Directing Freaks And Geeks
This essay originally appeared in Freaks And Geeks: The Complete Series [Deluxe Yearbook Edition]
When Judd called me up for the first time in February 1999 and asked me if I’d like to direct the pilot for Freaks and Geeks, there was one thought that came to mind: How did this guy get my home number?
We had met once or twice, but we weren’t friends, really. I was a fan, having practically memorized most of The Ben Stiller Show, which Judd had executive produced a few years before. We knew many of the same people, but still . . . I had never worked in television and had made one movie that I was pretty sure nobody other than my friends and family had seen. And yet here’s this guy, calling me from his car, talking to me like we know each other and sort of telling me, more than asking me, to start work immediately, prepping this pilot which I had not yet read, but which he promised was really good. It would only take a couple months, he assured me, and it would be a good break from trying to complete my new screenplay. By the time we hung up, it sort of felt like I was doing it. I had been Apatow-mind-tricked, for the first time.
In retrospect, it’s really strange. As it turned out, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Paul Feig’s script was not “good.” It was fantastic. Funny on every page and moving and totally true. This actor I had never heard of was one of the funniest and most original writers I had ever read, a truly authentic voice. To execute his stuff would be a joy and a privilege.
We then set about the long and arduous process of assembling what I refer to, modestly, as one of the great television casts of all time. Anchored by Linda Cardellini and John Daley, and supported by this astounding group of adult geniuses and child prodigies (many of whom had never acted a day in their young lives!), the cast would consistently make us look good by elevating the material, making the weirdest ideas work and delivering on everything we gave them.
I remember sitting on the set, on the day we shot the final scene of the pilot (the “Come Sail Away”/Homecoming thing). As I lined up shot after shot of these kids that I had come to admire so much, all I could think about was how lucky I was to be the guy who got to do this show.
It was not a two-month experience, though. I hung around for most of a year, directing several episodes and helping out where I could, because I just couldn’t bring myself to leave after the pilot. I knew, even then, inexperienced as I was, that what we had was unusual and that it didn’t come along often. The television development process makes it very difficult to get something made in a way that’s true to the original creative impulse. In fact, there’s an entire system in place to prevent that, complete with hundreds of paid employees, whose job it is to “improve” what the writers and producers want to do, making it more accessible to a larger audience. “Interference” is the word that’s most often used. Somehow, by a combination of luck and Judd’s brilliant producing, Freaks and Geeks was not subject to much of that. We basically got to do what we wanted to do.
The flip side of this creative freedom was the ever-present specter of imminent cancellation. That dynamic led to this sort of creative urgency to squeeze in as many cool and bizarre ideas as we could before someone pulled the plug. We were going to do the peanut allergy story. And the ambiguous genitalia story. And the ventriloquism nervous breakdown story. We were going to go down swinging. It was exciting.
The result is this collection. When I watch the episodes now, I feel more like a fan than a director. I’m still knocked out by the multitude of talents that made it what it is. I still laugh at the jokes. I still get choked up, unexpectedly, in weird places. And when that Joan Jett guitar leads into the opening credits, I still get a chill.
—Jake Kasdan, Director and Consulting Producer of Freaks and Geeks