Supernatural From Script to Screen: First Assistant Director Kevin Parks
– Kevin Parks, Supernatural VFX Supervisor
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
Fans of Supernatural know that many teams are part of making an episode – camera crew, wardrobe, VFX, SFX, set design, the art department, construction, transport and of course the actors and director. Key in making all that hard and creative work comes together in the right place at the right time is First Assistant Director Kevin Parks has been on Supernatural since Season One.
Known as "Parksapedia" for his encyclopedic knowledge of everything Supernatural, I was lucky enough to talk to Kevin after he had just finished directing his first episode -which will air on February 13th - and was about to head to L.A. for the editing.
MAKING AN EPISODE
Jules: As the Assistant Director, you are like the project manager for the whole crew, coordinating all the production activity and making sure that everything is ready for when the Director starts shooting, and that it all runs smoothly during the shoot. Where does that start for you?
Kevin: When I get the script, I will make a schedule out of it. And when I make the schedule I’m thinking of all these things day and night, where I’m going to build my set, what’s going to be a fight, what’s just acting a bit, to build that schedule. So when the Director comes in, a lot of little thinking bits have been done for each scene and he'll just have to tell me what he really wants and if that’s enough time for it.
90% of my job is actually in the eight days before we step on set. It’s all the planning process. People, locations, going through what each department needs: what props do we need here, what the costumes should look like, what vehicles, if we have dogs, what background extras we want to have in? And then we have one huge meeting: stunts, special effects, makeup effects and visual effects all meet in one room and we talk about all the aspects, because there’s so much overlap amongst them all. I run all those meetings so we get all the information. When I fine-tune the schedule before we get on set, all these little things are basically itemised into each sequence. The schedule gives the Director time to get the episode shot that they want in their style.
Jules: There are obviously so many dependencies in there because everything that you’re scheduling relies on a department or a person doing their thing on time. How do you work with everyone to make sure things happen when and where they should?
Kevin: When people get paid for their job then they have to step up to play. If it doesn’t happen, I go talk to them later, like how can we fix this for the future? I mean we all make mistakes and mistakes are made. But what is more frustrating is when people make the same mistakes. If you make the same mistakes you haven’t learned from making the first one. Basically it comes down to proper communication and prep of what you want and when you want it.
In the crew in Vancouver here, we have onset about 120 people. I have my team too, I have Deb (Herst) as my second, and we have my third. So I mean in the grand scheme, the first AD oversees all of that. I stay on set and run the set and my second, Deb, will be basically in or off set and getting the next day ready and deal with departments for the next day's requirements. We have an eight day schedule. So Deb’ll go day to day and make sure people on set know what’s coming up next. My third AD runs the hair and makeup trailers, so he knows when the cast are coming in for that day and keeps that flow going through. I'm overseeing all that with the help of my AD team to make sure that the day to day is flowing through. And as you said before, communication is the key thing here. Without communication you’re not going to do anything.
Jules: How do you make that communication work well?
Kevin: It’s to be clear, concise. Don’t be ambiguous and when you say something; you want to be clear. We’re going to be over there and we’re going to go on the crane. We’re going to have a bunch of dolly track here or the steady cam ready. You know steady cam’s next or get ready to take that wall out. So they’re aware of what’s going to come up next and it’s just the warning and keeping it clear and concise. It can be frustrating, it can be irritating. You can get to the point where you’re going to have your tempers flare but you’ve got to read that and then you can handle it. Maybe one thing that keeps me focused is also an aging thing: as we all get older we kind of mellow a bit more.
Jules: So were you an angry young man?
Kevin: You know when I first started in ’97/’98, I wasn’t even 30 yet. There’s a mellowing process. Now I’m in my mid 40’s. I thought I had all the respect and it was given to me but you have to earn that.
So I have all that scheduled and then you go on set and it’s basically passing information onto everybody, so constant flow of information all day. And at the end of the day you’re pretty tired!
Jules: Yes, I don’t know how you get time to sleep let alone go off and ski and run and bike and everything!
