INSIDE making Z Nation with producer and director Jodi Binstock
Jodi Binstock is an award-winning producer and director known for her work on hit SyFy show Z Nation, following a team of everyday heroes as they transport the only known survivor of the plague from New York to California. Here Jodi shares with Mandy News her journey to producing and directing, details of her process of producing Z Nation and her forthcoming series Black Summer.
Can you explain how you got involved in producing and in the film and television industry?
I have always loved the film and television industry. I went to film school at New York University and at that point there were only really commercials, so I got involved in producing as a commercial producer originally.
In an effort to direct, (which is my passion, my first love) I applied for something called “The Disney Directing Fellowship”, years ago. Basically two women amongst 2000 entries applied for a couple of possible jobs through Disney. At that point it was on sitcoms, on multi-camera proscenium-style television. I was fortunate to be one of the two chosen that year and started observing on a show called Boy Meets World.
They're still doing fellowships like this, where women get an opportunity to do what is called “shadowing”. I think if it was a male doing it they'd just be given a shot, but women are required to shadow and make their way in politically – it's as political as it is about your talent.
Then I got an opportunity to direct a scene (that was what they gave you) and it was by the grace of a very generous showrunner named Michael Jacobs that I was able to direct an episode and then several more after that. So that was my foot in.
Directing has always been my passion, but the universe keeps rewarding me with producing work. I think it's really the “mom” job and for people in the generation that came in (which is very different from my daughter's generation), it was very difficult for women to climb. It still is. It's gotten easier over the past year, in large part, probably in total, because of the #metoo movement, the repercussions of that and everything that the industry has tried to do to try to say “women count to”.
You talk about your main passion being directing but doing a lot of producing. How do you go about dividing the time you spend on each?
This industry is very much a job-by-job industry. I have a sister and brother-in-law that are not in this industry at all and they can't believe that I can tolerate the insecurity of not knowing what the next job will be. Unless you're a studio executive, or work for an agency or something where you have a real nine-to-five, nine-to-six job, you go from job to job.
I am very fortunate in that I have a producing partner named Steve Graham. We became friends because our kids were in a play group together and we started a company called Go2 Digital that has been the producing entity for both Z Nation and our new show Black Summer, that's coming out on Netflix next year.
That is what has allowed me to pursue both my producing and directing – I can lean on Steve to carry the weight when I'm doing other things. We work very much in tandem, so that's actually a huge part of what allows me to do both.
You mentioned Z Nation. You both produced and directed on that show, but how did you get involved to begin with?
When Steve and I first became partners he had a relationship with the folks at Global Asylum and we started producing some lower budget movies for them.
At the time I had a show - I had some very dear friends Don Roos, Dan Bucatinsky and Lisa Kudrow, who wanted to do a web series called Web Therapy. It was sort of the brainchild of the three of them. They wanted to create something that could only exist on the internet, so they came up with this conceit of Web Therapy and asked me to produce it.
I had worked with Dan and Don for years – actually they produced the first feature that I directed, Call Waiting – and because of that relationship I produced Web Therapy. That then got picked up by Showtime, so it became a TV series. Because I had more television producing experience than anybody at Global Asylum and Steve was my partner, it was a fit.
So I helped them figure out how to produce a TV series, because they had only produced feature films and that was how I became involved with Z Nation. Then Karl Schaefer, who is the very magnanimous showrunner of Z Nation, knew that I wanted to direct and write. He's a huge champion of women and gave me the opportunity to do that. It's been one hand washing the other, if that makes sense.
What's the process of directing on the show like? What do you bring personally style-wise to the show?
Every director has different strengths. I've been very fortunate to learn how to do action and genre stuff through Z Nation but I've also been fortunate in that I've been able to write the scripts that I've directed, at least over the past three years, so that's a huge boon. You know the script inside and out, you are intimately involved in the creating and crafting of it.
Of course there is the process that you go through on episodic, which is very different from films, in that your prep time is very, very short. You have basically a week to prep, whereas on a feature you have weeks and weeks.
You depend heavily on your first ADs to wrangle all the meetings that you need, between the art department and costume, make-up and special effects make-up, figure out exactly your locations and all of that stuff...Then you do casting (not for the leads but for the day players and weekly roles), you go through tech scouts, working with the director of photography to figure out the look of it and how you’re going to approach it.
For me, character always comes first. For some directors, the mis-en-scene comes first (the crafting of the shots and how that will affect the episode). Another director that I work with is an editor by nature. I edit as well, but that's his background so he processes things very much in the storyboard fashion.
