Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) is living her best sober life in Los Angeles while moonlighting as a CIA asset in her spare time. But when an overseas assignment leads her to inadvertently witness a murder, she becomes entangled in another international intrigue. The season filmed in Los Angeles, Berlin and Reykjavik. Season one was based on the novel of the same name by New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian.
Season two of The Flight Attendant somehow steps up the who-dunnit game with Cassie's emotional journey of struggling with sobriety, saving her friends, and catching the baddie. And in episode five, one of the most pivotal episodes of the season, expertly crafted and directed by Pete Chatmon, no stone is left unturned - stylistically and tonally - all in service of Cassie's emotional journey.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Pete Chatmon about his approach to directing episode five, how he approaches breaking down a character's emotional journey, and his filmmaking journey. Plus, we talk about the motivation behind writing his book Transitions: A Director’s Journey + Motivational Handbook, and hosting his podcast Let’s Shoot! - which are highly recommended reading and listening.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Getting involved with The Flight Attendant, were you hired specifically for episode five? Or was it something that a project you were able to choose which episode you creatively were connected to?
Pete Chatmon: The long and short of it is that I was fortunate enough to work with Silver Tree, the producing director on You. I did two episodes of You season three, 307 and 308. And they were pretty big episodes. Like, one was a big party at the library. And then the second one was a big turning point as far as like, a foursome gone wrong [laughs] Sera Gamble, the showrunner, called the episode I did “the crazy one.” And so I had done that with Silver, and they were very happy with how it turned out and how I managed that big episode. When The Flight Attendant came around, and she was producing director on that for season two, she had reached out and another bit of kismet was that I had worked with Adrian Peng Correia, who was a cinematographer on season one; I did two episodes of Love Life, season two, and he was my DP. And so, I knew what he did. And I was like, 'Yo, man, I think Flight Attendant is pretty damn cool.' And he shot a note out. And so, by the time we sat down in Zoom, it was like a huge Brady Bunch Zoom [laughs] of me and eight other people, saying what I liked about the show, and how I thought I could provide an added value to it as a director. It's kind of crazy how episodic directing works out because, in many ways, they wanted me because of the comedy-drama tone that I feel like I do well, and they felt that as well. I was very lucky to receive 205.
Sadie: It's such a pivotal episode, especially in terms of Cassie’s character development, and fluctuation between comedy and drama. In this episode specifically, importance of camera angles to serve story – how did you approach that?
Pete: The DP was Jay Feather who had done one episode in season one. He had experience with the language of the show, and the vibe of the show and the culture. But 205 was such a unique episode as far as what happens narratively, and the kind of visual DNA of the show. We worked out how to honor what's been done. But then when things begin to unravel for Cassie, we push it to new limits. Part of that was a lot of storyboarding, for some of the more specific transitions, like going from synchronized swimming to the liquor store. Some of that was so detailed that you can't just rely on, ‘it's a medium shot.’ You have to really make sure everybody has a visual reference to pull it off. We just dug in and kind of figured out. In the script, it made a clear point, ‘We're now going to see things through jump cuts and different angles.’ And so once I read that I was like, ‘Alright, we're going to go to a little bit more of a technical place.’ And specifically, there's a triaxis head that I wanted to use, which allows the camera do a full 360 revolution. And so that was something that I wanted to use to introduce the falling off of the wagon that happens, it's already happened, but we're seeing it in the liquor store when she walks out, takes that Vodka swig. But the only time it completes that revolution is between the mind palace when gold dress Cassie is confronting regular Cassie on the lies she's been telling everyone and then when we complete, we go to the flashback from March of the previous year in the bar when she actually first broke. And so that inner mix-up with a lot of jump cuts and a lot of things that would push the envelope editorially, that was kind of the menu for trying to make it work.
Sadie: It definitely helps push the envelope with Cassie’s character. You've directed a handful of pivotal episodes for well-known TV shows. How do you approach breaking down a character's emotional journey in a given episode?
