American director Robert Lieberman is no stranger to accolades. Having directed commercials for 30 years, Lieberman has been awarded 29 Cleo Awards, has attended Cannes three times, and won the Director’s Guild Award for commercials the first year it was given. His resume is impressive, his experience extensive, but for Lieberman, receiving a nomination from the Canadian Director’s Guild Awards is an honour, and an entirely new one at that.
“I’m a new Canadian,” says Lieberman. “I’ve only been here for about a decade. I’m honoured to be recognized by my peers in the country I’ve chosen, especially given the competition.”
Lieberman has been nominated for the CDGA award in television direction for his work on the science fiction series The Expanse. The show follows a United Nations executive, a detective, and a ship officer uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the peace and survival of the human race in a colonized solar system. Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the executive, Thomas Jane plays the detective, and Steven Strait plays the officer. The show is based off of the book series by James S. A. Corey, a pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
Lieberman was initially a fan of the book, and joined the television adaptation halfway through its first season. “The show they were approaching wasn’t the show I had in mind when I read the book,” explains Lieberman. “[The showrunners] agreed with me. We decided to revamp the look of the show.”
Changing the look of a show partway through the first season is risky, but the creative team behind the show liked Lieberman’s vision for the show and ran with it. It paid off. The show is now entering its third season and boasts an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lieberman describes his take on the world created in the book as crowded — real estate is at a premium in space, so everywhere you look there’s stuff. It’s different than the cold, minimalist space so iconically portrayed in movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s realer, it’s gritty, it’s not very different from our current reality.
“They wouldn’t fill up cubic yards of oxygen just for the sake of filling it up,” says Lieberman. “I recommended they fill the sets with gack [set decoration] so that it all looked grungy and worked. For the episode I’m nominated for, the set was called the Winnebago of space crafts.”
Lieberman didn’t start out directing television, and didn’t even start out wanting to be a director. His first foray into the entertainment industry was as an actor. While growing up in Buffalo, Lieberman was one of the few working child actors in the area. In University, however, his goals shifted.
“I started to realize I was more of a control freak than I thought. I didn’t like being told what to do and I like telling people what to do. Directing is the perfect profession,” jokes Lieberman.
His heart was in the arts, but Lieberman says his aptitudes were pointing towards mathematics. There are a couple of ways to marry the two and directing is one sure way to do so. The combination of technology, planning, number crunching, and coupling an artistic eye with a logical one made the choice for career clear to Lieberman. And the first big destination that choice brought Lieberman to was Hallmark commercials, where he made a name for himself in the industry. “I love stories about humankind and interaction between people,” he says, “I imbue my films with really in-depth characters.”
Lieberman does bring up a good point: no matter the genre, the stories we are invested in are always about people. If we have no characters, no relationships, nothing human to identify with, then engagement and enjoyment become that much more difficult. Science fiction is no different. While the setting is concerned with technology, machinery and futurism, the story is always revolved around the people within these worlds. But what Lieberman says also draws him to the genre is the aspect of a blank canvas.
“You have to invent everything,” says Lieberman. “It’s challenging to create worlds that don’t exist.”
Lieberman’s creativity is clear in The Expanse, but also shows in his eclectic body of work. Looking into his ear future, Lieberman shows no sign of becoming pigeon-holed into a particular genre or position.
“I’m doing a package of Toyota commercials,” says Lieberman. “I’m writing a personal play I’d originally intended as a movie, but I decided is better on stage. I’m writing three things simultaneously — there’s a sci-fi YA novel, which I hope turns into the next Harry Potter.”
With projects scheduled for the coming years and an inexhaustible work ethic, it’s no wonder award nominations such as the CDGA keep heading Robert Lieberman’s way, and despite the “I’m just happy to be nominated” phrase being a bit of a cliche, Lieberman did tell me, very seriously, that he is happy just to be nominated.
You can visit Robert Lieberman’s website here.