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EXCLUSIVE TV Goodness Q&A: EP/Director David Slade Discusses Hannibal [INTERVIEW] 

Photo Credit:  Brooke Palmer/NBC
Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC

We don’t know about you, but we’ve been into Hannibal since day one. It’s well written, well cast and it’s beautiful to look at. We got a chance to speak exclusively with one of the people responsible for the show’s cinematic style. EP/Director David Slade got his start in features but has purposely chosen to focus on television recently. Read below for more on how he became involved in this show, what it’s been like to work with the writers, producers and cast of Hannibal, and what to expect in the season finale.

TV GOODNESS: Before I ask you about Hannibal, I wanted to know what made you interested in directing for television. I know you started in features.

David Slade: “It was intentional. Vince Gilligan had written a very small comedy, a very dark comedy. He wrote it sometime ago and I was very interested in making that into a film. So I was meeting regularly with Vince who is the creator of Breaking Bad and it became quite apparent that he was going to be so busy with the show that we weren’t going to be able to have another go at the script and make this work.  He kinda said, ‘Hey do you want to come and do an episode of Breaking Bad?’ And I was like, ‘Sure. I’ll do it.’ So I ended up directing an episode of Breaking Bad.”

TV GOODNESS: Was it “Open House?”

David: “Yes. Correct. I really enjoyed doing it. It was such a fantastic set of people there and working at the pace of television is so much faster than film. You get 7 days to prep and then 8 days to shoot and it’s done. And everybody on that show was working for the better of that show. It was a positive experience. So I liked it. I come from a background of working fast. I came out of directing music videos — and not the great big budget ones but the smaller ones of bands that I like where typically there wasn’t a huge amount of resources. You just have to do your best within the time. Similarly, my first feature film, Hard Candy, was shot in 18 days because we did it for a very low budget. Television to me was just another form of storytelling if the scripts were good enough. And that was the thing. The limitations – largely time – didn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s always just about the material for me. Not a very interesting answer, but-”

TV GOODNESS: I think it’s a great answer.

David: “There are a lot of limitations. A lot of directors working in features don’t want to do television. I certainly don’t think I would do a lot of episodic television work because I don’t think I’m the kind of director who would be good at that. I think what I am good at is something else. I think I’m getting better at rather, which is to do with creating ideas from scratch, from shaping things that don’t come from anywhere that need shaping. Breaking Bad was the exception that ruins the rule because it was such a wonderful universe to work in but all the other work I’ve done in television, which isn’t that much, has been coming in at the beginning and helping develop. So it’s not that dissimilar to feature film work in that you’re there from the beginning. You’re there until the end.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Hannibal. When did you first hear about it and how did you become involved?

