Fall 2014

Life (and Lots of It) Behind Bars

The popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black challenges directors with a large ensemble cast, nude scenes, stunts, child actors, and even insects. It may be hard work, but it’s never dull.


DGA Quarterly Orange is the New Black Andrew McCarthy

DGA Quarterly Orange is the New Black Jodie Foster
GANGING UP: (top) Andrew McCarthy (center) says the big challenge of the show is working with a huge cast with disparate experience; (bottom) Jodie Foster, directing Taylor Schilling, says the trick is “not letting the comedy get too broad.” (Photos: Jessica Miglio for Netflix)

Anybody who has stepped onto the set of a television production knows that when the director prepares to shoot a scene, everybody pipes down. Not so with Orange Is the New Black, the popular Netflix series situated in a women’s prison, now shooting its third season.

“They are all having such a good time,” says Michael Trim, who has directed the show’s extremely large and enthusiastic cast in eight episodes, including cafeteria scenes that feature as many as 60 actors. He doesn’t try to be heard above the bedlam that can erupt. He edges up to the table with the main actors and stands there expectantly until they start elbowing one another.

Director Andrew McCarthy, who has helmed seven episodes, doesn’t even wait for them to settle down. He instructs his camera operators to start rolling, confident that the actors will quickly jump into character. “This beast isn’t particularly controllable,” he says, laughing, “but it is rideable.”

Directing Orange Is the New Black is definitely not a job for the faint of heart. Besides the skill required to herd a sometimes unwieldy bunch, these directors must draw out performances that do justice to the darkly humorous scripts. And for many of these actors, this is the breakout role of their career.

“The biggest challenge of doing Orange,” says McCarthy, “is you’ve got a huge cast and you’ve got very disparate experience levels. You’ve got some real pros. You’ve got some wonderfully talented people who are very green. And you’ve got some wonderful personalities.”

The series, written and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, who also did Weeds, revolves around a cool-mannered blonde, Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling (whose biggest TV role previously was as one of the lead nurses on Mercy), who is sentenced to 15 months for her relatively minor role in a one-time drug operation. She led a yuppified existence before prison. Now she’s locked up alongside a racially and generationally diverse crowd that includes thieves and murderers, pushy lesbians, drug addicts, and emotionally unstable sorts, including the prison officials. Flashbacks to their past help humanize the characters and explain how they wound up behind bars.

The series can be humorous one moment, as when Piper has forgotten to bring shower slippers to prison and substitutes two Kotex pads. Or suddenly tragic when a young inmate overdoses. Trim, however, doesn’t approach it as a drama or a comedy. “To me,” he says, “it’s just directing what’s real, dressed up a little bit for the comedy. It’s funny that she’s wearing maxi pads on her feet. But at the same time, it’s kind of sad.”

Jodie Foster, who has directed two episodes, says the trick is in “not letting the comedy get too broad [and] not being so melodramatic when it comes to the drama.” Otherwise, “you’re bouncing back and forth between tones. And it’s impossible to keep it balanced.”

How Foster visually coaxes the interplay between drama and humor is evident in the bewildering opening scenes of “Thirsty Bird,” the first episode of season two, when Piper is awakened in the middle of the night and shuffled onto a plane loaded with other prisoners. No one will tell her why or where she’s going. Very un-Piper-like, she loses control of her emotions and unburdens herself to her similarly handcuffed seatmate, played by Lori Petty. Piper sobs about a vicious prison fight she got into and how she suspects it’s doomed her for a longer prison term. Foster directed the moment with an attentive and sympathetic close-up that soberly moves from one side of Piper’s distraught face to the other. But when Foster has the camera rack on Petty’s dumbfounded expression and her ineffectual response, “Damn, that’s fucked up,” it’s suddenly funny again.

DGA Quarterly Orange is the New Black Whilden

DGA Quarterly Orange is the New Black Michael Trim
CLOSE QUARTERS: (top) Director Julie Anne Robinson, with Uzo Aduba, likes to arrive a day or two early to explore; (bottom) Michael Trim, with Yael Stone and Natasha Lyonne, directed the pilot and set the visual template for the series. (Photos: (top) JoJo Whilden for Netflix, (bottom) Jessica Miglio for Netflix)

Trim, a co-executive producer during the first season, had directed the pilot for the series, which largely established its look. He examined prison photographs and researched women-in-prison exploitation movies, although he quickly realized that this subgenre of films about big-breasted dames who engage in catfights and prison escapes was too campy to be a genuine resource.

