Glen Oak, 90210: Priestley Directs '7th Heaven'
On a Friday in early February, Priestley, sporting a beard, looks around at the Santa Monica sets of The CW's "7th Heaven." At the invitation of series creator Brenda Hampton, he's directing an episode set to air Sunday, April 22.
Priestley is having deja vu, both because of the location and the fact that "7th," like "90210," is a brainchild of the late legendary producer Aaron Spelling.
Asked if he feels the spirit of Spelling, Priestley says, "You know what, yeah. Even these studios look very much like our old studios used to. They were converted warehouses like this. Glamorous, right? It's amazing. If only the people at home knew."
"Beverly Hills, 90210" was about the Walsh family moving from Minnesota to swank Beverly Hills; "7th" centers around preacher Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), his wife, Annie (Catherine Hicks), and their large clan in the fictional California suburb of Glen Oak.
As different as the shows are, Priestley says, "At the end of the day, '90210,' when it started, before it became what it became, was a show about a family, just like this show. Aaron understood glitz and glamour and makeup and hair, but Aaron also understood family shows.
"He got it that shows need to have heart. This show is a perfect example of that."
There's also a real family connection, through Priestley's "90210" co-star Jennie Garth.
Colton James, who plays teenage Camden foundling T-Bone, says, "'90210' actually paid for my entire childhood. My dad represents Jennie Garth. Jennie was one of my dad's bigger clients."
Told that nearly makes him and Priestley cousins, James quips, "Yeah, we spend Christmas and Thanksgiving together. He carves the turkey."
Canceled at the end of its 10th season last year -- coinciding with the shuttering of The WB, which merged with UPN to become The CW -- "7th Heaven" scored such good ratings for its finale that it was brought back for one last season. The show's final season concludes on May 13.
"What an amazing accomplishment that is these days," Priestley says, "to have a show on for 11 seasons. That's remarkable."
Considering how long the show has been on, and the fact that this is the first time he's ever directed it, Priestley could be forgiven for some nerves. But Collins says he's a pretty cool customer.
"In this medium," Collins says, "a director's chops are apparent within 20 minutes. You can't fake it, because the medium and the demands of shooting on this schedule are such, if the director doesn't know how to film it, you can tell by the way they line up the master and then discuss the coverage with you.
"Jason's all over it. Plus, he's an actor, so he tends to understand better when we can do it better and when we don't need to do it better."
Hicks concurs, saying, "He's neat. He's got an actor's energy. He says, 'Do it again.' I mean, at this point, a lot of times directors just let us be. But it's really nice to be challenged and directed."
"I would hope I'm a confident director at this point," Priestley says. "I've been doing it for 15 years. I enjoy it, especially coming to a show like this, where it's such a great group of actors that are so good at their jobs. It makes it a lot easier on the director."
While a movie director works hard to put his stamp on a film, a TV director, unless he or she is doing a show's pilot, usually doesn't have that luxury. That's especially true on a show as long-lived and established as "7th Heaven."
"I wish this sounded right," Collins says, "but it doesn't sound right -- you don't really want a director to bring something fresh, other than intelligence and good taste. They can't redefine the way the show looks. They can't help the crew shoot it any better."
"That's the line you walk as an episodic director," Priestley says. "You can't reinvent the wheel. You do want to bring something new to it. You do want to put your own little touches on it, without being too heavy-handed and without making it look like a different show, because you don't want to do that."
Just because he's sitting in the director's chair doesn't mean that Priestley has given up acting. He regularly goes before the camera, including recent ongoing roles in Fox's "Tru Calling" and CBS' "Love Monkey."
"The late and long-lamented 'Love Monkey,'" says Priestley of the short-lived, but critically acclaimed, series. "The 'Monkey' is dead. Long live the 'Monkey.'"
Priestley rattles off a list of recent acting jobs, including "The Screwfly Solution," an episode of Showtime's "Masters of Horror"; a Canadian family film called "Luna: Spirit of the Whale"; a science-fiction movie called "Termination Point"; and "Subs," an FX pilot he also directed.
And Lifetime has picked up a pilot he stars in called "Side Order of Life."
"It's been a really good year," he says. "I've really enjoyed them both, being on both sides of the camera."
With "7th Heaven" coming to an end for real this time, we may not know until May whether there are any shows like it on the fall schedule.
Priestley, who's due to become a first-time father this summer, says, "It leads to the question of, what is left on TV that a family can watch together?"