(note: Here's a link to TNT's official website for FALLING SKIES:
AND SO IT BEGINS!
Last night FALLING SKIES premiered - I hope you watched it and I hoped you liked it. For me - man was that a long time coming!
The show that aired last night was a two-parter. The first hour was the original pilot, which was directed by Carl Franklin and written by Robert Rodat. It was filmed almost two years ago. A few new scenes were added while I was working on the show - but for the most part it was complete by the time I came aboard .
The second hour – which begins with the scene where Tom Mason and his crew arrive to scope out the abandoned Armory and ends with our heroes leaving the newly found school to search for Tom’s son – was directed by me and was filmed last July – almost a year ago.
This process is normal for TNT – because their shows first run in a limited summer window, they frequently have long delays between production and airing. But for me, who is used to a network schedule where you are usually rushing through production to get shows on air – it was unusual.
Truthfully, though it was much more humane.
The writers had four or five of the nine scripts produced finished by the time we started shooting, then we shot them in Toronto, Canada – then I went back to L.A. to complete post production – locking picture, music, VFX sound mixing, etc. It was more like a movie schedule than a TV one.
If you've never read my blog before, or are unfamiliar with me and what I do - it's like this... I am mostly a director, mostly of television, and I am typically hired to oversee the direction of a television series. This means - that in collaboration with the writers, producers and studio, and in collaboration with the directors of individual episodes - I oversee the entire series.
My job is to create and maintain a look, a tone, and a consistency of performance, etc. etc. I guess I'm an overall "quality control" guy. My days are spent, working with the writer's on the production aspects (as well as the creative aspects) of scripts, scouting locations, overseeing set construction, working with the director of photography to design lighting and camera styles, overseeing props and costumes, scheduling production, auditioning actors, working with the established cast on big picture and specific performance issues - troubleshooting and solving all manner of problems - mostly production problems, but also, frequently personal and interpersonal ones. I also get involved with the editing of the film, with the visual effects design and implementation - and, to a lesser degree, with the music, sound effects and sound mix.
All this , of course, is done along with many other creative people involved on the series. It takes a lot of talented people, working together, to make any TV show - but for a show with a big scope and big themes like this one - even more so!
It's a great job and I'm lucky and proud to do it - and I'm luckier still to have, mostly, worked on shows I like and believe in!
I started writing this blog at the request of NBC and the producers for the first season of the show HEROES. Back then, I had no idea what I was getting into. But the blog seemed to strike a chord with the fans of that show. People seemed to like getting behind-the-scenes information about the shows they watch. It's a lot of work, but it makes me happy to do it - And so, when I left HEROES, I kept blogging.
To quickly re-cap some stuff I’ve posted before – about a year and a half ago – in April of 2010 I went to Dreamworks to watch what, was then called. “THE UNTITLED STEVEN SPIELBERG ALIEN INVASION PROJECT.” I had been ushered into a small room, which literally had a chair, a TV and a DVD player in it – nothing else. An assistant popped in the pilot and pushed play.
At the time I didn’t know ANYTHING about the pilot other than this title. I had no idea who had written it, who had directed it or even who was in it. The show came on – and within ten minutes I was thinking -- “Damn, I guess if they want me, I’m doing this thing.” The show had all the stuff I love to do – action, explosions, creepy and unique looking aliens. But it also had a really interesting take on the tried-and-true alien invasion genre. It was gritty and personal and you really got into the heads of the main characters. I also liked that the story was told only from the point of view of the main characters – we know what they know and nothing more. I also liked that the show focused on life and struggles within the group of fighters - not just constant battles. I also liked that it asked questions like "how do I keep my humanity and my family in this situation.
I also thought Noah Wyle gave the show an grounded base of humanity and believability - which made me believe it was really happening.
I met with Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey, the shows exec-producers who work with Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks Television. It was only in my first meeting that I learned Bob Rodat had written it. This floored me, because Bob and I had been really good friends twenty-five years ago in film school at USC. We had stayed friends for many years after that, our kids had even gone to pre-school together. But Bob had moved away from Los Angeles many years ago and I had completely lost touch with him.
