S.J. Clarkson might not be a marquee name on the same level as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, but she’s proven herself to be a vital member of The Defenders team.
A veteran television director with a plethora of credits – including episodes of Heroes, Dexter, House and Banshee – the British-born Clarkson has also had her feet firmly planted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s TV realm. After helming two episodes of Jessica Jones, establishing the world of both Krysten Ritter’s titular p.i. and introducing Mike Colter’s Cage, she was tapped to launch the initial installments of The Defenders.
And, as Clarkson tells CBR, she found a colorful way – literally – to depict the disparate worlds of the Netflix/Marvel heroes as they began to intersect.
CBR: What do you love about the street-level Marvel New York universe?
S.J. Clarkson: Well, you’ve probably said in that sentence everything that I love about it. It’s New York, it’s street level, I love filming in New York, it’s an incredibly exciting city, it’s a visual city, it’s a wonderful backdrop for any scene, so that in itself is incredible and then you take those four brilliant characters, and extraordinary actors, and what more could a director ask for? They’re great fun.
The shows have a degree of commonality in their look, but they also have their own individual flavors. How you did you approach what you wanted to do visually on “Defenders” to both keep it consistent with all the characters but also have its own feel?
That was probably what was the most exciting thing for me, that challenge. It was the fact that I’d set up the world of Jessica Jones as being very dark and very steely and very blue, quite abrasive. And I knew that Daredevil was red in its tone, but also very stylized in terms of its “one-ers,” that we call them, where its fight sequences are beautifully choreographed, and brilliantly executed in one shot.
Luke Cage’s world — I loved the look of the comics, and I loved how Luke sat within the world of Jessica Jones, and he felt that he had that ’70s feel to him. And I’m such a sucker for the New York films of the ’70s from “French Connection” to “Shaft” to “Serpico.” Those great movies of the time have been such an influence on directing – full stop, not just in terms of “Defenders,” but I love them, so I really love the idea of enhancing those and bringing those to live with him.
It was a challenge of how you bring those four characters that have their own unique voice, and how you make them part of a show that you can enjoy if you’ve seen one of them, two of them, or four of them — or none of them.
I suppose what I wanted to do was set up each of them with their own worlds and color palettes that were very true to who they were. And then, tonally, the way we filmed it was to start to twist them all towards one direction. I was very keen on how we did the transitions, and how we moved from one character to the other, that you felt like they were almost in sympathy with each other.
For example, one of my favorite ones is when Luke Cage leaves Cole’s flat at the end of Episode 1 and puts his head up as Jessica’s going into John Raymond’s flat and takes her head down. I tried to do transitions that connected them, even though they were far removed from each other at this point, so you constantly felt these world were eventually going to come together.
It was about breaking the color, being true to who they were and also reintroducing the characters to those people who knew them, but also introducing them to people who maybe had never seen them, because my hope is that people might watch Defenders and say, “Hey, this is great, I didn’t realize that you could watch the whole of Jessica Jones, she’s got her own show.” People might then watch the spin-off having watched Defenders.
It’s a big ask, and I hope we’ve pulled it off.
You had what I would imagine was both a very challenging task and a treat in that you got to play with everybody’s supporting cast as you reintroduced these characters and got them intermingling with each other.
It was absolutely brilliant! I’ve seen Foggy and I’ve seen Karen, and I’ve seen all these characters, and I’ve seen Jess [Henwick], who plays Colleen [Wing], who is super. You see all these characters within those worlds like Misty – Simone [Missick]. Fantastic actors – they really are a phenomenal cast. The cast list on the wall is usually ten by three lines or something, and ours — it took up the whole wall with everybody who was in it, and that was incredibly exciting.
It was really great when you’re filming, because you don’t get stuck in one world. It’s like we’d have two days of Jessica, and then we’d have a day and a half with Daredevil, and then in the afternoon we’d pick up with Iron Fist and Luke. Every day felt different — you were constantly changing up the cast. I think that was great for the cast as well, because when they are at the helm of their own shows, they’re carrying the weight of it on their shoulders and they have to be in all the time, I think what was fantastic about this is that there was some spreading of the load, as it were, and I think it kept it fresh and exciting for all of us.
Was there an especially fun element of reuniting with Krysten Ritter as Jessica? Did you guys get to do anything extra special just for the two of you?
Krysten and I are great friends now. We’re in touch all the time, and for us just to get back together on set was incredibly exciting. There was a real comfort in that you were going back to a home, a safe place as it were. She and I know each other so well that we can take risks and really push the boundaries when we’re working together because it’s such a collaborative and truthful environment.
I suppose what it does is enable you to go, “Okay, we did this for the character last time, how can we move it forward? What can we do that’s the same?” Some things are mirrored — “We did this shot in Episode 1, let’s mirror that and do that here.” There’s a lot of maybe-almost homages, or self-referential, as it were, little nods that, if you’ve seen the show, they were there, and if you hadn’t you would then be able to introduce them the first time. Anytime I get to work with Krysten is a joy.
For the fans that are watching it with a cinematic eye, are there any other particular flourishes or touches or visual Easter eggs that you included in your episodes?
Well, I think the transitions are fun, I like the fact that where the transitions come from one place to another. There are a few Easter eggs in there, which I won’t spoil, but there are definitely some Easter eggs to look out for.
But I think of the joy of it is really getting that color palette for me, how we transitioned between worlds. So when Matt Murdock enters Jessica’s world and she’s in the room with Misty, you see that fact that it’s quite a steely blue world, the walls are steely gray-blue – they’re Jessica’s colors, Jessica’s wearing blue. Yet Misty’s wearing a tan coat, and as Daredevil walks in the door, he’s red.
I had great fun in trying to bring their color palette into each other’s world, of working out whose world it was and who was walking into whose world, because I was always thinking, “Well, is Jessica in Misty’s or is Misty in Jessica’s, and how does this work?” That became really exciting. That was a really exciting thing to do.
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