I’ve known Richard Speight Jr. for a long time – a decade in fact! I loved his portrayal of the Trickster and Gabriel on Supernatural, and I’ve always loved talking to him. About the show, about the cons, about the fandom, about the business – Richard has always had the most fascinating insights. He wrote a chapter for our third book, Fan Phenomena Supernatural, which I love (and you can get it here). And it’s always just plain fun to sit down and chat with him, especially as a wonderful way to end a hectic but fun con weekend. Richard talked about wanting to direct early on, so it’s been truly awesome to watch him pursue that dream and be successful thanks to determination, talent and lots of hard work. We don’t get to sit down and chat at the end of cons nearly as often as we used to, but we did in San Francisco. And yes, Richard still has the most fascinating insights – this time all about directing his most recent episode of Supernatural, and the incredible collaboration with cast and crew that has ensured the show’s success.
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview:
Lynn: War of the Worlds was a huge episode – It seems like (writers) Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner often get these episodes where they tie all these plot lines together.
Lynn: What is it like directing an episode like that, with three big reveals and so much plot movement? Does it feel as unmanageable as it sort of seems?
Richard: Well, it’s interesting, there’s a double whammy. I mean, Eugenie and Brad write phenomenal scripts, I think they’re very smart writers and they’ve been doing it a long time, they’re very experienced writers in the field.
Lynn: Which may be why they give them these complicated episodes.
Richard: Yeah, and I dig what they do so I was intimidated by getting one of their scripts. I’m intimidated by all scripts, to be honest…
Lynn: Well you haven’t been doing this that long!
Richard: Exactly, so everything intimidates me. But especially since Bob Singer is a mentor of mine, they’ve been together for a long time doing great work, so that’s intimidating. And the size of the script was huge in terms of what was involved. This was very challenging because every day was chock full and we moved like a freight train, but I felt like the story was in great shape when I got the script. We didn’t have to have a lot of conversations about ‘what about what about what about’. It didn’t need much massaging, it was kinda ready to go, so I could start working right out of the gate on what I thought the show should be from a shooting standpoint.
Lynn: That makes a lot of sense yeah.
Richard: And so to me it was as daunting as anything else is, but I think the thing that was most daunting were the fight scenes, because I had several. I had Castiel in the park and then I had the big fight scene in the bar, so those are the ones I kinda obsessed about alot – especially when I had the boys being thrown around in the bar, and Asmodeus throwing Lucifer and Castiel around in the bar. So those massive moments take a lot of energy and time and stunt work.
Lynn: I can imagine!
Richard: So those were challenging, and kinda weighed heavily on my mind when we were prepping. I love Pellegrino as an actor and a person, so it was exciting to work with him – and really dig Osric Chau, and David Haydn-Jones.
Lynn: There were so many people who came back in this episode!
(At that point, since it was the end of the con, Mike Borja and Billy Moran of the very talented band Louden Swain stopped by to say goodbye and to wish us happy holidays and a happy new year – there’s a bittersweetness to the last con of the year and everyone going their separate ways for a little while, but I was glad I got to say goodbye too.)
Richard: So it was all daunting. It’s hard for me to say that one’s more daunting than another. Because of the odd structuring of Stuck In The Middle With You and the multiple perspectives, that one got to me a couple of times, to get my brain around.
Lynn: That makes sense, from a director’s standpoint, a different kind of challenge.
Richard: Yeah, exactly. So this one was challenging in the enormity of the story lines going on, but my brain could comprehend everything that was going on in terms of the execution of what they were going for on paper, and it was a matter of just making sure it was done right on film. Knowing all the people I was working with – I’ve gotten to a point where I know Pellegrino well, I know Osric Chau well, I know David Haydn-Jones well, so I had no X factors. I had almost nobody to cast.
Lynn: I didn’t think of it that way but yes, they were all familiar. So that made it easier, I’m guessing.
Richard: It did, because when I did Stuck in the Middle, I had to find my Ramiel. When I did Just My Imagination, I had to find my Sully. So much was dependent on finding those key players.
Lynn: Right, they were pivotal in those episodes. And both were awesome!
Richard: That was not the case with this one. I had a little bit of casting to do, but for the most part I knew all my heavy hitters and they were already pre-ordained, you know?
Lynn: They were.
Richard: So that’s a bit of a relief, it’s one thing you can take off your list. You know those scenes are gonna work from a performance standpoint.
