Interview: Jeff Hunt

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Hollywood is a business where sometimes you have to start small to go big, and Jeff Hunt can prove it. Tomorrow night’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is Hunt’s fourteenth episode as a director, but his legacy on CSI extends way past his initial credit on “Bite Me.” Serving as a camera operator since “Cool Change,” Hunt continued to follow his dream and was finally given the opportunity to direct shortly before season five ended. Since then his career has exploded with high-profile directing positions on shows such as Nikita, Fringe, Burn Notice, and Chuck. Speaking with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders this past weekend at his home, Hunt looks back at his years on CSI and previews this week’s episode “CSI Down.”

Director Jeff Hunt. (Photo: CSI Files)

CSI Files: Characters from the show have found themselves in grave danger before. As a director, what did you do with “CSI Down” to differentiate it from prior storylines?

Jeff Hunt: Obviously, yes, we have had lots of episodes where—Tarantino’s being the most famous of the CSIs in peril; Nick’s buried underground and we’re all racing to him—and definitely that episode and the way Tarantino handled that inspired me. Tom [Mularz, Writer] and I actually sat down and looked at some footage from that episode and kind of looked at things Tarantino had done to inspire us. I’ve done fourteen CSI episodes and [“CSI Down”] was the first one where I really had this timeline. They know they have to save Morgan [Brody, Elisabeth Harnois] and they have to figure out where that helicopter is going and keeping our people really active. Not the normal we can process DNA, we can sit and think about it; we didn’t have time for that. We had to move on any evidence we had as fast as we could. For me that was new for my CSIs; we’ve had that pace in other shows that I’ve directed, but for CSI that was different for me. You can see in this episode the camera is going to be doing different things, I’m moving from one scene to another in different ways. It’s a very elegantly shot show because you can sit and analyze evidence and as a character the camera can match that. This [episode] is about movement and about being able to save this person; we are in jeopardy here.

CSI Files: So in this episode they’re working more on gut instinct as opposed to concrete evidence?

Hunt: Yes. You’ll see our characters get us a small piece of something and hey, that sends me here. Instead of where we need to analyze or sit around and think about this, they’re moving quickly from what they know as CSIs.

CSI Files: How do you take an episode that’s a departure from CSI and make it feel like an episode of CSI?

Hunt: No matter what episode of CSI you’re looking at it is an evidence, clue-driven story. Like all CSIs, it’s not that different, it’s driven by the evidence. Just because someone’s life is in jeopardy and there’s a clock ticking on that life and a helicopter doesn’t have that much fuel in it, we still have to do what CSIs do: we still have to look at the evidence. We might not have time to process the DNA but we’ve got to take what we learned from all other experiences and use that gut instinct.

CSI Files: How do you create tension in situations like this when Morgan clearly survives her ordeal?

Hunt: What makes you think that? [Laughs.] I think what happens to the characters in that helicopter will surprise you. I think the way you feel about the character of Frank who has taken over this helicopter will surprise you. Who he is, the journey he’s on, what are his motivations; he’s not your typical bad guy. I’m hoping as a viewer you’ll be rooting for Frank in the end.

The surprises are going to come as who Morgan is. We don’t know much about her yet and we don’t know how she handles situations yet, necessarily. The jeopardy is very high for her. We get to learn about how she handles pressure and we’re going to find a lot about what brought her to Vegas; what is going on with her and her father? We’re going to learn about those characters in this episode.

CSI Files: You’ve been with the show since the beginning. How was it working with new cast members Elisabeth Harnois and Ted Danson?

Hunt: It’s interesting… Ted being the new star of the show and I’m directing episode five, so he’s done four episodes and now a part of the show.  I show up and he goes, “Oh the new guy!” and I go “No, you’re the new guy! I’ve been here for twelve years!” [Laughs.] Ted… he’s fantastic. He is a kind man, he is a committed man, and he brings a life to the set that I haven’t seen in a really long time. He brings energy to shooting that hasn’t been there in a while. I think Ted is the rebirth of CSI. Not that it needed a rebirth, it’s always been a fantastic show and always been my greatest pleasure to direct, but he is something special. This is an actor that I’ve followed since my childhood and to be able to direct him was a real pleasure.

