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  • Writer's pictureShane Almgren

Steve Feldman: Emmy-Winning Director (Sesame Street, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher)

Updated: Apr 29

Steve Feldman is an Emmy Award-winning director who has worked with talent as varied as Bill Nye, Linda Ellerbee, Bill Maher and Elmo for PBS, CBS, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, MSNBC and Discovery. His work on Sesame Street earned him an Emmy Award, while his work with Barney & Friends, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, The Nick News, and The Christopher Lowell Show contributed to nine other Emmy awards and nominations.


Feldman’s other credits include Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Lazy Town," and the debut musical theatre production for Walden Media, Rock Odyssey. In addition, Feldman has produced and directed documentaries on prison life for MSNBC, and is currently developing a documentary feature examining the life of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam.” He is the Executive Producer of “The Breakdown” on DanceNetwork.TV.


Episode Highlights

Unleash your inner child as we journey through the world of puppetry and children’s television with Emmy Award-winning director and producer, Steve Feldman. Whether you recognize his work from iconic children's shows like Sesame Street and Barney & Friends, or the politically charged Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Feldman’s insights into the industry will leave you captivated.


From the magic of Sesame Street's Christmas parties to the creative genius of world-class puppeteers, Steve paints a vivid picture of the enchantment that goes into creating some of the best-loved children's shows.


Behind every character is the critical process of casting, and Steve pulls back the curtain on his experiences casting for Barney and the intense debates that ensue. He underlines the importance of being open to an actor's interpretation, creating a nuanced perspective on how characters come to life. The conversation extends into a deep dive into the roles of directors, showrunners, executive producers, and producers, charting how these roles have morphed over the years. So, if you've ever wondered about the hierarchy of the film and television world, Steve's got the answers.


Gear up for some real talk as we tackle the challenges of working on hit TV shows and creating documentaries for networks like MSNBC. Steve shares invaluable advice for aspiring writers and actors, emphasizing the importance of continuous learning and finding a process that works for you. Moreover, he imparts a crucial lesson about the importance of honesty in the entertainment industry through a personal anecdote. So, buckle up for an episode packed full of industry insights, a dash of humor, and a few puppeteer secrets along the way!


We cover a ton of fascinating topics in this episode including:

  • The unique skill set required to be a Sesame Street puppeteer

  • What all goes into shooting an episode of Sesame Street, and how he changed their directorial style

  • Hilarious pranks at the annual Sesame Street staff Christmas party

  • Why 95% of the Creative Process in film & TV is done at casting

  • Who really runs the show on a film or TV set, and what Producers and Executive Producers actually do

  • Why artists and creative types often work across many different fields and platforms

  • How storytellers store creative ideas, and why someone would pay $25,000 for a napkin

  • Why a balanced life and getting out of your comfort zone are essential to the creative process

  • Advice for playwrights, screenwriters, and actors

  • The different types of acting methods, and a funny story about Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman

  • Steve's favorite directors in Hollywood and why

  • And SO much more!

