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Tue. Jun 2nd, 2020

Interview: Going where no woman has gone before – ‘Star Trek: Picard’ director Hanelle Culpepper

There is no better time to catch up with all the great content that is available on the streaming services.  One of the more exciting original content offered is the new series Star Trek: Picard, which brings back Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart in two movies and, most memorably, the beloved early ‘90s series, Star Trek: The Next GenerationStar Trek: Picard brings Stewart back to the character he last played in 2002 and picks up with him in old age, retired and not-so-rested.  The series takes the opportunity to not only let Stewart flush out more of the character, arguably the second most popular Star Trek captain in the franchise’s history, but to give audiences new and exciting adventures each week.  Star Trek: Picard is the second original Star Trek series on CBS All Access, following the 2017 bow of Star Trek: Discovery.  

I sat down with Hanelle Culpepper, one of the executive producers of Star Trek: Picard, who also directed the first three episodes of the series, which was just renewed for a second season.  We talked about how she broke into the business, what it was like to work with Patrick Stewart, and what made her gasp when she read the script for the pilot.

Beware:  SPOILER ALERTS ahead for the first three episodes.

CS: Speaking of the time we’re in, there’s no better time for people to turn to streaming content, so let’s talk about Star Trek: Picard, which people can now catch up on if they haven’t already.  You directed these first three episodes.  I have to confess something:  the only Star Trek that I ever watched happened to be Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that’s true for a lot of my friends, too.  Do you sense there is more of a general excitement for this series, because of the general love for TNG?

HC: I sort of would say yes to that.  I would say that amongst my friends, most of us were TNG fans first.  I don’t feel like I had many conversations with people about the Star Trek series in general, but I do remember having conversations with people about Next Generation.  I of course knew what the original series was, but when I started watching Next Generation, that was the show that made me have an overall appreciation for Star Trek and made me go back and watch episodes of the original series with a new perspective.  I figure it’s probably true that there’s more excitement.  I also feel that you’ll obviously have your core Star Trek fans, but then there are people who just came to love Picard and all he stood for and his character, who are maybe just more attracted to the show because of him versus just being Star Trek or sci-fi people.

CS:  And that is a big part of the show and you establish that from the beginning.  There is a lot of sense of nostalgia here but also there’s a definite desire to tell a new story and to go back and sort of fill in some holes or expand Jean-Luc’s personal story.   What were the specific challenges to balancing— I hate this term— fan service with the desire to explore something new?

HC:  I don’t know that we made every decision based on balancing that, I think we just always wanted to be very true to the canon.  We had people on our staff who love the show, who knew that stuff.  [Writer/Co-creator] Kirsten Beyer is an encyclopedia of Star Trek and she even wrote some of the books.  So it was more of a matter of making sure that things didn’t differ from what had come before, what had been established.  But then we are in a new place with his character, so we were allowed to take those liberties because it is new, a new place to explore.  We did try to figure out things like, what would the family crest look like, what would the wine bottle look like, we went back to what they had in TNG, so we tried to replicate that as much as we could.  But then some things were in the future, so we imagined a future version of that same look, so we wanted to be true to the canon.  But when it came to what he was going through personally, how he wanted to act, the way he was going to bring the character to the screen, we felt we had the right to explore, because we were dealing with stuff that hadn’t been seen already.

CS:  And speaking of that, specifically, the notions of reflection and regret and a search for meaning—for a Shakespearean-trained actor like Patrick Stewart, was it fun to let him explore different dimensions of the role that he hadn’t tapped in to in previous versions?

HC: Yeah, I just wanted to create a safe space for him to explore, but really he came into it with very specific thoughts and ideas of what he wanted to do and how he wanted his character to be, and he had expressed a lot of that to the writers, so it was already in the script, and so there weren’t that many times where we would try a scene different ways in rehearsal, because he really knew how he wanted to approach those scenes already.  Sometimes I would give him little adjustments or little changes or callbacks to scenes that had happened.  Sometimes it was even little things, like he would ask me about the inflection of his voice when he said a certain line—would it be better up or better down— and some things, like the very first scene, where you see he and Data playing cards, we did it a couple of ways and then he started playing around with the way he said the line, “you have a tell,” and it was kind of fun seeing him be more playful with it.  I ended up using the more playful version and the producers ended up going with, obviously, the non-playful version.  I mean, it still is fun, but he had a kind of sing-song thing he did with it, it was fun to see Picard in this new light.  That only happened a few times, because, like I said, he came in with some strong ideas of how he wanted the character to be.