He wanted Litchfield Prison, a hulking gray set built at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, where the majority of scenes are shot, to appear properly institutional. So he outfitted it with overhead fluorescent lighting that is rarely augmented except for some additional lighting on whoever is in the foreground. “It’s one of the few times that the DP is going to be given the option that the actors don’t have to look great. They’re in prison,” says Trim. In addition, he says, “I want to be able to jump around quickly. I don’t want to have to light a lot of spaces.”

Trim also capped the number of removable wild walls. “I wanted it to feel a little more cramped,” he says. ”It shouldn’t feel comfortable.” He rightly assumed that it would force him and the other directors to find more inventive ways to shoot within the confines of the prison.

For example, Constantine Makris, a veteran Law & Order director who has directed five Orange episodes to date, designed a prop that looks like a wall vent to shoot through as though the camera were inside the wall looking out. He used it in a scene in which the prison goes into lockdown and an inmate hastily stashes drugs in a wall vent built into the set. After Makris shot the scene, which ends with the inmate lying on the floor, he switched perspectives and placed the prop on the ground and framed her face through the vent so that she appears to be gazing longingly through the slivered openings at the drugs, just out of arm’s reach.

In general, the directors avoid jumpy, jittery camerawork. The backstories are always shot with dollies, which is how it’s increasingly done for all scenes. Having worked with Kohan on Weeds, Trim knows that she writes long scripts that get trimmed in the editing process. He advises other directors to watch out for big moves or oners (long single shots). “Because if the line happens on the move” and something from that shot needs to be cut later, “that can really mess up the scene,” he explains.

Julie Anne Robinson, another former Weeds director who recently shot her first Orange episode for season three, familiarizes herself with the actors even before she meets them. She looks up their résumés and tries to watch some of their past work. “They like the fact that I’ve taken the time to put them in context,” says Robinson, who, for instance, watched a recording of Annie Golden (who plays the mostly mute inmate Norma Romano) in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins. Later on the set, she referred to it when she wanted Golden to give a particular glance. “I was able to say, ‘Annie, it’s like this.’”

Robinson always arrives a day or two early to explore the sets on her own, examining their nooks and crannies and viewing them from different angles for creative ways to block scenes, “until I know them like the back of my hand,” she says. “All those things go toward making the actors comfortable with you, which to me is absolutely critical to the success of an episode when you’re coming onto a series.”

Since Netflix shows have no commercial breaks, the directors must deliver 58- to 59-minute episodes as opposed to the approximately 45-minute length of a network or basic-cable show. One advantage to shooting commercial-free episodes is the elimination of act-outs, those cliffhanger-like shots that precede a commercial break. “That may not sound like a big thing,” says Makris, but they do take time and finessing.

Otherwise, say the directors, shooting a Netflix series isn’t different from directing a cable or network series. Orange contrasts more with a show like Law & Order, says Makris, where each episode is a stand-alone. “Orange requires knowing what went on in previous episodes,” he says.

The directors get seven days to prep and nine days to shoot. When Foster directed the “Thirsty Bird” episode in which Piper is temporarily transported to a high-security federal prison, Foster not only had to scout a real prison location to use, but she also had to cast an entire slate of actors to play the inmates and guards for that one episode. “It’s like casting a whole other show,” she says.

With so many recurring actors not under contract to be available every day, scheduling can be a headache, particularly for the 1st ADs (Vebe Borge and Rebecca Strickland for season three), who have to pull the schedule together. But all of the directors get a kick out of the fresh, gung-ho cast. “It makes it easier when you like the actors,” says McCarthy, who tries to cater to the needs of each one. “Piper often wants to talk and I let [Schilling] talk.” Uzo Aduba, who won an Emmy for her depiction of the quirky and mentally unstable inmate Crazy Eyes, “is wildly inventive,” says McCarthy. “So I often say to her, ‘Less.’”