Pete: Well, thank you. I'm a person who tries to simplify, you know what I mean? I remember in my NYU film school days, there was always a production. I'd see nineteen trucks lining whatever street in Greenwich Village shooting, and it would seem so overwhelming, but then I would try and think, ‘Well, how do you just pick what to do?’ There's a script, and there's the ideal shot that kind of communicates what is happening in the script. If you can be deliberate enough to rely on that, because those are the specific tools of the job, then you can begin to find your starting place.
For me, I try and get into the script from everyone's point of view. That initially starts as my fellow creative collaborators would; I look at it from a DPs point of view, I look at it from a production designer, costume designer, second AD - I want to think about how many extras you're going to need to get for this scene, because it might just say, ‘it's a bar’ but you need to know 15 to 18? This is the breakdown, age and race, and whatever else. And so that then trickles into, how I think the actor may be looking at the scene, historically based on character, or if it's someone unique to an episode, or maybe without as many episodes, as number one or two on the show - how do they fit into what the showrunner and the writer are trying to achieve? You come with all that, and nobody wants to hear all that. [laughs] And then you just watch what people have prepared, and try and be supportive, or perhaps redirect where you think it might be enhanced.
Try and find a way to be the protective guard rails for the audience. Because when I get the script, I'm reading it for the first time as arguably the first audience member, but I have the unique ability to have some involvement in how the audience will actually receive it. And so, I try and marry the two, being an audience member and being a storyteller, and protecting what ultimately, the showrunner and the writer and creators are trying to accomplish.
Sadie: The fact that you come in so prepared, I'm sure helps you and your creative team. There’s a new project you’re attached to, The Education of Matt Barnes, and you’ll be directing the pilot episode, you're basically establishing the tonality of the overall show. I sense there’s a really important responsibility on your end in being as prepared as possible. And with this being your first pilot episode, what was something that you wish you would have known beforehand, or did you feel like you were pretty much there to this on?
Pete: That's a great question. I'm attached to direct the pilot, and I'll be an EP - right now we've just gotten a script to Showtime. So, we're waiting to hear what they have to say. I'm a pretty observant person and I feel very fortunate to have had the different jobs that I've had, because I've been given the opportunity to see behind the curtain, and how different showrunners show run, how different producer directors produce and direct, and how different pilot directors handle things. And so, what is exciting to me about the opportunity to be involved in crafting a cohesive vision for a show and providing a language, because I've been mostly a visiting director, is providing a language for the visiting directors or guest directors that come in, to really shine and excel.
The reality of it is, I've done so many shows that I know when I've been really set up well to achieve what they're looking for. And I know when I perhaps have not been, and it's often because of the extra mile might not have been taken. You just need some really concrete visual references, and thematic exposition sometimes about what the show is so that you can very quickly get to what it's not. And I think in creating anything, like that's the big thing, like when you're writing a script, the sooner you can find out what that script is not, the sooner you can actually write a scene, right? How can I help other people who are collaborating with us get to that point in one step?
Sadie: Which is not easy, but you're going to do it, I believe in you! Tell us about your filmmaking journey, and what inspired you to become a visual storyteller.
Pete: As I like to say, if you're Black and of a certain age, your inspiration was Spike Lee, it was unavoidable. And so, for me, it was specifically Do the Right Thing. And then going back into the earlier films, because I was not that old, but I do remember after I saw that film in high school, it triggered this memory of remembering that my parents when I was in second grade, got a babysitter to go to New York to go see. She's Gotta Have It. For me, Do the Right Thing, there were just so many moments that I could watch and they were in a one-to-one relationship to things that I even do. Specifically, I like to reference like when Giancarlo Esposito is bugging out when a character got his Jordan's scuffed by the Boston Celtics fan. And I was like, ‘I know that life,’ and it does this weird thing validating and providing a sense of credibility and pride in these things that you experienced in your life. At that moment, I was kind of like, ‘I feel like, I'd love to be involved in providing similar moments for other people.’
