Jennifer Phang has been busy in episodic TV, directing episodes of The Excorcist, Riverdale, Cloak & Dagger, and two episodes of The Expanse leading to its recent Season 3 finale. She also directed the independent features Half-Life and Advantageous. I got to interview her about, among other things, her work on The Expanse Season three episodes “Fallen World” and “Congregation.”
DOMINIC: I have only watched The Expanse sporadically, because I am a bad nerd. What would you say to someone just coming in to watch any episode, what’s it about?
JENNIFER: The Expanse is adapted from The Expanse novels by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham — together known as James. S.A. Corey. They created a richly detailed world filled with suspense, political intrigue, and social commentary, akin to Game of Thrones. But its strength is in its heart.
In the series we are hundreds of years into the future. Humans have colonized the solar system. Mars has become an independent military power. Strained resources and the arrival of an interstellar presence has heightened tensions between Earth and Mars and “Belters.” (Belters are a “race” of humans who were raised on the asteroid belt and relegated to dangerous jobs and lifestyles.)
When we join the episodes I directed, the tension has pushed the solar system to the brink of war. The crew of the Rocinante – a powerful warship — is a diverse group of brave and willful souls who have origins from all three “races” — Earthers, Martians, Belters. As they navigate the crossfire they find themselves trying to save the solar system from trickery and self-annihilation.
There are hella Asians involved in this show, no? As you know, that’s Bay Arean dialect for “a lot of Asians.”
The showrunner Naren Shankar is Indian American. It’s a credit to him that the show has translated beautifully to screen. And Ty and Daniel also are on the writing team and produce as well. I am just so glad I had a chance to work in this world.
I also helped to cast Sean Baek (Commander Kunis). I believed if three individuals were going to decide the fate of the universe, it would be ideal that it looked like a decision from people from different backgrounds. Sean is an experienced actor and Naren liked his look as well.
Frankie Adams is of Samoan heritage and is well-worshipped by viewers in her role as Bobby Draper. Hamed Dar played Jed Trepp, and had critical scenes in both my episodes. There are at least four other principal characters who are Asian, including the all-important Mao family. François Chau (Cambodian American) plays the big bad Jean-Pierre Mao. The legendary Julie Mao is played by Florence Faivre. Terry Chen played a key figure, Prax — a botanist, in the second season. And Byron Mann played another nemesis, Admiral Nguyen, in season 2. And of Iranian descent — beloved series regulars Shohreh Aghdashloo as the leader of Earth and Cas Anvar as the Roci pilot.
The show is especially wonderful to me because it frequently portrays women of color in leadership positions we usually see held by men. In fact, the show organically features one of the most diverse casts I have seen — with an assortment of Asian characters with different motivations and alliances. This is a rarity in American media, as we know.
David Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, whether it’s Limbo or Home for the Holidays or Sneakers. Any thoughts on working with him? How does he approach that Belter accent/dialect?
David Strathairn is a delight to work with and is one of my favorite actors as well. It was a high point in my career to be able to work with him this closely. In my opinion, his Ashford character was one of his most interesting shape-shifting roles. I was honored to be able to help with any ideas for his scenes and grateful we shared a mutual respect. David fully embraced Ashford’s backstory, and I love that in our e-mails we will still write like Belter pirates! Of course he’s far better at it!
How did you approach the scenes with Ashford and Drummer in “Fallen World,” which to me were some of the most compelling scenes in the episode? I’m familiar with some of your earlier work, and the close-quarters desperation was really at hand here.
I and everyone on The Expanse feel that Cara Gee as Drummer is a gift from the ether. She was a local casting discovery in Toronto and has grown to become a fan favorite.
My approach was multi-pronged. I found an opportunity to fuse ideas of my own with those of the showrunner to create the great moment where Drummer sees a body floating up at the top of the drum. Cara and David had very strong, clear ideas, and I made sure they were also clear on how physically hurt they were and what they might be feeling and seeing. I needed to get as much realism into the scene as possible, given the otherworldly circumstances inside the Ring space.
