Zee Hatley is an associate producer on NBC’s internationally successful TV show, The Blacklist. In my interview with him he explains the various technical elements that go into the making of each episode including the use of VFX, color, sound, music and much more. He also tells me about his choice of music that he enjoys listening to.
PC: Where do you hail from and what was it like growing up there?
ZH: I was born on the Central Coast of California in San Luis Obispo. I spent ages 3-8 living in Greece and then Spain for 2.5 years each. After that, it was back to California and I’ve been here since. I like to think that, having lived abroad at such a developmental age impacted me greatly. I think of myself as a citizen of the world, much more than I consider myself an American. Though, when I was little in Europe, I was super proud to let everyone know, “I’m American”. You see in our current political climate that a lot of people never outgrew that. My brother is two years younger than me, and I think the experience was lost on him.
PC: Were you always a big film/TV fan? Which films and/or TV series really got to you or appealed to your teenage self?
ZH: I’ve always been a fan of TV and movies, but living overseas, I didn’t get a lot of TV that I could understand until I was a little bit older. I didn’t grow up with Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. I grew up with Voltron and bull fights on the TV. And we had VHS tapes that we wore out.
When we came back to the States my parents wouldn’t let me watch The A-Team. Not because it was too violent, but because the violence was too cartoony. Someone walks in spraying bullets and no one gets hit? Sorry, no. If you’re watching gunplay someone better get hit, and it better have consequences. Flying bullets equal death. My parents had been cops, so they wanted to instill responsible gun attitudes in me. Now it comes into play with my job. I’m usually the one sitting with the editor, figuring out where to place the bullet hits when we have people get shot on The Blacklist. We try to make it visible and visceral. If I’d worked on the A-team my parents would have let me watch it. Our bullets equal death.
I could go on about movies until my fingers fall off- explaining why Star Trek V has a special place in my heart, and how I don’t understand the flack that it gets… or telling you that Almost Famous was a movie I knew nothing about when I sat down in the theater to watch it, and how I felt I’d gotten my money’s worth by the end of the opening credits.
PC: What education route did you undertake?
ZH: I fell into a television production class in a 2-year college, when I needed extra units to keep my drivers’ insurance discount. I was a natural, having always excelled in high school projects where I could make a video. From there, I got an internship at the local NBC affiliate, working on the morning news. They ended up hiring me, and eventually I became a videographer. I did that for a few years, until I met a friend of a reporter I worked with, who worked in Hollywood as a writers’ assistant. He told me that if I ever wanted to try working in “real TV” he had a couch I could crash on. Four months later I was on that couch.
PC: Were you always more interested in the production side of television rather than being in front of the cameras or directing?
ZH: I have never had any interest in being an actor, luckily, since I have no talent for it. In editorial we often have members of the Post/Editorial team record temp ADR (Additional Dialog Recording) during rough cuts, rather than having the actors recording the lines so early, as they’re likely to change. The assistant editors learned pretty quickly not to bother asking me to do any readings.
I’ve toyed with writing and directing at various times in my career. I’ve done some short films in both roles, and found them immensely rewarding. Every department on any production is full of people who came to LA with the dream of being writer/director/actor and they have fully rewarding careers in wardrobe, art dept., editorial, etc. I think most of us want to know that we have contributed something important to the final product. I’m not kidding when I say this is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m proud of how much of every episode has my fingerprints on it.
That said, it’s been a few years since I did a side project of my own, and the itch is growing.
PC: Did you pay your dues and do your time as an intern to gain experience?
ZH: I did, at that local station before they hired me. I can’t say I learned much during the internship… but the important part of it was becoming comfortable in the environment. The learning started in earnest after I was hired. Nearly 20 years later and I’m still learning daily.
PC: It’s a tough industry to break into, I see you worked on Grey’s Anatomy, was this your first big break?
ZH: My first big break was after 4 months on that friend’s couch when his friend got me an interview at Fox TV Studios – a sister company to 20th Century Fox. They produced shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Bernie Mac. They also produced a little show called The Shield. When I was laid off after a year at the Studio, they put me onto The Shield as a Production Assistant. Grey’s Anatomy would have been a big break, but it was a hard show, and I left it during season 1 before it premiered. I kicked myself after it premiered with such big numbers. Fun aside, if you watch season 1 when they had a Main Title sequence, you will see my hands zipping up a dress, so by far my biggest break to date, was getting The Blacklist pilot. I knew it was going to be a huge success, partly because of how hard it was. In ways it was very reminiscent of working on the Grey’s Anatomy pilot.
PC: Are there any other projects you have been involved in, in which we might be interested?
ZH: I’ve been lucky to work on a disproportionate number of great shows from: The Shield, Grey’s Anatomy, White Collar (Pilot), The Riches, Saving Grace, and The Blacklist, of course. Last summer, while on hiatus between Season 3 & 4, I went to NYC to work for a few weeks on The Get Down for Netflix.
I’ve also worked on a number of pilots that didn’t go to series for various reasons, the most interesting of those, to someone of my generation, was a reboot of In Living Color. That was an interesting experience and an entirely different type of television production than I’m used to.
PC: Was becoming an AP (Associate Producer) always a part of the bigger picture or was it something you just graduated towards?
ZH: I stayed a production assistant for a very long time compared to normal. My goal was to stay hungry working toward my goal of writing/directing. I’d seen too many people give up on their dreams and end up working in this department or another until they give up on the dream entirely and head back home to work in an office. I didn’t want to do that. When I ended up working in Post, it was an easy decision to grow in the department. Everything else is so far removed from what ends up on air. Post is like being the anchor in a relay race… you hope that the lead runner starts strong and that the middle runners keep that lead or strengthen it… but when it comes down to it, wherever you are in the race when you get the baton, it’s you that has to get it across the finish line. If you’ve got the lead then you have to keep it, if you’re behind you’ve got ground to make up. I thrive under that type of pressure.
PC: In 2013, along with four friends, Jen Serena, Ric Serena, Jason Fitzpatrick and Durand Trench, you filmed a documentary called Mile, Mile and a Half. A recording of a hike you all took over 25 days, along the John Muir trail. I believe it was documented in different formats, from photography to art to music. It’s probably better if you talk about since I have not yet had the pleasure of viewing it.
ZH: Some very talented friends invited me to come along this hike -211 miles along the backbone of California- to help record the adventure. The idea was initially to be an immersive art instillation and maybe a short film BTS (Behind the Scenes). When we were back in the real world they looked at the footage and decided they had enough to make a feature length documentary. I’m incredibly proud to have been part of it and I love the movie we ended up with. It’s not extreme mountaineering, climbing K2, snowboarding virgin terrain from helicopters, or any of that. It’s five friends taking a long walk, meeting new and interesting people (including a brother and sister who brought paint and canvas to capture their journey), joining up with some more friends who brought some musical instruments along into this remote wilderness. The only negative reviews are from people who wanted the movie to be something it wasn’t an overly dramatic reality television style documentary or a silent picture-scape. It’s not that. It’s friends who actually get along with each other on a hike. We had an overwhelmingly positive response from people who loved the movie because they felt like the 6th friend who didn’t have to carry a pack to see the beauty that is the Sierra Nevada range.
PC: Do you have a favourite film &/or director?
ZH: I’m not even capable of limiting it to ten, let alone one. Different movies have meant so much to me. Various directors have periods where they’re firing on all cylinders and I can not love their films more than I do. I will mention The Gunfighter (1950) starring Gregory Peck. We have a tendency to think we’re so much better at what we do because we have so many tools at our disposal now. That movie is perfect in every respect: well-written, well-directed, phenomenally acted. If you see the ending coming, it’s only because of 70 years of cinema since it came out. It’s a reminder that we’re not breaking new ground, even when we try. We’re just trying to tell stories as best we can.
PC: Do other artistic media ever directly influence your work?
ZH: I’m constantly learning and absorbing. I don’t think I can draw a direct line anywhere. I think art influences life, which influences work. My wife is a printmaker and painter. She inspires me because she is so self-driven. She’s not facing any deadlines she doesn’t put on herself and she’s always been prolific. She’s endlessly creative and I only wish I were as driven as she is.