David: “There’s a potentially interesting answer in this and I’m trying to figure out how to word it. So, I would have liked to become involved through nepotism, but it didn’t work that way. I had met with Martha De Laurentiis and I had met with Dino, who passed away a year or so ago and we were talking about doing a film, which didn’t really work out. Just wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t the right project. Martha is the executive producer of Hannibal and she had nothing whatsoever to with me directing it. [Laughs.] The pilot was written by Bryan Fuller. At this point I think they had Hugh Dancy and that was it. We didn’t have any other cast. And I was just sent the script and it was astonishingly visual and astonishingly fascinating. Pretty much everything that was in that pilot was in the script and to me ideas speak the loudest and these ideas were multifaceted. [Specifically], the show spoke to horror by pulling out a lead character who is damaged by looking at violent and horrific things. So it had a viewpoint, yet at the same time it wasn’t restrictive. It seemed responsible, if you know what I mean. It seemed smart, it was definitely intelligent. The characters, the dialogue was wonderful. Quite frankly, you don’t often get scripts that good in film so to have a television script sent to me – doesn’t matter what the medium is - it was a fantastic, well-written script. I had to do the usual thing you do as a director where you go and you meet a bunch of people and you tell them what you think you can do to help and eventually they fund you and say, ‘Okay let’s go and do this.’  And that’s really agonizing, but that’s not what I want to dwell on. It takes forever. You’re like, ‘Ok and so we spoke last week and yes we did and we’d love to work with you.Thank you.’ And it just goes on and on. But that’s the process. There’s a huge difference between ‘in talks’ and ‘in development’ and being on set shooting. You never assume anything’s real until you’re actually there but in this sense I really wanted it. I think the point I’m trying to make is that I’d become quite good at being okay about that. The phrase I use is: no news is no news. And you just get on with the next thing and keep busy doing other things. But this one I really wanted to happen so I kept calling them and I keep going and knocking on people’s doors and eventually they said, ‘Oh alright. Yes, you’re in.’ And then I went and met with Hugh Dancy. And Bryan Fuller said to me, ‘We’re thinking about Mads Mikkelsen.’ And I was just flabbergasted. That’s exactly who I was thinking of and I couldn’t think of anyone better. And I said great. Then I went to New York. Hugh was on Broadway in a play called Venus in Fur and Mads Mikkelsen was at the same performance, which wasn’t accidental. It was all planned so we could meet up and we went and the 3 of us discussed a scene and we put that scene on tape and bang Mads was cast. And that’s how it all started. It just started with this great material. It’s about two things when you’re at the beginning. It’s about the material. It’s also about the people and Bryan Fuller is just so smart. We were on exactly the same page. We were almost finishing each others sentences by the time we finished our first meeting so it was- I think it was a good pairing.”

TV GOODNESS: Did you always want to be an EP on the show or were they just interested in you as a director at first? How did that come about?

David: “So when you do a pilot for a TV show as you probably know already, the model you’re always told about by people who work in television is this: That as a director they want you to come on, they want you to shape the show, they want you do set a look, set a tone, essentially make a kind of mold from which they can cast all the extra shows that are gonna happen. And it rarely works out that way, but in this instance it really did. And I was a very hands-on executive producer and I was an executive producer from the beginning because they needed to give me a certain amount of authority to make the decisions that would shape the show visually speaking. To start off it’s one thing to ask someone to come and help you create a palette for a show that hopefully stands out on network television. It’s another to actually allow you to do it. I’ve got to have the authority to be able to do it so that I can do what I’m promising to do. So that was the beginning. It worked. It went really well and we got that look. The opening sequence of the pilot, ‘Aperitif,’ where we begin with Will Graham walking backwards out of a crime scene – Bryan and I understood exactly what that was going to be. But I don’t think anybody really understood what that was going to be until they saw the first cut. And it became apparent that I wasn’t just the guy saying ‘ cut’ and ‘action,’ I really was shaping the show and had to hang around a little bit to help keep it shaped because in this instance they really did want the show to get shaped and stay shaped. So what I have been doing is setting a certain look and talking with at least one director and then they go forward about how we shot the episodes I did and how to continue that look through all the episodes without containing anybody. Just saying, ‘If you wanted this is the palette. We encourage you to do it.’ These are the kinds of shots we do and these are the kinds of lens we may use and kind of context and the visual language of how Will decriminalizes certain places, to we’re gonna use time-lapse, to DSLR cameras to do all our exterior establishing wide shots and that’s a specific thing. You’ll notice every time you see a location exterior the clouds are all blasting by and the first intent for that was that you didn’t ever want to know how much time had passed by the time you went inside at the start of the scene. And that’s something that I employ. It was actually quite a cheap, very high-quality alternative to what is usually a really dull shot of exteriors, which are often not even needed in movies. But in television just because the pace is so fast you just need to go,  ‘Okay we’re here and go.’ Give the audience as little as you can but as quickly as you can. I think I literally sound mixed the first 6 episodes with our mixers and our composer Brian Reitzell and then I’ve been checking in and doing notes and making sure everything stays great, which it generally does. There’s barely any notes anymore. We’re in a good place where we all know what we’re doing. I was in sound mix [last] week on Monday and color timing to make sure the color palette remains and now I think the colorist we have working on the show really knows the show. All I do is just check in every now and again. But in the beginning it’s really sitting down with the person who does the color timing and saying this is actually not just gonna be mixing certain colors but we’re actually gonna be doing a lot of things that are quite advanced and we’re gonna make sure that these things have a context that can be applied to almost everything. We’re gonna sit down – and I sit down with the colorist – and work on the picture until it looks a certain way and we’ve got there a very specific way and then the idea is that continues toward all the episodes. And, again, it just helps the feel. You don’t want to see that stuff, you just feel that stuff. I’m technically fairly proficient so it’s easy enough for me to go in and say I want to do whatever it is I want to do with the picture. And it’s interesting right now because television is exclusively shot digitally so to stand out and be noticed takes some doing. It takes some doing, some work. You need to get a recipe together of how to make your show look not like every other show.”

