By Paul Brownfield
Directors Hiro Murai, Ava DuVernay, Christine Gernon, Marcos Siega, Peter O'Fallon, Steven Zaillian (Photos: Dustin Snipes; Marcos Siega photographed by Marcie Revens)
What makes a pilot work? The question has never been so wide open and by extension harder to quantify. Technology is not done revolutionizing the way television is made, nor consumed; even as you read this sentence, a blizzard of new series is making its way toward a wide array of platforms.
As FX president John Landgraf recently forecast, the number of scripted original series on broadcast, cable and streaming services will swell to more than 500 in 2017. If he was sounding the alarm that too much content is bad for business, tell that to someone who gobbled up all eight episodes of Stranger Things five minutes after it hit the server—or, more to the point, DGA members seeking opportunities in their areas of expertise.
In the Platinum Age of television, certain operating theories about the pilot hold: It should declare its narrative forcefully while serving as an amuse-bouche of juicier courses to come. It should feel as instantly transporting as the first chapter of a novel without getting ahead of itself, literally. Also, it should fit with a network's latest branding strategy or fall in line with a sales agenda (the "right" actor, pitchable source material, a certain target demo).
"The thing everybody wants in the pilot as far as story is, what is the best way to set up the series? What's going to say, 'I need to come back and see that?'" says Marcos Siega, who directed the pilot of Time After Time, an upcoming series on ABC about a time-traveling H.G. Wells. "I don't think you need a lot of huge bells and whistles to accomplish that. It really is character-and story-driven."
But if story starts on the page, it increasingly needs directorial vision to reach fruition in all of its layers and complexity.
"Pilots are tricky because there are so many things you have to accomplish. For FX, it's about letting the audience in." -Hiro Murai
"Ultimately, a pilot—and this is one of the harder things for writers to understand sometimes—it's the final rewrite," says Peter O'Fallon, a longtime television director who shot the pilot of UnReal, Lifetime's seriocomedy set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality show.
Of course, every pilot presents its own set of directorial challenges, which for O'Fallon on UnReal was figuring out how to shoot a show that had another show inside of it, both with a full complement of characters. "It was a head-spinning exercise that ended up being a very complex puzzle," says O'Fallon, who was given 10 days and 26 actors to achieve the task. "I would stop now and then and have a look at the whole picture to figure out where we were on both shows."
For Ava DuVernay, who teamed with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Queen Sugar, her intent for the pilot was to create a lushly photographed, generously scored, and leisurely paced interpersonal story about a black family and its Louisiana legacy, touched off by the death of a patriarch. She was also aware that nuance, character and a palpable sense of place were not enough to reel in viewers for the long haul, so the challenge was creating a sense of immediacy by introducing a heightened sense of drama in the pilot's story line.
"Pilots are tricky because there are so many things you have to accomplish," explains Hiro Murai, the director behind Atlanta, a comedy on FX created by and starring Donald Glover. "For FX, it's about letting the audience in—knowing more back story about [series protagonist] Earn, having Earn be more accessible."
DGA Quarterly spoke to six directors about the making of their pilots—from the stylistic template they strove to establish to the crucial role that casting plays. Some had a direct hand in creating their shows or became producers after directing the pilot in order to see their visions through.
Establishing Tone, Character and Great Expectations
Regardless of genre, or story form, tone is a major point of emphasis.
Steven Zaillian shot the pilot for his HBO limited series The Night Of over 24 days of mostly night shoots on the streets of New York. Among the first things you notice in the pilot is the way the exteriors are lit, with a murky, bluish tinge. Periodically, perspective shifts, and we're seeing the action through a surveillance camera inside of a scene, at a convenience store or toll bridge.
"You have control over your color timing to such a degree now," Zaillian says of his lighting design. "I wanted that blue to feel cold."
In The Night Of, Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed) is an upstanding Pakistani-American college student who lives with his family in Queens. In the pilot, over a fateful, nightmarish night, he steals his father's cab to hit up a Manhattan party and ends up charged with the brutal stabbing murder of a young white woman in her Upper West Side brownstone.
