• Mark Brennan

'Lost' star Henry Ian Cusick cutting his directing teeth with short film 'dress'


Henry Ian Cusick, star of Lost, The 100 and MacGyver, talks to us about making his short film dress, lessons learned both as an actor and a director during the process, and the challenges between directing short film and television series.

Nowhere is completely safe in the middle of a pandemic, but if you had to think of preferred places for this period of isolation, Hawaii might make the list. And if there's one man that knows about isolation in Hawaii, it's Lost star Henry Ian Cusick.

When Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown, it didn't take long for references to Cusick's Lost character Desmond Hume to surface as a comparison for how people might spend their own time in isolation. It's a reference that must have reached Cusick quickly.

"I've seen a few memes and few things on Twitter about it. It's been fun. It's funny how quick you do get into a routine and it does involve working out. I never would workout as much as I do now, but every morning I do because it's something to kill time. My family keep urging me to do a reenactment in the house of the whole quarantine episode during the opening of series 2. Maybe I'll get round to it."

Despite my encouragement, we must wait in hope that it will be the next home video to take Twitter by storm. However, when it was coronavirus taking the world by storm, eventually taking hold in the US, Cusick was in Atlanta filming the latest series of MacGyver. How quickly did they realise something was very wrong?

"We went back to work in January of 2020 after a big break. I was hearing a lot about Wuhan at the time. There's a big Chinese community here in Hawaii and there was a Chinese New Year, so I'd been hearing about it. Then as things progressed we had the big spectrum of opinions on set. They ranged from 'Ah, it's nothing, forget about it', to 'Whoa, just don't touch me,' and "Why is that person coughing and not wearing a mask?' I just thought 'There's no way we're going to finish the season'.

"Then we got a phone call halfway through Episode 20 saying, 'we're going to shut down'. We just sort of downed tools and left. I think Grey's Anatomy was the first one I read that shut down. We all followed very quickly after that. The rumour is we'll go back and finish the season when we can get the all-clear."

In the meantime, Cusick has safely reunited with his family on his home island Hawaii, which is the location for the short film that has prompted for our chat - his directorial debut dress.

It's a poetic and emotional tale of Ben and his two sons as they struggle to cope with the death of his wife Maile. In searching for an appropriate way to grieve, Ben creates drama, confusion and a whole new way of remembering Mom.

"I was just so keen to direct something, having spent time writing pilots, and I had this idea while my wife was away. I was in the kitchen and I could hear the kids coming home and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if I was just standing here cleaning up the kitchen wearing a dress?'.

"Then I thought 'why would I be wearing a dress and how would it affect them?' Then it went on, 'What are the taboos of wearing a dress?' I can wear a sarong, that's okay, but I'm not allowed to wear a dress. Why is that? It just snowballed from there.

"I approached my friend Angela Laprete, who was one of the producers on Lost and I said, 'I have this idea for a film. I'm just going to shoot it at home with me and my kids. It will cost nothing, shoot on a couple of 5D cameras, will you help me out?' She said, 'Yes'. Then a month later there's 35-40 crew in my house, two Red cameras, and we were shooting dress! It was phenomenal."

Much of the team that Cusick and producer Angela Laprete were able to pull together, including DOP Don King and stunt coordinator Brian L. Keaulana, were also Lost alumni (even the films composer Michael Giacchino). The project also gave a chance for some crew to work a level above where they might normally, an additional incentive when many, if not all, gave their time for free.

One striking sequence early in the film beautifully captured is a funeral at sea. Seeing a scene of such grief play out against a backdrop of what is something of a literal paradise, is a powerful contrast.

"I've always been aware that Hawaii, it is sort of paradise. I was aware of doing this beautiful ceremony at sea, which is very common here. Funerals are usually beautiful things because you're in the sea and it's usually a sunny day and everyone jumps in the water. That is kind of inherent here in Hawaii.

"Of course, the day we did the funeral scene, it was quite cloudy! I boosted the colours in post, but it was a cold, wet day. We were there all day and it was pretty windy. Usually, Lanikai is completely flat. It's one of the flattest parts of the island.

Speaking of colour-correction, it was post-production where Cusick learned the most. It was a process that took over a month while staying with friend and editor Mitchell Sinoway.