It made sense upon reflection – Bob had written SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for Steven Spielberg. FALLING SKIES gets compared to WAR OF THE WORLD’s and INDEPENDENCE DAY, but to me, it has a big SAVING PRIVATE RYAN vibe to it. It’s an intense, personal, war movie, focusing on a specific group of fighters, as much as it is a sci-fi show.
Because Bob Rodat had numerous other feature commitments, he wasn’t able to stay 100% on board. Before I was hired, Graham Yost had already been hired as the head writer to launch the series by Dreamworks. I didn’t know Graham at the time, but was well aware of his extremely impressive body of work:
Graham and I got along famously – and his writing is superb. But everyone knew, going in, that after just a few episodes he was going to have to go back to his series JUSTIFIED. That meant someone else was going to have to come aboard to co-run the series with Graham and take it through to completion.
Enter old friend #2 – Mark Verhieden. Mark and I had worked together both on SMALLVILLE and HEROES. A few names were being considered for the second writing position - but I strongly supported the idea of Mark. He is about the world’s sweetest guy and his big heart gets into his scripts.
Before heading off to Toronto to build the crew and begin preparing the shoot - I worked in L.A. and hung out with the writers. I also had a couple of brief meetings with Mr. Spielberg. Obviously, this was an incredibly exciting thing. I found him to be very calm and gracious and very empowering to me. The part that was the best surprise was how easy it was to communicate with him. I eventually realized that throughout my career in TV, the people above me have I’ve always been writers, and executives and producers (sometimes actors.) Without realizing it, whenever I’ve had to describe my vision of how I see something tonally, or how I plan to execute it technically, I’ve always had to make a translation from director-ese to writer-ese, or executive-ese, etc. I’ve never worked for another director before. It made it so easy.
This was also probably helped by the fact that I’ve been actively imitating Steven Spielberg’s style for so long that to do things the way he liked was pretty easy. The main instructions he gave me were first of all – “No TV closeups.” What he said to me was that he wanted the show shot in wider shots than typical TV and didn’t want there to be a round of obligatory closeups in every scene. I inquired a bit more about this and thought about it a lot afterwards. My conclusion was that, it wasn’t that he never wanted a closeup. It’s that he wanted every shot in the show to have a purpose, a reason for being in it. If it’s time to go to a closeup for impact – then do so… But not just because it’s an obligation. In other words he wanted the episodes to be directed!
He agreed with me that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a good stylistic touchstone for the series, but he also referenced CHILDREN OF MEN. I love this movie, and again I asked some questions to gain specificity. CHILDREN OF MEN has a very stark, bleak tone – and he agreed that it shouldn’t be as dark as that – but that the sense of immediacy of that movie was what he was after. I said that, to me, the long-long continuous takes was the thing that made that movie so immediate and I asked if it was okay to do long, long masters like that. He said “yes,” but not all the time. TV has to hit a specific length and long, long continuous shots are not conducive to hitting an exact length. But, he said, if I saw the opportunity, go for it.
I was also excited to learn that he was a fan of HEROES and of SMALLVILLE. In fact, I don’t know how this very busy man does it – but he seemed familiar with almost everything. He knew the names of every director I was proposing hiring and seemed to have seen every TV show and movie ever mentioned.
As the series went on, he did stay very involved. He gave the big picture directives early on – but he also gave notes on every script and every cut of the show and he had definite strong opinions about the design of the aliens, the alien ships, the control harnesses, and many, many other things.
The pilot was actually a bit short, so some scenes were added – this was actually fortunate because TNT and we felt like there were some things that could be added to enhance and better explain the characters.
Specifically, the two scenes added were:
A scene with Moon Bloodgood, as Anne, and Noah Wyle, as Tom. The scene is one where Anne and Tom talk as Anne is sewing up the injured fighters as the 2nd Mass. prepares to pull out. This was added for two reasons – first in the original pilot Anne was not a pediatrician turned squad doctor. She did not have a specific career before the invasion or function within the group after the invasion. Graham, Mark and the writer’s thought it would give Anne more purpose within the structure of the show to make her the group doctor and they gave her the backstory of pediatrician to establish that she was in a bit over her head. The scene also functioned to more strongly establish the Tom/Anne relationship in the show.
The second added scene was the one, at night, where Tom and his team look over the distant alien structure and talk about how they want to kick alien ass. This was added both to show the alien structure and to show our characters relationship to it. We felt it was important to show that our characters were not giving up the fight, even though – for now – they were running.