Did Naz do it? The first third of the 80-minute pilot suggests this is the central question of the series. It isn't. Basing The Night Of on the BBC series Criminal Justice, Zaillian and his co-screenwriter, novelist Richard Price, are instead setting up an eight-episode, multi-character drama in which jaded and fractured people move almost by rote through drab, institutional buildings to enact the resolution of one man's guilt or innocence, while Naz undergoes a profound transformation while incarcerated at Rikers Island jail.
Even after commissioning the pilot, HBO passed on making the series in early 2013, then resurrected the project after its co-star and executive producer, James Gandolfini, died suddenly. When John Turturro replaced Gandolfini as Naz's defense lawyer John Stone, Zaillian only had to reshoot the pilot's ending, since that was when Stone, a major character, came onstage.
"Often, pilots begin setting up all the characters that will be in the series to come," says Zaillian, who directed seven of the eight installments. "The pilot was just the beginning of a long story, the first night of it, shown in what would feel like real time. Characters would come into the story when they naturally would, not be forced into it. There aren't a lot of pilots where the co-lead—in this case Stone—is introduced in the final minutes. I wanted to define the pace and feel and style of the show."
ABC's Speechless enters fairly uncharted territory as a half-hour comedy with a disabled character center stage. Teenager J.J. DiMeo (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy, which might rob him of mobility and speech but not membership in an eccentric family where it's hard to tell which comes first—everyone's inherent eccentricity or the way society regards the DiMeos as "different."
With an established career directing shows on the BBC, Christine Gernon came to Speechless through executive producer Jake Kasdan, for whom she'd directed episodes of Weird Loners, New Girl and The Grinder. With Speechless, she says, the key was "making sure the funny is something that doesn't feel exclusive to people in the disabled community, or excluded, if you go the other way."
In the pilot, we meet the functionally ragtag DiMeo clan as they're uprooting themselves, moving to a dilapidated house in a nice neighborhood so J.J. can attend the local high school. Gernon says she and series creator Scott Silveri wanted a less polished look than other ABC shows, and for the camera work to give the series comedic pace, literally and figuratively.
"I guess you imagine people can come into this idea of, here's a show about a kid in a wheelchair as being quite a static show," she says. "Our whole thinking was to kind of turn that on its end. We never wanted it just to be a show set in a house."
Now a hit for Lifetime, UnReal, created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon and based on a short film Shapiro made called Sequin Raze, is set behind the scenes of a show called "Everlasting," where mercenary segment producers go up against scheming but more vulnerable contestants to engineer a romance-themed trainwreck of a reality show.
"It didn't have the edge they wanted it to," recalls O'Fallon about the original pilot that Lifetime wanted him to reshoot. O'Fallon calls himself a "director-writer," and admits that he'll monkey with scripts. "Not a lot, but a bit." It's one of the reasons he screens pilots in a group setting, never for the writer alone, lest his changes on the page become a writer's fixation.
O'Fallon thought he could bring humor to what Shapiro, in Sequin Raze, presents as dark and nearly tragic. To O'Fallon, UnReal could be a story, infused with humor, about "the battle for a person's soul"—namely, the show's protagonist, a show whisperer named Rachel who can be as cold-blooded in getting contestants into on-camera breakdowns as she feels guilty about this talent for manipulation.
For all that, "The pilot itself was probably the hardest thing I've done technically," O'Fallon says.
That first hour had to convey the different tones of its two worlds—"the mole people" of UnReal, as the executive producers called the pallid crew lurking in the shadows, and the overlit, gauzy atmosphere of "Everlasting," the show happening in front of the camera.
Rather than swap out lights continually to shoot both sides of the mirror, "We shot four Steadicams at the same time," O'Fallon says, one with Red cameras for the mole people, and the other with Arriflex Alexas for the prettified, "Everlasting" scenes.
The best way to shoot Time After Time, Siega decided, was to hearken back to films that inspired him when he was young, like Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "I started looking at these old films that were more locked down, and disciplined, and, for lack of a better word, more elegant," he says.
