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'Blindspot': How working on music videos led to Mark Pellington's look for the hit show




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NBC's "Blindspot" stars Sullivan Stapleton as Special Agent Kurt Weller and Jaimie Alexander as Jane Doe.
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NBC’s new show “Blindspot” is the story of a woman, played by Jamie Alexander, suffering from amnesia-like memory loss. It’s a bit like a mash-up of the Jason Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” The main character is called Jane Doe, and her body is covered with tattoos, each of which contains a clue to her past — and a crime.

The mystery-thriller premiered to very strong ratings — and that's thanks in part to filmmaker Mark Pellington. He’s the director of the “Blindspot” pilot and an executive producer on the show, though Pellington’s career might not seem like he’s a natural fit for primetime TV.

One of the creative forces behind the early video collage look of MTV, Pellington has worked on music videos for Pearl Jam, Michael Jackson and U2, among numerous other acts. He also directed the movies “Arlington Road” and “The Mothman Prophecies.”

Mark Pellington spoke with the Frame's John Horn. 

Interview Highlights

How have the musicians and acts you’ve worked with over the years influenced you?

It’s always music first. If I love the music and I love the emotion of the music, ideas pour out of me. And if I don’t, I don’t even write the treatment for it. So whether it’s a Foo Fighters or Dave Matthews, each of them have really been reflective of where I’ve been personally in my life. They’ve saved my life, they’ve gotten me through deep periods of grief and catharsis and healing. So I am grateful for every song that has crossed my desk or headphones, and I will always love to do [music videos]. I don’t care what the budget is. And, you know, sometimes the budgets come and go. But it doesn’t really matter. If you have an idea and a point of view, there’s always young, creative camera people and editing people and effects people. There’s young crews who want to really go out and make something interesting. So it’s probably my favorite form. That and films.

Between music videos, you’re also doing what we’ll call the fine art videos. Pieces that could be in a museum or an exhibition space. In 1992, you collaborated with science fiction writer William Gibson and musicians Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel for an installation. Can you talk a little bit about why that is an important part of your portfolio?

If I had stayed in New York, I probably would have continued into that path of being a visual artist or a fine artist. And when I came out to California and decided to try my hand at movies, I’ve never lost the interest in projections and installations and creating art. And I’ve had a recent deepening in interest and confidence in my photography. And I joined a company a couple years ago that Jesse Dylan owns.

Jesse being Bob Dylan’s son.

Right. So Jesse owns a company called Wondros. You know, we’re there to direct commercials and music videos, but what they’re really there to do is to help support filmmakers’ and artists’ visions. And to try to say, great, make an entire film on a poem. Or do you want to learn about virtual reality to do something in the installation space? [Wondros tries] to expose their artists and filmmakers into that world. So that’s something in the last year that I’ve been deeply trying to engage.

Wondros sounds like a continuing education lab for filmmakers.

It is... Part of it is like, there’s personal art that you can express. And there’s art that I can make on my phone. And there’s apps that I can use and make my own art that I’m not begging people to give me money for. I’m not in the powerless position of... being at someone else’s mercy to create. And that’s a big part of the business. So when you just say “I want to go make something,” and you can get a crew of six and you can go. You have to do it cheaper. But you learn by doing it over and over again that the artistic satisfaction of making a 58-minute film... and seeing it at the Vista Theatre... It’s like, that’s really beautiful. And I remember a few years ago, I was like, I don’t care about any blockbuster career. I want artistic satisfaction and that creative fulfillment that I think comes with in realizing who you are and what your place is in the world. And in my case as a father, as a person who’s trying to makes sense of all the stuff that’s going on.

But can you bring what you do in a non-narrative or even a music video world into narrative storytelling like “Blindspot”?

Very much. So what it is... Even if I’m doing something abstract, I still think of it in story terms, even if it’s subconscious. Therefore, when I go do “Blindspot,” maybe I’m a little free-er. I’m a little less rigid. I can be a little more aggressive visually or a little more contemplative on a certain scene, because I can look at it on another level. So they all always kind of influence [each other] and there’s a great cross-pollination, and I love shifting from medium to medium — or really form to form.

One of the things that’s notable about “Blindspot” is that it’s cinematic. You clearly are shooting this like a filmmaker. So how do you bring a filmmaker’s perspective to a medium that is not always filmmaker friendly?

It’s pilots. That’s the word. And in pilots there’s a deep respect for the director, because you really have to imprint the show... And you’re allowed to kind of treat it like a film. Yet you have to be smart, and you know what you have to do is create a model that can then be achievable on a weekly basis.

It seems like, for you — for somebody who is interested in so many different things — this is a great time to be living. That you have the opportunity, maybe, to make a 10-hour cable series, you can do music videos, you can do feature films, you can do commercials. You can do a lot of different things if the opportunity is there.

If the opportunity is there. Like, again, there’s ups and downs. You can ask any filmmaker who’s done commercials, the last couple years have been really tough. Because you look at more directors, less reliance on broadcast — broadcast is just getting eaten away... So a lot of the commercial-making business has gone to online content. Younger directors, hungrier directors... I constantly try to work with younger people, because it helps me learn and keep swimming in the stream.

It sounds like MTV all over again.

It actually really is. You know, when I joined Wondros a few years ago I said it felt full-circle... But that same kind of enthusiasm, that same kind of almost crazy — and ask any crewmember that’s worked with me — almost crazy “let’s go do it.” I don’t have a lot of fears when it comes to making things.



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