Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Episode 9: Homecoming

Sorry I missed the last couple of episodes. It’s been kinda crazed getting the show on the air lately as the time between shooting and air gets shorter and shorter.

Anyway… last night the cheerleader was finally saved… At least for now!

“Homecoming” is an episode I directed. All in all, I’m pretty proud of the episode and the way it came out. It looks and feels the way I wanted it to, I’m happy with all the performances and the tone and pace of the show. As always, it starts with script… In this case, Adam Armus and Kay Foster wrote a great one.

Milo Ventimiglia really stepped up as the hero of the show. His performance gets better and better with each episode. Hayden is great as always… It always feels to me that, whoever she’s in a scene with, I believe in the authenticity of the relationship. Also, Jack Coleman continues to be awesome. In this one, we show (I believe) that he is, in fact, a worried father. Whatever his overall assignment is, he genuinely loves Claire. I wonder if his love for her will eventually bring him into conflict with whoever he works for? I also wonder if whoever he works for knows that Claire has powers? I know I work on the show, but I legitimately don’t know the answers to things like that and I speculate along with you.

Today I guess I’ll talk about what my personal experience is from the time I first read the script through completing the episode. I thought I’d focus on 3 things… (1) the opening sequence at the school… (2) Sylar’s attack on Claire and Jackie and… (3) the fulfillment of Isaac’s paintings.

When I first get the first draft of a script I’m going to direct it’s very important that I get away from everybody and have the time to read it straight through without interruption. I don’t make any notes. I just read and try to pay attention to my emotional reaction. Ultimately everything we do is to convey/evoke an emotional response… it’s important to know what that response should be. Many times, during this first read, specific images or shot sequences pop into my head. I try to pay attention to them. Also, if anything isn’t working or doesn’t make sense I try to remember that. This first read is the most valuable and authentic experience I can have. In short order a lot of other people come into the mix with their own impressions and with lots of ideas of what is and what isn’t possible. If I don’t have a solid idea of what I think, I can, quickly, get swamped by what others think.

The next thing I do is re-read the script again. Ideally right then and there. But this time I make lots of notes. I break down each scene by location, time of day and page length. I make note of stunts, visual effects or things like rain or any other complexity. I also jot down any of the creative first impressions or script problems I have. A HEROES script is, roughly, 50 pages – I can usually get through this two-step process in about 2 hours. By the end of this process I have the script thoroughly in my head and I have a solid breakdown of all it’s elements.

TV is a game of attrition, so anything that stands out in a script as being difficult to do, expensive or time consuming will eventually get attacked. It’s important for me, at the very earliest stage, to decide what I want to fight for and what I’m willing to let go. When I produce for other directors, I attack. When I direct, I fight for. This is all very normal. Every idea and scene gets challenged and if any one of the various film-making partners is ever willing to let go of one (even under great duress) then it probably wasn’t necessary in the first place.

The Film and TV business has a high level of creative conflict – which can be very healthy or unhealthy depending on the environment. On HEROES the exec producers Tim Kring, Dennis Hammer and Allan Arkush make sure it’s healthy.

So… The three scenes I mentioned. The first is the opening of the show, the homecoming queen announcement at Claire’s high school. The original script had a different scene than what is currently in the show. It was a pep rally with the high school band playing. Claire and the other cheerleaders doing a routine, while all the jocks, freaks and geeks watched. It was then followed up by the principle standing on stage and announcing the homecoming queen.

Now I loved this sequence on the page. One of the things I love about HEROES is the many different tones that can work together in this show. This scene evoked for me kind of an AMERICAN BEAUTY vibe – Americana, hope, dreams, all tinged with melancholy and a vague kind of fear. I instantly knew how to shoot it. And whenever I have an instant sense of how to shoot something I (now) know it will turn out well… I was going to shoot everything in slow motion – creating very impressionistic images – starting on a pulsing shape that would later be revealed to be a pom pom. Then skirts…. Then shoes… then hands… then the crowd – the maniacal cheering faces of the jocks, the disinterested faces of the geeks. I would reveal ever more and slowly introduce Claire in the routine - determined yet somehow sad.

Anyhow, somewhere in prep, this scene got attacked. Too many extras would be needed, the marching band would be expensive, the choreography of the cheerleaders would take too long… I started to lose ground “I have a great plan, it’s going to turn out great” wasn’t enough – I couldn’t promise I could shoot it in less than half a day, and on those grounds the scene was cut and a simpler version (the one currently in the show) was conceived.

Now I’ve leaned through hard experience that to dwell on a loss, in this game, is useless -- I had to find a way to make the new scene as visually exciting as the other one had been. The new script that came out was a little different – somehow my emotional impression was of a more comedic/ironic scene - and less a tragic one. Kind of like the Lindsey Lohan movie, MEAN GIRLS… So I went with that, and came up with a new way to shoot the scene – playing a number of angles on a formation of cheerleaders moving to the lunchroom… Queens of all they survey.