Listen


Read the Complete Transcript

Shane Hello, everyone! Welcome to the official Live2cre8 podcast, coming to you from Nashville, Tennessee. I am your host, Shane Almgren, and I am joined today from Nashville by Emmy-winning TV director and producer, Steve Feldman. Steve has worked with talent as varied as Bill Nye the Science Guy, Linda Ellerbee, Bill Maher, and Elmo for PBS, CBS, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, MSNBC, and Discovery. His work on Sesame Street earned him an Emmy Award, while his work with Barney & Friends, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, Nick News, and The Christopher Lowell Show contributed to nine other Emmy Awards and nominations. Steve's credits include Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, LazyTown, and the debut musical theater production for Walden Media, Rock Odyssey. Mr. Steve, it is an honor to have you on the show. Thanks for joining me today. Steve Feldman You're very welcome. Thanks for having me. Shane You've got quite a diverse resume. You've got the main things. You've got Barney. You've got Sesame Street. You've got Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Two of which are very, very family friendly. One, Barney, not so much. Steve Feldman Barney, not family-friendly? Come on now. Shane Which of those were your favorites to work on? Steve Feldman You know, I get asked that question a lot. It's a tough one because I really do love the diversity of programs that I've worked on, and I less have a favorite show than I do have a real love of just collaborating with a lot of creative people. It's one of the fun things about film and television—is that you're not the only artist on the block. You're surrounded by a lot of other people who are as—if not more, and generally more—important to the production than you are. So it's really fun. I have to say, as a team, the Sesame Street team was really quite extraordinary and really fun to work with. I think what was particularly interesting about that is that part of their claim to fame is that they have been a favorite of celebrities, and celebrities love to come on the show. They come on the show and work for a union scale just to be on the program, and they're always fascinated by the process of working with puppets and all the characters and all the history at Sesame Street. So you're surrounded by all these incredible people: puppeteers and cameramen and women and graphics people and set designers. It's a huge production, and everybody loves what they're doing. It honestly is like one big playtime on the set. So that would have to be the favorite ever for me. Shane Now, how did you end up there? Steve Feldman I was a pain in the butt. I basically called the—at that time—actually Lisa Simon, who was the executive producer and actually had been a director there, but she was executive producer. I just bugged her constantly, and she eventually called me up and said, “Okay, so you'll stop calling. Come on down, and let's have a meeting.” Shane Did you have an actual skill set that you could offer them, or did you just want to be around Elmo? Steve Feldman You know, I wasn't attracted to Elmo at the beginning, but I learned to love him. The character was developed by a gentleman named Kevin Clash. He was just a genius puppeteer, and he became my favorite puppeteer pretty much to work with. But I'm really, above all, I've always been a big fan of Telly, which is a Telly Monster, who was done by Marty. Shane Yeah, I love Telly. Steve Feldman I love Telly. He's got that nervous look on his face, and it's all in the eyes. It's just how they set the eyes, and when you look at Marty Robinson, who's the puppeteer who has always done Telly, he kind of looks the same way. So it's interesting. So I always loved working with—I actually worked with Marty on a couple of other shows, so he's probably been that particular character was my favorite one. Shane Do the puppeteers also do the voice, or is that provided by somebody else? Steve Feldman Yes—no, they do. They do the voice, and that's part of what makes it this special art is that these folks are—you know, when you think about The Muppet Show and you think about Sesame Street, and then there's a couple of others, this is a very small club of world-class puppeteers. So the realization for me in working at Sesame Street is that you're working with a group of people who are some of the best in the world, and that in itself is awesome—even more than awesome. It's kind of a shock to the system to realize that you're working with people this world-class, and they're just amazingly talented. They have great physical skills as well as combining that with being great actors and great comedians. All of this stuff mixes up in their performance. So they do it all, and they're very, very talented. So, yeah, it's a tough job. It's a tough job, and they're very, very good at it. Shane Where do world-class puppeteers hang out? Like I know, when Cirque du Soleil is casting, they go get their gymnasts from like Olympic-caliber World Class gymnasts. Where are the puppeteers conglomerating? Steve Feldman Well, you'll never know when you're walking near somebody who either is a puppeteer, has been one, or would like to be one. Where do they all hang? They're mostly in New York and LA. There's a large community in London. In this country, Atlanta actually has one of the finest puppet, kind of, workshops slash schools in the country. So you'll find them mostly in big cities or where there's ways for them to make a living. So that's where they are, primarily England and BBC. Through BBC, they have a very—and also, Henson used to have an office in England. In fact, I think he still does, or the company still does. They have a large community in England. Shane When you were on set—so you're directing Sesame Street, correct? Steve Feldman Yes, sir. That's what I was doing. Shane I'm just wondering if there's ever an instance where, when you're directing people, are you talking to the puppets? Do you ever get confused about which character you're supposed to be interacting with? Steve Feldman Yeah, maybe first thing in the morning, but, no, you wake up pretty quickly. No, not really. I think that, yeah, I—and actually, when I come over to talk to them, the only time they'll just keep the puppet on is that they just want to have some fun with me, you know. So I'll walk over to tell Marty something, and Telly will look at me and go, “Really? I don't understand what you're saying.” So that will happen. But generally, they put the puppet down, and you speak to them right there. It’s a very, very close collaborative experience for them and me. I just love it. I mean, to the point where I was the first director on Sesame Street—I'll take credit for this, at least in my recollection. The directors used to work from the control room, and then they'd come out and talk. But I just had a hard time doing that. So I enjoyed being on set during every take so that I could get a sense of what was going on physically with them, the problems they may have been having with my direction, and you're just much, much closer in proximity. It’s like a movie. You want to be close to the action so that you can actually see how it's working for the actors. So they set me up a console right on set. I had a little monitor and three monitors showing the three cameras that we were using, and I used to call the show, in other words, call—well, I switched the show from the set, calling out instructions to my assistant director inside the control room. So it was really great, and that's what's fun. Now every director works