SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Past Sins,” the 11th episode of the seventh season of “Arrow.”
David Ramsey has starred as John Diggle on the CW’s first superhero drama “Arrow” since 2012 but the seventh season of the series granted him a very special new experience: stepping behind the camera to make his directorial debut.
After first talking with executive producer Greg Berlanti about the possibility of directing “several years ago,” Ramsey tells Variety, he realized he wanted to do it but “didn’t want to be that guy that just picked it up because I’m the second lead on the show so I can.” Instead, Ramsey says he wanted to make sure he was really prepared, so he started learning on the job.
Ramsey relied on “Arrow” producer and director Glen Winter and well as stunt coordinator, supervising producer and director James Bamford as mentors and says he learned a lot from their visual style. Both of those men, he notes, like to “keep the camera moving,” which Ramsey realized he, too, preferred for a show that involves so much action.
“Episodic television belongs to the producer. We have to kind of get that out of the way. This is a show that has a tone, that has a visual style, that is unique to itself [and] that style comes from a number of talented people and the producers really helm that. So as a director, you come in and you buy into that — you buy into the style — and you give them the show that they’ve been shooting,” he says.
But, what Ramsey wanted to do to put his own signature stamp on the episode he helmed, entitled “Past Sins,” was “really tie into the characters, really tie into the story [and tell] this story very succinctly and very crisply.”
“Past Sins,” which was the 11th episode of the seventh season of “Arrow,” had a lot of ground for Ramsey to cover, including emotional arcs for characters such as Laurel (Katie Cassidy), who encountered the man who killed her father; Oliver (Stephen Amell) who was targeted by the son of a man his own father murdered years before; and Curtis (Echo Kellum), who learned the Ghost Initiative was restarted and had a violent encounter with Diaz (Kirk Acevedo).
To give each piece of the story the appropriate weight, he says he worked “hand-in-hand” with the episode’s writer, Onalee Hunter Hughes, who was on set every day. He also worked extremely closely with Bamford and the show’s camera and lighting teams to develop the right looks for practical stunts such as the Ghost Initiative’s escape and Curtis and Diaz’s showdown in the parking lot.
Ramsey shares that the team had about nine days of prep time for the episode, and by the second day, he was working with stunt team on the look he wanted for the fight choreography. They put together a presentation video for him to review, made some tweaks, and by the time they stepped on set to film, he was able to focus on the “big, dramatic, swooping shots that tell a story of brutal action,” which is what he thinks separates “Arrow” from the other superhero shows right now.
“I am an actor and a character actor and I want to tell story through the actors’ eyes in a convincing way, but this is the dark, brutal show, so I don’t want to lose any of that in my style,” he says.
In that respect, Ramsey says that being an actor first aided in his directing. “What made it a lot easier was me thinking as an actor because as an actor I love directors that come on the set and really understand what actors do,” he says. “The No. 1 thing between actors and directors is trust, and once an actor trusts a director, a director can tell them to do anything and they’ll do it because they believe they’re in good hands. And that was really my goal: to make sure every actor trusted me.”
Having seven years of history with his fellow actors helped, as well. When he gave them notes, he shares, they took them easily; they spoke the same shorthand. And they had been on the ride together the whole time; he wasn’t just someone coming in for one episode, not quite sure how moments connect to what came before or would come after. This proved integral in mapping out Oliver’s emotional arc in the episode, Ramsey points out.
Oliver had been learning new truths about his father — such as the fact that he had a secret family — and he exhibited a “heartbroken-ness” when unraveling what his father did, Ramsey says. In this episode, he learned his father had murdered a man who worked for him and “there had to be a certain amount of exhaustion with this and a certain amount of really being heartbroken that continued what we saw in Episode 10.”
But what Ramsey says he is most proud of from “Past Sins” were the moments where the character work and the action truly collided, specifically Curtis and Diaz’ encounter.
“I think action for action’s sake is just gratuitous and people get bored with it, we’ve seen it a million times. But I think that if the action can tell the story and have dramatic beats within the action that push the story along, I think that’s compelling — that’s what you watch [because] you’re watching characterization, and that’s the whole point,” he says.
“Arrow” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on the CW.