A woman of action: Michelle MacLaren, Artsci'86
Michelle MacLaren went from studying film noir at Queen's to directing (and producing) some of TV's most hottest and popular series.
Michelle MacLaren, Artsci’86, can’t tell me anything about her latest television work. The plot, the actors, even the locations she used are all top-secret. That’s because one of the veteran director’s latest gigs was on the highly anticipated fourth season of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones (which begins airing in April), and she isn’t giving out any spoilers on the two episodes she directed, or any other details of the new season.
She also just directed the upcoming finale of fourth season of The Walking Dead. No spoilers there, either. However, Michelle is happy to share an insider’s perspective on the work that goes into a television series and to recount her journey from avid film buff to one of the most acclaimed action directors in the television industry.
She’s been at the helm – as producer and/or director – of some of the most original and popular TV series of the last two decades, starting with The X-Files in 2000. From 2008 to 2013, she was an executive producer on the hit series Breaking Bad, which wrapped up last year after six seasons. In addition to the Emmy Award she received for Breaking Bad, Michelle has received critical acclaim for her work as a director on both the AMC series The Walking Dead and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Michelle knew long before she arrived at Queen’s in the fall of 1982 that she wanted to be a filmmaker. That had been her goal since she was 13 years old. But it was here at Queen’s that the Vancouver native got a solid grounding in film history and in some of the mechanics of filmmaking, along with a few other lessons that have served her well thus far in her career.
Michelle recalls that Queen’s was a popular destination for students at the Vancouver high school she attended. She followed her sister Nicole to Kingston to study, living in Victoria Hall in first year. While Michelle enrolled in film studies, the big draw of Queen’s for her was the University’s reputation for providing a well-rounded arts education. “It really appealed to me on a grander scale,” she says. “I studied English and German, but one of the most helpful courses I took was a contract law course in which I learned how to read and write contracts. As a producer, it has helped me immensely to have taken that course.”
Michelle also spent many late nights in the Film House, editing the short films she created. She also got a solid grounding on the history of film from her professors, especially the late Peter Morris. “He made film history very exciting. It was one of my favourite classes,” says Michelle.
From Morris, she learned to examine a film’s social and political contexts, a perspective that has come in handy, especially when she has worked on such edgy shows as The X-Files and The Walking Dead. “That really made me understand how storytelling is related to what’s going on in the world,” says Michelle.
As a student, she was drawn to the dark, tension-filled movies of the film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s – especially director Alfred Hitchcock’s “voyeuristic approach to filmmaking.” Says Michelle, “I had a lot to learn about subjective and objective filmmaking. Studying great filmmakers in a university environment really helps foster a basic understanding of [the art]. Although I learned a lot by actually being on film sets, having some of that basic education to draw from has proved to be really helpful.”
After graduating from Queen’s in 1986, Michelle took a year off to expand her horizons and travel before returning home to Vancouver. Once there, she worked as a waitress while seeking an opening in the film industry. Eventually, a friend gave her the name of a potential contact at a commercial film company, and so she pursued the lead. “The only work experience on my résumé was waitressing, but I went to drop it off with anybody who would see me,” Michelle recounts. Talk about serendipity.
“When the elevator doors opened, there stood a guy with a walky-talky. He saw the brown envelope in my hand and asked, ‘Are you looking for a job in the film business?’ When I nodded, he told me, ‘We’re shooting a commercial down the street, and we’re understaffed. Come and work as a volunteer.”
Michelle jumped at the opportunity. “I worked for free that one day, and then I worked for that company for two years,” she says.
That on-the-job experience gave her some invaluable insights into how to break into and succeed in the film industry, although she now recognizes that those same insights might also apply in other career fields. Advises Michelle, “The best advice I can give young people is this: Make yourself invaluable. Make it so that people need you. Be willing to do anything … get experience, get exposure, and when you see something that needs doing – whatever it is – do it. Be proactive.”
