From ‘Dead to Me’ to ‘You,’ Director Silver Tree Talks Capturing Complex Tones

As a former script supervisor, Silver Tree was in the unique position of being a “co-pilot” for many directors. This inspired her to take the leap and rebrand herself as a director, first with a feature film she also co-wrote (“Deep Dark Canyon”). For the better part of the last decade, though, Tree has worked on some of the most tonally unique series, from the dark and delicious “You” on Netflix, to the twisted humor of Showtime’s “Shameless” and the Globes and guilds-eligible traumedy “Dead To Me” (also Netflix).

Script supervision is such a specific, solitary job. What made you want to go into that line of work and how did you then transition into directing?

After college I had taken a gap year: I wanted to travel the world and I didn’t come from a family situation where they could send me around so I got a job as a flight attendant. I was based in London and I spent the next couple years traveling and ultimately my husband suggested that we write a screenplay about my experiences as a flight attendant, and then we made it on a shoestring and the film [“The Aviary”] ended up being a niche hit; it ended up really gaining quite a large audience in the aviation community. I got the bug, so my husband was like, “You should get on set and do like any job you can just to decide if this is a place that you would want to be.” And at the time he was assistant directing a horror movie in Los Angeles that was being entirely shot at a Chinese restaurant and he got me a job on this movie as a script supervisor. I did a crash course, read a million books, and showed up on set and did the best job I could, and was told I did a pretty good job. So I decided I would just try to use that first experience to gain more experience and started doing shorts, commercials and anything I could get my hands on, until I started building up a pretty good resume and ultimately joined the union. And then I found myself in a position of being like a co-pilot to a lot of directors, which was an opportunity I didn’t expect to come out of that job, but did. And with all of the support and just varying levels of experience that those directors had, I found myself becoming really invested in everything I did and ultimately taking on a role of if somebody was less experienced, helping with shot lists and diving in. And ultimately, I was script supervising a TV series called “Suburgatory,” which was created by Emily Kapnek, and on the off-season I directed my first feature [“Deep Dark Canyon”], which I wrote with my husband, and [Emily] watched it and she offered me an episode of “Suburgatory.” And I kind of just took a leap of faith after that.

With there being even fewer female directors when you started than now, and certainly fewer initiatives to increase the number, what do you think helped you push through?

I had a feature and an episode of television and also a spec pilot I did in between seasons. Between those things and a lot of good connections and a lot of luck, I was able to get a foothold. And at the beginning of my journey into episodic television I became a producing director very quickly and then after I left Toronto where I was producing “Suits,” my agents and I decided I would go on a journey of genre where I directed every kind of genre I could get my hands on, in an effort to not be put into a particular genre as a woman directing at that time. So I did a lot of stunt-heavy shows, like “Lethal Weapon” and “SEAL Team” and other classically male-directed shows.

And a lot of edgy comedies, from “Suburgatory” to “Dead To Me.” What draws you to that style?

Liz Feldman from “Dead To Me” coined the term “traumedy,” which for the first time really describes to me exactly what I was drawn to. Shows like “Atypical” and indeed “Suburgatory”: comedies that make you laugh but are character-driven and not situational. I think I happen to do best in that genre because it represents the lens through which I saw my life growing up: complicated characters who are flawed, but ultimately really interesting. I also like material that explores the underbelly of the culture that we’re used to being shown, and I think “You” plays into that as well.

You came into “Dead To Me” as an episodic director for the final two episodes of the second season. What are those tone meetings like with Liz?

Liz is an incredibly involved showrunner. So from the moment you get there, you realize that this ship has a very strong captain, which is really fun. From the very beginning, she and I were just discussing the balance between drama and comedy in these last two episodes because they’re very, very heavy at times. The writing does a lot of the work for you on her show, just because there’s an absurdity to the show that’s built in — there’s this secret that that they have to keep. By the time I found these characters they had already had a body in their freezer that they had dealt with, so it was all teed-up for me. And then it’s just finding a way to unfurl that final story with the emotion that it deserves, but without it being so heavy that viewers who need a taste of comedy tune out.

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini have spoken to Variety a lot about the bond they have formed as partners in the scene work, just as their characters have formed a bond. But the finale episode actually sees them spending a lot of time apart. What were the challenges to still capturing their friendship as the heart of the show, even throughout all of the moving parts?

