Director's Chair: <I>Shining Girls</I> showrunner Silka Luisa
Issue: May/June 2022

Director's Chair: Shining Girls showrunner Silka Luisa

Shining Girls is the new metaphysical thriller series from Apple TV+, starring and executive produced by Emmy Award-winning actress Elisabeth Moss. The show, from MRC Television, is also executive produced by Appian Way (Leonardo DiCaprio’s company) and adapted for television by showrunner Silka Luisa ( Strange Angel, The Wilding), with Emmy Award winner Michelle MacLaren directing the first two episodes.

Based on Lauren Beukes’ bestselling novel of the same name, Shining Girls follows Kirby Mazrachi (Moss), a Chicago newspaper archivist whose journalistic ambitions were put on hold after enduring a traumatic assault. When Kirby learns that a recent murder mirrors her own case, she partners with seasoned-yet-troubled reporter Dan Velazquez (played by Wagner Moura) to uncover her attacker’s identity. As they realize these cold cases are inextricably linked, their own personal traumas and Kirby’s blurred reality allow her assailant to remain one step ahead. In addition to Moss and Moura, the drama stars Phillipa Soo, Amy Brenneman and Jamie Bell.

In an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Luisa about the challenges of creating the show, the post workflow, and the importance of sound and music in a thriller.

This is not your usual whodunit. What sort of show did you set out to make?

“A really taut, entertaining and compelling thriller about this serial killer that sort of upends the usual audience expectations. It’s really a story about how you navigate the fog of trauma years after it happens.”

How tough was it adapting Lauren Beukes’ novel for the screen?

“It was quite hard. I was a big fan of the book when it came out, and I loved the way it blended all these different genres. It’s a mystery, it’s sci-fi, it’s a serial-killer story set in the world of journalism, and it’s all very elegantly blended and pieced together. But in order to adapt it for TV, it took a lot of work. How do you take a book and stretch it out for eight hours, and stay true to it? I had to make some structural changes to it, and the biggest one was that I made Kirby’s point-of-view the main one for the show, while in the book there are several points-of-view, including those of other female victims. Once I made that big change, it affected a lot of other elements and I had to rework a lot of the book’s mythology, so the show’s mythology is very different from the book’s. Her shifting reality is something that’s specific to the TV show, and all of that was built so we could address and discuss the aftermath of trauma. Her shifting reality is a metaphor for trauma in the sense that, all these years after her attack, her world can suddenly seem unstable. She feels isolated and no one will listen to her or can understand how she’s experiencing the world.”

What did Elisabeth Moss bring to her role as Kirby?

“She was the very first actress we went to, and I called her the minute I finished writing the pilot, and she just very much intuitively understood Kirby, so the role fit her like a glove. And because she came on so early, she was very much a touchstone while I was writing the season, and we had a very productive back-and-forth dialogue during the process about how to shape Kirby’s arc. Sometimes she takes two steps forward and one step back in terms of her recovery, and Lizzie was a very close partner in navigating all that. She was also a director on the show, and you really feel how emotionally rich her episodes are, because she was so instrumental in shaping the material.”

This was your showrunning debut. Do you like showrunning?

“(Laughs) I love it, but it’s a very hard job and a huge commitment. At this point I’ve worked on this show almost five years since my first meeting about it, and being able to see my writing visualized and work with great collaborators who’ve given so much of their own lives to bring it all to life is incredibly exhilarating. But it’s also all-consuming, all the way through post, and it’s very demanding and challenging, but also so rewarding.”

Streamers like Apple TV+ are really changing the Hollywood landscape and taking creative risks that traditional studio seem less willing to take – after all, they took a gamble on you, right?

“(Laughs) Right, they took a big risk, and I think the reason streamers are having so much success is that they’re entrusting showrunners and talent to take bigger swings and be more ambitious in their ideas. Apple TV+ believed in me and Elisabeth Moss, and gave us the space to make the show we wanted. They were great collaborators.”

Period pieces are always a challenge when you’re shooting on location. How tough was the shoot in Chicago?

