Austin Nichols, who appeared in Walker‘s first season as Clint West, returned to the set — this time as director. Nichols is known for his role on Walker but also for One Tree Hill, which he appeared on and made his directorial debut.
We got the chance to talk to Nichols about the process of directing his episode, Season 2, Episode 18 of Walker, which aired last night. He talked about specific shot choices, the importance of music, and more. Read our conversation below!
Editors note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Nerds and Beyond: What was the process like coming back to Walker to direct? You had to switch episodes with Jensen Ackles, correct?
Austin Nichols: Yeah, I was originally going to do 14, and then they called and said, “Hey, any chance you do 18?” And I said yes. I kind of knew that things start to heat up at the end of the season, but I wasn’t really aware of how lucky I would get with an episode filled with stunts, helicopters, and some big stuff coming to a head like Dan and Denise talking about the saddle and Dan and Liam in this sort of conflict. I just got a really exciting script. So it ended up being lucky and I still need to call Jensen and talk about it.
Nerds and Beyond: How is it coming back to Walker as a director versus an actor?
Austin Nichols: Well, it’s so different anticipating going through a set as an actor, I’ve been doing [that] forever. You start working on your character, figuring things out, digging into the past and I like to write pages and pages of stuff, just so I have some sort of history. Approaching as a director is so different. You’re thinking about everyone’s storyline, you’re thinking a lot about the camera, obviously, and how you’re going to use the camera, move the camera lenses… scouting locations. The thing I love about directing is that you’re the painter, and you’re not a color on a canvas. So being the captain of the ship and being a part of every decision is incredibly fulfilling. It’s incredibly engaging, and it’s hard. But at the end of the day, you go home very fulfilled.
Nerds and Beyond: Can you talk a little bit about how you prepare for an episode? Do you visualize kind of what the shots are going to look like?
Austin Nichols: The first read… I always sort of just read it and just see what lands and I might jot a few notes. And then after that, I’ll start to sort of hone in on different things. So, I’ll immediately start focusing on the helicopter and how to do that because from the beginning on this one, it was like, we don’t know if we had a helicopter in the air. So we might fake this and do a lot of this on the stage. And I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.” We’re not a huge budget show, we might have to do that. And so you start to really hone in on, “How am I going to do that? How do I shoot these actors in the helicopter at night? Am I going to have to have visual effects and these are all going to be with black fabric outside?”
One thing I love about the show and these actors, they’re all dialed into their characters. They’re extremely prepared. I don’t have to worry so much about them and [their] performance. Sometimes I get in there and give notes and maybe try something else and take it in this direction. But, it was a pleasure working with them and they’re all excellent.
CG is a little new to me. So that was really fun to get to deal with some CG helicopter stuff and having the VFX team build this helicopter, and have it come in and hover, and then see Trey jump out of it. That was really fun. I love visual effects and I hope I get to do more of that moving forward. The stunt stuff was some of my favorite… like Colton falling and August going over the waterfall. I just wanted to jump in the water and do it with him.
Nerds and Beyond: This episode opens with a really cool shot from Colton’s perspective as he’s opening his eyes. Can you talk a little bit more about shooting that? Was that something you had come up with or kind of what’s the process with that?
Austin Nichols: Yeah, so I had this [in my mind] to do this sort of thing we’ve seen before where he’s kind of in and out of consciousness… to kind of go to black, and come back. I’m still pretty new to directing, so I don’t know all the gadgets and toys that we use with the camera. And there’s a lot of them.
Steve Robin, who is our producer and he directs a bunch of episodes, goes “Oh, you got to use the Lensbaby.” And I was like, “Oh the Lensbaby?” I was acting like I knew it like, “Yeah, the Lensbaby.” [laughs] I pulled him aside when there aren’t 20 people standing around and said, “Steve, what’s the Lensbaby?” and he’s like, “Oh, that’s that thing we used on you in season 1, where we’re trying to pull your son out of the house and it’s like in and out of black and in and out of focus.” I’m like, “Oh okay, yes, Lensbaby, that’s what I want.” That’s the little tool, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s really cool because… the camera operator uses his or her hands and they move this little piece that’s attached to the lens. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it’s such a cool effect, and exactly what we needed for that shot.
Nerds and Beyond: I have to say that visually, this episode was probably my favorite of Walker between both seasons. It was just stunning. Some of the shots I wanted to point out… so right after you see Colton open his eyes, you flashback to the Ranger station. You see the “Earlier that day” words on the wall, kind of hidden. Also, the shots over the river, the shots of the helicopter taking off in the sunset… So can you talk more about some of those choices?