Lynn: So there were two things – well, there were a lot of things that stood out about this episode – but one is that this is the funniest I have ever seen Mark Pellegrino be. The scene where he ends up on a city street looking like a homeless guy and keeps trying to intimidate and zap people, to no avail, was hysterical. I was literally laughing out loud. How was it to direct him in that, and how much of that humor was your directing, how much was his acting, how much was scripted?
Richard: Well Mark obviously comes in with his very clear ideas of what he wants this to be, but I had blocked it in a very specific way because I was tying it in with the shot I was doing of Osric being thrown out of frame timed to Mark coming into frame, so I had this very specific design of what the shot was.
Lynn: Oh right, right
Richard: And then I wanted it to be a moving Steadicam shot that sort of kept you in the mood, so it all felt very organic. So all of that performance was Mark doing what Mark does, and my blocking aided that. My goal was to block that scene like what you’d see in a movie, like what you’d see Jim Carrey do.
Lynn: Yes! That’s how it looked and felt, exactly.
Richard: I wanted it to feel like this is the comedy film version of Lucifer returns to Earth, so I did that and then every take or two, after we got the big one done, I said ‘Mark, when they’re gone, instead of standing there wringing your hands, walk back up the street and try to kill the background artists’.
Lynn: Oh, that was your idea? That was one of my favorite parts of the whole episode!
Richard: And he thought that was a great idea, so we did one take of that, and you can tell the young lady didn’t know he was gonna do it because we didn’t announce it, I said let’s just keep going, I’m not gonna call cut, and you try to zap a few people as you go up the street.
Lynn: Maybe that’s why it was so funny, it was completely organic! I have this little game I play with Jensen where I try to guess which moments are unscripted, and that’s my theory, you can tell because they have this extra bit of genuineness to them, they just play slightly differently, so you can tell. And they’re often very funny!
Richard: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, I loved that beat, I put that in the cut, and I was hoping that Phil and Bob would like it as much as I did.
Lynn: I’m so glad they left it in, it was priceless! So the other thing that struck me, which is the complete opposite – it played on Thanksgiving, so I’m at this big family gathering and my son’s girlfriend’s family is all there and they don’t know us very well, so they’re trying to be nice with ‘oh let’s all watch this show that Lynn writes about’, so we put on Supernatural. And there are just repeated scenes of torture, with screaming and wailing and people being cut, and I’m looking around going OMG what do they think of me… What is it like directing those sort of scenes?
Richard: I don’t really think it’s different than directing a normal scene, to be honest. It all feels very performance driven, and you go over your shots and your design and know what you want it to feel like. The scene with Mark in the cage…
Lynn: That was really awful – he did such a good job of making Lucifer look like this ruined, pathetic creature, just in a couple of minutes…
Richard: Right, and I almost ruined my day of shooting by over-shooting that sequence.
Lynn: What does that mean exactly?
Richard: It was such a cool set, it was the teaser for the episode, and Serge [Ladouceur] had these lighting flashes going and the light flashing through and so I just shot the hell out of it and I used every angle I got, I used everything. I had a crane for the top, I had a spin move, I had a dolly move outside the room, just because I thought a) it’s Lucifer caged up, b) it’s the teaser, and c) it was just artistically a beautiful space.
Lynn: I think I said that in my review, how can something so horrendous be so beautiful at the same time?
Richard: Yeah, and again, it was like I just wanted to capitalize on Serge’s gifts as a lighting guru and be sure that we shot it.
Lynn: You got to do a flashlight scene too. I always love scenes of the boys with flashlights, and I know Serge is really good at it, but that seems like a tough scene to shoot too. It’s such low light, but you get to see just enough.
Richard: He’s great at it.
Lynn: And the fight scene too, there were a lot of very dark scenes but you still needed to be able to see what’s happening.
Richard: And that’s what Serge does well. It had to be abundantly clear that the power had been cut in that room, in that building, so there was no source lighting whatsoever, not from the jukebox, nothing. So that was all Serge coming up with where would the moonlight come in, what’s a light source that works and how can he utilize his lighting and my blocking to make that work well?
Lynn: We’re so lucky to have people like Serge.
Richard: He’s a genius. And btw, one thing I wanted to talk about, because you were talking about Pellegrino and being funny in this episode. The scenes he had with Misha in the diner, in the bar, to me were some of my favorite scenes.
Lynn: Comedy gold.