It still took me a long time to shoot all the pieces I wanted, and I had to compensate by creating the idea of a long walk to where the principle is putting up the homecoming announcements. I knew that Hayden and Danielle Savre (Jackie) were solid enough actors that I could bank on getting the whole scene out in one shot – so I played most of their dialogue on a long steadicam shot. Ironically I shot probably 15 shots for the first page and 1 shot for a page and a half of dialogue…. Also, stedicam is not a tool we use much on HEROES, but it felt right to enhance the teen-comedy vibe I was going for.

The second scene I’d like to talk about is when Sylar kills Jackie in the locker room --- There was no controversy about this scene except that I had to do whatever I was going to do in two days. Basically I had twelve total hours spread out over two days . It had to be spread out because both girls are under 18 and can only work 10 hours a day and because we were shooting at a real locker room and we needed to stop before the football game.

I fell in love with this locker room, mostly because of the ceilings which I thought were very graphic. There was some pressure to build the locker room on stage – but I resisted this one because I knew it would never be big enough to get the West Texas vibe.

Now, going back to my first impression, when I read the script this scene read very brutally – like a slasher movie almost. Again one of the things I love about HEROES is the varied tones and I love that we don’t pull our punches, like many TV shows do. This scene needed to be horrific and disturbing – as much to establish the gravitas for Claire about what she’s up against as anything else - and that’s what I set out to do.

I did the whole scene hand held to give it an edgy vibe. I had the cameraman rush in at the action when Claire jumped on Sylar and whip pan on and off action just as an action was happening… all techniques to add a disturbing, disorienting feeling.

This is the kind of scene that needs a lot of cuts, all from the right angles, and which doesn’t take it’s final form until the editing room, when the right sound effects and music can be added. We went for big sound effects and eerie slow music. That plus a lot of blood and gore and a yucky creepy sequence is born!!!!


Finally, this episode also fulfilled most of the paintings that were created in episode 4 and 5… i.e. the one that Peter and Isaac discuss in episode 5 that “Tell a story like a comic book.” They are: frightened Claire close up, Cheerleader running up the stairs, Sylar standing over the dead body of the cheerleader, locker door being hurled telepathically at Peter, Hiro and Ando standing under a bloody Homecoming banner.

The paintings which Tim Sale creates for the show happen in two ways – sometimes we film the event first and give Tim the frame we want to match to. Remember when Hiro and Ando stood under the rocket ship in Tokyo and looked at the exact same frame in the comic book. Well, we’d filmed the Hiro/Ando shot first and did the comic panel as an insert later. That way is way easier for all concerned.

But… the paintings in Isaac’s loft were a different story. Tim Kring and the writer’s gave Tim the idea of what they wanted and Tim painted the paintings in a vacuum, before we ever had sets or clear ideas of how we’d end up shooting the scenes.

Now it was time to re-create most of the paintings in the episode. I took this task to heart, knowing that if we could recreate the paintings as closely as possible HEROES would look like a cool-ass show that had been carefully planned from the very beginning. The first was the painting of Claire running up the stadium stairs – this one had already been done in episode 4 and my job was just to make sure we got back to the same angle and re-created the shot as closely as possible. The second was Sylar standing over Claire’s (actually Jackie’s) dead body. This one was really hard, because Tim had painted the image in an unnatural perspective with a HUGE Sylar standing over a tiny dead cheerleader. I tried my best. Put Sylar in the right position. Put the cheerleader in the right position. But couldn’t match the shadow or the scale. Finally had to match Peter having lockers thrown at him by Sylar’s force. At the time the writer’s conceived of this one and Tim Sale painted it – no one had any idea how it would play out – just that it was a cool painting. I had to vamp the space this happened it, but in the end it’s a pretty good match. The last painting, of Hiro and Ando standing under the bloody Homecoming banner was another challenge. When Mr. Sale painted it, no one had any idea that he was even going to make the banner bloody, much less how we’d accomplish it. This painting actually plays out in episode 11 – but we had to come up with a way to set it up in #9, which we did in the scene where Jackie gets murdered.

Okay --

That’s it for now!

Lotsa photos this week!


Me on the right… Another happy day directing.

Sendhil Ramamurthy in India (actually the Universal backlot)

TV Guide declares him “crush-able” – whose to disagree?

We had COWS!!! That’s how big HEROES is!!!

Milo and Tawny on set.

The writers - Adam Armus & Kay Foster

Leonard and Noah goofing off!

HEROES – it’s like a TV show – only bigger.

First official photo of Sylar.

Hayden and I having a bloody good time.

Hayden & Danielle - bloody, bloody chearleaders!!!!!!

Look whose watching!