Austin Nichols: Honestly, the title that says “Earlier that day”… I’ve always been in love with Hitchcock ever since I was a little kid, and he uses titles in some really interesting ways. Then when I saw Panic Room, the David Fincher movie, the titles stuck with me for years and years and years. They were so cool. They were 3D and they were angled and ever since Panic Room, you’ve seen people do it a bunch. But Fincher was the guy who kind of brought it back, or really brought it into what it is. It’s just such a cool look for titles, and they had shadows. The letters were actually buildings or they were actually alive and they cast shadows. So, I wanted to do something like that, that was a little more 3D and it was almost like they were letters that were on the wall, instead of like [the ones] we see all the time. We see little letters come across the screen that says, “Oh, it’s July 24 is 9:24pm.” I wanted it to be a part of the room, and luckily nobody told me no [laughs].
We had the drone, which was really great for the park, it showed the water control, and also it was really fun going revealing Stella and Colton at the bottom of the ravine, flying over Liam…I’m already forgetting your question [laughs].
Nerds and Beyond: Just the last shot I mentioned, I thought it was really cool with the helicopter taking off in the sunset and the man saluting him.
Austin Nichols: Oh, right! I was really proud of that because it wasn’t really in the script. I just sort of dreamed that up when we were in pre-production, and I was reading the script over and over again because there’s this whole place, Austin Rescue, that is sort of this really cool idea. We didn’t have time to explore it, really. So, how can I show this cool operation without asking the writers to write another scene? So, they have barbeque pits, they’re playing horseshoes, they have all these cool jet skis and boats, and trucks and they’re lifting weights in the background. There’s all this cool stuff going on. It’s like a whole other show. And I was like, “How can I get the essence [of] Austin Rescue?” So I’m like, I’m gonna put a guy in a lawn chair listening to a song. It would be a great opportunity to get our song playing for heading out in the chopper and getting geared up. So that was really fun. Also, no one said no [laughs].
Then I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to put a helicopter in the air because it’s expensive. It’s a small show, where I was told I might have to fake most of it. So early in pre-production, I asked my producers, I said, “Can I put a helicopter in the air?” And they said, “Okay, we’ll try.” Then the next day, I thought somebody would come and say no, and then the next day, I thought somebody would come and say no, but nobody ever came and said no. And eventually, we had a helicopter to shoot and we had another helicopter with a camera. So I was able to have two helicopters shooting these beautiful air-to-air images of our Austin Rescue helicopter in [the] sunset, and I just love those shots and I’m so glad I got to do it, [it was] a real treat.
Nerds and Beyond: So a lot of the big moments in this episode, such as when Trey comes out of the helicopter, were really driven by the music. Are you involved in that like heavily? Do you help maybe kind of push towards a certain song or do they come to you to approve it?
Austin Nichols: That song specifically came from me and this is super dangerous to do especially in TV because you never know what you’re gonna end up with and songs can get expensive. But I had that song in my mind before we ever started shooting and I was sort of building the sequence around the song, which is a terrible idea. But I just somehow hoped and prayed that I could get it and the song by Lauren Daigle, “Rescue”… it’s like she wrote it for our show. There’s lyrics in there… like she even mentions an SOS, which is scripted earlier in the episode itself, that Stella sent out an SOS. There’s lyrics like, “I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkness.” Stella’s in the darkness, and Trey’s coming with essentially a small army, and a helicopter, and it just gives me the chills talking about it. Yeah, that song I had planned and I want to thank Lauren Daigle and her team and my team for making it happen.
The Uncle Lucius song, “Keep The Wolves Away,” plays at the end of the Side Step when Dan Miller comes and tells them what Denise did, and then it plays through to the end for the big reveal of Miles. The song has this whistling in it and it just worked so well.
So, those were the two that I really wanted. I had a few other songs that I really wanted, but I couldn’t afford them with our budget. All the stuff we got is fantastic, but, that is one of the most important things I feel is trying to find the best music. You have to stay within your budget. And, picking the spots… like okay, well I can spend some money here because this song is so important, we have to have it. Then maybe over here we don’t have to spend as much. It’s a puzzle and it’s hard, and then there’s things you fall in love with and then you can’t get that song. To me, music is one of the most important components of film and television. So I try to spend a lot of time on it and stay on it even after I’m done cutting because it’s so powerful.
Nerds and Beyond: What is something that you love about directing? Or, what is something that you’ve learned as a director?
Austin Nichols: I love waking up and drinking my coffee, and there’s nothing that I can think about but my show. You don’t have time to daydream. You don’t have time to think about anything else. It’s so engaging. From the second you wake up to the second you lay head down at night and even in your dreams, it is dominating your life. I can’t tell you how many things I dreamt about while we were shooting. Or waking up in the middle of the night going, “Oh my god, I have this idea!” Or, “Oh my god, I forgot to do this,” [You are] the captain of the ship and every decision is coming through you and it’s so fulfilling. I love acting and I always will love acting. But there are times where you go back to your trailer and you’re sitting there waiting [laughs]. And everybody else is on set doing stuff and you’re like, “I want to get back in there.” And I just love how engaging and how challenging it is.
Walker airs Thursday nights on The CW, and is available to stream the next day on The CW app.