And how about that mechanical arm? Credit to the engineer who programmed that meticulously. I wanted it to feel like a wild animal, a dodging dinosaur that was teasing Drummer. This is one of six scenes I storyboarded because there were many moving parts that required all departments to be on the same page.
(***bit of a dramatic SPOILER here, if you haven’t watched “Fallen World” skip over this next paragraph***)
For the staging I had to reverse-engineer everything around how Drummer would be crushed and how she would communicate with Ashford about the position of the mechanical arm — without giving him a sight-line to the floating comm unit.
There were some tweaks that had to be made to the original script in order to make the consequences of the deceleration make sense, while also allowing for deep staging. We also had to consider actor comfort and tried to avoid excess visual effects shots. We had quite enough to do in the other scenes with the limited budget.
Can you speak to the hubbub about the show moving to Amazon? Was that decided before or after you came on to the closing episodes of season 3?
Throughout production they were hoping for a renewal. Everyone was so disappointed when the cancellation happened, especially because they felt this was their best season so far, and they were at a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The team — the creators, writers, cast, and crew — pour their hearts and souls into making the show exceptional. They are a family. To have a moment when it felt like your family was being pulled apart… it was a hard experience for everyone.
Then there was an outpouring of fan support to try to save the show. And the leadership and Twitter-rallying from cast members like Cas Anvar brought focus and an amazing energy. Fans sent cakes to Amazon execs, hired a prop plane to fly a “Save the Expanse” banner above Amazon Studios, created petitions, sent models of the Roci ship into space… It was a beautiful effort to witness. And suddenly Jeff Bezos was able to announce — appropriately at a space development conference — that the show had a new home. He’s a fan of the show too. It was incredible and I was just infinitely happy for them and the fans. They’re so deserving.
Would you like to speak on how the entertainment industry’s climate has changed recently in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Do you think your voice as a woman, and also as an Asian person, is helping shift our shows in a more equitable direction?
I have been trying to be more vocal in the spaces I’ve been invited into, including my directing and development work. I look at how portrayals of Asians/women/people of color can be updated. I would say the movement has made it feel a little safer to speak in a more direct way. I do credit the #MeToo movement and #TimesUP for helping create a space for empathy, receptivity and change. I think many of us welcome that, including a good number of successful men. I am hoping we can have an upgrade of our professional and creative standards. And I think we are all hoping to raise the bar for good storytelling.
Looks like you directed this week’s episode of Cloak & Dagger, and you’re also on deck to direct an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? How do you feel about being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Do you have a favorite Avenger? A desired superpower?
I’m overjoyed about this week’s episode of Cloak & Dagger for so many reasons. I can’t say a lot but it tackles themes that are close to my heart and relevant to so much that is going on in our world. I’m glad that the show finds a way to talk about our destiny, and tries to bring authenticity to what it means to be from New Orleans. It also doesn’t turn away from important stories about class and race.
In this episode we also go deeper into what makes Mina Hess tick. Ally Maki plays Mina and has a key role in working with Roxxon Gulf as an environmental engineer.
As with The Expanse, what I appreciate so much about the Marvel shows is their inclusiveness in their casting. Of course I’m so excited to work on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and in their excellent cast they have two distinct, powerful Asian female leads played by Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na.
As for powers... I’d love me some Spider-verse powers. I like heights and flying, but I have a respect for gravity, so a safety-net is always nice. I also covet Cloak’s teleportation powers, and had a chance to work with them in my episode.
I’ll have more on Phang’s TV and film work next week, following this Thursday’s airing of Cloak & Dagger episode, “Funhouse Mirrors” on Freeform!
Dominic Mah is a writer, filmmaker, and ex-professional gambler. Follow him on twitter: @dommah and/or @thorhulkcritic and elsewhere on the internet at Karaoke Rhapsody and You Offend Me You Offend My Family