She might also have added that it doesn’t hurt to persevere. Michelle’s first film jobs were by no means glamorous. “I had my Queen’s degree, but I started out pouring coffee, sweeping up cigarette butts, and holding a traffic sign in the rain for 14 hours straight. I just wanted to be on a film set, and I was willing to do anything.”
From her experience shooting and editing films at Queen’s, Michelle knew how long and arduous piecing together even a short film can be. However, her experience as a production assistant on a film set opened up a whole new world, giving her a realistic look at the time, resources, and the many people it takes to create a film.
“It’s not for everybody. It’s a lifestyle and a lot of hard work. You also have those moments when you really appreciate what everybody does. And that it takes a village to make a movie or a TV show. To have an understanding of what everybody does on a film set and an appreciation of what they do is really important.”
Michelle loved being on a film set, and she found plenty of work in Vancouver, on both TV series and movies. She worked her way up from her start as a production assistant – first scouting locations, then working as assistant director, production manager, then finally as a line producer (responsible solely for the business side of a production.) But she wanted to spread her wings still further as a creative producer. In this role, she would be able to work more closely with writers and directors to bring a great story to life. There were few opportunities in Vancouver for this work, so, in 1991, Michelle made the move south to Los Angeles.
Once there, she began producing TV movies and also co-wrote her first screenplay, A Song from the Heart, which she sold to CBS. She then served as executive producer of the TV movie from that screenplay in 1999. “Being accepted in the creative side of things helped me transition into becoming a creative producer. And then the TV movie industry dried up. Having a solid background in TV series work, Michelle returned to episodic television. “But now, I was accepted on a more creative level,” she says.
That led to Michelle working as co-executive producer on the sci-fi series, Harsh Realm, created by Chris Carter. While Harsh Realm only ran for eight episodes, in 2000, Michelle began work on another Carter production, The X-Files. Michelle was again co-executive producer, working on 46 episodes of the hit show.
But, there was something still missing.
“During this whole time, I really wanted to direct,” Michelle says. So she immersed herself in rounding out her film education. “I took classes. I studied acting for three years because I wanted to understand what actors go through. I took classes through the Directors Guild of America and private teachers in LA.”
And when she asked if she could direct an episode of The X-Files, the answer was “Yes.” To prepare herself, Michelle went to a week-long intensive training course for directors to supplement the on-the-job training she’d received as a producer. When Michelle took the helm for the episode “John Doe,” it was an episode written by Chris Carter and Vince Gilligan, Michelle’s co-executive producer on The X-Files.
“It was terrifying,” she laughs. “I’d been on many film sets, but I showed up the first day and saw all the trucks and people and everything, and I knew they were all going to turn to me and say, ‘Okay, where do you want the camera?’ I was terrified! But I was very, very, very prepared. And when I did it, I loved it.“The thing that took me by surprise – and it was a wonderful surprise – was the unique relationship a director has with the actors. Together, you’re creating the story and these characters. I realized that was my passion.”
It was also fulfilling a wish she’d articulated many years earlier. “When my grandmother passed away, my mom found a letter I’d written to her when I was a girl. It said, ‘I just saw this movie, and I hope someday I can direct a movie as well as that.’ My mom found that letter right before I asked to direct The X-Files. And when I read it, I said ‘My gosh, I’ve been wanting to direct since I was 13 years old. I better get off my ass and do it.’ I feel very fortunate that I get to do a job that I really love. I still love producing. And I do both jobs, but directing is truly my passion.”
Harkening back to her student days at Queen’s, Michelle found herself practising the techniques she’d learned about in film theory. “I learned on The X-Files always to make sure the camera is telling the story, and always know whose head you’re in at any particular moment, and whose point of view do you want to be in.”
On using the camera to tell your story
“If you have a scary character,” Michelle says, “and you want this person to be intimidating, I will put the camera lower. If you have somebody who is lost and alone, and is feeling small in this big world, I will put the camera higher. You know, they sound like very basic things, but it’s using those simple ways of using a camera to help tell your story, to help influence the audience, and take them on this journey. I really try hard to put the audience into the show, to have them feel what is going in the show at that particular time.”
