A dream that started as a youngster in a Buffalo, N.Y. basement has taken Rob Lieberman to some pretty lofty heights as a director of TV and films. His work on the sci-fi hit “The Expanse” has been lauded at the highest levels of the Canadian entertainment world, culminating in his nomination for the prestigious Directors Guild of Canada award for “Best Director in a Dramatic Series.”
“I’ve been working as a Canadian director since 2008 and never been nominated,” Lieberman said. “The thing that major stokes me is the class of directors that do ‘The Expanse’ is off the chart. I have so much respect for them. To be singled out in any category is a pretty high honor.”
“Winning the award is not important, being nominated is important,” he added. “Being in that rarified air of four or five (nominees) is a rarified place to be.”
Born in Buffalo, he spent a lot of his formative years in Canada. He said he started working in 1997 on a CBS mini-series called “Titanic,” which got his Canadian directorial ball rolling.
“All the work I did up there through 2008 was as an American director doing American content,” he said.
That changed in 2008 when he became a permanent resident of Canada.
Lieberman has a slew of credits to his name, including directing TV episodes of “Falling Skies,” “The Art of More,” “Ascension,” “Haven,” “Criminal Minds,” “Rogue,” “Houdini and Doyle,” “Private Eyes,” and more. He’s also been a prominent film director, mentoring works like “Fire In The Sky,” “Breakaway,” “D3: The Mighty Ducks,” “Table For Five” with Jon Voight, and other projects.
And it all started with a talk he had with himself in that basement when he was 11 or 12 years old.
“I was about that age when I really had a talk about what I wanted to do,” he explained. “I thought to myself, ‘If I could direct movies, that would be the most amazing thing.’”
Some years later he arrived in California with absolutely no connections, but with plenty of determination to make the dreams he had as a child come true. Time would turn those dreams into reality.
“I kicked around a bit, did some assistant editing on commercials, then became a director for commercials and was successful with that,” he explained. “Then I did TV movies, then that turned into real feature films, which turned into directing TV pilots and then I started doing episodes.”
His work on “The Expanse” was rewarding on many levels, including his successful efforts to help craft the show’s now-distinguishable vibe. In season one he helmed the episodes “Back to the Butcher” and “Rock Bottom,” which were episodes five and six in the initial season. He wanted to make the vibe of the show something completely different – and got the green light to go for it. It’s a look and feel that lingers to this day.
“The Expanse was a really thrilling show to work on,” he said. “It is beautifully conceived, arranged and produced. Everybody on that show is brilliant. They really were open to directors coming in and making a contribution and not just stamping out the mold, as it were.”
“I had a very different vision of what the series was than what they were making to that point and I came in to do episodes that were smack dab in the middle,” he said. “I told them ‘I’m just going to open my big mouth because I’m a director. I’ll give you full permission to throw me out of your office.’ I read the books, watched the show, and I was thinking more like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien.’ The whole thing should be beat up and dented.”
To his happy surprise, the powers-that-be agreed. With that, Lieberman went about crafting the feel he wanted, with ducting and wires hanging loose, and a general “used” feel about the design.
“The production design to that point was taking the path much like ‘Star Trek,’” said Lieberman. “I wanted to hang a bunch of crap over here, over there. Someone found a seat out of an old jet – it was old, rusted out, wires were hanging out and I told them ‘This whole show should look like this chair.’ They were thrilled and let me do it. It kind of changed the show’s look moving forward.”
Lieberman noted that in space travel, the real estate is very valuable and every square inch has some use and function. “You have to sustain life in a vacuum,” he said. “I asked them to make the sets smaller as well.”
He noted that he directed later episodes for season two of The Expanse (10, 11 and 12) and noted that there were some subtle changes that the show has undergone. Losing Thomas Jane’s character, Det. Joe Miller, made an impact on where the show eventually traveled, he felt.
“I think the show kind of took a little turn after Thomas Jane’s (Miller) died,” he said. “I loved his character. It (his death) gave the thing new gravity, though. It had this noir quality that you don’t usually find in space. But in the second season they moved onto the next book.”
“Jane (Miller) dies off and you get into more of a standard space opera,” he added. “Bobbie (Draper) is introduced. I didn’t think (season 2) had as deep a character development as I thought season 1 had. The second season wasn’t as interesting to me, though they tell me it was more popular.”
As of now, he’s not lined up to direct any of the season three episodes.
“It was a great ride while it lasted,” he said of his time on “The Expanse.” “I like variety. I don’t like getting locked into one series, but those actors were just the most wonderful ensemble to work with.”
Lieberman said he is staying busy with a multitude of projects. He’s doing a bunch of writing and waiting to see if a TV show called “Private Eyes,” which stars Jason Priestly, gets picked up for another season. He’s also writing in the sci-fi genre as well, working on a young adult book that’s centered around middle America called “Meet the APuBes.” He said it’s what happens when you ponder doing “Third Rock From The Sun” as not a comedy. He’s busy writing it as a book and will see where that leads him.
The 16th edition of the DGC Awards will be held at the annual gala on Saturday, Oct. 28, at The Carlu in Toronto.
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