LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT: Pratibha Parmar on the 'Real Gift' of Making Her Network TV Directorial Debut with 'Did You Believe in Miracles?' - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT: Pratibha Parmar on the ‘Real Gift’ of Making Her Network TV Directorial Debut with ‘Did You Believe in Miracles?’

May 10, 2022 by  

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT — “Did You Believe in Miracles?” Episode 23020 — Pictured: (l-r) SVU director Pratibha Parmar. — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Though Pratibha Parmar has been directing for decades, the decision to dive into network television led her to apply to NBCU’s Female Forward for a way into this world.

In the program, female directors are mentored and assigned NBCU shows. There, they’d shadow directors on their assigned series for a number of episodes before stepping behind the camera themselves. (Other participants this season went on to direct CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO MED, and NEW AMSTERDAM.) For Parmar, her episode ended up being the May 5 SVU hour, “Did You Believe in Miracles?”

“To be able to shadow on and direct an episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU was like a dream come true,” Parmar says. “It’s one of the longest-running series, and I’ve been a big fan of the show for years. I absolutely love that cast—particularly Mariska [Hargitay], who I think is just legendary and iconic, both on- and off-screen.”

“To have an opportunity to be able to work with her, Ice T, Peter [Scanavino], and Kelli [Giddish]—how can I describe it? It was more than wonderful, it was just a gift,” she continues. “It was a real gift.”

Here, Parmar talks about stepping behind the camera on the long-running series…

What led to you applying to the NBCU Female Forward program?
I have had considerable experience, but I wanted to make a move into episodic directing. When I looked around what programs there were—there are a number of them—at the time, the NBCU Female Forward program was the only one that guaranteed an episode for you to direct after shadowing two directors on the show. All the other programs, at that time, they gave you the opportunity to shadow, but then you didn’t get to direct an episode.

I do have experience, but the fact that NBCU Female Forward actually guarantees you an episode at the end of the shadowing was just fantastic. Lesli Linka Glatter, who is the head of the DGA, she is one of the people who started this program many years ago, and I know it was very important to her that we get the opportunity to direct our own episode. That way, we then have something to show and say, “Look, we’ve done this.” And then on the basis of [how it turns out,] you can get hired to do other episodes. So that to me was the biggest pull to apply to the program.

Because of this very fact, it’s a hugely popular program. And also the shows that you get to be able to shadow on and [direct], the NBC shows, are just so terrific. It’s not a surprise that over 500 people applied to the program, and I think five or six of us got selected. So it’s highly competitive. I felt incredibly lucky to be one of the chosen few.

SVU Pratibha Parmar

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT — “Did You Believe in Miracles?” Episode 23020 — Pictured: (l-r) Pratibha Parmar and Mariska Hargitay — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

As someone who was familiar with the show, when you got the script, what was your biggest priority? Was there anything in particular that jumped out that you knew you wanted to handle in a specific way?
First of all, it’s a world that is existing, that has been created, that has changed, and been modulated over the years. As a guest director, I’m coming into a world that has already been set up: characters and their relationships have evolved and who they are to themselves, in their lives, and to each other. All of those things have been set up and developed over the years. So I’m not coming in to reinvent anything; I’m coming in to just sharpen and add to that with the script that I’m given as the guest director.

When I was given the script, and I read it, I was just like, “Wow. What an interesting storyline.” It’s a procedural, and I love all the kind of police work that they do to try and uncover and find out what’s happening. You have the crime board in the squad room and how Kelli and Ice T go out and are interviewing the parents, and doing that groundwork and then coming back and reporting to Captain Benson. I love all those things about the show, and my episode had those regular elements. And then it had this really surprising storyline something…based on some kind of true story. And so, my job, I felt, as the director, was to make sure that the story was told in the most effective, impactful way; in the way that the writers had written it and the way they had seen it.

So you have your tone meetings, and Warren [Leight], the showrunner who leads the tone meetings, is just fantastic at being really clear about what they are looking for as writers. I had very clear guidelines as to what was expected. But then, also, I was able to bring my own sensibility and my own understanding of what was happening to the characters. And as a director, that’s my first job: to go through the script and see what are the emotional beats and what are the characters’ journeys. Where do those journeys change and what are the revelations and the turning points? So I do that groundwork, myself, as the baseline as a director.

