Q&A: Troy Miller, Director of the Hulu Series Deadbeat
There's little that producer/director Troy Miller hasn't done over the course of his three-decade-long Hollywood career. He's helmed episodes of your favorite television shows (including Parks & Rec, Flight of the Conchords, and Bored to Death), filmed shorts for the MTV Movie Awards, directed feature films, produced specials and shows with his company, Dakota Pictures, and shot segments for the Oscars. And last year, Miller teamed up with Mitch Hurwitz to revive Arrested Development—six years after the show's cancellation by Fox—producing and directing the show's fourth season for Netflix.
Miller's latest series, Deadbeat, follows hapless medium Kevin Pacalioglu as he helps ghosts while trying (and failing) to get his own life together; Hulu will drop its first season on April 9. We talked to Miller about the benefits of binge watching, the end of appointment television, and whipping up the perfect recipe for ghosts.
How did you get involved with Deadbeat? What drew your interest?
Kevin Beggs, who runs Lionsgate, had taken the writers' pitch, and then sent it over to me, as a friend, to read the pilot. I liked the pilot idea so much that I said "Count me in!" Then I developed the script with the writers, and with Charlotte Koh, the programmer at Hulu, driving it. We had all the scripts done before we started shooting, and then, from a director/producing standpoint, I treated this show like a movie.
Do you find that that's the standard procedure now when a show is being released all at once, on the Internet? That it's developed more like a feature film than like a typical TV show?
Not really. I think it becomes a financial necessity because the budgets are smaller. Also, when all the shows drop all at the same time, like what Hulu or Netflix are doing—I don't know so much about Amazon—you can weave in better story arcs. I've directed Parks & Rec and The Office and other shows, [where] you may only be a few weeks ahead. [This way, if] we just finished episode 8 and found out a lot of good things here, we can back and change up episode 2 and 3 so episode 8 is more fulfilling. When I write features or direct movies, the real fun of it, as a director, is stepping into something and crafting a whole world.
These people in these new companies can create apps that allow you to watch television on whatever device it is. I'll watch Hulu or Netflix on my television—it's pretty seamless now. It's a little bit alien but it's exciting to see they're trying in a different way. Not because they want to be different, but because they don't know any better and they're all such smart, creative people at these companies, it kind of engages you again. The creative community in Hollywood, anyway.
Are there benefits to this sort of method of releasing all the episodes at once? It changes the viewing experience, obviously. I have a lot of friends who binge watched LOST and they were like, "All the plot points were so obvious!" Because they were watching all the episodes one after the other.
It's funny that you mention Lost. That was my first binge viewing experience—Lost in its second year. It was over Thanksgiving, I think, and I hadn't even seen one [episode]. I got the first year on DVD and I watched all of them in three or four days. I'm a video game guy, too—I could play Call of Duty for six straight hours—and [watching Lost that way] was an immersive experience, like playing a video game. It made me really only want to have On Demand, whereas other shows, like The Sopranos—which is one of the greatest shows ever made—I would really look forward to watching it and seeing where the stories were going and I liked the anticipation.
But when there's so many other choices, what I find myself doing, even now, is recording them and waiting until I have three or four because I'd rather create a feature experience for myself, trick myself into watching more than one. It's like having the power like watching six episodes of Deadbeat—having the power to watch when I want to watch overrides the want of anticipation of the event of it coming in.
But it's changing. I have teenage kids, and all they know is Hulu and Netflix and this new world of television, as opposed to making an appointment to sit down and watch a television show. I think it's going away pretty quickly. So to be a director working there in this kind of revolution that's starting to happen, it's exciting because I'm crafting it as a fan, as a viewer, but also as a filmmaker. [Before, you'd think], I can't put something in Episode 3, because by Episode 6 or 7, the viewer will forget about it, but now, they're going to see it in another hour and a half.
Arrested Development was that way. That's the brilliance of Mitch Hurwitz. He was adding so many little clever nuggets throughout the show—the original series and the one we did this past season—so the binge seers were really rewarded and many went back and watched it again, to find even more little nuggets.
That's what we have in Deadbeat. Ultimately, in repeat viewing, people will find little things that we put in. Having all the scripts in advance, and doing it all at once, like a feature, it allows you to spend a little more precious time there.
I want to talk a little bit about the cast. I was surprised by Cat Deely, who plays Chamomile. Everyone knows her as a very sweet host on shows like So You Think You Can Dance, but she's such a villain in Deadbeat, and she's good at it. Can you talk about how she got involved and how you came by the rest of the cast?
That's in testament to our casting director, Cindy Tolan. She liked Cat on House of Lies—she had a guest role in that. I honestly haven't seen her dance show, but I saw that clip, and she did embody what an outspoken medium could be, but adding in an element of self-preservation with her evilness. Cat brought all that in. She just had such a strong point of view of what that character would be. And being able to kill them with kindness and then how she would react when the cameras were off, and she brought it on the first day. She just has this innate instinct at a performance level.
We looked and auditioned for [the Kevin Pacalioglu part] for four months. Tyler Labine is such an affable guy in life. He really did a lot of improv too. He took that character on and created it. He's really the breakout. He's been a working actor in subordinate roles and a couple of leads, but this is his first really lead role. We have an ensemble, but Tyler drives every scene. Everybody else has their own story arc, but it all seeds what Kevin's motivations are.
