Charlie McDermott on directing THE MIDDLE and what comes next!
Over the past 8 seasons, we’ve gotten to watch Charlie McDermott play Axl Heck, under-achieving oldest child on THE MIDDLE, as he navigated the waters of growing up in a small town. Season 8 has found Axl applying himself (as Axl can) as he finishes his business degree and gets ready to enter the adult world.
Behind the scenes, Charlie has taken on a new task as well, that of director, officially earning that title after taking his turn behind the camera of tonight’s all new episode, “The Confirmation.” The episode, which comes after Axl “got his bookmark” in the form of a kiss from Lexie, follows what comes next for their relationship, and pays off one of the longest running in-jokes of the series, featuring guest star Monica Horan (another EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND reunion).
To celebrate his new role, I got on the phone with Charlie to discuss directing, Season 9, and getting to play a grown up Axl Heck.
Congrats on the pick up for season nine!
Charlie: Thank you very much.
We’ve seen you write and direct with ImagiGARY and things like that, but it’s kind of exciting that here you are directing an episode of The Middle.
Yeah. It was very, very cool. It was really, really, very exciting. A little nerve wracking, but very exciting.
Why do you think now is the time? Why is now: Season 8, coming to the end … Why is this the episode that was right for you to do it?
To be perfectly honest, it’s the first time I asked [laughs]. I definitely wanted to do it for a long time, but it wasn’t something I was ready to even approach. Last year is when I first asked. For me it was just timing about feeling comfortable. Also I don’t want to make my first attempt when the show is still kind of working through things, I guess. It’s pretty hard to mess anything up at this point. Everyone’s pretty much got the whole thing down. So even if I didn’t do too great a job, I felt good enough that everyone would be able to help me out. It really just came down to feeling good and confident enough, I guess.
What’s the process like? You’re pretty heavily featured in the episode, too. What’s it like to add that layer to prepping for the show?
It was definitely more tiring than it would have been if I was in it less [laughs]…The initial plan that they were trying to do was … I basically was approved to direct at this time last year. I had the 20th slot, or the 20th episode. But you really don’t have any idea of what it’s gonna be until they release the script, which is only about a week ahead. So all year I was just wondering what I was gonna be doing. They said they were planning from the very beginning of writing the show to have me in it pretty…you know, I wouldn’t be in it that much at all. But as it got closer, they told me that that wasn’t gonna happen.
I did have a sit-down where they asked me if I wanted to maybe put off directing till next year, because so many other slots were already filled. Just because I was in it so much. But I decided I wanted to go for it and it worked out. But it was definitely tiring.
[spoilers] That one scene at the end where everyone is in Sue’s apartment and everyone keeps showing up at the door, that was like an eight hour scene. That was the first thing we started shooting on, and I’m in every single shot of it. I was glad to do it first because it got the hardest part out of the way, but it was really, really tiring. But definitely fun.
What’s the conversation like? You talk with the writers, “Here’s what we’re thinking for the episode.” But what’s the prep work to be a director?
I’m sure it varies from show to show, but for us, I got the script maybe a week and a half before we actually started shooting it. At that point, everything’s already decided. So there’s no input on the story or on the writing. It’s just the script, and you have to shoot it. From that point forward, it’s a little bit of working with the first AD to figure out the schedule and make sure all that stuff works.
There’s also legal stuff going on for clearing products and clearing locations. There’s a bunch of scenes that got cut, because for budget reasons they had to trim it down. That happens every single episode. That’s just how it goes. They basically write what they would like and then figure out what they can do.
While that’s happening you’re getting updated scripts, and you can build a shot list where you map out how long … Well, the first ADs really work on all the “how longs”, and I’m focusing on what I think we need. It’s a process for a week, of meeting with the first AD and every other producer, and finding a middle ground between what the director wants and what they want. Everyone just works together on that. That takes about a week, basically, for all the different departments.
We’re working with props, and wardrobe, and hair, and casting, and the set builders. The bunks for instance [at Brick’s sleep-away camp], we couldn’t get those bunk beds until the day before we had to film in the cabin. So shot list-wise, we didn’t know what direction we were gonna shoot in or how we were gonna do it, because we needed to see the bunk bed inside the building to figure out how we could arrange them. So we actually planned that one out the day before, when we were shooting that bar scene, at lunch time.
We did the Gumford Bar and Grill where Axl’s stalking them. Then at lunch we had to go over to the cabin and see the bunk beds, because they finally arrived [laughs], and then map it out from there. A prep week is kind of like figuring out as much as you can ahead of time, and then preparing for what you have to figure out on the spot as well. There’s just a lot of corralling things.
