Star Trek: Discovery Director Reveals How He Brought The Season's Latest Episode To Life [Interview]

The fourth episode of this season of "Star Trek: Discovery" dropped today and includes a lot of critical moments for a lot of characters. /Film had a chance to talk with director John Ottman about shooting these pivotal moments for the show, including how he handled some tough-to-shoot-in location sequences. 

Warning! This interview includes major spoilers for "All Is Possible," episode 404 of "Star Trek: Discovery."  If you're looking for a non-spoiler discussion of the show, check out our spoiler-free review here. The interview below has also been lightly edited for clarity and length.

An Episode Full of Star Trek Notions

I would love to hear about how you, as a director, weaved through the three main storylines of this episode. There's Tilly's storyline, which is very action-packed, and you have the political intrigue with Michael and Saru as well as the very emotional scenes with Book and Dr. Culber. How did you approach weaving all of those together?

It's a balancing act, because obviously you have, like you said, an action-suspense situation with Tilly and the cadets, and you have a political scene unraveling with Burnham, Rillak, and Saru. And then you also have another emotional moment going on with Culber and Book along with the wrap-up with Tilly and Michael. So, in one way it's great, because the episode is so varied with different storylines, but it was also a battle because we had to keep it engaging.

And I think it was, in that regard — I was happy to get this episode because there's so much classic "Star Trek" notions in it, in terms of it being almost a standalone in a way, instead of dependent on the serialization of the season. Having said that, what's also great about this episode is it has everything to do with the character arc of Tilly, and where she wants to go with her life. And it's a big moment in the season to have her have a new goal in her life at that point.

I noticed when you're shifting between those different storylines, the camera, for example, was shaky for Tilly's sequences. Which makes sense, given they crash-landed on an icy planet with tentacle blob monsters.

Well, we also lost a luna crane from heavy winds, and so we had to use a handheld camera. We planned to do some handheld there when it gets tense, but there was also lots of plans for the camera train to make it nice and smooth. But yeah, the winds were so high, we had to abort. And the funny thing is, I had brought wind machines out there and false snow to blow in front of the fans, because my idea for the planet was to be extremely inhospitable. And then of course, on the day, we had massive winds and plenty of snow. So I got what I wanted, I guess.

That's so funny. And where was that? Where was that location shoot?

It was actually in a rock quarry, just about an hour outside of Toronto. It's a pretty small quarry, with these little mounds, but you go there and you look over it, and it looks like you're in the Andes or something. And so it's really an illusion — it looks like you're way out in the middle of some massive snow mountainous area, but it was just a little rock quarry.

It certainly doesn't seem little on-screen, and it sounds like nature helped your production. Well, sort of.

Yeah. I was also terrified that the snow would melt, because you're in pre-production for three or four weeks, and then the sun started coming out, and all the snow was melting around Toronto. I was just so depressed that we were going to get there and it was just going to be a mud sludge planet. But fortunately, it snowed again just before we shot, so again, just the luck of the weather draw.

"The unseen work on a scene like that is the time sitting with the actors before we shoot."

I know you already briefly mentioned the scene at the very end between Tilly and Michael, when Tilly is leaving Discovery. Can you talk about how you approached shooting that scene, given it was so emotional?

Having them back in their quarters together was coming full circle from when they first were bunking together, and for me it was crucial to have them sit on that bed. The unseen work on a scene like that is the time sitting with the actors before we shoot, and figuring out how to, for lack of a better word, pull it off and make it as emotional as we can just by rehearsing and having the actors feel it out, and make it feel natural, and milk the moments that we have to milk. And then my job is to capture as much of that as I can on camera, and making it feel as emotional as I can with how it's shot.

You also had similarly emotional scenes between Book and Culber in that storyline. How did you approach shooting those sequences, and specifically with the Mandela that Book's working on, how did you incorporate that?

Well, first of all, it's the first scene where they put a rug in that set, so I'm proud to put a rug in that scene. Because Discovery has very hard-surface flooring everywhere, and it doesn't look like a therapeutic place, and so I put this rug in Culber's therapy area. But aside from that, again, it's about feeling it out with the actors before you shoot, and fortunately, we were also over Ni'Var at that time, and so we got the nice red, beautiful glow through the windows. It added to the emotion of the scene. And also before we rolled camera, David Ajala, who plays Book, is more a method actor, so he and Wilson Cruz, who plays Culber, would actually get into it character-wise and start riffing and doing some ad-libbed stuff before I called action so they could get into the right emotional mindset.

"I had to chase the sun the entire time."

And what about the negotiations between the Federation and Ni'Var, I think where they're negotiating, is a new set, I don't think we've been in that place before.

That was a location at a university, and the first time the university let anyone shoot in it ever. We put in some false walls and things like that to make it look more like planet Vulcan [now known as Ni'Var on the show]. But yeah, that was an on-location place, and there were 360-degree windows all around us, so we might as well have been shooting outside because I had to chase the sun the entire time. You feel like, "Oh, we're inside, we have a controlled environment," but no we didn't — the windows were so high, we couldn't put tarps outside. It was almost like you might as well have been shooting in a forest or somewhere with very limited time. But it looked very nice — it was a great location to find.

And was the one-on-one scene between Saru and the president of Ni'Var, when they're meditating, was that in the same location?

Yes, it was on another floor in the same building. And that scene looked beautiful.

Yeah, and just the lighting there as well. So if you were chasing the sun, it was a good chase.

I really wanted to start the scene with T'Rina centered in the frame, and then behind her head. And only when Saru rings the bell to be let in, then she turns her head, and then we reveal the room. That's one of my favorite moments.

I know we've already touched on a lot of scenes, but was there anything else particularly memorable about shooting, either for challenging reasons given the environment, or just a moment that was really impactful for you?

Emotionally, I think Tilly is such a positive character. It'll be an episode people enjoy, because it's nice to see her alone in a crisis and handling these earnest cadets and finding a way to have them get along and work together, which is one of the tenets of "Star Trek," despite everyone's differences. 

And in terms of practicality, like I said, it was an extremely challenging episode because there were so many locations. We had, as I said, an unforeseen windstorm. And we had to abandon the crane and go to the handheld cameras. And we lost four hours because something flew into an actor's eye. And so, all these things happen. Sometimes when you get a bottle episode, where you're just on the set of the Discovery, you can really just maximize your time more. So it was a time management exercise for me, in how to maximize what I could get out of very little time to shoot.

"Star Trek: Discovery" releases new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.