Winter 2014

Thrill Ride

As characters drop like flies in the hit TV series The Following, director-producer Marcos Siega and his team create an authentically tense and scary atmosphere. Even the blood is directed.


On a shivery November evening, director-executive producer Marcos Siega and his crew are bundled up in hats, scarves and down jackets as they prepare to plow through yet another outdoor scene from season two of the graphic drama The Following.

The location, a day camp situated in a forested area about an hour north of New York City, felt creepy in the dark, as is appropriate to a TV series about a charismatic serial killer, played by James Purefoy, and his murderous cult. Kevin Bacon plays the former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who keenly pursues them.

A campfire with torches barely illuminates an outdoor amphitheater draped in red cloth. Sixty extras dressed in ominous black-hooded robes descend toward it. Bloodstains on the deck suggest who-knows-what-terrible-thing had already taken place. Siega stoops to closely examine the blood smears, ensuring that they read well on camera.

“We’re a show that’s all about thrills and scares,” he says, explaining that for this series to succeed—with its grisly scenes and incredible plot turns—every detail needs to feel as authentic as possible, including concocted blood splotches “so the audience isn’t taken out of the scene, thinking it looks like red water.”

Although The Following was created and written by L.A.-based executive producer Kevin Williamson, Siega is responsible for bringing the show into its full-blooded existence on a daily basis. He also shot the pilot and played a key role in forging the look of the series, reinforcing his reputation as a director who can see the big picture.

“I not only execute, but I can set the tone for something,” says Siega, who previously worked with Williamson as director-producer on the CW’s The Vampire Diaries. He relished the opportunity to fashion a strong visual template for The Following, starting with the pilot, that episode directors could easily slip into. In other words, he explains, “How did I want the show to look and feel as it moves forward into multiple seasons.”

GROUNDED: For all the violence in the story, Siega (left), working with Kevin Bacon on the season two premiere, understands the series is about the emotions of the characters. (opposite) Siega prepares a scene with Shawn Ashmore (center) and Bacon.
Siega prepares a scene with Shawn Ashmore (center) and Bacon.

For inspiration, he analyzed a number of films, including two of his favorite horror movies, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. What he liked about Rosemary’s Baby was its simplicity. “It felt designed, but not over-covered,” something he wanted for this series. He often re-watches The Shining to understand “where to get the audience on the edge of their seats.”

One of Siega’s first decisions was to shoot the series almost exclusively with handheld cameras. “Our show has an organic look; it’s very subjective. We play with the idea that the camera is in the room with the actors,” he says, like a live presence, even a menacing one at times, watching from above or below, peeking out from a closet, or stalking the characters.

With that in mind, the regular directors on the series don’t worry if a character falls out of the frame. “We’re going for immediacy,” says Liz Friedlander, who directed an episode in season one and is doing two more this season. “There is a security in the messiness of it.”

That was the case when Siega recently shot a scene in an elegant Beaux-Arts room in the New York Public Library, crammed with 200 extras in black tie. Hardy shows up and bolts through the crowd, desperate to pinpoint an unknown killer among them.

In preparation, Siega drew up a map. “I do this a lot,” he explains. “I map out where I want everyone to be.” In this case, however, he wanted it used more subjectively. “I feel there is a real frantic energy to this scene. So that’s license to not have it match and not go the same way each time.”

As Bacon warmed up for his first take by jumping up and down in place, Siega stood up on a stage and told the extras, “What would help is if you treat the camera like it’s a person who is drunk and you have to get out of the way.” As soon as Siega shouted “Action!” Bacon took off, hastily weaving through the throng with two sweating cameramen tagging closely behind, nabbing the fleeting images of the crowd that came into view as they whipped past people.

Siega also raced along for the first take. When it ended, he pulled Bacon aside. “I want to make a moment here,” he said, explaining that he wanted him to pause at a particular spot and do a hasty scan of the room before darting off again. Siega instructed the cameras to back away, giving Bacon more space and allowing them to incorporate the killer in the frame, who, unbeknownst to Hardy, is standing right next to him. He then told the actor playing the killer, “I want you to turn around and watch him go away.”

First AD Murphy Occhino says it’s a scramble to stay one step ahead of Siega, who averages around 70 camera setups a day. “That is huge,” says Occhino, who never strays far from Siega’s side when they are shooting. “Marcos is probably the most efficient, organized and fastest director I have ever worked with.” He met Siega when he was directing one of the final episodes of Damages. That show concluded just as Siega needed a crew for The Following, so he invited Occhino and the entire lot to join him.

“It moves like the wind,” says Williamson, who is thrilled to have Siega at the helm because he understands that this is not just a horror story. “It’s a character piece and you always have to keep it grounded in the emotional journey of Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll (Purefoy).You have to care about the characters. Marcos focuses on the emotional journey and he just connects it.”

