In a world where everyone has superpowers, 25-year-old Jen has still not found hers yet. Extraordinary is a new Disney+ series that blends the mundane and the fantastic. We spoke to the second block director, Jennifer Sheridan, about the project.
Find out about directing a comedy, working with special effects, crafting a dance scene, and coming aboard to direct the second half of a TV series. Read the full interview with Jennifer Sheridan below.
What first drew you to the project?
The scripts came through my agent Robert Taylor, and I happened to be on a train when I read them. They made me laugh out loud within the first few pages. The writer, Emma Moran, is a comic genius and Sid Gentle Films are a brilliant production company whose work I’d always admired. I used to work exclusively in comedy as an editor, so I’ve always held it in very high regard as an art form. I had done a bit of directing comedy in the past, but had quickly moved on to a horror film, kid’s fantasy drama, and a heavy BBC drama. Emma’s scripts gave me the confidence to go firmly back into the comedic world as a director. I had to be part of this show, as I knew from the beginning it was special.
You came aboard for the second block, directing episodes 5, 7, and 8. How did you communicate with the writer and the other directors about the overall vision?
I was able to watch the dailies from the first block director Toby Macdonald during my prep. They were really helpful and allowed me to understand the world that was being built. He’d done such a beautiful job of shooting it and setting the tone, and it was great to follow that lead. What’s brilliant about Emma’s writing is that each episode has its own unique identity and storyline, which often allows you — as a second block director — to play with ideas and ways of shooting that might not have been done in the earlier episodes. For example, Episode 8 is set entirely during a house party and involves characters moving between rooms having conversations with each other. We were able to utilise steady cam to follow them around and move between scenes a bit more seamlessly, whereas in most episodes steady cam was barely used. Emma had finished writing by the time we got to shooting my final episodes, so she got to come and be on set with me. She obviously really understands the characters and comedy beats, which was great. She was also open to you coming up with extra comedic visuals; it was really great having her on set to run ideas past.
How long was the shoot?
We had just over a week per episode, so it was pretty tight. Because I was the last block of the show, we were heading towards the end of shooting, so we were up against it time wise. We also got hit by COVID a couple of times, which definitely took a bit of a toll on us. It felt like we moved pretty fast, but I quite like that sort of energy on set and facing challenges creatively.
The show is an amalgamation of genres, from comedy to superhero to sci-fi. How did you find that as a director?
I definitely felt like I had to draw on all of my past body of work for different parts of the show. When I was trying to establish my voice as a director and figure out where I wanted to be placed, I found it really hard to stick to one genre. I made a sci-fi short and a comedy horror short, and then the first feature film I made was horror. After that, I went straight into a kid’s fantasy drama. I was also associated with comedy because of my editing background, and a lot of my connections and early TV jobs were comedy. I was worried, because I thought the world wouldn’t know where to place me. But I think what’s wonderful about Extraordinary is that it allowed me to play in all of the worlds I love, so it was a dream job for me.
Tell me more about working with the cast.
It was unusual for me, because I’d never done a second block of anything before. It was a new experience to not be part of the casting process, and be sent the tapes of actors that had already been given the part. But thankfully, Toby did such a fantastic job, and I love the fact that he went for unknowns, because they brought this energy and enthusiasm that was completely infectious. They all have such unique charm, and I just don’t know if you would’ve got the same result had you plucked from the talent pool that was already there. You could start completely from scratch and create characters that don’t feel recognisable. By the time that they got to my block, they knew those characters inside and out. Their comedic timing was impeccable, they didn't hold beats for too long, and that sped everything up and made shooting so much easier. They were brilliant, and were a massive part of why I wanted to come back for series 2.
East London is a very distinctive backdrop. How did you find the locations?
The flat is a set that was built in an old arts college on Commercial Road, and we tried to scout from around that area so that we wouldn’t have to travel far. But every location we went to, we constantly asked ourselves, ‘Does this feel part of the world? Does it feel like it could be round the corner from Jen’s flat?’ And, if it started to feel too far out of East London or not gritty enough, then we tended to rule locations out. Luckily, there are just tons of options around there. It’s such a great place, and everything looks so beautiful because it’s so busy. There’s so much artwork that you can utilise for visual purposes.
Was it a closed set?
We were shooting in early 2022, so we were out of lockdown then, but still had some restrictions. We tried to have a closed set, but we couldn’t always arrange that because London is such a busy place, and so many businesses operate there that you can’t be too disruptive. So, we didn’t always have control, and occasionally, there’d be the odd person walking through with a mask that you’d have to cut around, or wait for them to leave the frame. In the end, though, we got away with it.
I want to know more about working with set design and costume, because it’s very visually striking.
I think the elements of design in the series that I had the most creative input on were the design of the party in Episode 8, and the cat show in Episode 7. Our production designer, Melanie Allen, went to an actual cat show to research it and take photos, which we took a lot of inspiration from. I almost wish I could have given a dedicated shot to each of the cat cages they designed because they were all just so beautifully crafted. The whole art department were amazingly playful and creative.
The party is an ode to Carrie, so we wanted it to be really over the top. Some of that was in the script, like the piñata with Carrie’s face on, but it was really fun to make everything colourful and experiment with the different lighting.
