WARNING: SPOILERS ARE KEPT TO A MINIMUM – BUT THEY DO OCCUR
Tonight’s episode is a little different for us. It feels, at least to me, like it focuses on fewer characters than usual. There’s no Peter story, no Isaac/Simone story, a different kind of Hiro/Ando story, a new character (previously peripheral) takes center stage – Sylar, and two characters cross that have never crossed before – Niki and Matt. The center of the episode is dedicated, for a relatively long stretch, to the scenes in the diamond district where Matt, Niki/Jessica and Malsky have their showdown. I think the episode is a success and I think tonight’s director, Roxann Dawson, did a really nice job of bringing all the different elements together. The story moves fast, looks great and all the performances are right there.
At this point in the season, Tim and the writers are beginning to re-direct the show towards the season finale. New subtle changes in character and character trajectories are taking shape. This episode represents (at least in my opinion) some shifts in the way we’ve told the character’s stories up to now. Claire’s story is in a natural progression, except for the fact that Nathan enters into it. Hiro and Ando’s story on the other hand, is an experiment. In this episode, they step outside the flow of “the big story” and we introduce new characters into their story. It’s purposefully more comedic. Sylar takes a new role in the series too. For the first time we follow him as he tracks down his victims. When Suresh enters, he enters into Sylar’s story instead of visa versa. (The new connection between Sylar and Suresh should prove very fruitful dramatically.) But Matt and Niki’s cross represents, in my opinion, a bigger stylistic difference for us. Matt is now off the police force, and as he searches for a new identity, new darker choices will be presented to him which will influence him in (potential) futures. Jessica is in charge of the body she shares with Niki. She’s hiding who she is from Micah and DL, and her dominance will ultimately force Niki to grow.
In a typical HEROES episode, every character gets a three or four scene arc. As Tim Kring has said, this requires very streamlined writing. There’s no fat for characters to get to know each other slowly. The fact that characters get to the point quickly is, I think, part of what gives HEROES its narrative drive. These few sequences are then inter-shuffled. In this episode, for a full act and a half (meaning from commercial break to commercial break), we stay with the story and the action of the Matt and Niki/Jessica story.
Tonight’s episode was directed by Roxann Dawson. Roxann is a bit of a different kind of director for us. This is because of her long, extensive background as an actor before she began to direct: http://imdb.com/name/nm0206259/
I’ve been distantly aware of Roxann for a couple of years. My friend, Ken Biller, who was one of the SMALLVILLE writer/producers in season two and three used to work on STAR TREK VOYAGER. Roxann was a series regular on that show, playing the troubled half klingon/half human "B'Elanna Torres." I believe VOYAGER is where she got her first break as a director. Ken Billler used to always recommend her and tell me how great her work was visually. But before SMALLVILLE could hire her she became a producer/director on CROSSING JORDAN (Tim Kring’s other show.) Through Tim, Dennis Hammer and Allan Arkush, Roxann came (for just one episode) to HEROES.
Obviously, the transition from actor to director is often very successful. Beyond their own craft, the actor is always on set, and is in a position, if interested, to watch and learn much of what goes on behind the scenes. As a producer/director myself it’s easy to i.d. which actors have an interest in directing. Simply, they are the ones who don’t go back to their trailer between takes. They stand behind your shoulder and ask a lot of “how” and “why” questions. I remember when I worked on THE WONDER YEARS, Fred Savage was always like that - asking questions and interested in the behind the scenes. The crew was always saying “I won’t be surprised if that kid becomes a big director some day.” Sure enough Fred went on to direct and produce PHIL OF THE FUTURE and lots of Disney Channel shows, and is now directing his first feature DADDY DAY CAMP. On SMALLVILLE you could always tell that Tom Welling was interested in the mechanics and reasons behind why I made the choices I made. Tom has directed two episodes of that show now and they turned out well. My understanding is that Roxann was also exactly like that.
I’m not sure Roxann would like me focusing on her acting. She certainly never referenced it during the whole time we worked together. And, she’s progressed from director to producer/director very quickly – so I’m sure that it won’t be long in the Hollywood community that she will only be known as a director and producer/director. But I always think it’s interesting how people make career transitions in this business.
From my point of view, Roxann was one of the best experiences I’ve had working with a director on HEROES. At first, I was a little concerned because there’s a lot of action in the show tonight and I didn’t know if she had much experience choreographing this. Also, HEROES aspires to being a pretty visually exciting/unusual show. I’m always challenging the directors to think outside the box in how they stage and shoot their scenes. I am frequently disappointed. I think a lot of people who direct TV get burned over time, because they go on shows and the producers say “We want a show that really looks different than anything else on TV,” and in the end, the producers don’t mean it – in fact what they really want is the same old over-the-shoulders and close-ups that every other show in the world wants. But on HEROES we really mean it. Roxann, to my mind, totally got it. Look at the way the scenes with Matt and Jessica on the stairwell are shot. There’s a lot of long lens shots with foreground messing up the close ups. The angles are not the usual ones – so, when cut together they result in a little more edgy feeling. Look at the way the limo scene with Malsky and Matt is staged. These are very unusual, nontraditional angles for a driving scene. In fact, according to traditional rules of editing – they shouldn’t “cut” together. But they do. I love the way that car scene looks. There’s another simple scene that goes by fast. But I LOVE the way Roxann shot the scene where Malksy and Matt approach the diamond district building and the reveal of Jessica waiting out front. It’s all a little off and a little dangerous. I don’t even know how to describe why this is, but it is. In the scene with Claire and her Mom walking in the grassy area outside the trailer park, the shots are more traditional – but Roxann shot extremely wide shots that give the scene an evocative loneliness.