FINE-TUNING: (above) Director Adam Davidson, with cast member Jessica Stroup, doesn’t like to talk things out too much initially with the actors.
Nicole Kassell, directing Kevin Bacon, laughs that she is normally squeamish about blood.

Just how Siega might connect the dots for actors was apparent on the brisk evening shoot at the upstate camp. An actor playing opposite Purefoy, stumbled several times over the line, “She’s my wife. She’ll do as I choose.” Siega encouraged him to take a beat before saying it, and look at the actress in the background playing his wife. “The motivation being, the look toward her,” instructed Siega.

“He’s keen to get all the beats,” says Purefoy, who also appreciates how Siega often keeps the cameras rolling while he gives notes, so the actors can quickly pick up where they left off. “I find it exhilarating,” he continues. “If you have someone prodding you from behind the camera, it’s very intuitive. It makes you relaxed. It makes you confident.”

Early on, while he was still determining the stylistic underpinnings of the show, he toured the FBI and pored over crime scenes photos, taking close note of how blood looks under different circumstances. “I like to go in the direction of ‘you can really see it,’” says Siega, who held more than a dozen meetings with his art and special effects departments and others to achieve just the right simulated blood hues. He also conducted numerous tests to achieve a variety of consistencies. “If blood is dripping off a hand,” he explains, “it can’t run like water.”

To reinforce the believability of a macabre death scene involving several rotting, maggot-infested dog carcasses, Siega used actual flies that Bacon had to wave off as he entered the room. “I had to hire a fly wrangler,” Siega says. The fly wrangler knew exactly how many flies he brought in. And when they were finished shooting, “the guy collected them all again.”

Basically, a lot of blood and guts gets spilled in The Following. Nicole Kassell, who by the conclusion of season two will have directed four episodes, laughs that she’s naturally squeamish about such things. So before she shot her first episode, she carefully analyzed the pilot. “I went frame by frame to figure out how to stab an eyeball out,” she says. “But I would still close my eyes and have to go back to frame one. It’s fun to play in a sandbox that I would normally not play in.”

When considering which directors to use, Siega chooses, first and foremost, those who elicit strong performances from actors. For instance, he admired what Kassell drew out of Bacon in the feature The Woodsman (2004), where Bacon played a child molester released from prison. “It’s a comfort for lead actors to work with directors they’re familiar with,” says Siega.

Adam Davidson, another director on the series, already had a handle on the serial killer genre, having directed an episode of Dexter. “His Dexter episode really blew me away,” says Siega, describing one of Davidson’s scenes “as really well-crafted, emotional, and scary. It just stuck with me.”

His relationship with Friedlander goes back to The Vampire Diaries. “I’ve watched her work with actors and I just think she is a very calming presence when things get hectic on set,” he says.

ON TARGET: Director Liz Friedlander (center, with script) wants to maximize the immediacy of the material as she works with her cast and crew.

Although Siega takes pains not to step on the toes of guest directors, he and Williamson have drawn up a short list of conventions they don’t want to use. Shows that are heavily reliant on camera dollies, Siega says, “start looking the same.” Slow motion is another stylistic manipulation to be avoided. “In the real world,” he says, “things don’t happen in slow motion.” Nor is he big on using smoke to heighten the drama when there is no clear motivation for it.

Kassell says that before she shot her first episode, Siega sat her down and apprised her of how the set is run and where the actors might need coaxing. “He’ll say, ‘This actor tends to get mad easily. We need to see more of his vulnerable side.’”

He also clued her in to the particular way shots are framed on The Following. “A lot of short sighting is used,” says Kassell, explaining that they might push the edge of a frame to an actor’s nose, giving them a trapped look, or allow a tremendous amount of extra headspace. “It gives it an edge. It’s unconventional and helps to disorient the viewer just enough unconsciously.”

The series is based at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn where set builders have constructed an FBI room, Hardy’s apartment, and sometimes create swing sets. Most of the scenes, however, are shot on locations. Siega makes a point of stopping by each and every shoot. “He doesn’t babysit,” says Friedlander. “He makes sure you are supported and lets you do the movie.”

The directors get seven days to prep and eight days to shoot, with the option of shooting on a ninth tandem day. That’s when the out-going director and the incoming director are both shooting: one goes in the field and the other occupies the stage.

Upon arrival, the directors must quickly get down to the task of casting, securing locations, choosing wardrobe and props, and determining how to pull off stunts. For one episode, Friedlander had to carefully map a scene in which a stunt person was purposefully set ablaze.“You need all your ducks in a row,” she says, describing how the stuntman needed to be coated in a protective gel. “You can’t set him on fire 20 times.”