TV GOODNESS: You guys have done a great job. It looks beautiful. Every single episode I watch I’m really impressed by how it looks.

David: “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say. [Laughs.] You know, we’re using the same tools as everyone else. We’re just using them differently. We have a really great crew, a phenomenal cast. Obviously we have a phenomenal cast because of who’s in it, all of them. Sets can be whatever. You know they can be tense, they can be friendly. If everyone’s having too much fun then it doesn’t turn out very well but it was actually very fun to do this largely because we had a really great cast and a really great crew and a great set of producers. So that usual kind of reserved energy of fighting the director has to do was able to be put into making the show better rather than just fighting to keep it good. It’s worth saying this because this is not often what happens. Carol Trussell, our producer, is amazing. The show could never happen without her. Bryan and Martha – they all just want the best show and I know that sounds like a stock thing that anybody would say but it’s not always the case and really it shows on this.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s nice when people are really passionate about a project. It really comes across. 

David: “We shot in Toronto. I felt really good about it because there was this contagious feeling that everybody’s job was important. The drivers who were driving people felt like they were doing something worthwhile and it did really help. It just helps everything. Because it’s tough material we’re dealing with. In development and in pre-production I had a really tough time with the imagery. I work in a very emotional way and I was having nightmares and I was getting emotionally distraught. If you’re going to go into a scene with your actor you have to have the same level of energy as your actor. That could be exhausting too. It’s really great that everybody turned out to be nice and wanted to do a really good job. It just helped all that stuff work.”

Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC
Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC

TV GOODNESS: You mentioned that you directed “Aperitif” and I know you directed “Potage.” What goes into preparing to shoot each episode?

