Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): Going inside Ben's heartbreaking Ozark taxi ride
"I know it might be tacky to say this about something I had a hand in, but it blew me away."
Writer Miki Johnson cried the first time she watched the opening scene of "Fire Pink," the penultimate episode of Ozark's third season, for which both she and director Alik Sakharov would score Emmy nominations. "I was soaring with pride and emotion," she recalls, pointing to Tom Pelphrey's performance. "Just amazing."
Described by Sakharov as an "internal," "unique," "slow-burn" of an episode, he believes "Fire Pink" can be watched and enjoyed even if you have zero knowledge of Ozark. "Because of how acutely dramatic it is, I think you can still be moved and touched by it," he says of the Ben (Pelphrey) and Wendy (Laura Linney) spotlight installment.
As if the Byrdes weren't dealing with enough, between a growing criminal enterprise and a drug war, their household was rocked by the early season arrival of Wendy's younger brother Ben, whose unstable nature would soon begin to cause trouble for the family's money-laundering operation. After a violent outburst and short stay in the hospital, Ben confronted cutthroat cartel lawyer Helen (Janet McTeer), putting his life in jeopardy. Ben wouldn't make it out of "Fire Pink" alive, but he'd bring life to the episode, beginning with an intimate taxi ride, chilling monologue, and an "actor's dream" scene.
"The first time I read [episode 9] I was reading it like an audience member and I was just crying," Pelphrey says with a laugh. "Towards the end of the script I was having a hard time seeing the words."
"At Ozark, we usually do a pretty painstaking design of the teasers — the first part of the show that you see before the O for Ozark comes up on screen — but on this particular episode, the teaser was not broken down," explains Johnson. "We had a few ideas for it, and one of them was Ben riding in the taxi, but we hadn't landed on anything. And when I went to write it, I honestly just wrote my heart. I relate to Ben. Ben is bipolar, and I'm a person with a long history of mental illness, too, and these thoughts, the thoughts in the monologue — thoughts about pain and the human struggle, Tom Petty, parents, war vets — they just vibrate in me, and I wrote them down. It was a real meeting of character, actor and me."
Johnson says she wrote the monologue in one sitting, aided by the knowledge of the "master actor" she was dealing with. "I was able to tap into that flow because I knew Tom had the soul for it, the guts, the depth, not to mention the agility and the technical skill," she shares of the Ozark newcomer. "I absolutely, 100 percent, wrote that monologue for Tom Pelphrey."
Sakharov, a seasoned TV director with time spent on Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, was tasked with shooting the final four episodes of Ozark season 3, and he says the "Fire Pink" opening jumped off the page upon his initial reading. "I thought to myself, 'Oh my god, how will this person be able to do that?'" he shares. "Because there’s so much to memorize and all this stream of consciousness. I knew that there was something special there."
With Sakharov onboard, the season's final stretch would be shot as a block, meaning they wouldn't be filming in order. "It just requires very careful prep and really understanding where the character is at the particular time in the timeline of that particular episode," he explains. "It’s not hard to shoot out of sequence if you understand what the emotion is, what the tone is, what the delivery is." But the timing did give Pelphrey the advantage of multiple weeks with the script. "For me — given what’s going on with the character and given the way the speech was written — I think the best approach here is to be as prepared as humanly possible," he says. "It was all just drill that writing, play with it at home, run through it in a million different ways and see what pops or hits, because on the day you just want to be able to give over and let the writing sort of dictate itself to you. As much as possible I didn’t want any of my mediocre ideas being opposed to what was there. I’ll tell you right now, never as good as you thought it was!"
As the actor and director worked together for weeks, they stayed away from discussing the taxi monologue, which was set to be filmed on Pelphrey's final day and the second to last day of season 3 production. "I left it alone for a long time," says Sakharov, who wanted to avoid overtalking things. "I don’t want to tell the actor what to do before he does it." When it finally came time, they took inspiration from David Fincher by shooting the car scene in a studio modeled after one the filmmaker used on fellow Netflix original House of Cards.
According to Sakharov, Pelphrey came in extremely prepared, with the monologue "chiseled into his memory like you carve something into marble." He says that made it all the more easy to "extract the depth of the performance." The duo had a short discussion beforehand, with Pelphrey showing what he was thinking. "We talked about the intensity," recalls Sakharov, "and that once the intensity goes through [Ben] it would release him and give him an energy like when you go through something very heavy and you overcome it and then you feel lightness."
Technically, Sakharov says it was a "simple" setup, with two cameras going simultaneously and shot from three angles: front, side, and outside-in. "The rest was just performance," he says. "And allowing the actor to really blossom and take shape, take after take." In the end, they'd need only four takes. "Every single time he ran it he just nailed it," says the director. "It was second or third take where I asked him to take his time, like really take his time, really go deep into this scene, and really feel every emotion that might come."
This direction proved crucial when it came to editing. "He gave me these beautiful prolonged pauses," says Sakharov, "which allowed me to dwell on him while he was sort of thinking." This inspired the decision to create the "surreal blend" of putting Pelphrey's voice over images of Ben's silent contemplation.
And the reaction to Pelphrey's performance was similarly quiet on set — at least at first. "[Showrunner] Chris [Mundy] kept texting me to tell me that Tom was destroying it, and you could hear a pin drop," shares Johnson. But once things were over, Sakharov says the volume jumped up a few decibels. "We did a standing ovation [for Pelphrey]," he reveals. "Not only because of how beautifully he performed the scene but how beautifully he performed the entire season. That man was an absolute showstopper."