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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

Kurt Kuenne on Shooting his First Television Episode, From Shadowing to Editing

James Spader and Megan Boone in The Blacklist

I first became aware of Kurt Kuenne’s work when I saw his 2011 feature Shuffle on the festival circuit; that film, an audacious psychological thriller about a man who finds himself waking up each morning at a different stage of his life, was an extraordinary fiction debut for a director who, I later discovered, had also made one of the most powerful documentaries of recent years. Dear Zachary (2008) begins as Kuenne’s tribute to a murdered friend and develops into an excruciating portrait of a legal system gone horribly wrong; it’s touching, enraging, devastating, and inspiring in equal measures. Last year’s Batkid Begins, which Kuenne co-wrote (with director Dana Nachman) and edited, was another deeply moving documentary, albeit one considerably more uplifting and less wrenching than Zachary.

In addition to these films, Kuenne has also directed several award-winning shorts and worked as a composer, sound designer, and cinematographer. Recently he took on a new challenge: directing episodic television. When I heard that Kuenne was helming an episode of The Blacklist, I contacted him to ask if he would share his thoughts on making the complicated transition from independent filmmaking to network TV. We spoke just days after Kuenne completed editing his episode, “The Lindquist Concern,” which airs on NBC on October 20.  

Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking a little about the shadowing process, where you spend an episode – not your own – at a director’s side to get the lay of the land. Did you do any preparation before shadowing – studying episodes of the show, etc.?

Kurt Kuenne: I didn’t need to do much preparation for shadowing on The Blacklist because the creator, Jon Bokenkamp, is one of my closest friends, so I’ve been intimately familiar with the show from its inception. I believe I was one of the first people ever to read the pilot script and give him notes on it, I gave notes on the edit of the pilot, and he’s frequently sent me cuts of episodes over the years to get my feedback, or to see what I think about how various songs are playing against the picture — so I’ve seen every episode of the show (many of them multiple times) and am intimately familiar with its characters and mythology, so further study wasn’t really necessary.  

I scored Jon’s first feature as a director back in the late ’90s, and he discussed the possibility of my becoming the composer for The Blacklist when the pilot was going into production, but scoring a TV show is a 24/7 life and a very different proposition than scoring a feature — which is a process that begins and ends — so I elected not to push for the gig so that I could continue pursuing the creation of my own films. I would never have been able to make Batkid Begins, for example, if I was scoring his show, though he did use some of my music last season.  

I’ve always enjoyed my position as “fly on the wall” for The Blacklist, being someone uninvolved that Jon could come to for impartial feedback, so when he called me last December and asked if I wanted to direct an episode, I hesitated before saying yes. I like being the guy he can vent to; I didn’t want to be the guy he was venting about. We’ve been friends for 23 years and when you go to work for your friends, you have the potential to jeopardize that relationship, and his friendship is one of the most important things in the world to me. But he’s been a fan of my movies for years, had total confidence it would work out, it was a big honor to be asked, I thought it would be a great challenge and a new adventure, so I jumped in with both feet, determined to make him happy if I was going to do this.

Filmmaker: How many episodes did you shadow on, and what was the purpose of shadowing — both from your perspective and from the point of the view of those who were going to hire you?

Kuenne: When he first asked me about directing the show, my initial response was that if I was going to do that, I wanted to go out and watch for a week to see how they did things, and he agreed that was a good idea; I had never done television before, so I wanted to see what their process was, how this particular company functioned and become familiar with their way of operating, as well as meet and become comfortable with the principal folks running production with whom I would be working. They shoot in New York and I’m based in Los Angeles, so I went out there for a week on my own dime to watch — and because the last two days of each outgoing episode overlap with the first two days of each incoming episode (they call them “tandem days”), I was able to shadow two different directors during that one week, Michael Watkins and Andrew McCarthy, both of whom were very gracious. In addition to directing about a third of the episodes, Michael Watkins is also the executive producer who runs the production unit along with co-EP Laura Benson. He’s kind of the patriarch of the New York operations, so it was paramount that I get to know him and develop a good relationship with him. Michael was incredibly welcoming and helpful, he’s done decades of television and is just a fountain of wisdom. He also has an endless supply of quotable sayings pouring out of his mouth every day, I wish I could remember all of them; he’s just extremely funny and insightful, and he’s 100% devoted to the show.