We were looking for a sidekick for Cat's character and we wanted someone who wasn't the same look—someone who was harried and put upon. Lucy Devito was in a play in New York, and she sent in a self-tape with only two takes on it with nobody off-camera. She just did it on her own. It became kind of a monologue and it was just captivating. She came in so well-prepared and had such a good grasp of the character that the writers quickly expanded it, and you will see toward the end of the season, her part just gets bigger and bigger.
And then Brandon T. Jackson, who is Kevin's sidekick/drug dealer, he was a real get, because it wasn't a big role for him and he's had lots of starring roles. He and Tyler already knew each other, and they knew from a comedic standpoint they'd have the right rhythms. As an improv director, I kind of just guided them a little, and let it go. A lot of the stuff they do, it was all them just riffing it out on the set.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the ghosts themselves. There are obviously some visual effects involved. How did you film them?
You know Freddy Wong? He's an example of a guy who does great homemade effects. With us, the budget is relatively low for a major effects show, but high for one of these cable or internet companies. So I had to basically retro-fit what effects I could do.
I wanted the ghost to be unobtrusive, in the everyday life, like Bringing Out the Dead. Not to align myself with anything as great as that, but just how Scorsese captured the ghosts in that film—the Nicolas Cage character can see people who have passed on, and they're just walking among us.
As a show that shoots in New York, we move very quickly, and we have portable green screens with us. Often times, you'll shoot and then shoot the ghost or transparency weeks later just on a green screen stage. But on Deadbeat, doing comedy, I had to have the rhythm of the scene. So it was not always the most cost efficient way, but we would do a scene with the ghost actor in it, and then do it again [without them], and I would direct Tyler or whoever the person driving the scene was where to look. It's a lot of cheated eyeline. And then we would pick it apart for how we would do the effects.
So that's kind of the technical part of it, but it's driven by, I think, the filmmaker's point of view—how do we make these ghosts just appear as if they are all around us and this one guy, Kevin, has a special gift that he can see them? It's hopefully discreet enough that when you're watching the show, you only see the ghosts in Kevin's point of view and you're occasionally reminded that oh, other people can't see them. Most times, when I cut to a wide or distant shot, you won't see the ghost, but when you're in coverage with Kevin, that's when you see the ghost. It's really driven by the point of view and then secondarily it is how do we do it and the economics.
The ghosts have a very distinct look—almost like they're undulating. How did you come up with that?
It's kind of a special recipe in the effects company we used, and I added in a kind of waviness to it. Our DP is a very talented filmmaker, and he was really pushing when we were doing our scouting, looking for reflections as if we’re seeing [the ghosts] through windows. We went for a few different paths while working and then came back to, what if the ghost was in a mirror? Then we added, basically, an after-effects layer. And it undulates and moves as if the ghost body is refracting the light. It came alive, and it's a lot of work. You’re doing frame by frame animation, and we had many effects artists working on many scenes at one time to make our schedule. I'd go in and supervise each one. Once you create the recipe, then everyone’s just following suit like any animated show.
When you're directing, you're sometimes also doing Steadicam. Why is that important for you to do? Does it give you a different take on the scene than standing back and watching it happen would?
I'm always active. I'm not a passive viewer. I'm very physical when I’m working. If I go off and freelance a show, I can just watch the monitor—I’m really crafting the rhythm of the scene. Whereas the shows that I’m creating, I’m in there with the actors talking as I’m going, and I’m doing repeated takes. I’ve been a handheld camera operated my whole career, and then it was a natural progression to being a steady cam operator which I’ve been for about the past ten years. On almost everything I direct, I’m also Steadicam, because I need to be with the actors—when I’m directing from a monitor in between takes, I’m talking to a DP, who's talking to a camera guy, who's talking to his dolly operator. There’s like three or four layers that it has to get through. [If I'm on Steadicam,] I can physically design the shot by telling an actor to step left or step right or say it again or do it louder or softer.
On Deadbeat, there are a lot of Segways—I have this system of mounting a big heavy Steadicam on a Segway, which allows me to do more repeats, faster shots. We used it a lot on Flight of the Conchords, too, in the last season. It's like a trick, part of my secret sauce that gives some of my stuff a different look. I find the tools that I need to get there quickly. When you're doing low budget shows, I keep my crew size to single digits by shooting it myself.
What's coming up next for you?
When I'm not on a movie or television series, I tend to fall back into development at my production company, Dakota Pictures, trying to get into more interesting projects going. We are bringing out new reality shows that are done from a film point of view. We're expanding our company, adding directing executives to the development department, all driven by this success we had with Netflix last year and Hulu this year.
The want of most of new cable seems to be going towards this lower budgeted, high production value alternative comedy world—which my company, if you look its history, it’s kind of a last man standing. There are not a lot of companies that still are independent, not owned by a studio, they take all the financial risk, and also have a creative showrunner such as myself in senior management.
As a producer, I'm producing an incredible pilot now called Dr. Brown for FX with Phil Burgers, who is a really talented performance artist. It's a perfect show for us because much like Mr. Show or Tenacious D or Flight of the Conchords or even Bored to Death—those are all shows we produced—it has a cult following. There's specialness to them. Whereas Arrested Development, Mitch Hurwitz brought me in on that, but it kind of encapsulated all that specialness, so I do feel like the audience and the world is catching up to what I've been doing for 25 years. Now, it's more exciting that the stuff I've wanted to do, people are asking me to do instead of me asking them. It's coming to us, so I just want to take advantage of those opportunities.