I think they were excited about that element, to be honest. It was really fantastic to get to see behind-the-curtain with Linda’s character and meet her [on-screen] mother. I think there’s so much trust between these actors and Liz that that does so much of the work for you as the director. It’s just such a great group of women that all have the same goal that there isn’t any messiness. Because these characters are so vulnerable and they’re so raw, and just the very nature of giving these kinds of performances are so tiring, if they didn’t trust completely, it really wouldn’t be possible.

What is your approach to giving actors like these women, who know their characters so well, notes about performance?

These actresses, despite their amazing credentials and firm grasp of these characters, very much want to be directed, which is a delight. They were just willing to continuously try new things and do another take, so I was really grateful to them for that. I try to come armed with a very strong sense of character arc because very often when you reach them, they haven’t had as much time with the scripts that I’m going to be responsible for as I have, so I try to show them very early on that I am incredibly invested, that I understand these characters in a visual way, as well as serving the written story.

How complicated was the finale’s stunt and cliffhanger, both from a technical standpoint and a story one, getting inside the characters’ minds for a brief second after the crash?

In terms of the actual logistics of filming the stunt, I think it was actually dumb luck that they happened to end up with a director that had a lot of experience with that. I remember sitting there in the moment we were actually lining up the stunt and thinking about how all of those [genre journey] moments led up to that. So that part was easy. In terms of deciding how we were going to tell the story, we gave ourselves a lot of options. We weren’t sure when we filmed that if we wanted the audience to be thinking that everyone survived that crash. We covered ourselves and made sure Liz had freedom in editing.

As a producing director on “Shameless” you did a couple of episodes of its final season and similarly are working on the third season of “You” — during the pandemic. What has been the biggest change you’ve had to make to how you do your job because of new COVID-safe protocols?

I can’t see my actors’ faces when I’m blocking a scene because they have to be masked, so it’s very difficult to sometimes even tell if a moment is landing until I’m already rolling. You also can’t tell how the actors are feeling about what you’re doing. We joke about this a lot [on “You”] that I now have just started exaggerating my eyes or jumping up and down when I tell them I love something so they can actually feel it. I almost had to come up with a new language of expression.

And then there’s just proximity to your crew. “Shameless” is a really good example of a show that moves so quickly — it’s almost like documentary-style filmmaking — and it used to be that you’d just walk up and tap the camera operator on the shoulder and say, “OK you’re going to want to pan to this person in this moment.” There was a closeness there that was really important to the process, but it’s all about keeping people outside your bubble now so if someone tests positive you weren’t close enough to go down. So we’re relying now more on headsets to talk to each other and we’re scouting virtually now — we use 3D images to walk through as if you were on Redfin looking to buy a house and taking tours — and very often those things are shot with wide-angle lenses. This season on “You” I was shooting a cocktail party and I had blocked it all and it was 17 or 18 principals in that scene, and I got to the space and it was clear after a minute of stepping foot in that house that they had shot everything on an extreme wide-angle lens and the amount of people I thought would even fit in the space was not possible.

And you’re also working less hours, which is a new COVID rule. In some ways it’s reminded us all that people getting to have breakfast or dinner with their families is an amazing option that [gives] you a happier crew in a lot of ways. But when you lay in all of the layers of COVID-filming, it feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. The natural order would have had us adding extra hours to accommodate for the extra stuff, and instead now we find ourselves shooting less hours. It’s all doable, and film crews. I can say now more than ever, are the most resilient people and such good problem solvers and we’re getting through it but, if I didn’t say it was challenging I’d be lying.

Looking at the third season of “You,” would you say there is more or less murder now that Joe (Penn Badgley) is becoming a father? People like to say parenthood mellows people.

Parenting does not mellow this couple.

Oh good so Love (Victoria Pedretti) may still give into her own darkness, too.

This season of “You” is insane. It’s so fun and just having a couple in the driver’s seat versus Joe is just the ingredient to make this season interesting and unpredictable in a way that no one could ever imagine. It was genius of Sera Gamble to add this ingredient, so I would say it explores marriage and parenthood and relationships, as well as all of the tropes and romance that previous season had in a way that is delightful and shocking.

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