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The Originals: How Paul Wesley inspired Charles Michael Davis to try directing

‘It was great because they treated me like a director,’ Davis says of his co-stars and directorial debut

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Annette Brown/The CW

Last season, Joseph Morgan, who plays the deposed king of New Orleans Klaus, made his directorial debut on The Originals. Now, it’s time for Charles Michael Davis, who stars on the CW drama as Marcel, Klaus’ surrogate son and current ruler of the city, to do the same.

Davis stepped behind the camera for Friday’s episode, an intense hour in which Freya (Riley Voelkel) traps Klaus, Hayley (Phoebe Tonkin), and their daughter Hope (Summer Fontana) in the compound for their own safety. Ahead of the episode, EW hopped on the phone with Davis to talk about how he prepared to take on this new role on the show, discovered his directing style, and his favorite parts of the episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s start from the beginning: How did it come about that you were going to direct an episode this season? 
CHARLES MICHAEL DAVIS: It all started from finding out that Paul Wesley had directed [on The Vampire Diaries] and just chatting with Paul. This was when I first moved to Atlanta. So this was season 1 of when we were shooting and they were still in season 4. But it just sparked the idea and I just started asking around. People told me the best way is to shadow and to show up at meetings and soon enough people will start talking about your episode and, “I can’t wait to be a part of your episode.”

I shadowed for about two seasons, two years, and I would fly back to L.A. from Atlanta to sit in the writers’ room for two or three days. Later in the year, I’d fly back and sit in with the editors for about three days. Then I even came back and sat in on a sound mixing session, and then I would also follow directors around on set. I would go on the set of Containment and go onto the set of Vampire Diaries and see how certain directors operated. Then we got to talking about it, and they gave [Joseph Morgan] an episode in season 3, and he did very well. So, it opened up the door for me and Daniel [Gillies].

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Which directors did you shadow on The Originals, The Vampire Diaries, and Containment
Chris Grismer, I shadowed on all three, and I shadowed Michael A. Allowitz. I shadowed Matt Hastings a lot because he was our creative director and always on set. And Jeff Hunt, it was great to get his process.

Annette Brown/The CW

What did you learn from shadowing these directors? Did you learn something new about your show after seeing it from a different perspective? 
Yeah, I talked to the [directors of photography], too, and learned from their perspective about what the rules of the show were. That was the most interesting thing. It helped me because there were particular camera moves or certain lighting setups that we would stay very close to. So it made my choices for me. But before, there’s this phase when it seems like this big daunting task. Then, when you learn the rules, it’s like the rules of soccer: Here’s the field, you just can’t use your hands, you can kick the ball forward, and don’t go off sides. You’re like, “Oh I can handle that. I can work with that.”

Each director was different. Jeff Hunt, he was the Steadicam operator, so he had this very lyrical and smooth movement of how he liked to connect his shots. He taught me a lot about transition. Matt Hastings, he loved suspense so he taught me a lot of suspense, and he loved insert shots. So, he taught me the value of insert shots. Grismer had a very free-flowing style because he had so much experience that he was just very calm in the pocket no matter what was going on. He kind of showed me that you could also creatively come up with something or trust your actors. But what they all taught me is that they have their particular styles. So I knew I would be ready when I could come in and say, “This is my style. This is what I like,” as opposed to, “This is what we should do. This is what so-and-so did.” They were all fully realized as directors with their own style. Hunt even joked around that they called certain transitions, [where] you knew you were going to fade into black or go behind something, his trademark. I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. I gotta figure out what my trademark is.”

And, did you figure out what it was? 
Yeah, I did. I took a look back at some of the things I’d done and shot, and I loved rhythm. I also loved to move the camera with a certain flow and a pace, and I also leaned more towards the sentimental undercurrent. So I was really glad Carina [Adly Mackenzie] was writing my episode, because she loves a really good Act 6 — like, she just wants tears flowing by the time we get to Act 5 or 6. And I like sound transitions, so I had her work in some audio transitions.

It’s interesting that you mentioned rhythm, because the last time we spoke, you said you were taking ballet classes and djembe drumming lessons. Did those skills inform your directing? 
Oh yeah, very much so. I’m still obsessed with rhythm. I was just chatting with a painter and I said, “What exactly does it mean when a painting is lyrical?” And I’m here in New York studying Shakespeare. So rhythm was everything for me. Alejandro Iñàrritu, in an interview, said directing is all about rhythm. If you’ve got good rhythm, you can be a good director. So I put a lot of weight into that. When I went back into editing my episode, I was very aware of the rhythm of when you get into a scene, how many seconds before you cut, how fast certain actors talked. We even paired sort of the older characters who speak a little bit slower with younger characters so that the scenes could move forward with a certain rhythm. It was a very, very conscious thing and something I still explore to this day.

