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5 Minutes With… David Nutter


Game of Thrones 'Red Wedding' director and pilot king

5 Minutes With… David Nutter

He’s known as the ‘Pilot Whisperer’, the man who sniffs out future TV hits and forges impactful entertainment brands – David Nutter has been involved in some of the biggest TV series over the last two decades. Band of Brothers, Smallville, the X-Files, ER and, most recently, Game of Thrones. Thanks to ‘DDB Presents...' at Spikes 2013, LBB Editor, Gabrielle Lott, caught up with David to talk authenticity, moving an audience, and the notoriously gruesome Game of Thrones 'Red Wedding'.  (Be warned those who have not seen all of G.O.T's series three, there are spoilers ahead.)

LBB> To begin, can we discuss your journey to becoming a director. You went to university in Miami… What did you study there? 

DN> I was a music major. At first I was a voice major, then I became a music theory major, then I got into the music of business. I realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d like to become a music composition major. In 1980 I took this Super8 film class, thinking I’d like to write music for movies, but the process of doing the Super8 film class turned me on to directing. It was  about rolling up my sleeves and finding a creative outlet for who I am as an emotional person. That's how I got into making movies. 

LBB> In your Spikes presentation, you spoke about the now infamous Game Of Thrones episode, ‘Red Wedding’, and you said that you played a piece of music, continuously, over the three day shoot to set the mood. Music plays a huge part in your directing style…

DM> Yes, it does. Music really brings things to life for me in my respects. When I directed my early pilots, I would cut music in from movies. I’d be cutting music in from the film Contact and putting it into the Smallville pilot; taking music from Shawshank Redemption and putting it into my Space: Above And Beyond pilot, and I would clip music together. 

Nowadays I work with wonderful friend of mine, Blake Leavely, who is a very successful composer. He composes for the pilots I direct, but in the early days I would do a lot of that myself. It’s the kind of thing that gets you going, it turns something alive, it really moves you. Whatever is happening onscreen, music can actually change the audience’s view about what they’re watching.

LBB> And you also use music in the context of directing the actors and setting the mood? 

DM> When it comes to setting a tone, feeling or style it’s sometimes a good idea to have some music playing. If you’re doing a club scene, play something to get people in the mood and then you pull down the music to record the dialogue. It’s a really important part of making the audience feel what I want them to feel, taking them where I want them to go. 

LBB> At Spikes you spoke about how a pilot is different from an average episode. You mentioned that it's about creating a brand, setting up a new experience. I'm a huge Entourage fan and you shot the final episode - I wondered what that constrasting experience is like, what are the pressures, thought processes? 

DN> Directing the last episode was something I was very scared of. I knew I’d have to direct the ultimate episode as so many people were attached to that show. What was interesting about that was, when you think about Entourage, you think: was it superficial? Was it titillating? Was it something that was rather fluffy in some respects? And the answer is yes. But when you look under the hood of Entourage you see that it really wasn’t anything like that at all because these characters were a true band of brothers. They cared for each other, looked out for each other and wanted the best for each other. For me that was moving and touching, so it was important to allow the audience to feel that too. 

LBB> You are nicknamed ‘the pilot whisperer’. Can you, for our readers, discuss that?

DN> When I’m directing a pilot, the style, the tone, the characters, the attitude, the feel are all in my hands.  I have to give it a personality; I have to give it a point of view. It’s something that I take very seriously.  I try to do it in an invisible way. As a director, I don’t want to be noticed. I don’t want the angles and the camera placement to take you out of the story. Whatever I’m doing I want the audience to lean in and believe what they’re watching, no matter what the subject matter or tonality of the show. 

With Arrow, which is a DC Comics title, I wanted to ground that in reality and make it relatable. It was the same with X-Files, which is a show I didn’t direct the pilot for, but did do the first three seasons, so I had a lot to do with creating the show’s tone. People would always say, “let’s do something like the X Files, that’s crazy and out there and wild”. But that wasn’t the secret of the X-Files. The secret of the X-Files was that you were creating a real-world situation and you’re creating real people. You might not always understand what Scully and Mulder are actually talking about but you believed who they were. It’s not unlike George Clooney and Anthony Edwards on ER, who I directed for a few episodes as well. If you can get the audience to become infatuated with your characters, they lean in and begin to care. With Game of Thrones people had become so invested in these characters over three seasons. Many people had read the books too, of course, so they were part of the family. They were close to them in their lives.

LBB> Some of the fans of the books have complained about the stabbing of the pregnant Talisa. Why was this added?

DN> David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the writers of the series, are truly brilliant. They felt that, from a storytelling perspective, what happens to Talisa after what happens to Rob and his mother was fitting and it was just. I think that’s how the situation would work. It was actually feasible and believable and predictable that she would be there.  

LBB> And people were filming their reactions to the Red Wedding and uploading them to Vine and YouTube. As a director, what was it like to see people responding in such a way? 

DN> As a television director, especially when you’re not doing a pilot, it’s so rare to get a chance to know how you’re doing. You’re not looking at the opening box office takings or the weekend reviews. It really was a good chance to see how the audience was reacting first hand. It was so satisfying. It was wonderful to see that we could touch people in that way, in the way that we did.

