Mark Pellington on Directing Pilots, Blindspot and Collaborating with TV Creators
One of the most visually arresting pieces of filmmaking I saw last year was the pilot episode of Blindspot, an NBC series that slyly reinvigorates the network procedural genre by fusing the raw materials of 70s conspiracy thrillers with an ingenious puzzle device. The puzzle comes in the form of a body covered with tattoos; the body belongs to “Jane Doe” (Jaimie Alexander), a woman who, in the opening scene of the pilot, is discovered zipped up in a duffel bag left unattended in Times Square. Jane has no memory of who she is or how she got in the bag, but she and the audience quickly learn that she has an unusual set of skills – when threatened, she instinctively springs into action and exhibits the training of a Navy SEAL. Over the course of the series, an FBI team lead by Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) – whose name is tattooed on Jane Doe’s back – tries to crack the mystery of Jane’s background while decoding the clues left in her body in the form of her elaborate tattoos. The result is a show that in creator Martin Gero’s hands becomes part visceral thriller and part philosophical inquiry, exploring issues of identity and moral responsibility in between some of the most kinetic action sequences ever put on television.
The style of those action sequences and the distinctive tone of the series are largely the creation of Mark Pellington, who directed the pilot and two additional episodes early on in Blindspot’s run. With its meticulously crafted visual design and precise calibration of performance and action, Blindspot is emblematic of Pellington’s directorial signature; it synthesizes the narrative tautness of Arlington Road with the deft handling of character one finds in Henry Poole is Here and I Melt With You, and contains the depth and detail of Pellington’s documentaries with the dynamic integration of light, color, and cutting one finds in his award-winning music video work. Pellington has long been one of our most diverse craftsmen as well as an artist of immense sensitivity (to get a sense of his range and depth, check out his website, www.markpellington.com); it’s some kind of small miracle that he was able to express both sides of his sensibility in the realm of network television via Blindspot. I sat down with Pellington to find out how he did it on the eve of the series’ Blu-ray release; the disc contains an excellent commentary track by Pellington and Gero that expands upon some of the issues discussed in this interview.
Filmmaker: When the script for Blindspot first came to you, what were your initial steps in terms of formulating your approach?
Mark Pellington: I do the same thing with every piece that I get sent, whether it’s a track for a music video or a script. I read it once just as a reader, and then if I’m sucked in I’ll immediately read it again and let it speak to me in terms of theme and subtext and whatever else is going on. Then, I read it a third time and really start to underline things and make design connections – I make notes as the script starts to tell me what it should be.
In the case of Blindspot, I had done the pilot for Cold Case and some other work for Warner Brothers, so their executives called me and said “We’re sending you this script. Greg Berlanti is producing it. Martin Gero created it. We’re really into it.” I read it that night and immediately knew that it was going to be a TV series – the hook was so strong that I could see the series unfolding, I could see the mythology. Sometimes you’ll read pilots and think, “God, that’s a brilliant 45-minute short film,” but it’s kind of a one-off. With this one, I read it the three times and wrote my impressions down within a 24-hour period. I met with Martin and Greg at the Soho House and said, “Okay, I really love it. Can I just read what I wrote and it will give you a sense of my take and my point of view?” I read this list of things I felt on the page, and they said, “We want you to do it.” Five days later, I was in New York.
Filmmaker: So you’re responsible for formulating the look of the show, but you’re also working with Martin Gero, who is the creator and has his own voice…how does that collaboration work?
Pellington: In one sense directing a pilot is similar to doing a movie – you’re in charge of the design, you’re very involved in the casting – but you also serve the creator. In this instance, Martin Gero had directed before, and he knew more about visual effects than I did. He was very, very open and I was very open to him, so in a way the two of us became a greater union than a traditional writer-director team.
