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Interview: Jennifer Phang Discusses Directing ‘The Flight Attendant’ and ‘The Pocketwatch’

Recently, Awards Radar had the chance to chat with Jennifer Phang, the director for the third and fourth episodes of The Flight Attendant’s newest season. Jennifer directed in both Iceland and LA to bring these episodes to life and focused heavily on the mind palace. 

The second season of the HBO Max series follows Cassie Bowden as she battles with her sobriety and gets tied up in yet another mystery while working for the CIA as a human asset. The series stars Kaley Cuoco, Zosia Mamet and Rosie Perez

In this interview, Jennifer talks about her work with VFX elements, her collaboration with Kaley Cuoco on The Flight Attendant and her newest project Disney’s The Pocketwatch

How did you get started as a director? 

I caught the filmmaking bug in high school and then took video and film classes incollege where I actually studied under director Cheryl Dunye. I later looked at the American Film Institute for grad school because some filmmakers I admired had gone there. I think my fate was sealed when I got in because it meant I had a path to break into the industry. During and after school I took time to write and raise money for a few shorts and indie features. My films were developed and programmed by some wonderful film organizations and festivals like Sundance, Film Independent, SF Film, Tribeca, and key organizations supporting Asian American media-makers like CAAM, Visual Communications. My features premiered at Sundance. Advantageous, my second, won a jury award and was bought by Netflix.  

From that success, the Sundance Institute became instrumental in backing me as I made a go of breaking into episodic directing. I was paired with Michelle MacLaren as a mentor. She met with me frequently to show me the lay of the land, and advised me on her strategies for directing as a guest on a show.

At the Warner Bros. Directing Workshop, I studied with Bethany Rooney, and Mary Lou Belli, while I shadowed Mike Robin, Stacey Black, and Sylvain White on WB shows. At the Fox Director’s Lab Gina Reyes put me in front of Lesli Linka Glatter and I shadowed her and Dan Attias on Homeland, and meanwhile, I found an opportunity to direct The Exorcist as my first ever TV episode. All of this kept me busy and led to more and more work. 

That may seem like a long list of names! But it just goes to show how it took a village of generous creatives and supporters who took a risk on me to help build a path into directing. Looking back on that journey, I’m both in awe and tremendously grateful.

How did you get involved with The Flight Attendant?

By that time I had worked on Riverdale and Stargirl with Warner Bros and Berlanti Productions and we’d had a relationship. The Flight Attendant showrunners Steve Yockey and Natalie Chaidez met with me, as did Kaley Cuoco and Suzanne McCormack. Natalie and I had coincidentally crossed paths on another project and were mutual fans! 

The Flight Attendant felt attractive as an opportunity because of its fearless shooting and editing style, and the way the cast could bounce effortlessly between comedy, suspense, and drama.

Kaley’s ability to inhabit a Cassie that is clinging desperately to her strength while always making me laugh at throwaway lines about Topo Chico… Rosie Perez as Megan — an everyday working mom, anxious to be seen– but also so funny and tender. In the best way, Zosia Mamet as Annie reminded me of my time living in NYC and hanging out with friends who worked intense jobs. Just the way she operated from her heart and head at the same time– I thought that was fantastic. I liked the way the story interrogated her values in a really surprising way.  And I cannot say enough about Griffin Matthews and how entertaining his take on Shane is… So I was really quite excited at the prospect of working with everyone.

What were some of the challenges you faced while working with the idea of the “mind palace?” 

The Flight Attendant’s signature Mind Palace scenes show Cassie popping into the lightly surreal world of her inner consciousness.  This is where we see Cassie processing her feelings while also puzzling through clues and events surrounding the murder mystery of the season.  In the first season, she would have fraught conversations with Michiel Huisman —  the murder victim who she woke up next to in Bangkok.  But even there, these anxious scenes were filled with lightness and humor.

Season 2 had a different approach. It required Kaley to inhabit four versions of Cassie in the Mind Palace. These were dramatically different versions of Cassie’s personality.  There was her nihilistic-party self in a gold dress, her fatalistic self in a black sweater, and her ideal future self who we called “Future Perfect Cassie.” And then there was our main Present Day Cassie transitioning us into and out of these scenes. So my job as a director was to create scenes where Kaley was able to debate and banter with multiple versions of Cassie. She could be playing up to four roles in the same scene.

I needed to plan for how Kaley would move and make sure we knew the character motivation for her actions. We needed plans that were visually interesting, but not overly complicated or unachievable. All of this was a fine balance. I also had to direct our doubles, including our lead double and Kaley’s primary double Monette Maio, who was absolutely amazing in working closely with Kaley and the other doubles to make sure we were on the same page. We also had to be careful about continuity in body positions, and hair position, when we were swapping through all the doubles.

Big shout out to my Assistant Directors Emily Hogan (1st AD) and Johnny Recher (2nd AD) who were instrumental in figuring out how to make the schedule and hair and costume changes work with Kaley and the doubles as smoothly as possible.