Kevin: Well the skiing, running and biking thing is my outlet to just forget about stuff. I bike to and from work on my office days, and those are the days where you just let the brain go. And when I’m in the office I don’t need a vehicle. I’m with the Directors, we get driven around everywhere. So to drive my car to work is really a waste, I don’t need it and it’s only a 45 minute bike ride.
Jules: So what is it that makes you feel satisfied at the end of one of those long days?
Kevin: It’s when you get the work done you get everything accomplished in that timeframe, everybody walks away happy. There are no angry issues. Serge and the Director are happy with what they’ve gotten. And you’re making a good show for people to watch. And you know that’s going to be a cool sequence, it’s going to be good.
Jules: You and Johnny McCarthy are the two First A.D.s on Supernatural , alternating episodes. You're directing the odd-number episodes, and Johnny the even. How much coordination do you need for that?
Kevin: I have eight days in the office and eight days on set, so 16 days total. The handover happens at the end of eight days. We talk back and forth about things like what kind of call time we need. So if we need to try and keep a call early for a daylight issues, then we are in contact like that. But sometimes you just get to get through your episode and do it and we’ll deal with whatever as it happens.
Jules: So what makes you happy about working the show?
Kevin: It’s never the same. I mean - it is the same but it’s never the same. You go to new locations, you go to a different set that’s been built… it was one thing last week; it’s entirely new this week. There’s always something different in the film world and that’s kind of what kind of what got me into work in this world anyway.
Jules: This is a geeky question now, but when you do your schedules and that, what are you creating them on?
Kevin: It’s all computer-based. The old-fashioned way of doing the strip board, was where you handwrite all the strips. Now all that information’s now put on computer. So I have done those strip boards when I first started as a second A.D, I did the long big ones but now we’ve got rid of all that, now we do everything on a computer program called Movie Magic Scheduling and it’s basically very particular to the film industry.
Jules: So how did the opportunity to direct come up?
Kevin: It sounds kind of weird but in my entire career I’ve never really saw myself as a Director. What I do is more on a producer end of doing things, but once we’d been on the show for seven years it basically came around to asking Bob Singer for the chance to do it. Bob gave Johnny MacCarthy (the other first Assistant Director) his episode last year and I got mine for this year. It comes from them respecting the hard work that all of us do, to give us a new challenge and just to say thank you.
Jules: So what was it like when you first got the copy of the script?
Kevin: The actual script that I was supposed to do wasn’t ready, so the one I shot is actually going to air 14 not 13. So I got it basically the night before I started prepping the episode. I’m really only supposed to get seven days of prep as a Director, but since I had a new AD (Ella Kutschera) coming in who hadn’t been here before I came in on the first day just to help her out to get her up to speed and then I started doing my work.
Jules: So Ella hadn't worked on the show before?
Kevin: No. So I’ve known Ella for a long time. As AD’s you kind of know each other but you never really work on the same shows because there’s only there’s only one of each of you on a show unless you’re on a series where there’s two firsts and two seconds. When I needed somebody as a first AD for the episode I was directing there were only a couple of possibilities out there that I wanted, and Ella was one of them. She was available, which was good, and she did a great job.
Jules: So then you had a day with her and then you started your prep?
Kevin: Yeah, so we started off with the concept meeting with everybody. Being here and knowing the show, it was easier for me to jump into that without having to be brought up to speed. With lot of our newer Directors you’ve got to bring them up to speed and get them in on what the lore is, what is established, where the story is up to but I knew that so the concept meeting went quite well. And having read the script before coming in I knew what I wanted in certain sequences and so it gave us a very good direction to go.
Jules: Was it easy to get into the role of director and stop being first A.D.?
Kevin: I didn’t find the transition too difficult because what it came down to was I didn’t have to ask somebody what they wanted to do, as is usually my job. I told them what I wanted to do and it was a nice transition to do that. I mean you can never cut the AD brain off completely. I think you have to still do the timeframe; you have to do the planning. I started to time manage myself to make sure I get the work done I every day. But it was just cutting out the middle man to tell everybody this is what I want; this is how I see it. It was actually quite fun to actually go through that prep planning process and be in control.
