The Lew Klein Awards: Honoree Michael Grossman (SMC ’81)

temple logoWhat is the American dream? For a student pursuing film or media, that dream may be flying to New York or L.A. in the hopes of making it big. What if, however, that dream had found you?

That’s how it was for director Michael Grossman. Graduating from Temple University in 1981, stardom found Grossman beyond the classroom and in the industry of film.

The name may not ring a bell, but you have most likely seen his work. Grossman has directed heartwarming classics such as Nickelodeon’s Keenan and Kel: Two Heads Are Better Than One, Merry Christmas: Drake and Josh, and Disney Channel’s Original movie Starstruck. He’s also worked on a variety of top television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Drop Dead Diva, Switched at Birth, Pretty Little Liars and many more.

Grossman is one of this year’s Lew Klein Honorees for not only his great work in the business, but also for his outstanding philanthropy. After adopting their daughter in the ’90s, Grossman and his partner established a charity that helps children in the court and foster care system.  The program originally started in the Los Angeles area where Grossman lives, and since then reached internationally to Indonesia, Bali, and Nicaragua. The program is continuously expanding to this day.

Grossman said the award is truly an honor, but he did not go into the business for the recognition. “I can’t say that I ever do what I do for that kind of recognition…it makes you stop and think, ‘Where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.’”

Early Career

When Grossman first stepped foot onto Temple’s campus, becoming a director was not even in the picture. He had been undecided, dabbling in psychology because it appeared interesting. It wasn’t until junior year that a friend recommended a film class. “When I was exposed to it it was just magical,” Grossman recalled. “It all made sense to me…I couldn’t get enough of it.”

After graduation, Grossman took a giant leap for his career and flew out to L.A. “I just had to go so I went. I had to learn how to get into the business because I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. After a year of looking he finally landed his first Production Assistant position. “I learned as I went soaking up information like a sponge.”

But his path towards directing happened unexpectedly. Following a misunderstanding at his second job, Grossman was fired; however, he wasn’t leaving without giving his final word. “I made an appeal,” he said. After making said appeal, a casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, one of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, had overheard Grossman’s conversation. Stalmaster put him in contact with a friend who was starting a miniseries. After meeting with her, Grossman was hired as a Production Assistant on set.

Grossman’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed. The Extra’s casting director whom he had worked closely with informed him of a low budget horror film titled Hide and Go Shriek that was looking for a second Assistant Director.

After landing that gig, the production company wanted him to be First Assistant Director for another horror film. This opened the doors to something extraordinary. Film after film, Grossman began making a name for himself.

Breaking Into the Business

Photo Courtesy of Michael Grossman
Photo Courtesy of Michael Grossman

By 1990 Grossman was asked to direct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He had turned a blind eye at first. “It sounded absurd!” he said. “The Executive Producer called me up a half hour later. It had nothing to do with ego. I had just done so much with mutants and horror in the past it felt like nothing new.” After speaking with the Executive Producer and getting better insight on the project, he took the job.

The average hour long television show takes eight days to film. A typical day on set is filming for six hours, a thirty minute lunch break, and then another six hours. It’s also about adding depth. “Television series are repetitive…using an analogy – it’s like using the same vase but rearranging the flowers…it’s to change the perspective of the show.”

Grossman also talked about one of his most recognizable works, Starstruck, a classic Disney Channel Movie.

“When I first started Starstruck it wasn’t the musical that it became. I was already prepping the movie and it was the same basic plot but it didn’t have all the music in it. And then [Disney said], “You know what? This should be a musical,” he said. “They have lots of people so I can’t say I was responsible for that. I was just part of the building blocks.”

As far as working with the actors themselves, Grossman puts those psychology classes he took back in the day into use. “There are more challenging actors to work with than others, but to me those challenges can be very exciting because I’m not intimidated by it. I get it. I get where they’re coming from.” He even added how Donald Sutherland made him a better director. “He made me work for it. He didn’t just give it up.”

Directing is all about perspective. The way a scene should look and how to tackle it can get pretty complicated. It’s the director’s job to bring the story to life, but if others are willing to help along the way, Grossman is all for it. “If someone pitches a good idea, I let everyone know. Directors think they have to be the smartest person in the room. The smartest person is the person that respects the idea that the best idea in the room wins.”

Grossman is constantly traveling to different locations to film all over the country, from Utah to Vancouver, to Georgia. The traveling keeps him busy.  “I don’t really like downtime. If I get an opportunity and it doesn’t conflict with my schedule, I take it.”

In terms of advice, Grossman said it’s important to never give up. “People that take the initiative did not just say, ‘well, I don’t know what to do because I don’t know anybody.’ Figure it out. They’re not just going to find you. If you meet someone that could potentially be a contact down the road, in the world we live in, put it in your phone, and put a reference in your notes regardless,” he said. “Never say never or you’re in the wrong business. Be ready to shove your foot in the door and say, “Chop it off or let me. And if you chop it I’m going to grow another one.”

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