Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
Rosemary Rodriguez and I met for a few hours at a cafe on New York’s Upper East Side on a picture perfect afternoon. Joking about the sometimes deafening noise of the passing motorcycles and trucks, we agreed that the background sounds definitely would not be ideal for a film shoot but it was just the right setting for our interview.
Just days earlier, Rodriguez attended The Good Wife series wrap party at the Museum of Modern Art. Rodriguez holds the distinct honor of directing 18 episodes of the show, more than any other director in the seven seasons of the multi-award-winning series. Episode 20, The Party, the final Rodriguez directed, had just recently aired.
Rodriguez’s long and impressive list of television directing credits, include Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Empire, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Outsiders, Hawthorne, Law and Order: SVU’s Rescue Me, Castle, Blue Bloods, Elementary, and Criminal Minds. Silver Skies an independent feature Rodriguez wrote and directed, just won Best Feature at the Manhattan Film Festival in April, Best Comedy at the Tiburon International Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. Joe Amodei and his company Virgil Films Entertainment (VFE) are releasing the film.
It would be an understatement to say that Rosemary Rodriguez is in high demand.
Directing for Television: A Week in the Life
Kouguell: Television directing is a collaborative process with the actors, production heads, writers, crew, and so on. You’re not just a hired gun who steps in and waves her hands like a magic wand and everything falls into place. You have X amount of time, often one week or less, to direct an episode. What’s a week in the life scenario for you directing a television episode?
Rodriguez: A day consists of either waiting for the script or I get the script for an episode and start reading. For the first read-through I look for the emotional thread of the episode and determine what it’s about. I start formulating those ideas about what’s really going on in that story and how I can go from beginning, middle, and end of the story and be able to have a completion in the episode.
From then on, I’m anxious until I get on set with actors, then I’m okay. I start sleeping better after that read. I start getting into details like location; how many locations there are, how long are the scenes, are there any scenes that have a lot of people in them or maybe one or two characters don’t have very many lines or don’t really talk, and I wonder what’s their purpose in the scene and what is everyone doing.
I also start thinking about how the actors are going to respond to the script. I read it to see what each character’s journey is and what they’re doing. If there are any issues with that I make notes. If there are four or five people in the scene, or if you have one person who’s just standing around who has maybe just one line. I think about each character’s purpose in the scene.
I look for ways to visually tell the story — if there’s any kind of prop I can use or insert into the scene to tell that story or locations; it may not be in the script.
We go into prep and start a number of meetings. We have a concept meeting where everyone except the actors, are in the room because the actors are always shooting while you’re in prep. We get in a room together, the heads of production and discuss what’s coming down the road. For example we have a party here in this scene so we have to have food and flowers. And then, whoever wrote the script comes in and we hear what they have to say. By this point, I’ve already formulated my ideas about what I think the script is about and then I get to hear about what the writer thinks. Quite often, depending on the show, it’s usually in sync and if it’s not, it usually helps me see things in a different way. Sometimes I will pitch things of what I may see and it will help writers articulate their ideas. I get to work with really great writers and we then just start collaborating.
Then we get into casting and in that concept meeting, the casting director will be on the call, as well as the writer of the show, and the creator. It depends on who’s in the meeting; it’s different with every show. At that point we have an idea of who the characters are and who we’re going to be casting and we get to hear from the writer about what they’re thinking about. If I’m thinking about a certain thing for a character or a certain actor that’s when I would give my suggestions. That’s when you start collaborating about casting.
After that, we have more specific meetings — wardrobe, hair and makeup meetings. We location scout, go to casting and then eventually we have a production meeting. Then things are on lockdown and then we approve things separately. The department heads come together again and we have a production meeting, to go over more details, including what are we going to see in that frame and any other issues.
Prep is really about solving problems together. Usually in the beginning of the process, but not always, we have a tone meeting. It can include me, the writer of the script, and the creator of the show; we will go over the script scene by scene and if I have questions at that point, such as: What is the motivation here? Why is his character doing this here? How about if I shoot that this way? I think this scene is from her point of view — then they will tell me what their thoughts are and that’s where conceptually it all comes together.
