Director Helen Shaver Q&A: 'I'm Not Interested in Sentimentality'

Editor’s Note: We culled your questions from Facebook and Twitter for this week’s Q&A with an Orphan Black crew member. This week, it’s director Helen Shaver. So, what is it really like being a female director? Do you have any tips for women who want to direct?

Helen Shaver: Thank God that’s evolving ... slowly, but it is evolving. I was in fact one of 140 delegates at the DGA national convention a couple of weeks ago, representing 17,000 members where we elected the new national board of directors, all the alternates and trustees. We elected 44 people and 22 are female! So this is a big step forward. In fact revolutionary.


Donna Dietch was the first female director I ever worked with. She directed me in Desert Hearts in 1984. I was 33 having starred in movies, television series, radio plays, theatre and commercials, but had never ever been directed by a woman. If you can't see it, you can't be it. Times are changing, but when I began directing in the late '90s, 95% of the time I was the first female director they'd worked with. In the beginning I felt a big need to "be one of the guys." I would use much more of the warrior stance inside myself for about a year or so, and then I began to realize that what I bring to my work is myself, and myself is a woman. Now, I believe art has no gender. Henrik Ibsen said that there’s a truth shared by women, children, and artists that men will never know. Of course if you’re a man who is an artist you will understand that truth, but there are all of these underpinnings of the social political stuff. I have certainly experienced a lot of mansplaining over the years, and it used to really ruffle me the wrong way. But as I become more mature as a director it bothers me way less. I mean, I have faced many people who — as they're speaking to me — I realize that they think that they need to mansplain, and so you have two choices: One is to go into a personalized reaction, but that’s fear-based; that’s like reinforcing the belief of that other person in fact when you take the reaction. Or you just let them talk, and go, "OK thank you. Now then, what I'd like to do is this..." So I have found that for me, the way to do it is to bring myself, be myself, hear everybody around me, and not carry a chip on my shoulder, which I don’t. Because certainly if you do I don’t know how you get up in the morning, why you would ever go there. On the positive side, I feel like women have the unique capacity to include; think of a pregnancy, we expand to include another human being totally within ourselves. And I think that that truly inherent aspect is really wonderful for creating an atmosphere for doing "the work." As a director I want to create an atmosphere where people are safe enough to make a mistake.

At the same time, being a woman and being an actor, I feel like those are incredibly enriching qualities that I bring to my work. I’ve had a miscarriage. I’ve had an abortion. I’ve had a child. I’ve been the woman across the room being looked at as an object. I’ve been the woman walking into a male world as an equal and participating in those ways, so when you start to delve into characters, these are not just ideas. I see so many young women when bring an imitation of an imitation of what they saw instead of going to what the truth is for them, which is different than a glamorized sanitized version.

A lot of female performances, especially with young women acting, they start with sort of ideas of what they should look like, and you have to let them do that and then strip the "idea" away, basically saying , "Show me you." Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to be pretty; you don’t have to be nice. Let it go because beauty lies in the cracks, in humanity. Which is why Tatiana is so astounding, because she lacks vanity. She is so invested and committed to the investigation of character and humanity with all of the clones, in whatever work she is doing. So with Tatiana you never have to go through that stripping-away process. She already comes willing to show her truth, her understanding, within the context of the scene, speaking through the mouthpiece of the character. She’s something else all together.

ob-505-ff-2 There were a lot of questions about the Cophine flashback scenes and working with Tatiana and Evelyne.

