<I>The Flight Attendant</I>: Episodes 3&4 director Jennifer Phang
Issue: May/June 2022

The Flight Attendant: Episodes 3&4 director Jennifer Phang

Director Jennifer Phang recently completed work on the second season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, and has since been named director and co-executive producer of Disney+’s upcoming Descendants sequel, The Pocketwatch. Phang directed Episodes 3 and 4 of The Flight Attendant, which take place in Iceland and Los Angeles. On top of handling the logistics of filming internationally, she also helped support the cast and crew, particularly the VFX team, in telling the complex story in the most visually-interesting way. 

One aspect that Phang (pictured, above) focused on was the “mind palace” of Cassie, where she goes into her own mind and talks to other versions of herself. The director made sure to support actress Kaley Cuoco in performing so many different versions of the same character, as well as focusing on the technical elements, such as making sure the transitions in and out of Cassie’s mind were seamless. 

Jennifer Phang recently shared her experience directing the two episodes exclusively with Post.

How did you get involved with directing the third and fourth episodes of this season of The Flight Attendant?

“I worked a number of times before with Warner Bros. and Berlanti Productions. We had a record of good collaboration, so I was put on a call with our truly brilliant showrunners Steve Yockey and Natalie Chaidez. Natalie and I had crossed paths on another project and were fans of each other. I subsequently had a great meeting with Suzanne McCormack and Kaley Cuoco. I was very pulled in by the first season of The Flight Attendant because of its daring shooting and editing style — and most of all, its top-notch casting. I really was impressed with how Kaley, Zosia Mamet and Rosie Perez managed to toe the line so smartly between comedy, suspense and drama. I also loved Griffin Matthews as Shane, and I thought the writing was just so funny. So I was really quite excited at the prospect of working together. I think there was some real mutual fandom between me and The Flight Attendant team. They had seen my past work and were excited to meet with me too.”

What were some challenges you faced as a director?

“The Flight Attendant is known for Cassie’s journeys into ‘The Mind Palace.’ The Mind Palace is where we visually depict Cassie processing her feelings while also puzzling through the murder mysteries. In the first season, she would have lively conversations with Michiel Huisman — the murder victim who she woke up next to in Bangkok.

“Season 2 had a different approach. It required Kaley to inhabit four versions of Cassie in The Mind Palace. These were dramatically different versions of Cassie’s personality. There was her nihilistic-party self in a Gold Dress, her fatalistic self in a Black Sweater, and her idea of her ideal future self, who we described as Future Perfect Cassie. And then there was our regular Cassie, who was our Present Day Cassie, transitioning us into and out of these scenes. So my job as a director was to create scenes where Kaley was able to debate and banter with multiple versions of Cassie while she was playing four roles in one scene.

“My challenge was obviously figuring out a time-efficient, but visually-effective way to stage and schedule these scenes around Kaley’s different looks, and her availability, as Kaley was shooting multiple episodes at once on some days. She’s a total rock star, and she can only be in one place at a time. To do this we used doubles, highly-calculated staging and shots, and a motion-control rig.

“I needed to plan for how Kaley would move, and then I needed to make sure we all knew the character motivation for that action. We needed plans that were visually interesting, but not overly complicated or unachievable. All of this was a delicate balance. I also had to direct our doubles, including our lead double and Kaley’s stunt double, Monette Maio, who was absolutely amazing in working closely with Kaley to make sure we were on the same page. We also had to be careful about continuity in body positions and hair positions when we were using doubles.

“We were also block shooting two episodes, with part of those episodes occurring in Los Angeles, and part of those episodes shooting in Iceland. The level of difficulty was significant as there were a lot of moving pieces to account for.”

How did everything come together in post production?

“One of my favorite technical sequences was the opening shot for Episode 3. It was a simulated oner — a continuous ‘cut-free’ shot. I think directors and their crews are often excited to try to pull these off smoothly. It’s so rewarding when you do!

“We originally wanted to cover a series of beats involving six characters moving through three different locations in an overhead oner. It required us to build a set with a removable roof. But because of time limitations, making a roof removal was impossible for our tight shooting schedule. My awesome DP Anthony Hardwick and I had to find an even more creative solution. With a wonderful collaboration with our post producer Stephanie Johnson and her VFX team, along with the camera/grip/lighting crew — even animal wranglers — we were able to make a sequence that we all agreed was pretty darn satisfying.