CS:  There are so many great actors in this—Alison Pill is great—but I particularly love the relationship and the chemistry between Patrick and Michelle Hurd, who plays Raffi.  

HC:  Yes!

CS:  They have a magic together on screen that you really bring out.  Talk to me a little about working with them together.

HC:  Well, Michelle Hurd is just a delight!  Just so full of energy and you meet her and you are automatically attracted to her and want her in your life forever.  So what we did was, we asked [series co-creator/writer] Michael Chabon to do bios for all these characters, because there is a lot to know in Star Trek, as far as the canon, but also what he had in his mind for some of the backstories, some of the blanks that hadn’t been filled in because it was coming out in future episodes, so that was very helpful.  Because she came in with lots of questions, like, “did Jean-Luc and I ever have an affair, or are we just friends?  What’s the deal with us?” [laughs] So, we had that information which was great to explore their backstories together.  And then, in rehearsals, when you allow people a safe space to try things—there were times when she would get a little big with it and I would pull her down, sometimes I told her she could get bigger, sometimes we’d play around with how sarcastic she should be in this moment.  But I think a part of it, for all those characters, is that we all just love Patrick Stewart [laughs] and we were all excited to meet him.  We’re all fans of the show, we’re all fans of his, he’s a very warm and welcoming person.  He and Alison immediately connected over literature when she first came in for the rehearsals.  He and Orla [Brady] connected and so they have all that great chemistry, he’s just such a wonderful person that way.  

Often when you get a cast together, you have to do all these exercises to force connection to get that chemistry and that didn’t happen here…a lot of it just happened naturally because people just naturally bond to Patrick Stewart.

CS:  And you were mentioning about the scenes in the vineyard at the beginning.  What really struck me was how you merged the special effects and the futuristic look into those classic old world settings.  How was it to create Picard’s world of one foot in the past and one in the future and how symbolic that is for the whole series.

HC:  I can tell you, the first thing I talked about when I thought about doing this job was I saw him in his vineyard, and I felt like, emotionally, he would probably feel trapped because of what’s happened.  When I went in to interview, I didn’t even have a script to read because it was all so top secret.  So I had to go with the ideas for what I would do if I was doing this show.  So, showing him in his vineyard, but then blending in the future was always part of it.  One of my first things was we had to find a vineyard that truly looks like a vineyard in France.  We cannot use the house that we had in TNG because that wasn’t going to work.  So we found that great vineyard, but then when I talked to my production designer and my props designer, we talked about the things what would have lasted the test of time, the things you would still do if you were working in this world.  What are the things that you still do, the things that would still be there, what are the things we could bring to the future and think of new things.  So that’s how we approached blending of the old world with the new.  He loved antiques, so we imagined there would still be very old things around.  I love that we still have the well that pumps water for when she washes her hands—wait, maybe that was cut from the final version…

CS: Yeah, I don’t remember that!

HC: [Laughs]

CS:  But it sounds cool!

HC:  Yeah!  [laughs]  So it was just a matter of discussion of what we were thinking of where do we want to go different and exciting and where did we want to bring in the nostalgia and bring in the history.  I don’t think I answered your question, though.  [laughs]

CS:  No, no, you did.  But I did want to talk about those special effects and I was particularly blown away by that —spoiler alert—Borg cube.  I loved how you take the time to zoom in and give us the whole sense of the space in the cube.  Tell us a little about that.

HC:  Yeah, I have to give credit to the visual effects team, they are truly phenomenal with what they pulled together with the time and the money they are given.  One thing I love about working with Star Trek, and they do this on Discovery as well, is that we start working with the storyboard artists very early, so these full CG scenes you totally board with the storyboard artist and what’s great is, often, what you board is exactly what they do.  I’ve been on some shows where you board the show and you come back and it’s a totally different sequence, but with Star Trek, they tend to do what you board and it’s awesome.  So, I just know that, for me, the Borg was the terrifying bad guy of TNG [laughs] and when I read the script and it said “pull back and reveal we’re in a Borg cube” and I was like, the audience is just going to so love this.  I got super excited even reading it on the page.  And so it was kind of fun to imagine going through all these levels and there were certain things that the art department had already designed with the Borg cube, so it was kind of us going with that model.  We’d go in and then pull out and reveal we were in the area where the ships were landing and then we’ll go down this way and then let’s make a turn—it was fun to design that with the storyboard artist and then it’s completely awesome when you see it in all its glory by the visual effects team.  There’s a level of detail to it that I’ll have to admit is not all in my storyboard, there’s a lot to it as it’s developed, I’m not sure how much comes from the special effects artists themselves or how much comes from [co-creator, writer] Alex Kurtzman, but it was a lot of fun to do that and to work with the many minds to bring people that awesome ending to the pilot!

