EXCLUSIVE: John Cassaday talks directing Dollhouse
[It’s been a big month for artist John Cassaday. The final issue of PLANETARY shipped after a years long delay, marking the end of a 10-year-long chapter of his career. Even more importantly, he’s currently in Los Angeles prepping to direct an episode of Dollhouse, the Joss Whedon-created show about Echo, an unwilling spy who is forced to use a technology of shifting personalities.
While Cassaday is on the short list of premier comics artists for his work on PLANETARY, ASTONISHING X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and hs recent covers for Dynamite, his directing roots go back as far as his career as a professional cartoonist, as told in this interview; it’s something he has always had in the back of his mind. (At one point he was announced as the director on an adaptation of his own GN I AM LEGION, a project that is now on indefinite hold.) However, the Dollhouse gig is one that fulfills lots of dreams for Cassaday.
What does it take to direct dramatic TV? What’s it like to work with Joss Whedon? Is Cassaday leaving comics? Read on for the answers!]
The Beat: Directing? Why directing? How long has this been going on? Was this your childhood goal?
John Cassaday: Directing has always been half the dream for me, the other half being comics. Friends I had growing up would tell you exactly that. I always knew what I wanted, which was to be a visual storyteller…to tell those stories the way that I saw them… I believe there’s a tangible cross-section of thought here. When I read a comic script, I often see the scenes behind a camera—the shots, the movements and sound, the actors… At times, I’ve read screenplays and see the comic page. These things blend in my mind, so I do my best to shape them into what is needed. I believe in cinematic storytelling, whether it’s on a comic page or on film.
The Beat: Before getting into comics you were a news director in Texas? What did that involve? Do you think that has helped prepare you for directing Dollhouse?
Cassaday: I was a technical director at an ABC affiliate in Texas for about 4 and half years, while in college. I directed the evening newscasts as well as shooting and editing promotional spots. Mostly a fun job… I learned a lot, especially the first couple of years. Not necessarily a lot of serious parallels to draw between that and a scripted episodic directing job, but working with a crew under you and having an understanding of what that authority entails is maybe a good correlation…
The Beat: Can you talk about how you have worked with Joss Whedon on getting to this point? I know you two are good friends. What have you learned from him?
Cassaday: We got to know each other a few years before Astonishing X-Men and through that became even better friends. We found that we had a similar way of telling a story, almost a shorthand language. Joss and I talked about directing in terms of just general theory and what it takes. He knew I had interest in getting behind the camera. We were having dinner in LA about a year and a half ago, when he was still prepping the Dollhouse pilot, the first of a 13 episode order. I can’t tell you how surprised I was when he told me that if they got renewed, he’d like me to direct an episode. I nearly jumped out of my skin! I was thrilled. Very grateful to the guy for thinking of me and having that trust… But there were some hurdles in the way and he was always frank about them. First they had to get picked up for a second season, which thankfully came about. Joss then had to get my name past the studio and network suits. No small feat, but he picks his battles carefully and was able to make it happen. I’m unbelievably grateful.
I’ve visited the set on three separate occasions to observe and “ghost” the directors. Twice with Joss and once with David Solomon, who is also an executive producer. A great guy. They have slightly different styles of directing, but both are exceptional at keeping a comfortable set. Each time out, I’ve gained more insight to the inner workings and feel more comfortable with the role.
The Beat: Can you walk us through a little of the process for directing episodic TV?
Cassaday: The process begins with preproduction, which lasts seven days. During this time, we’ll be going through the script and working out what’s needed in terms of everything from locations and sets to wardrobe, stuntmen, camera equipment for specific shots… every element needed in order to be ready to hit the ground running on the first day of shooting. Also during this time, I’m hoping to have time to throw some storyboards together. Though every time I pester Joss about getting the script early to do storyboards, he just grins at me, as if to say, “Fat friggin’ chance!” So I’ll be doing what I can during preproduction and every free moment I get while filming, though there may not be much of that.
Then comes the eight days of actual shooting. Those will be long days too… While I’m shooting, the dailies from each day will be edited and available to me the next day. Once I wrap up shooting, there’ll be a complete editor’s cut to check out. I then get a week with the editor to put together my cut—the director’s cut. That will be given to Joss and the producers to make whatever changes they may want. They have final say and final cut. I then go to the bar! Perhaps a nap.
The Beat: I’m with you on both of those! Do you have any thoughts on the cast and characters going in? Any favorites?
Cassaday: I like the relationship between Echo and Ballard. There’s a strange dynamic there. They’ve grown into something very different than where they started out. Ballard has become part of the machine he swore to take down in order to get the job done. He’s no longer CIA. It’s a personal mission for him and that mission is embodied by Echo. I enjoy the back and forth between all the employees and the actives. I’m fascinated with the trickiness of the technology and how it can be applied to anyone to serve any purpose… The possibilities are endless and mind-boggling.
The Beat: What’s your biggest challenge, do you think, going into this?
Cassaday: I read a script and have specific ideas as to how I want to tell the story. When I draw, it’s me and only me– essentially a one-man show. One challenge comes in dealing with a crew of a hundred people waiting for and watching me… I’ve met most of them and they really know their jobs. I’ve watched the crew at work and feel I’m in good shape. Another issue is working with actors. I’m excited about this as much as anything. I feel lucky in a sense, that with it being a television series, the actors will have been playing their characters for roughly 22 or 23 episodes by the time I hit the set. We won’t be forming their characters from the ground up. They know their origins. They understand themselves and their motivations. I also look forward to dealing with any day-players, so I can get those creative juices flowing there too… Constructing personalities. So very Dollhouse!
The Beat: Other cartoonists have gotten into directing—Sam Kieth, Kaare Andrews, to name some of the less obvious ones. What do you think is the intersection of the skill set that makes this crossover possible?
Cassaday: Good linear storytelling. There are a lot of talented storytellers in comics and it’s just as good of a training ground for directing as any other job you may find in film, television or other professions… In my mind, there are strong connections between the two …
The Beat: Turning back to comics, you’ve alluded to the idea that you would be taking some time off from comics for the next year? What will you be working on?
Cassaday: I’ll be kind of “off and away” for a couple years. I’ve had in mind to take some serious time away from sequentials or any major comic work… I’ve had the idea for a long time.
I wanted to get Astonishing X-Men and Planetary done and then disappear for a while. After doing those books, where do you go, y’know? I’m not interested in repeating myself and I want to search out other directions for myself, whether it be behind a camera or in comics. I have no intention of ever leaving comics completely. I want to do all these things. I want to find ways to let them blend into and orbit one another. So I’m getting some film projects together I’ve been waiting to develop and also working on my own comic projects that I’ll be writing and drawing. One in particular is very special to me. I’ve had it roaming around my head for a long time and the chance has finally come to start piecing it all together. I’m keeping it close to the vest, though and it won’t see the light of day for a couple of years. The story is fun spin on some traditional themes and the format is incredibly unique, if I say so myself! The few choice people I’ve explained it to have been bowled over, so I think I’m on a good track. And I can promise you it’s something that’s never been done before.
The Beat: Are you more interested in drawing or directing at this point?
Cassaday: For the next several weeks, I’d better be more interested in directing! I’ll need my head in the right slot while I’m there on the set. And of course, if I have the time, I’ll be drawing storyboards, but I’m sure that’s not what you mean… Again, I’m 50/50. I love them equally and no matter what other directing possibilities there may be, I would never give up drawing or comics. I’m of two hearts. Cue the tears! Too much love for both. But no love for Nazis. Or hobo clowns. None. They are evil. So are Nazi hobo clowns. Let’s just move on.
The Beat: October has been a pretty momentous month for you. In addition to the DOLLHOUSE gig, the final issue of PLANETARY finally came out. How does it feel to have this series ending?
Cassaday: It’s bittersweet, y’know? I started this book over ten years ago when I was still new to the industry. It’s always been there. I think part of the delay for the last issue, on my end, was that I didn’t want to let it go… Hard to say goodbye to something that’s close to you. On the other hand, all good things… It’s certainly nice to have it all done and see it as a body of work. Mostly, I’ll just be sad to not get to read any more Planetary scripts from Warren!
The Beat: You’ve worked on Planetary for over 10 years…and gone through a lot of changes like all of us. Are there any that particularly stand out in the way they affected your approach to the final issue?
John Cassaday: Once you read it, you’ll understand better, but it’s a fairly straightforward story. It’s a very specific, character driven issue and my approach was simply to do what the script asked for. That’s my approach in general. Do what the story needs. I had someone suggest a while back that I do the final issue in these various gray tones and washes that I’ve used on some covers and flashbacks. Give it a painted look… I explained to him that that’s not the continuity I’ve set up for the series. When you see the characters in their present day storyline, they’re rendered the same. If you tinker and deviate in style for no reason, it can lead to subtle, but important distractions for the reader. If the opportunity to play with style or approach presents itself, that’s fine. And I love those opportunities. But to do it for the simple sake of doing it would be kinda selfish, I think. It betrays the story.
The Beat Okay, final question: Dream project as of today:
John Cassaday: Heidi, I tell ya… It’s everything that I’m doing! I’ve had dream projects happen before and now I’m looking to make more of them a reality. Can’t tell you any specifics, for obvious reasons, but there’s a lot of exciting possibilities in front of me. Wish me luck! Okay… FADE OUT. Roll credits. And maybe some Cannonball Run bloopers.
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