on the set. Every single director on the show works on the set, and that’s kind of the rule now rather than the exception. Shane And you set that precedent. Steve Feldman I guess I did because, when I asked for it, everybody looked at me, and they said, “Really? You want to be on set?” And I said, “Yeah,” and they said, “Well, sure, we can make that happen.” I don't recall, while I was there, anyone who was doing that, and I know before me there may have been somebody, but I never heard of it. But the bottom line is that, by the time I left, a lot of them were working on sets, and everybody would admit it's so much easier to do the show on set when you have that kind of proximity rather than being in the control room. So, yeah, I'll take credit for it. You know, if somebody wants to dispute that, that's okay. I would love to shake the hand of the person who actually, you know, actually directed that way. Anyway. So it'd be fun. We kind of party. Shane How long does it take to do a full episode of Sesame Street? Steve Feldman Well, as you know, Sesame Street has got a lot of different episodes or different segments mixed into it. We would do the actual story part in one shooting day, and then we might do a couple of extra segments. But, generally, one shooting day to get enough material that would fit into an episode, although some of the things you would do would go into two or three episodes. You know, this is the nature—but the day was not long either. It was a relatively—I think it was a 10-hour day. So it was pretty standardized and fairly relaxed, and then that was the environment. We needed to work fast because people get tired after 10 hours, and the puppeteers, particularly, work very hard. They're lying around in all kinds of bizarre positions, and they have their arms straight up in the air for long periods of time, and it's a strenuous effort for them. So, yeah, you want to keep the day at a reasonable length. Shane Who was inside the Big Bird costume? Was that a really tall person, or was that stilts in there What was going on? Steve Feldman Trade secrets I don't know if I can give you, but Caroll Spinney was inside the costume. He was of normal height. He was about—I think Carol was about six feet, maybe a little shorter. But a lot of things are operated from—you know, below, there's all kinds of controls. He does the arms and, I think, controls the mouth another way. But he's—no, he's not. I don't believe he's on stilts. As far as I remember, he's not on Stilts, but I could be wrong about that. I've never been inside the Big Bird suit. Shane What about Snuffleupagus? How many people are in there? Steve Feldman Two people. Snuffy has two people. Unfortunately, we don't see Snuffy anymore, which is a sad thing. So I don't think they use that puppet much. They may bring them on from time to time, but it's not—he's not out there. They try to limit the characters right now, you know, and I'm sure the Big Bird misses him because they were best friends. Shane I heard about a certain Christmas party where there may or may not have been more than two people inside of Snuffleupagus. Steve Feldman That's true. That's true. Boy, I'll get in a lot of trouble for this, but that's okay. I presume you want me to tell the story. Shane Oh, I would love for you—out with it, Steve. Steve Feldman All right. All right. Well, you know, anybody who gets offended by this, send your letters to—you can—well, I won't give my address out. At any rate . . . Shane Send them to me. I'll take the heat. Steve Feldman He'll take the heat. Shane will take the heat. Okay. Good, good, good, good. Well, we have these extraordinary Christmas parties every year at Sesame Street, where there's a lot of food and a lot of just fun. And the tradition—and again, I don't know that this tradition is still going on, but the tradition the entire time I was there and went back years is that the puppeteers would put on their own Christmas show that they would write and perform and direct and the whole thing. They would do it. And one year we had this—so they’d do these sketches, and what would generally happen at these things is that these shows would be pretty much PG-13-rated, or maybe even sometimes R-rated. But, knowing that, the staff would always come with their children to watch the show and to be there at the party, and I guess some people weren't aware of what they might see, and who knows? For all I know, they don't do this anymore, but they used to. And Snuffy comes out at the front end of the show, and he's with Big Bird. And, you know, the two friends are together, and they're kind of gabbing back and forth. And all of a sudden, Snuffy starts to cough, and he goes—it just kind of goes [coughing sound]. And that's all. And then he coughs again, and Big Bird asks, “Are you okay? You okay.” He said, “Yeah. Yeah, I just got something stuck in my throat.” And he says—but then he starts to really cough heavily and loudly, and then he starts to wretch. Ultimately, he opens his mouth, and he throws up, like he throws up a live kid that's inside of him. So you're looking around the room, and parents are covering their kids’ eyes. Everybody is horrified. And then the other half of the audience is just on the floor laughing, and that's it. And the kid gets up, just brushes himself off, and walks away. And then Snuffy will look out and go, “Oh, I feel better now.” And that's it. So . . . Shane Which half of the audience did you fall on? Steve Feldman I had no kids there. So I was— I really enjoyed it. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, if you don't know what to expect—and you never do with these guys—they come up with this stuff in secret. If you don't know what to expect, then it's just a shock, but then it's just hilarious. I don't know who thought of it, but it's very, very funny. And those are the earmarks of the Christmas show. Every year there's several instances, actually, where you're kind of going, “Whoa. Okay. Okay, I've never seen a puppet do that before.” So it's fun. It's really fun, and it's a good way for them to let off steam. And, you know, again, these guys are very, very, very, very talented and creative. They have all sorts of ideas, and they love doing Sesame Street. They love to bring their ideas to the table, but these are the level of ideas that they, you know, obviously can't do on a kid show. So they stretch their adult wings a little bit. Shane So are the puppeteers and the people doing the voices—are they involved in the writing on the show? Steve Feldman Well, some of the puppeteers have been writers. Actually—and he, unfortunately, just left the show—but Joey Mazzarino, who was one of my favorite puppeteers and a great guy. He was the head writer this past year, and he was still a puppeteer. For a few years, he has been the head writer, but he just left the show. And so I'm not sure who the head writer is now. But there are—there have been instances. We also do a lot of writing on the set because, you know, we get the set. It's a pretty intense schedule, and if things aren't working, we have to rewrite on the set. So the puppeteers are very helpful at that, and everybody collaborates on making that happen. So they contribute. Shane You told me one time that you thought 95% of the creative process is done it casting. Can you expound on that? Steve Feldman Well, I think it relates to film, and that's not my quote. That's a quote that comes from—well, actually, you know several people have said it evidently, but I heard it from Robert Altman. He passed away a while ago, and he was the director of Nashville. He directed the first—and still the quintessential—version, I think, of Mash. Credible director. He said that he believed that for the director—because of the nature of film—it's different than theater—you often don't get a chance to really rehearse a character or rehearse a script with your cast. So it is very, very important that you make the correct decisions, and he felt that 95%—he used that number—of his real creative work was done at casting, and if he failed at that, he felt the film would be a failure. And I agree with that. I think that when you're shooting film, you generally—or television, actually even particularly television—you oftentimes don't have enough time to rehearse. So who you put in those roles is very, very important. They have to have almost a symbiotic relationship with the writer. You have to know that they understand who the characters are, and then they have to know how to bring their own personalities through, into that character. It's very, very difficult work. We have a lot of actors in this country that make it look very easy, but it's not. And any actor will tell you that it's not. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of pre-work to be ready. So when you're interviewing, when you're casting, when you're getting people to read for the part, you have to be thorough, and you have to be very careful. You have to also know what you're looking for, or who you're looking for, and the type of person you want to do it, and that takes a lot of work and a lot of research on your part. And you have to make right decisions. So, yeah, I do agree with that, and I founded my entire career—it's very, very important, very important. Shane So you personally have been involved in the casting process in the past? Steve Feldman Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I mean, all the kids’ shows do casting for other characters, and I honestly think my favorite casting decision was on a woman who had to play a special character on a direct-to-video—a home video—that I did at the Barney show. She was playing a character called Mother Nature, and she had a very, very unique quality that I had never thought about the character in that light before. But when she did her reading, I didn't have any—I didn't really feel the need to even see anyone else. She was my top choice, and I remember I had to fight for her. I know that not everybody agreed. She’s a wonderful voiceover actress down in the Dallas area. Actually, she just worked with me recently on another project out of Michigan, Charlie & Company, where she did a voice of an animated character. But that's an instance where I felt she made the entire film. I thought that she was so important, playing the character the way she did and reading the way she did. Even the voice she has is perfect—just perfect. So, yeah, I was pretty pleased, pretty pleased with myself, pretty pleased that I fought for her, and pretty pleased that she was accepted and then marveled at by everybody else later. So it's—yeah, and it comes up all the time, comes up in all kinds of things actually, whether it be film or television or anything you do, you know. Who you pick is often—it's a monstrous decision, but it's very, very important. Shane So here's a question that sprang up just today when I was driving back from lunch. Obviously, with the NFL draft coming up, there's a bunch of debate on: Do you take the particular area that you're looking for, or do you take the best available talent in the draft? When somebody is casting, are they looking for a certain particular thing that whoever wrote the screenplay or the script, they've got a vision for something, and they want somebody to come in to fit their vision? Or are they just wanting to—whoever the most talented person that shows up, if they're blonde and they should have been brunette, you know, it doesn't matter? Steve Feldman Yeah, both, actually. You just don't know what you're going to run into. Sometimes you have a vision. Sometimes—and in the case of Mother Nature—I really didn't have a vision. So I was reliant on, you know, the actors bringing their own vision to the character, which is kind of what you want, because, again, there's not enough time to really work through it. But either or, I don't think there's a correct way. I think it just depends on how you work. I like to see what a person brings to the character, but, again, some characters are written in such a way—they're so specific that you know what you're looking for, and I find that a little bit problematic for me because it makes me kind of the lord and master of this material, and I feel like I want to be open to see an actor's interpretation. It’s back to the same old thing again, where you're working with a lot of very good people, and they are just as creative as you are and just as visionary as you are, and they can interpret scripts just like you can. So I like to be open to another kind of read. Have I been swayed? Yeah, definitely. I've been swayed more often than not by having a vision myself and then having somebody come in and read and change that vision. That's great. That's part of what we do. That's why it's fun. That's why it's exciting for me. For some people, it's not, you know, and I don't speak for all directors. I'm not in the least. But sometimes people come in, and they do it differently. And you love it, and I like to be open to that. Shane I've been on numerous film and television show sets, and I know from the general public, we see movie stars, film stars, TV stars, and you sort of think that because they're the star, they're the alpha dog on the thing. And then you get on set, and you realize they're just taking direction like everybody else. Who's the top dog on the set? Steve Feldman Oh, boy. You know, it really varies. I mean, the way you described it sometimes doesn't happen that way. But, on a film set, generally, the director is top dog. On a television set, although there is a director—and this is true for all of the series that you're seeing now that we all binge watch, you know, like Walking Dead and Mad Men and Breaking Bad and everything else that's out there—they are generally the executive producer or the showrunner who created the idea. They're generally the top dog because what they've done is they've pretty much woven this entire story in their heads, and they've written it down. They oftentimes have written the pilot script, so they know exactly what they're looking for. The director on the set of film is a little bit different. That person is generally coming in with the same kind of authority that the showrunner does in television. Why is it different? Probably because the showrunner has a little bit—they usually have a lot less time to shoot in, so they have to be pretty crisp. They have to move quickly, and if somebody's not getting it, then he's going to be the best person to make it right. I'm sure a lot of, again, directors will take exception with that, but I've seen it happen on sets where the executive producer will have to step in and say, “No, the scene should be this way.” And they're much more involved, and that's why they get the title, which is kind of a title a lot of people don't know, but they're called showrunners. They run the show. They're responsible for every single aspect of the program—creatively, administratively, financially, everything. So that's in television. Film? You can have a director in that kind of position. Oftentimes, directors will end up being producers. There's also director writers who—and every director includes all the team around him and process differently. So there's a lot of different scenarios, but