In 2015, after six years of playing Shortland Street’s Cooper family matriarch, Wendy, actor Jacqueline Nairn was ready for a new challenge that didn’t involve wearing lavender hospital scrubs. Not wanting to leave the studios of Shortland Street entirely, Jacquie decided to reinvent herself as one of the soap’s directors, and the passionate redhead (one of my close friends) is relishing the new challenges being thrown her way.
So what’s Jacquie’s work life like now that she has moved from in front of the camera to behind it? I caught up with her to ask her.
“I knew I would like directing,” Jacquie says, “but I never expected to love it as much as I loved acting. So that was a huge surprise to me, and an awesome one! Being a fulltime actor in New Zealand is almost impossible, and I knew I wanted to stay in the industry in some capacity, so the opportunity to train and become a director has been incredibly satisfying.”
Shortland Street directors are given ‘blocks’ of five episodes each, with each block screening between the Monday to Friday of a week. Jacquie receives her block of episodes and preps any location scenes first. This involves visiting locations that aren’t filmed in the Henderson studios that are home to the standard Shortland Street sets.
“The heads of each department (HODs) – camera, lighting, sound, art department - come to the location too, so that we can look at the location and discuss the best way to film the scenes being shot there. After that, I plan my shots, and create storyboards as thoroughly as I can. If the crew and production team can see my initial plan, then they can build on it, adding their expertise and helping me deliver the best possible end result.”
Location shoots for Shortland Street are generally filmed with two cameras, and three cameras in the studio sets. The Director’s Assistant (DA) will collate Jacquie’s camera scripts for a day of shooting based on the rehearsals that are done with actors the day before. It might amaze you to know that an average Shortland Street episode has around twenty scenes per episode, and a scene that’s been rehearsed takes around twenty minutes to shoot.
“The DA will know the script as well as I do, and be across my initial plan to keep continuity for each scene, while the First Assistant Director (AD) will run the floor, making sure that things are going smoothly and everyone is where they are supposed to be. But everyone on set is just as important as each other and it’s a total team effort,” Jacquie says. “I rely on everyone standing on set with me, and try and bring my best work in the hope that that the team around me are inspired to bring their best work too. Which they invariably do. Shortland Street works hard and fast and everyone tries to bring their A game. People will always bring more to add to the scene if they know that I’m bringing 200% every time.”
Having been in front of the camera herself during her time on Shortland Street, Jacquie found the transition from actor to director “difficult” at first. “I was used to hearing different things on set as an actor, as actors don’t really tend to listen to the tech speak on set from the crew side of things; you just tune it out. So it was like learning a whole new language, which was an eight month learning curve.”
So does being an actor herself mean Jacquie has inside knowledge on what an actor needs to hear from a director?
“I’m aware of what I needed from a director, so sometimes I might do that, but it’s not necessarily what every actor needs. Acting is about finding the truth of the scene, listening, responding, considering where your character is in their story arc, about understanding where you are in relation to those characters around you. There are different stages of experience on set too, so a more experienced actor might need less direction, while less experienced actors might need more. It’s about working out what each person needs and responding accordingly as a director to get the very best performance out of them.
“Rehearsal time is my ‘actor time’ when I really work with the actors in prepping for a scene. Every scene is like its own play, so rehearsals are about doing the work on story and character and eliminating any potential issues that might hold up the machine and getting them right before the adrenalin of filming begins. That’s when it’s the crews’ time to do their thing. But things always change – you’ve just got to be flexible and go with the magic.”
So who has it harder, the crew or the actors? Jacquie laughs. “I definitely have a new awareness and appreciation for other roles like floor managing, and scheduling!” she says. “The crew have no downtime and are on set for eleven hours a day; it’s relentless. There is no nap time, or late starts, or sitting in a dressing room waiting for your next scene. But the pressure is always on the actors to deliver every time on a really tight schedule. Shorty is a machine that never stops.”
And her best moments as a Shortland Street director?
“A block of Shorty takes four weeks from prep through to final screening of the episode with the producer, and watching those finished five episodes, I feel incredibly proud. Knowing that the team have done a great 12-hour day on set that was long, hard and exhausting, but exhilarating as well. But the best moment I’ve had was when my tutor director complimented me on a really tough performance scene I had directed, and said I was doing really well. And along with that, getting two separate messages from fellow cast members that I had acted with, telling me how much they enjoyed working with me as a director. That was the best feeling in the world.”Support Villainesse