Filmmaker: Take me through the actual process of shadowing – did you shadow on the episodes during prep as well as production? What were your typical days like?

Kuenne: I shadowed on two days of prep and four days of shooting. Shadowing is kind of a weird and lonely process, because you’re the only person on set with no actual function other than to watch, so while I was constantly positioning myself to be close enough to the action that I could see and hear the important stuff, I always felt like I was in the way of the people doing the actual work. And despite the fact that you’re not performing any useful function, it was actually mentally exhausting, because I had read the scripts for the episodes I was shadowing, had developed a plan in my own mind of how I would have shot scenes on that day’s call sheet, I’d go over that in my own head at home before coming to the set as if I was actually going to be directing that day — and then I’d see how Andrew or Michael decided to shoot those same scenes and contrast it with what I had been planning in my own head. So I took on the mental stress of the director position during the shadowing process without actually being the one doing the job yet. I never spoke to the cast during my shadowing process, but I did chat up several of the crew members and get to know them, which ended up being wonderful for when I returned to direct later in the year, as a level of familiarity had already been established.

My typical day would be that I would get there right at call time, stay as close to the director as possible without being annoying, float around so that I could hear any important conversations whose content would be valuable, ask questions when it felt appropriate, mentally work out how I would handle a given situation, then see what they did — and I stayed right to the bitter end every day, as if I was doing the job myself.

Filmmaker: What did you get out of the shadowing experience — both in terms of what you learned, and how it helped make you a more viable directorial candidate to the powers that be?

Kuenne: The Blacklist shoots almost every scene with three cameras in order to minimize set-ups and maximize shoot time. It’s a system Michael Watkins developed as a way to pound through all that material in the limited time that they have. That was a style of shooting I wasn’t used to, as I’m used to composing one image at a time, so it was really valuable to see how they used the three cameras to capture all that material so quickly. It makes the cinematographer’s job much harder, as he has to light in such a way that it will look good from multiple directions at once — but Mike Caracciolo, the DP who shot my episode, is absolutely brilliant at it. I could also see why the show has a style of using long lenses most of the time, as it’s a necessity if you’re going to keep the other two cameras out of your shot. I also came into the process wondering how one directs actors who’ve been playing the same parts already for three years — and I quickly saw that what you’re mostly doing is giving small adjustments. It’s about getting moments right, but you don’t need to have conversations with them about their character, as they know their character far better than you do.  

The shadowing process also drove home for me how quickly the whole process moves in TV, how little time you have, and how you don’t have the opportunity to fix something if you don’t get it right the first time. I was also a little stunned by the page counts I saw at the bottom of each day’s call sheet, which are far higher than they are on a feature — but their process and speed makes them accomplishable. In addition to shadowing on The Blacklist, my buddy TJ Thyne, who starred in my feature Shuffle and my short Validation, invited me to shadow Jeannot Szwarc (who was also very gracious) on the set of TJ’s show Bones for a day when he heard I was going to be doing this, so that I could contrast the working styles of the two shows, which was also very valuable. Bones has a lot of standing sets that are used week in, week out, making the process a little simpler, whereas The Blacklist only has one standing set — everything else is either location shoots or quick builds and tear-downs on their two empty stages. The Bones set felt very relaxed during my time there, whereas The Blacklist felt like a mad dash to the finish line every day. But they always make it.

Filmmaker: How long after you shadowed did you direct an episode? Did you know you had the job when you started shadowing, or was it contingent on that going well?

Kuenne: I shadowed in late March/early April of this year. There was not a 100% guarantee of my being officially offered an episode at the time I shadowed, so I was in a sense risking my money on the trip if the network didn’t approve me for whatever reason, but I figured it would be a great experience either way, so I wasn’t concerned about that. After the trip, I went back to work on my own projects, and then they offered me episode 5 of the fall season in June.  

Filmmaker: How many days of preproduction did you have, and what did those consist of?

