Winter 2015

Mental Cases

Director-producer John Polson and his crack team of directors help Sherlock Holmes and a female Watson solve cerebral mysteries in modern-day New York. It may be Elementary, but it’s never simple.


DGA Quarterly Elementary John Polson
CRIME FIGHTERS: Director-producer John Polson (left), with (center) Jonny Lee Miller and Aidan Quinn, worries about all things on the show, including the freezing weather. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS)

In Brooklyn late November, during a location shoot for the crime drama Elementary, John Polson sat in a carriage house temporarily transformed into the set’s video village. Squished in among director’s chairs and portable monitors, as well as bicycles and ladders, Polson, who is the show’s director-producer, kept checking his cell phone for weather reports.

Meanwhile, inside the adjoining brownstone, the episode’s director, Seith Mann, was filming scenes with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, who play, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Joan Watson, a female casting twist in this contemporary update of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Each episode centers on a new, mysterious crime that Holmes, with his acute intelligence and hound dog instincts, solves for the NYPD with Watson’s help. “There’s got to be some usable DNA in here,” Liu could be heard saying on the monitors, as the two sleuths searched the kitchen.

All was running smoothly. But Polson was still worrying about the temperature. They had scheduled an outdoor shoot for that evening featuring Liu. The thermometer currently registered around freezing and continued to plunge. And whereas the crew had prudently donned knit caps and long underwear before coming to work, the cast didn’t have that option. Polson worried that filming in the bitter cold would adversely affect Liu’s stamina. Especially since the series was only halfway through its 24-episode production season.

“I’m sort of like the fireman,” says Polson, who has a knack for making people laugh. He is easily spotted on the set by his mop of brown, tousled hair and native Australian accent. “I go to where the problem is. I run to the problem,” he adds, before heading out the door to scout for a last-minute indoor location while Mann continued plowing through the script.

Putting out fires is part of Polson’s job. But he serves an even larger role in this bicoastal operation; he is the liaison between the writers in L.A. and the production team in N.Y. He’ll have directed 11 episodes—more than anyone else—by the time season three concludes. When he’s not directing, he’s fully engaged with the episode directors, supporting them in their prep and ensuring that the production stays on track.

“I’m protecting the directors and I’m protecting the scripts and the cast,” he says. Just that morning, for instance, Mann wanted to double-check the implication of a line when Holmes takes a whiff of a glass of milk and declares how long it had been sitting out. Polson had already determined its veracity. “So I was able to say, ‘Yeah, I researched it,’ ” he notes.

“John is very hands-on,” says Christine Moore, a director whom Polson brought onto the show after he saw her work on Blue Bloods. Moore says the directors and writers trust Polson’s sense of what can be accomplished. “He’s here all the time, so he can look at a day on the schedule and say, ‘That day’s impossible. We can’t make that day,’” Moore adds. “He can call Los Angeles and say, ‘Is there any way we can shorten up some of these scenes? Because we can’t pull it off in the time we have here.’”

At the same time, Polson encourages directors to think big. Last season, when the script called for a murder in a dinosaur exhibition hall, he helped arrange for six dinosaur skeletons, valued at half a million dollars, including a Tyrannosaurus rex, to be flown in from different countries and reassembled for a shoot in the expansive ballroom of the Brooklyn Museum.

“It’s an ambitious show, week in and week out,” he says, and has a more than adequate budget. So if a scene calls for a minimum of 40 extras, “we’ll get 80 extras to give it that cinematic feel,” he says, adding “we never take the easy way. We always try to bring our best game to the show.”

The directors get seven days to prep and eight days to shoot. Director Guy Ferland says that the script often arrives the day before preproduction begins. He immediately immerses himself, taking as long as four to five hours to slowly work his way through the complex, dialogue-laden pages.

“These are incredibly baroque scripts,” says Ferland. One of the longest totaled almost 14,000 words and 64 pages. All of the one-hour episodes take multiple twists and turns. “It’s as complex a show as any I’ve seen on TV,” he adds. “I relish that world and want to present it as truthfully and with as much passion as I can.”

 DGA Quarterly Elementary Christine Moore
TORTOISE TIME: Christine Moore (center) directs a scene in which Holmes’ pet turtle has to paint a picture. To get the shot, she attached a paintbrush to the turtle’s shell with putty. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS)

Ferland, whose prime-time directing credits include Sons of Anarchy and The Mentalist, continues to reread the scripts every day thereafter. He also takes detailed notes and never hesitates to get clarification on anything that raises a question in his mind. By the time the final tone meeting arrives, “I’ve committed it to my head like an actor,” he says.

