“As a Pilot Director, You Must Load the Toolbox for All the Directors that Come After You”: Director Michael Robin on All Rise
The courtroom drama has been a staple of network television since Perry Mason and never really gone away, which makes the CBS series All Rise’s achievement of breathing new life into the genre truly impressive and exciting. An ensemble drama anchored by Simone Missick as a young judge out to challenge conventional wisdom, All Rise deftly explores complex ethical questions relating to race, class, gender and power via a sprawling examination of the lawyers, judges, clerks, cops, and defendants whose lives intersect in an LA courthouse. Following Jean Renoir’s dictum that everyone has their reasons, series creator Greg Spottiswood and his writers honor an array of perspectives with depth, empathy, and an approach to the narrative that views the legal system itself, rather than any of the characters, as the antagonist. The show is admirable not only in the breadth and sophistication of its ideas but in its expansive tonal range; in any given episode the series can shift from broad comedy to enraging social injustice to poignant reflection and back again, without ever hitting a false emotional note.
The tone jumping and multiple perspectives are impeccably calibrated by the show’s directors, most notably Michael Robin, who was involved in the development of the series and established its visual language in the pilot. (He has since directed three more episodes, and as executive producer oversees the other directors on the show.) His fluid camerawork and unerring eye for how to most effectively block a scene have made All Rise one of the most dynamic series on network television, with a mastery of space and movement that keeps the show lively even when the action is confined to courtrooms, offices and hallways. Yet there’s nothing show-offy or gratuitous about Robin’s style; his episodes are a clinic in how to dramatically motivate camera movement and lens choices in a manner that enhances the drama without getting in its way. He’s particularly good at handling group scenes with shifting points of view; the viewer is always attuned to the perspective of whoever’s experience is most important in the scene, yet one never feels overly manipulated thanks to Robin’s subtle, unobtrusive manner. It’s the perfect visual corollary to Spottiswood’s thematic aspirations, and I wanted to find out about Robin’s philosophy regarding both the camera and his work with the actors (given the uniformly excellent performances on the series), so we met on the All Rise stages at Warner Bros. just before the current pandemic hit to discuss his approach.
Filmmaker: I really love the energetic visual style that All Rise has, particularly when it comes to how the blocking, lens choice and camera movement all work together to tell the story. When you started work on the pilot, what were your guiding principles visually for the series?
Michael Robin: Well, that’s never my starting point. My starting place is to define for myself what the mission of the show is. Why this show, why now? What is it that the network wants? How do I grow the form in this particular instance? Ideally you’re not doing something that was done ten years ago—maybe there are interesting principles that are comforting to people, but you want to bring something new to it. So I look at what my marching orders are, and on All Rise it was, “Do a workplace show, make it about the people.”
There are so many different tones in the show—drama, humor, stakes, personal interactions and conflicts—and that teaches me a lot right there about what to do photographically. In the pilot, there’s Daphne, a young woman we meet at the very beginning who is escorted to court without any pants. Lola [Messick’s character] stumbles into a courtroom and sees the injustice that’s falling upon this young woman. When she ends up engaging with the bailiff that brought Daphne up there, the guy has a psychotic break and pulls a gun on everybody. So all of a sudden my stakes go up through the roof.
At the beginning of the scene I’m getting the lay of the land in my courtroom for the first time, so I get to travel and generate a lot of momentum as the story takes me from place to place to place. I chose to do that with Steadicam, but when the conflict increased and it came time for the bailiff to pull a gun I went to handheld. If I’d stayed with one camera approach to it all, putting that tonal and dramatic shift into relief might not have been as dynamic. Later in the episode Daphne comes back a second time, and by now Lola’s a judge. She’s very surprised to see that Daphne has found her way back into court, because off of the earlier injustice she had been released. But two weeks later she’s back in court for something else, and it’s dramatic and personal and intense. So, I chose to be a little more studio mode and telephoto for a while in that story, to be able to get a really shallow depth of field in my close-ups, where I could really feel the internal drama of Lola, the internal drama of the Daphne character, and then the Emily character who is representing her. Being on a longer lens in studio mode on all those characters gives me a little more access to their internal thinking.
The other story in the pilot is humorous, and I thought, “I don’t want to paint that with the same brush.” Given the fact that I knew I was going to be using Steadicam for a bunch of walk and talks in hallways and things like that, I said, “What if I just added a little more flow and got my characters up on their feet and maybe, because it’s humorous, I can be a little more wide angle? I’ll let the Steadicam wander around, maybe even shoot my close-ups with [a] wider angle .”
As a pilot director, you must load the toolbox for all the directors that come after you. One of the things that’s really important to do, and that’s a good thing for the longevity of the series, is to put as many different types of photographic approaches into the director toolbox as possible, and let directors use them as they see fit down the road. The more you’re able to potentially surprise the audience, the more longevity you have. You want them to sit down to watch your show not quite sure of what’s going to happen. That starts with the writing, and the multiple tones in the script, which helps keep formula at bay. If you can do that, people will stay with you for years because they keep getting a fresh show.
