Spring 2015

On the Air - Jane the Virgin

The quality and variety of episodic television may be at an all-time high. With long-running comedies like New Girl, newcomers like Jane the Virgin, and dramas like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and NCIS: New Orleans, the range of material is vast. We asked directors about the challenge of creating some of today's most acclaimed series.


Page Turner: (top) Brad Silberling, who directed the pilot, created a mission statement for subsequent directors, including (bottom) Edward Ornelas. (Photos: (top) Greg Gayne/The CW; (below) Danny Feld/The CW)

Last year director Brad Silberling sat on his back porch with the pilot script for Jane the Virgin written by Jennie Snyder Urman that had just received an early pickup by The CW. After reading it twice, Silberling texted Urman. "Hey, it's Brad," he tapped out. "I read your script. I think I know how to do this."

Jane—the story of Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a religious twentysomething who is saving herself for marriage when she's accidentally inseminated by her gynecologist—would definitely require a special directorial touch. Based loosely on a Venezuelan soap opera, the series is a tone-shifting combination of madcap comedy, family drama, and mysterious murders that need solving. At times it resembles a melodramatic Spanish-language telenovela, and at other times it seems to be spoofing the genre. The show was a breakout hit in its first season and is planning season two.

Taking his inspiration from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's whimsical 2001 romantic comedy Amélie, Silberling explains that the key to making Jane work was to keep the acting grounded and let the direction provide the extravagant fairy tale flourishes. "If the characters seemed too outsized, they'd go off the rails and the audience wouldn't relate to them," Silberling says. "Stylistically you get to create a very contemporary fable. I wanted the scenes to feel like page turners and my camera would whip you into a moment from the past, and then take you to the next beat."

Silberling, who directed two other episodes, implemented many of the series' distinctive touches including conversations that are conveyed in on-screen texts and superimposed titles that provide exposition, a bridge to the next scene or simply make a joke. One storytelling device—a booming-voiced narrator who offers mini-recaps and wry commentary—evolved organically from the script. "We realized that it was a tool that we could use for punctuation, and narrative help, so we added quite a few in post," Silberling says. "These shows have to come in at 41 minutes and they're inevitably long. [These storytelling devices] were an unbelievable help in creating story connections that get lost by dropping a scene."

To establish pace, Silberling used temp tracks by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (whom Silberling later persuaded to compose Jane's theme music). "I wanted the show to have a rhythm to it, the sound of hands clapping," Silberling says. "Some directors don't care [about music], but I'm obsessed with it. I pre-visualize with it."

To assist subsequent directors on how to approach a series with a large cast, dozens of plot twists, and fluctuating moods, Silberling outlined his thought process from the pilot in a mission statement, "Visualizing Jane." "It's honestly to get everybody excited and to not feel trapped," Silberling says, while acknowledging that shooting 60 short scenes on a seven day schedule is a huge task. "I want everybody to realize that it is the most creative directing assignment."

For Uta Briesewitz, who directed two episodes, Silberling's clear visuals in his pilot were as important as his manifesto. "The camera is never selfish or distracting or doing any kind of elaborate moves," Briesewitz says. "It's there to serve the actors and you should be able to read their performances."

What Briesewitz also discovered was that because of all the interconnecting storylines on Jane, every scene on the schedule has equal importance. "You can't really rush through any of the scenes—you have to focus on every one, because they all matter," Briesewitz says. "Sometimes a character will get just a couple of scenes in one episode, but they're still really important."

Scene-by-Scene: Director Uta Briesewitz has directed two episodes so far and believes it is important to give equal focus on every scene for each episode. (Photo: Danny Feld/The CW)

If she finds the Jane table read particularly helpful, it's because it's a great way to pick up clues about how an actor plans to approach the material. "It helps me figure out how to order my shots," Briesewitz says, offering the example of a run-through in which Jane had trouble tamping down her welling emotions during an exchange in which she admits to her mother and grandmother that she is having second thoughts about giving up her future baby for adoption. Noticing that, Briesewitz made sure to shoot Rodriguez's close-up first. "I never want to waste a great performance on a wide shot," says Briesewitz, whose hunch about Rodriguez paid off. "She was just so beautifully raw in the scene, and it was hard to match it in other takes."

For the most part, the directors keep the cast on script. When a bit of riffing is necessary, they often turn to Jaime Camil, who plays Rogelio De La Vega, the outlandishly dashing telenovela star who turns out to be Jane's long-lost biological father. "[Jaime is] such a gifted comedian," says Silberling, who in episode three directed Camil to say his character's name so quickly that a hotel desk clerk was unable to decipher the blur of words and had to ask him to repeat it over and over again. "Then we did a whole run where we kept cross cutting to it in the episode. It was incredibly funny—and [Jaime] didn't even know why I was asking him to do it."

A unique challenge for directors of the show is gauging the performance of actress Ivonne Coll, who plays Alba, Jane's grandmother. When Jane speaks to Alba in English, her grandmother often replies in Spanish. While subtitles translate for the TV audience, it's a different story for directors who may not know the language. Edward Ornelas, who grew up listening to Spanish but isn't fluent, says "in terms of directing her, I think a lot of it is about the emotion I'm feeling as I'm watching [the scene]. If I believe what she's saying, if I feel it in her voice, her face, her eyes, and how the other actors are reacting to her, I feel like it's working."

Though set in Miami, Jane is shot at the MBS Media Campus in Manhattan Beach. The Los Angeles-adjacent beach community has the requisite blue skies, ocean views, and a nearby Ritz-Carlton to use for exteriors of The Marbella, the luxury hotel where Jane works. However, the coastal city also has a required five-day advance notice for shooting car chase scenes. So when Ornelas discovered that he'd be directing a vignette with two characters in a speeding car, but didn't have time to get the permits, he had to think outside the box. The solution came in the form of the studio's nearby parking structure. "We just cheated it," says Ornelas, who affixed fluorescent lights to the garage's concrete pillars and used a long lens shooting across the actors to give the impression of speed. "We basically broke the scene up in to three parts. We shot the first third, then backed up and did the second third, and then backed up again and did the last part." Because the car never got over 35 mph, stunt drivers weren't needed. "It was a bit of an experiment," says Ornelas, who didn't know whether his idea worked until he got a call from the editor.

"He said, 'Where did you find that long underground tunnel?'"

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