Annette Brown/The CW

What did you think would be the most challenging part of the episode when you first read the script? 
Oh, all of it. I actually texted Carina afterwards and I said, “You’re joking, right?” I said, “For one, the script is really long, and two, there’s fire elements and there’s death and there’s new characters.” I was like, logistically, I can’t even wrap my head around [it]. I go, “Is there lighting everywhere? Is there rain everywhere? You guys realize this is my first episode?” She goes, “Oh no, Charles, I’m not holding back. I love this episode.” I was like, “So, you’re serious, this is my episode?” Then from there, I knew we would have to pare some things down and maybe remove some scenes and then work with the producers about how we were going to shoot this, logistically. I knew that time and money were also constraints.

How did you learn to handle to those fire elements and other big effects?
Preparation, that’s what a lot of people told me: as long as you’re prepared and you have an idea of what you want to do. So, I walked the sets and I imagined it in my mind. We have a great, great crew of people in their departments. They’re all true artists, so they really stepped up and they had a lot of suggestions about how we could do something, how we could make it work. [For example], the logistics of, is there a makeshift altar out in the cemetery? No? Then, what are we going to make this out of? I don’t know. But, Bill [Eigenbrodt], can you help me out? And he did, and he made it work for the camera and he knew we would probably want to shoot in this direction. Things started to fall in place. But, like I said, the script and the show itself already set the rules. It was just my job to fit everything in like it was a puzzle, like a little Tetris design just to make it work and keep that in mind and keep communicating it to everyone, like, “I only need this for the shot. I know we got fire and we got wind, but all I need for you to do is stand up and then we’re out of the shot and we can move on.” Just turning it into sizable pieces that we could really digest.

As you mentioned before, Joseph directed for the first time last season. Did you get any advice from him? 
Yeah, he said, the politics will probably amaze you most of all, because you don’t really prepare for the politics of it. I got to really discover what that really meant. You know, different departments, by nature, are at odds with each other. So, it was about making decisions and moving forward. He also said the best advice he got from someone was, “Make a decision — any decision — even if it’s the wrong decision. You just don’t want to be standing there looking like a fool,” because then the crew loses confidence in you and the whole thing just goes to s—. After he said that I was like, “Okay, so where are we going? You wanna go? Are you going to walk out? I’m going to go grab my—” And he goes, “Charles, make a decision — any decision — even if it’s the bad one.” I just go, “Right, okay.”

Annette Brown/The CW

What was it like directing your fellow actors?
It was great because they treated me like a director. They really trusted me. They looked to me in a way that was very open and receptive to direction. They cared for my opinion. They didn’t fight me at all or anything like that. And I would just go up and whisper in their ear. I would just make a few little suggestions here and there, but I would always speak to them very intimately. When I liked something, I mean, everybody knew I liked it. I would just cheer. My job was also to be everyone’s biggest cheerleader. So when the cameraman really hit a moving shot in two takes, you know, I was there yelling, “F— yeah! Way to go Ian [Forsyth]!”

When Yusuf [Gatewood] does this thing where he sets the skull down and turns it and he starts to chant up to the sky, I was just like, “That is an iconic shot. Hopefully that shot will be forever remembered. I will always seek to recreate that shot in anything I ever do again.” I didn’t even direct him. I was about to yell cut because I thought he wasn’t going to turn the skull forward, but he did it in this beautiful rhythm. So, I actually got to talk to him as if I was a fan, which I am. I really got to express that through direction.

Part of this episode involves Freya trapping Klaus, Hayley, and Hope in the compound for their own protection. How did you approach that storyline? Did you try to go for something more claustrophobic, for example?
I just had to look at it in comparison to the other plotlines to see what the other characters were going through. I had to find their arc. First Klaus discovers he’s going to be grounded and then he tries to deal with that frustration, and then it all comes boiling out between him and Hayley. But, it’s nice because now you see a different side of Hayley and Klaus’ relationship. I wanted people to really see that they’re really good parents and maybe that they could actually work together and be together. And the actors are really intelligent. So, they knew how to bring out those levels. It was nice because it was all on the stage and it was all in one room and it grew in its intensity. Yeah, that was one of my favorite ones to shoot.

The Originals airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.