generally, the director is seen as the head person on set. Shane Is there a difference between a producer and an executive producer? Steve Feldman Yes. Again, it varies. It varies. In television, if you watch the credits of some of these shows, there's multiple executive producers. There's multiple producers, and they all do different things. Some of them supervise the writers. Some of them—actually, if you're one of the writers on a show, you can get a credit as a producer. So it just depends on the way the show is structured. There's a lot of different kinds of—executive producer usually denotes somebody who's in charge of a large portion of the production or of the entire production. However, I remember Ray Romano—on his show Everybody Loves Raymond—one of the executive producers was his manager. So all his manager was really responsible for was Ray. So that's a title that's kind of—sometimes it means a lot, sometimes it means less, but it's a coveted title in television. On film, the executive producers are really responsible for organizing the whole thing. So they're, you know, either raising the money or putting the whole team together. They're more outside the creative process. But, you know, it just depends. It changes all the time. It's ever-changing. Even television has changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years. Actually, it has changed dramatically over the last five years. So I hope that's clear. It's a little bit fuzzy, but unfortunately, the industry keeps it fuzzy. Shane Oh, it's more clear for me than it was five minutes ago. Steve Feldman Okay, that's helpful. Shew. Shane So for you, you do Sesame Street and Barney. That seems like a natural progression, one to the other. How do you get to either one of those from Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect? Steve Feldman You know, again, it's a process. I love doing children's programming. I have an affinity for it. I'm good at it. You know, I've been nominated for six Emmys for children's programming, and I’ve won an Emmy as a director for Sesame Street. So it's my sweet spot, but I also like doing other things. I've always liked doing other things. So I will—you know, I did a great talk show years ago on MSNBC with John Hockenberry, the journalist, and that was one of the most fun shows I've ever done. We had music and talk, and we made short films. And it was really interesting. Politically Incorrect? I mean, who wouldn't want to work on a show like that? It was hilarious. It brought together the strangest combination of people every single week. When it was in production, I was doing, you know, four shows a week, and it was a gargantuan task to take on because the booking of it was just huge. It was hugely difficult because we wanted to get—we always wanted that mix. We wanted to get a writer. We wanted to get a comedian. We wanted to get a big star. We wanted to get a politician. So that way, it was a bear to do that show, but I really, really enjoyed that process. I've done documentaries inside prisons for MSNBC, which is a whole other kind of experience, but ultimately, in some way, we're all trying to tell stories, and we're trying to communicate something, you know, and that manifests itself in different ways and to different audiences. But the process is always a thrill, and actually, as an artist, I like working in a lot of different areas because I like to have a lot of different experiences, and that's why I do that. Shane When you're not working on a specific project, do you have—and whether it's a notebook or a laptop or something—something where you just jot down ideas and possibilities? Steve Feldman Yeah, I do. I have a suspense file, which is, again, I think it's a common term, but for those who don't know it, it's just a file that you look in maybe every six months, and you look at the things that you wanted to do and haven't done. It’s actually—you generally forget, and so it's kind of like a moment of suspense when you open it up. Yeah, sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. I've always tried to keep track of projects that never get off the ground, even if they're—even if all I've written down is a little concept on a napkin. I do. I do know the story—and several stories in LA—where, you know, people at a meeting have written down the concepts on a napkin and have another person write a check for $20-$25,000 just for the napkin, which blows my mind. But it has happened. You know, these things happen in that business where an idea like that at a very early stage can be kind of planted in some writer's mind, and then they just write a script. Shane When you're in between projects, do you have any kind of daily regimen or ritual you do to keep the game up, stay sharp? Steve Feldman Oh, no. No. Balance. I try to keep a balanced life. I would say that one of the wonderful things about my time living in New York—I've lived in New York and LA, and now I live in Nashville. The great thing about living in New York is that I had a lot of friends who worked in different businesses, and that I found very, very balancing. In LA, it's much different, where you end up associating and socializing with people, I should say—pretty much all of us are either in the business or want to be in the business. But I found, for me at least, New York was a much more balanced atmosphere because I ran around people who were investment bankers, or teachers, or lawyers, or whatever. They weren't all mired in the business, and that's refreshing. And that time in between projects, where you're around people all the time who are working with you, that really gives you some rest and relaxation. But it also keeps you sharp because you're hearing different perceptions and ideas from a whole different group of people, and that's great. That's something I would encourage everyone to do, regardless of what they do. It's always good to kind of get out of yourself and hang out with a group of people that you don't hang out with much and just get some fresh perspectives on things. Shane And that's one of the things I wanted to ask you. You've sort of been the alpha dog on a bunch of different sets, so you could give advice to a whole bunch of different parts of the cast. I'm sure you've got advice for writers, advice for actors. What would your advice be to somebody who wanted to write on a hit TV show? Steve Feldman Wow! Well, writing is the most—I have a great admiration for writers, and I think writers are the really—I mean, that's the hardest thing. We still watch movies, and we still see TV that's poorly written. And we know it's poorly written because it's not very funny. It's not engaging. It’s not pulling you into the characters. And so there's still bad writing out there. I think the primary advice is to write as much as you can and read as much as you can. I think that if you want to be a playwright, read plays. If you want to be a screenwriter, read screenplays. I mean, you can get screenplays for free online. Easy to read. It's just simple, and it doesn't cost anything. So I think that's a great way to learn. There's also several books and teachers in both screenwriting and playwriting that are out there, and I won't recommend—but there's dozens of them, and they're good. They're really good, and they help give you a context. But experientially, I think it's great to read movies, read scripts, go to movies, read plays, go to plays. You know, read television scripts. Watch television. I mean, that's the only way you're going to really understand what happens from moment to moment in a script. Then you need to start writing, and writing is a