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TV Industry: EditorsNet: Michael Watkins

TV Industry: EditorsNet
Michael Watkins
Elif Cercel

Michael Watkins has worked in every facet of television production since he was 14. An award-winning cameraman, Watkins first had the opportunity to direct while working on “Quantum Leap.” He has since directed multiple episodes of “NYPD Blue,” “Chicago Hope” and “Lois & Clark; The New Adventures of Superman.” He is now a co-executive producer and director of “The X-Files” alongside the show’s creator, Chris Carter. “The X-Files,” in its seventh season on Fox, stars David Duchovny (Fox Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully). Watkins directed three shows for this season, including an upcoming episode that will air Feb. 20 that brings together “The X-Files” with the production team from the Fox reality show, “Cops.” Watkins received an American Society of Cinematographers award for “Family Album.”

In the “Amor Fati” episode you directed, Duchovny and Carter had writing credits. How would you describe their creative input?

David is a very bright writer and Chris has proved his storytelling skill. David wrote one episode last year called “The Unnatural.” That was his first directing assignment. I thought he did a lovely job. For David to write on the show is a chance for him to reinvest his creative juices. Both Chris and David have great shorthand with the show. I can’t think of two people who are more easily acclimated at writing what goes on here. It’s fun when he’s on the set and participating, because he’s there all the time. He takes it seriously — not that he doesn’t take everything seriously, because he is a wonderful actor. But when your words are being performed, you take them even more to heart. Having him there made the dialogue of directing all the more interesting and detailed.

How involved, as a producer, are you in developing the episodes?

My job as producer is to take scripts and arrange them, schedule, budget and invent ways to get the scenes done. When directing, I try to read through the script and make my creative input in terms of the flow, cutting and visual content. I put my spin on what’s already there. Also, when we do multiple-parters, there is a traffic pattern — stories that are previously under way that have to be acknowledged and looked after in the back house. Then when you do the front-house ones, you have to set everybody up for the conclusion.

The “Amor Fati” episode must have been particularly challenging to direct given that it takes place mostly in the mind of Mulder (Duchovny). How did you feel about the task?

It’s very different with David being insane and going in and out of consciousness. The audience has to follow what’s real and what’s not. And at the beginning, you don’t want them to know what’s real and what’s not. Then little by little it starts to reveal itself. The show’s audience is so dedicated that they remember scenes and follow it through, understanding what was a dream and what was real. You have those great moments where the characters are communicating via telepathy.

How did you direct the actors in those sequences to get the right tone and pace?

We talked through it. David and Bill Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man) play heavy adversarial roles. And we talked about the content of the show and then I took them into a soundstage and had them run the dialogue at different rhythms. I played back the dialogue as they walked through the scene so they could get the movement, breathing and postures of what the words would be while they’re thinking them. It became a natural flow for them. So they didn’t just have to walk through. We rehearsed times and feelings and the flavor of the dialogue; then they were able to do it. Obviously, mystery and suspense are key to the show. Each episode is full of cryptic dialogue and clues building up to a finale.

How difficult is it to maintain that tone?

It’s a detailed show. The detail is very accurate with a graphic visual nature. So everything is researched.

Do you do much of that research?

No. We have a group of people who do the research and report to the writers about what’s real and what’s not. There are other things we’ll do in terms of research or in terms of technical advice. But everyone pulls together to keep it as detailed and realistic as possible.

What visual effects techniques and other camera or lighting tools did you use in creating the dream sequences that were so intrinsic to the plot?

We wanted to take it a step out of reality, so we saturated as many blues as we could and polarized the picture a little bit, too. As soon as you saw it, you didn’t have the sense that it was a surreal setting, but something was “off.” We laid the sound differently as well, so there was a sense of quietness — living in a world of cotton. We stripped the set of any ambience. And then when he was old, we tried to keep it real — more orange, to get the sense of a real palette of colors. And we tried to light it like a late moody day. And, of course, the end of the world — no one can film that.

How did you achieve the apocalypse sequence?

Bill Millar in visual effects made renderings to show to the writers, producers and myself. Everybody made notes and then we started to come up with the idea of what we wanted. Then we designed the windows, reflections, the shadow overhead and the fire. Everybody integrated their ideas and then we shot with nothing around. We had flame bars shooting fire up so it would reflect in the glass and also create an interactive look to the lighting with what was happening. You just have to cast your fate out there. You know that a guy is blowing propane fireballs in the air and you’re looking at the stage, knowing that the end of the world will be on the stage. It’s a matter of trust. Then we kept shooting and building to get to the final product.

Your experience in production and photography is evident when you describe lighting scenes. Do you feel that that experience gave you an edge for directing?

It does a lot; it’s huge. I have one less thing to worry about. It allows me to have more knowledge and more time so it’s much easier to come to a decision or to grasp ideas when people are trying to contribute. I’m able to visualize what people are trying to say much faster and either incorporate that or not have to spend time with it.

Did you work with a second unit?

