Mairzee Almas Interview: Shadow & Bone Director

Shadow and Bone has been a huge success for Netflix so far, with fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels largely praising the adaptation and an entirely new audience getting hooked on the fantasy series. It tells the story of protagonist Alina Starkov, an orphan who discovers she’s a Grisha, specifically the long-hoped-for Sun Summoner who has the power to potentially destroy the Shadow Fold, a swath of pure darkness and ravenous creatures that tears her country of Ravka in two. She’s torn away from her best friend, Malyen “Mal” Oretsev, and brought to train with the other Grisha under the watchful eye of General Kirigan, a.k.a. the Darkling, who leads the Second Army of Ravka. Meanwhile, the Crows – Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey – scheme to cross the Fold to kidnap Alina. And in the frozen North, Grisha Heartrender Nina Zenik and Fjerdan Drüskelle Matthias Helvar embark on a perilous journey – if they don’t kill each other first.

It’s a lot going on in one show, and it required deft directors with a keen eye and steady hand leading the troops each episode. Screen Rant spoke with Mairzee Almas, one of those directors, about what it was like to dive into a world as vast as Shadow and Bone. Along the way, we talked about how directing is as much psychology as it is technical know-how, how having an inspiring lead actor like Ben Barnes sets the tone on set, how so many TV shows fail the Bechdel Test, what it was like shooting those brutal snow and stormy sea scenes, and more.

Something that I think most audiences don’t realize is that directing for TV is different than directing a movie – with TV being on a sped-up timeline, there are usually multiple directors per season. Is it hard to come in after someone and pick up where they left off and then also hand it off? It really is very much like a relay race.

It is. That is a great question. Is it hard? No, it’s fun! I mean part of it is understanding that you are one link in the chain and that you’re one brick in the wall, and I really actually enjoy that. If I look at the whole process, this season as one long-form movie, that’s how I like to integrate myself. So I like to see what the people before me did. We’ll have frank conversations about what we think is working, what we think may not be working as well. So that’s super helpful information going in. In my process, what I’ll often do is, I’ll watch everything I can get my hands on. If I’m allowed to look at cuts, I will look at the cuts if there are cuts to look at, because often they’re still in processing. The director’s cutting it, and there’s nothing to look at yet. But I will at the very least look at dailies, look at the footage, and I’ll watch for things.

I think that being part of the greater whole allows the tone of collaboration, and it allows for everybody to kind of bring their best game to the floor. I really enjoy working on limited series and eight or 10 episodes seasons. I really love that. Because it’s not 26 or 30 episodes, it’s not this massive, massive, massive chain that, oh my Lord, just goes forever. In an eight-episode arc or 10-episode arc, you can look at the series as a whole, as one, like I said, a long-form movie. You can see which parts of it are in my episodes, but what’s the job of my two episodes in the overall series? What is it that they’re supposed to do? If this was a note in a piece of music, what would its job be? And so that makes it really a fun collaborative experience, for me anyway, that’s how I love to work.

I imagine having that sort of ultra-collaborative approach also helps the actors, too.

Yes! Because I’m stepping into a process, a train that’s already on the move, I want to have a look and see if there are any actors for example, that might need more support, or just to get a sense of how these people work and how they are and just figure out ways to best support the performers, the actors. What do I think that they will need on the set, if anything? Or what little things do I notice about their performances or how they process?

And as you said, it’s good with the actors, as well, because again, they need to know where they’re coming from, and where they’re going to outside of your episodes or my episodes. So having these really great conversations, very fertile conversations with the actors about where they need to end the episode emotionally, where the audience wants to be emotionally, and where all the visceral experiences need to be emotionally at the end of the episode. So, it is a baton as you say. It’s a baton toss, but it’s super fun because the whole thing is already going, and you just pick it up on the run.

That’s a really great point. We always seem to focus on the technical aspects of directing, but there’s a lot of psychology and being good with people involved, and that aspect of directing rarely gets talked about. You have to be really good at understanding how to manage people – a lot of people.

Yes, oh my God, absolutely. Never mind your crew and the technical requirements of a film crew – remember, the hours are long. People devote a ton of energy to work in television and film. I like to say that your film crew – and your actors, they’re doing this as well – but your crew are also basically tearing a day off of their life calendar and handing it to you and saying, “I’m giving you my day, my full day.” It’s gonna be a 12-hour day or, 14-hour day, or an 11-hour day. They’re basically tearing off a day of their life to give to you. So you think about that, and that they do it because they think that well, not only are they making a living, but they think that they are contributing in a meaningful way creatively, technically, that their contribution matters to the project. And it’s really important as a director to recognize that people are investing themselves and they want to go home at the end of the day, and they want to say to their loved ones, “I did something really cool today. We did something really cool today. We did this really neat shot, it was a really wonderful performance from this actor, and as a collective unit, this is what we as a group did to elevate the material and to make the show great.”