For the look of the show, Siega took a cue from the script, riffing on Wells' disappointment that the future into which he arrives, while technologically advanced, is far from the harmonious utopia he had envisioned.
"When he gets here, he's profoundly disappointed," Siega says. "It's ISIS and war and beheadings. For the look, I didn't want him to get here and have the world be this poppy, glossy world. I'm on ABC; my hands are tied a little bit. But it's slightly desaturated. I pulled a little bit of the color out. I was very specific in the wardrobe and production design to not get very poppy."
Choices like these help Siega avoid what he calls "the network meat grinder," where it doesn't matter what you stick in on one end, it's going to all come out in little strings on the other end.
An Emphasis on Nuance and Roping the Viewer In
As it started, I wanted to get my Cary Fukunaga [who directed the entire first season of HBO's True Detective] on and just direct all eight episodes of [Queen Sugar]," says Ava DuVernay, who recruited a group of female directors to handle the reins after the first installment. "Then it became 13, then they ordered a second season of 16."
Queen Sugar is based on the best-selling novel by Natalie Baszile, in which two adult siblings—Charley Bordelon West, a single mother living in Los Angeles, and Ralph Angel, her troubled brother back home—inherit a Louisiana sugarcane farm after the death of their father. When Winfrey turned her onto the novel and the idea for a series formed, DuVernay—best known for her breakout feature, 2014's Selma—wanted to deliver for black viewers a rare, nuanced family drama, while also establishing a big, dramatic set piece in the pilot without losing viewers early on. (Her one rule for subsequent directors was no inserts, adding that she "wanted directors who came in to feel free to explore and do things with camera or framing that were true to them.")
"If you're going to see an independent film, you know what you're signing up for—people talking in rooms," she says. "In television, I was very aware of the fact that folks have got a remote in their hands, and at any moment they can change the channel."
In addition to adding an older Bordelon sibling (Nova, a journalist-activist and free spirit), she made Charley, the younger sister, the wife of an NBA player living a glamorous, and perfect, Hollywood life, all of which comes crashing down when her supposedly faithful husband gets caught up in a sex scandal, and Charley storms the court during a game to confront him.
"It was really a deliberate move," DuVernay says, asked about her decision to stage a big confrontation between an NBA player and his spouse. "To sit side by side with a desire for people to get to the end of this very leisurely paced series to witness the death of the father. I can't overstate the dearth of nuanced, unheightened, unhurried images that center on black people and black lives. I want folks who watch Empire and Scandal and Being Mary Jane to watch Queen Sugar. There is a certain current appetite for the more heightened scene, and so I wanted to provide that as an entry point for folks, so I can bring you into the heart and space of the rest of the show."
Time After Time's Marcos Siega incorporates the feasibility issue into his creative vision every time he directs a pilot. His new series continues his collaboration with executive producer Kevin Williamson, for whom Siega directed the pilots of The Vampire Diaries and The Following.
Time After Time—based on the 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, who time-travels to the present to pursue his friend Jack the Ripper—will air Sunday nights, paired with ABC's Once Upon a Time. Rather than dolly back and forth on his actors in close-up, Siega wanted to push in on them only when the emotion within the scene called for it, as he had observed in Spielberg's films. "It really required some thinking in how you're going to block something, and why the actors are moving during a scene," Siega says.
"Because there are six acts, you have to build to an act-out six times in the episode." He added: "On cable TV, if you get a 56-page script, your show could be 53 minutes, 46, whatever. You can edit it together very purposefully."
Zaillian, for instance, benefited from this freedom in making his final cut of The Night Of pilot adhere to no particular time frame.
"In the editing, I ended up with nine hours of material for eight slots," he said. "Rather than editing out an hour, the solution was to make the first episode longer, and the last episode longer."
Rewriting the Pilot Playbook
Alone among the directors interviewed, Hiro Murai had never made a TV pilot. Not that he was really thinking much about them when he shot Atlanta.