CSI Files: You directed Laurence Fishburne’s (Ray Langston) last episode without even knowing it. Does it kind of feel a bit eerie?

Hunt: No, I really enjoyed working with Laurence Fishburne. His approach and process on set was definitely different than Billy’s [Petersen, Gil Grissom] or Ted’s, there’s no doubt. As a director I find it an honor and a pleasure to direct him. I will always look at the episodes I did with him, especially his last episode, which performance wise I think was pretty awesome. It’s a dark horror movie; we made a dark horror movie with that episode. That’s what my goal was; that episode will always stand out as one of my great achievements as a filmmaker.

I remember shooting the last scene of the episode where he’s at the interrogation and we did the take a few times and Laurence is just looking the investigator down. I came in and went, “Hey Laurence, can you give me one where you just crack your mouth?” He said, “Well what am I saying?” and I go “It’s not what you’re saying, it’s that a thought would be forming and that will leave our audience with that great question.” The honest truth is I had asked Carol [Mendelsohn, Executive Producer] what is to come and no one knew.

CSI Files: The promo for “CSI Down” shows Greg (Eric Szmanda) erupting in anger, something that viewers have not really seen from him in a while. Was that in the script or a direction on your behalf?

Hunt: Some scripted and the level of it was a character choice between Eric and me. We discussed it when I was prepping and Greg has an investment in why Morgan is in that helicopter. There’s something going between those two a little bit and I’ll be interested to see people’s reaction [to it].

Eric plays a really strong character; Greg is a strong guy. He’s usually kind of on the sidelines going through the evidence and a very methodical thinker. We don’t necessarily see that raw passion out of him all the time and I think that is something fans will really like out of this episode. Greg is heavily invested in the situation that is going on.

CSI Files: You started out as A-Cam/Steadicam Operator on the show. How did your first directing gig come about?

Hunt: I started episode one of shooting, the pilot had been made the year before and the show was offered to me by Roy Wagner who was coming on as Director of Photography. There were some other shows that came up but working on CSI seemed like the right thing to do. I had worked on many other projects as a camera operator but Danny Cannon I found very inspiring. This young guy came in who had a really clear vision of what an episode was and it inspired me. I wanted to be a part of that. Episode twelve or thirteen Danny was made a producer so he would be full time on the show and I just loved operating for him; that kind of just kept me around. Danny took me under his wing somewhat and was like, “What do you want to do?” We were going through cinematographers and he was wondering if I wanted to be a DP on the show. I said, “What I really want to do is direct.” I made a short film, which Danny recommended, and it was well liked. For a couple years there was talk but when you’re the number one show and Bruckheimer is behind it, you don’t really let the camera operator direct an episode. They really had to push with CBS and Bruckheimer to give me an opportunity. It came down in the end with Carol, Danny Cannon, Louis Milito [Executive Producer], and Billy saying this has got to happen. At the end of season five they let me know. There are no words to describe the gratitude I have for those four people. They handed me my dream.

CSI Files: CSI has been an opportunity for you to branch out to other shows as well. Do you like getting the chance to change projects up every week, or would you prefer a more stable director-producing gig?

Hunt: Good question, one that my agent and I talk often about. It’s a tough life right now because LA is dead as a film town. You can see where I live. This is where family lives, where you’re sitting. I live in those two suitcases out there, and that’s hard. My first and primary focus is my family, my wife and my four children, but I gotta work. That is my passion, and it puts me in an airplane, out of the country or in other states. So yeah, if a director-producer job was offered to me here in LA, I would jump at it because I’d like to stay at home. I would like that job because you become so intermixed with every episode, and you know…I direct Fringe, which is a show I absolutely love, but I don’t have the time to watch every episode, and it’s a very serialized [show]. The five that haven’t aired by the time I go to direct one, in prep I don’t have the time to sit down and read the last five scripts, so it’s tough to know the storyline. But if you’re the director-producer on that show, you totally understand the mythology. You totally understand the storyline, so you don’t have to do all the question asking that I have to do when I show up at Fringe. Like, “Oh, what’s going [on?] This episode was the last one I watched, and I need to know [what’s going on] now.”