PC: In a nutshell what exactly does an Associate Producer do?
ZH: I joke that my job is to sit behind talented people and tell them what to do. If this were a construction site, I’d be the construction foreman. The writers are the architect, the cast and crew are the vendors (steel, concrete, etc.) and I have to schedule, make sure all these things come in on time, for the right people to do their job. Instead of a riveter, mason, drywaller, painter, etc. I have editors, VFX (Visual Effects) houses, sound mixers, colorists, etc.
I work with the editors to shepherd VFX to completion with our VFX vendor FuseFX NY, I sit in session with our colorist, Tony Dustin, to make sure any notes the director, DP, or producers have given get done (i.e. “sc. 27 should play dark and moody,” or “sc. 17 is too blue, can we tone that down?”) I also sit in on the sound mix, but that’s really the realm of my boss, Kat Goodson.
So I guess it’s not so much a joke. My job is to sit behind talented people and tell them what to do.
PC: What skills must you have in your arsenal to be able to do this job?
ZH: Mostly managerial, but knowing how a show is made- from top to bottom- is immeasurably useful. I don’t need to be an expert in any one thing. We hire people to be experts -colorist, sound mixer, etc.- but it’s extremely useful for me to have at least a working knowledge of what they do. I don’t know how to actually use VFX software, but if I know the basic tools the VFX artists use, sometimes I can suggest a “quick and dirty” way to do an effect so that it fits in our budget and looks good, where they’re often thinking of the coolest, hardest way to do it. (Our VFX editor is really good at thinking of these things, too.)
PC: How did you get the position you have currently on The Blacklist?
ZH: Hard work. I put in the time. When I wasn’t working, I was working on short films, either of my own or friends’ projects. I worked different positions so I know what electrical does, what a DP does, what an AD does; though I wouldn’t claim to be an expert at any of those jobs. I was also determined. I had a rough patch, wasn’t finding work, but I kept reaching out to people I knew, I begged for a job. Worked my tail off when I got it. I paid attention to everything. Knowledge is power. Half of any job is drive, the other half is knowledge.
PC: Is it very difficult to manage the runtime of each 43 minute episode?
ZH: It can be, but it’s a fight I don’t have to involve myself in. It’s usually the show runners fighting themselves because they like their words, which they spent so much time writing, to actually appear on the screen. But 43 is the magical number, and we have to hit it.
PC: You have previously stated that you are responsible for Editorial, VFX, Sound, and Colour which all sounds incredibly technical. Can you explain to us some of the terminology listed here and give examples with regards to a general Blacklist episode?
ZH: Editorial – assembly of footage, sometimes known as “the final rewrite”. The editor works with the director, and then the producers, to make sure that the story they wrote and shot makes sense in 43 minutes. Hopefully with some excitement and emotion.
VFX – From small things, like erasing NYC phone numbers from signs when we’re supposed to be in DC, to big things, like making helicopters crash next to parks full of kids.
Sound – mixing production audio, ADR (additional dialog recording), Music and Sound effects. You don’t think about it much, but sound is half of a show. You receive input from your eyes and your ears (I’m oh-so-glad we haven’t invented smell-o-vision yet). Ideally you could listen to the show with no picture and still know everything that’s happening.
Colour (Color to us yanks) – Is much what it sounds. We fine tune the colour pallet of each shot to help further the story. An upbeat scene may use more saturated colours and will be brighter, ours is a pretty dark show, so we tend to have dark scenes – and there the struggle is staying dark but being able to see what’s happening.
PC: I notice a lot of headshots on the show are very tightly cropped, is this common practice in a TV series nowadays or more of a style of edit that works better for James Spader and Megan Boone? What does this particular style of filming add?
ZH: If it’s common practice it’s because we pushed for it. It was a big point of contention during season 1, as common practice (and policy) was to protect for 4×3 (old square TV) framing. But our producers really wanted this look and fought for it. I think it’s one of the things that set us on the map.
PC: In a recent interview he gave, Kurt Kuenne, who directed the episode ‘The Lindquist Concern’, talked about the method of using three cameras to film the show. Can you explain the advantages and any disadvantages of this technique which present themselves in post-production?