"Post-production, for me, that was definitely the biggest learning curve. I had to redo my sound because it wasn't good enough. I found the editing really tricky. Getting one part of the scene right meant another would lag, and just having to balance it all out to make it all work continuously was really quite challenging.

"I remember when I finished filming, one of the crew said to me, 'Okay, you filmed it, now you've got to edit it'. I think he was throwing down the gauntlet in a way, 'Now we'll see if you can direct'. That's when you can make or break a film, when you're in the editing process. Even with an episode of anything, that's when magic can happen and when you can change the whole storytelling dynamic."

Going back to more familiar territory, having worked with numerous directors in the past, how did he find directing himself?

"The pressure from me on myself as an actor, I really enjoyed that. I knew exactly what I wanted for myself, so I didn't have to spend too much time looking at what I did. I started off looking at the monitor and then it just took too long. My actors head would say, 'I don't like the way I did that.' So I had to stop doing that. I had to trust my DP and my cameraman. I would give myself one maybe two takes and move on.

"Usually, when you're working on film and TV, you're going to want to warm up two to maybe three takes. By the third take, you're usually getting it right. Not in this case. I would rather spend the time on the other actors.

It was having the opportunity to direct other actors for the first time where Cusick felt really at home, with many of the cast first-time actors themselves. The experience also taught him a lot about himself as an actor and how easy (or otherwise) he may have been to direct in the past.

"That's one of the things that directing has helped me a lot with, because for a little while I would say I couldn't be directed [laughs]. A guest director coming in to direct me in a TV series would have found it very difficult because I was set in my ways and I knew best. It taught me a lot to listen and respect other people's views because they're only trying to help.

"But you have that thing of having to hand over trust to a director. It's very hard to do that in episodic TV where somebody is coming in and you have to just say, 'Well, I don't know who you are. I'm just going to trust you. You just put the camera there and I will do what I do, don't give me any notes' [laughs]. So working with actors, I really enjoyed that, and I really felt I could help them. Especially actors who had never acted before."

Working with actors from behind the camera wasn't the only experience that helped him progress as a director. The nature of short filmmaking, the quick decisions needed when time, funding and circumstances are working against you, helped when it came to keeping his head directing episodes of The 100.

"Yes, it had been something that I had seen in other directors, how they lead. I've seen directors kick things over and start shouting and swearing when things go wrong. I've seen other directors just improvise and say, 'Fine we'll do it this way'. I've always admired people who can do that when the shit hits the fan.

"There's a poem, 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you. But make allowance for their doubting too'. That is just like a great opening line for any director. That did help me a lot, not only as a director but in life."

I offer that it must be difficult to parachute into a running series as a guest director, when the cast and crew are very much already in the groove of what they're doing.

"Absolutely. That is very difficult. The director has to win the trust of the crew. Not only the actors but the crew because that's important. If you lose the trust of the crew, the crew will just ride over you. It's a machine and I've seen directors just get snowballed. They're still thinking of the last setup and we're moving onto the next one. It's a fine balancing act. Keeping the crew happy, keeping the actors happy, getting your vision across.

"Since I've directed, I'm a lot more open to that now. I'm listening and I'm thinking, 'I'm on your side now'. Before I used to be only on the actors side [laughs]. Now I'm listening to the director and asking, 'What's your vision? What do you want? Okay, I'm going to help you out as much as I can.' I'm now trying to be the actor that I would like to direct."

Looking back at dress now, and the beginning of his journey as a director, what advice would he go back and give himself, or indeed another other filmmaker about to produce their first film?

"Well, I was very fortunate with dress. I had a lot of crew, a lot of help, but one thing I did do was rehearse. I got all the actors to come over to my house. We rehearsed every single scene before we shot it. I knew exactly what I was doing. That I would definitely do again. That saved me a lot of time on the day.

"I think I would have liked to learn more about the camera, and about the shots that I wanted to get. My DP did a great job and I love what he did, but I think we could have gone a little bit cooler, a little bit more experimental. I think when making a short, you can have fun, you can take chances, which you can't do when doing television."

"If I were to do another short, I would be a lot more experimental, a lot more avant-garde. Try things that you just to know you wouldn't be allowed to do in the real world. You might as well go for it."

You can watch dress online here.

You can follow Henry Ian Cusick on Twitter: @HICusick