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Interview: ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Director Cherien Dabis Discusses Delivering Representation While Entertaining

A mysterious young man turns the tables to spy on Charles, Oliver & Mabel. Theo (James Caverly), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

It does not take more than a few minutes to realize that the Only Murders In The Building season one episode ‘The Boy From 6B’ is more than your average television episode. It takes on the ambitious challenge of only using one line of spoken dialogue as it tells much of the episode through the perspective of Theo (played perfectly by James Caverly), a resident of the building and a potential suspect in a murder, who also happens to be deaf.

Audio Only Interview
INTERVIEW WITH CAPTIONS

Director Cherien Dabis (Ramy, Ozark) approaches the art of storytelling not only as a means to thoroughly entertain, as seen when adding to the tangled web of the Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez murder mystery series – her work goes much further. Dabis has built her career on providing proper on-screen representation for marginalized communities. In the case of this “The Boy From 6B,” she puts us in the shoes of Theo, experiencing much of the episode’s action from the perspective of a deaf individual. 

The episode delivers a fascinating, funny, and exciting chapter in the story of The Arconia. At the same time Dabis dedicated tremendous amounts of research and care, working directly with Caverly, to ensure the scenes of the story told from the Theo’s perspective felt authentic. The results speak for themselves. In every shot the precision positioning of the camera, the audio design, the direction provided to the actors deliver a one of a kind experience. Dabis proves that you can entertain, or better yet, you can entertain and make a difference.

As seen for decades, it is easy to turn any group of people into a caricature or a series of stereotypes. Remembering there are real people being represented by each character is important. Also not lost on Dabis is that characters who are part of under-represented groups cannot be painted with broad strokes. They are as complex and as interesting as anyone else and should not be reduced to one trait. By developing fleshed out characters with layers and depth, it helps to connect us all – and, as this episode proves, can be a hell of a lot of fun at the same time. 

My conversation with Dabis was not only interesting, I found it inspiring. Using art to make change is a beautiful goal. One thing is clear, all representation is not created equal. Dabis works one project at a time to turn misrepresentation into authentic representation.

Cherien Dabis // photo credit: Amin Nazemzadeh

I recommend you listen to it in its entirety (above) – it is a wonderful conversation. The following are some selections from my conversation with Cherien Dabis:

On how she came to be involved with Only Murders In the Building:

Cherien Dabis: The very first call I had with the showrunner, producer and directing producer, and they pitched me the idea of doing a silent episode. I was just completely sold. I built a lot of my career on telling stories about marginalized communities and working on shows like The L Word or my own films, which center on like, Palestinian American, Arab American narratives, and a show, like Ramy. Which is, again, the first Arab American show on television. It’s really meaningful to me to get to do that kind of work – to tell a story from the point of view, from a point of view that we don’t often get to see.

On her process in telling this story

Cherien Dabis: I was really sensitive to wanting to involve the community, to do my homework, to do my research, to understand the ways in which they have been misrepresented and the ways in which they have authentic representation out there. And so, James cleverly who plays Theo was amazing. And he really acted as my guide through navigating that research of representation.

On how her approach differed on this from other work she has directed

Cherien Dabis: We were telling the story from two very distinct points of view. I wanted to create a visual style for Theo that would really differentiate his point of view visually and obviously, sonically, and, I started working with the editor kind of early on in that episode. I had conversations with the composer very early on. And just the three of us kind of work together, the composer, editor, and I, to think about what the soundtrack might be like and how they might differ for the two different storylines. And so it was really a much more involved process.

And about her unique visual style approach:

Cherien Dabis: We wanted to really allow the audience to kind of be in his shoes and really see the details that he’s seeing and noticing. That was kind of first off the bat one of the things that we decided. And then, in working with the cinematographer, who’s also fantastic, Chris Teague. When we then shoot Theo in order to kind of contrast those long lens points of view, we’re kind of shooting wide angle close up so that we feel this closeness to him – this intimacy with him. But also we feel his distress because it’s, at times, so close that it feels a little distorted. That was kind of like the the visual style that we went for, 

Only Murders In the Building is now streaming exclusively on on Hulu. If you have already watched, go back and rewatch “The Boy From 6B” after listening to the interview to better appreciate the collaborative effort needed to create bring it to life.

Only Murders In The Building — “The Boy From 6B” – Episode 107 — With the investigation scratching at a web of old crimes originating inside the building, a mysterious young man turns the tables to spy on Charles, Oliver & Mabel. Charles (Steve Martin) and Jan (Amy Ryan), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.
Email: filmsnork@gmail.com

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