Director's Chair: Kate Woods directs Netflix's <I>Messiah</I>
Issue: January/February 2020

Director's Chair: Kate Woods directs Netflix's Messiah

Australian director Kate Woods began her prolific career in TV down under, where she’s had a long association with ABC TV drama. Her episodes of G.P., Phoenix and Janus were nominated for numerous AFI Awards, including Best Director. Escape from Jupiter won the Children’s Audience Vote for Best Children’s Television Drama at the ATOM Film & Television Awards. Corelli received a BANFF International Award for Best Episode in a Television Series. Other credits include Jim Henson’s sci-fi series Farscape, Police Rescue, Heartland, Mercury, Raw FM and Wildside.

Woods’ first feature film, 2000’s Looking for Alibrandi, had a successful festival run worldwide, winning Best Film, Best Actress and Best Editing at the AFI Awards, and Best Film at the IF Awards. It gathered multiple prestigious nominations, including the Film Critics Circle of Australia awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Editing, plus Best Director at the Variety Club of Australia Awards. 

Since 2005, Woods has been directing television in the United States, including such hit shows as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Underground, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G, NCIS: Los Angeles, House MD, Law and Order SVU, Nashville, Bones, Castle and Private Practice.

Woods’ previous series and mini-series directing credits include: Fighting Season, which was recently nominated for best mini-series at 2019 AACTA Awards; the multi-award-winning Changi; the Logie Award-nominated The Farm; and Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, which won Best Mini Series at the ATOM Film & Television Awards. Woods is also a recipient of the Australian Directors’ Guild Michael Carson Award for Excellence in Television Drama Direction. 

She recently worked on the Netflix original Messiah, a thriller that explores the power of influence and belief in the social media age. It follows CIA officer Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), who uncovers information about a man (Mehdi Dehbi) gaining international attention through acts of public disruption. As he continues to cultivate followers who allege he's performing miracles, the global media become increasingly beguiled by this charismatic figure. Geller must race to unravel the mystery of whether he really is a divine entity or a deceptive con artist capable of dismantling the world’s geopolitical order. 

Created by Michael Petroni (The Book Thief), directed by Woods and James McTeigue ( V for Vendetta), and executive produced by Petroni, McTeigue, Andrew Deane ( The Double), Mark Burnett and Roma Downey ( The Bible, Ben Hur), the Netflix series premiered on the streaming service in January.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Woods talks about making the series, the challenges, and why she loves post.

What was the appeal of this for you? 

“The huge scope and the big ideas. One theme is that we all worship something, we all believe in something, and we’re all very different, and it’s also about how faith is very different from religion. So I found all those ideas really exciting, and I loved the way the series doesn’t draw any conclusions. It just wants you to examine your own relationship with faith.”

It’s a very ambitious project that has a huge cast and multiple settings and locations around the world. What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?

“Again, the huge scope and sheer size of the production. There were these enormous set pieces, like the one I did where he gathers the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, and we had over 1,000 extras. So it’s always the race against the clock, to get what you want and need to tell the story in the best possible way, given the time and resources you have on hand, and making sure you use every second of that day in the smartest possible way. So you have to be extremely well-prepared, especially when you’re dealing with such a huge cast and all the different languages. And with many of the small roles, especially when we were in Jordan, they don’t speak English, so that was challenging. But I really loved all that – the international flavor of it all, and the chance to learn so much about different cultures. I found that fascinating.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Right from the very start. You’re always thinking about the editing and post right when you start planning. You have to know what you’ll need and what you will deliver to the editing room, and that the material will tell the story. And on this, nearly every shot had some VFX component to it, so you’re always thinking about all those and how it all has to come together in post.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“I did quite a bit. We storyboarded a huge amount, and then about 20 percent was previs’d, especially if it was a difficult shot. For instance, I did almost a whole episode set inside a moving van as they travel across the US, and we thought we needed to cut the van up in various ways in order to shoot it, and by doing a lot of previs for all that, to see if we needed to cut it up and how to cut it up, we found we didn’t ultimately need to go to all the trouble of cutting it up. So the previs was a huge help there, and also with a lot of the huge VFX sequences, like the tornado sequence. It was very complex, and putting it all together so it looked completely seamless took a lot of work.”