In the years since she made her directing debut, Michelle has earned a well-deserved reputation as a director who knows how to weave together the threads of an effective story: adept in building suspense with her use of drawn-out pacing and thoughtful camera angles.
In 2008, Michelle again teamed up with her X-Files collaborator Vince Gilligan on his new hit show, Breaking Bad. Michelle directed an episode of the second season before signing on as co-executive producer for season three. She was an executive producer for the show’s third through sixth seasons, and also directed 10 more episodes, some of which are among the show’s most acclaimed.
Michelle has earned five Emmy award nominations for her work on Breaking Bad, both individually as a director, and as part of the show’s executive team. In 2013, Breaking Bad won the Emmy for outstanding drama series, and Michelle, Vince, and their colleagues each took home an Emmy Award. This January, Breaking Bad also won the Golden Globe award for Best Drama Series.
On preparing for episodes of Breaking Bad:
Each episode of Breaking Bad was allotted roughly seven days of preparation and eight days of shooting. Going into each shoot, Michelle was extremely prepared, with a detailed list of every shot she wanted for the episode. She had all the background information she needed for each shot, including the music that was to be used in montage scenes. “I like to have the music ahead of time,” she says. “It helps me understand the pace and the feeling of a scene. Especially in a montage, the transitions are really important. So you really want to figure out every single transition ahead of time. I always want to know how I’m going to transition. How I’m getting into a scene, how I’m getting out of the scene.” This preparation is particularly important when, inevitably, delays slow down the shoot and the director starts running out of time. “I have a detailed shot list but I am prepared to throw it out, because things change on a film set. They change all the time. But if you know you’re getting into a scene and how you’re getting out of the scene, you know whose point of view you’re in, you know what the arc of the scene is, if you know those things going in, then when all hell breaks loose and something breaks down, somebody gets sick –whatever – you can say, 'Okay, what are the basic things I need to do to tell this story in this moment?'....I know every single shot I want to do,” she laughs. “I never get to do them all!”
When a stunt goes (slightly) wrong
Michelle gives an example from an episode from season three of Breaking Bad. In “One Minute,” two men from a Mexican drug cartel, the cousins, are stalking Hank, a DEA agent, in a parking lot. One of the cousins shoots a bystander. The shot called for a lengthy set-up to simulate the effects of a gunshot to the head. “This was a few years ago,” explains Michelle. “Nowadays, a lot of stuff is done with visual effects [post-production], but you still have a mix of practical effects and visual effects. So we had a blood rig on the back of the guy’s neck. The way it works is that in the blood rig is a condom full of ‘blood’ and when the cousin fires the gun, the effects guy hits a button and the condom bursts and it looks like blood is coming out of the back of his head. So, this took a long time to set up and….we were so tight for time, we were racing against the light, we only had eight and a half hours of daylight because it was wintertime. It was absolutely freezing out. So, we basically only had time for one take. So I called ‘Action!,' the cousin came around the corner, he fired the gun, they set off the blood rig... and the condom didn’t burst. It came flying out the back of his head. For a second, it looked like brain matter. So, everyone looked at me and said ‘Are we going to do it again?” But I said, ‘No, we don’t have time. We’re moving on. It’s brain matter!” So, if you look at the show, it does look like brain matter, but if you freeze-frame it, you'll see there’s a giant condom flying through the air, full of fake blood. These are the types of decisions you have to make on the fly and hope that it works out.”
On the set, Michelle needs to make those calls to ensure the production moves ahead. But her job can also involve months of preparation and strategy before the cameras start rolling. On the third season of Game of Thrones, for example, one short but pivotal scene involved the building of two identical sets, one in Ireland, the other in California, in order to accommodate one of the scene's stars, a bear named Bart.
