Helen Shaver found her “creative home” on Orphan Black

The first time Helen Shaver saw Tatiana Maslany on screen, she knew she wanted to work with her.

“I was asked to sit on the jury of the Whistler Film Festival about five years ago,” Shaver recalls. “I was adjudicating films, and there was a small Canadian film called Picture Day that was one of the films that we were looking at. That was the first time I’d ever been conscious of Tatiana, and I watched this movie, and my mouth just dropped, like ‘Who is that?'”

Months later, Shaver was flipping through TV channels in the middle of the night and stumbled upon a first season episode of a new sci-fi series starring a familiar face. She was enthralled. “The next day, I called my agent and said, ‘I want to do Orphan Black,'” she says. “‘It’s a fabulous show, and it has that young woman, Tatiana. I want to direct her.'”

Not only did Shaver’s phone call manifest her wish, but it led to one of her best creative experiences in a 20-year directing career that includes gigs on such TV shows as Judging Amy, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest, Vikings and Anne. “I love Orphan Black,” she says, phoning from Los Angeles. “I loved my experience there. For me, as an artist and a collaborator and filmmaker, it really became a creative home.”

Shaver directed only three episodes of the Space hit—which is currently airing its fifth and final season—but she has lensed some of the most memorable scenes of the series: Helena watching Rachel and Paul have sex through her sniper scope, Alison and Donnie twerking and Paul’s death.

And then there are the Cosima and Delphine scenes.

In portraying Orphan Black‘s main romantic couple—coined Cophine by fans—Maslany and co-star Evelyne Brochu have screen-melting chemistry on their own, but Shaver’s direction managed to kick it up a notch, expertly excavating the conflicting motivations pulsing beneath the characters’ tortured scientist/experiment love affair. For example, there is no scene that captures the essence of Cophine’s complicated history more succinctly than in Season 2’s “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est,” where shots of a fearful Cosima receiving an injection are intercut with images of Delphine comforting her.

The same goes for Season 5’s “Ease For Idle Millionaires,” when the couple finally chooses to stop fighting each other and accept the complex dynamics of their relationship, the camera swirling around past and present versions of them as they build up to a kiss. After the episode aired two weeks ago, Cophine fans swarmed Twitter to post their appreciation of Shaver’s work.

So what is Shaver’s secret to directing such emotionally effective scenes?

“There are many, many elements to the director’s job, but the primary one to me is that the director is the container, the safe room in which actors are willing to speak their personal truths through the mouthpiece of the character,” she explains. “My willingness to be present, it creates a safe space, a womb some might say, where the actors can expose themselves through the characters to each other—and as you see with these two women on screen, it’s compelling beyond belief.”

And Shaver has another directing superpower.

“I’m not afraid of actors,” she says. “I don’t feel the need to minimize that. I truly respect actors.”

While that may seem like a given for someone working in the TV industry, Shaver learned that not everyone shares her view when she crossed over from acting to directing in the 1990s. During her first-ever production prep meeting, someone made a comment that she never forgot. “We were talking and I said, ‘Oh, the actor will need blah, blah blah,’ and somebody—a writer—said, ‘Oh, it’s just a f–king actor,'” she recalls. “And ‘f–king’ was not the important adjective; the important adjective was ‘just.’ The thing is, most people have no concept what acting is, what the internal process of acting is, what the vulnerability, what the exposure, what the trust is, the waiting for an hour while they set up the lights, and now there’s only 10 minutes left and now do your close-up. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and you’ve been up all night talking to your mother because your father is sick, you still gotta do your close-up. It doesn’t matter. And because most people don’t have a concept of what that is, many people feel like they are held captive by the actor. You need them, but, damn it, there they are with all their humanity and foibles and all the things that you can’t control, and so they are afraid of the actor—and fear is the antidote to creativity.”

