As one of the hottest and brightest directors in Hollywood right now, Joshua Butler has worked on astounding array of television over the past 15 years. His recent television directing credits in the past 4 years include: THE MAGICIANS, LIMITLESS, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, THE ORIGINALS, STATE OF AFFAIRS, THE FOLLOWING, MATADOR, RECKLESS, RINGER, THE SECRET CIRCLE, NIKITA and more. He has also ventured into directing and writing for music videos, working on MENEW’s “Baby, You’re Like A Drug,” which starred Joshua Jackson (THE AFFAIR, FRINGE).
Known for seeking out projects that are both stylish and playing, Joshua has a keen eye for TV shows that give him a chance to play with characters demonstrating levels of emotional resonance. He not only directed the episode that introduced the character of Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) in Season 2 of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, he also directed the Klaroline fan-favorite episode “Do Not Go Gentle” in Season 3 and the Steroline fan-favorite episode “Bird In A Gilded Cage” in Season 6. Then his episode “Cry Havoc” in STATE OF AFFAIRS featured a stunning and heartbreaking reveal of young American college student recruited for a suicide-mission on U.S. soil. Not surprisingly, his episode “Personality Crisis” of LIMITLESS introduced the ill-fated character of Casey Rooks (Desmond Harrington) as the love-interest of Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter). Joshua seems to be the go-to guy for TV shows who know that he can direct an episode to maximize the emotional impact of a tragic plot-point or introduction of a character that will play a pivotal role in the over-arching story. He also knows exactly what fans are looking for when directing love-scenes and scenes that will launch or fulfill a fan ‘ship.’
In an exclusive interview, Joshua Butler talked about the challenges of being a television director-for-hire on the freelance circuit and the joy of bringing extra layers and emotions to established TV shows.
How did it come about for you to direct an episode of THE MAGICIANS?
JOSHUA: I have a friend that introduced me to John McNamara, who along with Sera Gamble, developed THE MAGICIANS for TV. John is a fantastic producer and showrunner who is also working on AQUARIUS kind of simultaneously. I’m not sure how he does that. He’s a very talented guy and I’ve always wanted to work on something that he was involved with. As you may know, TV directors have to audition, like actors, when they are not already known by the producers or network executives. I had done previous work for Universal cable and Syfy channel, but this is a very specific show and they were looking for a very specific type of director who could come in with a kind of humanist perspective, opposed to someone who would come in and try to make what has been called the “adult” Harry Potter — which I think is very reductive, if you have seen the show. I went in after having seen the pilot episode and learning about the book trilogy that are cult-favorites and seeing how the show has been created, I responded to it more like the movie “Dead Poet’s Society.” I think THE MAGICIANS is more “Dead Poet’s Society” than it is “Harry Potter” in the sense that it deals very specifically with how college-age students would deal with gifts of magic or dealing with magical abilities, not as abilities that would make them superheroes, but abilities that would potentially make them social outcasts and give them something extra to worry about as they come of age. It’s like “sex, drugs and magic” and that’s the college experience that these characters are having and I think it is a great metaphor for being different and unique and special and how you function in the daily world with those types of unique abilities. As a director, I really responded to that and they very much liked my take on it. So I got the job.
Would you have wanted to attend a college like Brakebills when you were in back in school?
JOSHUA: [Laughs] You know, it’s funny, I had the same sort of starry-eyed illusions about film school that there was some sort of magic involved there. But now that I have seen Brakebills, I think that would have been a much more mind-expanding college journey than the one I had a USC.
Fortunately, you didn’t have to worry about the downside of being in immortal danger every day of your life, like the Brakebills students.
JOSHUA: Oh, yeah, there’s the Beast at Brakebills and we didn’t have the Beast at USC. [Laughs] Well, it could be said that the the “beast” of film school would have been fear of committing your life to freelance and a life within the potentially fickle world of Hollywood. So there are definitely analogies to be made. But I guess in retrospect, when you put it that way, it was a lot safer.
As a director who does freelance, how do you choose your projects? Do you take everything that comes along or are you picky about choosing what shows or projects that you work on?
JOSHUA: It’s a combination of both. The ebb and flow of Hollywood opportunities are fascinating because a lot of opportunities come through relationships that I have and people that I have met, either by coincidence or in a more directed way through friends, colleagues, etc. So there’s a lot of people that I meet along the way who eventually become a factor in me getting a particular job or working on a particular show. I also have representatives that seek out opportunities for me. There’s something about episodic television where they rotate directors in a show because of the need to have several directors working at the same time on a series so they can overlap episodes in production. The way you get a job in TV often has to do with the needs of the producers, studios and network executives who need somebody to get the job done. So sometimes it is about your availability and sometimes it is about the other shows you have worked on and the type of material people know you can really knock out of the park. There’s really no way in TV to effectively choose your own projects, unless you are really at the highest levels of showrunning where you are actually creating the content to begin with. As a director, you are basically finding your employment opportunities within the context of the big matrix of television production.
You have done such a variety of television shows that it does not seem you are limited to one genre. How did it come about that way? Was that just luck or were you drawn to specific types of projects?
