“Light and Shadow”: A Look at Twilight Zone’s Directors

“The Twilight Zone will be directed, written, produced, and acted by television’s elite.” —Serling before TZ premiered

I focus heavily here on the writing of Rod Serling and other talented authors — and rightly so. Their imaginative scripts were the launching pad for some of the most memorable and timeless television ever filmed.

It's a Good Life6

But you need more than that to create a Twilight Zone episode. To truly bring the fifth dimension to life, you need first-rate actors in front of the camera, and a top-notch crew behind it.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the crucial role played by the head of that crew, the director, when I heard that James Sheldon had died on March 12. His many credits include six TZ episodes, three of which are bona fide fan favorites: “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Long Distance Call” and “It’s a Good Life“.*

Long Distance Call2

Sheldon (in the white shirt) directs “Long Distance Call”

Consider how vividly Sheldon framed the world of tiny tyrant Anthony Fremont. He heightens the tension of Serling’s script by focusing on the anxiety-ridden faces of his actors, bringing us every nervous glance and tight-lipped stare.

It's a Good Life2 (1)

And when Anthony finally turns Dan Hollister into a jack-in-the-box, Sheldon contributes one of the most well-remembered sequences of the entire series, alternating between shots of Dan in close-up and silhouette as the other party guests look on in horror.

It's a Good Life5

Billy Mumy, who played Anthony in the second of three roles on The Twilight Zone, recalled the director working with him to develop that menacing glare when he sent someone to the cornfield. So in a sense, whenever one of us does an impression of his trademark “You’re a bad man!” scene, we’re paying tribute to Sheldon.

Other talented directors brought a sharp visual style to the Zone. Try to imagine “The Howling Man” without the transformation-between-the-pillars scene that Douglas Heyes insisted on. “The Dummy” without the tilted camera angles that Abner Biberman used in the alley sequence when Willie is tormenting poor Jerry. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” without the directorial flare of Richard Donner. And so on. Almost every TZ was expertly helmed by a true professional.

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This situation was no happy accident. It was the direct result of Serling’s determination to hire the best people, then turn them loose to do what they did best. As Heyes later said, “Rod encouraged you to do whatever you thought would be imaginative with his scripts.”

Fortunately for us, “television’s elite” were up to the challenge. Good thing, too. If it were up to Anthony, we’d have nothing but dinosaurs to watch every night.

It's a Good Life Dinosaurs

*The other episodes: “The Whole Truth”, “Still Valley”, and “I Sing the Body Electric”.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 03/31/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. The Jack in the box scene might be the scariest scene ever. I saw that when I was a kid and I had nightmares. When I rewatch these episodes now, I pay attention to all these details. They didn’t have special effects. They had lighting, camera angles, good scripts and good actors. Thanks for pointing out the people who brought that all together, Paul. It’s to their credit that these shows still hit the mark today.

    • Thanks, Dan. I mean, why is TZ still popular over 50 years later? Simply put, they’re great stories, well told. Shows and movies that rely primarily on hot new effects don’t stand the test of time. It isn’t long before they look dated, and then they fade from memory. But what Serling and other TZ writers came up with works just as well (if not better) now than it did then.

      And much of that comes down to the acting and the direction, as well as to the scripts. Richard Thomas said something interesting when he was discussing the Night Gallery episode “Sins of the Fathers”: “We had no special effects. WE had to be weird to produce that psychological horror.” I feel that applies to “It’s a Good Life” in spades. It’s remarkable how much of the tension comes just from watching the actors looking as if THEY’RE terrified. It’s tremendously effective, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

      • The emotion of the characters transferred to the viewer in so many episodes. One of my favorites is “Obsolete Man” and the emotion is so subtle and yet so very real and so understandable and so easy to identify with, it draws you into the story. The scene leading up to his being made into a jack in the box is so easy to identify with. Not just his rant, but how uncomfortable and scared he makes the other people.

  2. I’m with Dan on this on: that Jack-in-the box image is killer! I never used to admit it to myself that Good Life was the creepiest episode ever…until I found myself standing out in a cornfield one night (I’m bound to secrecy about what I found there…or, more to the point, what found *me*…)…but I quickly conceded. Anthony and I are now “good”…he’s such a GOOD little boy…but I digress…Mr. Sheldon did an incredible job on that–and other–episodes. “The Howling Man” transformation-between-the-pillars scene also gave me the chills when I first saw it…and I’m a huge fan of tilted camera angles! I love the disjointed, topsy-turvy insanity it lends to scenes…the sense of disorientation and confusion! Sometimes I feel as if my entire life is filmed through tilted camera angles….

    • I’m not sure if that “killer” comment was a deliberate pun or not, Frank, but I like it either way! You’re right about how time and place can really make the difference when evaluating the creepiness factor of something … and sitting in a cornfield at night, even one that’s not populated by Anthony’s victims, would definitely give me pause. Not that I’d ever tell HIM that … O_O

      • Yup, intentional. Thanks! :-] It’s about atmosphere! Making the unbelievable believable! Putting YOU in the “frame” of the mind of story so you have nowhere to run…nowhere to—

        Cornfields. Yeah.

  3. Not sure if you got the DM, Paul but the email on this leads to a 404 error. I chased it down but it looks like WordPress is messing with you.

    • I didn’t, but no worries. I appreciate the effort! WP was indeed messing with me — for some reason, it slapped a date of March 18 on the piece. NO idea why it did that. As soon as I fixed the date, it apparently broke the link in the email. C’est la vie.

  4. The directors on The Twilight Zone definitely set a mood that was and still is unique and distinct from other shows in any era.

    Did the directors ever talk in length about how they approached The Twilight Zone? That would be interesting to read.

    Back in the day they probably didn’t think much about the director, especially not on TV.

    Also, the actors were always memorable and oh so talented.

    • You’re so right. They really did set a unique mood. Credit also goes to director of photography George Clemens, who won an Emmy for his work on TZ. But as you indicate, so did the actors and everyone else. It was an A-list affair from top to bottom.

      As for the directors talking at length, yes, they did. You can hear some of what they had to say in the commentary tracks on the TZ DVDs and Blu-rays, and also in “Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series” by Stewart T Stanyard. There are some great interviews in there with many people on both sides of the camera.

  1. Pingback: “A Perfect Twilight Zone Opening”: Matheson on “A World of Difference” | Shadow & Substance

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