That magic of bringing something to life and knowing you helped create it. Seeing what you did right on the screen. It’s everyone.

All of these things, when you think from your production assistant in the parking lot to the director of photography, to every person in between… All other people, all the technicians, the locations people, the wardrobe, the costumers, everybody, the props, art department, set dec, production designer, everybody is handing you a day of their life, and they want it to be meaningful. They want it to matter, and they want their efforts to have purpose. And so as a director, it’s important to notice that, and it’s important to encourage that. And so if people are kinda falling into kind of a rut, I’m not afraid to give them a nudge and say, “I know the script said she carries a backpack, but we both know she doesn’t carry a backpack. We know that in the other episode she’s been carrying a courier bag, so please don’t show me the backpack, show me the courier bag and maybe come up with some other ideas as well.” And when you encourage people to invest themselves completely into their job, you get magical results, you get absolutely magical results, because there are so many creative people involved in film and television.

And even on the technical side, those are all very creative positions as well. You know, the grip, the dolly grip, it sounds like it’s a technical position. But that person is pushing the dolly in a way that is operating the camera operator, and they’re feeling the energy of the scene, and they are using their own discretion, often, about when to follow something, how to frame it. Even though it sounds like a very technical and only a technical job, there are almost no only purely technical jobs on a film set, almost none. They’re all creative in some way. And therefore, they need to invest themselves, their heart, and their spirit into their job, their activities that they’re doing.

You did episodes 5 and 6, and I’d say in many ways, episode 5 is arguably maybe the most important of the season. Marie is killed at the Winter Fete. It sets up Alina finding out the truth about Kirigan. It sets up her leaving. It sets up Inej murdering a man for the first time. There are a lot of huge moments in this episode that shape these characters, not just through the rest of the season, but will shape them through the next however many seasons it gets. Is there extra pressure in shooting an episode like that knowing, okay, this is the episode that you have to nail; otherwise, none of the rest of it works?

Well, that’s also a great question. I got really lucky. My scripts were fantastic. Well, all were fantastic. But as you say, episode 5 was a pivotal one, and it was beautifully written. Eric and the team, they’re just absolutely magnificent writers. Shelley Meals was my writer and producer that was on set with me. And if something felt a little not right or something in the dialogue wasn’t quite working or if there was some little hitch, she was there to help smooth it and find a way through it or change the dialogue, or change whatever, to help us make it as impactful as possible. So I did not feel under pressure, I really didn’t.

How do you prepare for and juggle so many really pivotal and important character moments like that?

What I did do is do a lot of script analysis, which is to again break down the script, really understand what every character’s journey is. How is that character different at the end of this episode than they were at the beginning? And why are they different? Where were those moments, a pivotal moment, where they made a choice? Where they could have gone left, but instead they chose right. Talk to the actors about that. Talk to the actors about, where is your journey? Where are you different? What happened? Where are the pivotal moments where your character has great agency, where they are making choices? And this is really important, especially when we’re talking about female characters, because often, historically, in television and movies… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test…

Yeah. Oh, yeah. I certainly am. I don’t think any woman in this industry or around it can not be.

Right, so you know. I mean, it’s sadly hilarious and such a low bar that often the female characters have absolutely no agency in their own life. They are always in reaction to something else. And so what was really important and it was already baked into the character and into the source material is the amount of agency that the female characters have. They control their lives. They make decisions. They get to feel the consequences of their decisions. When I would go through the scripts and talk with the actors about how they were different at the end, where those pivotal moments are, we would have these really great conversations, and they might have a slightly different idea than I had about when, exactly, which line they thought that that change was happening. And that was okay with me. It didn’t really matter as long as it worked for them.

And so then I could choreograph the camera to capture that moment. It was all good for me. When you break down a script like that, those pivotal moments become very highlighted. You recognize them. It’s like, “Holy crap, this is a really big moment in the script. This is a big moment for Inej.” And to discuss that moment with the actor, has she killed before, what happened after this? Knowing she goes on to kill again after she kills the Inferni. She has to then kill his sister in the boiler room and that’s like, a line has been crossed that she can no longer come back from. And being deeply religious, her character is very troubled by this, but the consequences of not acting outweighed that.

Did you ever run into any challenges in your script-to-reality in terms of it not working?

