“I Just Try to Approach It in a Teaching Way, Not an Overbearing Way…”: Bryan Spicer on Directing the TV Series, Hawaii Five-O
I first became aware of director Bryan Spicer when I encountered his lively episodes of Eerie, Indiana back in the early ’90s. In the 25 years since then, he’s built up a resume that would be the envy of any filmmaker, doing excellent work in both features and television in virtually every genre — his filmography includes teen comedies, Westerns, sci-fi, a musical, urban action, romance, procedurals, comic book superheroes, period pieces and more. In recent years Spicer has focused almost entirely on one show, Hawaii Five-0, but that doesn’t mean he has left his breadth of style behind. To the contrary, thanks to showrunner Peter Lenkov’s audacious blend of tones, Hawaii Five-0 has given Spicer the perfect vehicle for his talents: from week to week it shifts emphasis between light comedy and tragedy and all the emotional notes in between, juggling increasingly complex ensemble relationships with action set pieces of astonishing ambition and scope. Hawaii Five-0’s success — it’s currently heading into its ninth season — has freed Lenkov, Spicer, and their collaborators up to go in bold new directions without losing sight of the breezy appeal the show established early on, and the inventiveness of the staging has steadily increased with each passing season. As producing director, Spicer directs several episodes a year and supervises the rest; he’s responsible for maintaining the visual consistency of the show while continuing to stretch its aesthetic boundaries. The scale of the episodes directed by Spicer is unlike anything else on network television; he’s almost singlehandedly keeping a certain tradition of action filmmaking — that of Walter Hill, Richard Donner, John Badham and other ’80s auteurs — alive, but with a fraction of the resources those directors had to work with in their heyday. I wanted to find out how he achieves his effects, and how he juggles his duties on his own episodes with those overseeing other directors, so I spoke to Spicer by phone the day after he returned to work in Hawaii for season nine.
Filmmaker: I’m always amazed by the epic sweep you and the other directors are able to achieve on Hawaii Five-0 — the season eight finale, for example, is like a John McTiernan movie shot on a TV schedule and budget. How do you conceive of and execute something like the prologue to that episode, where you’ve got a Russian sub rising out of the water on a beach and there are guys in the water, hundreds of extras on the beach, Alex O’Loughlin riding out to the sub in an inflatable boat… it all looks totally real, but I’ve got to assume there’s a good deal of visual effects work there. What kind of planning goes into a scene like that?
Bryan Spicer: There are two or three episodes a year — usually the premiere and the finale, which I direct — that require storyboards. In this case I storyboarded the whole thing, because obviously we couldn’t get a submarine. It was all CG, and we worked closely with our computer special effects guys and then I went out and shot the plates. We shot the water with a drone, and that’s basically a reference plate for them to put the CG submarine into. And we also did some stuff in our parking lot. I built the top hull of the submarine so people could stand on it and I put McGarrett (O’Loughlin) in a Zodiac in the parking lot on wheels, put the camera behind him, and pushed him toward the guys standing up on this platform so that we could get the shot over McGarrett to the guys with guns on the submarine. When the guy throws the ladder down to McGarrett, it’s an all CG ladder — we see McGarrett climbing up onto the sub and standing on it, but we never actually see him grabbing the ladder. It would have been too expensive — and boring — so I cut that out. You do that in the storyboards; you cut corners where you can so that you can afford to do what you want to do and make it look the best you can. Then when blocking everybody going in the door of the sub, I built the door and the rest of it was all green screen.
Filmmaker: What about the kind of action that isn’t so effects dependent? In that same episode, there’s a climax at the Russian consulate where you’ve got multiple characters spreading through the building with guns looking for the bad guy, and ultimately McGarrett has a big fight scene with him. Do you storyboard something like that and stick to a precise plan, or is it more about responding to what the actors and stuntmen do on the day?
Spicer: We have meetings ahead of time to talk about the fights and specifically what I want the fights to achieve. In a scene like that, they all enter the house looking for one guy and I have to keep everybody alive as they split up in different directions. It ends with McGarrett going out the window, but I need to give everybody else a little piece of action on the way. Once I get a location I’ll walk it with the D.P. and stunt coordinator and lay out the groundwork — where everybody’s going to be, where they’re going to go, and how the film’s going to cut together. The place where we shot wasn’t really what the script said it was, it was a big mansion, so I had to piece different parts of the mansion together to make it look like it all flowed together. Once we’ve walked the location, the stunt guys rehearse the stunts on the stage, videotape it for me, cut it together, and then I watch it. I make adjustments and changes if the fight is too brutal or not slick enough, and then when we shoot we know we want. I place the camera angles on the day based on that choreography; if I had more time I would do it all ahead of time, but it’s just as easy to do it on the day once I can physically see the fight.
Filmmaker: How many cameras are you working with?
Spicer: I have three cameras on the show, every day. I think it’s one of the reasons we’re able to do the show so quickly, not only because we get a lot of coverage but also because you can leapfrog. For instance, when I was shooting that fight in the house we actually had four cameras, and while I was downstairs shooting the actors with two of them I sent my stunt guy upstairs with doubles to shoot the fight in wide shots. Then when he had done all the wide shots with the doubles I came upstairs and put the actors into it and went in closer on the actors doing the same fight that he just did with the stuntmen. It makes it just a little bit more time efficient if everybody’s doing double duty with two units shooting at the same time. It’s essential, because we do 25 episodes a season, which is more than most people — most shows do 22. I give most of the kudos to our crew, which is the best I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know how they do it — every week they turn out more action than any other show in less time.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I’m constantly impressed by what you guys are able to achieve on a TV schedule and budget. And the location work is phenomenal.
