Tonight’s episode is the second episode that I directed. It was, by design, a smaller episode… It follows fewer characters and goes to fewer locations than the first 5. HEROES, as you hopefully can tell, is a big and relatively expensive TV show. To balance out the big episodes, Tim Kring and the writers have planned that there will be three or four smaller, less expensive ones which, effectively, offset the costs of the big ones.
Also, truthfully, we’re still learning what stories to tell and how to tell them. Do we always need to see the whole cast in just a handful of scenes? Or should we, sometimes, concentrate on just a few of our characters and give them more intensively developed stories.
The good news was that the script, written by Natalie Chaidez, was great. It takes Peter into the next step of his journey. It presents Hiro with a challenge to his concept of what a hero is. It answers one of Claire’s important questions about her biology (or does it???) It amps up Niki’s story and explains who’s in the mirror. It also finally introduces Niki’s husband, DL, into the show – and resolves how much a menace to Niki’s life he is.
Natalie Chaidez – writer of episode 6
But despite the great drama and character development -- I wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose the visual design or the intensity that we’ve been developing for the last 5 weeks. Directing this episode was challenging… Most of it takes place in Niki’s house… A lot in a parking garage. A lot in Niki’s house. One scene outside Claire’s. One scene in a garage poker game. One scene in Isaac’s loft – AND THAT’S IT!!!
Compare that to my last episode, episode 3, where we were all over the world!!!
I’m very happy with the way the show came out. I reminded myself that Akira Kurosawa directed a whole movie ("High and Low") that took place in one house. I tried to use conventions of noir movies, supper low angles, super high down angles, and any other trick I could think of to keep the tension of the show alive… I think it worked, and taught me that the noir angles work for HEROES… great!
But all that aside, I thought I’d concentrate this blog on performance direction, and the role of the director as a director of actors in television.
Ultimately this is a performance-intensive episode. Everyone is great. Leonard Roberts is an obvious great addition to our story. But Ali Larter was faced with a particularly challenging task, one that she really rose to the occasion on.
Ali plays two characters in this episode. One, Niki, who is breaking down continuously and trying to hold it together while experiencing ever-escalating amounts of fear and trauma. Then, her alter-ego is introduced – a cool and in-control character we call “Jessica.”
On top of all that, the nature of filming is that we shoot wildly out of sequence – so that Ali from scene to scene had to play varying degrees of her breakdown. Now my job, and her job are to each do the homework (together and separately) to track what that character is doing at any one point and kind of regulate each other.
We also had the benefit, (rare in TV) to rehearse her scenes with DL and for Natalie to rework them a bit. This was an amazing asset.
I felt good about it all during shooting, but it wasn’t until I saw the first cut put together that I realized how masterfully Ali had handled the assignment.
To digress for a moment, I thought I’d describe my own journey as a performance director. I first came out of USC film school in 1984 – and was very well trained by that education in all of the technical aspects of film making. I understood lighting, production design, staging to camera etc. And I was ready in most respects to begin work in film. Unfortunately, at least at that time, there was not much emphasis on performance direction. There had been a kind of Hitchkokian “Actors are cattle, the director moves them where he wants and when he wants” attitude.
I was lucky enough to begin directing shortly out of school, but kept finding myself butting heads with actors – especially older, experienced ones. I would tell them to do something. They would ask “why?” And my only response was “Because it looks cool,” Or “Because I planned it this way – and it looks cool.”
After enough of this head butting I realized I was missing something in my skill set. So, I enrolled in an acting class with an acting coach named Larry Moss. This was like ten years ago, and Larry was a very well respected teacher… (A couple of years later Hillary Swank was holding the Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry,” and she said something like, “And I’d like to thank my acting coach Larry Moss without whom this performance would not have been possible.” Moments later Larry’s classes were a lot harder to get into.)
I took the class for about a year and took it very seriously. I did monologues; I got acting partners and put up scenes. What I learned (besides that I was a terrible actor) was that acting is an enormously difficult craft. If you’re doing the job well you are, as they say, “in the moment” and the minute the scene is over or the director yells “cut”you feel foolish and confused and vulnerable. The director of photography and production designer have hard jobs too, but they have more objectivity to know how they did.
I also learned that the currency of the craft is (a) emotion and (b) physical action. To communicate effectively to an actor you need to know what emotion or combination of emotions their character is experiencing and how that is to be physicalized with their bodies. The saying is that an actor’s body is their instrument – and it’s true. Like a cello or a paintbrush the actor uses their body, their voice and their emotions to depict a character.
Anyway, long story short, I believe I became a much better director of actors from that experience and I highly recommend studying acting to anyone who wants to direct. Also, as my own craft became more proficient - I learned that I can approach my craft similarly to how an actor approaches theirs. I too can “be in the moment,” meaning that I have certainly planned how I’m going to shoot and stage a scene and what results I want, but that if the scene evolves differently, or something I didn’t expect happens I can evolve my plan to incorporate it.
