Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes on Discovery’s Trials and Filming During Covid-19

Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes on Discovery’s Trials and Filming During Covid-19
Jonathan Frakes on set with Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones. (Image: Michael Gibson/Paramount+)

Jonathan Frakes may forever be known to Star Trek fans as Commander William Riker, the Next Generation role that he has carried on to this day in Picard and Lower Decks. But arguably his most vital contribution in Star Trek’s new era has been from behind the scenes, as one of Discovery’s most reliable directors. But even that recent role can still bring surprising challenges.

Frakes has directed episodes of Discovery every season since its first — including this week’s “Stormy Weather,” a standout of the season so far — and has long espoused his love of working from behind the camera these days rather than being in front of it. But as much as he loves directing, returning for the currently airing fourth season of the show represented a challenge unlike anything he’d faced before on Star Trek: the prospect of filming an ensemble cast during the height of the covid-19 pandemic. To learn more about his process of bringing this week’s episode to life, and the challenges of working on a show as big as Star Trek as safely as possible, Gizmodo spoke with Frakes over the phone this week. Check out our full interview below.

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: What was it like for you to come back this season and film safely, under very different circumstances with covid protocols in place?

Jonathan Frakes: It takes the joy out of the work, to be perfectly frank. It has been… it’s changed. But luckily, Paramount and the studios in Canada and the States are so strict with the covid protocol. We tested daily. Masked up. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to wear a mask and then a shield in addition to the mask, when we went off the set to talk to the actors. It’s stifling. It’s frustrating. It’s a constant reminder of the danger that we all are in and we continue to do this, some would say, frivolous act. But people love to have that entertainment. I’m looking forward to a time where we can work the way we normally did. Having said that, show business in general, I think, has been a great leader in how we function with these new restrictions. I once worked on an ABC show and Disney has a very strict mandate for vaccination, which caused some people to leave the show. When I went to Discovery this season, I had to quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks. I was not allowed out of the room. You download an app where they check your location, daily. It’s got a little of that Cold War Communist Russia vibe to it.

So there’s nothing fun about it. It’s particularly daunting — and I’ve talked to a number of directors, Michael Pressman and Robert Duncan McNeill, Olatunde Osunsanmi, who’s the producing director on [Discovery], and others. And we all have shared … we find, with the mask, we over-verbalize now. Because we used to use so much of our face and bodies to express a note. Either a positive note, “attaboy!” or suggesting that we try something different. We can tell a lot of the story and the tone of what we’re looking for with your facial expressions and movement. And because they’re only seeing a sliver of your face they can misinterpret your note — or you think they’re misinterpreting, or they look at you with blank eyes. So, a strange side effect of all this has been over-verbalizing. Without the mask and the shield, communication would be quicker, cleaner, and more efficient. I bet you’re sorry you asked that question…

io9: No, it’s really fascinating to see the reality of how these shows are being filmed right now. 

Frakes: You feel safe because they take it so seriously, but it’s really taking a lot of the joy out of the business.

io9: Something that was quite interesting about “Stormy Weather” is that it’s almost a rarity for Discovery — it’s something of a bottle episode. What was your approach to trying to keep a lot of the scenes this week dynamic, considering we’re largely focused on the bridge and the Discovery’s new lounge area? 

Frakes: Well, on Discovery we’re encouraged to shoot cinematically and I love the bridge. I love the bridge on Discovery, particularly. So I always have competition about roaming around the bridge with the Steadicams and handheld cameras, at least. We are very competitive at how much we can bite off in a certain shot. We invariably keep the camera moving. And especially, given — if you’ve seen the episode… there’s nothing on the viewscreen. Burnham comments on it, herself, and says, “put the visuals up” and Owosekun says, “those are the visuals — you’re looking at it.” It’s kind of meta and wonderful in its own way. And it was my first time in the lounge, so I was able to explore that and it had grey in there, so… again, use the Steadicam, keep it moving, investigate the area… and because it’s a new set for the audience, they will find new pieces of it. There’s a very strong support at Discovery to be filmic in a way some shows are not. All the Star Treks are that way. So, anything you want to try, you can. Any equipment — any toy, if you will — that you need, they will get you. So, in a show where they have to find, or discover a way to escape, essentially, a black hole… you need toys at your disposal.

io9: It’s also a big week for Ian Alexander’s Grey, he gets a lot of solo work opposite Annabelle Wallis as the voice of Zora. What was it like working with them on these scenes? 

