The American Society of Cinematographers

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Comic-book illustrator John Cassaday steps behind the camera to direct an episode of the television series Dollhouse.

Photos by Carin Baer, Richard Foreman and Mike Boretz, courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Co.

In the world of the Joss Whedon-created series Dollhouse, the high-tech Rossum Corporation offers a clandestine service whereby volunteers have their personas wiped and stored on a hard drive for five years, in which time their emptied brains are reprogrammed so their bodies can carry out any manner of service for paying customers. Central to the story is Echo (Eliza Dushku), one of Rossum’s “actives” (also known as “dolls”), who spent most of the show’s first season adopting an entirely new personality for each episode. In the second season, however, Echo has become an amalgam of all the personalities she’s ever been imprinted with, a turn of events that has taken the show into increasingly darker corridors of its own mythology.

One such corridor is the Attic, where dolls that pose a problem for Rossum are plugged into a sort of perpetual-nightmare machine. The ominous space is at last explored onscreen in the second season’s 10th episode, aptly titled “The Attic,” which finds Echo trapped in the nightmare landscape while trying to stop a mysterious villain named Arcane. The episode marks John Cassaday’s directing debut in the episodic-television arena; after directing TV news in Texas, Cassaday moved to New York and broke into the comic-book industry, illustrating such books as Desperadoes, Captain America, Planetary and Astonishing X-Men, the latter of which was written by Whedon.

Cassaday and company welcomed AC to the Dollhouse set at Fox Studios for a firsthand look at the episode’s surreal, macabre visuals, and after the shoot wrapped, the director sat down at Joe’s Great American Bar in Burbank for this follow-up interview.

American Cinematographer: Let’s start with the roots of your engagement with Dollhouse. You and Joss collaborated on the Marvel Comics series Astonishing X-Men, but had you known one another prior to that?

John Cassaday: We met at San Diego [Comic Con] one year and had dinner. He was a fan of Planetary and I was a fan of his shows, and we became fast friends. We always talked about doing something together, and finally Marvel came to us a few years later and offered us X-Men. It can be tricky when you’re working with someone who’s a friend, but we loved working together and became even better friends.

Joss knew I was eager to get behind the camera and do some directing. When Dollhouse came around, I was having dinner with him here in L.A., and over dinner he said, ‘We’re just getting the show up and running, but if we go past 13 episodes, I’d like you to direct one.’ He kept talking, but I couldn’t hear anything. I was like, ‘Joss, you have to stop! What you just asked me — thank you!’

So it came as a total surprise to you?

Well, he told me all about Dollhouse early on, so I knew he had this new show happening. We’d had plans to find something to do along those lines, but I was not expecting it to necessarily be Dollhouse, and I wasn’t expecting him to drop it on me when he did. Then it became a waiting game: First, they had to get renewed for a second season, which was unreal when it actually happened — no one was more shocked than Joss. And then he had to get me past the suits at the studio. Until I was actually on set saying “action,” I kept thinking the bottom was going to drop out.

What did you think of the premise of your episode, ‘The Attic,’ when it was presented to you?

Well, first, about a month before I was coming out [to Los Angeles to start prep], I’d asked Joss if there was any ETA on the script, and he said, ‘No guesstimates yet, but provided things don’t go haywire, you’re getting the most surreal and visual episode of the season — you get “The Attic.”’ This was amazing news. It blew me away. The Attic was a place only mentioned out of fear or in threatening manner on the show; it loomed over the series like a nightmare dungeon that was never seen. And I was going to get to help bring it to life!

Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen wrote the script, but when I got out here to start preproduction, it was still just an outline, which I devoured. I sat and I read it, and I walked over to their office and said to them, ‘This is a gift. Thank you.’ It was tremendous, and I felt like it was tailor-made for me. This episode feels, to me, kind of like a condensed version of Planetary, which had given me a chance to dive into all kinds of different genres, visuals, scenarios and times. In ‘The Attic,’ we jump from Alice in Wonderland to slick sci-fi to the war in Afghanistan to a horror film to a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles — the range of characters and scenarios is astounding. It’s been mind-boggling for me. During my week and a half of prep, in our meetings, the producers just kept saying, ‘This is not a TV show — this is a feature!’

Did the fact that the Attic hadn’t been seen onscreen before leave room for you to have some input on its actual design?

