Though Mike Smith has directed more than 70 TV episodes throughout his career, he said it was special to be at the helm for an episode of “Bull” that filmed last Friday in his native Lynbrook.
The Recreation Center at Greis Park was converted into an FBI headquarters set as Smith sat in the director’s chair for the legal drama, which airs on CBS on Mondays at 10 p.m. It follows Dr. Jason Bull, played by “NCIS” alumnus Michael Weatherly. Smith, 49, who now lives in New Jersey, said that directing in the village where he grew up was a dream realized.
The episode is scheduled to air on Jan. 25.
“As soon as we showed up, I started pointing things out to the producers,” Smith said as some of the 110-member crew buzzed outside the recreation center, unloading trucks and prepping the set. “I said, ‘Guys, I grew up here. I played Little League at Greis Park, I graduated from there, I went to that Dunkin’ Donuts.’”
Smith was born in East Rockaway, to Beth and Bruce Smith, who moved to Lynbrook when he was 3. He attended Marion Street Elementary School, where his mother taught for many years, and Lynbrook South Middle School. He was on the Lynbrook High School track, cross-country and wrestling teams before graduating in 1989, and developed an interest in film and television at a young age. After high school, he attended the University of Michigan, where he met his future wife, Tracy. The couple moved to New Jersey in 2002 and raised two children, Becca, 18, and Elijah, 16.
In the early 2000s, Smith was accepted into a production assistant program through the Directors’ Guild and became first assistant director on the HBO series “The Sopranos” and the NBC series “Law and Order.” He then transitioned into a producer and director role, working for shows such as “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Manifest” and many USA Network shows, including “White Collar,” “Burn Notice” and “Suits.”
Smith said he had the chance to direct in Lynbrook because the producers of “Bull” were looking for a place to shoot that was close to their stages in Ridgewood, N.J., and found a Valley Stream house where they could shoot exterior scenes. When they needed an FBI headquarters, they got the OK to convert the Lynbrook Recreation Center into a makeshift set to film a scene where three FBI agents interrogate a suspect.
Smith said TV shows typically take eight days to shoot, and this episode marked his sixth time at the helm of “Bull,” which has been on the air for five seasons. Because directors have to prepare, direct and then edit their episodes, TV shows usually have a rotation of directors throughout a given season.
On Dec. 11, shooting in Lynbrook ran from 9 a.m. to about 2 p.m., and then Smith directed a quick scene at a park, broke for lunch, and then shot exterior scenes at the house in Valley Stream from about 5 to 11 p.m. Though the scenes took all day to complete, Smith said, the part filmed at the recreation center will likely take up to just four minutes of screen time, while the shot in Valley Stream will likely last one or two minutes. Typically, he added, six days of filming for “Bull” are conducted at studios in Ridgewood, where the sets for the show’s courtroom, judges’ chambers and offices are housed, and two days are spent on location. Smith said he usually prepares for eight days before the shoot and will get a script a couple of days before prep work begins.
Though Smith has been in the business for 25 years, he said he can still recall his first day preparing to direct his first episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“I called my wife,” he recounted, “and said, I don’t want to sound sappy, but when you’re 12 years old and you’re dreaming of what you wanted to do, and all I ever wanted to do was direct, and now I literally have my pencils and sharpies and I’m breaking down the script for the first time. It was a dream come true.”
Smith said directors face many challenges, including managing relationships with up to 150 crew members and actors per show, having to learn the nuances of each show they take on and immersing themselves in the story lines and characters. The first time he directed “How to Get Away with Murder” for season 3, he said, he crammed all 30 of the show’s episodes in a week to understand the visual tone and characters.
Smith said he remembers approaching the show’s star, Viola Davis, for the first time to offer her feedback on a scene.
“Day one or two, I gave her a note, and I looked at her and was like, ‘Does that make sense?’” he said. “And she just looked at me and said, ‘Mike, I went to [the Juilliard School]. You’re the director, I’m the actor. If you have a note, I’ll take it.’ So I was blessed to work with her on that.”
Smith said he developed a strong relationship with Davis after that moment, and he also enjoyed working with Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia Benson on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” They developed such a strong rapport that Hargitay appeared alongside Smith for a question-and-answer session at his temple in New Jersey, which was attended by about 700 people and raised $80,000 for her charity, the Joyful Heart Foundation, and a local New Jersey charity that helps victims of domestic violence.
He also recalled working with Meghan Markle on “Suits” before she became the Duchess of Sussex. “I like to think that maybe I was on the B-list for the wedding and Prince Harry just said, ‘No, we have to cut it,’” he said with a laugh. “My wife never forgave me that I didn’t get an invite to the royal wedding.”
Smith said he has many goals for the future, including directing on more shows and working on a pilot of his own and a feature film.
“I couldn’t be happier with what I’m doing and what I’ve reached,” he said, “but I feel like I haven’t even begun my career.”