Video producer Beth Spitalny ’01 takes us behind the scenes on set and in her career.
It’s a frigid afternoon in late January, but on a quiet side street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, steps from a bodega and a barbershop, a funky garden flat is undergoing a temporary makeover as a sun-splashed Laurel Canyon hideaway.
Beth Spitalny ’01, senior producer of lifestyle video for Us Weekly, loved the apartment, a quirky cross between a Parisian atelier and Victorian-era English parlor, when a co-worker found it scouting for locations. On this chilly day, Spitalny and an Us Weekly crew are bringing some Hollywood-style warmth and glamour to a spring fashion shoot.
Spitalny joined the magazine’s nascent video unit in 2016 after a handful of years directing blood-and-guts, true crime cable series like Redrum, Frenemies, and Dates from Hell. At Us Weekly she’s taken a 180-degree turn, directing and producing short vignettes focused on fashion, clothes, beauty, cooking, fitness, and lifestyle trends. It’s a deliberately cheerful choice for Spitalny who, after years spent directing violent episodic television, needed a change.
“I used to be on set directing rape or murder scenes, asking my production design team for more blood,” she says. “So I was ready to focus on pretty things.” But as grisly as the subject matter might have been, true crime television and the relentless pace of its production schedule was a valuable training ground for Spitalny.
“I was tapping into a whole new set of skills that they don’t teach you in film school,” says Spitalny, who earned her MFA in filmmaking in 2009 from University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. “I loved the process. Episodic television is like a well-oiled machine. You’ll be shooting Episode 2 while Episode 1 is being edited and Episode 3 is in pre-production. It’s about walking into a crew of 30 people who don’t know who you are and getting them to trust you. You’re working with actors without a lot of rehearsal time. It’s like jumping on an already moving train. Directing is the easy part.”
Spitalny’s job at Us Weekly is a decisive vault onto another kind of speeding locomotive: a rapidly expanding multimedia platform that’s essential for a high-profile magazine scrambling for survival in the digital age. As print consumption and newsstand sales decline, readers rely on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones.
The need for daily content demands a dizzying turnover of short, accessible packages that the video unit produces; Spitalny’s eight-hour Brooklyn shoot was condensed into a pair of minute-long spring fashion previews by the time they were posted on Us Weekly’s site in mid-February.
Over the past two years, Spitalny has directed segments that have landed her in Christie Brinkley’s Hamptons beach house mixing margaritas with the effusive blonde model; she’s wandered through Central Park with actors Michael Emerson and Carrie Preston and their beloved dog, Chumley; and she’s planned a hot dog and tequila-laced summer barbecue with TV personality Lauren Conrad.
When you’re making bite-sized content, you have a shorter amount of time to make an impact, so I always see it as you kind of go big, or go home.
When directing for scripted television, Spitalny’s protagonists were the characters that her actors portrayed. But as Spitalny explains, the “hero” of a style shoot might be a chic tote bag or a pair of sparkly stilettos.
“Let’s make this eye candy, let’s make this pretty, let’s shoot this in a really weird environment, use delicious slo-mo camera and intercut it with regular speed,” she says. “When you’re making bite-sized content, you have a shorter amount of time to make an impact, so I always see it as you kind of go big, or go home.”
Spitalny’s on-set demeanor is relaxed, but she’s meticulously organized. Settled on a couch with her video monitor, she confers with her boss, executive producer Kim Rittberg, as the camera crew sets up for a shot. A scrum of Canon video cameras and lights surround a painted white table that is set with a tea service, a vase of white hydrangeas, and a breakfast plate of croissants, evoking Downton Abbey gentility. A ginger cat winds his way around the crew, making friends and eyeing the puff pastry.
Camped out in a side kitchen, art director Taylor Derwin arranges bunches of blue hydrangea, pink snapdragons, and lavender into wicker baskets and tin buckets. Model Jackie Miranne fusses with her outfit, a lace peplum blouse and sky-blue shorts meant to copy—on a budget—a nearly $1,200 Zimmermann outfit once worn by actress Diane Kruger. For added inspiration, a framed photograph of Kruger sits on the windowsill.
As cameras roll, Miranne smiles beatifically on cue and, at a slightly awkward angle, pours tea from a silver pot into a floral china cup. Spitalny gazes at her monitor, frowns, and cuts the shot. “That was weird,” she says to Miranne. “Can you do it again?” Spitalny scrambles off the couch, crosses to Miranne, and scrutinizes the model’s stance. “Let me have you step back,” she says, gently maneuvering Miranne a fraction over. “When you pour, hold the pot further away,” she instructs. “It’ll look neat.”
Spitalny asks for a reset, returns to her monitor, and calls for action. Miranne dutifully pours the tea again and Spitalny nods. The angle is far better, and the amber flow of liquid gracefully arcs from teapot to cup. It’s a minute adjustment but one that a conscientious director like Spitalny knows will make a difference in the final edit.
Executive producer Kim Rittberg, who first met Spitalny when she applied for the job of producer at Us Weekly, was impressed by the young director’s sharp eye and versatility after seeing her reel.
“When [Beth] came into the office, I knew instantly that she was perfect for this role,” Rittberg recalls. “She is a rock star. She has a warmth, ease, and comfort with herself that people can sense. People trust her—both the crew members and talent, be it a celebrity or a documentary subject.”