Buki Ebiesuwa is the costume designer, and she’s a wonder woman in terms of her creative eye. All of the costumes feel really bespoke and one-off, because she has such eclectic taste and draws from current and vintage trends. So, you feel
like you’re looking at something that's super modern and fresh, but also has a distinctive ‘from the past’ feel at times.
The dance scene at the cat show is incredible. Tell me about that shoot.
Well, as soon as I saw it in the script, I knew we needed a choreographer immediately. I discovered Richard Marcel, who had done a lot of different work, including comedic pieces. I’ll never forget the phone call where I was trying to talk him through the scene. It was like, ‘Okay, so his penis is out, but no one knows his penis is out until the end, because he was a cat, and the cat was just wearing a top,’ [laughs]. So not only did we have to come up with moves that translated from Jizzlord’s cat form to his human one, but also ones that focused on the top half of the actors. He just went with it, and he smashed it. I probably had ‘Alone’ by heart stuck in my head for about 6 months!
Can you tell me more about the music in the show?
Emma made a Spotify playlist that both Toby and I, and the editors, listened to relentlessly. We would choose a lot from there, but if we couldn’t find anything that worked or get the clearance for a song, we would branch out and try and find something that still felt part of that world.
I put a song by Peat and Diesel in Episode 7 when the vigilantes are creeping across the roof, and the fact that you can put a Celtic rock band randomly in the mix proves how versatile the show is. Our music supervisor’s Catherine Grieves and Jenn Egan helped so much with this, they came up with brilliant alternatives for songs we couldn’t clear.
The editors also contributed. Dan Crinnion put in some great suggestions, as did Adam Moss. I remember there were certain songs that I was really jealous that other directors got hold of, like the John Grant one in Episode 6, but I was just pleased that they were used at some point in the show.
Emma’s already shared the Spotify playlist for series 2 with me, and it’s so good. There are some absolute bangers in there!
Carrie uses her power as a conduit for the dead to flirt with Charles II. What was your inspiration for directing this scene?
I was trying to think of how, editorially, we could show a conversation between two people happening in one person’s body. When Carrie channels someone, she looks up and almost breathes them into her body. If I was doing that between every sentence to show the transition, it would have been very slow, so I knew I needed to speed up their conversation.
I drew inspiration from the scenes if The Lord of the Rings when Gollum and Smeagol converse with each other. Peter Jackson really cleverly establishes it with one shot — we see one personality talking, and then the other in the reflection of a pond. Similar to that, I used mirrors, so that when we were looking in the mirror, it was Charles, and when we were looking at Carrie, it was her. After that, the audience understands the difference between the two, and you can just give them different eyelines and cut between them.
There were other factors that helped, like the fact that Carrie’s eyes change colour when she’s channeling someone. We were also sure to cast who would be voicing the character early on, so that Sofia Oxenham (Carrie) could meet them and copy their speech and mannerisms and make the characters distinguishable from each other. It was a really complicated thing for an actor to do, but she was amazing.
You mentioned that you were previously an editor. Did your editing experience inform you as a director?
It’s a blessing and a curse, I would say. When you’re up against it and you’ve got very little time to shoot a scene, you know the minimum amount of shots that will get you through the story and you can reduce coverage, because you’ve already cut the scene in your head. It’s only a problem if your editor feels like you’re watching them too hard, or thinking, ‘I would’ve done that differently.’ So, I’ve realised the way to get around this is that I don’t look at the screen when they’re actually editing, When they’re ready to show me something, then I’ll engage, because otherwise it’s hard to separate. The editors on this show were just so brilliant and they had so many good ideas, and that’s what you want as a director. You want an editor who brings music choices and ways of cutting a scene that you didn’t even think of, and you can go, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t even see it like that, but it totally works.’
We see a lot of different superpowers on the show. What was it like to work with special effects?
It was so fun. I really enjoyed devising things like when Laser Eyes lights up the room, and trying to explain to an incredibly talented VFX artist that you want loads of lasers to bounce around inside his glasses, and then softly glow. It’s great when they get that and it’s exactly how you pictured it. I hadn’t had that much experience with VFX before. I’d used a little bit of CGI in my kids fantasy show, but Extraordinary has got so much more range, and so much more to play with. Sometimes we’d ask the VFX artists for some ideas for potential powers that we could give to the background characters, and they would come up with the most wonderful thing. I think that’s part of the reason that the show feels so great; everyone feels like part of the creative process, and there are no such thing as bad ideas. I feel like you get the best out of people when you come to them with trust and openness, and just let their imaginations run wild.
How have you found the response to the show? Have you engaged with it?
Some people who work on the show said they weren’t going to look at social media, but I couldn’t help myself, and it was amazing to see the amount of positive responses. I’ve got quite a thick skin because of all my years making short films and getting rejected from film festivals, and in the past I’ve obviously had mixed and negative responses to my work. You have to expect it, because you can’t please everyone, and I’d rather people love or hate something than just say, ‘Oh, that was okay, that was fine.’ So I can take the critiques, but it was nice not to have to. It was really good for my creative soul to read all the love that the show has received.
What are you working on next?
I'm currently working on series 2 of Extraordinary, and I also have a project in development with Disney called Uncanny, which is another blend of comedy, romance, and science-fiction.
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