Supernatural director Richard Speight Jr. previews episode 18's 'emotional ride'
The Supernatural actor on directing the sunsetting drama's antepenultimate episode, the last one completed before the pandemic shutdown.
Last week's episode featured multiple surprising twists, from Sam (Jared Padalecki) learning that Billie (Lisa Berry) wants to become new God, to Chuck (Rob Benedict) fusing with Amara (Emily Swallow), and finally Jack (Alexander Calvert) being on the verge of death. In other words, there's a lot at stake in Thursday's fittingly titled episode "Despair," which is the sunsetting drama's antepenultimate installment and features returning guest-stars Jim Beaver and Felicia Day. Not only that, but the Richard Speight Jr.-directed hour was the last episode Supernatural completed before the COVID-19 mandated shutdown.
Below, EW talks to Speight about his final directorial effort on Supernatural, shooting with the growing spectre of the coronavirus, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Misha Collins describes episode 18 as "tragic" and Jensen Ackles said it was "monumental." How would you describe the episode?
RICHARD SPEIGHT JR.: Well look, anytime you have a show that's 15 years deep and you're getting towards the end of a run of the entire show, the last few episodes are going to matter. I think the episode is impactful for the story and the characters and has deep roots that are embedded in the long, long journey of the series and the characters involved in the series. I think they're describing it correctly and I would echo their thoughts. Some episodes are entertainment and some episodes matter. I think this episode, in the life of Supernatural, matters.
Episode 17 had such an explosive ending. Can you preview what's at stake in "Despair"?
When you are this close to this big wrap-up of a monumental series, everything's at stake all the time because all the players are on the field and every fight matters. This is the NBA finals and the seconds are running down and the ball's on the court and it all hangs in the balance. I feel like any surface stories, any fluff has been moved out of the way. And as we ramp down to the final three, it's just a no holds barred, emotional ride.
Since this is one of the final episodes, did you any extra research into previous episodes for callbacks and references?
I do that when needed. If something's referential in a script and I don't know it, I will make sure that I understand it. I did that a little bit for this episode with some visuals. At this point, directing episode 18, it was the fourth episode I directed in the final season, which is a lot of episodes in the season. I was so lucky, so freaking lucky to be able to be such a continual part of season 15. By the time I was directing episode 18, I had been a part of the storytelling the whole season and I was deeply invested in the story and the arc and the characters, and I knew what was going on so it didn't necessarily require the same amount of research that would be required if you were just showing up and you hadn't been on the show all year. I was able to just dive right in, so to speak. Before I ever left Los Angeles to go to Vancouver, I was having conversations with the writers and actors about moments and scenes and ideas.
Did you feel any additional pressure directing the show's antepenultimate episode?
I felt really fortunate to be handed this opportunity and I always try to leave it all on the field when I direct an episode, meaning I throw everything I got at it and do my best work. I want my episodes to resonate long after I've turned in my cut because I love the characters. I love the process of storytelling visually and it all matters to me. I get emotionally invested in it. And when you're talking about one of the last three episodes of Supernatural ever, you could just increase that exponentially. It mattered to me tremendously and I did everything in my power to be sure I was leaving no stone unturned and telling the story the best way I knew how so.
Yeah, there was added pressure, not from the producers, but it was self-induced. But how could there not be because here you are? You've been handed this gift, this challenge, and this opportunity to be one of the last people to visualize the journey that this show has been on for so many years and you want to do it better than right. That comes only with the focused work not just from you, from the crew, from the actors, from everybody, to swing for the fences. It was a lot of pressure and pressure that I responded to because I wanted the job. I wanted to be part of that team that told one of the last three stories. And I remember feeling when I wrapped, that I had just been shot out of a cannon. I was exhausted because you just do everything you can to put it all out there and push yourself and everybody's pushing themselves and you're all just plowing through it. And at the same time, interestingly, my episode was the last one shot before COVID. A day after I wrapped, the show shut down. I didn't tell the last story, but I shot the last story under normal times in normal circumstances. That makes it unique in itself.
What was your final day on set like? Post-production notwithstanding, did you feel like you got some closure on Supernatural when you wrapped?
I'm not sure I still have the closure because the last day of shooting was a massive day. It wasn't a simple day. What you would think would happen would be: finish your episode and then two weeks, three weeks later, going [back] up there for a wrap party. [So] I didn't say goodbye. I didn't go through and shake hands. I didn't pat all the backs I intended to pat because I was expecting to see everybody three weeks later. COVID was out there and being talked about and it was a source of concern, but it hadn't blown through Vancouver yet. It literally did 48 hours after my show finished shooting. On my last day, we were getting reports that I think one of the other [CW] shows shut down because of COVID and it was becoming serious. We didn't quite understand how serious because nobody understood how serious, but we knew it was serious enough for the producers to come down and talk to us about it.
But we made our day. We shot our show. It didn't close us down. It didn't slow us down aside from it being a topic of conversation, and then everything changed. And so, all the moments I thought I would have to reflect were gone because within 48 hours I was setting up homeschool at my house for my three sons so I could get their education going in this new, distanced learning format that we were not prepared for. I immediately had to shift my energy into real life and educating my children. I never had the moment. I still haven't had the moment and may never get it. So be it. That's what happens.
These are crazy times for everybody, but I definitely feel like my closure is probably the episode because I'll never shake a hand. I'll never pat a back. I'll never get that moment with that entire group together again, to hug my way through the countless people who've helped me carve out a career as a director and who've been great friends to me since I started as an actor up there. Those moments will never happen as a group and as a unit. Episode 18 stands as my thank you card to everybody who let me do what I've always dreamt of doing and I hope that it holds up as a testament to the show and to the characters and lives on as an example of the amount of energy and effort and care and concern I put into the work.
Is there anything else you want to add about your journey on the show?
I think it's important for fans of Supernatural to know that anybody who's telling you that it was a great experience isn't yanking your chain. Anybody who says that Jared and Jensen were gracious hosts to countless guest actors and guest directors for 15 years, isn't making that up. There's a lot of BS in Hollywood, a lot of stories that are just told so that the fans get a sense of a false joy that is on a set because a lot of sets aren't joyful places, a lot of actors are B-holes and a lot of celebrities and people who worked their way up the food chain have personality shifts because now they have power and money. None of those things took place in Supernatural.
They were gracious to me in season 2 and even nicer to me in season 15 and I saw them deliver... When I say, "Them," I mean Jared. I mean Jensen. I mean Brad [Creasser], the A-camera operator. I mean every crew member. They delivered the same consideration and kindness to a guest actor coming in to do one day's work in season 15 as they did to Richard Speight when he showed up to do a guest star role in season 2, and that's why that show lasted. It had great writing. It had great stories. But more important than that, it was populated by great people and that made it a livable space. That meant that people could work together for 14 hours a day, five days a week for 15 years, and still want to hug each other goodbye and congratulate each other on the work and know the names of each other's kids and meet each other's spouses and all that stuff, and that's rare. [Supernatural] was unique. It won't happen again because TV has changed dramatically. And I think it's cool that it's being celebrated and they got to finish their season and I got to be a part of it and tell as many stories as I got to tell.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki star as the Winchester brothers, hellbent on battling the paranormal forces of evil.