Child actors, who are often brought in for the flashback scenes depicting the characters in younger, better days, present another challenge. Speaking from her personal experience, Foster says child actors can be diligent about memorizing lines. But they don’t necessarily sit around imagining what else they can bring to a scene. “You have to do that for them,” says Foster, who often won’t bother discussing what their young characters should be feeling. She gives them specifics. “What if you had an itch on your thigh?” she suggests. “I loved that when I was a kid. There’s nothing I loved more than a director saying, ‘I want you to look down at your shoes at the end of the line.’”

Many of the Orange actors are relatively new to television, including Laverne Cox, who plays the transgender inmate Sophia Burset and whose backstory, in the season-one episode “Lesbian Request Denied,” of transitioning from a man to a woman is quite demanding. “I was concerned,” says Foster, who took Cox aside and read with her and walked her through all of the subtle and incremental changes viewers might expect in someone going through such a radical transformation. “I wanted to see that difference when she’s just getting used to being a woman.” Foster received an Emmy nomination for the episode.

Often, the primary actors arrive on set with their own ideas about how to be blocked. Kate Mulgrew, who plays the Russian kitchen matriarch Red, is fanatical about her character. “She knows Red inside and out,” says Trim. Robinson recalls that even at her first meeting with Mulgrew, away from the set, “she was speaking in a heavy Russian accent the whole time.”

The directors sometimes need to hold actors back. “So that the comedy gets revealed through the behavior and not through some big performance,” says Makris, who will gently lead them in the direction he thinks a scene should go. “Sometimes it’s like eyedroppers. It’s like one drop at a time.”

“Other times,” he continues, “I’ll say we got the scene. But if there is something you want to try, now’s the time.” For instance, when Adrienne C. Moore, who plays Black Cindy, got a notion for her character to incorporate a little dance spin with her mop à la James Brown, it clicked. “When I see gold,” says Makris, “I put it in my pocket.”

Trim correctly assumed from the pilot script that there would be an abundance of nude scenes in the prison bathroom and that future story lines were not going to shy away from sex or nudity. So he had holes drilled in certain showers to enable shots through the water. Since most actors tend to be uncomfortable doing nude scenes, he says, “You get as many people off the set as you can.” Then he describes to the actors exactly how the scene will be shot, “so that they know exactly when we’re going to see what.”

For an inmate strip search, an entire lineup of actors had to turn, bend over and thrust their naked bottoms up. Foster eased them into it by doing lots of rehearsals with everybody clothed. Then she shot it from a side angle.

DGA Quarterly Orange is the New Black Constantine Makris
SIZING UP: Constantine Makris gently leads the actors in the direction he thinks a scene should go to reveal the comedy through behavior rather than big performance. (Photo: Jessica Miglio for Netflix)

The series will perhaps get even more graphic in the much-anticipated season three (all 13 episodes will be posted on Netflix at the same time in 2015). For one of his episodes, Makris was confronted with shooting a strap-on dildo. “Without trying to make it the focus of the scene,” he says, “it had to be seen.” He accomplished it in a long shot. “But, wow, when you see it, it’s quite a sight.”

During their busy prep period, the directors must also finesse anything to do with stunts or special effects. For the demanding scene capping season two, the villainous inmate Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) escapes from prison only to get hit and killed by another inmate fleeing in a van. Because of the scene’s complexity and safety concerns, Makris took extra time to carefully storyboard each shot. “You don’t want to make it up on the run,” he says. Instead of a dummy, he used a stunt person, who was placed in a harness with a wire, “and they yanked her up as fast as they could” with a crane. With the ability to marry the various shots in postproduction, no one ever had to be near the moving vehicle.

For a challenge of a different sort, Foster was handed a script featuring a cockroach that’s been trained by entrepreneurial inmates to transport cigarettes glued to its back to other inmates. “There are cockroach wranglers,” says Foster, who, coincidentally, had just shot several cockroach scenes for an episode of House of Cards. “So I had just been through deciding, Should we pull the cockroach on a wire? How do you get them to go from point A to point B?”

Foster was also worried because the cockroaches she directed on House of Cards had scurried much too quickly for what she’d need on Orange. “But these cockroaches were nice and slow,” she says. “They did exactly what they were supposed to do.” That is, until Piper steps on one and the story gets more complicated.

Episodic TV
More from this topic
More from this issue