The other meetings are of course with the production designer, I go over the set and blocking with my AD and team, and we’ll do a little DGA theater so I know what the blocking is going to be for every scene.
That’s all in the perfect scenario.
And then that scenario blows up when the script comes late.
Late scripts are a huge problem in television because for a network show you get seven days of prep for an eight-day shoot and for cable you usually get seven days prep for a seven-day shoot. Sometimes you don’t get the script until a few days into prep; you might have an outline or you might have nothing. You might just say, Hey, we’re looking for a hospital room or a school, so you just go scouting. It depends on the show. It infringes on my job, of course, so it can sell the whole episode short.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Pushing the Envelope
Kouguell: The Jessica Jones series does not shy away from violence. Episode 10, which you directed: “AKA 1000 Cuts,” was very haunting and graphic. It effectively revealed glimpses of Jessica’s back story with Kilgrave, whose character in some ways becomes slightly empathetic (not sympathetic) because we learn more about his character, his vulnerabilities in this episode.
Rodriguez: Jessica is a great character that I connected with immediately because she’s so flawed and she’s been abused. I think the issue of rape and overcoming that, and how one deals with that, which is something that Melissa Rosenberg created, is so unique in this show. People respond to Jessica’s character and the humanity of her character even though she’s a superhero and I think that’s brilliant.
For me, every story involves finding the truth and the humanity of people. We all have darkness, and we all fall prey to judging each other rather than digging deeper and trying to have empathy or at least acceptance. Empathy is not always possible because things can be so dark; this is part of humanity whether you like it or not.
The story with Kilgrave was that he had the power to get anyone on the planet to do whatever he wants. This is very dark especially the way he uses it. But, at the core of it, the scene on the rooftop and for just a few seconds, you have this window where you could have left and you didn’t. I thought it was interesting that no matter what powers Kilgrave had, he still wanted some form of love that was authentic and real.
I felt at that point in the story and the series, I had an opportunity with the violence to actually physically show the depth of his darkness in a physical way. That’s why I wanted to be very graphic. Within the same episode is the flip side, the opposite, which is that desire of love. We see Jessica’s flaws and yet she’s so tough. (Krysten Ritter is the most amazing actress; I have so much respect for her talent.) To be able to have an episode where you also see Jessica in a dress and her vulnerability and innocence — I love those extremes; those are the things that jump out at me. I want to tell that story.
Kouguell: Tell me at your Podcast ‘The Director’s Chair‘
Rodriguez: I have writers, producers, actors, and other directors on my podcast to talk about collaborating. I love collaborating; that’s when the creative process is best. So far, I’ve done 11 episodes on iTunes. Krysten Ritter came on so we could talk about Jessica Jones. In the show I talk with my guests about what works for them when collaborating and what doesn’t, what is their creative process, and more.
Kouguell: What’s coming up next for you?
Rodriguez: This summer I’m directing an episode of The Walking Dead — I’m really excited about that and also working on Sneaky Pete for Bryan Cranston’s Company that’s going to be a new series on Amazon; the pilot is up now. For Showtime, I’m developing Florent with Alan Cumming, and I’ve adapted the memoir Loose Girls written by Kerry Cohen, for a feature film, which has producers attached and we’ve started that process.
Kouguell: Let’s end with a flashback to 2001 and your first feature Acts of Worship, which you wrote and directed. (The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature.) How did that experience shape you to be the writer and director you are today?
Rodriguez: It taught me the biggest lesson of all, which is that I have a voice and that it was okay to express it. And, that I had a gift. I can’t say that after the movie I knew how to act on that gift yet, but it was the discovery of that gift. It was the discovery of why I was on this planet. So that’s a big deal. I get confirmation with every show I make; it just gets deeper and deeper. That’s why people just have to keep writing, keep creating because it’s not just about creating, it’s about gaining confidence with everything you write, to know that you can do it.
Sign up for one or more of Susan’s next set of classes:
Check out all of Susan’s Upcoming Classes!
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature Film
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into