[Laughs] Let’s get to it, then. For Hannibal, often directors with a background similar to yours work on a show like this as a hired hand and generally move on. What made you stick around?
Yeah, I know about that. Television, for me, just again, it’s another form of filmmaking. I believe that filmmaking is a brilliant thing to do be doing for a living. I go at any kind of form of it. but I’ll go at it the same way, which is not really as the person who comes in to do a job, but just as a director I think your job is to know as much about every single department that works under you as possible so that you can challenge every person in that department in the most respectful way to give you the best work they possibly can.
So that’s not really the attitude of a hired hand. It’s difficult to be that hired hand. I mean it sounds like something anyone would say in this position, but it is very difficult to say, “Okay, I’m coming in for eight days or whatever it’s going to be on an episode and then I’m leaving. I’m just going to do the bit of directing about talking to actors and putting cameras in places and making things look nice and making the scenes work.” Directing encompasses so much more.
But I did that on Breaking Bad. I did one episode of Breaking Bad, which is the only episode I jumped on outside of Hannibal, and it was really nice. It was really good, because you felt like everyone else had it covered because it was such a well-orchestrated show. But it’s not common, that experience.
With this one, I think I’ve been on it for nearly a year now. I was supposed to be the director on the pilot. I’ve ended up being a very hands-on executive producer and overseeing all the sound mixes, the color timing, all the stuff. It comes from the same kind of world view of, as a director, your job is…even if in television the writer is hierarchically above you, it’s not really about hierarchy. It’s more about getting the film made, or television, or whatever you want to call it. What do you call it these days? We don’t really watch them so much on the television anymore. A lot of people watch it On Demand, or Hulu, or whatever. And it’s not shot on film anymore usually, certainly not in television.
I’m just waiting for the title to change, but I guess I’ll be waiting a really long time. A really boring, interesting side note that the frames per second, the shot on digital video cameras is 23.976, which is actually a staple that comes from black and white television before it switched to color. So I hope we’re not waiting for too long for it to change its label.
Working on a show like Breaking Bad, it must be nice being able to jump into a project where everyone already knows exactly what they’re making.
Oh, God yes. It was very much like being a mouse and just being as quiet as humanly possible and trying not to be seen as a director, in the sense of I studied the way the show was shot. I studied the way it looked. I didn’t want to suddenly have it look like one of my films that I had done. I wanted it to look like it was Breaking Bad. You had to go all the way back in and say, “I’m not going to make a huge statement here. I’m going to do what’s best for the show.” And then you get the truly enjoyable part, which is working within that family of people. There was a moment there with Bryan Cranston where, watching the way he worked and the way he, as an actor, the way that he acted in steps, and each step inform the next, informs the next, informs the next. Just able to watch that and then be able to give a comment here and there that actually is somewhat useful is what I found incredibly rewarding.
It’s a different job. That’s going back to your hired hand question. They run such a great production there. You would never feel like a hired hand. Vince Gilligan would involve you all the way through the process. There would never be a kind of a, “Okay, now you are done. Get out of here. We do our business.” He called me up. He was like, “Well, David, we made a few changes to your director’s cut. I hope you don’t mind.” I’m like, “I’m sure they’ll be brilliant.” And they were really good changes. But it was just that respect that I like to try and project, and it’s great when you get it back, which you should never expect.
With the first few episodes of Hannibal, there doesn’t seem to be that “finding your footing” feel. Did you get that sense when shooting the pilot?
The thing is I met with Bryan coming up a year ago now in a coffee shop. We just sat and we talked for about four or five hours, which it always is a good sign when that happens. He said, “What do you think of Mads Mikkelsen?” I said, “I’d fucking die to work with Mads Mikkelsen. Mads Mikkelsen is an astonishingly good idea.” We talked about imagery, character, and we talked about everything. We must have covered everything because we were there for about five hours. Despite the way I’m coming across, neither of us is a particularly tangential speaker. We generally stick to the point and get on with it, particularly in production.
And then I had to do a lot of grueling meetings with various people to secure the position. By the time I got through there, I finally got this really symbiotic relationship with Bryan Fuller. When he would describe things I could see them very clearly. I was able to then say, “Well, here’s the mechanics. Here’s the engineering behind making that image come to the screen.” That goes back to 15 years of commercials and videos and understanding production, and also understanding character through films I’ve done and other experiences as well.
I can say it got so symbiotic at a certain point, Bryan was like, “You know what you’re doing. I don’t need to be here. You can just keep doing this.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s incredibly flattering. Then I shall continue doing this.”
Coming up with the visual vocabulary for the show, how did you and Bryan see the style of Hannibal?
Bryan is a very visual writer. He writes a lot of things down as he sees them. I’m also very visually driven, as well as everything else, but character is paramount. There were always interesting discussions about character which would go on for a long time about why and how. And then necessity leads to imagery, as opposed to the other way around. It wasn’t, “I’ve got this brilliant image in my mind. I’d love to make it look like this.” It would always be, “This, this, this, and this is happening, this is happening.” You get all these bits together, they lead to this kind of imagery and this kind of work here. And it all goes by necessity of character.
So there’s some really odd imagery in the scheme of a television-policed show that happens. It’s a conscious world from Bryan’s head. But all of that stuff came from the character. It was really fun to do. And I’m not really evading your question. I’m just kind of answering it backwards. There was a point at which we said, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. This is how we are going to decriminalize the scene.” And Bryan had written that out. It was written, not every single detail, but it was written pretty much as we did it. Then there would just be fundamental things that had to be put in place, like the engineering part, the bits that kind of made it all work.
The idea that a man experiences through empathy as best he can a crime that’s taken place, it’s not the easiest thing to put in a film. But a lot of it was already there and most of it was already in Bryan’s writing. It was just a case of finding a really solid way of telling that, using everything that is involved in making a film, from character all the way through to visual effects or whatever there may be.
I started working on that. And some of the stuff we wouldn’t talk about. We’d just be, “Well, let’s just assume that that’s going to be fine.” And then I would go away and say, “Okay, I need to work out some interactive lighting. Someone is going to have to swing a two foot kino flo in front of it to get some interactive lighting through this camera.” All of that stuff was kind of exciting exploration along the way. Again, I was very lucky to be left alone to do that stuff. As long as it came up on screen the way Bryan wanted it to come on screen, how I got there was fine with him. And he seemed to like it, so I just kept doing this stuff and he kept liking it, and I kept liking it, kept liking working with him.
It was interesting. I worked with my editor Art Jones, who cut Hard Candy, and he cut every film I’ve done. I worked with him in commercials, videos, too. We’ve done a few things over the few years. We’re very, very proud of Hard Candy because it’s exactly the film we wanted it to be, as close as possible without all of the self-loathing and crap that comes with being relatively creative. Take away all of the, “If only we’d had another day,” it’s pretty fucking close to what we wanted to do. It’s pretty much the director’s cut is the director’s cut. There isn’t a producer’s cut. It’s the script that Brian Nelson wrote. And the filmmaking was really another character in that film, and it was very important to that film as, I guess, a Hitchcock type thriller.