Here’s the second part of my chat with filmmaker Jennifer Phang, on directing last week’s episode of Marvel’s CLOAK & DAGGER, swamping squadgoals, and the craft of TV directing. The first part, discussing her two episodes of THE EXPANSE Season 3, can be read here. (Mild SPOILERS for episode 6 follow.)
Jennifer Phang: Yes, this was my first Marvel episode. I’m a fan of Marvel comics, films, and TV, and my agents arranged for me to meet with a number of producers and executives. At one point, I was asked to read the CLOAK AND DAGGER pilot and then sit down with the producers and showrunner Joe Pokaski. It was easily a meeting of the hearts and minds, and I felt confident about bringing something interesting to the show.
DM: What were your memorable experiences creating this episode (E6: “Funhouse Mirrors”)? Favorite scenes?
JP: I think our standout moments were in shooting the final scene. I requested a lens to accomplish a deep focus look I wanted as Ty (played by Aubrey Joseph) teleports into the church. I also wanted to make sure he teleported directly on to the platform where we usually find Tandy. It was where we saw him speak with her earlier in the episode. I wanted him to be unconsciously drawn to where he saw her last. I felt that my deep focus concept would help communicate that Ty and Tandy’s connection and powers were leveling up, and we were experiencing progress in their throughlines.
I also did a good deal of prep making sure the swamping scene was a success. I wanted good light, stable footing for Olivia and Ally, and a place to put the crane. I went to the swamp on my own to find shots. We found a great spot for everything we needed and had three cameras going, one on a boat and two on land. Safety was my top priority of course, which is why I did an extra layer of prep.
Working with Ally and Olivia was refreshing because we had two women discussing issues that were important to them in their lives, outside of your usual TV romance problems. And we had an Asian American female who had personality, passion, and distinct ideas of her own. Co-writer Jenny Klein was detailed about their dynamic, including making sure Mina Hess had a specific energy and drive.
The scene in the car with Ty and Duane discussing how energy comes back at you after you let it out was beautifully written and performed. I still think about that scene and what it means. I know co-writer J. Holtham wrote much of their arc, and based some of the ideas out of his own loss of his brother. There’s much to consider when you think about what can put black men at risk in America. I think some Americans don’t want to look at that for their own reasons, and there is no single example or experience that defines these ideas for everyone. But here, J. Holtham put some things on the table for us to consider. Like I said, it still resonates with me, months after filming these scenes.
DM: In the original comics, Cloak & Dagger originate in New York, like almost every other Marvel character. The TV series transplants their origin story to New Orleans. Can you speak about how the environs of post-Katrina New Orleans contributes to the themes of the show? How is to shoot there as opposed to in New York?
JP: It’s great to shoot in New Orleans because you work with crews from the region. They’re fiercely hard-working, but magically grounded and good-natured. A standout memory was that when the Saints lost a game, the crew was REALLY bummed in the morning. I have since dedicated my loyalty to the Saints. Go Saints!
To me, having New Orleans as a character and a setting allows for a cultural specificity to Ty’s family, in his father and brother’s connection to a distinct New Orleans culture.
Many of the people I worked with did experience Katrina and Rita and we spoke a great deal about how that affected them. It devastated the lives of so many, but many figured out how to bounce back. There is heart and resilience in the people there. I don’t think it has to be romanticized but rather I see it as a standard for the rest of us.
DM: Is this the first time in the show that Tyrone uses his teleportation ability in a tactical way? It’s obviously a very charged moment. How did you approach the “use of powers” scenes?
JP: In this episode Ty is figuring out how to control his powers more and more. When he dives into the consciousness of Kev the drug runner, he plays with Kev’s fears. I think you could say Ty’s finding a way to use his assailants’ fears as a defensive weapon.
Ty has used teleportation to escape before, but maybe less consciously than in this episode. I wanted to make this event in the alley feel closer to a more traditional superhero moment so we could see that Ty was leveling up. I sensed we’d be hungry to see this and would be satisfied if we could be reminded that Ty and Tandy were well on their way to becoming powerful heroes. So I wanted to make sure that we had a grand overhead shot in the alley for that stuttered teleportation moment. The satisfying thing was I sought and found a way to do it that didn’t require really expensive equipment. Big shoutout to our A.D. Paul Uddo, who really knew the area well and knew how to find what I needed. He was a highly valued partner and I was incredibly happy to work with him.