Richard: Yeah, comedy gold! And again, I know those dudes, putting them in the room together, letting them do their thing? I loved what they did. My thing was, when I saw what they were doing in rehearsal, I just put gas on their fire. I said go go go go go, do this, don’t worry about overlapping each other, I’m gonna make the sound department work hard because I want this to feel like the indie film of Supernatural. I want you talking over each other, I want you adding what you want – there are a couple of lines that they just added!
Lynn: It all stayed in?
Richard: It all stayed in, everything they added.
Lynn: That’s awesome. I mean, both Misha and Mark were just incredibly funny, their timing was spot on.
Richard: One of my favorites was, I told Mark, I said ‘hey answer Misha when he says I’m not Heaven’s joke’, there was no answer so I said, ‘answer him’. So Mark just goes like ‘I’m just sayin…’
Lynn: I loved that, and he’s so good with the gestures…
Richard: He puts a button on it, and they were just – it felt more like Steve Buscemi and somebody else doing a gangster movie than it did like CW good looking people having a conversation. They just brought a level of honesty to it that made those two characters connect. And they built a real relationship, those guys, that supercedes ‘I wanna kill you-I wanna kill you’ to ‘hey I know we were gonna kill each other, but put a pin in that, we’ve got bigger fish to fry’.
Lynn: And it was very believable, and again, Lucifer is a character that you don’t want a redemption arc for real, but in this episode you felt empathy for that character and you were amused by that character, and then you’re like wait, why am I feeling empathy for this character?
Richard: Well, I’ll tell you why. Because you don’t wanna — it’s like Lego Batman. Batman isn’t Batman if he doesn’t have the Joker. So if Lucifer is a guy with no powers, he’s not a nemesis, he’s just a guy. So kind of, in a weird sort of way, you don’t want to sucker punch your enemy. You want to kill him at full power, not when his back is turned.
Lynn: Right, it would have no impact.
Richard: And also his logic was true, it was like ‘look I get it you wanna kill me, kill me later we have a thing we’ve gotta do before we all are toast’.
Lynn: The chemistry between Misha and Mark…
Richard: It was fantastic! Every scene. In the park, where Mark is coughing and sitting down on the bench, the scene where Mark takes Misha’s phone at the bar, it’s all just great.
Lynn: (laughing) It was.
Richard: I just loved watching it, it was like making an indie film. Working with those two guys, it was making an indie film. I didn’t need to overshoot it, they did all the work, I just needed to be sure I captured those bits on film and encouraged them to do more, like keep going down that road, keep overlapping, keep those bits you’re playing, keep the looseness, keep it alive every time.
Lynn: That’s what you do as a director, right? You see what’s working and you make that happen. So it seems like when you’re directing, you get a vision of what you want it to look like, and it’s often not like the stereotypical television show. Is that something that comes to you after you read the script?
Richard: Yeah, for me, I read the script several times and I’m petrified because I don’t know what I’m gonna do, and then eventually the more I read it, the more it starts to be a movie in my head.
Lynn: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Richard: And the more it starts to be a movie in my head, then I know what kind of a show it is. And when it’s a movie in my head, then I just write down the movie in my head. I write my shot list based on the movie I see in my head.
Lynn: And then you make it happen.
Richard: Yeah, and then I make it happen. And the way I direct, it’s like I always talk about how Rob and I come onstage and we just do things that we find funny and maybe the audience thinks it’s funny and maybe they don’t, but we’re laughing….
Lynn: Oh, me too!
Richard: That’s how I direct. Obviously I direct with the level of discipline that I want to get the shots done and get the story told, I want the people back in LA to be really happy with those things and I want the story told correctly and efficiently, but I also see it in a certain way. So I go with my gut on these things, I go with my vision of how this should be. And of course I talk to Andrew Dabb.
Lynn: It’s sort of like an instinct you go on, then?
Richard: Well, it is, I mean it is instinct but it’s instinct based on being obsessed with visual imagery my entire adult life so that I’ve been a movie addict forever. And Andrew is obviously very adamant about what he wants to see in the Show, Bob Singer is very adamant, very clear about what he wants, Phil Sgriccia is very involved. So it isn’t like I haven’t gotten very clear instruction.
Lynn: No, sure.
Richard: And very clear guidance. I’ll ask them questions and sometimes they say yes and sometimes they say no. And I stick to their answers because they know the show better than I do and always will. But at the same time, I try to trust my instincts when it comes to how to execute some of these scenes, the more I direct. Because I’m seeing something, so that something that I’m seeing, I think is going to work.