muscle. It's like anything else. The less you do it, you know—you get a little weak. Now, again, sometimes you need a break from it, but I think writers—the really good writers—write constantly. So that's just something that's easy to say. Harder to do. Write constantly. Shane So same question, but applied to actors. Steve Feldman Well, acting is a—it just depends. It depends on where you want to act. You know, there's also different systems of acting. There's method acting. There's a—you know, I talk about this a lot. Where you have a clash between method acting and—you know, overseas, for example, the script is very sacred. You want to come into the first day rehearsal off-book, knowing your lines, and then you can start to work the character in it. You know, they try to work the character that way, whereas, in America, a method actor might want to go out and do something experientially and try to understand some other things or get in a physical state. A great story is Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. We would agree: two extraordinary actors, but both worked differently in their careers. So there's no right way, either. You can make it work. But at any rate, Dustin at the time was a method actor, and Lawrence Olivier was a very, very strict British actor who, you know, read the script and felt that the script was sacred. You know, if things needed to be changed and processed, fine, but come in knowing the script. The truth is in the script. Without giving the film away, Olivier plays a Nazi doctor—this is after the war—but a Nazi doctor, and he's a dentist. Shane It's a little late. Yeah, you don't have to worry about spoilers at this point. Steve Feldman Okay. Well, he's a dentist, and he's torturing Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman comes in, and he was out all night, you know, kind of carousing around and starving himself and just trying to get into the shape of a character who had been tortured. And he walks on set, and Olivier looks at him, and he says, “My goodness. You look awful. Are you okay?” And Dustin Hoffman says, “You know, I wanted to get ready for today's scene.” And Olivier looks at him, and he says, “My dear boy, why don't you just try acting?” Shane That’s beautiful. Steve Feldman That's an old story, and it's true. But that would be the version from across the pond as to how you should approach it. Read the script, and then be an actor and act it, perform it, pretend. But, you know, Hoffman had to get into the exact condition, and that's how he worked. That's how he needed to work. And you want to really find the process—and this is a long way to give this advice—you want to find the acting process that works for who you are as a human being. You want to—just like film and theater. You want to study the people, the characters, the actors that you admire. Why are they good? Why are their moments the best moments there are? How do they perform their skill, and how do they take on the task of being in a movie and being a character? How do they deal with that? What do they do well? Because, ultimately, they have to perform in that moment that you’re on set and somebody yells, “Action!” Theater is a little different, but all these different disciplines have different processes. Some people act on stage, and that's all they'll ever do. That's all they want to do, and that's wonderful. It's got its own process. So you have to learn the different processes for being an actor. The different systems. You have to find out what's good for you. What do you think you can excel at? And then you have to work at it. You have to be present. You have to be involved. You have to be submerged. Acting is hard. You know, again, when I first started doing narrative or scripted work, I studied acting for a year, and I was completely awful at it. But I learned about process, and I learned about the different processes that go into a character and that can go into an actor when they're getting ready for a role. I learned how to read a script. So there's that thing again: read scripts. Read scripts over and over and over again. And there are great schools for acting right now, for theater. Consider that because there's a huge amount of people that go to school, and there's a huge amount of people that don't. But some of your best actors were professionally trained that way. So you want to look into that also. Shane Is there something that you can use to sort of hone or develop your skills by yourself? If I want to shoot baskets, I can go out in my backyard by myself and chuck up some shots. What can you do to work on your acting at home alone? Steve Feldman Well, you're not going to be able to do that alone until you get it completely on your own, because acting is like everything else that I do. You’re with a group of people, so you have to learn to play with people. You know, it's not just doing a monologue. You have to be able to play in the moment with what's going on. In any moment, in any play, whether you’re live on stage or you're doing a 30-second scene for a film, you have to be in that moment, and you have to be able to perform in that environment. And that just can't be completely duplicated at home. I just really encourage—no matter where you live, no matter where you are—to get involved with a theater company. Go take a class. That's really the way to do it, and these are collaborative mediums. You have to get out there with people and see what other people's processes are. Work with other people. Get advice. Get encouragement. Oftentimes, just to get encouragement and support is a lot. So you’ve got to get out there. You can't stay at home. You know, the only person that has to stay home alone—and even they have writer’s groups—are writers. Generally, it’s a solemn, lonely process. Shane What are you watching for fun these days? And then, what kind of stuff do you watch for inspiration? To get tips? Learn tricks? Who do you look up to? Steve Feldman I have favorite filmmakers from different eras. I mean, to pinpoint one. I love a lot of Woody Allen's work, especially back in the ‘70s. I thought he did some incredible work in the ‘70s. Today, I loved this new guy, Iñárritu, who just did The Revenant, and he did Birdman. He’s from Mexico, and he's on another planet as far as I'm concerned. He has taken two films and been unconventional in both of them in a different way. See, now there's a question for him: How come you work in these two completely different genres? Well, you know, they’re stories, and that's what's consistent about both of them. One is an adaption from a book. I don't know where Birdman came from. It may be an adaption also, but it's a completely different kind of story, and tone, and timing, and place. But he's just been brilliant in both of them as a director. So this is a guy that I'm really watching carefully because I see a lot of new tricks. Christopher Nolan. Whether his films don't always read great to me, most of them are. But boy, when he hits it, he hits it. He smashes it. And I think anybody who's a new fan of Christopher Nolan should go back and watch Memento, which is still one of the most startling films I've ever seen in my life. I don't know if I was ready for a film like that when I turned it on. It was just so extraordinary. So that guy's got a lot of stuff, and he's also very good. I like Baz Luhrmann, who did Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge was a musical with amazing performances by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor—and everybody else who was in it. I remember that film—at one point at the beginning—just saying to