There is a certain excitement that cannot be reproduced that comes from showing up somewhere new every month, and that’s sort of how this year is looking for me. I’ve got a bunch of repeat episodes. I did a couple of Hawaii Five-Os, three or four CSIs, a couple Nikitas, some new shows, Person of Interest, Vampire Diaries, which I haven’t directed before; some more Fringes. There’s an excitement that every month it’s going to be a different show. I’m doing sci-fi type stuff this week, and I’m doing serious drama over here, and I’ve got vampires there, and I’ve got a magical computer that tells you who’s going to be murdered this week, and every show has a different style, and something you can bring to it. It’s very exciting as an artist to be mixing it up.

CSI Files: Has the opportunity come up at CSI?

Hunt: No, it hasn’t, and financially it will never come there because to retain me to stay on full time would just be a lot of money. I would not have grown as a filmmaker, you wouldn’t have “CSI Down”, you wouldn’t have “In a Dark, Dark House”, those episodes would not be what they are if I hadn’t gone everywhere else. The greatest blessing of my career is that when I hit, there were so many things going on with [Jerry] Bruckheimer that I was able to branch out immediately and build a career. Without that, as an artist, I would not be where I am. You could not replace what I have learned on the other shows, and right now, that’s kind of where I want to continue.

CSI Files: So far, your resume is strictly episodic drama. Have you ever considered doing comedy?

Hunt: You get typecasted. Let’s face it, I’m an action drama director, and that’s the shows I’m being hired to do. If you could call Tina Fey, I’d really like to direct 30 Rock, or I’d really like to direct The Office because those are the two shows that I escape to. When I got home from Canada I had an Office marathon, and I watched the four episodes I hadn’t seen yet. Those are shows I love. I love to laugh, but I think my strengths are in blowing crap up.

I directed an episode of Chuck a while back, which had comedy on it. It’s fun to sit on set and be cracking up at the monitor. I did an episode of CSI that was my comedy episode, which was “Drops’ Out”, and we had moments there where you’re just like, “Hold it in until I say cut. Don’t blow it.” You’re just cracking up because Method Man would be doing something just hysterical. That’s fun. When I go to the movies, I’m usually going to see an action drama. I wanna tell Black Hawk Down. I want to tell Man on Fire. That’s what I’m going to be drawn to, and it’s nice that I’ve landed there. In the end, rather than standing around having everyone laughing, I want to have Nikita blowing something up and kicking some butt. I want to race to find someone, to save someone. In the end, that’s really where my passions are.

CSI Files: You have quite the ongoing bromance with the cast of Nikita.

Hunt: [Laughs.] My wife tweeted and kind of called it that, and started it.

CSI Files: Do you ever use responses that you get on Twitter and kind of change your project in ways that maybe the fans would want to see?

Hunt: No, but I will say, I’m not an internet guy. I don’t have Facebook. I never wanted to catch up to people in high school that I don’t already stay in contact with, but Dustin [Lee Abraham] got me to do Twitter, and immediately I got feedback. It was amazing to me to see fans who knew my episodes. They knew which ones I had directed, and they had comments. They weren’t always positive [Laughs], but I love that. I tweet for the feedback. It’s inspiring. I think any artist wants to feel that what they’re doing is influencing others or bringing joy to others.

I’m not trying to save the world, that’s not what I do for a living. I try to entertain people. I try to give people a great 44 minutes. I’ve always felt a director’s first responsibility was to entertain. You can’t tell any story, you can’t give any point, you can’t make any impression about anything in the world if I can’t hold your attention. I want to entertain people, and people feed back to me that, “Oh my gosh, I love that episode.” Hawaii Five-0 has a big Twitter follow group, and I got so much positive comments back and questions, and I’ll answer some of them. It brings me real joy.