Also, what I want in a director is a little tenaciousness to fight for the quality of their episode. As I’ve said before the director is the only one on HEROES who is focused ONLY on that one episode. There were several occasions where Roxann, very nicely, held her ground to shoot things the right way. The location we shot for the stairwell and for Zane’s apartment were both challenged by us, the producers, on financial or logistical grounds. Roxann has a great eye and she knew both of those locations would be visually rewarding, even though the stairwell was in an expensive, difficult-to-shoot-in location and Zane’s apartment was down in San Pedro, which is technically within our work “zone” but it’s far away – a haul for the crew. The Zane scenes where challenged because the question was “Do we really see enough out the windows to justify the long commute for the cast and crew?" Roxann thought it did – even though in rewrites we decided that Zane would drape plastic over his windows in the early scene. She thought the odd views from the window were different from anything we’d shot on the show up to now. I cautioned Roxann that if we did go to all the trouble to go there we had to make sure we saw the views. She agreed. She did it. And we see it.
There is another directorial/filmic challenge to this episode that may not be obvious at first glance. There are many scenes that are intercut between two or more sets of characters who are in separate places. Typically, most scenes take place with characters talking to each other in one place. Because of this, there is a natural rhythm and performance that a director can observe in these kinds of scenes. But Roxann had many more scenes than usual where characters are interacting, or inter-related but not actually involved with each other. In the beginning there is a sequence of three scenes – one in which Jessica is opening an envelope, while in another Matt talks to his wife and in another, Malksy arrives in LA. There are also a number of phone call scenes - i.e. between Claire and her Mom. There is a scene where Claire is outside the window listening to Meredith and Nathan talk, followed by a scene which intercuts between Claire angry and Nathan driving away. Even though all these scenes flow together smoothly in the show -- think about it. Adrian Pasdar wasn’t there when Hayden was looking off camera and throwing the rock. Hayden wasn’t there when Adrian reacted. Jessalyn and Adrian were there for a portion of scene when Hayden overheard them talking about her, but they weren’t there for every part of every take. These scenes are more difficult to control for a director. What’s really happening is usually that a script supervisor is reading off-camera to the actor at a far-from-performance level. The actors then have to work harder to maintain a real performance and the directors have to work harder to maintain a consistency of both actors’ performances, which aren’t actually happening at the same time. Also, by definition, the scenes have to be more designed by the director to make sure they intercut. A simple example of this is that, typically, in a phone call between two actors, shot at different times, one usually stages it so that one actor looks right and one actor looks left during the call. This way when the scenes are intercut it looks like the characters are, subtly, talking to each other. On HEROES we mix this up a bit. Sometimes having actors purposefully look opposite ways so they don’t look at each other in cutting. Or “short-siding” them compositionally (i.e. giving them less negative space in the frame in the direction they’re looking and more space behind their heads.) This adds tension because the frames are less “comfortable” for the audience than classic compositions.
There is a scene that Roxann enhanced in editing as well. The scene where Hiro slams against the wall of the closet he’s trapped in was written very simply. Roxann had the idea to start his “one… two…three” over black and then to rapidly cut together a series of takes of Hiro running at the door. This version is much funnier, and makes it look as if Hiro has been up to this for a much longer time.
There’s another sequence which was modified by Tim which is interesting as well. In the original version of the opening act, things played out in a linear fashion. Matt talked to his wife about being a bodyguard. Jessica opened a letter and talked on the phone about taking the hit on Malsky. And then Malsky arrived in LA to greet Matt. Tim felt that these played out without enough excitement. We experimented with several presentations (including split-screens), and settled on a version that intercut the three and ended on Jessica saying “Bang.” Sometimes there’s a great feeling in the editing process when you finally get it right. In this case the new cutting pattern created a sudden sense of inevitability – that these three characters are headed together. As I always say “peanut butter meets chocolate.” Like in the old Reese’s ads.
OK that’s enough for now. Next week an episode I directed.
So, until then….
ROXANN DAWSON – AN UNUSUALLY PHOTOGENIC DIRECTOR
ROXANN DIRECTS MASI
ROXANN DIRECTS MASI IN THE DARK
The following pictures are from THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARDS. I couldn’t attend because I was shooting half of the “Somebody flies, somebody dies” stuff that night. The pictures are courtesy of Jeph Loeb.
I though you guys might like them.
LEONARD ROBERTS AND NOAH GRAY-CABEY
VIEW FROM THE SEATS
GREG AND MASI
TWO HANDSOME MEN - JEPH LOEB AND MILO AT THE AFTER PARTY