Jules: You've worked with a huge number of Directors, how did they influence your vision of how you wanted to direct?
Kevin: I did a lot of work, not just on this show, with Kim Manners on the X-Files. I had a lot of Kim Manners’ influences, in terms of how I approached the script, how I wanted to shoot things. I also got a lot from Bob Singer in how to deal with the talent and keep the story with them. Not to say Kim never did that as well, but Bob was really coming from a writer background on the story.
Jules: So what do you mean by that when you say that you want to keep the story with the actors?
Kevin: Well the story comes out with the actors. I mean my biggest Achilles heel in this whole process is actually dealing with the talent. Because as an AD I deal with them but just basically saying "you go on next" or "by the time you get here you should finish your dialogue" opposed to what are you trying to get out of them emotionally in the dialogue, and also help progress the story a lot. So I tried to blend in a lot of Kim Manners, a lot of Bob Singer, and what I'd learned from Phil Sgricca about the whole post-production and the visual effects things.
Also understanding how editors can cut shots together allows you to not get stuck thinking I’ve got to make this one shot perfect. I think, well the cutaways are going to make it work so it’s only going to be this portion of this particular shot that will be used.
And going back to a director of mine who I did a lot of work with in the past but who is retired, Jorge Montesi, he did the same thing. He and Kim worked in Canada a lot in the 80’s and 90’s. So I mean knowing his style and Kim’s style --you blend it together to make your own.
Jules: What was the casting process like?
Kevin: As an AD my sole part of casting is organising the time when they go and making sure they have a ride. It was very interesting. It is a very weird experience because you have all these actors come into a room. There’s one of the casting assistants who’s reading off-camera feeding lines to them. There’s a videographer there, and then there are three of us sitting watching them. You can give them direction if you want, but mainly you just watch them to see if they've got the intent there, and then they go away. I’d hate to be an actor.
Jules: So what are you looking for?
Kevin: You’re looking at what the part should be. You’re looking for whether or not they can understand the idea of the character from the pages you give them to read. You always go for the better actor to pull it off. Because a look you can always change with wardrobe and hair and make-up but you want the best actor you can possibly get. We had some people read that were just way off base. It was like - oh really, how did you get that out of that page? Those ones you can cut away right away. It was it was valuable to do and to see who Jeremy and Bob pick. I put my first and second choices up and then they pick their choices.
Jules: Sounds like American Idol!
Kevin: Yeah it is. They do casting in LA and I view the tapes and again give the first and second choices and we decide on that. But it’s weird... for people who are supposed to be so involved in the storytelling, which is the actors telling the story, the process of getting there is so removed. Actors don’t get feedback out of it. They’re there for about five minutes and if they nailed it in five minutes, great. And if they haven’t, they don’t know why.
Also in Vancouver you’re getting a point where after eight seasons, people who are up for the main roles, you’re going to start reusing a few here and there. Ty for example was in season two, he was in Blood Lust. It’s nice when some people who had a bit part eight years ago get a chance to get a bigger role as well. The whole Benny and Dean thing was just a great storyline and still is.
Ty had never watched his episode [from season 2]. So when he came into the show and then he wanted to know more about the vampire lore, I went through it with him but I also got him his episode to watch. It was good for him because actually was able to get an understanding of what a vampire is.
Jules: Jim Michael always refers to you as "Parksapedia". Your legendary knowledge must come in very handy when you’re going to get fired all these questions from all the new people on set, to have that at your recall must be very handy.
Kevin: Working with the talent is where the creative side of directing comes in. Right when they’re coming for the blocking, I mean I’ve already sketched out where I want people to go, and then you start hearing them read it and you go through and then you start going on points you want to pick up on and once the blocking’s done and everybody’s off lighting, then I kind of pull them aside and we go through a bit. And that was a new process doing that because that was something I’m not normally ever involved in.