CS:  it’s a very collaborative process…

HC:  Yes, it is.  And as a side story, I was originally doing two episodes and it became three, and I got that news before I had even finished my cut, but I said to Michael, I really feel like the pilot ends with the pullout to the Borg cube and I really hope we don’t lose that with this becoming three episodes.  So then they sent the first draft of the scripts for the three and they took that out from the ending and I was like in the middle of a second run and I was just like, “Noooo!! They can’t!” [laughs]  “This can’t be!”  It HAS to end in that sort of gasping moment…  And the good thing is, Alex is really involved in all the edits and everything and when he was working on it, he agreed it absolutely has to end that way, and so he made it work, and so we ended the episode in the really great place.

CS:  You are the first female director to launch a new Star Trek series ever in the franchise’s history, which is great.  For women in the industry it’s not about the talent, as we know, but it’s about having the opportunity.  You’ve worked your way up to this, you’ve done a lot and you’re going to keep going.  Talk a little about your trajectory and how you got here.  And what it’s like being a woman in the industry and are opportunities getting more and more?

HC:  Sure I do believe opportunities are coming more and more…

CS:  I hate that we even have to talk about it, but representation matters, right?

HC:  Yes, yes.  I kind of broke through in the TV world when I got my episode of Parenthood, which I got as part of the NBC Diversity program, and then, independently, I had been shadowing on other shows, I shadowed on Beverly Hills 90210, which shared the same showrunner from Parenthood, so she was able to go to the CW and say, “if NBC is giving her a shot, we should to,” and so that gave me my second episode.  Then it gook a whole year to get my third episode, which was Criminal Minds, which I also got because I had been shadowing on that show.  After I got three, I started getting work on a more regular basis.  And in talking to the other female directors, who were breaking through at the same time as me, we kind of all figured out it takes like three before you can start working regularly.  But now—or at least then—there is this BC/AC—“before Coronavirus” and “after Coronavirus”— but I think it’s at a point where most of my friends, who were deserving their breaks all along, were finally getting their breaks and after they did one, they were starting to get a lot more.  So that definitely changed when Netflix broke in. So that was good to see.  And it was good to see those who were making that effort to give voices that deserved a break and were talented enough and could definitely handle it were finally getting their breaks.  

I came out here and went to USC and was working as an assistant to other writer/directors.  It wasn’t until Sundance that I was really inspired by these filmmakers who weren’t waiting on Hollywood to give them a break, they were making their own break.  So I had been out here for a while and I wanted to direct but I hadn’t directed anything, so I said “if I want to be a director, I need to direct!” so I stopped working full-time and embraced that I would be a starving artist and started directing.  I remember that day when I stopped working full-time and became a starving artist was April Fool’s Day, and I was like, “ok, hopefully this will pay off and it’s not a sign!” [laughs]  I feel like the universe just started opening up once I committed 100% to doing this thing that I wanted to do.  And it still took lots of time.  I think that was in 2000.  My first feature didn’t come along until 2006, but there were always little steps happening along the way.  You just have to keep motivated, keep working at your craft, you’ll get so much rejection, you can’t let it get you down.  I’m not saying there weren’t times when I definitely wanted to quit and walk away, you kind of have to have your support and your cheerleading section that motivates you to keep going.  For me, that was my husband, who always said “no, stick to it.”    

CS:  And bringing it back to Star Trek, it seems like it’s always been at the forefront of diversity.  Especially these three episodes, where women are driving the story—other than Jean-Luc, of course—and I love the fact that there are two big fight scenes that feature kick-ass women!

HC:  It was great, we had a really great stunt coordinator.  I never wanted the woman to be just one thing.  I mean, you wanted to see Dahj when she is getting her butt kicked, but then she comes back, it just makes it more impressive when you see that.  So as they were choregraphing the fight, we were like, “can we let her win a little bit more here?” and you’re always figuring those things out.  For me, I love doing action and fight sequences and that’s always been my rule with it—let’s make it fair.

CS: I don’t want to take too much more of your time.  I wanted to say thank you so much for your time!

HC:  My pleasure!

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