JOSHUA: It’s an element of luck and what I seek out. The good news is I see a common link between all the projects I have done. I really love emotion and I love finding nuances in character and sort of getting inside the head of what is going on in the scenes on screen. I think television is about characters who are incredibly relatable regardless of what fantastical circumstances they find themselves in. So whether it is lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina or whether it is teenage vampires, I kind of approach the material in the same way. I look for the character arcs. I look for objectives. I look for story beats. I look for context. I bring my visual style to the show and make sure it is modified to each show’s requirement for what they are looking for stylistically. I have a better understanding of a series once I have done my homework and am up-to-speed on it prior to my involvement in the show. I really just kind of dig in and put my heart and soul into the shooting of the show and supervising the editing and making sure that it is definitely within the world that has been created and also has very strong elements of my sensibilities in it.
You seem to be drawn to “emotional resonance” for specific episodes in shows that allow you to peel back the layers of the characters and see what kind of makes them tick.
JOSHUA: That is absolutely true. That is the one thing that I can control as a director-for-hire in television. I can control the energy I put out in terms of which projects I find to be emotionally resonant, using your term. It’s a great term. It’s something I definitely use to narrow down possibilities for me because I really don’t think I would get the same kind of thrill out of doing a procedural that didn’t have any kind of emotional resonance. When I do get those kinds of shows, I tend to get the quirky ones that are trying to reinvent the genre, like LIMITLESS, which I did a few months ago. It is a procedural at its heart, but it is also incredibly stylish and playful and has the ability to really not only shine in terms of character, but also stylistic flourishes. That is the type of thing that makes me very interested and keeps me as excited. Working in television, you are working permanent freelance and you are going show to show to show, and when I get hired, it is about a month of my time. So you put about one month of your heart and soul into creating an hour of television and it is important to make sure that it is a very productive month that makes me very happy and creatively fulfilled.
When you hired like a show such as THE MAGICIANS, what is your approach to delve into it?
JOSHUA: I’m really religious about doing the homework on a show. I want to make sure I know everything that happened in the series all the way up to the very moment that I pick up the reins and guide this chapter of the bigger narrative. I’ll also talk with the showrunner and get a sense of the overall vision of the series. Then when I get the script for my episode, I definitely try to see the finished product in my head. If there are roadblocks along the way, then I bring up an concerns I have about the material creatively or logistically. In the week and a half of prep for any episode, you definitely have as a director the responsibility to look at how the shooting days are laying out. Of course, in TV, everything is shot very quickly. So you just have to see, since they are packing so much into a shooting day, whether there are scenes that I feel can’t be accomplished or if there are ways I can simplify the shots that I am looking for in the most clever and expeditious way possible. It’s definitely about having a game-plan and figuring everything out before you hit the game-floor. Because once you start shooting, all the questions you might have had need to have been answered. You don’t have any time to do any sort of exploration on a TV set. You are really trying to make sure that it is like a military strike and you get the 5-to-8 pages of script shot and shot effectively. The things you have to keep yourself open to are all the things that could possibly go wrong during the shooting day, like lights now working or the weather not being in your favor, or any number of potential problems. Just anything that slows you down. You need to constantly be able to maneuver through those problems and basically accomplish the work anyway. There’s really no excuses. You just get through the day and get the job done.
What do you look forward to when directing on a new show?
JOSHUA: So much is fulfilling. It’s the best feeling in the world when you are out there directing, especially on a show where your are part of the world you are creating. Watching the actors as they rehearse the scenes and working with them to see if there is any nuances or emotions that we can bring collectively to the scene, which elevates the scene beyond what we are all reading on the page. The great thing about actors who are collaborative is that they have these wonderful takes on the material that I had not seen before. It’s nice to experiment on film and really find the truth in each scene that we work on. So that, to me, is an incredible thrill. Also working with the cinematographer and camera operator to figure out a really cool and, obviously, efficient way of covering the scene and making sure it is stylish and working within the parameters of the schedule. You have to have a real strong sense of how to accomplish that. You don’t have the time to experiment and make it up as you go along. You really need to dive in and get it right the first time.
With a show like THE MAGICIANS, not everything we see on the screen is what you are seeing as you direct since there are magical elements that may involve green-screen. What kind of challenge does that present?
JOSHUA: Absolutely. That is another exciting thing about a show like THE MAGICIANS where you do have a lot of visual effects. Rachel O’Toole, who is the production designer, is also somebody who is quite brilliant and she made so many things practically that even when we were doing visual effects we often had physical elements as we were shooting. We also had an on-set visual effects supervisor who was really very much by my side as we were looking at how to create the effects in the coolest way possible. On THE MAGICIANS all the best techniques were being used, so it was quite a pleasure.
Which of the characters from your episode of THE MAGICIANS did you find you really enjoyed putting on screen together?
JOSHUA: I am a huge fan of the central relationship between Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley). It’s really an amazingly complex relationship. Obviously, Jason and Olivia are two terrific actors with great chemistry, and in my episode, which premieres this Monday, we were able to get very deep into that relationship and see a lot of layers and colors. That was a terrific element. I also love Arjun Gupta, who plays Penny, and he has a journey in this episode that is also quite eye-popping and remarkable. He is another sensational actor who is constantly asking the right questions about his character. So his storyline in the episode is also something I am very proud of and how we accomplished it.
To see Joshua’s handiwork and feel how he strives to invoke strong emotion through his episodes, be sure to tune in for an all new episode of THE MAGICIANS on Monday, March 21st at 10:00 p.m. on Syfy. As the episode is entitled “Homecoming,” we shall see just whose homecoming it is and whether it creates ripple-effects for all the characters for the rest of the season.