Kuenne: My prep period was seven days, from 8/24-9/1, and we shot for nine days, from 9/2-9/15 with weekends off. Pre-production begins with location scouting, as the first thing we need to do is find all the places we’re going to be shooting because, as I mentioned above, The Blacklist only has one standing set and the star of the show is almost never on that set. So we began the first day by looking at photographs of potential locations, then hopping in the van and going to see them, see if they work, and if so, figure out quickly how we’re going to utilize them so that the art department can start preparing to dress the location. Tom Scutro, the location manager, has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City and came up with fantastic places at great speed. Nicholas Lundy, the production designer, is just brilliant at coming up with wonderful, authentic sets at lightning speed; he and his team blew me away with what they were able to accomplish in that small amount of time while simultaneously working on other episodes.  The second day of prep, we began with a “concept meeting,” in which all of the department heads assemble around a speakerphone (to loop in the folks in L.A.) to go through the script beat by beat so that everyone understands what we’re going to be shooting, what the intention is and what’s needed, the different departments asked me questions about how I wanted certain things to look, etc. after which we continued location scouting in the afternoon. On the third day, I had individual meetings with each of the departments — art, props, stunts, special effects, costumes, extras, hair and make-up — then a casting session in which actors auditioning for the guest roles of the episode were brought in to read for me. I would be sent links to tapes/reels of other actors at night to save time. The fourth and fifth days consisted of more location scouting in which all the locations are finalized. All the while, the different departments were sending me emails with examples of things they were preparing for my approval or feedback. The sixth day was a “tech scout” in which all the department heads come to the locations we’ve chosen. I showed them where the action was going to take place, how we’re going to shoot it, what I want it to look like and what we’re going to be seeing, so that they could all get on with the necessary preparations to make the shoot days go smoothly. On the seventh day, we had a final production meeting with all the department heads to go over further details about the coming shoot. In the afternoon, we got on the phone with Jon Bokenkamp and had a “tone meeting” where we talked through the script to make sure we were all on the same page regarding the emotional arcs of the characters, what the intention of the scenes are and how everything is supposed to feel. Then I got a good night’s sleep and started shooting the following morning.  

In addition to the speed of the aforementioned process, another added layer of challenge that one doesn’t have in features is that you only get the script shortly before you start, and it’s constantly being rewritten during that week of prep, so when you wake up each morning, there’s usually a new draft that you need to sit and read before you come into the office for the day. This is particularly challenging for the AD — and Adam Weisinger, the 1st AD, is such a hard worker and brilliant at this — because he has to break down and analyze the script early each morning before any of us come in for meetings in order to lead us all through the coming work and adjustments. It makes it more challenging to have total authorial knowledge of the story you’re telling because you don’t have a lot of time to ingest it, and it’s constantly changing, so you have the danger that five different versions of a scene will be in your head and remembering which one is the most recent can sometimes be a challenge.

Filmmaker: What was your relationship like with the production showrunner, and how did he guide you?

Kuenne: Michael Watkins, the production showrunner, was wonderful with me. He said to me many times during prep week that this show is one of the more difficult shows to direct on network television given the locations, the set pieces, the action, the pace, etc. and that it’s not the place to do your cool, choreographed shots as there simply is no time for it with amount of material that has to be covered; you’ll die on the floor if you do. “Keep it simple, use the three cameras wisely and give good notes to the actors.” After taking a good look at the shooting schedule and Adam Weisinger’s timing notes, I saw that he was absolutely right; if you try to get any more than what you absolutely need, you simply won’t make your days. (And given the speed at which the show is cut, only what’s essential will end up in the episode anyway.) So I took his advice and it worked.  

Filmmaker: What were the differences between your relationships with the cast and crew here and the kinds of relationships you had on your independent features?

Kuenne: My relationship with the cast and crew felt quite different from the relationships I’ve had on my indie features for the simple reason that on my own films, everyone has come to the project because of me — they’ve liked my script, my previous films, my music, etc. On The Blacklist, however, I was an outsider coming into a production family that’s been working together very successfully for over three years now, and I don’t believe anyone in the New York unit was really familiar with my work — so I’m guessing that folks were therefore probably a little nervous about me during prep, particularly knowing I hadn’t done television before and that it’s a very different animal from features (and certainly from documentaries, for which I seem to be better known presently). But once I finished our first day of shooting an hour earlier than anticipated and got the crew out early for their Labor Day weekend while getting everything we needed, the tone was set for what turned out to be a great shoot. On the third day of shooting, Adam Weisinger turned to me and said, “You’re really hitting your stride as a TV director,” which was extremely kind of him to say. In a way, I felt a stronger kinship with the day players and guest actors that were cast in the episode because, like me, they were coming into this environment for the first time too. Working with Adam Godley (who played my episode’s Blacklister and was just brilliant) was the closest relationship I had to the ones I’ve had with the cast on my own films. We had in-depth discussions about who his character was, what his motivations were and really worked out his arc together. There’s no need for that with the series regulars, as all of those choices have been made long ago.