For me it's about character: if it's not about the people in the episode and you don’t care about them or their relationships, then you really don't care about the episode. So I focus very much on that and on preparing the script in terms of what the motivation of each character is, what the motivation of each scene is and figure out exactly how that will play into the whole.
You get to the peak moments of the show and then set it up for the next episode – that's a difference in episodic, you have ad breaks where the act out is always sort of a mini-cliffhanger. At least it is in this series because it's still formatted for regular television.
It's interesting, in the series that I'm producing for Netflix, Black Summer, we've taken a completely different approach in that it's much more like a chapter in a book. You don't necessarily do the cliffhangers on a commercial break – it's keeping you going so that you've got to binge it.
As the writer of a series like Z Nation, how do you balance between writing the story for the episode itself but having to keep in line with the general arc of the characters in the story as a whole?
That's a benefit of being a producer on the show, because I'm involved intimately in every decision from the beginning in the writers room, through the entire process of arcing the stories for each episode, breaking the stories down and then through the prep for every episode. So I know exactly what every character is doing and I think that's really been a strong suit for Z Nation.
That's Karl Schaefer's brainchild, he has enlisted his writers, his directors and his producers to be ultimately involved in the entire process, so that everybody has an investment in it. Everybody pays attention to what Kellita Smith, as Warren, is doing in Z Nation, or what Keith Allan, as Murphy, is going through.
So that's really an interesting aspect of my show versus other episodic shows, but I know they job-in directors and you have to fulfill a format that they created in the first season. You know that you have to get very specific coverage.
On Z Nation we've been given the freedom as directors, which I adore, to be as creative as can be. There are certain parameters that you stay close to: the handheld camera vibe of it, there's not a lot of dollies used, so there's a language certainly, but within that language you're allowed to speak your own dialect.
When someone brings something like a zombie tornado or the rolling ball of zombies, it's really and quite out-there. How does that affect your approach?
That's very much Karl Schaefer – he always believed that the show should have a sense of humour. It's obviously a series of deaths, because it's a zombie apocalypse, but I think that's part of the success of the five seasons of the show. It doesn't take itself deathly seriously – there's still a bit of humour. There are absurd things like a giant cheese wheel, the zombie ball and those kind of things.
Karl is fantastic at being able to look at what our strengths are. We're probably the lowest budget show on television and I don't think that shows, because of the love and care of all of the writers, producers and directors.
We shoot in five days and it's a horrendously taxing schedule for the actors and crew, but everybody wants to be there. Part of it is, Karl always says "If you're not having fun then something's wrong". He brings that fun to the screen with those things, killing a zombie with a blender and stuff like that.
You mentioned you're working on a new Netflix series called Black Summer. Are you allowed to talk about that and if so what is it about and when can we expect to see it?
Black Summer in its inception was originally thought of as a spin off of Z Nation but it's not exactly. Black Summer is referred to in Z Nation as the summer where everything went to hell, so that is where Black Summer picks up.
Karl Shaefer is one of the showrunners, but John Hyams is the predominant showrunner on the series and he has brought an incredibly different vision to this show. This show is not tongue-in-cheek, it's very very serious: it's as if the zombie apocalypse really happened in 2018 and explores what that would be for all of us. It's a very unique style that I think people will really respond to.
It's only told from the point of view of the characters – we don't learn anything that the characters don't and it's fantastically shot. The dynamics of the way that they have crafted the storytelling is very cinematic and I think people will really respond to it.
It's starring Jaime King and probably will air in Spring 2019. That's really John Hyam's brainchild, he's the mastermind behind that.
What advice do you have for somebody wanting to get into the film industry and become successful like yourself?
My daughter is now going to film school so that's very much at the top of my head; what advice can I impart to her and to any young person trying to get into the business?
Really being a student of the art is extremely important: having a lexicon of knowledge of films that you like, TV that you like, directors you admire, producers you admire.
Target those people, follow their careers and try and see if you can get on board with their shows at any level – as a production assistant, or whatever department speaks to you. That is probably one of the greatest ways to get a leg up in this business.
And don't give up. That's the biggest thing because you get knocked down 10, 000 times more than you get picked up. Give it your all and don't be afraid to say what you can do. If you're on set don't sit around and wait for somebody to ask you to do something, be proactive. Think about what you can do to help, or ask somebody “Can I help with that?”. Always be the one that is eager and willing to try.