X Company’s Stephanie Morgenstern on Directing the Final Mission

CBC
CBC

As the spy team on X Company prepared for filming their final mission together, co-creator Stephanie Morgenstern was preparing herself for a new challenge. Morgenstern will make her TV directorial debut with the CBC drama’s final two episodes, the first of which airs on Wednesday night at 9 p.m.. After beginning her career in front of the camera as an actress, she later turned to screenwriting, co-creating shows such as Flashpoint and X Company with husband Mark Ellis. In fact, X Company was based off a short film Morgenstern and Ellis wrote together and she directed 15 years earlier, so it only seemed right for Morgenstern to helm these final two episodes.

In the first episode, “Friendly Fire,” written by Daniel Godwin, Sinclair (Hugh Dillon) and Krystina (Lara Jean Chorostecki) join the rest of the team in Berlin as they plan to assassinate the man who could with the war for the Nazis. Morgenstern recently spoke with The TV Junkies about her decision to direct, how she prepared herself for the challenge and why it was such a rewarding experience.

 

The TV Junkies: Why was now the right time for you to direct?

Stephanie Morgenstern: Mark and I were present from the very inception of these characters 15 years ago. So now, as the story was coming to a close, it felt like the time was right to take a more personal role in the way we said farewell to them. It made sense to us that the final chapter should be guided by someone who has an intimate knowledge not only of these characters and their world, but also of the actors and crew who had brought the stories to life. Those relationships had been growing steadily stronger over three years, and this was a chance to pay all that off – the trust, the closeness we’d earned over that time. I’m sure a guest director could have done an excellent job – but they wouldn’t have had the same access to the huge vault of stories, on screen and behind the scenes, that had built up the soul of the show. There’s a bit of a sense of legacy here, and I felt, “this one is personal.”

At the beginning of this whole thing was a short film I directed, called Remembrance. It was like a prologue to what would later become X Company, taking place on a night where Aurora recruits Alfred after seeing his memory show. But I set aside my plans not long after – the plans to develop that further as a filmmaker – when screenwriting unexpectedly became full time. That short was the first thing Mark and I had written together, and it meant a lot to me to be given a chance to bring closure to that story. It was like being allowed to sign my name on a finished painting. I’m very grateful to Temple Street and to CBC for the leap of faith it took to imagine and trust that I could pull this off, especially as a series finale.

TTVJ: What kind of preparation did you have to do?

SM: There’s one level of it that feels very natural to me and that’s talking to the actors. Having been an actor for a long time and having been colleagues for all this time didn’t require any special preparation. That kind of took care of itself because it felt instinctive. The other areas though I had to work extra hard to make sure this was an opportunity that I made the most of.

The way I feel most comfortable working is storyboarding. The entire block was bound in a hard cover red binder I carried with me everywhere. On the reverse of every page of the script it was covered with illustrations and was almost like a graphic novel. For me to feel in control of the logic of the scene and emotion of the scene, I have to be able to visualize every moment of it. I don’t know if 15 years from now when I’ve directed a lot more that I’ll be doing this spontaneously in my mind. I just really feel the need to get it drawn. That was done as far in advance as possible so that every moment of the day I will have visualized with extreme clarity. Then I was aware at every moment of the day what the options were or what the freedom was that remains. Or if we were starting to run out of time and freedom, how to handle that and still keep the story intact.

Courtesy of Stephanie Morgenstern
Courtesy of Stephanie Morgenstern

TTVJ: What was the hardest part for you? Were there any moments where you thought ‘How am I going to do this?’

SM: The crew was working so beautifully. This is a gang of people who were like clockwork together. They took a bunch of the burden off me just by being the amazing professionals that they are. I particularly leaned on my first AD Sorcha Vasey and on the DOP Mike Marshall. Having each of them by my side made things so much easier. I actually didn’t have very many moments of outright blind panic.

There was one day that was particularly difficult because we were filming with little Ania (Julia Folta). We could only use her so many hours of the day so we had to shoot out of sequence. Shoot all of the moments that didn’t involve her first. Bring her in and shoot all those. Skip through scenes until the next ones that have her. Then rewind and shoot everything left in the day that didn’t have her. There were entire scenes that had to be relit for night or day. It was really just the logic of the natural order of scene shooting because of the availability of the actress.

Beyond that it just felt like the perfect storm of everything I had been learning since I started acting around 13 or 14, everything I had learned from being on set as an actor, followed by what I’ve learned over the years as a storyteller, followed by the very intense editing process and how intimately we are involved. It made me feel prepared for many angles on how to be a storyteller as a director. It felt like the convergence of everything I had learned since I was very young. Everything was starting to pay off for me as a director on a very complex and ambitious set.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: I think I know the answer to this, but is this something you want to do again?

SM: It is. It was a feeling that is hard to express and a feeling of everybody working closely, intimately, technically, but also emotionally. It was all my favorite things at the same time. I did feel capable and not overwhelmed, and that was surprising for me as well. Maybe I have a natural Canadian modesty, but I tend to assume I won’t land on my feet. I feel very proud though of how this worked out and very happy that I was given this chance.

TTVJ: Do you think directing has made you a better writer in any way?

SM: There were two lines that we thought we needed that the actors realized we didn’t need. They were two different button lines on a scene, the last line spoken, and as a writer I should’ve known that the scene would be stronger if the person got up and left without saying that. As a director, it’s the intuition of trusting the actor and if they feel this doesn’t need saying then the chances are very good that they are right.

 

Are you looking forward to the final two episodes of X Company? Sound off in the comments below.

X Company airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.

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