ZH: The benefit is that you get more footage faster, the disadvantage is that lighting for 3 cameras is much more difficult, and staging for them is hard too, and often one camera will be within view of the others… It takes an experienced Director of Photography to use it to good effect.
PC: How much time, on average, is there between finishing post-production and an episode airing? Have you ever been in a situation where it has been very close to the wire?
ZH: Every episode is close to the wire. We usually air within 24 hours of delivery. The closest we’ve been is delivering within 8 hours of air. I’m told I’m very calm under pressure.
PC: How crucial is lightning in a scene?
ZH: Lighting is one of the tools of telling a story. If our show was lit like The Brady Bunch, The Stewmaker would not have been such a memorable episode.
PC: How much are you involved in editing scripts? Is it a necessary part of every episode or less frequent than we imagine? Do the actors and writers take kindly to your cuts or do they sometimes take issue and try to convince you to leave a scene or script as it was?
ZH: I’m not involved in editing of scripts at all, except for when the writers call for stock footage that doesn’t exist, or if the VFX budget isn’t going to be able to turn NYC exteriors into Istanbul for an entire act. Even then that’s not me, that’s just the realities of television production. I am not about to tell my bosses, “Ressler would never say that.” Story is their purview, mine is making it as pretty as I can. The scripts are constantly being edited from when the stories are broken until the last day of shooting, and as I said above, the edit bay is where the final rewrite happens.
PC: Fans- well okay, usually females who own the Blue Ray of series 3- have mentioned a lot, in various forums, how much they like the scene that was cut showing James Spader pulling on his trousers. Is there a huge stockpile of scenes that haven’t made the cut?
ZH: There’s a good amount. I don’t know how much of it would be compelling. It’s not that common for us to lose an entire scene. Usually it’s bits from this one and that one. I don’t think there’s any missing Spader nudity though, if that’s what you’re after.
PC: Can you give us a prime example of another scene, or scenes, that have been lost in the edit?
ZH: There was a scene earlier this season with Aram and Elise, just a short “look how cute they are together” scene that went away because the episode was too long and it wasn’t necessary in their arc at that point.
PC: It seems it’s mainly computer-generated imagery (CGI) and digital copy these days; does this make your job easier or more difficult?
ZH: It makes things faster, for sure. We wouldn’t be able to keep our schedule if our workflow wasn’t digital.
PC: Is yours a skill that is dying out and being replaced by digital hard/software?
ZH: My job is safe, because someone will always need to manage all of this. There are certain positions that are becoming more rarified, which is a shame. Layback operators, who are the technicians who marry final audio to final picture when we put everything on tape, are becoming less prevalent as shows start skipping the step of going to tape. It’s a shame because they’re a really skilled set of eyes; they see things that we might otherwise miss. In digital, there’s always the possibility of the file getting corrupted and introducing a visible glitch. They’re great at spotting those and audio errors. There are other similar jobs that have largely gone the way of the dodo, and we’re losing valuable eyes on the product.
PC: Can you give us an estimate of how long post-production takes on an average episode?
ZH: On a “normal” show it could be two months from when an episode starts shooting (and the editor starts getting footage to cut) until it is delivered. Our show averages 5-6 weeks.
PC: What sort of issues or circumstances would require a reshoot? Again, can you give us an example?
ZH: Sometimes an idea works better on paper than it does on the screen. When the producers or network see it in the cut it lacks the punch that they were hoping for. Then big meetings happen above my head and it’s decided whether the benefit is worth the expense (it is very expensive). I will say that Fitch’s head exploding was not how that scene originally went. There’s an alternate universe where he’s celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary.
PC: You are very good at tweeting teasers, and The Blacklist team often throw us a red herring. Are these deliberate attempts to sometimes cause controversy or does it just seem that way to outsiders?
ZH: Thank you. It’s all meant in good fun. We don’t want controversy, we don’t want fans fighting with each other. What we want is people excited to see what we’re putting on the screen each week. I don’t get paid or told to tweet, in fact I live in constant fear that I’m going to tweet something I shouldn’t.
PC: Can you recall the first time a record really excited you?
