Some creative careers are like bonsai trees. You have to carve out a lot of negative space to uncover the exact shape that suits you. Or at least that’s how Michael Showalter’s unlikely career is shaping up.
Showalter has been an indie comedy darling for more than 20 years, dating back to when he stole scenes on MTV’s manic, overcrowded sketch show The State in the ’90s. Over time, he transitioned to films, writing and acting in the seminal satire Wet Hot American Summer, but never quite breaking through to mainstream audiences. It took an outdated map’s worth of detours to get to 2017, where Showalter has created a niche for himself as an in-demand director of funny, quirky love stories with a whole lot of heart.
“I never had a very clear ‘Ah-ha, it’s directing!’ moment,” says Showalter, who helmed last year’s well-received indie Hello, My Name is Doris and this year’s breakout hit The Big Sick. “I was just able to very clearly see in my mind what I wanted the scenes to look like and what I wanted the costumes to look like and what I wanted the sets to look like, and all of that. And when I put it together—’Hey, that’s what a director does!’—it meant I needed to be the director and not just the writer.”
Beyond his recent film success, Showalter also co-created TBS’s hit existential hipster mystery Search Party. Starring Alia Shawkat, who is also a producer, the show centers around a quintet of coddled Brooklynites who throw themselves into a quest to find a missing former friend. Or at least that’s the premise that launched the show initially. After a paradigm-shifting season finale, the darkly comic series entered new territory. As the second season started rolling out its bingeable bursts of two episodes every Sunday, Showalter shared with Fast Company a few key principles that have helped him successfully navigate his career.
Fight For What You Really Want
Showalter faced many new challenges on the set of his 2005 directorial debut, The Baxter. One of the greatest, though, was an internal struggle.
“I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself because I didn’t want to be wrong,” he says. “In a lot of cases, on that movie, it came down to time. We’d only have one hour and a whole scene left to shoot, and so, how are we going to shoot this scene? In my inexperience, I let other people say to cut pages or shoot it a different way than I’d wanted. I didn’t pick my battles well. But you have to fight for that voice that says, ‘No, you need this thing.’ And that’s what I do now. Sometimes, I don’t end up using the thing. Sometimes it turns out it was unnecessary. But I’ve never regretted getting that thing. By the time I did Hello, My Name is Doris, I had more confidence as a director–more confident that I was going to aim higher and be less compromising.”
Practice What You Preach
Becoming a better filmmaker involved teaching screenwriting at NYU’s graduate film program. An unexpected side effect of the gig was sensing serious potential in students who would become future collaborators–like Laura Terruso, who made the short film that inspired Hello, My Name is Doris, and Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, his co-creators on Search Party. Teaching screenwriting at NYU, though, was also a chance to codify his own style of filmmaking.
“Being a teacher forces you to really understand who you are and what your own beliefs are. And so, if you’re going to teach students what you think is the best way to work and to help them with their material, in doing that you’re sort of developing a point of view,” he says. “That point of view can change and that is the case with me too: There were certain things I thought had to be done a certain way that I realized over time, there is no one right way to do it. Teaching forced me to develop not only a point of view but a belief system around the kind of work I wanted to do because I was very passionately encouraging my students to do it. It’s a practice-what-you-preach sort of thing.”
Now that Showalter has co-written season-length arcs on multiple TV shows, he has learned the trick to long-form storytelling: Know where you’re going, but also surprise yourself.
“I think that you need an idea of where you want to take a show across several seasons, but there is also a little bit of: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. On Search Party, we have some idea what it is, but we’re not really sure. Right now, we’re just trying to be entertaining in the moment. It’s kind of fun to work on it and go, ‘I’m not even sure myself what’s going to happen next season.’ I mean, we did have a general idea of the bigger picture of where it was going from season to season, but we didn’t know the specifics and we were also open to it changing. The more willing you are to adapt and change, the more fun and interesting it is on both sides.”
Try Everything Until You Find the Right Thing
In the eleven years between The Baxter and the second film he directed, Hello, My Name Is Doris, Showalter tried it all: He wrote a book, performed stand-up, and created a variety series for Comedy Central. It was only through trial and error that he learned that directing was his true calling.
“It’s been a really long, winding road. I wish I sort of knew earlier in my career that this is what I wanted to do, but every one of the experiences I’ve had has built up to it. And now that [filmmaking] is my career, it feels the most true, like this really is organically who I am. But I never had a goal like, ‘I want to do that, so I’m going to this to do that.’ If anything, it was the opposite. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I just tried everything until I sort of wandered into something that felt really organic to me.”