Filmmaker: How do you work with actors who have been playing these roles for years? Is it difficult to figure out your place in terms of shaping performances, and if so how did you find your working method?

Kuenne: In working with the series regulars, I saw my job as mainly to make sure the intention of the scene was coming across and was playing authentically. I’d show them what I thought the blocking could be, they’d try it out, and then I’d just watch and see where they naturally went with it in rehearsal, and often I’d be surprised where we ended up — and all the while, I’d make sure they were hitting all the emotional moments the script and story needed. So the direction per se usually manifests itself in making small adjustments. Sometimes it’s just noticing that they walked through a door clearly knowing who was on the other side of it, rather than taking the time to stop, look and process that someone they didn’t expect to see is in the room. Or it’s reminding them to take the time to make a tough decision when they’re asked a hard question. Or it can simply be telling them to pick up the pace because the scene is playing like molasses and needs to fly. And sometimes they’re just cooking and the best thing you can do is shut up, stay out of their way and just make sure your cameras are in the right place to catch what they’re doing.

Filmmaker: How did the casting of guest actors work? 

Kuenne: I had one live casting session where numerous actors came in to read for me, and I was also sent links to watch auditions of several people that I didn’t have time to see in person. I’d narrow each role down to my top 2 or 3 picks, which would then be shared with Jon Bokenkamp and Michael Watkins, and Jon would make the final call — but our top picks were unanimous in almost every case, which made it easy. I was thrilled with the guest actors that ended up in the episode. Bonnie Finnegan, the casting director, brought us wonderful people to choose from.

Filmmaker: How many pages per day were you expected to shoot? How did you prioritize what shots to get under such a tight schedule?

Kuenne: I had nine days for my episode; I understand that ten days is more common for this show. The number of pages per day varied depending on what was being shot. The highest number of pages I had to shoot in one day was 9 pages, though that was mostly dialogue on the principal “War Room” set, the cast is really good with it, and the crew knows how to work that room quickly, so that material flies a lot faster than that number would tend to indicate. The lowest number of pages I had to shoot in one day was four pages, but that was on a day where we had a major stunt which took hours to rig, so it filled the entire day. There was never an easy day. I prioritized by looking for the simplest way to cover a scene that also maximized its potential and gave me everything I was going to need, then adding in a special shot or two if time permitted…but if it didn’t, so be it. Michael Watkins is fond of saying, “All I do all day long is make compromises.  If I didn’t have to compromise, I’d do this job for free.  I get paid to compromise.” And it’s true, you simply don’t have time to shoot it the way you dreamed it upon reading the script for the first time — but you do your best to get as close as you can get.

Filmmaker: You touched on this before, but can your elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of always shooting with multiple cameras?

Kuenne: The Blacklist shoots almost every scene with three cameras to save time on multiple set-ups by getting numerous angles at once. The advantages are that it does save time, allowing you in certain cases to get a scene in one set-up with multiple lens sizes on subsequent takes, which can be essential with the amount of material you have to capture in a day. And it’s nice for the actors too, because they can just go with the flow of the scene, rather than starting and stopping so much. One of the disadvantages, at least for me, is that only one camera can get a true eyeline on the actor — and if you’re shooting both sides simultaneously for time reasons, you can’t get a true eyeline on either angle, because if you did, the cameras would be in each other’s shot. So it’s a challenging thing to navigate, because you’re fighting to use the three cameras in the most advantageous way, but also to keep them out of each other’s shot. It also can create issues with the 180 line, which I tried to observe as best I could under the circumstances, depending on where they’re placed and where the actors are moving. Multiple cameras also create enormous challenges for Mike Caracciolo, who somehow manages to make it look gorgeous from multiple directions at once while moving at high speed. He’s truly brilliant. And the camera operators are magnificent and really help you out, finding pieces, incorporating moves that are signature to the show, which they know well having done it for so long; when you have a guy like Derek Walker operating the A camera, he makes your life so much easier by just instinctively finding the move you wanted and executing it beautifully without your even having to say anything.  

