Jonathan Frakes on set with Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones.Image: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Jonathan Frakes will forever be known to Star Trek fans as Commander William Riker, the… Next generation role he has fulfilled to this day Picard and Lower decks. But perhaps his most vital contribution to the new era of Star Trek has come from behind the scenes, as one of Discovery’s most trusted directors. But even that recent role may pose surprising challenges.
Frakes has directed episodes of Discovery every season since the first-including this week’s “Stormy Weather”, a star of the season so far— and has long embraced his love of working behind the camera these days rather than standing in front of it. But as much as he loves directing, returning for the show’s currently airing fourth season was a challenge never before encountered on Star Trek: The Prospect of Filming an Ensemblecast During the Height of the Covid-19 Pandemic. . To learn more about his process of bringing this week’s episode to life, and the challenges of working as safely as possible on a show as big as Star Trek, io9 spoke to Frakes by phone this week. Watch our full interview below.
James Whitbrook, io9: What was it like for you to come back and film safely this season, under very different circumstances with covid protocols?
Jonathan Frakes: It takes the joy out of work, to be honest. It’s… it’s changed. Fortunately, Paramount and the studios in Canada and the States are so strict with the covid protocol. We tested daily. Masked. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to wear a mask and then a shield to complement the mask when we left the set to talk to the actors. It’s suffocating. It’s frustrating. It’s a constant reminder of the danger we all find ourselves in and we continue to do this, some would say, frivolous act. But people love to have that entertainment. I look forward to a time when we can work as we normally did. That said, I think show business in general has been a big leader in how we function with these new constraints. I once worked on an ABC show and Disney has a very strict vaccination mandate, which caused some people to leave the show. When I went to Discovery this season, I had to quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks. I was not allowed to leave the room. You download an app with which they check your location daily. It has a bit of the atmosphere of the Cold War, communist Russia.
So there’s nothing fun about it. It’s very discouraging – and I’ve talked to a number of directors, Michael Pressman and Robert Duncan McNeill, Olatunde Osunsanmi, the producing director of [Discovery], and others. And we’ve all shared… we find that, with the mask, we’re verbalizing too much now. Because we used to use so much of our face and body to express a note. Either on a positive note, “attaboy!” or suggest we try something else. We can tell much of the story and tone of what we’re looking for with your facial expressions and movements. And because they only see a part of your face, they may misinterpret your note — either you think they’re misinterpreting it, or they’re staring at you blankly. So a strange side effect of all this is over-verbalizing. Without the mask and shield, communication would be faster, cleaner and more efficient. I bet you’re sorry you asked that question…
io9: No, it’s really fascinating to watch these shows being filmed now.
Frakes: You feel safe because they take it so seriously, but it really takes a lot of fun out of the company.
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io9: Something that was quite interesting about “Stormy Weather” is that it’s almost a rarity for Discovery – it’s something of a bottle episode. What was your approach to trying to keep many of the scenes dynamic this week as we’re mostly focused on the bridge and Discovery’s new lounge?
Frakes: Well, on Discovery we’re encouraged to shoot cinematically and I love the bridge. I especially love the bridge on Discovery. So I always have competition about roaming the bridge with the Steadicams and handheld cameras, at least. We are very competitive in how much we can bite in a given shot. We always keep the camera moving. And most importantly, seen – if you’ve seen the episode…there’s nothing on the playback screen. Burnham himself comments on it, saying “put the images on,” and Owosekun says, “those are the images — you look at it.” It’s kind of a meta and awesome in its own way. And it was my first time in the lounge, so I could explore that and it was gray in there, so… again, use the Steadicam, keep moving, explore the area… and because it’s a new set for the audiences will find new pieces of it. There is a very strong support for Discovery to be cinematic in a way that some shows are not. All Star Treks are like that. So anything you want to try, you can. All the gear – any toys, if you will – you need, they’ll get you. So in a show where they have to find a way to escape, essentially a black hole… you need toys at your disposal.
Frakes directed the 10th episode of Discovery’s first season, “Despite Yourself”, in 2017. Image: CBS
io9: It’s also a big week for Ian Alexander’s Gray, he’s getting a lot of solo work opposite Annabelle Wallis as the voice of Zora. What was it like working with them on these scenes?
Frakes: I found him to be incredibly professional, prepared, informed… just like the character, who now has a corporeal body to inhabit, Ian now has some of the action, if you will. He is definitely a main character in this episode. And he’s embraced it in a way – he’s a real pro. He may be young, but he’s been doing it for a long time, he has a great presence… very smart. Very collaborative. He will try everything in terms of staging and movement and blocking and choices and intentions. And Zora plays the same. It’s not uncommon in Star Trek to have an AI or inanimate character as part of a scene. It might be strange in other genre shows, but on Star Trek… I mean, Burnham and Saru also play with Zora.
io9: As we mentioned, this is also an important episode for Zora and Annabelle Wallis as we learn more about the AI and the ways it’s very different from previous Star Trek computer voices. I want to talk about those climactic scenes aboard the bridge – where it’s just Sonequa Martin-Green and she’s talking about what the ship should do with Zora. What was it like planning those emotional scenes?
Frakes: I always look forward to scenes with Sonequa anyway, and I look forward to the bridge. We have a very strong shorthand like me, as a recovering actor, and she – we speak the same actor language. I am also one of her biggest fans. So that was at least two or three days on the bridge – just the two of us and the film crew. So we had a cunning plan, we told where the fire development would be – we had practical and special FX fire, digital FX fire … we had important decisions about the helmet plate. It was completely impractical, because it reflected all the lights and cameras – so we ended up doing all those things without a faceplate. That’s often the decision you make when working with people in spacesuits. So Sonequa and I thought it made sense to shoot one after the other, so I closed in and joined her. We talked about the tension, we talked about the beats, we talked about the sound… and I had people on the different parts of the setup on the frames and in the wings, making extra sounds that would give the character something to to respond to. So we worked on it together in a way that I think was quite a testament – it’s a beautiful scene.
And the emotionality of “Stormy Weather” is very effective in my opinion. Obviously, the ambiguity of her relationship with Boek is full of images and metaphors and I think pretty clever. My credit to Michelle Paradise and her writing team. I am thrilled with the results. Again, speaking of the toys, you have a lipstick camera and diopters and things that come into Sonequa’s eyes… it was plotted and planned and storyboarded. And in the performance, it was Sonequa and I who decided what the character would see. And she delivers. She commits. You could argue that she is the reason the show is in its fourth season.
io9: What is it that kept you directing on Discovery, and hopefully it keeps bringing you back for more?
Frakes: Well, Discovery had become my, for lack of a better word, my home show. Because when I started with them in season one, I had… I felt this camaraderie. Sadly, I’ve finally embraced being the old man. So I was like a big brother or a brave uncle. Father. Whatever. I came from another Star Trek and am thrilled to be directing this next version of Star Trek and Strange New Worlds and Picard, and being a part of Lower Decks, so I feel very blessed to continue the Star Trek tradition put . But I always look forward to coming to Discovery because Sonequa is number one. You couldn’t ask for a better number one on a call list… Montreal is cold as hell, and you know, before covid we weren’t afraid to put in ridiculous hours out there. So in the middle of the night someone can do a particularly dramatic scene there and some of the actors including Sonequa and Doug [Jones] and Mary [Wiseman] and Anthony [Rapp]- many of the actors – would come back once they were packed up and home and cozy. [They’d] drive back to the studio to support their fellow castmates in their scenes. That doesn’t happen on many shows.
The fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery is currently streaming on Paramount+.
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