Alec Smight has directed over twenty episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and there’s no sign of him slowing down. Employed since CSI’s inception, Smight started off as an editor and gradually explored other avenues behind-the-scenes such as producing and directing. His latest episode–which airs this Wednesday–marks the fourth time Smight has played a critical role in a cast departure. The incredibly busy director took some time out of his weekend schedule to discuss his transition from editor to director, playing a major part in cast departures, and tease his upcoming episode with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders.
CSI Files: CSI has done a really good job at allowing people the opportunity to try different things on the show, and you’re really no exception. After editing the show’s pilot episode and many thereafter, how did the chance to direct an episode come about?
Alec Smight: It’s interesting because when I first took the job on the “Pilot,” I had been offered another series with an opportunity to direct as well, and it turns out that the person that hired me on CSI didn’t hang around, so I kind of had to start from the ground up and develop a relationship with Carol [Mendelsohn, Executive Producer] and everybody but they’ve been so supportive of my work. They were great.
CSI Files: Do you miss editing at all?
Smight: It’s interesting because my other role as a producer is in the cutting room mostly, so I’m still involved in editing, just not hands-on at the machine. I don’t feel like it’s not part of my day-to-day activities. That’s what I bring to the table, I think it’s my strength. Not running the machine, I don’t miss that, but I’m still in there making editorial choices when we’re making changes working with our three amazing editors. It’s a lot of fun.
CSI Files: You’re the producer of the editing department just like Louis Milito is the executive producer in charge of production, and so forth?
Smight: Yeah. It’s funny, at this point, this particular season, I’m directing so much I ended up grabbing an extra show because somebody had dropped out of the rotation. If I’m unable to go in and sit there with Carol and Don [McGill, Executive Producer] when we’re going through the cuts, he’s done that as well, but for the most part that’s how that’s supposed to work out. We all screen the shows together once the directors are done with their cut, and then a lot of times Carol and Don will have some broad stroke notes, and I’ll go in the cutting room with the editors, and we sort of execute those together and then as long as I’m not in prep or directing an episode, I’ll sit in with Don and Carol when we do the final cuts. I’ve been doing this for a long time. A lot of times I can help come up with solutions to problems that they have, and I can help the editors figure some things out, so I really enjoy that. It’s the problem solving side of it that I always loved about post production.
CSI Files: What do you find to be the biggest challenge as a director? Do you find it to be more or less complex than editing?
Smight: I’m an outgoing person, so the hardest part being an editor for me for so many years was just working by myself. I love being on the set. We have an amazing crew. The cast is amazing, so it’s really fun to work with everybody and collaborate. That’s what I love about the directing side. The difficult side is the television schedules. We are an ambitious show in terms of what we want to put on the screen, and we only have seven days of prep, and we shoot our episodes in nine days, so it’s just trying to get the most out of your day. That’s probably the biggest challenge. But sometimes it also creates interesting opportunities to be clever and figure out a solution, a way to do something where you’re running out of time or something that’s difficult to execute. I love having to figure those things out on the fly, it’s fun.
CSI Files: Your next episode is a rather significant one titled “Willows in the Wind,” which focuses on the departure of Marg Helgenberger. From a director’s standpoint, what do you do differently on an episode like this compared to a more standalone installment?
Smight: As you know, this was part of a three-episode arc, and I had the good fortune of doing the first and the last ones, so I was involved in helping to build that. That was actually kind of fun. And then Louis Milito did the one in the middle, and it was kind of fun sharing that with him. The challenge I think is—we wanted to give Marg a good sendoff, obviously, and I think they wrote a really cool story, and it’s different than what we normally do week in and week out because our shows for the most part are standalone. Trying to bring CSI world into a three-story arc, which we rarely do, was probably the biggest challenge. And also making room for Marg to have her big moment at the end where she gets to say goodbye to everyone, wrapping up the story to not feel like that moment was short-changed. That was everybody’s big goal, make sure we serve a good story and give Marg her time at the end to have her goodbye. I think we did, and she’s wonderful. Her last couple of scenes are just terrific, and hopefully there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
CSI Files: You played a major part in previous departures as well. You directed William Petersen‘s final episode and edited both “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “For Warrick”, which saw Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle) and Gary Dourdan (Warrick Brown) leave. How much pressure do you feel when being attached to such an important episode?
Smight: If you look at the big picture of CSI world, you can certainly get overwhelmed like, “Oh gosh, I’m having to deal with kind of a big thing here for this series.” But in terms of just personally dealing with stuff like that, you have to look at it like another episode and not get overwhelmed by what’s going on. At the same time, I know at the end of the day, when the show’s all over with, that these are significant episodes. I’ve just been very fortunate to have lined up with a lot of them. I feel honored to have been part of Billy’s departure and Marg’s. Again, the trick I think in approaching them is to try to not think about all that and just worry about what we have to do to get the show made, and usually that turns out to be the best approach.
CSI Files: In “Willows in the Wind”, Catherine and Russell (Ted Danson) find themselves in quite the predicament. Can you tease a bit about some of the things happening in the episode?