myself, “What am I watching here? This is amazing.” It was a musical, and it had these different arrangements of popular songs. It just was astonishing. And he hasn't always hit the mark either, but he's a guy that is someone that I always like to watch. There’s the smaller filmmakers I like. Like, how do you do that like that? How do you do that on a budget? Like Wes Anderson. But it's those kinds of people who do it on a budget that are just remarkable. Folks like that. The King's Speech was made for $10 million, and that was directed by a young man who came out of television in England. Of course, the next film he did was just another astonishing musical version of Les Misérables. And you think to yourself, “Well, how does he go from doing a film like The King's Speech to a film like Les Misérables? And then you think about Iñárritu going from Birdman to The Revenant. So they're all stories, and they're different. And they're told in completely different styles, completely different styles. That's exciting. That’s exciting. I've always wanted to be more like that, and I've always tried to do new things. And I don't want to have a style, you know. I don't want to have a style that people look at and go, “Oh, it's Steve again.” You know, I like to do different genres and do things differently. These are much more extreme examples than what I do, but, you know, they're amazing, amazing artists. Shane If all the stars align and the universe conspires to age you, what are you doing in five years? Steve Feldman Wow! Well, you know, I have a—what might be easier to say is that I currently have been working on three films in development, and they're very early in development. Actually, two are early in development, and one has been in development for 15 years. So what I'd really like to do is I'd like to finish all of them within five years, and then—and I may do this sooner—I would really like to just spend my time teaching, and I would like to be able to teach in a situation where I can have the freedom to make a couple of short films every year. That would be just fine for me. I would love that. Shane What do you want to teach? Is it writing or directing or acting? Steve Feldman I’d like to teach the entire industry. I mean, I don't teach writing because I hate writing. I just hate it with a passion because I got into this part of the business because I'm social and I like to be around people all the time. I'm weak that way, but I enjoy it. I enjoy teaching because of that. I’m looking forward to teaching this fall a course in directing and also a course in visual storytelling. Yeah, I mean, those are the areas that I'm strongest in. I'm not particularly technical, although I do have some technical skills. I started as an editor, but I think that's it. That's what I’d like to teach. I like to teach the entire process. Producing—you know that we have a lot of structures in this business that have been made simple or simpler, and it's important to keep up with it and walk in right out of school kind of knowing how to do it. That would be important, and then I'd love to see my students do well. That would be maybe five years beyond the five years. Shane If you could look back in time 20-30 years ago at a younger version of yourself, and younger you wanted to be where older you is, what one piece of advice would you give him to make sure he stayed on the path? Steve Feldman Well, know yourself. You know you got to know yourself. I have quoted many times—again, to all those listeners who may have heard me before, you may have heard this before, but there's a great line in Spanglish, the film years ago with Adam Sandler. Believe it or not, I'm going to quote an Adam Sandler film. Is everybody ready? Shane Lay it on us. Steve Feldman Okay. The line is very simple: “You know, sometimes low self-esteem is just good common sense.” So, um, know yourself and try to be as in touch with your skill and your skill level as you possibly can be. I always want to encourage people to chase their dreams, but make sure your dreams are rooted in some way in your personality—not necessarily in circumstances, but in your personality. Make sure they're rooted in a reality, and we learn this throughout our whole lives. But that's where you want to always have your focus. Am I up to this? Is this something I can do and do with excellence? And so the bottom line here is: Be honest with yourself. And to me, that's the most important thing anybody can do in their lives, day-to-day. Be honest with yourself. Know what your limitations are, and if you're not good at something that you really believe that you want but find out you're not good at it, then have the good common sense to recognize that. Mourn it if you need to, but then move on. Shane That's actually really good advice, and I think it ties in a little bit to the follow-up question, which is: What single cautionary tale would you tell someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps? Steve Feldman Same thing. Shane Yeah, that's what it sounded like. Steve Feldman Yeah, I mean, don't lie about yourself, because if you do—you know, in getting a job, this is the biggest white lie I ever told, okay? For my first really big job in television, I was up to be a producer and a director for South Carolina public television. I was in my mid-twenties, so it’s a fairly big job for someone who's that young. I went in, and they said to me, “Can you direct a nightly news show?” And notice, they didn't ask me if I'd ever directed a nightly news show. They asked me if I could direct one. Shane If you could. Yes, I got my first piano job that way in college. Steve Feldman There you go, so that's it. So I answered, “Yes, I can.” “Could you edit, write, and direct a children's science and art series?” And I said, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I could do that.” And you know, I didn't know that I could do it, but something inside of me believed that I did have that capability. And fortunately, it worked out for me. So you need to be bold, and I think when you're honest with yourself, it's easier to be confident in front of others. It's much easier to do that if you really do believe that you know yourself and you can deliver. And if you can’t deliver, then know that, at least for the time being, this is something you cannot do and then make a decision. But to me, that's the same thing. It's the same thing. To respond to your question, that's exactly the same answer. Shane Looking back at your career, can you pinpoint or do you have any memorable ego-deflating moments? Steve Feldman Oh, sure. Well, every time you’re not hired to do something that you’re up for, it’s ego-deflating. Yeah, any time you fail at getting a gig, or you fail at a gig because you may have made a mistake, maybe you thought you knew yourself better. Yeah, it's deflating. But every deflating moment should be a learning moment, and if it's not, then the lesson to learn is that you just have to grieve the moment and then move on. You cannot get mired down in it. So yeah, I've had disappointments. I've had jobs that I didn't get. I remember moving to LA because I wanted to do a certain kind of work, and then I got to LA, and all that kind of work was being sent to Canada because they had tax incentives. So I suddenly found myself—I had moved my whole family to Los Angeles, and there wasn't enough of the kind of work that I'd gone there to get around. So that was just a blow. That was a blow to my sense of making a good decision. That was a blow to my abilities, and I just, you know, felt awful about it. But ultimately, you're in the moment. You