“Time is too short,” says Siega, who tries to stay a few steps ahead of his directors. He will have discussed with Williamson, perhaps weeks in advance, what location and casting needs are coming up. By the time the director arrives, scouts have narrowed locations and casting down to a select gallery of options. If an episode director wants to look further, that’s fine too. “Some directors want to be part of every casting decision,” says Siega. “We try to give directors whatever they need.”

Siega and Williamson bounce ideas off one another all the time. For instance, on a recent show, Siega was preparing to shoot a scene involving two victims imprisoned in separate rooms in a windowless basement. “On the page it read very well,” he says. But then he thought, what if he created a window between the two rooms, which would allow one character to peek through and see the horrible acts being perpetrated? Not only did his proposal add more tension, it opened all kinds of creative possibilities for Williamson in terms of segueing to the next scene. “It freed him up to do things he didn’t think about.”

Friedlander appreciates the ambitious scope of The Following. “It’s been fun to work on a big scale,” she says, describing a whopping chase scene she recently directed, that was shot over three days in SoHo. It involved 200 extras and the closing of several streets. The initial plan was to limit it to just one street to reduce the headaches involved with permits and crowd control. But Friedlander’s vision saw Bacon pursuing someone from the big expanse of Broadway to smaller, adjacent cobbled streets, jumping on cars and racing in and out of stores. “Liz insisted that we feel that journey and not have it be a cheat,” recalls Siega.

“Also I asked for a few ‘stunt’ pedestrians,” says Friedlander. “People who Bacon could plow into or push through so it looked like he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way. This helped it not feel polite. But feel real and messy.”

Working with the muted palette of the show poses another interesting challenge. “It’s very brave to go so dark,” says Kassell, referring to how a majority of the scary scenes take place at night or in extreme low light.

Friedlander says the low lighting adds intrigue. “Having to imagine what’s happening is worse,” she says. At the same time, she is careful not to go so dark that viewers can’t discern what’s happening. She might block a night scene, for instance, “so the important piece lands in front of a street lamp.”

Siega probably couldn’t have worked with less light than he did during an episode in season one, which involved an FBI agent who was buried alive in a coffin. The only visible light source used was the victim’s cell phone that lit whenever it rang. Siega and the actress went all the way with it—she climbed into an actual coffin-like box. The camera operator was able to shoot the low light situation by snaking a snorkel lens into her box from one open end. “It was very claustrophobic for her,” says Siega, “and incredibly emotional because she felt she was buried.” He adds, “I thought that was a really important thing to do.”

The only time Siega overcorrects the lighting is when shooting close-ups of eyes. “I like to think that our show, besides being scary, has a lot of heart.” So he will often pop a little extra light into a character’s eyes “when we want to land on an emotional moment.”

The directors must also be skilled at crafting and building suspense. Davidson had to shoot a restaurant scene in which a character, whom the viewers have already determined is a bit unhinged, shows up to murder an unsuspecting diner. “The audience knows something is up,” says Davidson. “The tension lies in not delivering the kill too quickly.” He heightened the anxiety by only allowing viewers a glimmer of her furtive actions under the table, where she is putting a spear gun together. He also placed the victim’s friend on the inside in the restaurant booth, thus entrapping her, which filled viewers with a sense of dread that she might also get murdered.

Davidson says that initially he doesn’t like to talk things out too much with the actors. “I don’t want an actor to be acting for a result in my mind,” he says, although he might give a note while setting up lighting. Or he might wait to see what they bring on their own and then give more specific direction. “What’s important is finding the life of a scene,” he says. When a scene is working, he can almost feel it in his gut. “It’s equivalent to when you know something tastes right.”

If Siega is not certain that a shot packs enough of a fright, he might shoot it from several different angles. In the pilot, for instance, when Bacon was searching a house by himself for a missing person, the viewers naturally think that someone is going to jump out. Only it doesn’t happen … and it doesn’t happen … and it still doesn’t happen. The viewers let their guard down and, bam, it happens. “On paper it’s terrifying,” says Siega, who shot it from four or five angles. In the end, he was good with two. But he didn’t consider the extra takes a waste. “You don’t know until you’re in the edit room what’s going to be scarier.”

Siega is so immersed in directing and producing The Following that he rarely sleeps more than four or five hours a night. But there is one aspect to his job that he doesn't rejoice in "I'm the grim reaper," says Siega, who must tell the actors when their days are numbered. With multile murders in every episode, he doesn't try, anymore, to candy coat the news. "I attack it like I'm ripping off a Band-Aid," he shrugs. When an actor expresses surprise, he adds, chuckling softly, "I say, 'Sorry, you're dying tomorrow.'"


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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