And with new cast members, and new Directors for that matter, you’ve got to bring them up to speed. They’re coming into the world of the Supernatural and we have these seven and a half years of lore. What is a hellhound? What is a demon? What are the angels? Or what are symbols on the windows? And salt really does keep demons out. So that when it comes to their part of the scene they know what they are seeing, and how to react to it. So for me coming into this as a Director, it was like I know all this, and that made it a lot easier to also bring the guest cast up to speed and concentrate on what they’re feeling and their emotions.
Jules: So have you always had such a great memory for detail?
Kevin: I remember when I did it in X-Files. I remember what I did on Highlander.
Jules: You certainly worked on some much loved series...
Kevin: Yeah, and we live in the legacy of the X-Files every day. How we established the show was very much an X-Files kind of style of show. We live in that legacy and that’s kind of where when Kim first came onto the show he kind of drove the show that direction.
Jules: What was it like working as a director with Jared and Jensen?
Kevin: It went rather seamlessly actually. I have to say the cast and crew, as they were with Serge and with Johnny and with Jerry, when they all directed, they all got behind everybody really well, helped support us. They would ask certain questions and I’d give them an answer best I could and then I said, at the end, after I got what I liked, just play with it and see what we can do differently. The nice thing about it was that they were very supportive of letting go.
That’s where I kind of blend a little bit the AD with the Director because at certain times you want your shot to start somewhere and you want to move with it. This is where Jared and Jensen’s strengths are incomparable - that ability to act with the camera. So when the camera’s going in a certain direction they will blend in with it, or they will turn to it, or somehow, and they just make it so much easier to work with you and you can get creative shots with it. They tell the story through their acting and you get a really visual piece. They’re supreme pros at being able to work with the camera and basically work with film and TV acting as opposed to theatrical process where you're on the proscenium and you play to the audience.
It gives the director and the DP (Director of Photography) more freedom, and also gives the camera operators like Brad Creaser and Brian Rose the ability to know that if they set something up that’s a little bit more technically challenging, the guys will be there when they come over. You get a really visual story with them in the frame, which is great.
Jules: So what skills and experiences of being an AD did you bring to directing?
Kevin: Every time I seemed to go outside on my location days, it started to rain. When we were inside there was no rain at all, it was nice. As soon as you go outside and you call for first team, it starts to rain. And one day I had this one scene set up, it was scripted outside completely, so I had it all nicely worked out, as soon as Jared was finished off, I called in first team, and a driving rain and gale-force winds came in. I still needed some part of it to be outside but I was just watching the tents fly, rain started to fall. It was like, okay, what can I do here? And within ten minutes, this is where the AD side of me comes in, thinks it through, and with the directors side going…I've to keep them out of the wind and rain because you can’t have people trying do a sensitive scene when their hair is blowing horizontal.
Jules: What have you seen of what you’ve shot so far?
Kevin: The only thing I’ve seen right now is dailies. I talk with the editor probably every couple of days about how things are going and the things I want to see. The shots are in my head, so I know what cutting order I want to do it. So I talk to him a little bit to help streamline that process. I won’t see anything until Saturday morning when I get to L.A.
I’ve given them a couple of options of some music to slug in right now just to get an idea of it. But in the end it will come down to whether they can afford it or not. If it costs too much money, then they will put something else in. Once you start getting into some really high-end bands it... I mean it’s like I don’t know how much money Glee has but when you start buying some of those record libraries that’s a huge amount of money.
THE EVOLUTION OF SUPERNATURAL
Jules: How is it different working on Supernatural now than it was in those first couple of years?
Kevin: Well there were challenges like trying to figure out what it’s like when a vampire’s teeth descend, or how a demon disappears with black smoke…I mean the first few times of doing that, it was a big deal. You have to frame it differently for all of the black smoke or when the eyes flip and change in and out to demon eyes. It’s amazing how much easier the visual effects have become, too: we do far less green screen now than we ever did because you can actually do just more right on set.