On how Game of Thrones is produced
“Game of Thrones is structured differently than any other show I’ve ever worked on. They shoot all ten episodes at once. Normally, in television, you shoot consecutive episodes. But in Game of Thrones, they could be shooting, on any given day, pieces of several episodes. It’s a really smart way to do it: it allows them to shoot it [the whole season] in a shorter period of time. They can’t really shoot in Croatia and then come back [to the show’s home base in Ireland] and then go back to Croatia [for another episode.] They will go to Croatia and shoot everything there at once.” The production is orchestrated with two entire film crews operating simultaneously, and several units, comprising the director and key staff (1st and 2nd assistant directors, director of photography) for each episode. “The directors and their teams will fly in [to each location] for a period of time to shoot the stuff they’re going to shoot. In Morocco last year, at one point there were four or five directors in one location, kind of lining up and waiting for our turns!”
On auditioning a very large bear
The episode was called “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” The script called for the character Brienne, armed only with a wooden sword, to fight a large bear. ”This was incredibly challenging,” says Michelle. Her challenge started with auditioning bears. Her producer had narrowed down the selection to three trained bears: one in Utah, one in Canada, and one in Europe. It was up to Michelle to choose the bear. She flew to Utah and met Bart and his trainer. Without too much advance notice, the trainer had begun working with Bart, introducing the one-tonne, 8 ½-foot tall Great Brown bear to the idea of being menaced with a toy sword. Michelle filmed their practices, and asked one of the editors-in-training on the Breaking Bad set to edit the footage into a scene. She sent the video to her HBO producers, saying, “You guys, this is our bear!”
Michelle's next challenge was in getting Bart onto the Game of Thrones set. In the end, it was too complicated to ship the bear to Ireland. So Michelle shot three-quarters of the scene in Ireland, without Bart. “I storyboarded the whole thing. So I knew specifically what had to be shot in Ireland and what had to be shot with the bear, wherever we had to do it. We still hadn’t figured out quite where we were going to do it.” It took three days to get all the shots from the set in Ireland, cast and crew working in what Michelle describes as the hardest rain she had ever felt in her life. Later, the crew built a partial set in a studio parking lot in Los Angeles. Bart was flown in from Utah; his human co-stars, Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, flew in from Ireland and Denmark; and Michelle shot the rest of the scene. “That was one of the most challenging things I have done, and very exciting too, working with Bart,” says Michelle. “We had to figure out what shots we were going to marry together with visual effects and everything, But the bear is all there. There is no CGI bear.”
Michelle’s role in the success of Breaking Bad solidified her reputation as one of the television industry’s foremost action directors. “I try to make sure that the violence serves the story,” she says. “I never want to take you out of the story and go ‘oh, cool shot.’ If the cool shot can help tell the story, then great. We got to do a lot of those on Breaking Bad.” It’s a philosophy that helped keep millions of viewers captivated to the show during its six-year run.
Back home in Los Angeles now after finishing up her work on Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, Michelle isn’t sure what’s next in store for her. “I’m taking a lot of meetings,” she says, “and reading a lot of material, and just figuring out what my next move is going to be. I’m considering a lot of wonderful things.”
Right before we wrap up the interview, I ask Michelle a question from a young Queen’s grad, who wanted to me to ask the director, “Looking back, when you decided to pursue a film career, how certain were you that you were making the right choice? Did you ever question yourself?”
Michelle knows she’s fortunate to have known since childhood that she wanted to work in film. But, she confides that even if her life had turned out differently, “from a very young age, I loved to have a camera in my hand, loved to take pictures. And if I was a lawyer today, I’d bet you anything I’d have a hobby taking photos. It’s in me. But I’ve had friends who struggled with not knowing what they wanted to do. And a lot of them have done very, very well. They just had to go through that period of finding it out.”
Her advice for young grads? “Don’t worry that what you do when you first graduate from university is going to be a life decision. Get yourself into a situation where you can be exposed to the things you think you’re interested in. Find out, ‘Am I truly interested in this?’ And, if yes, then ask yourself, ‘What aspect of this do I want to pursue?’ Pursue it, and the specifics will come.”
Great advice from a woman who has put her dreams into action.
Later this year, Film and Media Studies will move out of Film House on Stuart Street, which has been its home almost since Day One. The Department will take up residence in the new Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, a priority of the Initiative Campaign. Watch the Review for details.