HS: First of all, on a sense memory level, go back to where they were at five years ago when they played that other scene so we could start the scene in truth and connect it to that moment. And it was interesting because when we first started rehearsing it, it was scripted that they were sitting on the couch as they were at the end when we last saw them five years ago. And their first inkling was to stay seated on the couch and basically have a conversation. I was watching that, and I knew that the scene needed a whole different dynamic in order to create the arc for the scene, and so I just began by talking to them. I went to Tatiana, and I said, this is the reality, this is what you’ve just found out ,and go there, be outraged at the betrayal, being ripped apart, everything you know about your life is just gone, and let that energy get you off the couch and get away from this woman who has betrayed you. And that’s where we began, and I continued to you know invite/prod/push towards the depth of that somewhat Greek tragedy, that essential betrayal of this woman that she loves, and then to make Evelyne understand that she is not the victim in the scene in any way shape or form. This is not about victimization; this is about truth; this is about reality. How do you reach across when you’ve created that chasm? Clearly then both of their obstacles were clear and then giving Evelyne the objective of reaching across that chasm, of finding, opening that door and finding a way to let Cosima come back to her and for her to express her love to her. And then it evolved, and we shot it a number of times going around the circle with them. I used steady cam. I knew I was going to do it again in the dressing room, so the scenes would mirrored each other visually. And because they’re both such good actors, instead of trying to repeat performance we just started at the same emotional spot in the different takes, started with the same truth and let it evolve each take individually — when the kisses happen, when the tears happen, when the anger happens, when the laughter happens. I knew that editorially we could create a multifaceted diamond by repeating the scene a number of times but letting it evolve differently each time. Editorially we were then be able to use moments from the different takes

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A marvelous moment happened early on, maybe the second take.... Evelyne lifted Tatiana up so that she was holding her, which made Tatiana taller than her. That sort of shift in the physical dynamic is so evocative for the viewer — to go from Cosima looking up to Delphine , to being level and finally above . If we had cut to a wide shot you would have seen Cosima's legs wrapped around Evelyne's waist. Evelyne literally lifted Tatiana up, and it was just a breathtaking moment. And while I let each scene evolve in its own way, I said, "Make sure you lift her up because that’s fantastic."

One knows when something is "true." I know when it moves me; I am the audience in that moment. As long as it moves me I know I’ve got it. And I wept every take; I was weeping by the end of it, because it was so friggin beautiful and human. And the generosity and spirit of each of these women and the incredible trust in each other and in me, you can’t imagine how delicious that is.

The scene where they accept their relationship is shot to mirror the flashback .... a bookend. Can you tell us about the dinner scene?

HS: So much of this scene plays in the the looks and small gestures. Watching the power struggle, seeing P.T. manipulate. Add OMG layer upon layer leading to the wonderful speech about Cosima's parents, so it was a whole other kind of intimacy. P.T. goes for the heart. The last thing in the world Cosima is expecting is to be cracked open in that way. I think it was brilliant writing when she says so simply her parents "love each other" at a table where at that moment she is feeling betrayed by love. By Delphine. So I thought, OK, what is this dinner going to look like, this whole idea that P.T. doesn’t really see anybody else as a human being? He certainly sees Cosima and the monster as experiments, as test tubes not as human beings. The art department was meticulous... dressing the table with taxidermied things, life that has been frozen in time. Objectified. And then we put these people around it, and build the tension from there.


The crux of eps is Cosima's arc... it is the investigation of her humanity and the fact that when it comes down to it, her humanity wins. That final scene evolved in prep until we reached "You gave me life, I know you can take my life, but you cannot take my humanity.” It was a tricky scene because P.T. is such a larger-than-life character, made real and played brilliantly by Stephan McHattie, and Cosima is so human. I am really proud of the truth that we found in that moment, and of course back to Tatiana — she’s fabulous. She's always willing to go deeper, always willing to look, and I think where she got to was just brilliant. Anything else you'd like to say to Clone Club?

HS: The only other thing that I would like to say is that Jay Prychidny has edited all three of my episodes, and he has great insight, great empathy, and I think he’s just such a fabulous editor; and certainly a great editor for me because he really embraces the poetry of images and is not afraid of humanity, true emotion. Because for me, emotion is to sentimentality what beauty is to pretty. Pretty you can buy, right? But beauty is from within and it lies in the flaw. Like the Japanese say, if you make a perfect pot you gotta knock it off because there’s no beauty in perfection. And to me that is the same as sentimentality and emotion. I’m not interested in sentimentality but true emotion is intoxicating to me.