There were stylistic things we’ve kind of had to learn how to do. You get to a certain style sequence, say a fight, and we’re going to hand-held. You keep up a pretty steady frame up to when the fight starts. Once the fight starts, you go hand-held. It kind of started out as a time saver because we needed to get moving faster. When we’re doing sensitive quiet scenes, you’re going want to be on a dolly.
That’s how the first few seasons are like, learning that, and every show goes through it. You go through a certain process where you have to see what stylistically the producers want and how they want the show to look.
Another example is the visual effects: when we do our fights, there are usually visual effects involved in them. So there’s no quicker way to stop the flow on set than to actually have to do one shot in three pieces to make it work. That just slows everything right down. Now you have so much more flexibility with the visual effects that you can just keep the flow of the sequence going. You can get the intensity out of the actors by keeping them ramped up to try and do it and not have to get to back to where they were before you cut for the visual effects.
That’s how we’ve evolved from season one to season eight. And we’ve got a really good machine up here. I mean it works well.
The springboard for the show is basically built on the fact that Eric had a very good five year plan. Sera came in; she did a good job for the two seasons of keeping it going. Jeremy used to be one of our writers back in seasons four. Now he’s come back as a show runner.
Jeremy’s done a really good job of reinventing this season. I mean first five years we were basically working on what’s going on with Sam, what’s going on with the demons and all of sudden oh now the angels come in and it’s the apocalypse to win. Then we came back in season six and seven and so now Cass is trying to rebuild heaven, he’s going to take over, he blows up and then season seven ends up having the Leviathan. Now it’s like what do you do with the mythology. He’s re-measured the stuff with the tablet, picking up what was last season, the tablet and the other storylines and he’s doing a great job. And it’s evident because our ratings have gone up.
Interestingly if you look back at season one, episode one, it had all the saturated look and it was very close to the purgatory look.
GETTING STARTED Jules: So how did you get started in the business?
Kevin: I always liked movies, but I was more into high school theatre so I worked quite a bit in high school theatre on the technical end. I got accepted into Concordia in Montreal in their film programmes. I got a film studies degree. That wasn’t actually a great degree to get because it’s like an English degree, instead of reading books you end up watching a lot of movies which is a degree that I didn’t really use in the first part of my career; it became more useful as a first AD and definitely as a Director.
But then in my first year back from university, went to look for a job in the film industry and I walked into a production office. I was pretty much dressed in a three piece suit because I didn’t know whether the company was casual or not. And the production coordinator was quite impressed by that. She just talked to me for a bit, took my resume and I went on my merry way thinking, okay, well I'm going to be painting houses this summer because that's not going to happen. And a day later I got called to come into work as an office production assistant.
They liked me so much they kept me for prep shooting and wrap up. So I was there for two months in the end, and that got me my first job in the film industry. And I went back to painting houses for the rest of summer. Each summer coming back from university, I got one more show down; got one more… got one more... a foot in the door kind of thing.
Upon graduating I was able to parlay working pretty fulltime as a PA. I pretty much knew I wanted to be in the film industry, so I had no intention of wanting to be in an office, or like my father who was a police officer and my brother is a police officer and one of my other brothers sells computer hardware and stuff.
So from the PA side of things I’d gotten membership to the Directors Guild of Canada and I got my first show in 1991 as a Trainee Assistant Director. And that’s the last time I ever worked on locations. I was pretty consistent as an AD all the way through. Moving from trainee to third A.D. was easy; third to second was kind of harder because you try to get that second job. Once I got the second job that went quite easy. Going from second to first was really easy.
I started in 1987 and 26 years later I’m here. All in Vancouver.
Jules: So you must’ve seen the industry really grow a lot over that time?
Kevin: It’s grown down from a smaller industry to what it was in the 90’s which was huge, and now it kind of ebbs and flows a little bit. It’s up and down. Which is where Supernatural ’s been great because I haven't had to worry about work for the last eight years!