Finally, I learned that the best thing I can be for an actor is being a safety net. When an actor learns to trust me, we can have the experience where I encourage them to take any risk they want, and they can know that I will be observing them carefully, telling them when it works and when they have gone to far. In the years since Larry Moss’s class I have had a very fulfilling time working with actors. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
Another day at work for these three actors
Niki and DL together at last!
Now, to top things off I thought, since Ali had done such an amazing job, I would do an interview with her and give her a chance to talk about “Niki”, “Jessica” and her process as an actor.
GREG BEEMAN’S ALI LARTER INTERVIEW:
GB: Ali, your performance in episode 6 is so great. You play Niki, who is kind of continuously breaking down throughout the episode, and introduce a new character - Jessica – who is completely in control. And, of course we shoot in bits and pieces and completely out of sequence. So, for me, the control you demonstrated throughout this process to get to the result that’s onscreen, is fantastic. I’d like to talk about your process.
AL: Okay, let’s go.
GB: So.. You’d never done TV before HEROES, and it goes so fast with a new script coming out literally every week and a half. How do you break down and prepare your work?
AL: Well, first I just read the script once through and I try to see and feel my way into it, to have and instinctual emotional reaction. I believe that your first instincts are really valid..
Then I take the script and break it down chronologically. I try to track the characters intentions and feelings. I work on that and write down notes on the pages of the script. When we get to shooting my script looks like a roadmap.
Then, on the day of filming I check over my notes to remind myself of my intentions before we do the scene.
GB: Like in your trailer?
AL: Exactly. And also, when I’m doing a show as emotionally intense as episode 6, frankly there’s just no room for personal life for that period of time. It’s all about the work.
GB: I’ve found with actors, and with my own work as well, it’s really important to do a lot of homework and planning, but it’s also important in the moment on set to forget it all and be open to what’s happening right now. Your homework is valuable until it’s not.
AL: Right. That’s a great way of putting it.
GB: Talk about Niki and Jessica and the experience of playing these two very different characters.
AL: Before episode 6, really from the pilot, I felt deeply connected to Niki. She’s a voice I know. It’s more work to play Jessica.
GB: Even though Jessica is more like you?
AL: I know. I know.
GB: Why is that?
AL: Niki is so honest. She’s sensitive to the world around her. She’s my voice for women in bad situations who are trying to do the right thing. There’s something very honorable about her.
GB: And what about Jessica?
AL: Jessica is a struggle, because I have to own my sexuality and my voice to play her. I can’t rely on my emotional life.
GB: Because Jessica is so clearly focused and goal oriented? She seems like she’s very “Need-Plan-Result” oriented. There’s no second-guessing, or self-doubt in her..
GB: Let’s talk about your relationship to directors in TV. You haven’t done TV before, but how do you deal with the fact that (a) there’s a new director every week, and that (b) some of them may be more technical than performance oriented and (c) they may only have the needs and point of view of their own script than the big picture of the character.
AL: Actually, in film, I always felt that I yearned for directors that were vocal with me. But I never got that. For some reason, at least the ones I worked with, were more worried about the technical versus the emotional needs. I’ve actually found that there’s more attention to performance here, than in the movies I’ve done.
It’s also great to have you and Allan (Arkush) always around to push my buttons. It’s great when, every once in awhile someone gets something out of you didn’t expect.
As an actor, I’m always open to anyone’s thoughts and opinions. I want to try anything. But I’ve also learned I’m not always going to have the director focus me, so I have to trust myself.
GB: How do you do that?
AL: Everything is a growing, ongoing emotional experience, including learning to trust myself. Also, the TV schedule moves so fast that it makes me trust my instincts.
GB: I also notice that you’re very interested and aware of where the camera is and what it’s doing? How did you get to that?
AL: I don’t know. I’ve always been aware of it. It’s great though when you get to know a director, like you, and know that your shots are so good. It gives me a freedom to act “within” the shot; do you know what I mean?
GB: I think so. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still love it… I’ve stayed fascinated in the way that - where you put the camera, and what lens you use, and how you move the camera, in harmony with the actors movements and performance, can lift up and support the performance. It’s possible to do a shot that is all about itself, that serves being “a cool shot” first and foremost, and I can certainly so that sometimes. It’s also possible and very common for the camera to, kind of, just layback and record the performance – in which case the actor is kind of on their own. What I try to do is lift up the performance, the same way the cello’s in an orchestra lift up and support the first violin. The violin is the star, but it is better for the cellos.
AL: Also if you’re doing a specific shot and I understand what it’s doing, I can sometimes lay back and give a subtler performance.
GB: Right on. Okay that’s enough of your time taken up between setups. I know people are going to love what you did in tonight’s episode.
See ya’ll next week!!!