Television director Michael Lange, BA ’71, has found big success on the small screen. In his 40 year career, the theatre major has helmed hit series, guided top performers and mentored students.
No matter how many times veteran TV director and producer Michael Lange, BA ’71, shows up on a set, one thing always surprises him. Whether he’s cuing actors from The Fall Guy or The X-Files, whether he’s positioning cameras for close-ups or collaborating with electricians and carpenters, whenever he shouts “Action!” the cast and crew spring to life.
“In the real world, if I yelled out ‘Action!’ nothing would happen—except people would look at me like I’m nuts,” Lange laughed. “On the set, the director says ‘Action!’ and—like magic!—everything starts moving.”
A television set is like a second home for Lange. Since 1982, he has directed more than 250 episodes of some of TV’s most acclaimed series such as The Larry Sanders Show, Northern Exposure and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But each day he sits in the director’s chair still feels like the start of a fresh creative journey. “It’s like being the captain of a ship,” he said. “You’re asking 100 people to walk in a certain direction. To be a good director, you have to believe that they’ll follow right behind you.”
When Lange is asked for tips on breaking into show business, he replies with what his “go-to advice”: If there’s anything else you are good at, do that instead. In TV, he explains, the hours are unforgiving, the egos are overwhelming and most of the day is spent waiting around sets while eating cold cut spreads from Styrofoam plates. Still, he doesn’t expect aspiring directors to heed his warning. “Directors have to be able to take rejection and still persevere in trying to create something original and beautiful,” he said. “The kind of people who are wired that way don't give up easily.”
Lange’s own show biz career was almost derailed before it ever started. As a student at GW, his parents wanted him to be a doctor. They even threatened to cut off his tuition payments if he majored in theatre. Lange called their bluff. “I pointed out that there aren’t that many different letters in ‘doctor’ and ‘director,’” he joked. “And if I screwed up as a director, nobody would get hurt.”
Lange (far right) on the set of Royals with (from left) actors Jake Mascall and Elizabeth Hurley
In the late 1960s, Lange said, the theatre program, which is now part of Columbian College’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, was small but the energy on campus was exhilarating. He tried his hand at every production role from direction to stage craft to—unsuccessfully, he says—acting. At the height of the Vietnam War, he wrote and directed anti-war plays and performed Foggy Bottom street theater. “It was a very exciting time to be a student and to be rebellious,” he said. Most influentially, he fell under the sway of the late Professor of Theatre Nate Garner. Under Garner’s mentorship, Lange learned how to interact with actors, how to simply and efficiently tell a story and how to keep a crew at its creative best through 12 hour days. “I learned my whole directing style from him,” he said. “To this day, I think of him on every scene I direct.”
After graduation, Lange embarked on a career in advertising. For eight years, he served as head of television and radio production at renowned Madison Avenue firms. “I was a Mad Man!” he joked. Seeking more creative satisfaction, he moved on a whim to California—with no prospects and two years of salary in the bank. He landed his first job as a post-production assistant and second unit director for the hit action show The Fall Guy. Suddenly, Lange was directing stunts and car chases. “I had no idea what I was doing but I had a fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality,” he recalled. He relied on the experience of his cameramen and assistant directors. “As a director you don’t need to know how to get what you want. You need to know how to express to other people what you want—because they’ll get it for you.”
The work is challenging, Lange noted. Even a simple scene may take three hours to shoot. And while he’s collaborated with performers he considers geniuses—notably the late Gary Shandling in The Larry Sanders Show—he’s also massaged egos, like the well-known TV actress who insisted he speak to her through her dog. “In TV, you step on the set to do a job. You strive to maintain your creativity and your excitement in telling the story. But the director always has to remember that there’s a job to do every day,” he said. In addition to TV, Lange directed the feature film Intern and hosts a streaming radio show called From the Set. He and his former GW roommate Peter Gorin, BA ’71, produce song parodies of Broadway tunes with a Jewish spin. And Lange is currently writing his second musical, a re-telling of Macbeth set on Wall Street titled Fair is Foul.
Still, he makes time to connect with his GW, returning to campus for guest lectures and events. While hosting a student workshop at a campus alumni event, Lange was so impressed by theatre major Maggie Contreras, BA ’06, that he told her to look him up if she was ever in L.A. “He couldn’t promise anything except that he would buy me a cappuccino,” Contreras said. “Well, I did—and he kept his promise!” In addition to the coffee, he cast Contreras in her first professional acting role in the series Greek, which Lange co-executive produced and directed. “I brought her in to audition and she nailed it,” he said. Lange has also directed Contreras in the TV drama Criminal Minds.
“On set, Michael is a no-nonsense director who works at an appropriately fast pace, fosters a fun yet focused environment and requires his actors to do what they were trained to do so he can do his job effectively," Contreras said. “Everyone on Michael’s sets love him being at the helm because it’s sure to be an enjoyable and on-schedule day.”
A documentary film producer, Contreras also frequently asks Lange to offer notes at her test screenings, “I want Michael in the room,” she said. “He knows how to tell a good story and has a keen sense for what does and does not work. Also, he’s a really fun guy to have cappuccino with!”