A month after the Bushwick shoot, Spitalny is back at home base: Us Weekly’s offices and midtown Manhattan video studio. It’s a couple of days after the 89th Academy Awards and Spitalny, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, spent that long Sunday night at work wrangling red-carpet coverage with a West Coast correspondent.
Spitalny graduated from Lafayette before it had a film and media studies department. She doesn’t regret majoring in anthropology and sociology; there were still ways in a liberal arts context to pursue film. Along with classmates, Spitalny made a 10-minute documentary about Jehovah’s Witnesses in an ethnography class taught by Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Dan Bauer; during a year abroad in London, she stepped in front of the camera (“it was a really bad student soap opera”), and she eventually studied acting. “At Lafayette, I was totally the girl with the camera filming stuff,” she recalls.
But she does marvel at the College’s filmmaking curriculum today. “They’re using software and programs that I use now professionally,” she says. “The students are leaps and bounds ahead of where I was in school.”
In a 2012 talk given to Lafayette students following a screening of her MFA thesis film, Procession, Spitalny fielded queries about her peripatetic journey as a director. What advice would she give aspiring filmmakers? “It’s not a straight road,” she explains. “There’s not one way, and there’s no right way. I don’t have an answer.” She comically lowers her voice to a whisper. “Anyone who says they have an answer is wrong.”
In fact, as a child growing up in Chappaqua, N.Y., the daughter of Richard, a computer game creator (his software company made the 80s-era Spy vs. Spy video games) and Dianne, a flautist and music teacher, Spitalny was drawn to performing. She and her sister Dara were frequent subjects of her father’s home movies during the era of VHS and Hi8 camcorders. Spitalny can’t remember a time when her life wasn’t documented on video.
While Spitalny watched movies like Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld with her father, it wasn’t until she was allowed to watch MTV as a 13-year-old that she began thinking about filmmaking or television as a career. “I fell in love [with MTV],” she says. “I loved the visuals. If you’d asked me in high school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say that I wanted to work at MTV. But I didn’t know what being a producer or a director was.”
She interned at MTV News during her senior year at Lafayette and, following graduation, Spitalny moved to New York, hoping to find permanent work at the cable network. Like other new grads trying to survive in the city, she lived with three roommates in a Chelsea apartment and waited on tables at a trendy restaurant. Barely three months later, the Sept. 11 attacks altered everything. It was a somber time as the city struggled to recover.
“I got fired [from my waitressing job] because of 9/11,” she says. “No one was going out to eat dinner. I was also a bad waitress. I didn’t even know what prosciutto was.”
Spitalny reached out to a friend at MTV who knew of a producer looking for a production assistant, she got an interview, and was hired by the news and documentaries department. “I ended up working there for five years straight,” she says. “A light bulb went off because I really liked it. I wasn’t directing; I was assisting the directors and doing more producing work. [I was] finding the extras and location and setting up interviews, but it made me enjoy the process of storytelling. I was able to see what it would be like from a narrative, more fictional perspective.”
As a so-called “permalance” employee at Viacom, without the guarantee of continuous employment once a show or project ended its run, Spitalny became adept at chasing down her next assignment. “At MTV I learned how to hustle myself. You’d do a TV show and it would end two months later; I had to learn how to keep working there, talk to producers, and send out emails. I started as a PA and left as a producer. And then I went to film school.”
That indefatigable drive helped her at USC where she learned to accept her own perspective rather than comparing her work to others. Spitalny’s deeply personal 2008 thesis film, Procession, was a perfect example of that decision. During her junior year abroad, Spitalny’s first boyfriend suddenly died while she was traveling through Eastern Europe. For years she struggled to come to terms with her grief and found a way via the 17-minute short that she wrote and directed.
A poignant short film about a young Orthodox Jewish woman, Shayna, who steals away in a hearse carrying her boyfriend’s casket, Procession earned Spitalny recognition and accolades, including awards for best short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and best student short film at the Dallas International Film Festival, and inclusion in more than a half dozen film festivals from New York to San Francisco. It’s a wistful, delicate film that paints the awkward bond between Shayna and the empathetic hearse driver who perceives the depth of her pain.
Although Spitalny has written a few feature-length screenplays, including one called “Single at Sea,” and has directed several shorts, commercials, and TV shows as a director-for-hire, like 2016’s House Broken, which screened at the Garden State Film Festival and Big Apple Film Festival, she doesn’t plan to make a leap into feature filmmaking in the immediate future. “It’s expensive, and I’m not ready to fundraise,” she says frankly.
Right now she’s enthusiastic about her job at Us Weekly—and she’s valued by her co-workers, like frequent crew member Derwin who, as an art director, considers Spitalny to be a mentor and loves that she’s “decisive with her creative choices.”
Spitalny knows that her road as a director still has many twists and turns ahead. “Jeff King, the executive producer of the [USA network] show White Collar, once said to me that everything’s going to work out. Not in the way you think, but it will all work out.”
“That’s kind of like life,” she continues. “It’s easy to talk about all of the shows and the opportunities, but between that, it’s the hustle. So when I’m like, ‘this is really hard,’ or the show I was hired for got cancelled, the next [job] comes around, it’s better, and it led to something else. It will all work out.”
Editor’s Note: In June, Beth Spitalny left US Weekly and is now director of video for local Bestproducts.com under Hearst Digital Media.