David Nutter P’21 is an accomplished television director and producer known for directing Game of Thrones, The Flash and The Sopranos. In 2015, he received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for his work on Game of Thrones. He will be screening the ninth episode of the show’s fifth season, “The Dance of Dragons,” and host a Q & A today from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Kenyon Athletic Center. He is the father of Ben Nutter ’21, photo editor for the Collegian.
You initially enrolled in the University of Miami as a music major. How did you first come to be directing television, and how did you first make it into the film and television industry?
When I was in high school and in college I wanted to be the next Billy Joel. After some time I realized that I wasn’t gonna be that, so I thought to myself, “What else could I do with music?” In my third year of music school, I took a business and music class, and that involved making music for movies, and I liked that a lot, and then I took some film classes and so on. I remember a Super 8 film class that I loved, because my professor was incredibly inspirational. There was a creative outlet in film that I could actually grab onto, and that I felt to be very special. I kept taking film classes, and I loved making movies. After some time I moved to Los Angeles, trying to get a job as a director, and I got an agent, but my agent didn’t really help me very much. I mostly met people through networking at a nearby golf course where I would often come across television executives and directors. It was actually there that I met producers and other directors. My “break” was meeting the creators of “21 Jump Street” on a golf course.
In the 1990s and 2000s you developed a reputation for being the “pilot-whisperer”–the first 16 pilots you directed all went on to become series, and you are famous for directing excellent pilots. How did you develop such a sense for directing these type of episodes?
I learned the key to directing through my work on the X-Files. In directing that show I realized that the audience is everything. But I also have to be interested in the material as well. I have always loved shows and movies that explore the supernatural, specifically the relationship between the supernatural and family – shows like Smallville. But with pilots, it’s always important to create a world that’s believable. No matter what the world is, if you create a world that is believable the audience will be hooked, and once the audience cares, once they’re invested, then you will get that great energy and reaction from them. For me, it’s about getting people excited and moving them in some emotional way. Also, if you end a pilot on a hook for the second episode, the audience will always be left wanting more.
You directed the infamous “Red Wedding scene” from the third season of Game of Thrones. How did you handle it? Were you nervous about executing it well, and do you ever get anxious about directing a show that receives so much hype from fans?
I’m always nervous. To me it’s the first episode every time. I don’t treat some episodes with more importance than others – to me, they’re all important and they’re all vital. I always work my hardest, channel my best energy and care the deepest I can about the material. It’s true, the Red Wedding scene was a climactic moment in the series, but that the episode felt so powerful that I just wanted to give the audience what they wanted. If you’re not in the middle of something, pushing it, personally, as much as you can, then the audience won’t be able to care either. So I always try to communicate and express my devotion so it comes across on the screen.
You recently directed “Rising,” a short film about an American neighborhood coming together, despite racial differences, to survive a flood. The film deals with timely topics such as natural disasters, race and nationality. How did you go from directing more fantastical shows – like Game of Thrones – to this, and what did that switch feel like?
It wasn’t a switch at all. I bring the same energy and devotion to every project I get involved with. I want Game of Thrones to feel real, as real as national topics. There is not a big difference in how I work between different projects; to me, it’s about bringing the right attitude and energy. If you direct something with the mindset that it can’t be “profound,” then you will never be able to move people. If I treated Game of Thrones as something superficial, I wouldn’t be able to move people. I approach Game of Thrones and “Rising” with the same mindset – get the audience invested, move them and make them feel something.
What piece of advice would you give to current Kenyon students who want to have careers in film or television? How can they get started?
I think that writing is a great way in. As a director I love writers, because I need them to keep working. The most important thing I tell people is, don’t worry so much about getting a foot in the door. You have to be yourself, you have to work hard, you have to be dependable and you have to be considerate. You have to work as hard as you can, and you have to be able to move people. Just put your heart in your work, and the rest will work itself out. Those are the best directors, in my opinion: the directors that care. You have to be willing to put yourself out there. Also, don’t sweat the small stuff. Look at every moment as a learning moment. Keep your head up high and believe in yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.