Polson says the actors like working with Ferland because he is so well prepared. “He’s fast and very personable,” he says. “The actors love him because he never asks them to do anything stupid. There’s got to be a good reason for the characters to do something.”

In his most recent episode, for instance, Ferland had to direct several scenes of Holmes hypothesizing over death metal music blasting at earsplitting volume. Although the music got laid in during postproduction, Ferland had to be certain that the actors spoke loud enough for their words to be understood by viewers. So he had them rehearse with the music playing at full volume. When they subsequently shot the scene, they knew exactly how much to raise their voices. “We could only do this a couple of times,” he says.

Moore, who was prepping for her upcoming episode the same week that Mann was shooting, says that once she gets her hands on the script, she starts circling anything that needs her immediate attention. If the head of a dead body is required, she hustles to cast that actor so that the art department can start making a mold of his or her face to use. “The same thing with body parts,” she says. “That’s an example of what you have to be on top of.” For her current episode, she is working with the art department and prop master to get Holmes’ pet turtle to paint a picture. “We’re experimenting,” she says.

Ferland recently shot an episode that hinged completely on the believability of a talking doll. The doll is hooked up to a computer and might possess enough artificial intelligence to have committed murder. Due to legal hurdles, says Ferland, “we knew we would never get a doll off the shelf.” So he and the production designer and prop master spent more than a week creating one with an appropriately thoughtful and inscrutable expression. “The doll had to be strong; Sherlock had to respect it,” says Ferland, who nixed one mold because the mouth wasn’t quite right.

Locations—fabulous homes, offices, restaurants, and estates—are showcased to enhance the show’s sumptuous look. But despite New York’s abundance of buildings, it’s not always easy to secure a workable situation. Moore had a promising lead for an upcoming office scene. But she canned it after the production was asked to load in by 7 a.m. and load out after 5 p.m., tying up the show’s equipment all day. In another situation, her team landed what seemed like the perfect space only to be told at the last minute that the office had just been leased to a long-term tenant and was no longer available.

If Moore spies some location wiggle room in the script, she’ll inquire about it at the concept meeting held on the first day of production. “Hey, instead of an office building, could it be this?” she’ll ask during the bicoastal teleconference, when she, Polson, ADs, department heads, and the writers scope out the logistics of every scene.

Toward the end of preproduction, all the department heads revisit the secured locations for a tech scout. They decide where to set up their equipment and finalize other technical matters such as additional lighting. “The tech scout is critical,” says director Larry Teng. “That’s where you commit to your directions. You commit to your angles.” So when it comes time to shoot, “the crew knows exactly what to do,” he adds.

This final scout is also when the director further sets up the details of the locations. “You’re always trying to round out the characters as much as you can,” Teng explains. In one recent episode, for instance, a key suspect, a repairman, had recently lost his son and his wife had left him. Teng wanted the viewers to see how this man’s life had unraveled. After locating a small, cramped apartment to pose as the man’s new rental, they removed much of the real occupant’s furniture. “It needed to speak to the man’s isolation,” says Teng, who then added some telling props. “I wanted him to be disturbed in the middle of something when they came knocking on the door.” So Teng arranged for a half-eaten sandwich, a beer, and an ashtray with cigarette butts to be sitting out.

Teng also replaced the dining table with a workbench that’s cluttered with tools and paraphernalia. “I wanted there to be things for Sherlock to look at,” he says. “I wanted there to be questions to arise.” Teng says it also gave Liu something to look at and explore. “She’s just staying active in the scene,” he adds. “That helps with the blocking of it all.”

When it comes to blocking scenes, all of the Elementary directors approach the task similarly. They arrive on the set thoroughly prepared. But they tend to start with the actors’ intuitions. “I like to see myself as a partner with Jonny and Lucy,” says Ferland. “If a scene depends on their motivation and attack, I, of course, want to see what they want to do.”

DGA Quarterly Larry Teng
DGA Quarterly Elementary Guy Ferland

THINKING MEN: (top) Director Larry Teng (center) says the challenge of the show is telling a story that takes place largely in Holmes’ head. (bottom) By the time shooting starts, Guy Ferland has the script committed to memory. (Photos: (top) Jeffrey Neira/CBS; (bottom) Courtesy Guy Ferland)

Polson, who began his career as an actor at 17, never tells actors to stand in a particular spot simply because it looks good. “No actor wants to hear that,” says Polson. But if the actors are unsure of what to do or if the director wants to try something else in a scene, they tackle that next.