What’s it like then, to get on the set with this family you’ve built over the past almost 10 years? What’s it like to get on set and then say, “Oh by the way, I’m kind of in charge of what you’re doing this week”? How was that interaction with the gang?
That was actually really, really fine. They were really excited for me, which made me really excited. I don’t know how it is on other shows, but ours is, I’ve been told from other people that work on other shows, one of the most relaxed sets that exists right now, I guess [laughs]. It’s always been a really comfortable environment. Everyone helps each other anyway, so it didn’t really feel like much of a transition from just working with everyone as an actor and then working as a director.
Everyone really, at this point, knows what they’re doing. Very, very infrequently do we veer off the path of how everything works. It went really, really smooth. Acting on camera was fine because I trusted the whole camera department. They’ve been shooting it for eight years, so they know how it’s supposed to look. Then the writer came over. He was there to watch my performance. I worked with a couple other people to make sure continuity was okay. So I didn’t even actually watch any playback on anything that I was in. I just based it off of how the cameramen felt and everyone else felt. And then if I was happy, then we moved on. It was really nice. It was really, generally pretty smooth.
The episode itself too, kind of moves a lot of stories forward. We get to see Axl and Lexie go places a little bit, and the Ferguson baby finally shows up. For people who haven’t seen it … What can you tease for them about this episode and how important it is?
I guess it takes the show in the romantic angle that they’ve been kind of playing on this season. It definitely takes another step forward. There’s a huge … I’m not sure exactly what I’m allowed to say about the whole Ferguson thing. But that was, for me at least, a very huge surprise. I was very happy to be able to direct that one. I just found out from the person I talked to earlier that it was season two when the Ferguson baby was first discussed.
I didn’t realize it had been that long ago. So there was a huge payoff on a staple of early Middle seasons, which is really, really cool. Very few shows get to do that, so that was really awesome. I would say there’s some steamy romance and some awesome callbacks in this episode [laughs].
I was looking at a list of shows today that premiered when you guys did, and there’s like five left: You guys and them.
Yeah, it’s pretty wild.
I was just wondering: What is it about The Middle do you think? It’s still relevant. It’s still an important show and I’m still watching. It’s still one of my favorite things to watch. What are you hearing or what are you feeling about why it’s lasting, and why we’re gonna keep seeing it into season nine?
I really don’t know. I think that a lot of times, honestly, it’s just down to luck. I think it’s a really good show and I think it helps that we all have fun making it. I think that’s probably something that translates to the screen. But also, I don’t know, just the timing of it I think worked, happened well. I think there’s always a lot of factors. But I think one thing that is so cool about THE MIDDLE is it definitely takes place in modern day, but it also has a bit of timelessness to it, I think.
They rarely ever comment on current pop-culture, so I think it has this element of existing at any time in the past. Probably from the 70s to modern day. It kind of seems to just be a bubble of that general atmosphere, so I think there’s just elements of it that are just inherently relateable, not really relying on current trends or anything like that. It just has existed. I think because of that, it lends itself to what the show accomplishes, which I guess is just general family, domestic dilemmas. We do that well.
I was talking to somebody a couple days ago and we were talking about The Middle, and saying how this season we’re really getting to see the characters. We’ve seen them grow obviously, as the years go. But they’re really kind of moving these guys into adulthood. What’s that been like to play with Eden, with Atticus? Like, growing these characters up?
It’s been nice for me because I really felt like Axl was too much of a slob [laughs] for such a long time. I always felt really uncomfortable playing him, so it’s been nice for me. This has been the most growth I’ve gotten to do on the show. For me, it’s been really, really fun to be able to play outside of what Axl’s normal routine is. It’s been really, really cool. Also it’s been nice, because the more he goes outside and out of the house, the less I’m in boxers, which is great for me.
That’s so funny and such a valid point.
What can you tease as the rest of the season plays out here? What will we see beyond maybe this episode?
Axl makes a big decision at the end of the year, which was another fun thing to play with. Then there’s also some nice Axl/Frankie stuff coming up which I really like. The episodes get really good at that.
There’s episodes where all of a sudden I’m crying, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, this episode veers from laughing out loud to really relating to this family”, and I’m just suddenly in tears. I hope we get to see that keep happening.
Have you guys talked about season 9, and what the story is for next year yet? Or is that still up in the air?
Charlie: No, the writers are off right now. They go back, I think in the middle of May. I’m sure they’re thinking about stuff, but I think for their own sanity they … They were writing up until the week before we finished filming. They’re going from the middle of May to the end of March every year, just writing MIDDLE stories. I think that they just shut down between April and halfway through May, just to recharge [laughs]. I’m sure it’ll be cool. I’m excited to get Axl out of college, that’ll be really nice for me and fun. Axl in the real world will be exciting.
Tune in for the last few episodes of Season 8, Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC!