROSEANNE, 1988-1997, before returning for the reboot in 2018. (The ROSEANNE return was canceled after one season and spun off into THE CONNERS.)
In an exclusive telephone interview, Fishman talks how he prepared to direct the episode of THE CONNERS, and much more.
ASSIGNMENT X: You’re from Long Beach, California. When you were a kid, did show business seem nearby, or far away?
MICHAEL FISHMAN: My family didn’t have any real connection to the entertainment industry. My sister wanted to earn money for college, and someone told her she should do commercials. Both of my parents worked full-time, so they had no intention of this being a long-term or a permanent thing. So, God and the universe laugh, and gives you nine years on a show [laughs], where you work every single day, as your very first job and opportunity in this business.
AX: How did you prepare for your first directing gig on THE CONNERS? Did you follow the people who were already directing on it, or …?
FISHMAN: I’ve been working towards directing for a long time. I’ve been working in the business behind the scenes for almost twenty years, and I’ve worked in every department, except for hair and makeup, and wardrobe, and I would butcher those really badly, it would not be in anyone’s best interest [laughs]. But I’ve worked as a grip, an electrician, a set builder, props, production design, set design, pretty much everything else you can do. I’ve been a camera operator, laid a lot of cable, and did a lot of grunt work to earn my way. I started really working with crew members from the original [ROSEANNE] show, being the help-out guy.
And on the directing side, I’ve always followed our directors. Pretty much every episode we did on the original show, we had a truck, and I used to go out to the truck at some point during every taping, and be involved. I kept in contact with some of our best directors that I really wanted to emulate their styles, and I’ve been shadowing on and off for the last couple of years, as I’ve been working back in this direction, and I really have been mentored in the last couple of years by Gail Mancuso, and Jody Margolin Hahn, and Victor Gonzalez.
AX: Are they all people who direct on THE CONNERS?
FISHMAN: Jody did our live episode last year, and directs [frequently], and Gail has directed a number of our episodes. So they’re both very active. Victor Gonzalez hasn’t done our show. That’s been mostly LAST MAN STANDING and other things. With Gail, I’ve shadowed single-camera and multi-cam, so I’ve been over [watching her] on BLACK-ISH and a couple other shows. Gail Mancuso has won the Emmy twice for MODERN FAMILY.
AX: What did you learn while shadowing them?
FISHMAN: I came knowing more than I thought I knew. Having grown up on a set, and understanding the production cycle and working in all of the different departments, it gives me a perspective of what everybody has to do. From a directing standpoint, shadowing was most valuable for me to really plan out shot lists, to see the different ways that they plan or organize and work their way through a script, and also, giving notes. The technical aspect is giving notes to your crew members and planning and coordinating with your cameras, but then also dealing with actors. All three [directors] have a very different style. I also shadowed Andrew Weyman and Andy Ackerman, who I originally worked with on SEINFELD in ’97. I’ve shadowed every director we’ve had since the rebirth of the show [ROSEANNE] and most of THE CONNERS.
For me, shadowing is really trying to dive into the different perspectives, the different ways people tear apart a script, the way that they lead. And it was really important to me that I worked with some great female directors. The way, at times, that they’ve had to fight for inclusion, and navigate egos, I think, as a young man coming up in the business, it was really valuable to watch the way that they navigated those tough situations, and earned respect. Because I think they have a much deeper perspective. And Victor is Hispanic. At the time when I started shadowing Victor, diversity hadn’t grown as much as it has now. I think he helped that, in a lot of ways. So I think that was also an important perspective for me, is to watch the way that engagement was. One of the things about Gail Mancuso and Jody Hahn is, they have leadership, but also there’s a humor, and a strength, and they were moms, and they were family people, and they learned how to balance both of those. That’s something that was very important to me. If I was going to dive into this side of the world, I didn’t want to lose focus on how to be a holistic person.
AX: So, you also have a family?
FISHMAN: I do. Being someone who cares about representation and inclusion, making sure people feel valued, and some of the subtle things I think that our business is slowly starting to be aware of. Yeah, I’m a dad. I have two biological children from my previous marriage that ended a couple years ago, and then I have unofficially adopted two children. I have four kids. Well, they’re not kids anymore. My youngest is eighteen, so …
AX: You look younger than you are.
FISHMAN: [laughs] It just mathematically works.