Oh, sure. So we would just make sure that both the actors and I were on the same page about where those moments were and string them together like a nice pearl necklace. As long as we’re all in cahoots around when those pivotal moments happen in the script, when we plan to have them in the scene, then it’s all gonna come together in a coherent piece. Now, sometimes we would talk about a pivot and we’d think, “Oh, this is when the pivot is.” And we would block the scene, and rehearse the scene and the actors and I would look at each other and say, “You know what? The pivot is not here. It’s over here.” And we’d all go, “Yeah. Oh, okay.” And so being open and creatively awake to allow for the real moment to emerge was super important as well. So I have a plan but plan to throw it away.

Another mini-arc over these two episodes that’s very important is Ben Barnes as General Kirigan, as the Darkling, his heel turn. In episode 5, it goes from them being smitten with each other and kissing and him bringing her the irises, to the big revelation he’s the big bad. 

Yes, absolutely. It’s huge. I think that arc really tells you a ton about the character.

You know, as a side note, I just read an interview where he mentioned that’s actually his most hated scene, the worst thing he thinks the Darkling did – using Mal to give Alina the irises.

Really? Why??

Because it was so manipulative. 

But you know, that just tells you a ton about how Ben approached the character, because Ben was approaching his character as he’s not a villain in any way, shape or form. This man has been lonely and alone for hundreds of years. He has been waiting for the Sun Summoner to arrive. He has been waiting for this woman who would be his match finally to help him. For hundreds of years of being alone. Ben infused his character with so much humanity and so much need, an aching need that it’s so beautiful to watch. And so of course, Ben Barnes would look at Kirigan’s strategy of stealing the information from Mal about the irises and then using it as a manipulation tactic. He would see that as irksome because his character, General Kirigan, wouldn’t normally resort to that, but kind of had to given the timeline that was on his play.

And it’s such whiplash because then in the very next episode when he is interrogating Arken, that’s the first time you really see how terrifying he can be. Like he used The Cut before, but it was to save Alina’s life. He’s done other things, but it was to save other people. This was the first time you see just how malevolent and cruel he could be.

And you can really see that. That it was so shocking speaks to how Ben was approaching his character, which I think was absolutely right. Bang on genius.

The cast was very young, most of the cast was fairly inexperienced, except for Ben. Did it help to have someone like him in such a pivotal role? To have a veteran who could, in a number of ways, carry that all?

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, that always helps. That kind of thing helps immensely and somebody who’s so committed to his craft and such a beautiful, nuanced actor. Yeah, it absolutely helps because there’s a couple of things that happen on a film set and every culture is slightly different. Every film set develops from culture a little bit and people like Ben who are 1000% committed, they present a standard that everybody aspires to. Being prepared, being on time, all of the kind of the irksome details of a film set. Ben… There’s a reason they call them lead actors. He’s leading. He leads the crew, he leads the cast, he helps be the engine of how people treat each other, how we speak to one another, how we collaborate creatively. So when you have somebody as magnanimous and beautiful-hearted as Ben Barnes leading the cast and the crew, it makes all the difference and he really does set a beautifully high standard.

It’s amazing to have that example for the other actors, too, especially as, some of them, this was really their first major role.

Exactly. Somebody like [lead actress] Jessie [Mei Li], who did not have a ton of experience, was thrown in and had, I would say, a vertical learning curve. And your lead, your veteran actor, the rest look to them to set the example. So Jessie was super, super smart; super, super talented; super awake and listening and paying attention, and as a director, when we’re working with actors, it’s one of the many important things.

But more than that, it’s important that those actors listen to each other and they connect with each other. And it’s something that, as a director, you have to look out for and make sure that the actors are connecting, and that generally comes back down to, what do you want from this person, how much do you want it… [chuckle] Really basic, bare-bones. And Jessie was really, really terrific at staying focused on what she needs and how to connect with these other actors in the scene around her. She listens beautifully, as does Ben. They’re both really wonderful listening actors. If you’ve got that as a director, it’s everything. It’s like, “Oh my goodness.” And then add on top of that the chemistry that they share with each other, it’s just magical casting.

Speaking of chemistry, enemies to lovers is such a trope, but it’s always such a fun one. Danielle [Galligan] and Calahan [Skogman] had such witty banter as Nina and Matthias, there was so much energy in their scenes between them. How much fun was it to shoot those scenes and just watch them play off each other?

Well, it was a ton of fun. It was a real ton of fun because Danielle is just this magnetic Irish woman. She literally levitates with energy, positive, beautiful energy. She is this firecracker of goodwill and talent, and vivaciousness. And Calahan is the quintessential quiet cowboy, the American cowboy. He’s the Sam Shepard. [laughs] Just this lovely opposite to that, but also very charismatic and very warm, very loving, just a beautiful, gentle soul. And the two of them together was an absolute joy to work with.