Filmmaker: How much moving around did you do, and what kinds of challenges did location shooting create? 

Kuenne: We shot three and a half days on the stages, the rest on location. We only had one day where we did a company move during the middle of the day from the stages to a nearby location. That does slow things down enormously, but it had to be done. Since we had control of the locations, I didn’t feel much difference from my point of view shooting on a location versus on the stages, with the exception of the sound problems caused by city noises. I’m certain it was a very different experience for the folks in charge of logistics, who were mobilizing a small army every day to make these locations work for us, but they did such a great job that I felt the freedom to do everything I wanted to do. It was very hot some days and they often had to pipe in air hoses to the rooms in which we were shooting to keep everyone cool, then shut them off while shooting.  

Filmmaker: How did your background as an independent filmmaker inform or help you while shooting The Blacklist?

Kuenne: My background in low budget filmmaking was a great help to me in TV because I’m accustomed to moving fast. I’m also accustomed to being told, “You can’t do that, we can’t afford it,” then finding another solution within my means, which is an extremely helpful mindset to have in TV, where your limitations might be more based in time rather than finances, but the same principle applies.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little about editing. How many days did you have to edit?

Kuenne: I had four days to work with Dave Post, the editor, in shaping my cut. Dave’s first assembly was about 10 minutes over broadcast time, but was very good overall; we’d never worked together before so there were some scenes where he didn’t realize what I’d intended right off, so we reworked those, and there were others where his approach was right in line with what I’d had in mind from the start. Michael Watkins asked me to deliver a cut that was a few minutes over broadcast length, as they like to be able to make the final determination as to what will ultimately come out to get the episode down to time. So, over the course of three days, Dave and I chopped a little over seven minutes out, getting the episode down to 2:56 over broadcast length, then we spent the bulk of the final day shaping the temp score, which greatly affects the way the episode plays. Four days is not much time to finesse a 43 minute piece of material, as I’m used to spending more time, having test screenings, getting feedback, doing further cuts, testing more, etc. But here, there simply isn’t time for that, so you do the best you can in the four days that you have. So when I say I turned in my “director’s cut” after 4 days, that moniker doesn’t mean the same thing that it does in film; it’s not the definitive “this is my masterpiece” label that is generally ascribed to that term. It was my best attempt in four days to get it down to the running time they asked for while preserving the essence of my creative intent. It was also a new experience for me not to be at the controls, because I’ve edited every film I’ve ever made, and I’m used to just seeing a sequence in my head and cutting it that way — so it was a new challenge to verbalize the sequence in my head and describe what I wanted to Dave so that he could execute it. But it was a great experience, and Dave really made it feel like The Blacklist, as he’s internalized its rhythms, having cut the show for so long now. He’s a marvelous editor.

Filmmaker: Once you’ve turned in your director’s cut, what happens then? How many more hands does the episode pass through, and do you have any more involvement at that point?

Kuenne: Next, Jon gets his pass, then the studio gets their say. Jon called me as soon as he watched my cut and said he was really pleased with it, so I considered that “mission accomplished,” as my whole goal was to get through this experience giving him what he wanted and to keep our friendship intact. It is weird for me, particularly as a composer, not to be the one sculpting the sound design and the music for something I’ve shot, which I’ve done on every film I’ve ever made, but that’s the process in TV. I will be at the mix, so I get one last chance to comment before it’s locked for broadcast. But whatever happens, it’s Jon’s show and it’s his invented world that we’re playing in here, so if he’s happy, I’m happy.

Filmmaker: What lessons did you take away from the experience that might be helpful in your own, more personal work? 

Kuenne: The experience certainly gave me a renewed appreciation for the time one has on a feature to stage and shoot things the way you intend to, and will make my next feature feel time-luxuriant by comparison, but it also gave me a renewed sense of how fast it is possible to move if your team is prepared to. It also gave me an idea of what the limits and parameters will be if I’m fortunate enough to get some of my own TV projects off the ground in the future, which helps tremendously as I move forward writing them. But mostly I just feel grateful to have had the experience of this magical month working in New York and the opportunity to explore a new style of working surrounded by such brilliant craftspeople and artists. And I hope the fans of the show like the episode.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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