I really lucked out with the guest actors, because all of them were just really very powerful in their performances and very believable and authentic. It was great to be able to do that the work with them on set to enhance those beats and to find characters and those turning points. To calibrate their performances in particular ways, so it would have an impact. So, I did my job as a director, which was making sure that I understood the script and then I was able to really work with the cast and crew to tell the story in the most effective ways that I could.

[For example, in] the final mother and daughter scene that I filmed, with Brooklyn Bridge in the background: They’re walking along—it’s a crucial scene; it’s a big emotional scene, between between the mother and daughter—and because the story is about the daughter and her youth and her innocence as a child and then the mother and her caring, I’d seen that there was that carousel in the background on location. I thought, “Well, that’s where I want them to stop and have these particular lines of dialogue.” Because for me, it was a kind of visually telling the story of her childhood, reminding people that this is a young child. This is a young woman who is still a child and is innocent and who had been groomed by this pedophile, this manipulative man. And so those kinds of ways in which to visually enhance the emotional beats and the story beats was something that I relish doing as a director.

SVU Pratibha Parmar

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT — “Did You Believe in Miracles?” Episode 23020 — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

In addition to some of the show staples—the squad room, the courthouse—there were a number of exterior shots…restaurants, the cabin in the woods, the parks. What was the process like, having so many locations be so drastically different from each other?
I was thrilled we had so many exterior scenes, because it’s always, for a director, wonderful to be able to go out and shoot, even though it was so damn cold in New York at that time. I was having to have those hand warmers and feet and toe warmers constantly in my boots and my gloves and everything.

But it was wonderful. Those woods were way out on Staten Island. I was able to use a crane! I wanted to use a crane, not just for the fact that it’s a great tool and a toy to work with as a director, but it actually was about a reveal of how isolated that cabin was in the middle of nowhere.

I think it’s about having a really well-oiled machine at SVU. My first AD Conor [Griff] was brilliant organizer, and between him and me, we made sure that we had enough time to do coverage of the scenes. And if we ran over time in one particular scene, and we would have had discussions about how we would make it up somewhere else. The camera department and the art department and everyone coordinated well, and worked together in a collaborative way. It was just so wonderful for me to have the support of teams of people who were fantastic at their job, knew what they were doing, and everyone worked in unison as one.

Everyone was working towards the same goal, which is how do they support the director’s vision? Whether it’s the art department or the camera department…For any director, their first AD is their right hand person. And [with Conor,] we had great communication. He’s been on the show, so he also understands the pace at which people work and all of that. Calibrating those exterior scenes and then the scenes in the squad room or in the courtroom wasn’t as big a challenge as it would seem.

The weather was against us a couple of times. That opening scene with Mariska and Ryan [Buggle, who plays Noah], which is such a beautiful, emotional moment, because you don’t get to see her in those moments that often, originally I was going to film it outside at this wonderful location we had at the High Line Hotel in New York. [Laughs.] I planned it beautifully, and then it was raining that day. We couldn’t do it. So I had to pivot at the very last minute. The location manager, Tom, who is brilliant, he found this restaurant where we could go in and film the scene. In the end, it was really about what was going on between the mother and son. We made it look pretty. It all works, because everyone is working towards achieving the same goal, which is to get the best episode out.

The end of the episode included a brief scene where ORGANIZED CRIME’s Elliot (Christopher Meloni) ran into Olivia and Noah. Given your familiarity with the world, what was the collaboration process like with the actors about where and how to play that moment?
We had to find a location. It was very last minute, and the location had to be where we were already shooting those Brooklyn Bridge scenes and everything, so it wouldn’t have to be a huge big unit move, because that wastes so much time. And also Chris Meloni’s time—he was shooting on OC, so he only had this small window that they could give him to us to shoot this one scene with Mariska. So there was so many different factors that the production itself had to deal with in terms of scheduling and all of that.

But the art department came through with the first AD and with the locations manager; I decided on that street the way we shot it. And we created that florist store near where he’s buying flowers to take to the cemetery.

I said to Chris and Mariska, “Well, you know what the scene is about. You have this amazing, nuanced, complex history and this is one of those incredibly beautiful, serendipitous moments when you just happen to bump into each other on this particular day, which happens to be Mother’s Day.” All of the significance of all of that, and the fact that this is the first time that Stabler is meeting Noah—there is just so much emotional weight. It’s a very short scene, but has so much emotional weight. That [it’s him] meeting with Noah, the meeting on Mother’s Day, bumping into each other.

And Mariska looked like a goddess! I mean, that green dress that she had, she came out of wardrobe and I was like, “Oh, my God, you look like a goddess.” And she just laughed.

They know what to do with the dynamic between them. They know what it is, how it’s developed, what’s happened. I was just there to very gently guide it, and create the best conditions for them to do their best work on it. I think it was a beautiful scene.

The scene  been removed from the streaming version. Do you think there might be a chance it’ll be restored for the DVD when that comes out?
I don’t know. What I was told was that because it was a crossover episode [and] it went directly into the OC [hour], they needed that bridging scene to go between the two shows. And on the night, as you saw, it just went straight into into the OC and into that world.

I’ve been told that when it is syndicated, it would not have that scene, it would end with just the beautiful hug between Benson and Noah. And I love that ending, too. I just think it’s such an emotionally resonant ending…that relationship between Noah and Olivia, the mother-son relationship, and the one thing that she has in her life that’s given her so much happiness. And we see that. I think it’s a beautiful end to the episode, too. But I know that fans also want to see the scene with Noah meeting Stabler…[but] I’m not the one who makes these decisions.

SVU Pratibha Parmar

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT — “Did You Believe in Miracles?” Episode 23020 — Pictured: (l-r) Pratibha Parmar and Christopher Meloni — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Fans and paparazzi frequently come to SVU filming locations. How was it adjusting to that extra presence while you were shooting this episode?
Yeah, that was a completely new thing for me, for sure. That was totally new and surprising. The fans were really very respectful and they kept their distance and they knew when we were shooting and they kept quiet. They just hung out in the background, and then Mariska, being as gracious as she is, at the end of that she would go and say hello, and take the selfies with the fans.

But what really was kind of a bit of a challenge was the paparazzi who turned up in such force for that scene we were filming with Chris Meloni and Mariska. That’s when it was [tough]. There was this one particular photographer with the hugest of long lenses, literally going in front of me and blocking my eye-line. And Chris at one point said to him, ‘I’m looking in that direction, please move out of my eye-line.” The paparazzi was the biggest challenge, I think.

Although, they take such great photographs, too, and they get circulated and the fans love them. So I think it’s that fine balance for them to know not to interfere with the creative process that’s going on. But for me, it was just kind of a complete surprise. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, my God, what’s going on here?”

But I totally understood that they’re there for the cute meet between Stabler and Benson and Noah on the streets on Mother’s Day. That’s what they want to show the fans, right? So I understand that and I didn’t mind that. But as a director, I had to really kind of focus and not think about them around me. Just really focus on my monitor and my talks with Mariska and Chris and with my crew and everything and get that scene done, and get it done in the best possible ways. Because it was also very windy—it was really windy and cold that day. We had to catch moments when the wind wasn’t up, and all the different things that happen when you’re shooting.

SVU Pratibha Parmar

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT — “Did You Believe in Miracles?” Episode 23020 — Pictured: (l-r) Pratibha Parmar and Kelli Giddish — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Was there anything else about filming the episode that stood out to you?
I want to give props to Peter, Ice T, and to Kelli. I think Kelli is just fabulous. I think some of the scenes, particularly the scene when they raid the cabin to rescue the girl, Kelli’s so good. She’s just really good in that scene. I particularly really appreciate how she just really also does a lot of homework on her character in those scenes. She comes really well prepared. And for a director, it’s wonderful to work with an actor who comes really well prepared. I enjoyed working with all of them; I want to say they were all just brilliant to work.

Television is a tough medium, and everyone’s under a lot of pressure to come in on budget and on time and everything. But working with the cast and crew of LAW & ORDER: SVU was—and I have a sense that it’s always gonna be—one of the most memorable experiences for me, because everyone was just working together. There were no egos or anything. Everyone was just working together, both as cast and as the crew. It’s great to work in that environment, because I felt like I could do my best work. Everyone was just wanting to do their best work. It was a gift for it to be my network TV debut.

And I really hope I get to go back on it, because I just miss them all. I was around that show for a couple of months, because I was shadowing before I was directing my own episode, so they were part of my daily life for a few months, and [now] I am like, “Oh, I miss them.”



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