As Emmy season continues, Awards Radar had the opportunity to chat with Pete Chatmon, the director of the fifth episode of The Flight Attendant’s second season. While directing this episode, Pete focused heavily on Cassie’s mind palace, which is where she talks to other versions of herself.
As you likely know, the new season of the hit 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, Pete discusses balancing comedy and drama on a series like The Flight Attendant, directing the synchronized swimming scene, the importance of diversity in the industry and more.
How did you get your start as a director?
I like to say I started directing when I picked up a Super 8mm camera in the fall of my 11th grade year of high school in Maplewood, NJ. We had a requirement of one project per quarter, but I was doing ten because I was so enamored with trying to take what I saw in films at the theater and translate it into the scenarios I dreamed up in my bedroom and screened in class. We also developed the black & white film so it was super rewarding in the sense of soup to nuts accomplishment. We watched laser discs of “important” films every week, and after seeing Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and learning that he had attended NYU, along with some other cinematic heroes I was developing like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, I decided that I had to follow in their footsteps. I spent the next year developing a portfolio of silent short films and commercials and applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Fortunately, I was selected because I did not apply anywhere else and had no intention of doing so. I guess tunnel vision is important to directing!
How did you get involved with shooting the 5th episode of this season of The Flight Attendant?
It was a series of fortunate events that came as a result of collaborating with some really talented people over the past few years. I had directed two episodes of You in Season 3 (eps. 307 and 308) for which Silver Tree was the producing director. Then, a few months later I directed two episodes of Love Life in Season 2 (eps. 202 and 204) and the cinematographer for my episodes was Adrian Peng Correia. He and I chatted about how much I loved season one of The Flight Attendant, for which he had been a cinematographer, and he was gracious enough to send a note to Kaley saying how well we worked together. That, coupled with a great working relationship with Silver, and the fact that both Berlanti Productions and HBO were familiar with my work, all came together in a perfect storm. The Flight Attendant can be a beast of a show so I also think the fact that I have experience with both comedy and drama on premium cable and streaming shows was a definite plus and icing on the cake.
What was the most challenging part about directing this episode?
The most challenging part about directing this episode was balancing the comedy and drama.
How were you able to balance comedy and drama for this episode? Can you point to any specific scenes?
I feel very fortunate to have directed so many types of projects across so many different genres. Short films and music videos. Documentaries and feature films. Branded content and now, of course, for the last five years or so, episodic television. Along the journey of creating so many different types of content, I picked up skills that are really useful for a show like “The Flight Attendant.”
Specifically for my episode, I tried to use the camera to balance that tone tightrope in places where it was most nuanced. In a dramatic moment, I could do something creative with the camera that might be playful or sexy or just provide a sense of “this isn’t only dramatic in tone.” Specific examples include using the tri-axis head which allows the camera to do a 360-degree revolution. This can be jarring for the audience, but effective in communicating a character’s state of mind if used at the right times. We first introduced the tri-axis head when Cassie takes a swig from the vodka bottle outside of the liquor store and I returned to the device to complete the story of her sobriety journey in moments inside The Mind Palace and the flashback that shows the truth about when she fell off the wagon.
Could you walk us through the coordinated swimming scene?
The synchronized swimming scene was such a joy to shoot. In the script, it simply said, “IN THE MIND PALACE — HIGH ANGLE, LOOKING DOWN on a gorgeous Busby Berkeley-inspired SEQUENCE in a Pool. SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMERS in 30’s style bathing caps and life vests do a kaleidoscopic dance!”
From there, I worked with our choreographer, Brittany Parks, to come up with a variety of routines that we could cut together in post. Or rather, she did! My job was to express to her that emotionally, these swimmers are really presenting the most alluring, sexy, attractive version of alcohol to Cassie and we should go toward that full throttle. I figured 6-8 different routines would be sufficient for the edit and from a choreography standpoint, anything that allowed the swimmers to separate, create distance, and come back together would look great from our high-angle camera. My favorite part of the scene is when the vodka bottle is presented to Cassie after the swimmer, Nadine Brandl, emerges from underwater. It’s an offering of sorts and it’s the beat that propels Cassie to finally grab the two vodka bottles out of the refrigerator in the liquor store.
How did you approach scenes within Cassie’s “mind palace” and bring them to life?
The Mind Palace idea is so well thought out that much of the work was already done once I received the script. As far as bringing them to life, I tried to weigh what was most important to the episode — pushing the envelope visually, which is a very technical motion control situation that sort of reigns in Kaley’s dynamic talent because it’s so time-consuming — or going to more traditional techniques of doubling Kaley, shooting very specifically composed over the shoulder shots, and then compositing the separate frames of Kaley as the various Cassie’s together in post.
Because it’s such a huge emotional episode, we chose to avoid motion control and used a variety of match-on-action tricks to propel the viewer in and out of The Mind Palace. I’m really proud of that because it just goes to show that some of the most dynamic tricks can be captured the old-fashioned way.
How important is diversity in the industry for you? Where do you hope to see the industry going next?
I think diversity in the industry is everything — and the industry should think it, too. In any business situation, you want to avoid being the smartest person in the room. Why? Because you’re never going to reach new heights or avoid blind spots by tapping into one singular mindset over and over and over again.
Diversity, or better yet, inclusion, only elevates a project. But, that’s just dealing with being inclusive on projects that might otherwise not be. The real creative, artistic — and since we’re talking show business —financial gold mine, is letting more diverse voices take the lead in crafting and delivering stories to audiences. There are huge demographics of unsatisfied audience members whose stories and lives are overlooked and unacknowledged, and I think the first studios and networks to truly embrace that reality will break new ground. That’s the golden age that awaits us.
What’s next for Pete Chatmon?
Next up, I’m directing the season finale of “Unprisoned”, a new show for Hulu starring Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo. I’m particularly excited about that because the last time I had the pleasure of working with Kerry as an actress was in my NYU thesis film, “3D”, which was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. I’ve also got a show in development at Showtime for which I’ll direct the pilot and some pretty cool episodic assignments that I can’t wait to share on Instagram (@petechatmon) when the time is right. It’s an exciting time to tell stories.