Many of you know Tate Donovan as Tom Shayes, Patty’s right-hand man who died tragically at the hands of Joe Tobin in the third season (Joe drowns him in a toilet!). What you probably didn’t know is Tate has directed a few Damages episodes as well. He tells Josh Payne more about his work on Damages and what aspects of directing he finds most challenging.
JOSH PAYNE: You’ve directed episodes of Glee, Gossip Girl, and Weeds, among others. How is Damages different from other shows?
TATE DONOVAN: The experience of directing Damages is different than any other show I’ve ever worked on. The scripts come in super, super late. That makes it difficult to prepare for all departments. The actors get their lines very late. However, the great thing about this show is every time they come in, the pages are fantastic. We’re like, “Goddammit, where’s the scene?” [Laughs] Then it shows up and it’s like, “Ooh, this is good.” So the writers get away with a lot of stuff because the scenes are so good.
TD: That’s very unusual. However, what’s really great about it is that it’s fostered a community. There’s no expert here. There’s very little ego on the set because we’re all getting the pages late. We’re all discovering. Everyone can ask questions. KZK [Show's creators and executive producers Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler] are so great. They know what they’re making is complicated and they’re such smart guys and they encourage everyone to ask questions. Usually when you come on a set to direct a show, you should know everything. The director should know everything. You should be on your game. With Damages, there’s no way for everyone to be 100 percent on their game. So that makes everyone collaborate to figure it out. It makes the feeling on the set like, “We’re all in this together, trying to solve this problem together.” There isn’t one person who knows all the answers and we’re trying to get it from them. There’s a great team feeling, making this show. And it’s great for me as a director.
John Hannah [who plays Rutger Simon in the upcoming season] said the funniest thing to me. He said, “Tate, I really enjoyed working with you. I’ve never worked with a director who says, “I don’t know,” so much.” [Laughs]
It’s liberating to do the scene and make it as present as possible and as good as possible. Who knows what KZK are going to do with it? They’re geniuses in the editing room. It really is fascinating. What makes it fun for us is—when we finally watch—to see “Wow! They put that scene there. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Fascinating.”
JP: You’ve been on Damages since the beginning. How has it changed?
TD: When I did the pilot, I thought it was going to be a legal show. I had no idea about the thriller it was going to become and how ingeniously they would play with time and the releasing of information. That first season, all of us were just blown away. That first season was so much fun because it was on the air and we were still filming. We got to see Frobisher [played by Ted Danson] evolve. We all had theories about what was going on. Of course, most of us were wrong. We’d get little tidbits of information and be thrilled.
JP: What do fans say to you about the show?
TD: This literally happened to me yesterday and I’ve gotten it like 95 times. “Oh my god, my wife and I or my husband and I are obsessed with that show. Do the producers hate you? Why did they kill you? That was the worst death I’ve seen in my entire life. Were they angry with you?” [Laughs]
When Todd [Executive Producer Todd A. Kessler] called me the summer before the third season, he said, “Listen, Tate. We’re thinking of doing this story where Tom gets involved in this Ponzi scheme and then he dies. And the whole season’s about how he dies.” And after he explained it to me I thought, “Wow, that’s a great, great story. I only wish it was about another character.” Because I really enjoyed working with everybody. But coming back as a director has been pretty great.
And you never know what you’re getting. Today I directed two Oscar nominees [Glenn Close and Janet McTeer] and a 4-year-old.
So many people think that this show is so planned out, down to the minute. When I tell them, “You have no idea. These guys write themselves into total corners and how they get out of them is fascinating. They’re like the Houdini of writers.”
Many of the comments I get are from writers, saying how incredible the show is. The writing is pretty spectacular. And the editing…I don’t know why those guys haven’t won more awards for editing.