ZH: I recall that the first record I bought with my own money was Billy Ocean’s Tear Down These Walls. I wanted to drive and pick up a pretty girl. Nowadays I shake my head because it’s a song about being a successful cat call artist, and I don’t think that’s a thing that exists (nor is desirable).
PC: How important was music to you in your school/college years?
ZH: Music has been a way for me to tame the Procrastination Monkey (look it up on TED Talks)… I have a terrible wanderlust when tasked with menial labor such as homework. My parents learned early on, that if they put earphones on me with a tape that I liked, I would stop wandering around the house asking what everyone was up to and actually get my homework done in 20 minutes, as opposed to 6 hours. They of course, started with their favorites, so my first musical loves were ABBA Gold and Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer. Those got me through homework from grades 3-6. In high school I started finding my own music and was amazed when I learned that The Beatles, which I’d heard of (of course), had actually written/performed a great swath of music I knew and loved.
PC: Do you prefer more typically rousing music or more chilled relaxing music, generally?
ZH: Entirely dependent on my mood. I’ve been known to blast Megadeth at ear shattering levels when perturbed, but I also really enjoy some… you know, probably the former. I can’t think of a chill out song that’s actually relaxing. I like relaxing to music with panache. The most chill I get is Gordon Lightfoot, Queen, or the aforementioned Neil Diamond.
PC: Which classic album would you choose to lie back to, headphones on, to help you clear your mind of all the chaotic thoughts you have swirling around your head?
ZH: Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
PC: What was the last piece of music you heard that got you snapping your fingers? Do you ever get up on the dance floor?
ZH: I tend to dance in my seat. I think that’s a guy thing. I’m tall so I tend to feel pretty awkward on the dance floor. My wife says I dance well, so I’ll take her word for it. The last thing that made me want to dance? Oof anything, “Play That Funky Music” by James Brown, will always get my feet shimmying.
PC: Can you tell me which three pieces of music or styles of music you tend to find yourself repeatedly coming back to?
ZH: They’re all going to be various forms of Rock. As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s I enjoyed rap, but Hip Hop left me behind in the mid-90s.
PC: Assuming you enjoy live music, whose was the best concert you have been to?
ZH: Hands down- Prince during his residency at the Forum. I actually went the same night as Kat, my boss on The Blacklist. It was during a gap in us working together, but she saw on Facebook that I’d gone and she may have pointed me to a recording of the concert. It was transcendent. That man put on a show and his loss this year was a hard one. As was Bowie’s, though I never saw him live.
PC: Do you play an instrument?
ZH: I own a harmonica which I took with me hiking, figuring the trail would be a great time to learn. It was not. It’s hard to use a breath instrument when you’re fighting for breath at altitude. So, short answer- No, I do not play an instrument.
PC: What song do you just have to play at absolute full volume or sing along and belt out?
ZH: Sweet Caroline.
PC: Which Movie soundtrack do you never tire of listening to?
ZH: Do Use Your Illusions I & II count as a soundtrack?
PC: Which singer or band would you say you are a superfan of?
ZH: I don’t do superfan, but I do get deeply into an album and listen to it on repeat for months on end. I did for Kings of Leon, Fun, and Delta Rae; and I think I’m about to delve into The National in a deep way. It’s not always when they’re breaking, or even big, but when I like a thing eventually it’ll get there. I watched Moulin Rouge daily for about two months when it came out on DVD in 2001.
PC: Would you care to share a guilty pleasure, one that you would not be quick to admit to under normal circumstances?
ZH: I have no shame.
PC: Which piece of music (or poem read aloud) would you choose to have played at your funeral?
ZH: I don’t want a funeral. But if I must, I am embargoing Wind Beneath My Wings. It is not allowed. Nothing sappy. If anything- Truckin’ by The Grateful Dead
Final questions I ask everyone
PC: What is your favourite word?
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
ZH: Hawaiian Beach.
PC: I cannot possibly live without…
ZH: A voice.
You can find Zee on Twitter
Thanks very much to Zee for taking the time to do this interview.
This interview will also be published on our Blacklist fan website theblacklistnbc.com
Thanks to editor Davina Baynes
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.