Supernatural From Script to Screen: Director's Commentary on "Trial and Error" with Kevin Parks
"I was happy I got an anthology episode, one of the ones that helps to build on the whole lore of the season...it wasn’t an overly large action episode to have to get bogged down in a lot of stunts ...so it was good to cut my teeth on this episode, because it basically relies on me to be able to tell the story with my shots and the acting."
– Kevin Parks, Supernatural Director
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
In December 2012, I interviewed Supernatural's First Assistant Director Kevin Parks, just after he had directed his first episode –8.14 Trial and Error. In that interview we talked about his experience of directing, but not the details of the episode and the creative side of the job.
The day after 8.14 Trial and Error aired, Kevin was kind enough to talk to me again and share his director's insights on the episode. I have included descriptions and timestamps for the scenes we are talking about so you can watch as you read along. - Jules Wilkinson, March 2013
If you enjoyed this interview, please tweet Kevin at @SNKevinandJill
Jules: Did you have any hopes for what might be in the script? Did you think “I hope I get lots of comedy or a lot of action"?
Kevin Parks: I thought that whatever I get would be great. I was just hoping I wouldn’t get the baby episode or the overly-large pet episode. I mean, I did have dogs, but I had invisible dogs that were going to do what I wanted.
I was happy I got an anthology episode, one of the ones that helps to build on the whole lore of the season, which was good. In retrospect it wasn’t an overly large action episode to have to get bogged down in a lot of stunts and stuff. The stunts were there but they weren’t all that difficult, so it was good to cut my teeth on this episode, because it basically relies on me to be able to tell the story with my shots and the acting.
Jules:So what did you do when you first get the script?
Kevin Parks: I learned a lot from people like Kim Manners, Bob Singer, Philip Sgriccia and other directors from other series that I worked with in the past, like Milan Cheylov and Jorge Montesi. In TV you plan out what you want so you don’t end up shooting a lot of stuff, or flailing and not knowing and make it up as you go. Because if you make it up as you go, you’re not going to get out everything that you need.
We start with going through the final locations. Once we find the locations we go through department meetings, each department. We will go to casting. Once they have the locations and a lot of the department meetings are done, then I sit down and I actually do a lot of the planning. I didn’t have a lot of stage work, so it wasn’t set-heavy. It was more location-heavy, so when I saw the house we were going to use, I could start planning what I want to do.
Then I would look at the scene, and look at the location and look how I want to open it, how I want to get into the coverage, where I want to close it. Is there any interesting angles I can get out of it, what does the house offer, whether it's the exterior or interior? I learned a lot from other directors about keeping the camera moving, so you incorporate camera movements into it, without killing the DP (Director of Photography; Serge Ladouceur) for lighting with the need for multiple set-ups. It can be done. Anything can be done for the right amount of time and money. It’s just you want to minimise how many times you do that (multiple setups for the one scene), because if you do that too many times you’re not going to get all your work done.
Timestamp (Kevin working on the tablet translation fuelled by hotdogs and coffee) 0:44s
Jules: What was it like on that first day, turning up on set wearing the directors’ hat?
Kevin Parks: It was a bit nerve-racking. There’s a whole wave of emotion going from having the dry heaves to make sure you’re not going to screw up somewhere to getting that first shot going and getting it done and moving on. It’s like the nerves of “OK, do I have it? Should I say let’s move it on? Are those my words?”
Jules:And is there also then that other rush of “I am actually in charge of this?”
Kevin Parks: Yes, I’m responsible for making sure the story’s being told. There’s definitely that. It’s a very safe environment to do it. It was good for Johnny MacCarthy, Jerry Wanek, Serge and myself to go and do this in this environment, because we all know everybody. I suppose if I was walking into an entirely new show you'd be basically looked upon as the new guy and everything you do would be criticised and judged. So here it was a very safe environment, and it was a great opportunity to be able to do it the first time here.
Jules: What did you shoot first in the episode?
Kevin Parks: The teaser. It was the first... the slate was “roll one, take one, scene one”. So three ones on the slate, so that was a first in Supernatural. It was one of my more worrisome sequences, because I did a montage. Shooting a montage can be pretty boring because it’s a lot of different shots and pieces. When you’re actually shooting it on the day it’s actually pretty boring because there’s not a lot of dynamic movement in it, although I did add movement in a couple of the shots.
Originally, the beat that I had the editor cut to was a Chris Isaak song, "In the Heat of the Jungle" which has a great drum beat to it, a rhythmical beat to it, so I wanted to keep that because it was a repeating scene. We didn't end up using that song, it’s more of a love song as opposed to what we’re trying to get with Kevin Tran, but what I wanted was the beat.
Kevin he also had three different looks in his clothing too. He’d be a bit more - basically tired and dirty as the time goes on because he wasn’t showering. So that was very subtle but I think it came through as we started getting to the very end when he had a nosebleed and fell down and collapsed.
Jules: Then we go into Dean’s bedroom in the bunker, and I’m sure you know fandom was thrilled to see it and the wonderful work Jerry Wanek and the crew did with Dean’s bedroom.
Kevin Parks: Yes Sam and Dean have moved into the Men of Letters bunker and now they can actually call it a bit more of a base. They had Rufus's Cabin but all the angels and demons know where that is. And Bobby’s house has been burned down. I don’t know how much more we’re going to be seeing of it, but it looks like we'll see it some more.
So we've got Dean coming across with him making a home, as he says “I’m nesting”. He's got his weapons up there, made it his space. And also we got to give him that little Mom touch, because that picture he comes out and he’s got in his wallet. That’s really young Jensen, and Mary-Ann Liu did a great job of taking a picture we had of Samantha Smith and blending the two together.
Jules:The bunker is obviously the biggest set you’ve ever built, so what’s that like, shooting in that?
Kevin Parks: Every angle was perfect and you didn’t have to move a lot around. You go wide on either side. Everything can shoot so well. It’s lit nice by Serge, and it gives me the full flexibility of telling the story with the two guys. It would’ve been great to be in there more, but my episode we had one scene and then we’re gone. We’re out on the road the rest of the time, but it was just great.
Timestamp: (Sam and Dean visit Kevin): 5:14s
Jules: So, then we go back to the boat with Kevin Tran which is a much more lot more constrained space.
Kevin Parks: There’s enough space laterally in that set to be able to do nice moves back and forth. It’s enough space so it’s easy to pull things apart to actually get some of those small dolly moves in there, which work. So I pulled a lot of walls to basically get those straight-down looks and fall back as far as you can to see the depth in the room.
When Sam and Dean first came in, there was a lot of utilisation of steadicam, and bringing the guys in. In the next scene when Kevin is telling them about the trials and everything, it was basically from the desk to the wall back and forth, to give that a little bit of movement. And wherever I can get movement, you do a lot of the rack focus to change your perspective from the foreground to the background.
Jules: Can you explain rack focus?
Kevin Parks: Rack focus would be, say I’m focused on Sam in the foreground. Dean walks away. He stops and says a line. You shift the focus from Sam to Dean in the background.
Jules: So it’s mimicking the viewer’s point of who they’re looking at as they’re speaking?
Kevin Parks: Yeah. Our eyes do that automatically. You don’t look past what’s behind you, but if I’m looking at you you’re in focus and the door is out of focus, but if I shift to the background you’re going to be out of focus. But my eyes aren’t doing that, so the camera does that by the focus blur.
The Cassity Farm
Jules: That farm was a pretty incredible location you found.
Kevin Parks: Jerry and Janet McCairns and Russ Hamilton found it a couple of days prior to me starting the prep on the episode. We were there for five days; it saves time on having to unload the trucks and load the trucks at the end of the day. You have all the gear there. You start here so all the gear’s kind of already out so you can get going a little quicker every day. But every angle had a beauty shot in it.
I did the interior of the dining room, living room and kitchen there. The back porch was all there with the outdoor barbecue. The barn where they’re shovelling the stalls out, the barn for the fight, all the exteriors on the property there. And then the neighbours’ farm was the wood where Margot dies.
Jules: You introduce the farm with that lovely crane shot as the Impala arrives...
Kevin Parks: I wasn’t really planning to have it come full force into the grille, but when we saw it as the camera was coming down it looked great. The Impala, we have it around but very seldom do we have a feature of it in the past few episodes. And the grille’s so great.
Jules: One thing I noticed too was in the background, later as the Cassitys' arrived, was the garage on the farm was full of these most incredible cars.
Kevin Parks: The owner of the house actually has that whole wing as his garage and he’s got, I think there are nine to ten vintage cars that’ve been basically restored to mint condition. So when I had the Cassitys pulling out, that was the only time I could feature that whole wall. So he let us open the doors and then show that whole wall. And that was basically to help show off the wealth of the family, to show they have money.
Originally where I wanted to put the crane for that shot, I couldn’t put it because it was on the grass, so I had to put it somewhere else and I was able to catch the cars, but from the other angle it would’ve been a lot more of them. It worked. You adjust on the day just to make sure things work. And you also want to show the vastness of the farm, so I want to come out of the sky and come across and see this stuff. And luckily I wasn’t overly long so they kept my moves in.
Jules:You made great use of the barn in the scene where Sam and Dean are talking, you can see Ellie walking away down the stables as they’re talking.
Kevin Parks: Well, in the barn, I always wanted to open that back door, because we could’ve closed it and it would’ve just made it look like a barn, but if you open it and you can see down it gives you a bit more depth, so I wanted to keep that. That was why I kept Ellie in the background walking away while we were doing the two shot on Sam and Dean.
Red Bear, which is the horse that Jensen talks to in the barn, belongs to one of our drivers and so his horses are pretty well behaved.
We would’ve loved to have more of the horses, because there were about 80 horses on the property, and they get very curious and it would be really cool if they went and popped their heads up, but only about a third of them had their heads popping out. It would’ve been great, but they’re horses. You can’t get them to do what you want.
Timestamp (Carl's death): 14:11s
Timestamp (Margot's death): 26:12s
Jules: You said on Twitter that the kills were some of the hardest bits for you to work out.
Kevin Parks:Well they’re hard because our standard of practice don’t let us do a lot of killing of human beings. They’ve been pulling back on what we can and can’t show. So I couldn’t really show a guy’s neck being gored out or any of that kind of stuff, so I had to figure out how to do it subtly yet still effectively show that these guys were being killed.
So with Carl it was basically to tip him over on his back and then kind of push in and I did a whole move across his body -- which for time got cut out. Then it was the blood spray on the face, just like his neck and his body gets ripped up and the blood comes on. That we can get away with. We just can’t show him having his chest ripped open. As we’ve seen in the purgatory stuff we can take a vampire’s head off, but when it comes to humans they draw the line.
And the same with when I killed Margot. I had to think of an inventive way of doing that, because you can’t cover her up with a dog because the dog’s invisible. That was a tough one for Rosie (Brian Rose) our steadicam guy, because I had him come across over the top of her, and had the camera come around over the top and then rest over the shoulder for Sam to do the firing.
We did a few rehearsals, and Rosie did a great job with the steady cam coming around and over that. And then we were just shaking a little bit of blood and then once she’s dead you cut back. Then I can show her gored-out neck.
Jules:The wood scene - that was shot at night?
Kevin Parks: That was shot at night. The main farm, they had 90 acres of property, and the neighbours’ farm was right next door, which right next door is a little ways away, so there was a bit of a shuttle for that, but still within the realm of being close by. And the woods, we had to fill in a couple of trees in the little gaps so you wouldn’t see the house. But it worked out really well for that one little chunk of forest.
As everything goes, the one day I wanted to kind of get a little day-for-night going, the sun came out so we had to actually wait for the darkness to happen. Every other day I was outside it was cloudy and rainy. This day the sun came out. It was like “ah jeez, that doesn’t help”.
Jules: It’s going to be a late night.
Kevin Parks: Yeah.
Inside the farmhouse
Timestamp (Dinner party): 19:40s
Timestamp (After Margot's death): 26:30s
Kevin: In the house, when I saw the way the house was outlined and when I first walked in there, what I wanted was to keep the flow of the house going from each room. I saw how I could get the camera to go from the living room to the dining room and still keep it, instead of looking to a wall, looking back into the kitchen and stuff. That was the ideal thing. I wanted to keep that flow going. I learned a lot of the stuff with other directors -- you want to keep interesting backgrounds.
Jules: It obviously poses particular challenges to a director, shooting in someone else’s house where you obviously can’t take out walls. You’ve seen the location beforehand, but did you have to change anything once you were there and realised that?
Kevin Parks: No. I took that all into account when I was planning, because this house had rooms that were bigger than some of our sets, so it was easy to move the cameras around. All that dinner stuff I had two cameras going every time, so it was a big enough space to have that happen. It was a challenge though because we couldn’t move the dining room table.
Jules: I loved the bit where the Cassity's are working out that it was Crowley that had visited them and you’ve got that wonderful zoom-in on Sam’s face as the realisation hits...
Kevin Parks: It’s something Bob Singer likes to do. Kim always liked to do those push-ins too. It just helps heighten the drama, where you go from a realisation, you kind of push-in. The challenge to do that was, in that dining room we couldn’t move the dining room table.
I had Jared make sure he stood in a certain place where I can get a bit of a dolly move in there, just enough to tighten up a little bit. But were always in a position for that final shot of Jared, we just position him in enough space to give me just a two-foot push-in so it just heightened that drama of the story.
Jules: It worked fantastically. I imagine there’s some challenges to a scene like where you have got so many people in it, sitting around talking.
Kevin Parks: You’ve got to go every angle around the whole table, and I position people a certain way. When I did the coverage on Margot the camera was actually in the hallway behind them, so there was a door there I could actually get back behind people and actually be able to shoot over without having to try and move the table around. So I just had to position myself in areas where it all worked where I could get space for the two cameras.
Dean and Ellie scenes
Timestamp (First Scene at Stable): 20:00s
Timestamp: (In Ellie's room): 32:08s
Jules: We then have the first of two big scenes between Dean and Ellie. How is it for a guest actor coming into the set?
Kevin Parks: Any day player comes in it’s going to be somewhat intimidating especially a show that’s been around for eight years. I know Supernatural has a good rep for having actors come in and feel like they’re at home, which is a good atmosphere to have. Jensen and Jared both helped bring out those actors. The nerves got her for a bit but Danay Garcia (as Ellie) did a great job.
Jules: What notes did you give to the actors for a scene like the ones with Dean and Ellie?
Kevin Parks: The notes I give them is trying to get them to get the right intent of what’s going to happen here, and basically giving them some kind of direction of where they want to go.
Ellie was a complete misdirect for the plot of the episode. Who actually sold their whole soul to Crowley? Is it Margot? Is it Alice? Who actually did it all? And then all of a sudden Karl dies, and also Margot dies and it’s like well the others are still there so who did it next? We didn’t really think that Ellie was the one who sold her soul.
You need the audience to wonder - is she just a little bit tipsy here and wanting to have a roll in the hay or is there something else going on there? I wanted to be very subtle with that in terms of how that comes through. It’s giving that kind of background to the actors, so they can think about how to convey that.
In the blocking Jensen and Danay had some great ideas to help make this work and that’s when we got them really close. Unfortunately the original block I had outside behind the car seeing more of the ranch but then as Serge said he was ready, in came the driving rain and the monsoon, so I had to move so they were just inside the barn. And you can see the smoke is whipping by at Mach 4 behind them because the winds are still high, but it was one of those things. In their blocking, they made it work.
Jules: And then you have the later scene with her and Dean in the bedroom...
Kevin Parks: When Ellie starts to freak out at seeing Dean's face, we’re starting to pull back the veil a bit more there, because Margot should’ve been seeing that too, and she may have been, we didn’t play that. Carl should’ve definitely been seeing that. He should’ve been hearing the dogs for a while now, so we actually played the wolf thing to cover that up a little bit to get that effect. And then once we get to Ellie it’s like she knows it’s coming in, and then we just kind of pull the veil and we see the hallucinations and everything.
Jules: The cut to Dean's face when she's hallucinating was a real shock. It’s one of those moments when the audience really jumps!
Kevin Parks: It's a call back to Crossroad Blues, because in that episode, the second of the three victims in Crossroad Blues was at a motel, and she’s talking to the hotel manager and his face starts to warp out. I referenced a lot of Crossroad Blues for visual effects and everything, and a lot of people here still know this from Crossroad Blues, so it wasn’t too much of re-education for everybody.
The Visual Effects Team did the warping of Jensen's his face and his hands and everything to make it work, so we put tracking marks on him. But Jensen did a little bit of his own to help extend his face, he’s doing as much as he possibly can as a human without trying to dislodge his jaw, and then the visual effects guys take it further. We just pick and choose the shots that we need to.
Timestamp (Fight with Sam and Dean and the hellhound): 37:00s
Jules: The return of theHellhounds in this episode was great, and the glasses scorched in holy oil were a great device to allow the audience to see them for the first time. And a lot of fans seem to like Jared and Jensen wearing glasses.
Kevin Parks: They do! Even when they put the publicity photos out with the guys in glasses, everybody just seemed to like that.
In the past every time we’ve had the hellhounds out you either see a footprint or a breath or you just see the scratches on the floor or the height, as big as when Crowley patted his dog on the top for The Devil You Know. What we had a lot of that time we had people in green suits, that the VFX team painted out when they knew where the dogs would be. But now it was easy, well the visual effects have come a long way. I never had anybody in a green suit. It was basically our guys just reacting to nothing.
Jules: How was the look of the hellhounds developed?
Kevin Parks: In prep, Mark Meloche,Ryan Curtis and Grant Lindsay, did some conceptual stuff of what the hellhounds should look like. They ran it by me. I liked it and then we sent it down to Bob Singer and Jeremy Carver.
I just made certain adjustments for height, for when Jared had to be underneath it, to make sure that it’s tall enough and big enough that, with Jared who’s six- four. It had to be big enough to get above him and Jared has to be able to get a knife and stab it. So there’s a physical realm that these dogs have to be designed for even though they’re invisible and they’ll do what we want.
Jules: Can you talk us through that climactic scene between Sam and Dean and the hellhound?
Kevin Parks: In the script they write a certain way but they have different ideas in their mind of the space it's happening in. When we actually find the space we are going to use, then I can augment the action in the script to the space we have.
It all starts with Jensen coming in, seeing where the hellhounds are going to come from and then from there it’s just basically getting the little bits and pieces in. I was actually quite fortunate, and my coverage back on the hellhound was basically an empty plate where they would put the animation in, then it's back on our guys. I had to pull the Dean stunt double twice because the first time I think he hit too straight-on on the barrier so then he didn’t just slide off and lose the knife and the glasses.
On the very first day of prep to when I shot it, I told our special effects guy that we had one chance to basically gut this dog with Jared below it, because the reset just wouldn’t happen. So I had one chance to do it.
There was a rig that was basically a trough that had a rubber bladder underneath it. It was something Jared physically stabbed, and he was controlling the goo coming down - once the bladder was pierced all the goo’s going to come out. And the way the rig was designed it had big enough feet around it I could get all four of my camera angles into it. There was a four-camera setup and like I said I had one chance to do this, because the reset factor would’ve been two hours. I would never have got it back in time to do this.
Since we got Jared to do it all, rather than someone off-camera, it took a lot of that effort out and it was basically just Jared getting underneath, and getting the camera set.Rosie did a great job of getting the goo from above looking down on him. The B camera did a great job over Jared to Jensen, which thank god Brad Creasser was able to light it all because I did a lot of different directions there.
Then you had that tie-in from Jared to Jensen for the Sam-Dean look at the end, and thank god they could light all that because it just tied in so nicely, like where we see Jensen in soft focus behind Sam as he’s cutting into the hellhound. When Jared puts his head down, they rack to Jensen in the background which was perfect timing. Couldn’t ask for anything better.
Don Koch, my editor, did a great job. He started at 24 frames per second and then he racked it back to one twenty, so as Jared was cutting more and more it slowed down for the big splosh on him. (See here for an explanation on how higher frame rates are used to create slow motion effects)
When you do these kinds of things you’ve got to get as much as you can to tell a story and get the action done. My biggest advantage to this was I didn’t have to worry about trying to work with my "co-star" (the hellhound) in the fight background, because that was all basically a plate animated in later by visual effects team, who did a great job of animating them, giving them a lot of three-dimensionality.
Sam and Dean's final scene
Timestamp: 38:40 s
Jules: After that action, the final scene between Sam and Dean is a quiet and intense one.
Kevin Parks: That scene is actor-driven, and the beauty is that Jared and Jensen do such a good job with those scenes between the two of them. I did a lot of varying different coverages, but the wide and the tight overs really sell it and these guys do such great work reacting to each other that you don’t really have to do too many times.
The one unknown at this point was what the effect was going to look like on Sam’s arm after he did the chant, so we did shot a couple of ways. We did one version has his arm with no light, and then we did one with interactive light. We didn’t know what the effect was going to look like, and when I did my cut I left the shot of the interactive light in because his whole arm is starting to light up and do things to it. Now we know, so the directors who do trials two and three will know what happened.
When it was all said and done it was a good experience. Calling wrap on the last day was great.
Editing the Episode
Jules: I know you celebrated the broadcast of the episode at a viewing party with family and friends. Was that the first time you’d seen the final cut?
Kevin Parks: Yes. I’d seen one other cut prior to that, but it didn’t have any visual effects in it, so it was my first time watching everything together.
Jules: And what was that like?
Kevin Parks: It was exciting. It was great. It was nice to see they didn’t change much from my cut. They just tightened some things up. They had to take some time out to make it on the air-time, but they didn’t change much from my cut to the final, which I was quite happy to see.
Jules: So how was your first time being involved in the post production and the editing of an episode?
Kevin Parks: That was one of the bigger learning curves about the whole thing -- going to L.A and being the person saying “well let’s try this. Let’s do this”. It’s kind of overwhelming at first. As somebody once said, it’s kind of like you shoot it, then you let the editors take it for a bit and then producers see it. You don’t really see it until the final version. It’s still a learning curve. I looked at it and was, I wouldn’t say intimidated, but a little bit nervous to make suggestions because it’s like “how far can I go”?
Jules: So what happened when you turned up in L.A?
Kevin Parks: The editor had his cut done, which is the first time I’d seen anything. I hadn’t seen any footage put together until that point in time. So the two hours in the room, we just sit and watch the episode, what his cut was, and then from there we just made some suggestions, alterations. I spent probably a good half a day working with it, and then I went back to the hotel and basically looked at that night and the next day, just to make my own cuts with it and to see what else we can do. So Monday morning I had about a sheet of notes for him to work on.
Jules: So, between finishing the directing and the episode going into post, do you send notes down with it? How does it go from what you shot to the first cut?
Kevin Parks: The editors follow the script continuity notes and what was shot and how I shot it. There’s about two or three ways you can put things together and Don Koch, my editor, was basically looking to what I shot and seeing if they can put everything I shot into the cut so I can see everything that’s there.
There were a couple of things that were cut that I wanted to get, certain expressions, subtle things, so we put a couple of those back in. Don did a great job cutting the episode together, and it made the post part easy. It’s a learning curve to see how next time I can actually get more involved.
Jules: Hopefully you will get that chance soon.
Kevin Parks: Well I hope so. We’ve got season nine so we’ll see what happens.
Interview by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Admin
Many thanks to Kevin Parks for his generosity in doing this interview, and for directing an awesome episode.
Nothing in fandom is a solo activity, and this work was made better by betaing input by counteragent.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to this article if quoting from it.
For inquiries about the Supernatural Wiki, you can contact Jules at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview conducted February 21 2013 ; posted 6 March 2013