On a pilot, your job as a director is really to set the template, to establish the shape and style – I try to help the ship leave the harbor, and then if a pilot is successful and gets picked up to series I always try to get involved and do two or three episodes to really train everyone. You have to make sure that what you establish in the pilot is replicable on a weekly basis. On Blindspot, for example, we shot in the old Pfizer medical building and the production designer worked with what existed to create these great interrogation rooms and other sets. We couldn’t go back there for the series for fiscal reasons – as well as health issues, I think – so we had to replicate it on a slightly smaller scale. I wanted to maintain the aesthetic weirdness of that place, so there were some rooms that we literally just knocked off – I said, “Just do it exactly the way it was, with every weird offset piece of silver in the wall.” It’s hard to compete with something that’s been there fifty years.
Filmmaker: You get a lot of detail and character out of shooting on location. I remember watching the fight scene in the cramped building in Chinatown and being struck by how much texture it had – but it also occurred to me that it must have been difficult to shoot.
Pellington: I far prefer locations to sets. That Chinatown place you’re talking about is a perfect example. It’s so narrow and shitty, but I love the half-red, half-white walls and the fact that you don’t know what floor you’re on. It feels like a maze, which is what I saw in my head – it perfectly reflected Jane’s mindset at that moment. In places that are tiny like that, you just take all the shit off the camera and strip it down and get it in there.
I had never done a really long fight sequence like that, and it taught me the power of the stunt coordinator. I would watch what the actors and Stephen Pope, our stunt coordinator, mapped out and then basically just shoot it – the hardest thing is convincing the operator to embrace the mistakes. You’re collecting these aggressive pieces, and sometimes you want the operator to put the camera on his shoulder backwards so he can’t even see what he’s shooting while an actor chases after him, or sometimes I jostle the operator right before the take so he bounces a little as he’s running before he settles in. It’s a process of loosening people up – some guys have been trained for so many years to get everything perfectly that they’ll say, “I’ve got to do it again” if they miss something and it isn’t exactly right. I don’t care, especially in an action sequence where someone’s got a knife and someone else is screaming and they’re chasing each other. Something I learned from Paul Greengrass is that you only need it to work for two seconds, or one second. You only need the piece. I was heavily influenced by the Bourne movies Greengrass directed, as well as this Korean film called The Suspect that Stephen Pope recommended to me – it was relentless, non-stop action. It out-Greengrassed Greengrass. I really wanted that pervasive sense of tension and chaos, and within the first hour of the first day of the shoot I was telling everybody to forget about the marks, cross the line—
Filmmaker: What I like about Blindspot though, is that it alternates that kinetic, messy style with formal compositions that are almost Kubrickian in their symmetry and precision. I’m thinking of things like the psychiatrist scenes.
Pellington: Yes, you let the crew cut loose one day and then the next there’s a shift where you say, “Put the camera down – put an 18mm on and don’t touch it.” That shrink room signifies balance and control, and it’s cold and antiseptic, so you don’t move the camera – that’s the rule. There are rules for other sets too, like Patterson’s lab, where the walls are white. You either have to turn all the lights on or turn them all off, because the middle ground looks shitty – either go for all black and use the glass and neon tubes and screens, or make it all white and sterile and go full Kubrick. These things take shape after three episodes, five episodes…my job as an executive producer for the first thirteen episodes was to oversee the look of the show and do the color correction, and everybody was trained so that when I left the transition felt pretty seamless.
Filmmaker: That gets back to something I was thinking about earlier when you mentioned that you had to replicate the location from the pilot on a new set for the series. As a pilot director, do you feel responsible to the directors who follow you who don’t have your resources and time? I’m assuming the pilot gets a significantly bigger budget than any of the individual episodes that follow.
Pellington: Right, you don’t want to make something that’s unattainable. That’s why I did the second episode and the fifth episode, to make sure I could do the episodic version of something as well as the pilot version. A fight scene that you have two days to shoot in a pilot has to be done in one for an episode. In episode five we had a huge shoot-out in a cemetery in Queens that was scheduled for two days. The first breakdown with the AD was four. We lost some stuff, I collapsed some ideas and got it down to three days, and then we made a narrative jump – I figured out something we could get rid of that made sense to the writer – and then we had something we could shoot in two days with four cameras. That kind of problem solving makes you better as a filmmaker and it’s a fun challenge.
Filmmaker: And then there’s another kind of challenge, which is that in between the action sequences a lot of the show involves people in rooms looking at monitors. Did you have any techniques for keeping that kind of material visually interesting?
