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At the core of NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are the “heart songs,” which reveal a character’s inner emotions — and can be seen and heard only by Zoey (Jane Levy). For two seasons, these ambitious musical performances have been brought to life by the actors under the guidance of a tireless team that includes choreographer Mandy Moore and DP Shasta Spahn, who have collaborated on more than 130 numbers together. The series, which shoots in Vancouver, has a warp-speed production schedule, requiring Moore and Spahn to work closely together in a unique dynamic with creator Austin Winsberg. The pair, who also each directed an episode in the second season, became so close that they even quarantined together during the pandemic. Recently, they hopped on the phone to speak with THR about how they work together to protect the show’s look and feel, what they do when a director isn’t getting it, and the valuable lessons they’ve learned from each other over two seasons and 25 episodes.
When you first signed on to the show, what did you see as being the biggest challenge?
SHASTA SPAHN For me, it was always the heart songs — to do them with the right intent. That was hard because every director had a different vision for what that was. So I think Austin, Mandy and I really tried to keep that together. What about you, Mandy?
MANDY MOORE I would 100 percent agree. I think the volume of creation when it came to choreography for my department was definitely difficult, but I knew that going in. But we talked a lot about the nuancing of how we get into these heart songs and how we get out of them, because you go from reality and to what would be, in simplest terms, a fantasy, and then you have to come right back out. Shasta and I had many a conversation with directors and with Austin about how to do that, because it’s really hard to just explain to somebody coming in. You have to feel it and know it.
So how would you work with a director who you felt wasn’t really understanding how to make the heart songs work?
SPAHN As a DP, it’s really challenging because you have to protect the show, but with grace. You also have to say yes to the director. Every director has a different vision and a different ego, right? I feel like television directors are the most inconsistent in hiring. You’ll do a show and they’ll hire a director that has never done dance or comedy — they only come from action. And it doesn’t mean they can’t do it, but there’s a learning curve. I had a great director who we loved, but he’s like, “Put the camera on the floor. I want this wide-angle shot.” Which is not the look of our show because we never do a music video look, but I listened and I was like, “OK, I’ll do it.” And then the showrunner, Austin, came up to me and he’s like, “That’s not the look of our show.” I’m like, “I know, but you don’t have to put it in the edit.” So sometimes you have to just appease the directors. You also just have to make sure you get the footage that’s really going to edit and work with the look and the style of the show.
MOORE Dance is tough — especially if you don’t know dance and you haven’t spent time around dance and maybe don’t understand how it’s created and the best way to shoot it. On our show, we use dance as a vehicle for storytelling, so those were tough conversations sometimes with some directors. If you don’t know about dance, it’s hard to talk about dance in layman’s terms.
How do you work together? Do you sit down with the scripts and go over your vision?
MOORE So you would think that it would be that beautiful in the creation process, but no. (Laughs.) I feel like through the whole process Shasta and I became really dear friends as well as collaborators. The television workflow is so hectic, and Shasta was in prep at the same time she was shooting, so there’d be times where I just text her on lunch or I’d pass by during one of the numbers and be like, “I’m going to send you a video. Let me know what you think.” Or we’d meet up on a Saturday.
SPAHN Mandy’s team worked from morning until late night, through lunches, never stopping because they were always a couple of episodes ahead, and then trying to deal with the current episode. So a lot of times we would have meetings before a shooting call. We’d have meetings at lunch, meetings after wrap, Saturday and Sunday meetings. We always did great when we had more time to prep, but you just had to roll with it. It was like no project I’ve ever done before. You just don’t ever stop.
After COVID-19 hit, you two quarantined together in Vancouver before you could go back into production. What was that like?
MOORE So Shasta and I got called up to direct, and Shasta’s episode was right after we got out of quarantine. And, if I remember correctly, Shasta, we both looked at each other before we left for holiday break and I was like, “OK, let’s quarantine together because then we’ll get some real time together.” Shasta found this amazing home in Squamish that was up in the mountains and the trees. Every day waking up, you’d just be like, “How are we living here?” And then we get to just talk about the show, create. We cooked a lot and hung out a lot and drank some wine and researched shows. Oh my gosh, we would watch all these shows and talk about why we liked things and why we didn’t, and it was really a special time.
With such complicated musical numbers in every episode and an intense production schedule, how do you work best with the actors?
MOORE Well, I get the lovely task of coaching them through something that none of them have grown up doing, and it is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. From day one, we set a standard: “You’re going to come to rehearsal, you’re going to love it, you’re going to trust us, and we’re going to make magic.” And I have to say, short of maybe a couple of times where they get cranky because they’re tired, they are really beautiful humans and they love coming to dance.
I appreciate that and I take that very seriously because none of them are dancers and they’re putting themselves out there in a way that is not something they’re comfortable with at all — so I get to see all their neuroses and their insecurities. To see them evolve from, “I don’t know if I can do this,” to, “I’m shooting this in a one-take and it’s going to be on national television,” is really a special process. Shasta, you spend 14 hours a day on set with these people, so that’s also a different experience.
SPAHN Yeah, it’s so different. In terms of dance and singing, I think they did such a good job. I know probably technically Mandy could watch them and say, “That works, that didn’t work.” But I would watch the performances and just think, “Wow, they’re so good.” I definitely felt growth in a lot of the actors. They really cared and tried so hard. The actors are all so different, so you learn how to communicate with them. I had a different dialogue for each actor and a different way I would speak to them just in terms of what the camera was doing. They were a lovely cast to work with and we had a lot of fun on the set, which I think is really important to do, while still executing at a high level.
What’s one thing you’d say you’ve learned from each other over these two seasons?
SPAHN I learned so much from Mandy — I feel like I’ve learned a lot about dance and movement and bodies and how you want to see that and how you should film that, because I hadn’t shot dance before Zoey. I also learned a lot about prep, time management, being efficient and on a schedule like this one and still trying to execute at a super high level. And politics. Mandy is also one of our producers and dealt with so many things on so many different levels with total incredible articulation and grace and humor, but could be firm. I learned a lot on the show — I learned everything.
MOORE I’m going to cry, oh geez. What did I not learn from Shasta? First of all, just seeing her lead a department as a strong woman who always carried herself with elegance and grace, and was kind to people — but also just a badass. I don’t know if I have ever said that to you, Shasta, but I remember when you had been putting together your pitch deck for the show to get hired and our producer at the time had shared it with me, and I just remember thinking, “Whose voice is this? This is so beautiful.” Seeing you every day on set, just doing your thing, everyone just loved you. I am forever grateful, and I just can’t wait to work together again.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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