It’s important to do that visually as well. When directors come in and I work with them in prep, I don’t tell them what they can and can’t do. I say, “These are all things that are in the toolbox, and when you see a scene you should approach it in the way that you think is right, and you have all these different things to use. If you have another interesting idea, bring it up.” If a director says, “I want to use a drone for this sequence,” okay, let’s figure that out. “Oh, I think this is helicopter, this situation requires a really special use of cranes, this is black and white, this is slo-mo, this is 90-degree shutter.” All these new things can potentially get put in if they’re right for a scene.
Filmmaker: You’re touching on one of the things I really respond to in the series. The tones are extremely varied without ever feeling jarring or like the scenes are from different shows. How does tone affect your approach with the actors?
Robin: I always identify what the function of every scene is, why it’s in the particular script, and what I need to bring to it from there: “This has expository needs, this has really big character moments, this is funny, this is all those things.” If somebody walks in and we’ve just had fun but now they have a very important secret to talk about and all of a sudden we make a tonal shift to something dramatic, we have to hit all those signposts. You start to talk about modulation. Say Emily comes in. She’s got a secret and doesn’t want to talk about it. Lola is starting with something humorous, then she can see that there’s something that Emily doesn’t want talk about. She pushes, Emily doesn’t talk, then she pushes a little further and Emily starts to break down and cry, and all of a sudden this goes to a different place. Those are very distinct, different needs for the actors in terms of each one of those beats. It’s really about defining what they are, then dancing with the actors so that they can feel safe to go to the places that are necessary, protecting them in case they’ve run afield of what we’re trying to do, refereeing between encouragement or restriction.
Filmmaker: Do you have to bring extra sensitivity to that when you’re dealing with a guest star who might just be there for one episode and has to hit the ground running when the rest of the cast and crew have all been working together for months?
Robin: A guest player coming in is probably going to be a little more unnerved, because they don’t know everybody. So the first thing is making them feel comfortable, making them understand that it’s not just, “Come in, say your lines, go fast, hit the marks, thank you very much, we’ve got to move on.” You want to take the oppression of time out of the equation. Now, that doesn’t mean you stay in a scene for ridiculous amounts of time, because that typically makes everybody nervous in a different way—they’re like, “Oh my god, we’re not getting it and it’s just taking too long.” There’s a sweet spot between not spending enough time on it and spending too much time. A lot of that has to do with a really safe, wonderful rehearsal. I’d rather rehearse something and really get it discussed, even if I look over and the first AD’s getting a little nervous because my 15-minute rehearsal’s now 35 minutes. I’ll block those worries from my actors, so that they know we’re just finding the scene. Because if we’ve answered it all, when they’ve come back from hair and makeup and wardrobe and it’s time to go, we just go. Everything’s been asked and answered, and we’re just into the creation of great takes.
Filmmaker: Where does the planning of your camera positions come into this? Do you storyboard and pre-plan your shots, or do you prefer to wait until you’re on the stage with the actors and respond to what they’re doing?
Robin: My process has either evolved or devolved into being very organic. During prep, identifying point of view tells me a lot about what it is that I’m going to be doing, and allows me to shift it so that not all of our courtroom scenes are always shot the same way: “Oh, it’s the defendant’s, defense attorney’s, prosecutor’s or judge’s point of view that’s most important.” If it’s a scene where the attorneys are presenting their arguments, I might be down on the floor with them and follow wherever they go. But later in the hour, when it’s really becoming an important decision making time for Lola, I might shift those things. If it’s a shorter scene where I have a lot of exposition and I want to fly through it, maybe I’ll just do that as a Steadicam shot with a couple of pieces of coverage, and all of a sudden I’m out of there. I’ve created an efficiency for myself and my day, but I’ve also created a stylish dynamic based on the fact that it was only 7/8ths of a page and I really just had to get this fact, this fact, this fact, and end on Lola being put out by the fact that she’s going to have to consider all of these new things. That allows me to be a little stylish while I’m being simple.
We have such stunning actors and put a premium on the guest players that come in. Greg Spottiswood likes to say that our actors are our production value, and that is so true. If you have good acting it tells you what you need to do photographically to capture it, because your job as a director is to make sure you capture something special that’s going on on the stage. Then you just have to figure out the right way to do it, and sometimes that’s something simple. If somebody is crying their eyes out, I do not need some giant crane shot that’s floating in and going all over the place and finally lands in a close-up. I mean, maybe that’s a way to do it, but you have to just see what it is situationally that you need in that moment, then react. Going back to the toolbox we’ve built for the directors, it basically says whatever is really good, smart filmmaking to put on a particular scene, you should do.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.