The first full-on musical episode in the Star Trek franchise premiered this week. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ “Subspace Rhapsody” was directed by Dermott Downs, who began his career as a child star in Disney movies, then became a cinematographer and eventually a director, moving from music videos to TV episodes and films… and occasionally specializing in musical episodes. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to Downs about helming this groundbreaking episode and the choices he made along the way.
Can you tell me about the prep for this episode? Working with the actors during rehearsals, what the mood was like, their confidence levels…
Secret Hideout was great in that they brought me up two weeks before normal prep even started. And there were the temp tracks that weren’t recorded with the cast already laid down. Script was already written. And so for two weeks, I got to walk the stages with the choreographer Roberto Campanella, who’s quite an established choreographer, but he’s also done creature choreography for Guillermo del Toro, and just a fantastic artist and human being. And so for two weeks, we got to really listen to the songs, imagine the kind of choreography that was different for each tone, because the songs are so different, and then really start to visualize that.
So by the time my normal prep started, and I met everybody, it was a pretty clear idea that was just left to then flesh out with the actors as far as what they felt great about or what they wanted to push. And we fortunately had a great schedule. So there was not like a song that I was like, “Ah, man, we left so much on the floor.” I really felt proud of the cast and the crew’s commitment to just putting it out there. And, you know, they came in on weekends to rehearse. They would stick around to watch their castmates’ numbers, because they were just so invested in the idea.
Was there anyone who was particularly nervous among the non-singers?
Anson [Mount], you know, he had talked about “look, I really haven’t sung” and I was like, “Yeah, but what’s great about your number is, you’re really having a conversation.” It’s a conversation in front of everybody set to music, and he’s humiliated and horrified at the same time,as he’s compelled. And he just gave it his all. There was never even a question that we even wanted to interpret it like him getting into choreography as far as dancing, because he wasn’t compelled THAT far. He was still the captain of the ship.
But I don’t know that Paul [Wesley] had done ballroom dancing. Paul and Rebecca [Romijn], they have the first number, which is quite whimsical and fun. Even though they’re compelled, it’s sort of like, ‘Are we singing, are we not?’ And then the music just propels the story. And obviously, the music gets more intense and exposes more of what they can’t say through words, and it builds and builds until we have a sing-off with the Klingons.
How was it working within the space of the sets of the ship, and how much freedom did you have in those spaces?
When I first started doing episodic TV, there would always be the bottle episode, and that’s where the episode is written to take place within just the stages. And I did an episode of Blindspot and I learned really quickly that okay, well, but there’s freedom in that too—and that was a “Groundhog Day” episode. There’s freedom and because the sets are huge, they’re really fantastic. So the goal was just to use as much of that as we could and to be as cinematic as we could in the choreography, in the characters… you know, spaces of feeling alone. So it wasn’t constricting at all. And the sets were built with so many removable walls and access for equipment and just actor-friendly, so there was just so much freedom.
Was there anything you wanted to do but couldn’t do for logistical reasons?
The number with Rebecca and Chrissy [Chong]… it’s in zero gravity. I wanted to get a little more… not operatic because even in all the songs, the show is still really really grounded, but there were a couple of maybe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moments in that zero gravity, but it might have been too much, so I’m kind of glad that we didn’t go that far. But that was the one thing that wasn’t, like, left on the floor because there became a decision not to do that. But I had earlier thought, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be cool.’ And in looking at it, it still keeps it grounded and intimate.
But everything else now I mean… I got to have the whole crew come down the hallway and do a full 360 with the camera, and that was the only shot for that whole little break in the song. I’m like, ‘Nope, don’t bring any other cameras out.’ Because we’re not going to break that up in the edit, it’s going to just flip everything as we all are racing to the bridge to beat this. And then we have Carol Kane, Ethan [Peck], and Chrissy in the engine room like Queen [laughs]. That was probably—that was even, more than the choreography of running down the hall and spinning the camera with not an option, it was like, ‘Okay, is this too meta?’ But at that point, look, you’re in a sing-off with the Klingons doing K-pop. It’s still grounded, but we’re singing and we’re trying to beat them. So that was fun all the way around. And the fact that everybody, cast, crew, and you know, Bill [Wolkoff] and Dana [Horgan] wrote such a great script. I was one of many to make this happen.
At the very end of the big finale, we see Carol Kane and Anson Mount dancing together. Was that spontaneous?
