EW asked the two-time Emmy nominee to reflect on the past three decades she's spent directing everything from The Ms. Pat Show, Sister, Sister and USA High to NCIS: New Orleans and Black Lightning.
"You're a director." Those three words changed Mary Lou Belli's life.
The 5-foot-2-inch powerhouse was working on the 1984 CBS sitcom Domestic Life as a stand-in and coach for future Reign star Megan Follows, then just a teen, when guest actor Jack Riley made that observation. That brief observation sparked something in Belli, kicking off a 30-year career behind the camera with two Emmy nominations to show for it.
"You know, I took one class in college…" Belli recalls telling Riley (who would go on to voice Stu on Rugrats). And as soon as she approached a theater company she was a part of about directing, the fire was lit.
"I like solving puzzles," explains Belli, who is currently Emmy-nominated for directing a season 3 episode of BET+'s The Ms. Pat Show. "And what I love about directing TV is every week you move on to a new puzzle."
Belli got her start as a TV director in 1988 with a season 3 episode of Charles in Charge.
It was a very supportive atmosphere. [Executive producer] Al Burton, who was trained by Norman Lear, gave five women their first directing assignment over the course of that show. It's no longer the case, thank God, but at the time that was unheard of. And were they all good? Yeah. All of us are still working in the industry and we're still friends.
A second Charles in Charge episode and an installment of Major Dad followed. Then, in the late '90s, Belli found a niche directing teen dramas, including an episode of Sister, Sister as well as almost all of USA High season 2 and One World seasons 2 and 3. (Her work in the genre continued through 2010 with an episode of Wizards of Waverly Place.)
[USA High co-creator] Peter Engel had brought me in to coach, and they eventually thought I should direct. And I remember Peter saying, "You're going to knock this out of the park." If I had a film school, it was Peter Engel. I love working with teens, that's why I wrote an acting book specifically about it. I still keep up with some of that [USA High] cast."
We would finish a taping on Friday night, and very often D.L. would get right on a plane, do stand-up gigs in other cities on Saturday and Sunday, and come back in time for the Monday reading. Going through a political campaign year with D.L. was like gold, because he was coming back with perspectives of people outside of L.A. or New York or Chicago. He was talking to the people who were voting throughout the country — and as a result, his perspective was unique.
While directing a 2003 episode of One on One, Belli found a fan in writer and supervising producer Meg DeLoach. So when DeLoach began production on a new series she created, Eve, Mary Lou says DeLoach asked for "that little one with two names" to direct, something she'd do for 22 episodes over the three seasons.
What a lovely, lovely, lovely cast. That was one of the first shows I was on where the cast was a family. I was older than them, so I sort of became their mom. The hardest part about directing Eve was getting control of the set, because they loved each other so much. God forbid we put all six of them in the scene together. Just to get them to shut up and say the lines on the script as opposed to just chatting with each other… I mean, it was a good time. And I will tell you, nearly all of the cast members had just come from shows that didn't go past first season, and there's something about being humble and grateful that you're on a show that's going multiple seasons. It was the same on Girlfriends — which I directed seven seasons of — everyone was happy to be there, grateful to work together. It takes a lot to work together that long and I feel very lucky that we clicked and established a trust that allowed us to work so well over so many years.
But the monotony of the sitcom formula weighed on Belli, and she dreamed of expanding her horizons to include drama, action, and procedurals.
On some of the shows I was working on, I would try to bring in single-camera stuff, and they'd go, "Not the show." And I'd go, "Okay. That's fine. I mean, it would work. It wouldn't take any longer. It'd look better. But your show, your choice." (It wasn't Wizards of Waverly Place I'm referring to, because that had some fun stuff, and the visual effects on that show were fun.) I love that sitcom world, but at a certain point, you want to grow and do more. So I called up some wonderful directors, in particular Bethany Rooney — and I'm so lucky they were willing to provide me a lot of hands-on experience. I'd never had a techno crane on set. I didn't know lenses, the lighting. Suddenly my view wasn't 180 degrees, it was 360, and there were so many other tools at my disposal.
Belli says she had to actively stay away from comedy for almost 10 years to be taken seriously as an action and procedural director, eventually finding a home directing episodes of Bull, Pitch, Station 19, True Lies, and more — including 10 episodes of NCIS: New Orleans.
I love doing whodunits. I love to make sure that the audience is getting all the clues but in a way that doesn't make it too obvious. When I break down the script into all the different storylines, I have an extra column with all the clues and when they come into play. And with the action shows there's always such opportunity to pull from other familiar projects. We'd honestly do that a lot on NCIS: New Orleans. "This is a Bourne Identity episode." "This is paying homage to The Equalizer..."
Belli also developed a deep appreciation for the close collaboration action and procedural directors have with their crew. She fondly recalls working with a "very generous" camera operator Brian Nordheim on a particularly complicated 2021 episode of Black Lightning season 4.
We had a scene where a girl is murdered by cops who have a no-knock warrant, and it was a huge visual effects scene. I had to do it in three parts because I was exploding so many things. There were 18 rounds from an automatic weapon. I shot the master, then I was doing the individual visual effects stuff, and I finally got to filming the closeup of the girl dying and the actress suddenly gets pulled because her COVID test came back positive. We clear the set, I go outside in the rain and shoot for three hours, they sanitize the set, and we can come back — but I don't have an actress. The stunt person playing her boyfriend could act and so I said, "I'm going to put a closeup on you. I want to see your reaction to her dying." But here's what else happened: My operator, Brian, said, "Do you want me to be her point of view as the camera? I can hold a handheld camera and go to the floor as if I died, and then it'll be looking up at the ceiling." And I went, "Oh my God, that's brilliant." I've now asked for him on two other shows. He's fabulous, fabulous. You meet those operators who are also storytellers with their camera, and then you learn from them as well. And also, on my set, best idea wins.
After a decade away from comedy, Belli was approached about directing a new comedy, Ms. Pat.
I saw Debbie Allen's pilot of this show, and I went, "This is All in the Family. This is as groundbreaking." I was also impressed with what Debbie was doing in terms of pushing the envelope, in terms of cinematography. And then I read Ms. Pat's book and I went, "This is a remarkable woman with a unique story and the foulest mouth I've ever seen on a human being, and I will be listening to this every day and I can shoot the s--- with her." So I was just so honored they wanted me. It's such an honor to get to tell part of her story.
The series has already yielded Belli two Emmy nominations — just the latest achievement atop a long list of groundbreaking career moments. But when asked about what else she wants to do, she points to the teaching and mentoring she finds time to do in between directing gigs.
I'm big on advocacy. People gave to me, and now it's my turn to listen. I'm okay for the rest of my life. I have done nearly everything, not that there aren't bucket lists. I do want to do that big rom-com, and I do want to do a big musical, because that's where I came from. But, other than that, does my IMDb page need another episode? No. But, if I can help create 10 more IMDb pages of people getting their shot, and then getting asked back, that's my legacy. That would be heaven.
Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.