The second hour was the first thing my production team in Toronto fully produced. A few key crew members came back from the pilot, but by and large it was all new.
I was excited because the style of the show was different from anything I'd done before. The pilot established a lot, but I wanted to take it further. The key concept was, as much as possible - to give the show a documentary feel. Almost every shot is handheld and I worked with the cameramen (and later the incoming directors) to try to make the shooting style spontaneous - in a documentary the camera operators don't know what's coming next - so I wanted them to "find" the dialogue and momenets in a way that didn't look planned. Also (in keeping with Mr. Speilberg's instructions) I didn't want "balanced" coverage - where all the closeups and shots are exactly the same size and angle. And also, very importantly, I wanted to design shots that played out in one continuous take whenever possible.
One of the first, big projects we had to do was to find and then occupy an entire neighborhood. In this world, our fighters are always on the move. In the first hour they were in the middle of the rubble of the mostly-destroyed Boston. But at the end of the first hour they leave for “The Great Meadow.” Graham wanted to show that the 2nd Mass. fighters took over a neighborhood to rest in. He wanted to shift the look of show – so that we were no longer in the middle of a rubble-filled battlefield – we’re in the middle of a beautiful suburban neighborhood where one day everyone just fled, or were taken away without a fight.
In general, one of the most challenging aspects of this show was to find and manage locations so that we see NO SIGN of humanity besides our fighters. That means we could see no cars driving by, no planes flying by, no incidental pedestrians, etc, etc… Sometimes we had to take these kinds of things out digitally – but, mostly, we had to figure out ways to frame them out.
As a director, I wanted to create the vibe of a respite – of a crew that had been fighting and marching long and hard – and that this was the first rest they’d had in awhile.
Once we found the neighborhood, the art department dragged furniture out into the streets and created the sense of an ad-hoc encampment that had been made right in the middle of the street.
I am also very happy with the scenes between Tom and Pope in the abandoned high school theatre. My production designer, Rob Gray, had the idea that the high school had been putting on "Julius Caeser" when the attack hit, and that now Pope's gang had taken it over. He imagined a backstory where the gang got drunk and messed around with the swords, knocking things over. The stage is in a planned dis-array with all this history in mind. Anyway Graham Yost's scenes where incredibly fun to direct - and very unusual. First of all they were long. You usually don't get a lot of long, interesting, character-developing monologues in television. It made it necessary to rehearse a little more than usual and work through the nuances. It also taught me a lot about Noah Wyle's skill level. Collin Cunningham's, Pope does, by far, most of the talking - and Noah, as Tom, just listens. But, in editing, we cut to Noah A LOT - and he keeps the "listening" alive and interesting. The old adage is "acting is reacting" - and in the editing room I really leaned what this meant as we edited Noah's performance.
Another moment I like is when Sarah Sanguin Carter's character, Margret, shoots the two bad guys. Sarah and I had worked on SMALLVILLE together three times and, even though this role is very different than what she's done before, I though she'd be great for this damaged, tough character. My director of photography, Chris Faloona, thought of the exact shot we used when she shoots the two guys. The first is moment is over Sarah's shoulder and Pope's brother is in the bacxkground as he's shot. Then the camera slides back really fast as she whips towards camera and fires almost exactly into lens. The moment is very intense. And Sarah follows it up with a very intense performance. She got herself into a state that day and her line reading is weird and "off" in a way I really like. Then Noah has a cool reaction, which makes me smile. He looks startled, like "What the f*** just happened?" It's authentic and feels real.
This isn’t just a gimmick that I do to keep me interested – I truly feel these kinds of long takes create a sense of immediacy and urgency. They challenge the actors and the crew – because film editing can’t be used to improve performances or tighten the pace. It all happens in real time and everyone has to do their job perfectly. Another show that used to do this – famously – was E.R. in it’s early years. So Noah Wyle was quite used to it.
Okay, whew – that’s a lot for now – I directed next week's episode too - so I'll go into more specifics about creative choices and working with the rest of the cast.
I really hope you enjoy this series as much as I enjoyed working on it...
AND NOW - THE PICTURES:
AND NOW - THE PICTURES: