Why Director April Mullen Loves Tackling the Unique Challenges Presented by Wynonna Earp

*** Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The TV Junkies and has been republished here with the consent of its author. ***

We’ve heard it said many times before, but there’s just something special going on in Calgary on Wynonna Earp. Cast and crew have said as much many times before, but now we can add director April Mullen among those who absolutely loves working on the SYFY and Space Chanel supernatural drama series. After directing two episodes last season, Mullen returned to Calgary and braved the cold weather to direct two more episodes in Season 3, last week’s “Undo It” and this week’s “The Other Woman,” airing Friday at  9 p.m. ET.

An accomplished director of both feature films (Below Her Mouth, Badsville) and television (Killjoys, Legends of Tomorrow), Mullen recently spoke with The TV Junkies about what truly makes Wynonna Earp so special and why she loves the challenges it presents. Mullen also walked us through the decision-making process behind bringing to life some of the show’s more fantastical elements, like the projected image of Doc (Tim Rozon) that kept Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) company during last week’s episode, as well as where ideas for some of the show’s more iconic shots came from and how she made her visions come to life.

The TV Junkies: You directed a couple episodes of Wynonna Earp last year and now are back for two more this season. What do you love so much about Wynonna Earp?

April Mullen: I remember watching Wynonna for the first time and thinking how much the tone was something I hadn’t seen before on TV. The tone had eccentricities and there was so much heart. You could cry in an episode and laugh your head off. I thought it was such a unique tone and was shot so well. It had its own crafted little brand and I was so excited to interview for it. When I then went to set, and got the job and got interact with the cast and creators behind the show, it was better than I could’ve ever expected. They are all such phenomenal human beings and it’s rare to get that many hearts of gold all together in one place. I think what makes Wynonna Earp special is the human beings in front of and behind the camera.

TTVJ: When you’re directing feature films you direct an entire piece of work, but with a TV series you’re directing one or two episodes that you’ve got to fit as pieces to a greater season long arc. What’s that like for you and how do you match the look and feel of a show while also making it your own?

AM: I love the challenge of doing that. The major looks are established and the actors have their thing going on and know the backstories, but every episode is so isolated with its own beginning, middle and end. So you can really create a world in your own episode to make it really different, and the creative team at Wynonna is really supportive of innovation and ideas. They are open to the craziest suggestions — like those in last week’s episode — that I just love. It’s my favorite episode of TV of all time. No, seriously, it is.

We tried something so out of the box and innovative with Doc and Wynonna that it’s absurd in the greatest way. It’s an homage to cinema and crafting things with a unique sensibility because we don’t have the biggest of budgets and yet we’re able to create this magic thing with a simple and practical in-camera trick that has a beautiful and emotional maze to it. They are so open to that kind of concept and really support any directorial, creative, or set suggestions you have. It’s really exciting to still do that within the confines of still working as a team. On a feature, you’re much more isolated and it’s your piece of work completely, but the whole teamwork and collaboration of building a world within a world that already exists is what I love. It’s really fun.

TTVJ: That idea of Doc’s projected image was very impactful, as was the shot of Melanie and Michael [Eklund] that panned up as the blood was seeping out.

AM: Isn’t it? I know! It’s just so stunning. The projection originally was just supposed to be on TV screens or iPads, but then we decided to do this magical projection thing because we were in unreal realms where fantastical elements can exist, where you get to see Doc in this projected image. It’s so unique to the show and then projected on top of her is showing such a beautiful connection for them. I loved the script so much when I read it and just immediately thought ‘What will I do? What can I do?’

TTVJ: Yes! That scene where she’s feeling total despair and just sitting against the wall where his face was projected was very powerful.

AM: I know! He’s on top of her and it’s so beautiful that it brings me to tears. I absolutely loved that episode and really gave it my all. Sometimes all the elements just come together, and I think it’s a stunning piece of art in a lot of ways because that Doc and Wynonna stuff is just so different.

TTVJ: The other challenge when shooting Wynonna, and especially that episode, is that you have to shoot outdoors in the cold. So scenes like Wynonna and Bulshar standing outside of the Homestead are beautiful for us to watch, but what is it like shooting in that weather?

AM: It’s true, the Calgary weather is unpredictable and also extreme, but for that scene in particular, I was also experimenting with using circle track on dialog just with a two-hander. I thought ‘it’s going to either be a massive success or a miss.’ I remember watching it on the monitor under a towel protecting me from the blizzard and thinking ‘oh my gosh it’s working and looks phenomenal!’ The snow was whipping too, and the cameras were whooshing by them so it also has this time-warped feel which I was going for. So in fact, the elements of the extreme snow and dark skies behind her at the crosses just added so much more impact. We didn’t even have to touch the sky. That was the sky! It looked like the end of the world. It couldn’t have been better in a lot of ways. It’s hard, you’re freezing and have 10,000 warmups in your boots, but at the same time I’m constantly fist-pumping by the monitor because I love it so much. The look of it all is so worth it.

TTVJ: That scene at the crosses was definitely one I wanted to discuss with you because it’s so powerful and sad, but also so beautiful.

AM: I wanted to really do a throwback to the old western look with these rickety crosses. It almost looked like an iconic poster or comic book sketch or image and that’s what I was going for. I remember when it was all coming to life it ended up looking exactly like what my storyboards were and that doesn’t happen all the time. You try really hard to get to the image that you’re hoping to achieve, and that happens maybe 50/50, but that day I thought ‘we nailed it!’ And the weather helped us!

TTVJ: WayHaught is a couple who have had some intimate moments in episodes you’ve directed. What’s your approach to those scenes because they always come across as so loving and soft?

AM: For WayHaught scenes I go with authenticity and honesty, and I like to draw from the pureness of the love those two characters share with one another. I strip back everything else because we don’t need anything but them being present with each other. I go for real, raw and try to find that emotion and allow them to express that between the two of them. It’s usually a quieter day and I’ll be talking to them right beside them. It’s really a kind of intimate experience that’s really special. I love working with the two of them. Whatever happens and if one day they get married, I have to direct that episode! I’ll be crying my head off and I can’t wait for that day, if that happens! I have no idea, but I will be vying for that episode for sure.

TTVJ: Back in Season 2, you directed the episode that contained a shot that many people call the Earp sisters’ Frozen moment, where they are back to back against the bathroom door. That was a pretty big and revealing scene for the series, as Wynonna finds out she’s pregnant. Where did the idea for that now iconic shot come from?

AM: For me, the frame, symmetry and what’s going on between the characters is everything. When I read that script, it was happening in the bathroom and they were apart so I pitched an idea where we had to fly away a wall from the set and build a wall I could shoot through. I really didn’t want to have the sisters on their own close-up. I really, really wanted it to be a two-shot where we could see both of them interacting at the same time, the love between them, the history between them, the fear, excitement and everything. So yes, there was a wall between them but we were able to see both sides of it.

I, along with the production designer, designed the bathroom set according to this one iconic shot. I know it sounds so crazy, but everything about the bathroom was built for that final shot because for me, it was such a huge moment between the two sisters and a huge reveal. I wanted to have them both there, but not able to touch each other or see each other because they are on opposite sides of the wall. So the set was constructed for that shot and I absolutely love it. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, and i’m so grateful they approved the idea and we were able to have the money to build the set according to that one very specific shot. It’s only a five second shot too, but it’s so worth it and like you said, such an iconic image.

I remember being at Melanie’s for the finale viewing and someone had burned it on a beautiful vinyl record, that image, and it was so special. She said ‘this is it,’ and I was like ‘you’re right. It defines the sisters.’ I’m so glad we were able to build the original concept for that and the performances were absolutely stunning as well.

It’s so funny too because I remember we had to decide on the thickness of the wall. Thicker or thinner. There was so much detail put into it, which is hilarious on the other end of things, because it just looks like a beautiful picture. [laughs]

TTVJ: The sisters are the true love story of the show and that was just such a perfect moment.

AM: They don’t know where they are going or what they are doing, and I remember in the editing room I also just allowed for silence. Sometimes on TV shows you have to cut really quickly and move forward fast, but there was time allotted to have them just sit in silence in that moment and shot, which was really important to add to the feel.

TTVJ: In the interest of not making you sit here and break down every shot of Wynonna Earp you’ve done — which I would totally be up for — is there anything else you wanted to mention about your work on the show?

AM: Just that the wonderful, wacky, heartfelt, humorous world of Wynonna Earp is so exciting to me. I feel so grateful to have been a part of it in its early stages and as it grows. I’m so appreciative of the fans and the people that get to come along the journey with us. It’s such a shared treat when you know you have fans out there that are going to look for those moments of her biting her lip or WayHaught sharing an extra little — where I go ‘stick your tongue out a little further.’ I love that every little piece of magic that you put on screen on that show is actually appreciated by fans. I think that makes the show extra special and makes you want to work harder as a director to deliver to the awesome fans that are all over the world right now. I was in India for Below Her Mouth and there were people there that were huge fans of Wynonna Earp. It always surprises me and overwhelms me. I just feel very grateful for the fandom that surrounds that show and keeps it going. It’s the little show that could and has so much heart.

TTVJ: It’s true, Earpers notice everything! There probably was someone out there that did appreciate your wall thickness on that bathroom shot. [laughs]

AM: Yeah, exactly! I love it and I love that about the show. I can’t wait for the next season!

TTVJ: You are a super busy lady, but as you said, Earpers love to hear all these details and really break everything down, especially episodes like last week’s so thank you for that.

AM: I love that episode and it breaks my heart. It was so beautiful and it’s my favorite TV episode of all time. I kept saying that on set and they’d be like ‘April, it’s not even finished yet.’ I’d be like ‘yeah, but I know. I can tell by the projection and their faces.’ I’m big into magical realism and the tone too so those things are what I love to watch as well.

TTVJ: Melanie and Tim’s performances were just so incredible as well. I kept thinking ‘how can just a projection affect me so much?’

AM: Exactly! It’s his voice and I’ll tell you the secret why. When I looked at the script, he was in his own realm and there was going to be something like 12 pages of dialogue between them where they wouldn’t be on set together to shoot it. You usually would shoot all of Melanie’s stuff one day and then a few days later all of Tim’s stuff. The more I was thinking of the emotional depth that was required between the two of them, the connection and the performances I was hoping to get from them, we reinvented everything and did this little innovative thing on set where Tim was actually being buried alive real time. He had a mic on and in his ear on the side you didn’t see. We then shot Wynonna with an earbud in her ear so she could hear his performance live and they interacted with each other live.

Their performances were intertwined because everything was real time. So when she exhales and breathes and he says ‘I can hear you,’ they are connected wirelessly. They couldn’t see each other, but their performances were live time and we shot them at the same time so we were able to capture their performances reacting with each other. It was really unique and very challenging on set to design things to make that work, but it was well worth it and that’s why their performances are so raw and stunning. They were able to respond back and forth to the person they were hearing in their ears. It was devastating for them, and at the end of everything they ran over crying and held each other. They couldn’t see each other but could hear each other suffering on the other side of the ear bud. It really affected their performances.

It also was the first time Doc says he loves Wynonna. Tim kept saying ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be a projection on the wall and say it to her and all I want to do is say it to her face.’ When he said it, it broke them both because they couldn’t be together and couldn’t see each other. I was at the monitors and all of our jaws are dropping and are teary-eyed. It was so beautiful because you could feel it between them even though they were apart. She got to hear him say it for the first time, which was really nice because he refused to say it before that. It was really genuine.

TTVJ: They are phenomenal actors, and I’m sure they would’ve done a great job had they not been able to hear each other, but it definitely gives it a whole other layer.

AM: It was a really important decision and I’m so happy we were able to deliver on that.

TTVJ: I know you’re currently working on another episode of Legends of Tomorrow. Is there any other project you want to share that you’re working on?

AM: I am shooting two episodes of Legends, an episode of The 100 and then Lethal Weapon in LA as well.


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