Director Liz Patrick has mapped out a successful career directing television, specifically variety shows. She’s behind some of the most well-known shows, specials, and award shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show, MTV Movie Awards Pre-shows, The Real World, and more.
Saturday Night Live, the institution Liz Patrick has called home for two years, is a beast of a show. Famous for its long hours and fast-paced environment and housing a top-notch crew, putting together a single episode of live entertainment week after week seems like an Olympic feat or like playing a really complicated game of Tetris. Sketches change overnight, or sometimes hours before a live show; some get cut during dress rehearsals, a change here or there during a commercial break—it’s carefully planned chaos, but one that has earned Patrick two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series (she has won a slew of Daytime Emmys for her work on The Ellen Degeneres Show.)
Her second Emmy nomination for SNL is for the Holiday episode featuring co-hosts Steve Martin & Martin Short. The Holiday episodes always act as a memorable centerpiece of the season, and even in a shortened one like last season, it was one of the highlights.
Awards Radar sat down over Zoom with the award-winning director to discuss working with Steve Martin and Martin Short, finding her rhythm with SNL, and her pinch-me moments.
[This interview took place before the new Emmy telecast date was announced]
Niki Cruz: We don’t know when the negotiations will happen or when the Emmys will air, but you’re nominated! How does that feel?
Liz Patrick: It feels really great to be nominated. It’s my second year there and to get nominated you know, it’s my second year there, and to get nominated — I just feel so honored and so grateful.
NC: I have to say, a lot of your projects were a part of my formative years — TRL, Christina Stripped in NYC, Real World, MTV Spring Break — those were completely different days.
LP: Yeah, completely different, but that was a really fun special to do with Christina Aguilera. Shooting the Brooklyn Bridge and bringing her back to the studio to shoot, I think the bar we went to was called The American Bar on the corner of 17th and 9th, and we shot a musical performance there. That was a fun special.
NC: And it was fun to watch, too. You’ve directed all kinds of television — daytime, stand-up, other variety programming. You hear that TV is a writer’s medium, so what about television do you love as a director?
LP: Out of college, I fell into MTV, and that’s where I got my start. I started as a PA, worked my way up, and then eventually started directing, and it was the best spot for me. I grew up loving music, TV, and films, but TV a little bit more. To get the opportunity to work on projects that were so different, from award shows to red carpets to talk shows and stand up. We were young and got the opportunity to do some really fun projects. I was exposed to so much television, like TRL with Carson Daly. I worked alongside a few directors, and watching them and absorbing helped me create my own style.
After 15 years at MTV, I was looking for a way to step out and take a step up in my career, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show came knocking. I feel like anywhere I go, I try to absorb as much as I can and take it with me to the next place.
NC: It must be interesting spending so much time at one show, especially since Ellen has a specific style of comedy.
LP: Yeah, but you know what? Every day was so different there; I was never bored. There was the monologue; sometimes we play games and have bits. There was never a day I was bored, and that’s a huge thing to say.
NC: Did you have a favorite bit?
LP: The game shows they would come up with and create. I would just be like, “Oh, let’s add a camera here. Let’s do this!” It was just an opportunity to be creative and collaborative together. It’s just so fulfilling to be able to work on something like that and collaborate and come up with it together. I’ve always loved working with the writers and Ellen.
I love the writers at SNL; just taking their ideas, evolving them, making the best that I can, and just seeing what we can do with them. It’s a lot of fun.
NC: And with SNL, there’s “live,” and there’s SNL.
LP: That’s a very good way to put it.
NC: How do you find the pacing of the show?
LP: Live TV is crazy in itself, being able to react and cover what you need to do in a live situation—and then there’s SNL. We have some planned chaos, and then some things don’t work. It’s also about managing the changes throughout the week with sketches…and being able to handle that change. I feel like that’s where MTV and Ellen were the right training grounds for me, so I could respond quickly and react in a positive way.
NC: You’ve mentioned the planned chaos, but you’ve directed 34 episodes of SNL so far. How is it to direct a show that’s really an institution?
LP: It’s a show I used to watch growing up. My brother is five years older than me, so I was probably exposed a little earlier than I should have been. It’s one of those shows, and to get the opportunity to direct a show like this is a dream come true. It’s a goal I set out for myself, and I made it happen. I’m still reminding myself that it’s a pinch-me moment. And I feel like I really settled in this year and brought a little bit of myself to the table with the creative process and being able to manage it all, it’s a lot to take on, but I have so much fun doing it.
NC: Given that you grew up watching it, who was in your favorite cast?
LP: It changes. We had Steve Martin and Martin Short on the episode I submitted for the Emmys, and I was a fan of both of them. I’m a fan of Molly Shannon. There was a great episode we worked on this year with her. We brought back the character Sally O’Malley, and I was a huge fan of that. I’m a fan of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Rachel Dratch. There are just so many people. We recently had Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant leave.
It’s also really interesting when alumni come back. I had the opportunity to work with Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis on two episodes, and they understood the whole process and were extremely kind. That was my first year when they were there, and they were really patient and understood how hard it was.
NC: SNL is so writer heavy, and you always hear about how the writers break scripts, but I was wondering, what’s the technical process for a director that week?
LP: Wednesday morning around 10 AM the scripts are coming out, and I start reading them. There can be anywhere from 30 to 50 of them, and I just start writing where we can shoot in the studio, and how I would shoot it, and if we need any specialty cameras. Also, if I need two doors for entrances, staircases, props, and wardrobe, stuff like that. Then there’s a reprieve at 4 or 5 PM.
Then after the readthrough, Lorne starts selecting what’s moving forward. There’s no time to sit down and talk about the sketches with each writer. After the 12 sketches are selected, I go to the design department, and we plop down on a floor and plan where everything is going to go, and then we start talking about what we need for each sketch. Then the writer comes through, and sometimes the script has already changed or evolved. So from the moment it’s created, I feel like by the end of the day, it could have already changed.
NC: Is there something that sticks out in terms of a set wildly changing over the course of a day that you collaborated with design on?
LP: There’s a sketch we did in the Christmas episode called the Holiday Train sketch that was based on the movie White Christmas. They were going to create the inside of a train car, and we wanted it to look like it was moving. We are talking about splitting the train part into two pieces, and then having a music performance, and then having them perform in the snow. So that one was a collaborative idea.
Sometimes, production designer Leo Yoshimura and I will both get the note at the same time. He’ll come into the control room, and be like, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking that I might add to it,” or vice versa. Sometimes I’ll get a call like, “Hey, can we do this?” And I’d be like, “I think so. Let’s go talk to Leo.” It’s a clever process, and it’s fun.
NC: I love that you submitted the holiday episode because it feels so grand. How did it feel to direct something with such a history from season to season?
LP: Being the holidays and all, the set dressing is a little more ornate. You have beautiful shots that you can create. It’s just; it’s just a fun show. It’s one of those that always sticks out, and having Brandi Carlile perform, it was a nice holiday set.
NC: And Steve Martin and Martin Short are just the best of the best. They’re legends.
LP: They’re some of my comedy heroes and so kind. After the show, I got to talk to Martin Short a bit and told him that when I was in college, one of the short films I did in college was an homage to one of his films. The craziness of it all to talk about that with someone that’s been an influence…
NC: It must have been a pinch-me moment.
LP: Yeah, it was cool.
NC: Before we end, what’s been your fondest episode?
LP: There’s not just one.
NC: It all sort of melds together?
LP: It does. It’s funny because that’s how it was with Ellen. I’d come home from work and go out, and friends would ask who’s on the show today? And you just completely forget.
But there are so many great moments and experiences. It just goes back to being honored to be there.
[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]