Beyond IHS: Navajo director takes on Grey’s Anatomy

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Sydney Freeland, Navajo, is an experienced director of film, television

Sydney Freeland, Navajo, directed tonight’s episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19, both were created by Shonda Rhimes.

This is Freeland’s second time directing an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, which was dubbed the longest-running primetime medical show in television history at the end of February.

Station 19, now in season two, focuses on a female firefighter in Seattle and is a spinoff of Grey’s.

Freeland, who directed “Drunktown’s Finest,” received the opportunities when her feature film “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

That led to Grey’s. Debbie Allen, a producer and director of the show, happened to be looking for directors for season 14 for the medical drama. Allen, who plays Dr. Catherine Fox, oversees the hiring of directors for each season. She saw Freeland’s movie.

“They had a couple spots open for new TV directors. The meeting went well,” said the Emmy-nominated director. “Debbie gave me a shot.”

Soon enough, Freeland directed episode 20 “Judgment Day” where doctors accidentally eat edible cookies.

If you look at Freeland’s IMDb resume, she’s directed more TV shows than feature films. Her approach and preparation for each is different. (She also prefers TV shows because it’s logistically easier than feature films.)

“TV directing is different from feature directing because you’re coming into a world where the tone and the look is already established as opposed to a feature film. For a feature film, I would do the location scouting and casting and photographer and look and find that everything that movie is going to have,” she said. “For TV, that is already established. You’re job isn't to impose on the production. You adapt to what they already have and deliver a TV show in that tone and visual style. I actually enjoy that because it forces me to do things as a filmmaker that I wouldn't normally do.”

Sydney Freeland directing Grey's
"Round 2," Freeland writes on Facebook.(Facebook | Sydney Freeland)

So in preparation for her first episode of Grey’s, she had to do two things: one, binge-watch the entire TV series (which she doesn’t recommend because “it spills over into your real life” and laughed over the phone from Los Angeles), and two, she had to research how she could visually show the doctors were stoned.

She watched other shows and movies to see how they portrayed this. Drawing cartoons on top of the doctors wasn’t going to work as done in ‘Broad City.’

Freeland landed on using the “Spike Lee dolly” where the actor and camera are placed on the dolly together. It gives the “floating in space” impression. This method also “fit in with the tone and dynamic of the show.” 

Another difference between TV and feature film directing is working with a new film crew and actors. If the season has 24 shows, then that’s 24 directors. 

Freeland said it’s “very unique and privileged experience” to work with actors, primarily four actors, who have been playing their characters for 14 years. Those Grey’s actors are Ellen Pompeo, Justin Chambers, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens, Jr. 

She took what she learned on her first episode and applied it to her second round when she was fortunate enough to be invited back for season 15.

“My first time going in working with these actors it was a new experience,” Freeland said. “But I think the second time I had a familiarity with how respective actors likes to work. I wasn't starting from ground zero. You also have the crew. You walk into the set and it’s a completely foreign crew.”

Even though it’s foreign and the longest-running show, Freeland felt no external pressure and walked into the project with a working mindset. She had seven days of prep and nine days of shooting the hour-long medical show at the end of January and beginning of February.

“I’m like I need to get the shots and get my performances and make my day,” she said. “I could be shooting a film in Tulsa, Oklahoma and it’s still going to be the same process.”

After watching Freeland’s episodes tonight, Indian Country can keep an eye out for her future projects. She directed an episode of “Chambers,” a Netflix show airing in April with a Native American lead actress Sivan Alyra Rose, Apache and Puerto Rican. Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn also star in the show with several other young actors.

“It’s outstanding. I’m really exciting to see how that series is received because you have a Native American character in a lead roe of a TV series,” Freeland said.

The New Mexican director also directed an episode of another TV show called “Tales in the City.” It’s LGTBQ show based on a book that comes out in June.

Freeland said she leaves for Toronto to film an episode of Impulse, a YouTube Red show, where a girl learns how to teleport.

In a way, Freeland uses her own advice to young directors: “Take every job you can get.”

She also encourages them to just pick up a camera and start filming stuff. Something a couple Navajo kids did on the rez a couple years ago. Freeland remembers them shooting a Star Wars parody and thought “it was the coolest thing” because they incorporated visual effects and recreated it shot for shot.

“That’s how I worked as the [production assistant] and intern. And there were lessons I learned on those jobs where I worked a 20-hour day sitting in snow and rain and sleet and hail but you don't’ think you’re getting anything but you are,” she said. “I think the second thing is don't wait for the right circumstances to align to make to a movie. Pick up a camera and shoot it.”

IF YOU WATCH…

What: Grey’s Anatomy, “And Dream of Sheep”

When: Thursday, March 14

Time: 8:00 p.m. local time

Where: ABC

Why: Directed by Sydney Freeland, Navajo

What: Station 19, “I Fought the Law”

When: Thursday, March 14

Time: 9:00 p.m. local time

Where: ABC

Why: Directed by Sydney Freeland, Navajo

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