“The shot began by pulling back and away with a Steadicam from a kidnapped couple, who were tied up in a closet. Our camera operator, Dan Ayers, carefully pulled the Steadicam backwards through the bungalow, picking up our villains — The Diazes — who were dying their hair blonde. Then Dan pulled the camera past a barking dog (Waffles), who hopped onto a chair on cue.

“Next — with VFX help — the camera magically backed itself out through the house’s front door, found Cassie and Santiago walking into the complex, and boomed up into a crane shot. The crane move was refined by our masterful dolly grip Josh Elder, known on set as ‘Crazy Train.’

“Next, as Cassie enters her own bungalow, we float up to the portico roof. Then our camera dives magically through the roof to find Cassie greeting Annie and Max inside the bungalow. Then we boomed down to eye level and chased Cassie to the bathroom, where she closed the door on our lens. But not to be shut out, our camera magically pushed through the door to find Cassie on her phone, working on something in secret.

“Another fun fact is that this shot was marrying the built set in our Burbank studio with the on-location exterior set in Hollywood. It was just so satisfying to bring all the departments together successfully.”

Can you point to any other interesting VFX shots that you directed? 

“Definitely! I worked closely with DP Anthony Hardwick and Kaley Cuoco and our VFX supervisor Daniel Jeanette to execute some dynamic motion-control shots. We worked a lot with Kaley and the doubles on the staging eyelines and timing with respect to the camera position. Every one of those shots demanded precision from the doubles and Kaley as they moved in lockstep with each other. Once everyone learned where they needed to be, and the camera positions were programmed into the [motion-control] rig, Kaley’s job continued. She had to recreate the staging of her doubles and play all her other parts in concert with perfect timing of the master take we had locked into the rig. So it goes without saying, Kaley achieved a mind-blowing feat this season. It was a wonderful celebration when she nailed the timing of each part, and it was nice to see her showing off her chops so beautifully.

“In another Mind Palace scene, I really was filled with joy when I was able to add Kaley high-fiving herself in a shot. It was a really rewarding confluence of story, humor, performance and technical savvy. And it was kind of a meta moment because it was really Kaley high-fiving herself, her double Monette, and all the other great doubles for their combined creative and technical accomplishments.
I need to throw a huge shout-out to my assistant directors Emily Hogan (1st AD) and Johnny Recher (2nd AD), who were instrumental in figuring out how to make the schedule and hair and costume changes work with Kaley and the doubles as smoothly as possible.”

Can you mention some of the gear that was used on your episodes?

“We had the Sony Venice, with Caldwell Chamelon Anamorphic primes, and the editors were on the Avid.”

How about the team that came together for these episodes?

“Anthony Hardwick and I met in August 2021 when we did an early initial scout in Iceland with our producers Suzanne MacCormack (and) Bonnie Munoz, and showrunner Steve Yockey. We pulled off a very close collaboration as the work and resources we had in front of us required extensive and yet very careful prep. We collaborated on drone shots, split screens, motion control and shooting in Iceland with helicopters landing and taking off with only four hours of daylight.

“My editors were Carol Stutz and Tony Miller. Both are so lovely and very wise editors. They were willing to try anything, but also smart about pace and how scenes were working, and the art of it all. Carol and I had great fun working on temp tracks together. She introduced me to some music that I loved, and we really enjoyed temping in some things together.

“I also had a lovely relationship with our post team, including our editors, producer Stephanie Johnson, VFX producer Elizabeth Rojas and our on-set VFX supervisor Daniel Jeanette. I have worked in VFX pipelines myself, and post produced and cut extensively my own VFX intensive independent features, so it was easy for us to find a good communication flow. I stay in my lane, of course, because their workflow is taking a much larger schedule into account. But I find myself being able to fly through post and get a lot done because of my pretty detailed understanding of the process. For post, it was also a lot about overseeing our director’s cut, but it was also about creating our temp animatics, carefully designing our use of split-screen throughout the episodes, and cutting for performance, scope, pace and story.”