AX: Did your fellow cast members on THE CONNERS, who you’ve worked with a long time, cheer you on as a director, were they teasing you, or …?
FISHMAN: They played with me. We have such a great relationship. Everybody gave me, especially when it mattered, the respect that a director needs to have in order for a set to run well. I’m direct, and I’m strong, and I know what I want, and I come prepared, so it makes it easy to be playful and kind. I have a producer friend named Randall Winston, who also directs, and I took his tentpoles, awhile back, of being strong, calm, and kind. And then I have to do them in that order. I’m an OCD kind of guy when it comes to the details. I plan everything.
For the Halloween episode, we had so many moving parts, and everything was changing so rapidly, because the script came out Saturday, and we started production Monday, and then we had to film it by the end of Friday. With all those moving parts, and we had things that had to change suddenly, I didn’t just block them out and set up my shots, and do all that stuff. I had back-up plans for most of those scenes, and a couple of them, it really worked out, because we had to make changes on the fly, but it was okay, because I had already envisioned another way.
AX: Does it help that you know all of the sets for THE CONNERS from having acted on them already?
FISHMAN: Absolutely. There’s a tremendous help to knowing the sets. I think there’s also a tremendous help to knowing the crew. I feel like I’m a very good communicator, and very open, and having a good relationship with people is [important]. All those years of bouncing around is a gift, because having experienced what it takes to come up with props in the short term, or building a new set, or doing all these things, it makes me more reasonable in my expectations of people, and I know what to ask for, and I don’t panic when things aren’t available yet. Some of the special effects and pranks and things like that, we didn’t really get to see them until it was almost time to shoot them, but I had enough communication with the special effects team and the props department and our set dressers that I knew how they were going to work. I was able to contribute with some solutions to fix certain things from my experience, and that made it easier to shoot.
AX: There’s a scene where D.J.’s daughter Mary, played by Jayden Rey, and D.J.’s sister Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, are sitting on the second-story roof. Is that a separate set from the larger Conner house exterior?
FISHMAN: We don’t have a primary exterior. We normally only have the front porch. So that was a completely new set that was built by Rick Puccio, who is our construction coordinator. John Shaffner and Jerry Dunn, who do our production design, really did an amazing job. We had to change the pitch of the roof, because it was a little steep initially. And the other thing is, I was very conscious for Jayden Rey, because she was going to be in this costume that has a skirt. We wanted to make sure that we made sure that we handled that properly, and that she and Sara weren’t sliding down a roof, or put in an awkward, uncomfortable position.
AX: You didn’t want to shoot up the skirt …
FISHMAN: Yes. Camera angles matter, and it’s so important to make sure that you’re being responsible, especially with a young woman like that. I joked that dressing in drag on the show as a kid gave me new perspective for what it’s like to have to wear a skirt for women when I was young, so I guess I’m more apt to be cautious and protective [laughs].
AX: Your character D.J. has some emotional moments in the episode, but he’s not on screen for a lot of it. Was the script deliberately written for you to not be in it too much so you could concentrate on directing, or was that just how it worked out in the available director slots?
FISHMAN: Well, based on time, and the way things have laid out in the last couple of seasons, there hasn’t been a lot of time to tell D.J.’s story. I’m hoping that we can dive into that more. There’s so much to cover about the military, and being in an interracial marriage, and having a biracial child, and having a spouse deployed, and being a veteran. It wasn’t so much designed for me not to have a heavy workload. It really was designed around what fit the story, because that’s always what we center around, and then time constraints of what we do.
AX: Without giving the gag away, one character complains that their costume has no air holes. Where are the air holes on that thing?
FISHMAN: On the top and then there are openings in the bottom that you can’t see. It was a joke. Lots of places to breathe. No one was ever uncomfortable. But I was very cautious and very aware, having been a kid who’s been in some very interesting costumes over the years, we tried to balance the joy of the creative side of what the writers have given us with doing a great job from a functional side. The kids were always in great spirits, and they had a great time.
AX: According to IMDB, you spent a lot of time in the writers’ room on the original ROSEANNE. If that’s correct, how has that helped you with directing on THE CONNERS?