Yes. All of the directors shoot all the way through. On this show, which is particularly different, we shoot eight days in first unit, which is primarily supposed to be David and Gillian’s stuff. And then there is the second-unit time, where we try to do bigger effects or visual effects and shoot all those things that David and Gillian aren’t on. It would be impossible for us to keep our production schedule if we only had one unit. We wouldn’t be able to deliver the 22 shows. This show is completely different from any other show you see on TV. This is like a movie. I think that craftsmen in the business appreciate what we put out technically. There’s a lot of respect paid to all those crafts and, consequently, all the people who work here give an enormous amount more than you see in other places. It’s not meant to put anybody down. It’s just appropriate for the kind of storytelling that’s done here. It’s a different sort of show.

You’ve been involved in “Chicago Hope” and “NYPD Blue” and other shows. Do you feel you have found your creative niche in “X-Files?”

Yes and no. But this is the most difficult show to do. It is exhausting. The idea of fear and suspense here is done totally differently. On “NYPD Blue,” where we worked on 90-degree angles and with the dialogue with the Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) character, he came alive because it was always about the interview in that room. This show takes us to Area 51, Chicago — it’s unlimited where we go to here. There are no boundaries and no standing sets other than maybe Mulder’s office. And we build a habitat here. It’s not like a two- or three-wall set. We have sets where the plugs and the ceilings work. We build habitats here because it’s all about point of view. So our shot list intensifies geometrically. When the characters look at something, we have to look at it. We have to be able to see all the rooms at all times so you’re always in the mind of the character — trying to study what’s going on through their eyes. The difference between horror and suspense is that in horror we all know that something scary is going to jump out while the characters don’t know and the audience does. There are all sorts of levels that have to be built and you can’t keep going back to the same close-up angle all the time because it becomes predictable. The angles help create an uneasiness with the constant movement of the camera.

As in most television series, there are other directors involved in the show. How does that affect the show’s characteristic stamp from episode to episode?

When you think of this show running for this many years, I don’t find that many. Rob Bowman and Kim Manners have been with the show from the beginning. And Chris has directed a few shows. Now I’m doing them. But it’s not like on “NYPD Blue.” There is a fingerprint to this show; it’s not easy. And television has an extraordinary amount of pressure built on top of it. We may work with a big budget, but we also have to get an enormous amount of work done in a certain number of hours. Because of the quality of the shows and the previous episodes, everyone puts themselves out there to do a successful show and feels failure when they’re not measuring up. You have to maintain more than just the sense of suspense of the supernatural.

There is also great tension between the two lead characters. Don’t they have great chemistry?

If I could bottle that, I’d be wealthy beyond compare. All I know is they have one of the great chemistries of all time. And people root for them. You feel the magic of their love and caring for each other. I don’t know what it is. If I could describe it, I could re-create it. But it’s just one of those things that happens. Like a Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy thing. You see other shows and they’re written well and they look nice. But the chemistry isn’t there.

In the episode we were discussing, you directed a number of emotional scenes. How did you get the actors to hit those emotional marks on-set?

Scully was great in that last scene. When they saw each other — it’s killer. They’re delightful and you fall in love with them.

In terms of the plot, will that relationship ever take a romantic turn?

I don’t think it can, because then I think you’d kill off the beauty of their relationship.

How much longer do you see this show continuing?

I don’t know. I certainly think they have a franchise here and a strong audience. As long as they’re telling good stories, they would try to continue. There’s all the talk about next year and we’ll see where that goes.

Are you sold on the supernatural subject matter of the show that obviously captures the imagination of so many viewers, and is it something that makes your directing better?

No, I don’t bite down. I believe that when you find yourself and let the ego fall away, everything comes together and things happen for a reason. I don’t know if there are souls that come back and forth between incarnations. I think that the big karma wheel is run all by ourselves. That’s a big relief.

How did the “X-Cops” episode come about?

In talks of “X-Files,” all the little idiosyncrasies of lenses and everything we do. But we shot the whole “X-Cops” episode on video. “Cops” is a real-life television show and it has a huge following and the banner song, “Bad Boys.” They drive around with officers all over the country. What we did is — I think it’s the 150th episode — we started off riding around with sheriff’s deputies and then lo and behold, we come across Mulder and Scully investigating a case. And they get involved in the television show “Cops.” I watched many episodes and met with the creators. I think it’s a delightful episode. It’s a huge change from our look — all those close-ups and everything. We do one-timers and turn it into that sort of TV show. I think the fans will like it. It’s a lot of fun and it took a lot of courage. Everyone had to go the other direction to do it.

Is this a one-time occurrence, or do you expect to do more of these shows?

No. I think it’s one special one, right out of the chute. A lot of times we do fun ones. Chris did one a couple of years ago in black and white. We did one as a sort of homage to Hitchcock’s “Rope,” trying not to have edits. Every now and then, one of these pops out. But this is all by itself. It’s a lot of fun.

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2 Responses to “TV Industry: EditorsNet: Michael Watkins”

  1. […] Discussing Duchovny’s writing credit on The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, director Michael Watkins observed that writing allowed Duchovny to reconnect with the series that ha…: […]