Few people in the entertainment industry have such a long and diverse filmography as Mel Damski. The 74-year-old American director has worked on numerous acclaimed television series, movies and documentaries, such as ‘Psych’, ‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure’. Over the years he has won a Christopher Award and has been nominated for an Academy Award and two Primetime Emmy Awards. He talks about the highs and lows of his impressive career in the demanding world of showbusiness and gives a glimpse into his current documentary project.
Becoming a director wasn’t a childhood dream of the New York native. His uncle, Harry Rosenfeld, was a tremendous influence on Mel when he was younger. He was the editor in charge at The Washington Post during the infamous Watergate scandal. “I wanted to be a reporter, like him,” Mel explains. “I did work as a sports editor for a while, having been an athlete in college. But it wasn’t until I decided I needed a change of scenery and enrolled at Denver University in the seventies, that I learned about the job of a director. On my first day at university one of the teachers explained what a director did. And I said ‘that’s what I want to be!’. So after getting my Master’s degree in Mass Communications I moved to Los Angeles to study at the AFI Conservatory film school. I had a great education there and I’m really grateful for that.”
Directing an episode of M*A*S*H after graduating
After Mel graduated he fairly quickly got the chance to direct an episode of the popular television series M*A*S*H. “There was a producer called Quinn Martin,” Mel recalls. “He would ask all the top film schools to send in one movie directed by a student. Quinn would pick his favourite movie and give that person an opportunity to direct an episode of a show called Barnaby Jones. And he picked me. I did a good job and that opened the door for me to a directing gig on the series Lou Grant. Which resulted in an Emmy nomination. This accomplishment lead to the chance to direct an episode of M*A*S*H, which was a marvelous experience. I was very young, just out of film school, but the cast was very nice and respectful. A terrific ensemble. If your leading actors are such wonderful persons, like Alan Alda and Harry Morgan, it’s very hard for anyone else to misbehave. They were a great bunch of people. For me it was a privilige and an honor to work on M*A*S*H.”
Monty Python’s ad-libs causing stress
Unfortunately not every filming experience is all fun and games, as Mel found out along the way. Directing the comedy Yellowbeard in the early eighties was quite a challenging process. “The three Pythons in this film, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, wanted to understandably make a typical Monty Python movie. They preferred not to focus too much on the story line, but go from one crazy scene to another with a lot of improvising. And there were more actors, such as comedy duo Cheech & Chong, who loved to ad-lib. And I respect and understand that… But the studio insisted on making a movie in a more narrative form, sticking strictly to the script. So it was a real challenge for me to keep all parties satisfied. Usually I decide to let actors have a few takes of improvising, provided we have one or two takes that are exactly as scripted. But improvising actors weren’t the only difficulty concerning this movie. Actor Marty Feldman died when we were quite far along in the filming process. Can you imagine? So I had come up with an alternative ending, with his stunt double taking the actor’s place. But in the end it was such a rush to see the movie in theatres in New York, the city I’m from.”
Down to earth
Luckily, most of Mel’s experiences concerning directing and working with a diverse range of actors have been great. A few of them really stand out. “Working on Psych was a fantastic experience. I also loved working with people like George Clooney. I was not surprised at all that he became as famous and successful as he did. It was incredible to direct actors such as James Mason and Karl Malden as well. I grew up admiring their acting and then years later I got to actually work with them. I also very much enjoyed my time on the series Picket Fences with actors Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker. The writer, David E. Kelley, is in my opinion one of the best writers in the business. I’m glad I got to work on many of his shows. So there are a lot of lovely people I’ve been blessed to work with. But you have to understand that on a film set, you work in very close contact with lots of people for thirteen hours plus a day, with the pressure of deadlines. So if people have personality issues, it’s going to be exaggerated. And creative differences will occur. But as a director, your job is all about storytelling. That’s the main goal: making a good, visual story and doing that efficiently. It’s not about power or technology or celebrity. So it’s a good thing I’m not the type who is impressed with fame or egos. Just because you’re a movie star and people stare at you in a restaurant, doesn’t mean you’re any better than anyone else.”
Over the years Mel has had the opportunity to shoot at some exotic locations all across the globe. Some of them in his home country, others in places like Mexico and a few European countries. “I loved working on the movie Mischief, starring the lovely Kelly Preston. We filmed that one in a small town in Ohio. I’m particularly proud of the soundtrack. Because it took place in the fifties, I picked some amazing songs from Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and many more talented musicians. Nowadays the rights for songs like those are hardly affordable. But I’m so glad I got to put together such a great soundtrack. Another one of my favourite projects was a movie called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. We got to film in England and Hungary. It was amazing,” Mel reminisces. “My family is orginally from Europe and for me it was a treat to film in beautiful places like that. I’m not a good tourist. I prefer to really hunker down in a place and get to know the locals, instead of staying at fancy hotels or restaurants. Luckily, during a few months of filming, you really get a feel for the place and the people. I’m grateful that I got to work there. There are of course a few language issues here and there, but in general I very much enjoyed shooting movies abroad.”
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic however, many borders are closed and there are not that many projects happening in the filming industry. But Mel is currently working on his own passion projects in the United States. One of them is a documentary. He is no stranger to documentaries, having directed the Oscar-nominated Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, among other things. “The one I’m working on now is about a man with throat cancer,” Mel clarifies. “I’ve been following the man’s recovery since his surgery. He knew he would unfortunately lose his voice… So he recorded over fifteen thousand sentences and expressions with his own voice. That way he can use those recordings to express his needs and feelings. When the filming and editing are complete, we intend to have it broadcast on PBS.”
Keep up with Mel Damski and his work on Twitter.