FISHMAN: So, on the original show, I had bits and pieces and some input, and I always spent a lot of time around, because I was trying to learn, because I always knew I wanted to write, and direct, and produce, and make my own projects. This time around, I’ve had very little input. I’ve pitched a lot of story ideas, I’ve pitched some entire shows. I’m more than happy to contribute. Bits and pieces have made it in as part of the collective, but for the most part, I’m not involved in story on the current show. So, what I have done is, I’ve taken a lot of those ideas and spun them into other projects. There are a lot of projects in the works. I have a couple movies being optioned that we’re working on the contracts on, and then I have a bunch of shows that I’m pitching to networks. A lot of them have to do with complex blended families, because I have a complex blended multiracial family that we don’t see enough in entertainment. Inclusion is a big thing for me.
AX: Speaking of your other projects, you also directed something called THE TIPPING POINT. What was that?
FISHMAN: That actually was a political talk/interview show that was on a political network, working with Roseanne, once upon a time.
AX: And you were a producer on HALSNEY?
FISHMAN: Yeah, I contributed to that. That was a young man who was struggling to get his own project made overseas, and we connected online. So, that was more giving him some advice, and donating to the cause, and giving him some insights into how to get things done in a quick and low-budget way. It wasn’t so direct. I have a short film that my daughter and I made in quarantine, that we’re finishing editing. We bought a cheap camera on Amazon, and a couple of lights, and decided to make this story. So that’s the big thing that we’re doing right now.
AX: And what is FISH’S CALL SHEET?
FISHMAN: FISH’S CALL SHEET came out of this pandemic and talking to the crew members, and all the people who I love who work behind the scenes. It is my way of sharing all of their stories, and helping people dive behind the entertainment industry, and see what kinds of jobs are in production, and the amazingly talented people who make our world possible, who so often go overlooked. I’m so proud of it, because I share some of the most amazing people I know in this business, and I keep adding to it each week, and I’m meeting so many new people. Some of the people I’ve worked with for years, and some of the people I meet just for the interview.
My first one was our prop guy on THE CONNERS, all the amazing things he builds. I did Amy Brown, our a.d., and how she leads our set. I talked to a couple of producers. There’s a hair specialist, who specializes in natural hair, who’s working her way into the union, and there’s a stuntman who I hadn’t worked with, who came through one of my coworkers, and we explore what it’s like to be a stuntman, and what goes into that. So what it really is, is, “What is your job title, and what do you really do?” [laughs] My favorite part of it is the last few minutes. I have my own rundown of questions I ask everybody, and it’s amazing to see the humanity and the brilliance of what they believe their job is, and how it affects people, and what they want the people they work with to take from it, and what legacy they want to leave for their loved ones.
It’s currently on YouTube, and it’s on the Facebook page for FISH’S CALL SHEET, and I’m expanding it, and we’re working on finalizing a website, and releasing it that way. But it really is an inside look at the entertainment industry, and it highlights the amazing work that is overshadowed.
AX: So, FISH’S CALL SHEET is an episodic documentary?
FISHMAN: Yes. It’s an interview show that really dives into the technical world of what we do, and how much [acknowledgement it] deserves.
AX: During those years when you were working all the different kinds of crew jobs, was that always with an eye towards, “Someday I will direct, and then I will know how to do this,” or was that just because, “This is the industry I know, and I’m continuing to work in it”?
FISHMAN: It was a combination. I’ve always loved this business, and I’ve always respected the guys and the women that I’ve worked with. So, for me, it was really about continuing to stay around the business. I went behind the scenes when my kids were young, because I wanted them to have a little more of a normal life, and I didn’t want them to have the pressure of Dad being famous. But I’ve been writing for twenty years. I knew that I wanted to write and produce and create visceral, authentic stories that build community and promote inclusion. So, I’ve always known that directing was there. It was just a matter of building in that way. Those jobs were to pay the bills, and take care of a family. So when you come and you support me, you get somebody who loves what he does, and supports the people around him, and really respects and honors the audience.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 3 of THE CONNERS?
FISHMAN: It’s an exciting year. I think people can resonate with the way this family is dealing with the world as it is right now. I think that’s a great way for people to come together. We always tackle big issues, and it’s a great opportunity for families to laugh together, and have a bit of an escape. Any project I’m involved in is going to be complex, and heartfelt, and diverse, and it’s going to touch people in a visceral way that I think people can relate to.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: THE CONNORS: Exclusive interview with actor Michael Fishman on Season 3