When Mädchen Amick finally got her chance to step behind the camera to helm an episode of “Riverdale,” she expected her challenges to be shooting a high volume of short scenes that ate away at the production days and having to juggle wearing multiple hats when acting in scenes she was also directing. What she could not have anticipated was that she was going to have to finish editing the episode remotely after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry, nor that her episode would suddenly be turned into the fourth season finale of the CW drama.
“You have to look at every episode as its own mini-film, so you always have to make sure the end of your episode carries the weight and adds to the drama to the point where your fans are dying to tune back in, whether it’s the next week or the next season,” Amick tells Variety. “You’ve got to hope for the best.”
Luckily, she continues, the majority of her small-screen directorial debut was able to be done in-person, in the “business as usual” fashion. It was only on the final day of editing that they were shut down.
“The first three days, it was great to be in the room and be able to work together and connect,” she says. “But then that fourth day, usually you’re polishing everything up, you’re laying in all of your music temp work. The editor was sent home with equipment he had to get set up so he could edit remotely, and then we communicated by calling each other or sending links with notes. It was definitely challenging, but it would have been so much harder if I had to do the whole thing that way.”
Amick has starred on “Riverdale” since its inception, portraying Alice Cooper, mom to Betty (Lili Reinhart), who is a former journalist and editor, as well as past member of Riverdale’s gang, the Southside Serpents. Amick’s small-screen directorial debut, “Chapter Seventy-Six: Killing Mr. Honey,” airs May 6 and sees Jughead (Cole Sprouse) writing a revenge tale against Principal Honey (guest star Kerr Smith). The episode switches back and forth between the real world of him writing and his “fantasy,” as Amick puts it, of murdering the man Jughead and his friends feel has unnecessarily complicated their senior year at Riverdale High.
“Jughead’s fantasy gave us the license to push things a little further, visually, than a normal ‘Riverdale’ scene,” says Amick.
Amick shares that she pitched showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa on shooting these scenes on an anamorphic lens — to make them feel “like a film version of ‘Riverdale,'” she explains. That felt “too far for him,” she recalls, but it led to a dialogue about seeing the reality and the fantasy blending together so “the audience doesn’t always know what they’re watching.” That gave Amick new inspiration for transitions between the two worlds, including, in one special case, following a background player from one into the other. But, because as an episodic director “you need to honor the world you’re in and bring a fresh look to it,” Amick also designed the fantasy scenes within Jughead’s story to include homages to “Citizen Kane” and some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films because “I feel like Jughead is a very classic novel writer,” she says.
Amick, who first came out to Los Angeles to chase entertainment dreams at age 16, got her big break on “Twin Peaks” just two years later. Working with David Lynch on that series taught her about approaching filmmaking from a “gut feeling” and not being resigned to being put in a box, she says. Although she considers herself as “always very visual” when reading scripts, it wasn’t until the “past six to eight years” where she says she felt enough confidence to want to step behind the camera to “have the responsibility of bringing a vision to life.”
Amick directed a few music videos and a pilot for a docuseries she is currently shopping around, but in preparation for her “Riverdale” episode (something she says she asked Aguirre-Sacasa to do beginning in the second season), she also participated in a workshop with the Directors Guild of America.
“I checked all of the boxes that studios require and made everybody feel comfortable that I had enough experience and could handle an episode,” she says.
Lynch, with whom Amick reunited for the “Twin Peaks” revival in 2017, remains an influence. Specifically, Amick points to her penchant for doing anything she can practically in production (rather than relying on “fixing it in post”) as something she learned from Lynch.
Doing things practically became important in “Chapter Seventy-Six: Killing Mr. Honey” for a fantasy sequence in which a character is murdered. Rather than ask the post-production team to remove the actor’s breathing digitally, she worked closely with the actor to tell him when he had to hold his breath, and then cue him when the camera was far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to tell if he was breathing.
“I don’t know how to die on camera and I don’t know how to play dead. But just knowing that that’s a struggle for me, I was definitely very sensitive to it,” Amick says. “There’s just nothing like the practicality of doing effects. Because in post, you just hope they’re going to erase it but did they miss it or did they run out of money? I didn’t want to take that chance!”
Similarly, Amick worked with the props and special effects department to find a chest piece to put on an actor who was going to need CPR in a scene.
“A big pet peeve of mine is watching fake heart-pumping CPR because you can’t really compress the chest on a living person, so it always ends up looking so fake,” she says. “I brought it up on Day 1 when I knew I was going to shoot this, and they found a chest piece that we put on the actor and then Veronica was able to really go to town.”
In addition to filming the reality timeline and the fantasy timeline, which includes multiple ways in which Mr. Honey could meet his fate — and quite a few options for the various characters’ reactions, too — Amick also had to film a couple of new voyeur tapes.
Throughout the season, characters have been receiving surveillance-style VHS tapes, more-than implying that there is someone in town that is gathering everyone’s dirty little secrets. Two such tapes are important parts of “Chapter Seventy-Six: Killing Mr. Honey,” with one of them upping the ante considerably on who might be behind them and serving as a key cliffhanger for the episode and now also the season.
“I felt a lot of responsibility because this will now set the tone for future tapes,” Amick says of directing the action in that new tape. “But even beyond that, how far can you push the violence? Stands & Practices came in; I got a full document that was very specific with what you can show and what you can’t show. I designed a shot that I felt was creepy and would raise the stakes but not something you’d have to cut around.”