Smight: In “Ms Willows Regrets”, the whole FBI zipper guns thing sort of comes back into play, and Marg essentially becomes a target. In my episode, it’s all about survival and then figuring out a way to catch our bad guys.
CSI Files: It’s fair to say that you’re not killing her off. That’s pretty much for certain.
Smight: Without tipping anything off—I’ve looked at the promos already, I don’t think the network is trying to tease that. No, we’re not killing her off. But she does have a brush with death, we’ll put it that way.
CSI Files: How do you approach the emotional beats in the episode? Were you relying more on the actors’ real life feelings as opposed to them acting out their sadness over Catherine leaving?
Smight: Yeah, I think you kind of hit it there. In this instance, especially after twelve seasons, there’s no avoiding the fact that a goodbye to the team at CSI is also a personal goodbye for Marg. One of the things I wanted to make sure we did when we shot her last scene was…I thought we should do her close up and coverage first. No matter how skilled you are as an actor, when you turn and face people you’ve worked with for that long, it’s going to become as much about the character as it is about Marg personally. I wanted to make sure that we could capture that. If there’s anything I did out of the ordinary in those scenes, it was that. I wanted to make sure that we did Marg’s coverage first instead of traditionally doing sort of a master and then moving in for closer coverage.
CSI Files: What was your final moment on set with Marg like?
Smight: It’s weird because for me too, I was there right at the beginning because I was involved in editing the pilot. It was emotional. She gave a wonderful speech to everybody, kind of her own goodbye right after we did her last shot, and I was pretty choked up. Her son Hugh works on the show, and he was there. It was just a lot of hugs. It was a big moment, similar to when Billy left. We all knew it was coming, and luckily our schedule allowed us to shoot Marg’s goodbye scene as the absolute last thing we did. The last thing I did was drive a nail into the spot where her final mark was, and Louis Milito did the same thing when we shot Billy’s last scene, so if anybody ever gets to visit our stage, those two spots are marked permanently.
[I’m] not sure what they’re going to do for Marg. They were shooting in that set yesterday, and there’s a nail in the ground with paper around it that says “do not remove,” so whatever they’ve got planned for it isn’t done yet.
CSI Files: Has there been an episode you directed that you found particularly challenging? You’ve directed like 25 episodes, so that might be a tough question.
Smight: It is a tough question. Probably the one—it was the second-to-last episode last year, the two-parter for Laurence‘s departure because so much of it took place in Los Angeles. It was almost like doing a pilot. Our normal locations, we’re always looking for parts of Southern California—or occasionally we go to Vegas—but mostly parts of Southern California that could double for Las Vegas. In this case it was the opposite, all of a sudden we were scouting Los Angeles to be Los Angeles, which we all decided should be sort of iconic. We wanted to have the ocean, we had the Santa Monica pier, we shot at Hollywood. So just logistically, that may have been one of the bigger ones that I’ve had to do.
You mentioned Billy’s departure and Marg’s departure. I think just in terms of emotional impact, those two. I guess if I had to pick three that were challenging for me, it would be those.
CSI Files: And the opposite side of that question: you’ve directed a lot over the years. Is there one you’re especially fond of?
Smight: I don’t think my answer could be anything but my first one, just because it was something I’d been wanting to do my whole career. The people on the show are such a great group. Carol’s been so wonderful to me, and getting that opportunity and having the crew be so supportive, and I was blessed with a great script—I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. It was a dream come true, and I was really proud of it when the show came out. Allen MacDonald wrote that episode. It was just a great experience from top to bottom. I had a lot of George Eads [Nick Stokes] and Jorja Fox in that show. Billy actually wasn’t in it because we were doing double-ups that year. They were all wonderful, it was just great. That was like a dream experience.
CSI Files: This season alone you’ve directed four episodes, and you started shooting your fifth on Monday. What can you share about the episode you’re filming right now?
Smight: Elisabeth Shue‘s [Julie Finn] debut was in the episode that just wrapped, and she comes in as a consultant, so I got her first episode as sort of a regular CSI and part of our team. I’m excited about that. That’s the challenge, I think, to see how we integrate her into our team. There’s a lot of meeting everybody that’s involved in the episode and trying to make that not feel anything but real. There’s also a lot of comedic elements in it. I think those are some of the more interesting shows that we do, but there’s a fine line. You have to be careful not to let the comedy become too broad and drift into silliness. So that’s my challenge on this one, to keep it grounded and real. Melissa [Byer] and Treena [Hancock] wrote a really fun script, and we’ve got a wonderful guest cast, so I’m excited about this one.
CSI Files: Will you step behind the camera again this season, or are you taking a much-deserved break?
Smight: I actually have two more after this. I was scheduled to do six episodes, but we had somebody to drop out of the rotation, so this one I’m doing right now is sort of a bonus episode. I have two more after this. I’m sort of on a greased rail to the end of the year. I’m doing Episode Eighteen and Episode Twenty-two.
CSI Files: So basically what you’re telling me right now is you haven’t slept in almost six months.
Smight: [Laughs.] But you know what, I’m not complaining at all. These are rock star problems. I’m having more fun than I ever have professionally, so it’s just been a blast.
Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.