"I was very aware of my lack of experience in the field, and so was Donald, in bringing me on board," says Murai, who as a music video director has worked with The Shins and Kendrick Lamar, among others. "I don't think we were ever too concerned with what a traditional TV pilot looks like. A lot of the choices we'd make were predicated on choices we made in short films."
While pilots these days are adapted from blogs, magazine articles and historical events, Atlanta is adapted from a short that Murai and Glover made in 2014 called Clapping for the Wrong Reason. Shot in a mansion above the Pacific Palisades that belongs to the NBA player Chris Bosh, Clapping follows Glover as he pads around the property, from capacious room to cliff-side pool, in the course of making a rap album under his stage name, Childish Gambino.
"The main M.O. for that piece was creating a world that pulls people in," explains Murai. "It was never about telling a very specific story."
While their pilot establishes a linear premise—Earn's decision to take a risk on himself by taking a risk on his cousin—it moves without explicit deliberation. The pilot opens on a confrontation outside a liquor store that the viewer is joining in progress; the casualness of the violence and the interplay among the characters introduces the tone of the show.
In a later scene, Earn has a random encounter on a bus with a (possibly imagined) Nation of Islam figure who bears no immediate relation to the story. In this way, Earn's character is being revealed less through story than a pastiche of visual moments, and Earn's own participant-observer gaze.
The pilot was shot on location around the downtown Atlanta area, over six days. "I like shooting locations just because too much control on the stage can be a bad thing," Murai says. The approach mirrors Earn's rootlessness and identity crisis. Murai points to the "meandering, existential comedies" of the Coen brothers and Sofia Coppola as stylistic influences. "They have a really cool way of milking comedy out of a tone poem almost," he says. "That was something we really hadn't seen in this world. We wanted to see how it would mesh."
The Make-or-Break Importance of Casting
Atlanta's modest cast of unfamiliar faces—including Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, Keith Stanfield as his spacey consigliere, and Zazie Beetz as Earn's quasi-love interest and the mother of his child—gives the show a tonal fluidity. But it starts with the openness and empathy that Glover brings to his role.
"That's kind of our retort to the network when they said they wanted to know more about Earnest," Murai says. "Donald has a natural pathos as a performer, I think. All you need is his face to guide you into this world."
As Siega notes:"Tone is a combination of a lot of things. But the wrong person in the lead role can undo your tone."
It's why the casting of a pilot feels like such a make-or-break decision. Zaillian says there were more than 200 speaking parts in The Night Of, and he "wanted every performance, no matter how small, to feel authentic," adding that he prefers a naturalistic approach. "I was looking for actors who had the confidence not to try to do too much."
After reading some 150 actors to play Naz, Zaillian finally heard about a British actor, Riz Ahmed, and watched clips of his work in films including The Road from Guantanamo and Four Lions. "I still wanted him to audition and send me the tape," Zaillian says, "but honestly, I had made my mind up. I could see he had the range to play what Naz goes through, not just in the pilot but in the whole story."
Speechless director Christine Gernon says that when it came to casting, the easiest part to fill was the role of J.J., whose cerebral palsy means he communicates through an AAC (augmentative and alternate communication) device.
"He's got such a charm, and such an energy about him," Gernon says of Micah Fowler, the disabled actor who won the role.
The ensemble cast of Speechless had to be especially convincing, since the DiMeo family moves as a pack, led by the fearsome Maya, played by Minnie Driver. In her determination to assimilate her son into a normal life, Maya can be disarming to the point of bullying, even when addressing the most well-meaning reactions to her son's disability. "She is this sort of louder, strident, larger-than-life character," director Gernon says. "You have to like her. You have to be on her side. Otherwise she's just going to be an annoying woman who shouts a lot."
Ava DuVernay has worked with the same casting director, Aisha Coley, since her first independent film, I Will Follow. "What's important for me is to pick people who aren't assholes. Straight up," she says. "Many casts have been broken by one disruptive presence, or three disruptive presences who just are not in line with the work."
She adds: "The experience of making the thing embeds itself in the thing. I truly believe that. It shimmers differently when everyone's getting along."