Wilson Talks Directing “The Escape Artist”
Don’t get mad tonight. Get Mudd. Yes, good ol’ Harry Mudd is back… and back to his familiar tricks of stealing and double-dealing in “The Escape Artist,” the fourth and final Star Trek: Short Treks episode, which will premiere at tonight at 9:30 pm ET on CBS All Access (in the U.S.) and 9 pm ET on Space (in Canada). Returning as Mudd is none other than Rainn Wilson, who also settled into a director’s chair to helm the installment. StarTrek.com recently chatted with Wilson, who previewed “The Escape Artist” — which finds Mudd in a precarious position aboard a hostile ship… just in time to try out his latest con. He discussed the joys and challenges of directing the segment, and mused about his and Mudd’s future on Star Trek: Discovery.
How did the opportunity to direct your Trek short come about?
I had been in discussions with the Discovery gang about coming back and doing more Harry Mudd and then this short just fell into my lap. I read it and I was like, “This is brilliant. This is absolutely hysterical and strange and exciting.” And then they offered to have me direct it as well. So, I was thrilled at the opportunity. It was an incredible learning opportunity. I’d directed three episodes of The Office before, but The Office was pretty simple. It’s like, “Where are you going to put the camera, to cover the dialogue and the desks?” We used documentary-style cameras on The Office. This one was a lot more demanding.
You’re a Trek fan, you’re a Mudd fan, you’re a Roger C. Carmel fan, and obviously you played Mudd a couple of times. So, even if the script was given to you in advance of you directing, how much input did you have into the story’s evolution?
They were very good about that. I had a couple rounds of notes with the writer and the producers, just making sure it all added up, making sure the tone was the same, making sure it made sense. With Mudd, the tricky thing is tone. It’s, “How do you balance the comedic with the serious? How do you balance the lovable shyster with the Machiavellian villain?” It’s always a balancing match there. I did have input. They were also really good to me as a director because this was a little out of my element. I hadn’t really done this before. I got to work with a storyboard artist, which was amazing. That really helped me see, visually, how this was going to work. For instance, half the episode is set in the Tellarite ship. How do I make that interesting? How do I shoot each scene? We keep coming back to it and leaving it and coming back to it, and it’s got to feel different and visually arresting and interesting. That was a great opportunity.
I got to learn a ton about visual effects and special effects, and how visual effects work, what it is when you do a plate shot and you have multiple Mudds in that plate shot. It was just so many visual post aspects that I needed to become acquainted with, and they have such a huge, amazing team there. We were shooting this when they were shooting the last episode of Discovery’s second season. So, we were there right at the end of it. I got to use their wardrobe department and their hair and makeup department, and their special effects and visual effects and set design, plus their composers and everything like that. It feels like a multi-multi-million-dollar production.
You spent a lot of time being hit or zapped or even suspended up in the air a couple of feet. When you were hanging there and called “Cut,” the crew could’ve just walked off for lunch. What was it like directing yourself under those circumstances?
Thank God the crew did not rebel, and they didn’t leave me suspended in the prison there. One of the tricky things is always acting and directing at the same time, because you have to call “Cut,” and then you have to run over to a little monitor and watch the last take and watch your performance and make sure it’s fitting in with everyone else’s performances. But you’re also keeping an eye on everything else, like where the camera is, how tight the frame is, and you’re thinking, “Is everything happening in the right order? Are we telling the story that we need to tell?” It’s incredibly challenging being on both sides of the camera, but boy, it sure is fun. Fortunately, like you said, I’d played Mudd a couple of times, so I really knew the character pretty well, and I kind of know how I wanted to play him.
Harry Judge is terrific as your Tellarite. How did you enjoy working with Harry, and is this Tellarite the same one — Gorch — he’s been playing on Discovery?
I think it’s a different Tellarite. He’s like their all-purpose go-to Tellarite guy. This is a different. It’s kind of like the old Shakespearean theater companies. The costume fits him. “Who does the costume fit? Oh, it fits Harry Judge.” He’s a terrific actor. He’s theater-trained. He’s done a ton of Shakespeare. He’s done a ton of TV and film. He just embodied the character, brought it to life, did a fantastic job. I hope they can bring him, in whatever Tellarite form, back to Discovery.
We have no idea if you’ll be back on Discovery as Mudd this season, but if you get that chance now or at some point later on, how would you like to see the character evolve?
I would love to be back on the show. I would love to do more Star Trek and more Harry Mudd. I think the evolution is keeping the audience on their toes. You don’t know if you’re supposed to be laughing or if you’re supposed to be afraid for your life. He’s a master of illusion. He’s a conman, and nothing is ever as it seems to be with Harry Mudd. That’s what’s really exciting about him, and I hope that we’re able to play with that aspect of his character in the future.
“The Escape Artist” concludes the rollout of Star Trek: Short Treks, four standalone stories building toward the early 2019 return of Star Trek: Discovery.
“The Escape Artist” premieres tonight in the U.S. on CBS All Access and in Canada on Space.