I took a high school filmmaking class and made some great films, and my teacher had gone to NYU. So, it became like, ‘Well, that's what you do.’ And subsequently Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone had gone there, I was like, ‘Well, clearly, we're applying.' When I was there, I focused on writing and directing. Doing things that focused on people who usually end up on the periphery of, quote-unquote, mainstream storytelling. I graduated with a short that went to Sundance and about 25 other festivals starring Kerry Washington. And then I spent five-plus years raising monies for a romantic dramedy that I wrote, produced, and directed called Premium that starred Zoe Saldana, Dorian Missick, and Hill Harper. Then I was kind of what I call, in the valley of the career, where you're just trying to figure out what's what. I probably have ten scripts that I wrote that no one will ever know, but many of them were triangulated, trying to figure out what people might want. Nobody wanted it, because when you write to what people want, you're two years behind what they wanted.
I'm teaching at NYU, working at NYU as an administrator, running a production company and running a podcast and doing events. And then, finally, after about eight years of that, I made a short film, to kind of go back to my high school sensibilities of, 'Well, let me just make what I want to make.' Obviously, I'm going to be strategic. But this is really for me to see what I can do when left to my own devices and I'm not trying to please other people. And so that was 2014 [laughs] after graduating NYU in '99, going to Sundance in '01. And that short film got picked up by HBO. That led to four different diversity programs for television directing, and I shadowed on about ten different shows Black-ish, Greenleaf, Grey's Anatomy, Ballers, Silicon Valley, the list goes on, and I was able to start booking those shows. The first episode I booked was for Black-ish. And I like to say that the circuitousness of the journey is not to be overlooked, because Kenya Barris who obviously created the show was one of the first people I met in 2002 when I went to LA to raise money for my feature film, and we happened to sit down at a Fat Burger on Santa Monica Boulevard, we had some mutual friends, and so 15 years later, when I'm in that ABC/Disney program, I finally came across someone who was familiar with, for lack of a better word, all this shit I had been doing. Relationships are so important for writers, directors, and anybody reading this - I was fortunate enough that I've been doing a lot of different work, trying to create as often as possible, and leave good relationships and work that was reflective of the way I've viewed the world. And I think, rinse and repeat over a long enough timeline, that's going to be connected.
Sadie: It's a process, and it's a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. What was the motivation behind putting your journey out there in your book Transitions: A Director’s Journey + Motivational Handbook and hosting your own podcast Let’s Shoot! talking to filmmakers about filmmaking?
Pete: I've always sought out, I don't even know it's a mixture of information, but sometimes it's just comfort. I just want to flip through some pages and see that I'm not alone, you know what I mean? And so, for me, I had read so many books, so many biographies and autobiographies on my journey. I feel like what I've gone through, if people who are on their own journey knew that it can look like this and most likely probably will, then maybe they'll have enough ammunition to keep going because one of the things that I say often is like in year eight, I could have quit. And you couldn't have said that I didn't try. I'd have been like, ‘Get out of my face. I tried.’ It's almost like having a Herculean amount of faith and understanding. Once you graduate college, milestones are out the window. You don't know what's next. You don't know what you're doing in September and in January. I wanted to have a reference for people that would speak to what the journey can specifically look like, but also provide anecdotes and inspiration and keywords, each chapter that could be applied to any creative person. That was the motivation for the book.
And then for the podcast, I had done a podcast back in 2009 to 2011. The interviews related to that would later pay off to episodic jobs, my second to last guest on that podcast was Issa Rae. And we interviewed her after she had doubled her Kickstarter amount for Awkward Black Girl. I know that was influential in getting an episode of that show in 2018. And so, I just wanted to continue to build relationships and have a little bit of catharsis during the early pandemic, by talking to other creatives about what they were doing, what they were going through, and how they were trying to navigate this new evolving world. And it comes from the same place as the book, but it's just a different kind of experience to be able to listen to people talk.
The other thing I say often is that the deeper and deeper I get into the behind the curtain, and this is not met in any kind of crazy way, it's just like a fact, I haven't met any geniuses, you know what I mean? I've met people who are very competent, very creative, and at the top of their game, but more often than not, they're just very focused, smart, deliberate, and know how to harness the creativity within them. And I think the more you hear that from people, the more you say, 'Well, I can actually do that, too.' They're not putting their pants on two legs at a time and going without food for ten days. They're doing things that anybody can do.
Watch season two of The Flight Attendant on HBO Max.