“It was a 22-week shoot, which isn’t that long for an eight-episode show, so we had to work fast and efficiently. We had two DPs and split up the shows between them. Robert McLachlan shot Episodes 1, 2, 5 and 7, and our second DP, Bonnie Elliot, did Episodes 3, 4, 6 and 8. I worked very closely with both, as although we had a lot of VFX, we shot as much of the reality-shifting bits as possible in-camera and practically. In terms of the camera package, we shot with the Sony Venice 6K camera, which is a full-frame with a very large sensor in it. And we paired that with Zeiss full-frame lenses. For a period piece like this, they have such shallow depth-of-field, so you can make the background out of focus if you want, which, when you're shooting downtown Chicago in 2021 and it's supposed to be 1992, doesn't present big visual effects problems, as the modern skyline can go out-of-focus.”

Tell us about post.

“It was pretty much all remote because of COVID, and we had a great post producer, Josh Levey, and I love the whole process, especially editing, which is basically where you get to rewrite the script. You get to reshape and tighten all the character arcs and the mystery without the pressure cooker of production. You have time to watch material and reflect on it and try different ideas.”

Talk about editing. What was entailed?

“We had five editors. Hugo Diaz cut Episodes 1, 2 and 6, and had a shared credit with editor Jessica Hernandez on Episode 8. Then Blake Maniquis cut Episodes 3 and 4 with John Caldwell, and Henk Van Eeghen cut Episodes 5 and 7. Because of COVID all of the editors worked on Avids at home, and we were able to work remotely and in realtime using Evercast. All cuts were shared with Apple TV+ via Pix. The big challenge editing this show was dealing with the mystery. How do you pace the mystery? What elements are pleasantly engaging puzzle pieces, and when do they just become too confusing? How much do you reveal and when? So navigating all that was very tricky.”

The soundscape and music were obviously very important on this. Tell us about what was involved?

“The sound and music are so crucial in a thriller, and we spent a lot of time working on every detail. We had a great sound team that included re-recording mixers Larry Benjamin and Kevin Valentine, along with our sound supervisor Nick Forshager, and we did it all at Signature Post. And because of COVID it was all done remotely using a combination of Clearview and Zoom. Maggie Phillips was our music supervisor, and she also played a key role. Since the show is primarily set in the ‘90s and in various eras, music became integral in establishing time period but also an authentic sense of place. For example, Maggie found local Chicago bands for key sequences that took place during the Chicago punk scene. Maggie and I also talked extensively about character — each character’s history, where they were in their story. Those conversations helped inform the music you hear in the show. Maggie found unique and idiosyncratic period-appropriate music that helps keep the show grounded while also being distinct. And then I also worked very closely with Claudia Sarne, our composer, and want to stress just how important the score became in adding a tonal cohesion to the entire season. Early on, Claudia and I realized her score needed to have a timeless quality to it so that it could play seamlessly over the different eras. Also, since our show juggles different eras and shifting realities, Claudia’s score helped create a consistent tone that unified those elements. We weren’t looking for a score that disappeared into the background. Claudia and I both wanted her score to be a muscular and emotional presence that helps pull you through the season.”
There are quite a few VFX. What was involved?

“Kevin Blank was our VFX supervisor and it was all remote. We had various vendors, including Crafty Apes, Blackpool, BOT, Ghost VFX, Turncoat, Deep Water FX, Sheer Force of Will, Mavericks, Anibrain, MARZ and Rotomaker, and I get very involved in the whole process. Because it’s a period piece with sci-fi elements, you need a certain amount of VFX shots as well as a lot of clean up, and we did VFX reviews almost every day in post. It’s all surprisingly time-consuming, as you have to watch the shot multiple times to really fine-tune it, but we wanted the show to be very grounded, so it was very important to have all the VFX be as seamless and invisible as possible.”

Tell us about the DI. 

“We did it at Picture Shop with colorist Tony Smith. I’m very hands-on in terms of getting the look with Tony and our DPs, and although we shot it digitally, we wanted it to look and feel as cinematic as possible. So we played around with it a lot and in the end we used LiveGrain to help give the show a more filmic quality and feel more authentic to the ‘90s. We also made adjustments to the LiveGrain stock to account for the different time periods or exposure levels in each scene. And we also worked remotely and in realtime using Clearview, and then spoke on a dial-in phone call. Clearview only offers playback live as the colorist makes adjustments, so you need to call in and speak on another system. To share finished color passes with the larger team we used the program Moxion. And I’m very pleased with the look we got and the way the whole project turned out.”

What’s next?

“I’m busy writing a new Blade Runner TV series for Amazon with Ridley Scott executive producing. It’s called Blade Runner 2099, and is set 50 years after Blade Runner 2049, the Denis Villeneuve film. I’m really excited about it. I guess I really must love showrunning because I’m back for more.”