Lynn: I feel like it seems to be totally working. Another moment that was so good that it’s now become a meme, is where Ketch comes in eating the sandwich and it sort of falls out of his mouth.
Richard: Oh really, that’s a meme? Oh cool.
Lynn: Was any of that ad libbing, or how did the sandwich fall happen?
Richard: Eugenie and Brad wrote specifically, ‘he speaks, they turn, he’s eating a sandwich’. They wrote that he’s in the room. To me, what was going to make that scene interesting was how do you shoot it? So I made sure that the reveal was one that I thought was funny, I tried to make that funny.
Lynn: And it was!
Richard: Because Ketch is not a funny character, that is not a funny moment, there’s no comedy that comes out of that scene, but I felt like for Dean to be really put on his heels, it needed to be an obtusely quirky reveal. Which is why I had Jensen crossing that way, there’s no Ketch, comes back there’s no Ketch, looks forward, there he is. So that he’s just, if you watch that scene in one take – which obviously you don’t because there’s cutaway to Jared – but he walks in, walks back, and there’s Ketch blurry. And that’s the other thing, I wanted him out of focus so when Dean turned he’s like What?
Lynn: I loved that moment of Dean seeing him and being like WTF, and of course then Jensen played the perfect reaction.
Lynn: So you did that multiple times in this episode, it occurs to me. It was an episode that was heavy on villains but in several cases you managed with humor to bring a little bit of vulnerability to them, which of course makes them a million times more interesting.
Lynn: And that scene did that a bit with Ketch.
Richard: I did, I felt that he was at their mercy.
Lynn: Yes, like Lucifer, beaten down and chained up at the time. So you should feel good that’s a meme.
Richard: (laughing) I do.
Lynn: There was one scene I didn’t quite understand. There’s a scene where Sam goes to talk with Ketch, just the two of them – and it was the scene that made me think oh, that really is Arthur, because as “Alexander” talks about Arthur, he’s very complimentary and that fits Arthur’s narcissism. But when the scene was over, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from it.
Richard: My interpretation of that scene is that, in the scene previous where Sam and Dean are sitting in the Men of Letters discussing, and Sam has done all this research and found all these documents, that he’s – Jensen is not, Dean is not interested, he’s made up his mind. But Jared, Sam, goes down to have the conversation. He’s watched this guy get punched and punched and punched, that scene is brutal where Dean is beating him up…
Richard: We come in in the middle of that scene, he’s already been beaten when we show up to that scene, and it continues through the rest of the scene, and he gives no sign of budging and just sticks to the story which is that he’s Alexander. And I think it’s intriguing – these guys know how to do research online and he’s finding everything that backs up what the guy’s saying. And it’s just enough to plant the seed, the ‘what if’, in Sam’s mind.
Lynn: So Sam wasn’t sure?
Richard: I think it’s Sam’s version of nice guy interrogation.
Lynn: Okay, so that is how I interpreted it too.
Richard: Yeah, it’s intelligent chicken. He’s playing chicken, but it’s thinking man’s chicken.
Lynn: And I’m gonna assume that Sam came to the same conclusion that I did from what Ketch said.
Richard: I don’t think Sam ever thinks – it’s not like Sam leaves and goes to Dean and says this is definitely not Arthur. All he does is display some empathy and let the guy go to the can and the kitchen, which speaks to Sam’s character regardless.
Lynn: I said that in my review too, that there was character consistency, which I love because that’s not always the case. Oh, and the FBI phone array, was that something Eugenie and Brad put in there?
Richard: It is.
Lynn: I loved that because it was such a nice call back to Bobby and the early days of the show. You gave it a nice treatment. Oh, I also thought Farrah Aviva did a great job as the witch.
Richard: She did a lovely job.
Lynn: One person who you didn’t know, I assume.
Richard: No, I didn’t know her. She was great, and interestingly, completely by coincidence before I cast her, she ended up being the photographer who shot Briana’s pictures for the Women of Supernatural calendar. In fact, I cast her, then she shot Briana’s pictures, then she came to work, so it all happened at the same time.
Lynn: How weird. I thought she was a strong female character who was gutsy and had courage in an episode that was otherwise very male heavy.
Richard: Yeah, she did a really nice job.
Part 2 of Lynn’s interview with Supernatural’s Richard Speight Jr. will continue…