Michael Fresco [Interview]

Michael FrescoSo in the past few week, I have been embarking on an incredible journey.  While I may be in one location the physical sense, my mind has moved on to a more enthralling and albeit more entertaining place.  That place is Cicely, Alaska.  For the shameful few who don’t know such a place, Cicely is the fictional town setting for the greatest American television comedy that ever was, the wonderful Northern Exposure.  Recently I have been marathoning the show quite zealously to say the least.  It has been a truly enlightening experience to finally, after so many years of watching various programs, to find what I now considered to be the greatest television comedy of all time.

And with that being said, I felt the need, make that desire, to gain a bit of insight about the inner workings of this lovely show.  And just as I expected, there were some very genius folks behind this brilliant show.  One of the finest examples would definitely be the incredibly talented and widely experience director and producer Michael Fresco.  Fresco was one of the great human beings we should be oh-so-thankful for ever having been birthed, if not for the soul reason of bringing us the great Northern Exposure.  Of course Mr. Fresco had been bringing us quality television prior to NoEx, and has definitely continued to do so to this day.  He started off his on the also brilliant show St. Elsewhere, and has since directed or produced several runs of hit shows such as My Name Is Earl, The O.C., Providence, Better of Ted, Raising Hope, Subergatory, and oh so damn many more.

The man is also a bit of a mystery, which is in some ways enlightening.  From the brief e-mail correspondence I have had, the answers to the following questions, it is easy to peg Michael Fresco as a man who simply enjoys his work and what he does, all the while seeking little notoriety or glamour.  I mean, this is a guy who has worked diligently for over 30 years to create some of the finest television in history….and I can’t find a photo in Google Images to use of this mysterious creature? (The above image being the closets thing I could find.)  And the same could be said for a couple of his brothers, who are also renowned television writers and directors in their own rights.  In fact, Mike and his brother Victor collaborated nicely on Better of Ted and My Names Earl, the latter being finding Victor as a consulting producer on the show’s entire run.  (Note:  Victor Fresco was also the genius behind the short lived Sean Saves the World which, while obviously a bit corny and “just missing something”, was a wonderful show I was deeply saddened to see disappear.  This wonderful show would have killed it in the 90’s.  But I digress, it is Mike’s time right now.  Sorry Mike.)

So, it truly makes me wonder why he would even want speak with the likes of Trainwreck’d Society at all!  But, I am damn honored and excited that he did.  So without further ranting, check out a few words with one of the finest television producers/directors the world has and will ever know!

Better Off Ted S01-S02 720p WEB-DL DD5.1 H.264How did you find yourself involved in the world of television?  Was it always your dream to produce and direct fine television programming?

I stumbled my way into the world of television.  Once I was involved, and without a lot of planning…actually mostly due to a series of lucky breaks…I got my chance to direct.  All that was clear when I graduated from UC Santa Cruz was that I wasn’t qualified for many jobs.  I could work at a gas station, or at a fast food place, or be a gopher for a TV production company. OK, a TV production company seemed like fun. Through a family friend I got a job running errands for Laugh In.  While is was a blast to work there, unless I wanted to be a writer (not a possibility for me) there was no real opportunity to “move up” in that world.

After 9 months or so I left Laugh In and became a gopher for a commercial production company.  Commercials proved to be an excellent, excellent training ground.  Each commercial was a complete production in and of itself, but more importantly, I learned the discipline of telling a story in 30 or 60 seconds. Not a frame to waste. I worked in commercials for several years, gradually working my way up to becoming an Assistant Director.   I made a lateral move to television (more work, less money) when I got the chance to be one of the alternating ADs on St. Elsewhere.  Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker had the reputation of being really good to their employees, giving first-time directors a shot, and promoting from within the company. During my second season there as an AD, the director I was supposed to work with dropped out and Bruce and Mark gave me my first episode to direct.  It was a tremendously supportive environment, I got lucky and my episode was well received.  They brought me back the next season into the rotation as one of their regular directors.

Because St. Elsewhere was so well respected in the world of quality television, and because I got asked back for multiple episodes, I was able to get directing jobs on other shows.
I still dream of producing and directing fine television programming.

You have done several long running gigs on shows a director, with credits such as the absolutely brilliant Northern Exposure, Providence, My Name Is Earl, and The O.C. just to name few.  But, I was wondering what it is like to step on to the set of a show to director one single episode for a story that has already been established?  How to you tackle these sorts of jobs?

I watch as many episodes as I can, read all the scripts I can, and try to understand the characters I’ll be working with. Then I’ll watch the episodes again to try to “get” the style, the format, and the idiosyncrasies of the show. Once I’m in touch with the emotionality of the show, I’ll re-read the script, alter my consciousness, and try to imagine images that will enhance the emotional content, further the story, and occasionally be arresting (or at least interesting) to see.

Northern ExposureAnd as for your previously mentioned work on Northern Exposure, which you were also a producer on and happens to be the greatest comedy to ever hit the small screen (in my opinion of course, and of course I am right), I just have to know what it was like working on something so truly original and brilliant?  Where you aware of how fresh and original this show was while you were filming, or did it take some time?

It was a blast to work on Northern Exposure. I moved, with my family, to Seattle.  We all loved living there. The scripts were terrific, sometimes transcendent.  The writers were so smart and  successful in creating a reality that was quite different from the one all the rest of us share.  That reality had its own validity and it was so easy to buy into, it could happen in that place and with those characters. Add to that the wonderful, wry comments those shows made regarding the world we live in and what we all do to get along with each other…hard to beat. And yes, it was clear at the time this was a special show with a unique vision.  A treat to be part of.

As many TWS readers know, we absolutely love the Northwest for so many reasons.  And I am particularly fond of the locations in Washington that the Northern Exposure chose to use as an Alaskan background, towns like Roslyn and North Bend.  So as I always want to ask visitors to the area…what did you think?  How was your experience filming in The Great Northwest?  Is there anything that makes it a unique experience?

Loved and still love the Pacific Northwest.  Many of the crew and many of the guest cast were local hires.  They were all pretty terrific.  At that time it seemed like there was a pretty deep pool of talent in all categories.  This was a great job in a great location. After NoEx was over, and we moved back to LA, we bought a place on Orcas Island…just didn’t want to leave Washington we liked it so much up there. Coming from LA, the land of eternal summer, the weather while not necessarily unique was new to my family and me. There was something about going up over HiWay 90, into the Cascade Mountains, in all sorts of inclement (and beautiful) weather that had unifying effect of the cast and crew…were the roads open? would we make it up there? would we make it back? Lots of talk and comparisons regarding foul weather gear.

In your obviously illustrious career thus far, what would you say you are most proud of?  

I’m most proud of what it feels like to work on my sets.  No yelling, no screamers.  Everyone is treated with courtesy and respect.  We’re ALL in it together with the same goal.  The sets become mutually collaborative and everyone has a contribution to make.  It makes for a great ride.

In the years to come, are there any projects you feel you absolutely MUST create that you have not already?

Nothing I feel I MUST create.  I’m refreshingly free of original ideas.

If you could direct a mini-series or film about any historical event in American history, what would it be?

I don’t have a favorite event or epoch in American History.  Tone and characters rule for me.  While the time period will impact on every aspect of any show, it’s secondary.

My Name Is EarlWhat are you up to these days?  Any projects out there you would like to tell our readers about?

I’ve got several interesting and very exciting projects I’m working on with different  collaborators.  They’re all secret.
What was the last thing that made you smile?

Every time I see my pregnant daughter, I smile.  She was just here this last weekend. She is as cute as can be and is going to have her baby in mid-October.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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