“The other thing that happens is kind of a sycophant approach of talking to an actor as if they are a child,” Shaver adds. “Or some emotionally disturbed adolescent who’s going to tear the place down and run screaming from the room or something.”

Obviously, that’s not the environment fostered on Orphan Black, a show that depends on the gifts of its lead actor more than perhaps any other TV show in history, and a show whose lead actor is known nearly as much for her tireless work ethic as she is for her mind-boggling abilities.

“[Tatiana] is just an extraordinary talent,” Shaver says. “Just the breadth of her gift, her willingness, her gift, her intellect, her spirit, her no fuss, no muss [attitude]. And with the extraordinary amount of work that that woman did, there was never a complaint. Just exemplary.”

Shaver also credits Orphan Black co-creators and showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett with giving her the freedom to get the most out of every scene. “The line between writing and directing is not this hard line like some showrunners have, you know, ‘I say she picked up the teacup on this word, so that’s when the teacup gets picked up.’ That’s a sort of thing that exists certainly in some productions, but from the get-go, I was really offered the opportunity to take the material and direct it as a little movie the way I saw.”

That approach allowed Shaver to choreograph the pivotal scene in “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” where Rachel sexually dominates Paul in a chair. “The original script, for example, was that Rachel pushes Paul onto the bed and climbs on top of him,” she says. “So I looked at the script and said, ‘OK, Graeme, so we’re looking for female dominated sex, right?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ So I go, ‘OK, let me think about this.’ During the course of prep, I conceived this whole thing where it was out in the living area of the space, and I thought Rachel is not doing anything for his pleasure. He is there for her. And all of that was not just allowed but encouraged and embraced in the environment that was there.”

Shaver also switched up Cosima and Delphine’s flashback scene in “Ease For Idle Millionaires,” animating a formerly staid scene with all the emotion the situation demanded. “The scene in the flashback was written that they’re sitting on the couch and that’s how it played out in the first rehearsal of it, and it was quite quiet and passive in a sense,” she recalls. “It was a little conversation, and I said, ‘No, wait. Hold on. Let’s go to the beginning of this moment. What is the beginning of this moment?’ There’s this huge betrayal that Cosima is recognizing and also this recognition that she is property. All these things, the pain, the tearing away, the outrage, the betrayal, how can you even stay sitting on the couch beside [Delphine]? And bang, Tatiana was up and then Evelyne was up, and we shot that a number of times, allowing it to evolve in its own way each time. And then in the cutting, once they got into an embrace, using bits from multiple takes so that it builds that kind of cacophony of emotion, which is true to what happens to a human being, not just on the outside but on the inside when such a moment is going on.”

Shaver gives props to Maslany and Brochu for forming a “circuit of energy” with her in order to better understand—and ultimately elevate—the scene. “That’s a complex moment, and these women, as they have each time, completely gave themselves to the moment, to me. And I take it quite personally. I feel like I’m being given an enormous gift. I mean what is greater than to be trusted?”

And while the Cophine scenes will always have a special place in Shaver’s heart—”To me, love is love, and love is the only thing that is real,” she shares—she has a few other favourite Orphan Black memories as well. “I’d say the delirium in Episode 306 [“Certain Agony of the Battlefield”] that begins with Sarah in Mexico going into her dream state through the tunnel into the kitchen with Beth. I’m extraordinarily proud of that on every level. I think it’s exquisite performances—or performance,” she corrects herself, laughing. “It’s all her! I think visually, in terms of my work with the camera, that’s a beautiful piece of work. And the sequence with Helena, Paul and Rachel, I love that very much.”

Most of all, Shaver says she will always remember her relationship with Maslany—who drew her to Orphan Black in the first place, and with whom she will team up with again in early 2018 to film Pamela Sinha’s Happy Place. 

“I remember the day that Tatiana and I met,” she says. “Even though I’m certainly old enough to be her mother, we recognized each other immediately. It’s as if our souls are the same age, or as if we live in the same … whatever. We exist with the same sort of principles.”

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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