We really played with a lot of strategies for Calahan’s character. We talked about playing the opposite. So even though his character would say to Nina, “I don’t like you. You’re lewd. You’re rude. I don’t like anything about you,” in fact, what he was really saying is, “I think your lips are beautiful. I can’t take my eyes off you. You smell fantastic.” That to me was what he was subtextually saying, but his dialogue was all trying to tear her down. And it was really fun to play those scenes with these actors, infusing the subtext, being exactly the opposite to the actual dialogue. I think that that’s what helped create a lot of the sexual tension. We would say, “You guys are saying these angry things to each other, but your hips recognize each other and they really, really want to touch… Your brain is trying to pull you away, but your body and your heart are pulling you in.”

I did feel bad for them because I think they spent the entire season either soaking wet or in the snow. You actually did a lot of this on location in and around Budapest. So how did you shoot those scenes? Was the sea a water tank in a sound stage? Was outside all fake snow or did you use the weather to your advantage? 

Okay. Oh my goodness, they were troopers, without a doubt. My God, there was just so much we did to them. [laughs] Right, we were in Budapest and the surrounding area. So the water stuff was a tank that our wonderfully talented Hungarian team put together on a sound stage. Now it’s wintertime. It was winter in Hungary at the time we’re doing this. The studio was only marginally warmed, so it was cold inside and then we couldn’t let the water be too warm because then there would be steam coming off. The air was not warm. They were troopers that were wet for a full day while they were in that tank. I mean 10 or 11 hours of them being in that tank.

We had the special effects guy, pushing all the oil barrels that were creating waves and these massive, loud fans whipping up those waves as well, creating wind and rain showers on top of all of that. So they couldn’t really hear each other, they could barely see each other, the rain was whipping and the wind was whipping and the water was cold and it was just deep enough that if Dani stood on her tiptoes, she could just keep her nose and mouth out of the water. So we had safety divers in there, just in case she got tangled, or either of them got tangled in their, very, very heavy wardrobe that they were wearing. You know she had a petticoat, all that stuff on, he had the heavy coat. Anyway, so they spent the day in that tank and it was miserable conditions, without a doubt but they never spoke a word of complaint.

Were the snow scenes also done on that soundstage? Or was that on location?

No, so, the walking through the snow scene was just outside that same sound stage and we had this massive green screen setup, so that’s why it looked like it went on and on in the distance. But outside we had this, I can’t remember, like a 200-foot green screen – maybe it was even longer than that – that went across this piece of land and we put in some fake snow in front of it. But it was a mixture of fake snow and real snow that they had to walk across. And, again, we shot this in the winter, so they did that scene with wind pointed at them, it was really cold out and a very hostile environment for them, but they were troopers.

When Danielle fell through the ice, we had two sets, a bottom set with kind of a wax cover with snow on top of it that the actress snapped, that she fell through. So how we did that is that we shot a stunt girl stepping on it, so she was the one that broke through and fell like three feet. Then we had Danielle, we put her on a wire and a harness and let her fall into it and managed her fall so that she wouldn’t get hurt. And then we had a huge, high strap where we put the stunt girl up in the air and she fell through, while we were on the ground looking up at something like, I don’t know, a hundred feet above the ground. And then again with the harnessed actor. So all of this was outside in winter, and it was cold. I was wearing 25 layers, standing inside a tent beside a heater, yelling instructions to everybody because I was too cold to get out. [laugh] Okay, that’s not entirely true but I was comfortable, comparatively, and it was like, “Oh these poor actors.” Like when she loses her shawl, and she’s standing out there with nothing. I was like, “Oh my God it’s so cold!” But they did a great job.

My last question is easy. Have you gotten to see the whole thing yet and if you have, what were your thoughts on finally getting to see it all put together?

I did finally see it all, are you kidding? I watched it all from start to finish when it came out on the 23rd! I had been eagerly anticipating it because when I started, I had of course watched rough cuts of everything I could. I watched the pilot, the first two episodes – [fellow director] Lee [Toland Krieger]’s episodes. I didn’t get to see Dan [Liu]’s as much, but I scrolled through the dailies to see was happening there, and of course, I’d read all the scripts. But by the time I had finished, I had only seen parts of it up to episode 6. And of course, I didn’t see anything past my episodes. So I loved it, I thought that everybody did a fantastic job, that the characters were evolved exactly as the actors were planning, in a very organic but surprising way. I absolutely loved it, I was excited throughout the whole thing. You know, with the crossing of the Fold, putting on the amplifier, the collar and oh, my God! I was so happy with the end result. I can hardly wait for season 2. I don’t know if we’re gonna get a season 2 but I’m hoping against hope that we’ll get one. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t want this series to continue for years and years! Literally, I could talk about this show for a month straight. It’s really good. It was a pivotal experience. It’s so much fun, all the actors are amazing.

Next: Joseph Trapanese Interview: Shadow & Bone Composer



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