X-Files for example came from nowhere, proved this big monster. Same with Smallville. We have a lot of old X-Files crew here. The experience of the people who do the sci-fi shows kind of follows through, so you don’t have to go from square one on day one. All you have to do is get the rhythm of how this show works, how these actors work, how the sets are going to be made. So once you get that rhythm established which is like seasons one and two and part of three, then it just comes into its own.
RIDE TO CONQUER CANCER
Jules: One thing that brought you to the broader notice of fans was your involvement in the Ride to Conquer Cancer. How did you get involved in that?
Kevin: It was primarily for Kim Manners, but we’ve had lots of friends in the film industry pass away of cancer. Both (my wife) Jill’s family, and my family have been affected by it, so we wanted to do something for the ride, and to do something for Kim. So after Kim Manners passed away I got into doing the ride.
We started emailing friends about donations in January /February. Then Jim Michaels got our office to put it onto a fan page. I was overwhelmed with what the fans do. I was almost speechless because when Lesley put it on the page, I was still here in at work and the episode aired and it was like only about $20 to come in. In an hour of getting home, it went over $1,500. I was just like Wow! I was blown away by it. And, you know, everything from $10 to $500. I’m surprised at just how generous the fans are.
That was the biggest overwhelming thing - just to see what the fans actually do for these causes. I mean I’m just a guy riding a bike and yet that's really easy for me to do that. It’s not hard for me being able to ride the 240k from here to here to Seattle. My wife volunteers too and she does actually more work than I do. She’s on the course the whole time driving up and down, picking up riders of broken bikes or any injuries and take them to the next pit stop, or wherever. I’m on the course for five hours, five and a half hours. Jill’s on there for probably eight to nine. It’s basically a way for us to give back and something simple we can do to give back.
Because of the ride I’ve got a lot more into biking. It's a good thing, because the film industry can be all consuming, you can get sucked into it and never do anything else.
I also teach skiing, which is polar opposite from the film industry. Because here you’ve got to get done the work on the day. Teaching skiing is totally based on the client. And it’s basically working through the communication to make them feel like they’re safe and having a good time. And that’s fun to do.
Jules: From what I’ve heard, Whistler is full of Australians as well...
Kevin: Oh yeah, I think Australia Day in Whistler is bigger than Australia. I mean all the Australians who do work there either are really hung-over or still drunk when they show up the next day!
Jules: So what’s it been like for you, being on Twitter and having that interaction with the show's fans?
Kevin: I got on Twitter because it was an easy way to thank the fans for the support and the ride. It’s a good avenue to keep in touch with the fans and the surreal part of this whole thing is people are actually sending me fan mail.
Jules: Which I think is an amazing thing about our fandom, it’s not just the people on the screen that we are interested in, it's everyone involved in making the show.
Kevin: Well definitely. One of the most surreal moments was when I was at the Vancouver Convention in 2011, and I walked in and then all of a sudden it was like I was giving out autographs. I think, really? I’m just a crew member. I’m not one of the guys on camera, and you want my autograph? I’d never given an autograph out before because nobody’s ever asked for them before. It was a very surreal moment when I was like, oh, okay. It was fun.
Jules: One thing with the show's longevity and popularity is that more and more you have fans turning up to see you shoot when you're on location...
Kevin: Well if you weren’t out there we wouldn’t be here right now. When we’re out in public places people are always welcome to watch. And when the fans come out it’s like… it’s worth our while to go and say “hi” to them. Like I do. I know Guy Bee does too. I go and say “hi” to the fans. Because if weren’t for fans we wouldn’t be here right now. If a lot of fans didn’t watch this show, we would’ve be cancelled after season one.
The really hardcore fans that would actually show up in a rainstorm, they're dedicated. One time in Season Two, and we were in the driving rain, we were doing a scene at Boundary Bay and off in the distance we saw the fans. It was a driving rainstorm and they’re watching us at about quarter mile away. It’s like, really? Wow, that’s dedicated. And with fans like that? I give then all the gratitude and all the thanks to actually watch the show because if they didn’t watch it, didn’t support it, we wouldn’t be here.