Spicer: We definitely want to make the island a character. We shoot mostly daytime here — very few nights, aside from the Halloween episodes -– and I ask the directors to embrace the visuals of the island.
Filmmaker: How much control do you have when you’re out on location? The show has a lot of big crowd scenes… are those all extras, or are you only in control of a limited amount of space and at the mercy of the public for what’s going on in the background?
Spicer: It depends on where you are. In that teaser sequence you mentioned, the reason I picked the spots where you saw Five-0 looking at the submarine was that they were down by the Hilton Hawaiian Village at the very end of Waikiki Beach and we could control that a lot easier — we can rope it off and keep people away. If we came further up into Waikiki we could never do that. We had a season opener a few years ago with a drone shooting at people and we chose to shoot that in an area where we couldn’t control the beach as well, and it was a bit of a mistake. For this one I decided to go to a place we could control. I also shot all the material before Five-0 shows up ahead of time without the actors being there — I called them in three or four hours later after I’d done all the point of views of the ship and everybody’s reactions to the ship so that I could get 200 extras on the beach and spend the time I needed without the pressure of the actors waiting on me.
Filmmaker: One of my favorite things about that episode is the sense of claustrophobia once you get inside the sub. How did you approach that material visually to convey that cramped, suffocating feeling?
Spicer: We used the foregrounds to help fill the frame up — it’s all about framing and where you put people. I brought a lot of people in to make it really sweaty and put faces all over to fill up all the little gaps. We actually shot all those scenes on the Missouri, so I had to make a big ship look like a small submarine. I blocked the guys talking really close, face to face, so you feel like there’s just nowhere to move.
Filmmaker: I feel like your eye for knowing where the camera should be to best capture the action in scenes like that is really unerring… as producing director do you ever find yourself in a position where you’re watching another director put the camera in a place that you know is not the most dynamic, and how do you deal with that situation?
Spicer: At that point I become a coach. I’ll ask them, “What’s that position doing for you? What story is it telling? How can you tell that story better? What if…?” I just try to approach it in a teaching way instead of an overbearing way and suggest. Suggest strongly, sometimes. [laughs] I think with my history and reputation people tend to listen and respect what I have to say, so it’s been a good collaborative effort with all the directors that have come through here.
I schedule the directors in a certain pattern. I direct five episodes a year: the first one, the last one, and three in the middle. And every year we have returning directors that have been here before that I can trust, and I put them in slots around mine because I won’t normally be able to be around for other episodes while I’m shooting. Then when we have new directors, which we do every year, I’ll schedule them in places where I can be there with them, because it’s a difficult show. I prep them in what we’re looking for and what we like and show them episodes and talk through the scripts, and then I’m on set with them to help them succeed. I watch their back and make sure they’re getting what we want and what we need.
Filmmaker: And a year or two ago you were in that guest director position yourself, on Man in the High Castle. What was that like?
Spicer: It was a blast. During my hiatus, Frank Spotnitz, who worked with me on The X-Files, called me up and said, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, “nothing,” and he hired me to come work on the show. You know, I started my career as a freelance director, on a show called Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. I was really young, in my early 20s, and produced and directed that for two years, directing every other episode. It was kind of a live action cartoon, and one day my phone rang and it was Steven Spielberg. He’d been watching the show, and the next thing I knew I was in his office taking a meeting and the next thing I knew after that I was in an office next to his and I was working for Steven Spielberg.
Filmmaker: Wow. What kind of stuff were you directing for him?
Spicer: I was preparing a movie and working on a series he had called SeaQuest. I worked for him for a while and then did the Power Rangers movie, then I directed a movie with Tim Allen and a movie called McHale’s Navy that didn’t do very well, and eventually I came back to television on The X-Files. Since then it’s been a lot of different TV shows over the years and I’ve been very blessed to work with some good people and really blessed to land this job in Hawaii. I moved out here and bought a house and I live here now.
Filmmaker: Do you prefer staying on one show as producing director to moving around as a journeyman from series to series?
Spicer: They both have their pros and cons. When I was freelance, I was lucky enough to get on new shows and was able to get in on the ground floor of series trying to find their style. I was able to create the look on shows and show the producers things they didn’t expect and they would say, “Wow, we like that. That’s what the show should look like.” That’s a great opportunity that you get when you’re just going from show to show. But it’s very hard on your home life because it’s like being a rock star. You’re traveling from city to city every two weeks and you don’t get to be home very often. And that’s the downside to it. But I loved it — I did it for 20 years. I was all over the world shooting and it wasn’t until I finally landed on this show that I realized it’s actually nice to be on one shoot. You have a place, you have a life, you can go home at the end of the day and not have to worry about where you’re flying off to. I’ve been here for seven years now and this crew is like my family. We party together, we hang out together and the island is small. It’s not like working in L.A. where there are hundreds of shows. Wherever we go to film, people are happy to see us. The fans show up, and we allow them to come as close as possible so that they can watch what we’re doing and then the actors go and do pictures with them and stuff like that. We have a screening of the premiere every year projected on the beach, out in the open for whoever wants to come.
Filmmaker: Well, it does feel like even after eight seasons you and your collaborators are still really engaged with the work. The last season was as fresh and energetic as any of the previous ones.
Spicer: That really starts with the scripts. Our showrunner, Peter Lenkov, is amazing at giving us great scripts every week — and different scripts. He’s a fantastic writer, and he’s really ahead of the game — we always get about five or six scripts before we even start the year, where most shows don’t even get one. We just run with them and try to make them the best that we can with the money and time that we have. It’s a really tough job to keep the quality up, you know? Sometimes I’m amazed that we get it all done.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.