LBB> How important are awards to you?

DN> There is a level of respect that is very helpful to obtain, but you can’t rely on it, or look forward to it. For me it’s the icing on an already very good cake. I’ve been so fortunate throughout my career that I couldn’t ask for more than what I’ve already received. 

LBB> In terms of working on shows that are set in other times, like Band of Brothers, how do you go about making it believable?

DN> All I know how to do is put my heart into something. All I know how to do is fall in love with something. All I know how to do is give a shit and care. 

You also work very closely with the actors. For Band of Brothers, it was a series about individual soldiers. I worked with a young actor on what was really his first job, James McAvoy, and he of course went on to become the big movie star that he is today. He had a very small role in Band of Brothers but it was very pivotal. I sat down with James and went through the scene and the dialogue. I made sure that I shot some wonderful silent reaction shots during other characters’ scenes so the audience would always have him in mind. That meant that when he died and it affected the two younger recruits in the 101st, it mattered. It affected the other characters and so it affected the audience.

I try not to be jaded about what I do. I go in and I care and I weep and I cry and I get just as involved as everybody else. It’s all about blood sweat and tears I think. As much as I can get into something, hopefully it will translate and come through on the screen.

LBB> You’re dealing with contemporary stories with X-Files and Arrow, and you’re going to do The Flash – but then Band of Brothers is a historical show. How do you go about recreating that period of time, getting the feel and details right?

DN> When I was 23-years-old I directed a little movie called Ceasefire. It was a film about a Vietnam veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1983 that term didn’t exist. There weren’t movies about that. The writer George Fernandez was a Vietnam veteran and he wrote so clearly and succinctly. I actually went for six months to the vet centre meetings. There would be about six or seven veterans sitting in a circle of chairs in a square room. Some of them would have brown paper bags under their chairs that would have weapons in it. 

You’d listen to these men talk about their experiences and the fact that no one understood what they were all about. They weren’t being heard and they couldn’t adjust back to their old lives because there was no decompression time. In 24 hours they’d go from having red clay under their finger nails in Vietnam to having pizza with their friends. How do you adjust to that? How do you flick that switch? You don’t. It’s something that you have to swallow down and it eats you up inside. After that experience it was always important to make things as real as possible. 

I did ER for many seasons. That was a show so steeped in reality and real world stuff that was really important to me. Doing Arrow, I want to make it relatable. Flash is the same – it’s a show that’s based in science and not fantasy. When I was shooting the Smallville pilot there was a lot of trepidation about doing a Clark Kent for television. The thing that was interesting to me was that Clark Kent was a teenager. How do I make him relatable? Well he’s a young kid who’d look in the mirror and sometimes see an angel and sometimes see a monster. And, like a lot of teenagers, he also didn’t know where he was going, didn’t know where he was from, he didn’t know what he was capable of. If I make him a relatable teenager to the rest of the audience, then that’s very special and something they can grab onto.  

LBB> How do you go from spending five days filming something like Red Wedding to your own home? You seem to put a lot of yourself into these projects, so how do you return to normality after that?

DN> I have a terrible memory! When I was doing the second series of Game of Thrones they said they liked what I was doing and wanted me to direct Red Wedding. I didn’t know what Red Wedding was but the more I read about it and spoke to people about it, I started having this monkey on my back. For eight or nine months there were a lot of sleepless nights and worries. I finally got a handle on it, not unlike a football coach figuring out how he’s going to play a game. I figured out how I was going to block things, how I was going to shoot things, how I was going to work with the actors. From what I remember it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. We left the set after shooting the very last scene, when Catelyn’s throat is slit, and I got into the car with the driver who I’d become friends with over the months. I wasn’t half a mile from the set when I turned to him and said, “that wasn’t so bad”. So I have a very awful memory – and in situations like that it’s a good thing.

LBB> You are represented by Great Guns for commercials – how do you find the difference between TV and commercials and what do you think each brings to the other.

DN> Again it’s about getting the audience to care about something. Laura Gregory (Great Guns Founder) is a great friend and someone I respect. Basically she knows to put me in for jobs where they have that certain, little, component to them. It’s about getting the audience to care about something when they don’t even realize that they do.

LBB> Do you enjoy working in that short time frame that commercials provide?

DN> It’s something that’s a lot of fun and I learn from that. With every job that I take, I get better.

LBB> You clearly enjoy what you do – why do you enjoy it so much?

DN> It’s just extremely satisfying to touch people and move them. I think that if you can do that in your life, then that’s a true gift. I can walk away at night and feel comfortable with myself, knowing that I did my very best.  Getting noticed for that is a real gift for me.

LBB> We know that Flash is coming up – can you talk to us a little about what the next year holds for you?

DN> The next year I’m going to direct an episode of (US) Shameless with Bill Macey, which is a show I’m very happy to be involved with and I’ve worked on before. I’ll be doing the Flash pilot and shooting more Arrow. I took a year off from Game of Thrones this year because I needed to spend more time with my family, but hopefully next year I’ll be Game of Thronesing. 

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Genres: Dialogue

DDB Asia, Wed, 02 Oct 2013 16:13:28 GMT