But the bromance, to get back to that [Laughs], if that doesn’t sound weird. I like to go to the gym a lot, that’s kind of my escape from the world and from my job. Devon Sawa, who I worked with on Nikita on my first episode, became a really good friend of mine. He’s really into MMA fighting, which I’m into too, so we started taking classes together on MMA fighting. My wife kind of makes fun of the whole thing. Then Shane West last summer came to the gym almost every day with me when I was in town, so we tweeted a lot about that, and my wife also made fun of that. That’s kind of how that whole thing [got started] on Twitter.

CSI Files: Is the content you tweet out up to your discretion, or do you have to get clearance from networks [or] studios?

Hunt: I just tweet at random and wait for the fallout. [Laughs.] I’m smart enough to know I don’t want to tweet [certain things]. I was directing the episode of CSI: New York where [Peter] Fonda dies at the end, and I wasn’t going to tweet a picture of that. I don’t want anything in my stories that I direct to get out. You talk about the promos for “CSI Down”, and they make my blood boil. I directed the episode of CSI: New York where the house blows up, “Green Piece”, which is one of my favorite episodes I’ve directed, certainly in the top group there, and I remember the writer Zach [Reiter] and I blew the house up, and we were like, “Yeah, that’s gonna be in the promo. Everyone’s gonna know that’s coming.” You don’t want anything getting away, so I don’t want to tweet anything that gives too much away.

We tweeted pictures of the helicopter down because those who are following me on Twitter who are real fans of CSI can read the title of the episode, “CSI Down”, and they’re gonna put two and two together. But I certainly don’t want you to know what happens to anybody in that helicopter.

CSI Files: Do you have any favorite directors besides Tony Scott that influenced you into your television projects?

Hunt: Yeah. You talk about me being trained to be a director, and I worked for Danny Cannon, Ken Fink and Richard Lewis primarily. If there’s any three directors I did the most episodes for, it would be those three guys. I worked with Ken on other shows besides. I learned so much from those guys. All three [have] very different directing styles, but they all inspired me when I was the operator and made me want to be a director. There were other directors who’d come through and frustrate you, and you think, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” but those guys are artists. They are solid, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Lewis was always very inspiring. I just thought, “I wanna be like Danny. I want to come in the set like Danny and just know what the project is exactly, come in with this clear vision.” There’s no film school, there’s no anything, there’s no price that could ever be put on the training I was given in the years I worked under those guys.

Working with [Quentin] Tarantino [was] the nineteen best days of my career. It was a magical thing. The first minute he was on set, me and him just hit it off really good. Michael Slovis, who was the DP on that episode, he wrote me a thank you note at the end of the season for my hard work, and he was a great guy. He said, “It was really awesome to watch how you and Tarantino worked together.” Tarantino offered me to work with him afterwards, after CSI, which was tough to say no on some of his projects that went on after that because my directing career had already started, and it was time to focus on that and to say goodbye to the camera. But the value of what I learned on that camera, under such great directors, was priceless. Such an amazing time.

CSI Files: What’s your favorite thing about directing CSI?

Hunt: You couldn’t ask for a better cast than the CSI cast to work with. There’s not a complainer, there’s not a spoiler in the whole group. I’ve gotten to watch them all grow as actors. They are just fantastic. And they’re so serious. George Eads comes in so prepared…He just knows the scene and what his character is doing there. As a director, what more could you ask for, to have an actor who’s so prepared and so passionate? Let’s face it, Eads has been doing this role for twelve years, he’s making a ton of cash, he’s a great looking guy naturally. He could phone this in, but he doesn’t. I have never directed an episode [or] had a scene where I thought George wasn’t prepared. You can’t say that everywhere. It is a fantastic cast.

CSI Files: What has been your favorite episode to direct?