Frakes: I found him incredibly professional, prepared, cognisant… much like the character, who now has a corporeal body to inhabit, Ian now has a piece of the action, if you will. He’s a lead character in this episode, certainly. And he has embraced it in a way — he’s a real pro. He might be young, but he’s been doing it a long time, he’s got a great set presence… very smart. Very collaborative. He’ll try anything in terms of staging and movement and blocking and choices and intentions. And Zora plays the same. It’s not uncommon in Star Trek to have an AI or inanimate character as part of a scene. It might be strange on other genre shows, but on Star Trek… I mean, Burnham and Saru play with Zora, as well.

io9: As we touched on, this is also a major episode for Zora and Annabelle Wallis, as we learn more about the AI and the ways she’s quite different compared to past Star Trek computer voices. I want to talk about those climactic scenes aboard the bridge — where it’s just Sonequa Martin-Green and she’s talking about what the ship needs to do with Zora. What was it like planning out those emotional scenes? 

Frakes: I always look forward to scenes with Sonequa, anyway, and I look forward to the bridge. We have a very strong shorthand as me, as a recovering actor, and her — we speak the same actor language. I’m one of her biggest fans, as well. So, that was at least two or three days on the bridge — just the two of us, and the filming crew. So, we had a cunning plan, we storyboarded where the development of the fire would be — we had practical and special FX fire, digital FX fire… we had major decisions about the plate of the helmet. It was completely impractical, because it reflected all the lights and cameras — so, we ended up doing all that stuff with no face plate. Which is often the decision that is made when you’re working with people in space suits. So, Sonequa and I thought it made sense to shoot in sequence, so I closed in and closed in on her. We talked about the tension, we talked about the beats, we talked about the sound… and I had people on the different parts of the set up on the rafters and off in the wings, making additional noises that would give the character something to react to. So we collaborated on it in a way that I think was quite the testament — it’s a beautiful scene.

And the emotionality of “Stormy Weather,” in my opinion, is very effective. Obviously, the double entendre of her relationship with Book is loaded with imagery and metaphor and I think, quite clever. My credit to Michelle Paradise and her writing team. I’m thrilled with the results. Again, speaking of the toys, you got a lipstick camera and diopters and things getting in on Sonequa’s eyes… it was plotted and planned and storyboarded. And in the execution, it was Sonequa and I deciding what the character would see. And she delivers. She commits. You could make an argument that she’s the reason the show is in its fourth season.

io9: What’s it been that’s kept you directing on Discovery, and will hopefully continue to bring you back for more?

Frakes: Well, Discovery had become my, for lack of a better word, my home show. Because when I started with them in season one, I had… I felt this camaraderie. Unfortunately, I finally embraced that I’m the old guy. So, I was sort of a big brother figure or plucky uncle. Father. Whatever. I had come from another Star Trek and am thrilled to be directing this next version of Star Trek as well as Strange New Worlds and Picard, and to be part of Lower Decks, so, I feel very blessed to carry on the tradition of Star Trek. But I always look forward to coming on Discovery, because Sonequa is number one. You couldn’t ask for a better number one on a call sheet … Montreal is cold as hell, and you know, before covid, we were not afraid to shoot ridiculous hours out there. So, in the middle of the night, someone could be there doing a particularly dramatic scene and some of the actors, including Sonequa and Doug [Jones] and Mary [Wiseman] and Anthony [Rapp] — a lot of the actors — would come back having been wrapped and home and cosy. [They’d] drive back to the studio to support their fellow cast mates through their scenes. That doesn’t happen on a lot of shows.

Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season is currently streaming on Paramount+.

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