Pellington: Sure. In fact, I wrote up some brief rules before I left to give to other directors – some followed them better than others. One was what I called the one-second rule, which they later renamed the Pellington rule: you always do a take in SIOC (which is the place with all the screens) where the camera never stays on one person longer than a second. So if there are four people sitting there, you’re constantly crossing over, pulling focus from one to the other, moving from one reaction to another so you always feel like the information is traveling. If the editor has that in their pocket along with the other coverage they can cross the line and constantly shift points of view so that you build energy.
Filmmaker: And I assume casting is important in that regard as well.
Pellington: Totally. It’s so important – that’s why people shoot pilots and then scrap them just to replace one person. On the Cold Case pilot, we ended up replacing a person and reshooting half the pilot. It’s very important, and there’s a lot of scrutiny and a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Filmmaker: How many?
Pellington: Let’s say you do an indie movie. Who has to approve the casting? You and the financier, right? On a network show, there are probably ten people from the studio and ten from the network. But they’re very respectful – I really like shooting pilots. I’ve only done one episode of a show where I didn’t direct the pilot, early on in my career, and it’s different…it keeps you shooting, and you can put your stamp on it in a little way, but you’re not an auteur. There’s not a lot for you to do. You just have to make sure things keep running and the actors keep their pace. But when you’re doing the pilot, you’re inventing it all.
Filmmaker: I want to ask about the logistics of shooting the opening scene in Times Square. It contains the series’ most iconic image, that of the bomb squad clearing the area out and then Jane Doe climbing out of the bag. Did you guys actually empty out Times Square, or was it CG?
Pellington: It was real. We were on the location scout, and I knew from living in New York for eighteen years exactly where the best place to shoot that scene would be: the northeast corner of 44th Street. There’s a place that’s a little further north with some bleachers that’s a little smaller. It’s where you buy tickets for Broadway. The location scouts took me there because it’s cheaper – it’s $5000 to shoot there. Where I wanted to shoot was $50,000. I said, “Let’s just go look at it.” We went to shoot the pictures, and it was clearly the place – and it wasn’t as hard as you might think to make it work. If you go to Times Square at four in the morning, there’s nobody really there; the biggest thing was the construction cones because there’s so much construction shit going on. For the moment when the cop walks up to the bag, we just shot it without worrying about closing anything off – we had some of our own extras going by, but a lot of people were real. We had four cameras and placed them far away and just shot it without telling people what to do – it’s New York, let them react how they’re going to react. Once the cop finds the bag and they think it could be a bomb, the key is selling the emptiness, which you can do in just a few shots. Looking in the direction of the SWAT truck, we put in a big light – that’s all of 7th Avenue you don’t have to worry about, because we’re never going to see it. We didn’t really need to look toward Broadway, so there were basically three angles and we just kept shooting close-ups until there were the fewest people around – then we got the wider stuff.
Filmmaker: A location that costs $50,000 vs. one that costs $5000 is a big jump. How do you decide when things like that are worth fighting for, and when you can make compromises without hurting the piece?
Pellington: It’s inherent in the film business, whether you’re working on a no-budget video or a big pilot, that you’re always trying to get twenty pounds of potatoes in a fifteen-pound bag – it’s so much work in such a short amount of time. But on that Times Square thing, there was no fight – I looked at Martin and said, “You’ve got to do it to sell the pilot,” and he knew it. It was clear on the page that that was a very, very important set piece.
Filmmaker: You’ve done so many different types of filmmaking, from documentaries and commercials to music videos and features…do the different disciplines inform each other?
Pellington: At this point, whether it’s a music video or a commercial, I don’t really distinguish between them. I just shoot what I shoot. With narrative filmmaking, the script and the characters are my guide. I always want to know what’s going on emotionally and psychologically and visually, beyond what the dialogue is saying. If I can really know what the scene is about underneath and design something in the blocking and the art direction that feeds that part of my brain, then that feels good. When I don’t feel myself in my work when I look back, that’s my least successful stuff. The stuff that I think is my best comes from when I’ve really put myself into it and trusted my instincts and had fun doing it.