got to stay in the moment, and in the moment, it's, well, I’ve got a family. I’ve got to make a living, so you got to go out and do what you got to do. Period. But that was a—LA was a harsh experience for me. It was a very harsh experience for me because of that, of not being able—I went out there specifically to get more focused in some other directions, and it didn't work out. So, you know, in retrospect, did I make a mistake? Yeah, you could say so. You could say that I made a big mistake in doing that, but it worked out. It worked out. You’ve just got to hang in there and move forward, and that's just what you’ve got to do. That's life. That's life. Shane Those are all the tough questions I've got for you. The rest of them are going to be super, super easy. But before we launch into the final questions, are there any final parting thoughts or insider anecdotes? Or if somebody puts you on the spot and said, “Tell us one of your most entertaining tales from the industry.” Steve Feldman You know, I don't have much to say beyond what I've said. I mean, the Christmas parties at Sesame Street. I'll tell you, and again, they're both at Sesame Street. I had two extraordinary experiences with celebrities that really to this day—here's an anecdote. Okay, here's an anecdote that actually speaks to a lot of the questions that I've always loved. I did this music video on Sesame Street with REM, one of my favorite bands. They had come in in the morning, and I find myself in the studio, laying down track with them. I'm not singing, but I'm there in the recording studio. So that in itself was, like, whoa, fun. It was really fun. But more fun than that was that we were doing a parody of their old song “Shiny Happy People.” And there's a female singer who sings with The B-52’s, Kate Pierson, who was one of the backup singers on that. But she had a very distinctive voice and a very distinctive part in the harmonies. So we asked her if she would join the session, and she couldn't. So then we asked her, “Would you mind if we made a puppet version of you?” And of course, Kate has this shock of red hair, and so we made this red-headed puppet. Well, the woman who was chosen to sing that part was a woman named Stephanie D’Abruzzo, and I'll never forget this because this was such a high moment for her in her career because she was on the second, more of the second rung of puppeteers at the time there. Sesame Street has mostly male puppeteers. Anyway, there aren't many female characters, although that's changed quite a bit over the years. So Stephanie had this opportunity to lay down tracks with REM. And I'll never forget her just—first of all, she blew it away. She just—I mean, it was amazing, her work. It was perfect. It was like such a great invitation, but just wonderful, and they were all impressed with her. So we all felt good about having Stephanie there. And the real fun thing about the business—and I love telling this story because, a few years later, Stephanie ended up in the Broadway version of Avenue Q, and she won a Tony Award for her role in Avenue Q. And that, to me, was just—I look at her—those set of two experiences in her life and how it ultimately led to her having more of a leading role in something and being honored in that fashion. I love that. It’s one of my favorite personal entertainment stories that I just love telling. I was in New York the whole time when it happened. It was just exciting. So I've always enjoyed that. Stephanie, out to you if you're listening. Shane All right. We’ve come to the end here. Are you ready? Steve Feldman I'm ready. What animal would I be if I could be any animal? Shane Yeah, and we're going to have you mime it, too, because that makes great radio. Steve Feldman Okay, good. I'm doing it right now. Shane If your job only paid the bills and not a penny more than that, would you still continue to do it? Steve Feldman Yes. Shane What talent or skill do you not have that you wish you did? Steve Feldman I wish I were a writer. Shane Fill in the blank. I am a success if I _____. Steve Feldman If I've influenced the people that I work with in a positive way. Shane And, conversely, I am a failure if I _____. Steve Feldman If I don't succeed. It’s the same thing. It's the same thing in reverse. If I fail to build relationship with the project and with the people on the set, then I feel like I failed. Shane What is the single best piece of advice that you followed to get where you are today? Steve Feldman Listen. Shane What piece of advice are you glad you ignored to get where you are today? Steve Feldman Don't be overconfident just to get the job. I mean, it’s the self-worth issue again. Don't value yourself too much, and that's a delicate thing because we do need to value ourselves. But don't value yourself too much, because I think a lot of people have advised me that you’re great. Don’t worry about it. No. No. You may not be great. You may be this, but you're not great. Keep your own—so it's the opposite. Keep your own skills in perspective. Don't overestimate yourself. Shane What character trait do you like best about yourself? Steve Feldman That I love people, and I got that from my dad. Shane What character trait do you like least about yourself? Steve Feldman That I have to be with people all the time. Shane Steve, are you codependent? Steve Feldman [Laughs]. Yeah. Shane Fill in the blank. Steve Feldman Yes? Shane I believe every child should have the opportunity to _____. Steve Feldman Create. Shane If you could suggest one piece of self-improvement that everyone on earth would adopt, what would it be? Steve Feldman Listen and ask questions. Shane If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Steve Feldman I would love to leap a tall building in a single bound and not be afraid of heights. Shane If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be? Steve Feldman Jesus. Shane A hospitable nearby planet has been discovered, and you have been recruited to help colonize it. You may take any three items with you that you wish. What are they? Steve Feldman I would take my guitar. I would take an instrument to write with, and I would take an instrument to draw pictures with. Shane All right. And the last question: You have just won a lifetime achievement award. Give us your acceptance speech. There won't be any music to cue you off the stage, so you can get to all of the “thank yous” that you need. Or if there's a personal cause you want to champion and feel very strongly about, this is your time. Steve Feldman Well, it's very simple. I'd like to thank God for putting me in a situation where I could enjoy myself at my work and that I could impact people and, particularly, impact children the way I've been able to. This, by itself, if my career ended tomorrow, would be sufficient. Shane All right. Mr. Feldman, you're off the hot seat. That's all I’ve got for you. Steve Feldman Was that it? Shane That’s it. Steve Feldman That was wonderfully done, sir. I can't wait to hear the whole series. Shane All right. Steve, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure having you here. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Steve Feldman You're very welcome. Thank you for having me. Shane All right. We will be in touch. Talk to you soon. Steve Feldman Okay. Take care. Bye-bye, everybody. Shane Once again, that was Emmy-winning director and producer Steve Feldman. I'd like to thank everyone for joining me today. You are listening to the Live2cre8 podcast, and this is Shane Almgren reminding you to dream big, be inspired, and live creatively.







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