Fall 2019


The Trek to Star Status

Director Hanelle Culpepper is paving paths with comprehensive prep and unwavering commitment

By Margy Rochlin

Director Hanelle Culpepper (Photo: Lauren Hurt)

Hanelle Culpepper was being interviewed on a Star Trek podcast called Women at Warp when she learned that she was the first African American woman to direct an episode of the cult sci-fi series.

At the time, Culpepper had already directed two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. "I was completely surprised," says Culpepper, who later asked her assistant to do some extra investigating. "I told her, 'Find out who else directed it. This can't be true.'" It was true. As long as statistics are being cited, she is the first woman to launch a Star Trek series and the seventh woman ever to direct a Star Trek episode in its 53-year history on TV. Culpepper says: "Star Trek does a good job of being inclusive onscreen. I assumed that happened off screen as well."

When Star Trek: Picard premieres next year, Trekkies will have another factoid to discharge: Culpepper not only directed the pilot of the eighth series in the Star Trek franchise—this time streaming on CBS All Access—but because the show is crossboarded and shot in pairs, she directed the second episode, as well.

Culpepper's response to questions about Picard—be it lens size, set design or even the key Star Trek episodes that she re-watched for inspiration—is "I can't talk about it—they're so secretive about everything." But she will allow that after seven years of guest directing, she loved being a full-fledged member of the Picard decision-making team. "I think part of me feels like being a guest director is a lonely job; even though you become a part of the family for those few weeks that you're together, you're ultimately not a part of the family, you're a guest. Then you leave."

She likened directing the first-ever episode of Picard to directing a feature film. "You're a part of building it, establishing it," she says. "You're part of figuring out the casting, costumes, developing the sets, versus guest directing which is, 'This is what [you have to work with].'"

When it comes to genres, no one can say that Culpepper doesn't love to switch it up, directing on everything from the effects-heavy superhero series The Flash, to the testosterone-driven Mayans M.C. to satirically soapy UnREAL.

But a quick glance at her filmography, with credits on 30-plus series, doesn't tell the whole story. Her participation in NBCUniversal's Emerging Director Program in 2012 helped her book an episode of Parenthood, which gave her enough legitimacy for the executive producer of the teen drama 90210 to convince The CW to give her a try, too. Even with two episodes under her belt, though, she was still shadowing other directors. "I don't know if that was because I'm a woman or black or because I was new and trying to break in," says Culpepper, who, in total, shadowed 13 times, enough to furrow the brow of even the most steadfast optimist. "I remember saying to my manager, 'Why do I still have to shadow?'"

Hanelle Culpepper provides guidance to Sonequa Martin-Green, with Michelle Yeoh in the background, on the set of Star Trek: Discovery. (Photo: CBS)

As frustrating as it sometimes was, she kept things fresh by not just observing from prep to edit, but approaching the episode as if it were she who landed the gig. "I did all the work," she recalls. "I did my own blocking, everything. That way it [didn't] get boring and tedious for me. It was a way of always staying engaged. The last thing I'd want to do is shadow on a show and be there with a chip on your shoulder, like, 'Why am I here?'"

In the end, though, it was shadowing that helped Culpepper get her foot in the door. "[It was] a way of meeting people who were hiring and letting them see, 'Yeah, she isn't an egomaniac' and 'Yeah, she knows what she's doing'," says Culpepper. "It was about the conversations you'd have, the relationships [you'd build]."

The Birmingham, Alabama native's first inkling that film and television would be her calling came to her during her senior year of high school when she enrolled in a directing class and realized she found every facet of the job invigorating. But her proficiency in economics led to her accepting a scholarship in a PhD program at U.C. Riverside. Being a 90-minute drive away from Hollywood, though, made her rethink her career path. "I was like, 'Wait. My heart is in film and TV.' So I dropped out of the program and switched over to [The Annenberg School] at U.S.C."

By the time she decided to go the directing route, Culpepper had already shot five shorts and three independent features that aired on television, including Within, Deadly Sibling Rivalry and Murder on the 13th Floor.

By that point, she already knew exactly what sort of director she wanted to become: The kind who cared enough to steep themselves in the lore of the series, and who blocked out every shot and scene but could throw out anything on her shot list if needed. "Even though I come in prepared and planned," she says, "I'm also flexible, able to go with the flow. When things start to go wrong, I'm not the person who is going to scream and yell about it or freak out. I always have a Plan B."

Culpepper even likes to refer to her shot list as a "shot guide." "I've shadowed directors who had shot lists that were very precise," she says. "But what makes it fun or interesting for the people you're working with is if they become part of the conversation. It's not just, 'Do this for me.' It can be like, "I feel like this could be a 21 here low. What do you think?' I show them my shot guide and say, 'This is what I worked out. If you see something cooler, please let me know.'"

As co-chair of the DGA Women's Steering Committee, Culpepper senses things are changing. "A friend of mine and I were trying to figure out the magic number of [jobs you book] before the work starts to roll in," she says. "And three was the number. After three, it got easier. Well I've seen a lot of women who are finally getting that break," she says. "To me, three is no longer the magic number. You can do one and knock it out of the park and it can start going. So I feel the climate is getting better."

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