Zoe Robyn – MsLabelled & V Morgan Is Dead
By: Lisa Steinberg
Q) What would you say is the secret to your success with “MsLabelled” and “V Morgan Is Dead?”
A) There is lots of stuff that happens after the script, obviously, but that is the backbone of it. Smokebomb Entertainment [the production company] places a lot of importance (as they should) on really good, compelling storytelling. We spend a lot of time getting the scripts right before we start production.
Q) With many series, the location can seem like a character. How do the settings for “V Morgan” and “MsLabelled” play their own roles?
A) The interesting thing about the way we do it for these two shows (and some of the others) is the locked camera. When the audience sees the first frame of “MsLabelled” in the first episode, everything that is in that frame is going to be there in episode 20 and maybe even in the next season. It is kind of like mounting a play in some ways. Our locations are really carefully chosen and then what goes into those locations are equally carefully chosen. The cool thing about “MsLabelled” is in the first season we got a really big space. It was this big, big loft so we had a lot of places to be, a lot of different environments for the actors. With the second season, we had to change up the location and then the story had the designers downsized to a lower level of the magazine. The space got physically smaller and the actors were more on top of each other with a lot less space to work. It added to the frustrated, chaotic energy in the second season. The location really added to the character work.
We had something similar with Andrew’s (Andy McQueen) cubicle on “V Morgan.” That cubicle was constructed a little smaller than we intended so the two chairs don’t quite fit in there. I remember the production designer came to me and I thought it was so funny to see Tara Joshi (who plays V) and Andy struggle to get into those chairs and interact physically. There are not supposed to be two of them in there in the story anyway. That was a case of the location influencing the actor.
Q) How did you take such a confined space and make it seem more open for “MsLabelled?”
A) It does seem bigger, but I think a lot of it is that the actors have settled into their characters so well. They were so fantastic in season one, but this season there was real change on set that we all could feel. It was like we shot the pilot of a TV series and now we were halfway through the season, and the chemistry was amazing. Everyone was really feeling their characters and had gone super deep into their backstory, how their character reacts to every different situation and how they all react to each other too. Obviously, Drew (played by Tori Anderson) is our new element, but because they knew each other so well they were able to be those bigger than life characters. So many zany things were happening in season two so that helps because they were just being thrown against the wall. It was also the same because visually we wanted them to be closer to camera this season and bigger in frame. We wanted to see more of their faces and the physicality. There was that feeling of chaos when everyone packs a little more into that one frame.
Q) With “V Morgan,” there are small movements that happen that you have to watch multiple times to catch them all so they aren’t missed. How were you able to capture all of it while making it integral to the story?
A) I think a lot of that is because of the one frame we are working We’re not able to cut to close-ups or reactions, so you can’t lead the audience’s eye (which is so much a part of visual language). With this kind of filmmaking, it’s kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure” with which character the audience chooses to look at. In rehearsal we talk about that a lot. Our actors are working really hard every second the camera is on, even if they’re not speaking.
Q) What is the most challenging aspect of filming both series? Is it getting all the reactions or putting it together to feel cohesive?
A) I think the biggest challenge is literally shooting all of it. I don’t know if people know this, but we shot the first season of “MsLabelled” which was more than 100 pages in two days. So, it’s totally crazy! I love that Smokebomb does that because it is so exhilarating and we get to make so much content in a short amount of time. The crew has their own unique challenges because obviously lighting is a challenge and wardrobe has like 17 different script days, especially with “MsLabelled” where the clothes are so amazing. But I think the biggest challenge lands on the actors’ shoulders because some episodes are just one long take. That’s challenging on its own and that would be six pages, which equated to half an hour of our 12-hour day.
Q) What is a day of filming like for you?
A) For “V Morgan,” we shoot everything in one location and then move on to the next one. I do remember on the first day of second season of “MsLabelled” or “V Morgan,” the script supervisor told me half an hour into the day that we had just shot a full episode. Sometimes an episode will be two shots because it will be two scenes that we shoot in one take. Some of them have montages and have little pieces so it will take longer.
Q) Do you give the cast any advice before shooting?
A) The big thing is for the actors to shake off this idea that they are going to be able to do until it is perfect. Instead, just be loose and free with it and realize we’re probably going to do this in between one to three takes. Then, they have to be able to move on to a different scene. At the start of the day we think we’ll do the first scene, do a couple takes and then we have to move on. Someone will say the light isn’t perfect or feel they didn’t react probably and will want to do it again. I might want to do it again because I think the blocking could be better, but we all have to take that breath and be like, “Okay, that was really good. It may not have been perfect, but now we get to go on to another scene.” By the end of the first day, you lose that feeling that it has to be perfect. That’s when the best scenes happen. With any production, I generally want that feeling of letting go and just going with it. You want that as early on the first day as you can.
Q) With “V Morgan Is Dead,” was there an episode that was tougher to film than another?
A) Probably the first sequence where V dies was definitely the most difficult because there were so many pieces. Everything has its own unique challenges.
Q) With these projects, you talked a bit about why you wanted to be a part of them. What was it though that really drew you to them?
A) Directing 20 episodes of a web series in one go is super exciting because you sometimes get bits and pieces of stories to work on. This was the opportunity to be a part of something that was a complete season, a complete arc. You basically are given the opportunity to do almost a whole feature and I really liked the people I worked with. They are so committed to the storytelling, original material and making it look the best it can. We work really, really hard to make it as good as we can. Being offered a 20-episode web series is the thing that drew me to the first season of “MsLabelled,” but I have been coming back because of the people I get to work with for sure.
Q) What have you taken away from working on these projects?
A) I think my experience working with actors on these series has been so valuable. They are so fantastic! I have been lucky enough to work with some of the most fabulously generous, patient and talented actors. And making it all in such a short time period it forces you to be focused on where everyone is emotionally in the story. It’s almost like a bootcamp in a lot of ways.