A lot of it was in the script, but I was able to tinker with many facets visual. I’d swing by [production designer] Cameron Birnie’s office every day during prep, and we’d sketch different ideas. Among the pieces I helped design is a large tree that rests in the center of the Dollhouse set. I drew the tree, and then the crew did an outstanding job of building it; it was something special to see my drawings become reality. There’s also an apocalyptic scene where we see what the future will bring, and it involved a big crane shot with a huge greenscreen; [visual-effects supervisor] Mike Leone and I would go back-and-forth about what I wanted to see [in the final image].

The episode’s nightmare landscape lends itself to visuals that are quite unlike anything we’ve seen before on Dollhouse. How did you feel about taking the show into uncharted waters?

It was daunting, but there was also a comfort factor in that my episode didn’t have to conform to everyone else’s. There are moments within the Dollhouse where I had to maintain the established look, but then there are all these ‘dreams’ that allowed us to play in some uncharted territory. There were a lot of remarkable scenarios where there were no rules for me.

Before you started shooting, did anyone walk you through any rules for the show’s visual language?

Not really. Script supervisor Nirvana Adams was always sitting next to me, watching continuity, so if we were in the Dollhouse, she could say, ‘The light’s normally like this’ or ‘you need to look out for that.’ It was easy, because I know the show well enough and [cinematographer] Lisa Wiegand lights it the way she knows the Dollhouse needs to be lit. But most of ‘The Attic’ is dreamlike, so we had some leeway.

Were Joss and co-executive producer David Solomon regularly on set while you were directing?

Joss only popped in a few times. Solomon was around an awful lot, though, and to say he was helpful would be a drastic understatement. Nine times out of 10 he was there to answer any questions I might have or to help me through rough spots.

Joss is very John Ford-like in the way he finds people he likes to work with and keeps working with them. He makes a team, and everyone’s very comfortable working together, and you feel that when you’re on set.

Since Lisa would have been shooting episode 9 [‘Stop Loss’] while you were in preproduction, how much time did you actually have to talk with her before your first day of shooting?

My very first night of shooting was nothing less than a post-apocalyptic night scene on the New York Street set at Fox Studios, with broken-down husks of cars and buses, fire all over the place, greenscreens, cranes, 50 extras plus our main cast, full crew, gunfire, knives. We were supposed to shoot that on Monday, but it was pushed up to the Friday night before. So on Thursday, they ran over to the set where Lisa was shooting and brought her over in a golf cart so she and I could spend a whole 10 minutes talking about what we were going to do. I walked her through what I wanted, and after 10 minutes, she said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get back to work.’ So there was really no time!

My next day of shooting was that following Monday, and it was actually a second-unit day. It was one of two days we had in the [non-Attic version of the] Dollhouse. We got a lot done that day; it was more comfortable for me, because I was familiar with the Dollhouse set and we had a lot of two-person conversation scenes as opposed to ‘the world is ending.’

Your artwork shows a great understanding of light and shadow and an appreciation for their emotional impact on a scene. What was it like collaborating with a cinematographer to realize those effects in a live-action environment?

It was an amazing process, and we saw eye to eye a great deal of the time. We’d rehearse and set the blocking, and then Lisa and I sat down together and very quickly worked out the shots. The visuals obviously matter a lot to me, and more often than not, Lisa and her crew were making it look even better than what I hoped for. There’s a scene in Adelle’s [Olivia Williams] office where I wanted to create a film-noir look with heavy shadows and lights beaming through the blinds. Lisa and her crew set it up superbly. Adelle says something horrible and threatening to Topher [Fran Kranz]. She’s like a cat with a mouse, and when she threatens him, he backs up into this shadow that rests on his face, like he’s putting on a mask. You can still see him, but he’s trying to hide. It was a thrill to shoot, and putting it together in the edit was just as interesting — I felt a strong correlation between the editing process and breaking down panels on a comic-book page.

You’ve been working with editor Peter Basinski, who also worked with Joss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How has the editing process been for you?

Editing has been wonderful. So exciting. And I found that comics, for me, have been a great training ground for editing. On set, you get the light where you want it, you get the performances down as best you can, you get the action, but when you sit down to edit, that’s where you’re really laying down the shots, not unlike comic-book panels. It feels great to be able to put everything together and see the story come into focus. These things that I intended to do are real; they’re happening; there they are on the screen!

Speaking of breaking down comic-book pages, comics give you the freedom to vary your layouts, including the sizes and dimensions of each panel. Was it strange to be working strictly in the 16x9 frame for television?

