‘La Brea’ Finale Had to Deal With Bad Weather, a Strike, and a VP Visit

One of the most original and ambitious shows on network television came to a satisfying conclusion on February 13. After three seasons, NBC‘s “La Brea” aired its series finale, wrapping up its ensemble plotlines in a manner that followed through on all the story’s thematic implications while also resolving a convoluted time travel narrative that has grown increasingly complicated — and increasingly inventive. Although the episode contains some of the biggest and most exciting action sequences in the show’s history, the most important task for series creator David Appelbaum was pulling off the more intimate scenes that resolved the adventure of the Harris family, a clan separated in Season 1 by a sinkhole that sent its characters back to 10,000 BCE.

“The biggest pressure was just trying to make sure the emotions landed,” Appelbaum told IndieWire. “From the beginning, the way I pitched the series was that it’s a family divided by a sinkhole, but they’re also emotionally divided, and the whole series has been about bringing them back together. So when they reunite, we wanted to put the ingredients in place to create the biggest emotional impact possible.” To direct the finale, Appelbaum called on David M. Barrett, whose sensitivity to performance and skill at orchestrating large-scale action made him the perfect helmer to tackle the episode’s challenges — as did his admiration of the series and of Appelbaum as a showrunner. “It was a beautiful story, and I felt a big responsibility,” Barrett told IndieWire. “It was almost paralyzing at times.”

Adding to the degree of difficulty for both Appelbaum and Barrett was the fact that the key final scene had to be shot months before the rest of the episode due to a scheduling issue. “That was scary, because I pride myself on my transitions and here I am, not really knowing what the script is going to be,” Barrett said. Making matters even more complicated was the fact that Kamala Harris came to Los Angeles on the day of the shoot, meaning issues of national security kept Barrett from using drones and cranes. “All of our equipment was cut, so here I am with just a Steadicam and another camera on sticks with a crew that has never seen the show. And then it started raining that morning, when we went up there for a view of Los Angeles. So it was curveball after curveball.”

Ultimately, however, the obstacles thrown in Barrett’s path led him to the heart of the scene, which is all the more powerful for its lack of visual pyrotechnics. Instead of shots that call attention to themselves, Barrett drills down on the gestures and dialogue that give the family’s reunion its overwhelming power. According to Appelbaum, maintaining that emotional focus is one of Barrett’s strengths. “Sometimes when actors are in the middle of a show, things can become a little casual and they lose track of how important certain things are,” Appelbaum said. “Dave is great at reframing the story for the actors and getting them to understand the stakes and do their most intense work.”

For Barrett, the key is thinking about what led each character to the particular moment he’s shooting. “I try to get to the root of who each character was when they were 7 years old,” he said. “You need to be able to connect what they say to a backstory, and if those moments aren’t there, I manufacture them so that I can give the actor some kind of foundation.” It’s a technique Barrett learned from Paul Newman, whom his dad Stan Barrett stunt doubled in the 1970s. “Paul always said it’s the director’s job to figure out that backstory even if the actor only has one line. He also said you have to block behavior. You have to block the truth. So you have to block in a way that even if the audience can’t hear the words, they can understand the scene and who got what they wanted and who didn’t.”

At the other end of the spectrum is a fight scene Barrett choreographed with dozens of actors and stunt people. Once again, he made limitations an asset when a tight schedule inspired a focused approach to the scene. It’s the kind of set piece at which Barrett excels, one that brings character and action together in a scene where the fight choreography is not only visceral but emotionally expressive. “We shot that fight scene in less than an hour and a half,” Barrett said. “I told the actors, ‘This is not a fight scene. This is a scene about what you would do for somebody that you love and miss. So, I don’t care about the punches. I only care about showing what lengths you will go to to see your mother or your wife.”

Barrett added that while he goes into a scene with specific ideas about how to block it, it’s always a collaboration with the performers. “With every single scene, I try to say, ‘If I haven’t blocked this fight scene in a way that you feel your character would react or there’s egg on your face at any point, I want you to challenge me.’” An additional challenge was simply managing each of the individual storylines amidst the epic whole, something that Appelbaum saw as vital to the finale’s effectiveness. “We’ve done a lot of big episodes, but we really wanted to put everything that we had into this one,” Appelbaum said. “There are several really big set pieces that we wanted to make as big in scale as possible, and it’s not just the Harris family story that we were wrapping up. It’s everyone’s story. And we wanted to imbue in the actors the weight of this, the weight of the moment — that this is the finale for all of them.”

Yet another challenge was that while Barrett and Appelbaum had worked together before, their dynamic changed slightly when the rest of the “La Brea” finale filmed during the WGA strike. “We had to have all of our conversations prior to shooting because David was loyal to his union and not available to talk during the shoot,” Barrett said. “It felt like I was in a vacuum.” Still, Barrett says he always had his initial discussions with Appelbaum as a North Star while shooting thanks to the extensive prep that Appelbaum put in place before the strike commenced. “Before the strike ever began, we were planning for it to happen,” Appelbaum said. “We wrote everything so that it would be done before the strike, and did all our prep meetings ahead of time so I could give Dave all the information I thought he needed.” Barrett added that making sure everything was lined up for success forced Appelbaum to work harder than any showrunner the director had ever seen. “I don’t even know if he slept for that two weeks before the strike,” Barrett said.

The work paid off in a rare series finale that delivers everything the audience wants but in ways that are completely unexpected — it’s a master class in how to construct a gratifying resolution. For Appelbaum, it was the culmination of a long, often arduous journey. “I pitched the show to NBC almost five years ago and we began during a pandemic and ended during a writers’ strike,” he said. “I wish I had kept a journal of all the things that happened — every morning there seemed to be a new crisis that came from shooting during COVID with a huge cast and a lot of production value. We called them ‘La Brea bombs.’” Ultimately, Appelbaum says his biggest takeaway from the show is the importance of finding the right collaborators. “With so many variables, you want people like Dave [Barrett] who you can depend on to have your back and bring your vision to the screen. I’m just very thankful for the experience.”

SOURCE: IndieWire

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