DM: The scene near the end with Tandy, Mina and Mina’s father was quite moving. It’s nice to see a superpower used in a healing, nurturing way, as opposed to their usual offensive application. But then Tandy runs into this big metal door which reminds me of LOST and it’s kind of sad in several ways. How did you approach this scene?
JP: In the hospice I approached it pretty simply, within the style of the show. Olivia and Ally had some beautiful, clear ideas of how this would be. I hoped to feel their maturity, honesty, and life lived, and they found that easily. I like when there are two opposing ideas subtly at work in a character’s circumstance. In that scene my favorite line of Tandy’s is: “The truth never occurred to me.” It’s almost as if Tandy’s surprised to discover that fact, but immediately as she says it, she knows it to be true. She knows she survives so much with lies that it’s second nature. And Ally Maki’s Mina finds disbelief and compassion at the same time. It was such a distinctive scene and they performed it with nuance.
As for the door inside Ivan’s consciousness, yeah, it is sad to think of anyone’s memory and consciousness having a thick door inside of it. It’s a part locked away. A bit of a prison inside ourselves. It’s like you’re hiding from your own memories. At the same time I think it’s a powerful idea and will pay off.
By the way, the wonderful Tim Kang has a big cool role in the coming episodes as Ivan Hess, the rig engineer. We were all really happy when he was cast, and even in our small scene together he was delightful to work with.
DM: Do we know if the Freeform Marvels will ever crossover into AGENTS OF SHIELD, the feature films, the Netflix Marvels?
JP: I noticed fans and bloggers found the mention that C & D’s Brigid O’Reilly used to work in Harlem with LUKE CAGE’s Misty Knight! But I don’t know anything beyond that.
(**also, in Marvel lore, Brigid becomes some sort of toxic zombie super-villain, but why get weird? – DM**)
DM: What do you appreciate about working in episodic TV, having come from making two indie feature films?
JP: In directing I try to find moments that appeal to my sense of wonder. But I’ve also learned how to think quickly and pick my battles. TV directing just builds on my indie film experience.
In THE EXPANSE and CLOAK AND DAGGER, I enjoyed working with larger VFX, stunts, and SPFX teams, because it allows me to conceive with some ambition and more freedom. While the schedule is tight in TV, it’s ultimately no tighter or more grueling than in the indie films I’ve worked on. But I also have a larger canvas and broader range of tools to work with. Also the experience level of the TV crews tends to be quite high. I find I can use that to my advantage.
I have to say I also appreciate that I had the chance to work in near proximity to alligators, at some of the coolest locations in New Orleans. The sunken amusement park in Episode 6 was a very special location, and there were creatures that needed to be wrangled. I don’t think I’ll forget that for a while. Shoutout to the alligators! Sorry for any inconvenience!
And finally I was super-appreciative that a concept for the scary beast in Kev’s nightmare was well received. It involved a stilt-walker that casting did an awesome job of locating. The stiltwalker, Casey Viccellio, was just so wonderful to work with. She did a terrific job taking cues. It was her first time on TV!
DM: What are some some other universes you’re into, filmed or un-filmed? Science-fiction genres, superheroes, anything you’re really keen to work on?
JP: So many. I’d like to work in the DUNE world. Another dream would be to find a way to get a proper live-action NEON GENESIS EVANGELION on its feet. There are some books I’m looking at that excite me. I’m interested in stories that blend sci-fi/fantasy genres with social commentary. I like stories where women are featured with leadership, agency, and a knack for analysis. I’m also inspired by women who are quite physically capable, like Brienne of Tarth! But I am always drawn to work about worldly issues.
Film and television, like any storytelling medium, helps us figure out who we are and how we want to relate to each other, and I’m delighted when any writing has relevance to subjects that I care about. I have a few shows I’ll be directing that I’m happy to say are going to be both entertaining and relevant.