No. I tend to see things cinematically when I draw comics, so my comics pages often have that sort of frame anyhow. But comics are so different: Sometimes you want a long, skinny, vertical panel, and there’s so much play in that way. But when you’re dealing with what you put on camera, you can still get the shapes you want, you just form them in other ways — you might have a barrier in the foreground or you may implement a camera move, for example.

You showed me some thumbnail storyboards you drew on your script. How thoroughly did you storyboard the episode?

There was no real time to draw storyboards during preproduction, so once we started shooting the episode, every night when I’d get home, I would stay up a couple extra hours reading and re-reading the scenes for the next day. Some days I just made a shot list or a list of ideas, and some days, if I had something sharp and clear in my mind, I would draw it out. That’s how I would get ready for the next day.

The first day I was on set you were rolling two cameras simultaneously. Was that standard throughout the shoot?

We almost always had an A camera and a B camera. Sometimes I’d push for a C camera, but more often than not it gets too complicated — too much going on at the same time.

Before shooting ‘The Attic,’ I shadowed Joss and David, and at first I wondered how you go about watching [multiple cameras] at once, but you learn pretty quickly to keep one eye on each and you start to see how the scene works itself out. You mentally start editing it live.

I don’t know if it was like this every day on set, but while I was there, I don’t think I ever saw you go for more than two or three takes.

There were days, like my first night on New York Street, when we did 11 or 12 takes of one shot. But that was a very specific crane shot. Most days just went very quickly and easily, and one big reason is casting. The cast is incredible on this show. A daunting part of the task for me is dealing with actors — I’m used to drawing at home, where I’m in total control of the characters, every smile or wink — but by the time I got there for episode 10, they’d done 22 episodes. I could nudge them one way or the other, but they knew their characters and I was able to trust them.

There were also a couple of day-player roles. In the dream world, the super-villain, Arcane, is revealed to be kind of a small nebbish named Clyde, who was played by a terrific actor named Adam Godley. He was a lot of fun to work with. We spoke quite a bit about who Clyde was and how he fit into the show. We got to create his character from the ground up, which I found very satisfying.

Was all of ‘The Attic’ shot onstage at Fox, or did you also go out on location?

We went out to the desert near Valencia to shoot the Afghanistan scenes. There’s a standing set there that’s been used in everything from The Unit to Iron Man; it’s a wonderful facsimile of Afghanistan. You could point the camera in any direction and it looks great, so I was thrilled to see it. We visited this place three times before we shot there, so I had a very specific plan of action, and it ended up being maybe my favorite day of the whole shoot. I got to be 10 years old again, playing G.I. Joe! It was loads of fun.

Were there specific instances that really got you excited about being able to take advantage of moving images, as opposed to the static panels in comics?

Absolutely. When I read a script for a comic book, I often see [the camera] moving, and I try to convey that movement in my drawing, which means I have to draw the same image four times in different sizes to make it feel like I’m pulling out or pushing in. But, of course, with an actual camera, you can just put it on wheels and do it!

This season of Dollhouse saw a switch to HD capture. Were you able to get a sense of what that brought to the show?

In one big way, everything takes a little less time. And when they were shooting on film, the playback monitors never had a great picture; it was always a distorted version of what the film image would look like. Being digital now, we had large monitors that showed us exactly what we were getting — there was no guessing. It’s a very literal image.

Positive or negative, what’s been the biggest revelation you’ve taken away from your experience directing ‘The Attic’?

The collaborative process was an adventure. I’m sort of used to being a one-man show within my world of comics and illustration, so to be working with a team — and a large one at that — was something I had to adapt to. There were times I felt like I needed to be doing more, to be involved more, but then someone would say, ‘No, don’t worry about that. Go see this person about it and they’ll take care of it.’ There was a learning curve for me in comprehending each department, how they all interacted with one another, and how the director fits within that momentum. I also had to understand that in this type of collaboration, there might be sacrifices to any specific vision, whether the vision is mine, or that of the actor or the cinematographer or the producer.

At the end of my final day of editing, I was leaving the Fox lot for the last time. I looked around a bit and walked the New York set where I’d shot the very first night. I took a deep breath and it felt good. I’d been through so much since that first night. I was proud of the final product and all the hard work everyone around me had put into it. They made it possible.

I also thought back to my week of preproduction, when the director of the episode that was then wrapping up offered me some advice: ‘In television, every shot is a compromise.’ I’m sure that saying may be as old as the Hollywood Hills, and I begrudgingly took it to heart — but I tried proving it wrong!

For more Dollhouse coverage, see the February issue of American Cinematographer.


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