On top of all of this, we were cross boarding two episodes on one schedule — with part of those episodes occurring in Los Angeles, and part of those episodes shooting in Iceland. So while we were prepping Los Angeles, we were also prepping for a tightly scheduled Iceland shoot with my Iceland AD Derek Peterson. What’s more, the Iceland schedule was especially dicey because it was winter there, with only four hours of shootable daylight and a large number of company moves because Cassie journeys all over Reykjavik in search of someone. And then they are on the run around Iceland through a spa, on foot, boat, and helicopter!

As anyone in production can imagine, the level of difficulty for all of us was significant as there were a number of moving pieces to account for. 

What was it like collaborating with Kaley Cuoco on the Flight Attendant?

It was one of the more special actor-director collaborations I’ve had. Kaley’s a wellspring of talent. Yet she was also very trusting of me. She assured me of that on day one of shooting, and with no questions asked executed each idea I offered, sometimes elevating the work well beyond expectations.  

When we tasked her with challenging camera, performance, and staging, she worked with me smoothly to pull it off. When the few times she had questions, we worked together to find the answers. I think because of the volume of work on her plate, she very smartly asked for what she needed in her schedule and trusted her directors, crew, and scene partners to do their work. This way she could give her best energy to her own work. And if anything wasn’t landing organically in a scene, she would easily pivot to find ways to make things work better.

In a Mind Palace scene involving our main Cassie and Gold Dress Cassie analyzing clues together with an overhead projector, I really was overjoyed when I was able to add Kaley high-fiving herself in a shot. It was a sort of “meta” moment I had designed in my storyboarding sessions. And it worked on a story level, but it also worked on a meta-level as it celebrates Kaley hi-fiving herself, Monette, and every double that played Cassie for their combined prowess. It was such a rewarding confluence of story, humor, performance, and technical savvy.

What VFX elements did you lean into for the episodes you directed?

I worked closely with our DP Anthony Hardwick and Kaley and VFX Supervisor Daniel Jeanette to execute some dynamic Motion Control shots and split screens. Every one of those shots demanded precision from the camera, the doubles and Kaley as they moved in lockstep with each other — and it was exciting when we figured it out. But once the camera positions were programmed into the Motion Control rig, Kaley’s job was not over. She had to recreate the staging of the doubles and play all the roles so we could comp the shots together in post. Kaley achieved a career feat this season, and that needs to be recognized. Not only did she pull off all of these Cassie versions while meeting advanced technical challenges, but she went through an extremely emotional season fighting for her sobriety and for her relationship with her family and friends. 

Another one of my favorite technical sequences was the “oner” opening shot for Episode 3. It was a continuous “cut-free” shot. We wanted to cover a continuous sequence of scenes wherein six characters move through three different seemingly adjacent sets in an overhead oner that involved a roof removal for the stage set. In reality, these sets were across town from one another! 

Because of time limitations, a roof removal sadly did not fit into our tight shooting schedule. So my DP Anthony and I had to find an even more creative solution with our Post Producer Stephanie Johnson. We began the shot by pulling out from a kidnapped couple who was tied up in a closet. Our steadi operator Dan Ayers pulled backwards through the bungalow, through a bathroom, then picked up our villains–The Diazes– who were dying their hair blonde at the kitchen sink. Then Dan pulled the camera past Waffles, the anxious little barking dog. Waffles hopped onto a chair on cue from our animal trainer.  

Next (with VFX help) the camera magically backed itself outside through the closed bungalow front door. The camera panned out to Cassie and Santiago walking into the complex, and then boomed up into a crane shot. The crane move was refined by our masterful dolly grip Josh Elder– known on set as “Crazy Train”. 

Next, as Cassie entered her bungalow, we floated to the portico roof. Then our camera made a dolphin dive (magically, VFX) through the roof and rafters to find Cassie greeting Annie and Max inside the bungalow. We boomed down to eye level as we chased Cassie down the hall to the bathroom where she closed the door on our lens. But — not to be shut out — our camera magically melted through the door to find Cassie on her phone working on something in secret.

This shot was blending together the built set in our Burbank studio with the on-location exterior set in Hollywood. It’s always really satisfying to bring all the departments together on setups like this and was a real testament to our cast and crews’ abilities.

Congratulations on directing the upcoming Disney Descendants spin-off The Pocketwatch, how did the role as director and co-executive producer come about?

Why, thank you! I am overjoyed to be joining in furthering the Descendants world! I had worked with the folks at Disney on The Secret of Sulphur Springs pilot a few years ago, and we were so happy when we got the pilot pickup. So it is great to regroup with some of the same team and also some people I’d known from the independent film scene — and begin this new journey.  

Last year the studio shared the script with me and their plans to raise the bar for The Descendants to reach a wider audience on the Disney + platform. I loved the story and the prospect of making a big musical, and I had no choice but to put together a proposal while I was in Iceland for The Flight Attendant! It all happened quickly. I was working through the night in my Iceland hotel room and also zooming with Disney in LA.  Moving through that process — and enjoying it — felt great.

And lastly, where do you see yourself headed next? 

We’ll see where The Pocketwatch takes me, but there is also a historical drama that I have in the works with some wonderful producers. I have a lot of passion for it but don’t feel ready to speak about it quite yet!

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Written by Betty Ginette

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