Spring 2015

On the Air - NCIS: New Orleans

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.


Local Character: (top) Director-producer James Hayman says the strategy he and the other directors, including (bottom) Leslie Libman, employ is to keep everything on the show moving as a way of creating "a swirl of energy." (Photos: Skip Bolen/CBS)

For James Hayman, director-producer on NCIS: New Orleans, the cast isn't confined to the show's intrepid team of investigators, led by Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, and the people they encounter week in and week out solving crimes tied to Navy or Marine personnel. That cast list includes the Crescent City itself.

"We look at this show as if New Orleans is in fact another character," Hayman says. "One of the things we do is look at how we can 'New Orleans' each script. We did an episode early on, and what had been written for the opening teaser was a guy breaking in to a junkyard. I said, 'Well, that's sort of Anytown, USA. There must be a junkyard for abandoned Mardi Gras floats.' And sure enough, there was. It's a signature we embrace. Of course, the flip side of that is, you can throw the camera up in the air, and where it lands, you're going to find a cool shot or a cool venue. It's a great town that way."

Leslie Libman, whose season one episode "Baitfish" involved exploding a bomb in the neoclassical Peristyle pavilion at City Park and setting ablaze a condemned crack house in a dicey neighborhood, says six of her eight filming days were on location. "We're shooting in very interesting places, and putting our characters there," Libman says. "Sometimes the locations aren't beautiful, but they're very, very real, and I loved that. There are views of New Orleans that no one's ever seen."

The rich history and flavor of this vibrant port city—from its people to its landscape and of course its culture—even inspired another key directorial decision, Hayman says. After the series started production last year, becoming the third iteration of the successful NCIS brand and the first to base itself outside of Los Angeles (which subs for Washington, D.C., on the flagship show), Hayman wanted to capture the energy of the city.

His strategy was to keep everything on the show moving, as a way of creating "a swirl of energy," says Hayman, who began calling for handheld and Steadicam shots, and prime lenses. Even when the action changes from city locations to the NCIS team's French Quarter headquarters, the emphasis is on movement. Adds Hayman, "Our characters don't stand around a lot. They're either pacing or walking or multitasking as they come up with ideas. And if they're standing in front of a monitor, then the camera takes the place of their movement. We don't like a stationary camera."

A massive squad room set that includes stairs, a second story conference room, a kitchen, and a courtyard facilitates the blocking of a tightknit band of agents in motion. "It's a really beautiful design," Libman says. "It has a lot of doors and windows so people can come and go through something like 15 spaces. Unlike a squad room in a procedural with only one entrance and one exit, this has so many ways to look at a scene."

Oz Scott, a veteran episodic director who has helmed two NCIS: New Orleans episodes so far, believes all the bodies in motion has an added bonus too. "I think choreography helps actors memorize lines," Scott says. "As opposed to standing there, they're thinking, 'Well, first I move here 'cause I have to deal with my computer, then I've got to get my gun, then I've got to leave.'"

Since the NCIS franchise thrives on the likability of its core characters—dedicated justice-seekers who enjoy their colleagues' company and lovingly tease fellow investigators—Scott directs the actors with an eye toward burnishing the camaraderie. That goes double for guest performers who may assume they're around only briefly. "I always tell actors, 'Think of your episode as an audition for the next couple of episodes, because if the writers see you're connecting with somebody, it gives them thoughts.'"

In Motion: Director Oz Scott, who has helmed two episodes, believes choreography is the key to getting natural performances from his actors. (Photo: Skip Bolen/CBS)

For instance, Scott's early episode "The Recruits" marked the first appearance of wheelchair-bound actor Daryl "Chill" Mitchell as tech-savvy NCIS team member Patton Plame. "It allowed me to help define who he was," says Scott, who noticed on the first day of shooting that Mitchell was tamping down his normally ebullient personality once the cameras rolled. "I said, 'Cut! Cut! Just go for it!' So we made up two funny lines to throw in, and they stayed in the script. Now he's gotten a lot more, because suddenly he's this great, interesting character they can write for."

For Hayman, helping foster that on-screen collegiality isn't about demanding it, but maintaining a friendly workplace, setting an example, and being open. "As director-producer you bring your A-game, and in doing so, inform others they need to bring their A-game," Hayman says. "And you listen. Not just to actors, but everyone. You listen to people's issues, their problems. Because if you think you're going to have the right way every time, you're naive. Let the best idea win."

Overall, NCIS: New Orleans didn't take long in its inaugural season to become a well-oiled machine, which Hayman credits to a can-do attitude among the production crew, many of whom are Big Easy natives, and the work of 1st ADs Eric Fox Hays and Handel Whitmore. By the time Hayman directed the seventh episode, "Watch Over Me," he could film a large-scale teaser scene involving a motorcade, a protest outside a building, a suspicious character in the crowd, and an assassination—all on a closed-down street in the French Quarter—in only one day. He accomplished it by running four cameras at once, each on a key piece of the action.

"The trick is not to do multiple takes," Hayman says. "You do one, but then you change the focal length, or you move the camera a bit. With a scene like that, with a lot of moving pieces, it's about variety. Honestly, the hardest part was watching all four cameras at once. I'd say to the script supervisor, 'You watch this camera,' then tell Gordon Lonsdale, our cinematographer, to watch another one, and I'd watch two."

Taking in the dynamism of New Orleans and all it has to offer makes the job that much more enjoyable too, Hayman says, whether it's capturing it on film or experiencing it in the off hours. It was only the second episode, Hayman recalls, when director James Whitmore Jr. came up with a shot on a balcony that tracked in, over Bakula's shoulder, and rested on a wide view of the French Quarter.

"One by one, every local crew member came up and said, 'Couldn't do that in L.A. now, could ya?' And I got kind of teary about it, because I thought, 'Yeah, you're right!' That's what we want to keep doing."

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