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Ken Kwapis, who got 'The Office' off the ground, has advice for aspiring directors

Ken Kwapis, who got 'The Office' off the ground, has advice for aspiring directors

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Ken Kwapis watched his first big-screen movie at the Skyview Drive-In in Belleville. Well, “watched” isn’t entirely correct. He spent most of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” cowering under the dashboard of his father’s Thunderbird.

But 5-year-old Ken wasn’t scared off movies by the experience. Just the opposite: By the time he was 8, he had persuaded his parents to buy him a Super 8 camera with which he planned to create his own experimental films. In his early teens, he spent summer days voraciously reading film criticism in the library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. As soon as he could drive, he regularly made 30-mile roundtrips to theaters like the Westport Plaza Twin, which had big new releases such as “American Graffiti.”

The son of an oral surgeon and surgical nurse, Kwapis, who was born in East St. Louis and grew up in Belleville, can’t pinpoint where his passion for movies, and desire to make them, came from. But he has turned that passion into a solid and respected career as a director in both movies (from the “Sesame Street” film “Follow That Bird” to Robert Redford’s “A Walk in the Woods”) and television. As director of the pilot episode of Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” for HBO, Kwapis helped set the tone for everything that would follow. He directed multiple episodes of series including “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and was instrumental in getting “The Office” off to its start and to wrapping it up.

Jim Henson, Ken Kwapis

Jim Henson (left) with director Ken Kwapis on the set of "Follow That Bird."

As of Tuesday, he will also be a published author. “But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera” is part memoir and part guide for aspiring directors, offering hard-won insights into the craft of movie making. Mere moviegoers will also find it as illuminating as it is entertaining.

“I really don’t know why film captured me so intensely, except that the mid-’60s was a great time to be a movie fan,” Kwapis, 63, said last week from his home in Los Angeles. “But I remember watching and sensing that there was someone back there, someone behind the scenes, who was in charge. If a movie was well-directed, you felt comfortable. You knew there was someone at the wheel.”

A graduate of St. Louis University High School and Northwestern University, Kwapis also studied at the University of Southern California’s film school but dropped out just shy of a master’s degree when he got a chance to direct a “CBS Afternoon Playhouse” episode produced by Bob Keeshan, “Captain Kangaroo” himself.

'But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct' by Ken Kwapis

"But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct"

By Ken Kwapis

Published by St. Martin's Griffin, 337 pages, $19.99 (paperback)

On sale Tuesday

Kwapis’ self-effacing account of meeting with (and fibbing about his grades to!) the Captain is one of many entertaining anecdotes in “But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct,” in which Kwapis also recounts his first meeting with Jim Henson (and Kermit the Frog), the shopping trip that bonded the young stars of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” and the casting session for “The Office” in which his distraction wound up getting St. Louisan Phyllis Smith the role of Phyllis.

“It’s in no way a tell-all,” Kwapis says. “Plenty of books like that have been written.” But Kwapis, whose working style is low-key and thoughtful, designed to get the best from all involved, had different goals for his first book, including sharing what he has learned about “the craft of directing.”

After working with Redford’s Sundance Directors Lab and enjoying getting to mentor and observe young directors, Kwapis found that they most want to know things not found in a film school textbook.

“Namely,” he writes, “how do you comport yourself as a director? How do you assert authority on the set without being authoritarian? How do you navigate a path in such a turbulent business?” In an industry in which “everything conspires to make you feel inadequate,” he urges budding directors not to accept “the received wisdom about achievement in Hollywood. You must create your own standard.”

That means asking yourself such things as “do I invest the work with my personality?” and “do I create an atmosphere that encourages people to contribute their best work?” His own standard, he writes, is “how much I manage to improve the process with each new film or show.”

Kwapis is generous not just with philosophy but with specifics. A self-described compulsive list-maker, he shares his own 10-point checklist for preparing to direct, beginning with creating an “emotional road map,” a guide to each character’s emotional journey, and continuing with considerations of shot selection, color and light, tempo and transitions. He breaks the tips down via a close look at his own “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

Kwapis’ thoughts on creating a working environment in which everyone can flourish will be useful for anyone in a leadership position, he hopes. Specific to filmmaking, he offers suggestions on “how to survive in a punishing business, to hang in when things go off the rails, to be tenacious and resilient” — advice that likewise could be helpful for many of us in the punishing year of 2020.

“Reframe problems as opportunities,” he urges. “At some point ... you will be forced to abandon your brilliant plans and improvise, and for me, the mark of success is whipping up a backup plan that actually exceeds your original. It’s pulling a rabbit from a hat. With no rabbit. And no hat.”

“But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct” took shape as Kwapis reflected on the myriad film images that had impact on him over the years. At his side was his wife of 19 years, Marisa Silver, a director who changed course to become a bestselling author.

“Marisa is the writer,” Kwapis says. “She read every chapter and gave notes. She always reads everything I do, and I’m happy to say she asks me to return the favor with her work. It’s always good to have a second sharp pair of eyes.”

Getting the book launched amid a pandemic means spending a lot of time doing remote interviews from his garage, which has been converted to a music studio for his and Silver’s two sons, Henry, 26, and Oliver, 23, both musicians.

Kwapis hopes to be as supportive of his sons as his own parents, Dr. Bruno Kwapis and Marjorie Wells Kwapis, were of him. “My parents were very encouraging of me wanting a career in film. They also wanted me to choose practically, and ironically I chose something entirely impractical. I don’t think they really knew how capricious the film business is.”

And that is another point Kwapis makes in “But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct.”

“Careers rise and fall willy nilly. You give your best, but you can’t predict the response — from the studio, from the critics, from the public.” What you can trust, Kwapis says, is the process. “You cannot control the outcome, but you can control the process.”

Gail Pennington is a former longtime television critic for the Post-Dispatch.

St. Louisans look back on time at ‘The Office’

"At some point ... you will be forced to abandon your brilliant plans and improvise, and for me, the mark of success is whipping up a backup plan that actually exceeds your original. It's pulling a rabbit from a hat. With no rabbit. And no hat."

Ken Kwapis

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