Hunt: [Laughs.] It’s either that question, or it’s, “What’s your favorite show to direct?” There is no answer. I’ve learned from every one of them. There’s certain ones that I think I hit it better than others…Television director, you show up, and you’re handed a script, and you’re gonna direct that script. You didn’t choose it, you didn’t have input in it on the board of what it would be the months before. That’s the script. You’re going to direct it. Now, you get to have input, and in places like CSI, Carol Mendelsohn wants to know what you feel about the story, and you can suggest all the changes you want, but let’s face it, you’ve got seven days. You’ve got to prep that sucker, cast it, find all the locations, figure out how you’re going to shoot it, pick the props, pick the wardrobe, and shoot the thing in seven days. That’s a lot, so you’re gonna shoot that script. Some scripts speak to you, and some scripts you direct.

I’ve never directed anything where I didn’t give 100% or feel my whole career hung in the balance of the outcome of this episode anywhere. I’m passionate about every one, but some scripts just speak to you, and the story is just so clear in your mind and what you will do with it. “Bite Me”, so lucky, my fist one, that script just spoke to me. I look back at that and I think, “Gosh, am I doing that now? Am I making choices, am I doing artistic things like I did?” There’s this beautiful moment in “Bite Me”, it’s one of my favorite moments. Billy says “Stairway to Heaven”, and the light comes up, and it blows out. I was reading that script…that shot, that effect came to me, it was just in my mind as I was reading the words. He said that, and I just visually saw it. It doesn’t always happen. I’m very fortunate it happened on that first one.

I went to direct [Terminator: The] Sarah Connor Chronicles, and they had a big feature director lined up for this huge episode they were doing, and he fell out at the last minute, and they were kind of desperate. Prep started Monday, and it was Friday at 5:00. They needed a director, and luckily my name was floating around and I got in. I read that script, which scared the living crap out of me. It was the biggest action thing I’d ever done—visual effects, going in the future, terminator stuff—but the script spoke to me. You read a script and you see in your mind the camera, you see the performance, you see when the actors look to each other. It’s really magical when that happens, and it’s not always.

CSI Files: You’re going back to CSI for a couple more episodes this season. Do you have an idea when those might be?

Hunt: I think I’m doing twelve and twenty-one. [Edit: Hunt will be directing episode sixteen and twenty-one.]

CSI Files: Twelve is Marg Helgenberger’s (Catherine Willows) last episode.

Hunt: That’ll be sad. That’ll be rough on me. I remember my last episode I directed with Billy, “Young Man With a Horn”, we were shooting in the bar scene. It was the last scene of the episode, and I was leaving the next day to go direct another series, and I knew it would be the last time I’d see Billy in production. It was rough on me. Here’s the guy who handed me my dream. I learned so much from [him]. He’d been so generous and kind to the crew, caring about the crew, and I had to say goodbye to him. The rest of the crew did it all together…but I had to do it by myself, just me and him. He said, “Ah Jeff, I just don’t want to do this.” We hugged. He was in tears, and I was in tears. What an amazing man, what a good human being. He is unreplaceable.

I think Ted Danson brings a little bit of that magic back. I just think it’s gonna be a fun show with Ted. I know [on] “CSI Down”, I had a fantastic time with Ted. It was just great, and it made me feel like I was back with Billy. The energy on set and the excitement about the story, the excitement about what we were doing, it felt like episode two of the series…I’m excited for the show, and it deserves it. It’s got some of the hardest working people I’ve ever known in Hollywood. Carol Mendelsohn—I owe her my entire career, when it comes down to it. She’s always been so supportive of me, so kind, and the words she’s said about me in other places that have helped my career is so important to me. She’s such a good person, and is an amazing showrunner to collaborate with. I just enjoy preproduction with her, sitting in her office, going through the script with her, talking about what I want to do, or could we do this, or having her feelings about what it should be. It’s priceless.

 

Follow Jeff Hunt on Twitter: @Huntvision

 

Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.

Shane Saunders
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