Danny Ruhlmann shot it. Talk about how you collaborated with him and co-director James McTeigue.

“The great thing was that we shot all ten episodes like one film, and James and I were there together pretty much every day, and it was divided up into locations. I’d do my bits, he’d do his, and sometimes we’d even pass the baton within the same day. So we were all very much aware of the visual style and had carefully planned out the look of the locations all around the world, and Michael Petroni was also there all the time and a big part of it. The camera operators were different around the world, but they were all brought up to speed on the look we wanted, and Danny oversaw all that, and it was just a great collaboration.”

Where was it shot and how tough was the shoot?

“We spent three months in Albuquerque shooting all the American/Texas scenes, as well as many of the generic interiors. That was a big chunk of the work. Then we moved to Nashville for six weeks, which doubled for Washington DC, except for the Lincoln Memorial, which we actually shot for real. Then all the Middle East and desert scenes were shot in Jordan, where we stayed for another six weeks. So it was a huge production with all the usual scheduling problems.”

Where did you post?

“We divided it between Sydney and the US, and I did my editing in Australia, mainly because Michael and James are also Australian, and Michael did a deal with Netflix to cut it there, which was really great of Netflix, and it made a big difference.”

Do you like the post process?

“I absolutely love it, as you get to breathe a bit and start to explore all the potential and the possibilities. And for me, editing is everything. It’s where the film almost starts again. You throw up all the pieces in the air and you put it together in a different way, and it always amazes me that, no matter how sure you are about the story you’re telling on the day you’re shooting it, it’ll be different when you see it back and you’ll then adjust accordingly, and even changing a take. Or, taking out half a second can totally change a scene and the way it plays. I find that a really exciting part of filmmaking, all that fine-tuning you only get to play with in post.”

Talk about editing with Martin Connor.

“He was fabulous, and he’d cut several of my earlier projects, including Looking for Alibrandi, Big Sky and Farscape. So we were in Sydney while James cut in LA, and today the communication across continents is so easy that we were able to cut at the same time as James. I did my fine cut, and then Michael and James would oversee the VFX and final sound and so on. But final cut now is almost like a finished product as you can put in so much, and we all stayed very closely in touch during the whole process. Michael did a bit of tightening and fine-tuning, but it was very close to what I wanted.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“The big one was the tone, and the pace, which changes in Episode 5. Until then it’s this big race to pull all the pieces together, but then it slows down and becomes far more of a character piece, and examines the people who have some kind of relationship with the Messiah. So we had to make that transition without it jarring the audience’s expectations, and it becomes a different story for a few episodes, but then it revs right up again for the climax. So the pacing was very tricky.”

All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?

“There were thousands, and we had a lot of different vendors [including Method, Crafty Apes and Magic Lab] as there were so many, and many of them were very complex.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music.

“It’s always such a key part of the fine cut and I presented a very full sound palette that I wanted. There was also a lot of voiceover work. And then all of it got fine-tuned, especially as once we had all ten episodes, stuff got moved around and reshaped, along with the soundscape.”

There’re already rumors of another season. Would you do it?

“Absolutely. I loved doing it so much and the fact that it was both a physical challenge and also an intellectual one. I’ve done a lot of big projects, but this had to be one of the highlights of my career so far.”

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?   

“I think they are, and that things are just generally better all around in TV. Films are so hard because of the struggle with budgets and so on, while TV’s exploding, and there are way more opportunities.”
Considering that women directors were again shut out at this year’s Oscars, do you see much improvement in diversity in movies?

“I do, but there’s still so far to go. I’d love to see the day when it just doesn’t matter anymore if you’re a man or a woman.”