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Charmed director Tessa Blake takes TV fans behind the camera

What goes into directing your favorite TV shows? Tessa Blake told Hidden Remote about helming episodes of Charmed, Veronica Mars, and more.

Every great TV show needs several great directors—and Tessa Blake would know. The veteran TV director recently connected with Hidden Remote to discuss the ins and outs of directing, as well as talk about some fan favorite shows that she’s worked on.

Tessa recently directed an episode of The CW‘s Charmed, and her other credits include the recent Veronica Mars revival for Hulu and installments of CBS‘s NCIS franchise. She’s worked behind the camera on a lot of series that you know, and now she’s telling us all about it.

Hidden Remote: What’s the process of you directing a particular show? Is it similar to auditions for an actor?

Tessa Blake: Sometimes the showrunner or the producing director or the studio or network want you, because they’ve worked with you before, or they heard you have a good reputation, or you have a particular skill set that they think would be good for the show. And then it’s a conversation between the studio, the showrunner, the producing director, [and] the line producer to determine their directors list for the season.

In an ideal world, you’re returning to families and producers and creators that you’ve worked with before, because that makes it more fun for everybody. They trust you, you’re excited to work with them and I feel really lucky to have returned on a lot of shows. That’s one way it works.

The other way it works is that, as you pointed out, like actors we—me and my manager—look at what the shows are and where I might be a good fit, where we can make a case for me. And then I go and meet with people, and I try to convince them I can do their show well. And that’s how I end up on a television show.

HR: So with Charmed, as a recent example, how did you get involved with that series?

TB: Liz [Kruger] and Craig [Shapiro] were showrunners I worked with before, when they did Salvation, so I know them well. They’re also a writing team and my husband and I are a writing team, so we’ve known each other that way for a long time.

I’m really drawn to Liz and Craig. I love their vision—they’re very cinematic, really determined to create television that looks and feels highly visual and cinematic, as well as narratively organic. They’re just great collaborators. They give you a tremendous amount of freedom to create a visual palette, and they’re a lot of fun.

HR: Many TV directors don’t have that writing background. Does that added experience then influence you when you’re directing?

TB: Absolutely. For me it all starts with the script. It’s all about the story, and I am a very visual storyteller, but I never want my visual storytelling to be outside of what the narrative desire of the script is. What does the script need? What does the script want? What inspires me about the material? And how do I create a great visual landscape for that?

Coming to it as a writer, sometimes there can be a little bit of an animosity between writers and directors on television. I don’t feel that at all. I’ve loved every writer I’ve worked with. I feel very much on the side of the script, I feel very much on the side of the writers, getting their vision done. I feel a real responsibility to taking their beautiful work on the page and making it beautiful on the screen.

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Photo: Tessa Blake with DP Gordon Lonsdale on the set of NCIS: New Orleans. Credit: Tony Politus

HR: Every director has a style. How would you describe the Tessa Blake style on the TV shows that you direct?

TB: I prefer to be guided first by character, so I’m really interested in point of view. All of my storytelling comes from the question of whose point of view is it in the story? Whose point of view is it in the scene? Therefore how does the camera work in relationship to that?

My style is derived by the requirements of the story, and my big model for that is Sidney Lumet. All of his films, in many ways, are different stylistically because the stories were different. I love that. I hugely admire people like Wes Anderson, who just has such an overall compelling vision that no matter what material they touch, you know whose film it is. But for me, it’s a much more organic relationship between story and storyteller.

HR: You’ve worked on multiple series for The CW. Are you able to carry anything from one TV show to the next, especially if they’re on the same TV network, like Charmed and iZombie?

TB: Every show I do really helps me with every other show I do. The wonderful thing about directing episodic television is that you direct in different tones and different genres, and it makes you a cinematic linguist. You learn how to tell stories in different languages, and that skill set you bring to the next project and the next project.

Also, the difference between being an independent filmmaker and being a filmmaker inside a system is you get a lot more toys. You get a lot of support. You get to learn the difference in cinematic style to tell the story in different ways. And while iZombie and Charmed are different tones, I truly learned a lot from each of those and all of those [past TV shows].

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Charmed returns Friday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. on The CW.