David: “The scripts are constantly being revised because they just keep getting better and time is always the enemy of any TV project. So I’ll have a script. I’ll know it’s probably going to change some and I know also when we work with the actors that’s gonna change so these are the things I have to bear in mind when I’m preparing. I sit down and read the script. I guess at this point – I’ve been doing this longer than I care to talk about – but when I read the script I do see a film. And it’s not just a kind of dream of a film. It actually comes with the technical know-how and where the camera is, what the f-stop is, what’s beyond that camera, what the focus might be, etc., where the lighting is being motivated from, how that’s gonna affect the mood of the scene. So I tend to jot down storyboards in the margins, in the sides. I tend to just visually sketch it out. Now that’s a many draft process. And generally nobody would be able to look at my thumbnail margin storyboards and tell you what they were, they would just be for me. Immediately there’s a visual take on it because I already know emotionally what the take is and essentially I know that my job here is really to be of service to the emotions of the scene.  For “Potage,” which aired as episode 3, I’ve worked with all the actors now. I know how they work. I’ve got a good sense of how they’re gonna react, how they’re gonna perform a line. What I don’t do is I don’t project how they should read a line if you see what I mean. It’s pretty important for me to understand the line, understand the intent of the line and the scene but I also think it’s very, very important when you’re working with this caliber of actors to give them the room to be able to work. And then if they ask a question, then of course have an answer. If they ask for direction, of course there is direction to be had. Usually though direction is something which starts as a collaboration with the actor – the scene is about this, I think we did this before. What do you think Will Graham would be thinking at this point? It’s usually me asking a series of questions to the actors, getting the answers to those questions from them – there’s no right or wrong answers – but it gives me a sense of mood. And just policing after that point. Making sure that everything we’ve agreed we’re going to try and do emotionally isn’t either under-reached for or overreached for or make sure everything’s landing as it should. And then just really keep your eyes out for wonderful moments that might just happen. And make sure that it’s fertile ground for those things to grow. When you have no time at all putting actors in a straitjacket is a really bad idea. When I did my first movie Hard Candy we did endless rehearsals, we did a lot of rehearsing. And in that instance directing the actor can become lots of notes, lots of retakes, lots of figuring things out, coming at it from different angles but in television that rehearsal time is rarely there. You get blocking time. We talk through the scene with the actors that you’re going to shoot and then you give everybody an idea of exactly what we’re gonna do for the day. Often what I’ll do is at the beginning of that I’ll get rid of everybody except the actors and we’ll go through the scene, we’ll perform the scene. We’ll deal with it with just the actors there and then eventually everyone comes in and we say, ‘Okay right we’ve kind of figured this out.’ It’s usually 10 minutes, it’s not half an hour. It is good to be respectful to actors in that way and say look there’s no one here but us right now. There’s no wrong or right way to do this. We all have a good idea of what we want to do and that’s kind of how it goes. How it goes for me anyway.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you directing any more episodes this season and are you allowed to tell us anything about them?

David: “I have already directed the season finale, which is episode 13. What could I tell you that wouldn’t be a spoiler? Right now we’re still in the early stages of the show and I think what people are going to expect and what is going to happen is that things are going to increase, things are going to get scarier. Hannibal is very much in the background right now but expect that he will come to the foreground. And it’s not looking good for Will. That’s not a spoiler for anybody’s who’s read Red Dragon. They know exactly how Will ends up because this show is a prequel. So everybody knows where it’s going it’s just how it’s gonna get there.”

TV GOODNESS: When someone other than you directs an episode how much input do you have on who gets the job?

David: “Not very much. It’s generally a scramble and we all kind of go, ‘I’d love to get this guy and I’d love to get that guy,’ and we check on who’s available. We’ve got Peter Medak, he’s brilliant. Or we’ve got Michael Rymer or whoever it is. Great. Fantastic. We’ve had really good directors. The show needs people with vision because it’s a show that has vision. And I think you’d really notice if your director didn’t. It’s a director’s show. Our criteria for what we’ve set up in the pilot is broad enough to allow people to do a lot of things and Bryan is such a visual writer that it is a lot of fun for a director. The only part that’s not fun is the standard amount of television time to do really complicated things. ‘Cause usually its complicated stuff that’s happening. I ask for really good directors. We generally get them. What we don’t do, what I don’t do is- I don’t sit around behind people and tell them how to do their jobs. That’s not the job of an executive producer, I think. I believe that directors should be allowed to direct. So we leave them alone to do it. And usually the odd shot here and there ends up being picked up because of time or schedule. Every now and then you get to shoot a little bit here and there for other episodes, which is fun. It makes you feel like you’re part of a family.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there anything else you want to add?

David: “There’s not that much I can add. The pilot was very technically complex. We did have a few more days on the episode – we had like 11 days. The hierarchy in television, [which] is really well-known, is that the writer is the top of the totem pole whereas in feature films it’s the director, often writer/director. But in this instance, it’s really Bryan of course, it’s his universe and as directors we’re thankful to be able to play in it and he does write a very visual universe for us to play in. But it’s a very level playing field on Hannibal. It’s not the kind of show where the producers and writers run out and the directors come and go. Everybody does get to pitch in and I’m really enjoying it.”

So are we.

Hannibal airs Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC.

Edited for space and content.

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