In an episode last season, Moore wanted to give viewers a subtle glimpse into Holmes’ relationship with Watson, which is rather enigmatic. In the scene, Holmes is impatient to share an idea with Watson. Rather then simply strike up a conversation, Moore had him burst through a bathroom door—where Watson is inside brushing her teeth—because he can’t contain his thoughts any longer. “Because that’s the way Sherlock is,” says Moore. “Sherlock has no boundaries.”

Polson says that he looks for decisive directors who can wrap a scene in a few takes and not subject the actors to unnecessary shooting from multiple angles. “Help me run the marathon. Be part of that 24-episode season,” he says. “It’s also about the quality of the next episode.”

Arguably the biggest directorial challenge of Elementary is its highly cerebral premise: Much of the action occurs in Holmes’ head. “It’s not a shootout kind of a show. It’s not a car chase kind of a show,” says Teng, who has also worked on Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-0. “It’s telling a story of deduction, which is challenging at times, because it really is a person observing the world around him and then coming to a conclusion based on minutiae.”

Teng enlivens that aspect by making sure that Miller always appears intellectually active in scenes. “It may be his eyes. It may be the way he moves around the room. But staging it in such a way that all the vantage points that Sherlock needs are within his purview.”

Directing a mystery series is also about withholding. “Part of the trick of storytelling,” says Teng, “is not feeling compelled to tell everything at once.” For one of his episodes that opened with a murder, he maintained tension by not showing it. Instead he cut to an earwitness, whose horrified expression tells you everything and more. “You don’t know what’s coming next,” says Teng. “And you have that power over the audience when you’re telling the story.”

The look of the series is “opulent” and “velvety,” says Polson. The directors tend to shoot wide, which allows them to convey more of the characters’ environments. And they especially like to give Miller plenty of room to display his fluid acting abilities.

“He has such amazing body language,” says Moore, leaning back in her director’s chair one afternoon in early December. She is situated today at Silvercup Studios in Queens, where the show’s stage sets of Holmes’ home, the police precinct, and the morgue have been built. At this point, she is more than halfway through production. And at this very moment, she is working on a scene with Miller in which he is jabbing his finger at a map and other pieces of paper (clues) that he’s tacked to his wall. “It reminds the audience,” says Moore: “Oh, yeah, here’s all the evidence.”

Each time they roll the camera, Moore yells, “And action!” with such force that her voice carries right through the plywood walls of the townhouse set. At the conclusion of each take, she jumps off her seat and heads onto the set, privately whispering with the actors about things to try or watch for in the next take.

Earlier today, she had successfully pulled off the turtle scene. “He did good,” says Moore, describing how they attached a dry paintbrush to his shell with putty. Since the art department had already painted the picture, he needed only to look like he was painting. “It was a Jackson Pollock-y kind of thing,” she says with a laugh. “It looked like a fucking turtle painted it.”

For the third season, currently in progress, the show added a new character: a younger sleuth named Kitty Winter, played by actress Ophelia Lovibond, who forms a sort of inner-sanctum triangle with Watson and Holmes. In casting her, Polson says, “I looked at a lot of reels. But I kept coming back to Ophelia,” who showed a wide acting range. “We aren’t sure of the arc, but I felt comfortable she could bring it.”

He also scouted out a new love interest for Liu’s Watson. “I used my gut instinct,” he says, in coming up with Raza Jaffrey, who he sensed would have good chemistry with Liu. “He had a lot of charm,” says Polson. “It’s fun when someone new comes in and adds a new dynamic to play with. It keeps it exciting for everyone.” But Polson doesn’t force newcomers to fit into any preconceived ideas about who their character may be. “It’s a constant balance,” he says. “You don’t want to say too much. Part of it is being informed by the cuts—what works. And you go with that.”

Polson also says the directors have a lot of sway in determining any guest appearances in their episodes. Last year, Teng cast child actor Delphina Belle for an episode in which her character is kidnapped. “It’s always challenging with a child actor,” says Teng. “So much acting is informed by life experience.” But he finagled a genuine reaction from her in a scene involving a gunshot that she hears during a rescue operation. During rehearsals, he would say “bang” and clap two boards together. For the actual shoot, however, he had a prop gun fired off. Belle palpably flinched. “It only works if you don’t tell her,” says Teng. “I do it with adults too.”

Usually there is also a murder or morgue scene to shoot. “Playing dead is not easy,” says Teng, who always asks the actors to slow down their breathing and eye movements the best they can. He also hands out heating pads if they are out on cold metal gurneys. Recently, though, right in the middle of a two-and-a-half-page morgue scene, one of the actors fell asleep and started snoring. “Is that what I think it is?” Teng wondered when he heard it in his headphones. He was annoyed because he feared it might throw Liu off. But she recovered. And the next day, says Teng, “we had a really good laugh about it.”

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