Spontaneous, I give that to them. You know, as the sort of pixie dust comes down as they shattered the anomaly; through music, we’ve beaten the odds and just said look there’s something to celebrate. It’s not Henry V after battle, there’s something celebratory because we’ve all been through this, and let’s honor the music still. So Spock’s on his own because he just realizes he and Nurse Chapel probably are not going to happen. But everybody else was certainly high-fiving. And I went to the monitor and it was like, oh, man, that’s awesome.
What was your exposure to Star Trek and Strange New Worlds before you got the call? And were you surprised to get that call?
I had not been part of all the new iterations of you know, Discovery, Picard. But I’m a huge fan of the original. When I first met [with] Secret Hideout, I was just honest. I said, “Why another Star Trek?” Because what was awesome about the original was how bold each episode was as a standalone: comedy, drama, love story, what have you. And they said, “Well, that’s what we’re doing. And we have a sitcom, and we have a musical.” And I got into this business after watching Oliver Twist. As a seven-year-old, I memorized the songbook and became a Disney contract player. And then, through college, I transitioned into cinematography in the music video era, so I got to make four or five music-driven films a month for a couple of years. So when I met them, and having had done “Duets,” the Flash/Supergirl musical, I had some gravitas. So it just opened up that conversation. And the idea-it first seemed like, “Okay, we could be jumping the shark here,” but not at all. I think that I think Bill and Dana wrote such a great script that once you understand the anomaly, and you were running with it… It’s grounded, and that’s what’s most paramount to them. That was the thing most stressed in all my levels of prep that everybody did discuss, the tone of the show. And even though this has got 10 musical numbers, it is a very grounded episode still.
The way the camera moves in Celia [Rose Gooding]’s big number, it helped so much to tell her story. How was that to film? Is that the number you’re proudest of? Do you have a favorite?
Celia’s was like the power ballad. To me, it was like, ‘Okay, this is the biggest song,’ but she has had probably the most experience, although Chrissy released an album this summer, and, she’s got her own musical journey. But like, okay, Celia’s really got a confidence going into this singing and I know she’s going to nail the emotional elements of that. And just not wanting to get too pyrotechnical with the camera, but also just give it those big power ballad moments where you’re letting the camera fly back with the notes flying out. And I felt we got it, we had a great marriage of that. And so in a way, that was probably the biggest number, because the big chorus line finale was broken up all over the ship. And then it’s just basically on the bridge. In a way, that’s kind of the biggest number in one place. But it was not difficult to film at all.
La’an’s… I was kind of terrified [of] Chrissy’s because it was four and a half minutes in her quarters. And I was like, ‘Oh man, how are we going to make this visual?’ I don’t want the music to be distracted by a lot of visuals to make a musical story out of this. And we had a lot of conversations about that and I thought we found a great way to keep it really internal. And her moment of exploding out of her room in her head originally was going to be like The Sound of Music, like her in a field and then he [Kirk] appears, and I thought ‘that’ll be wild’ and we’ll go giant and like Terrence Malick in nature and then.. the show was so internal, on the ship, it was like, what else could that be? And Chris Fisher, the producing director, had mentioned [director] Amanda [Row]’s episode where they [La’an and Kirk] meet on an alternative Earth and there’s this hotel scene, and they were going to do pickups of that scene during my prep and said “What could you do there?”
At first, I was resistant, thinking I have this explosive nature to contrast everything else. And then it became just the intimacy of ‘I can express myself in a way that I can’t in real life.’ And so it’s under the sheets, it’s just intimate and magical and romantic in a way that she can’t be in her real life. And that’s as much of a favorite as any of my songs, and it was probably the one I was most terrified of just because it’s her bedroom and it’s a big song. I thought she nailed all these moments. we were able to still use the space but still feel kind of organic and how she would be singing to herself.
Were you in the edit helping put it all together?
Yeah. The editor is editing all the way through from the day you start, and I’m in constant dialogue with my editors just to touch base on ‘this is what I’m thinking and these are transitions I like’ but editors are free to sort of interpret it on their cut. And sometimes you’re surprised but for this, there were a lot of times I didn’t leave a lot of choices on for some things. But yeah, then I get my own four days and then put my stamp on it, but everybody’s collaboration on this was part of what makes it as good as it is. It wasn’t certainly just my vision.
New episodes from season 2 of Strange New Worlds drop weekly on Thursdays on Paramount+ in the U.S, the U.K., Australia, Latin America, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Season 2 is also available on SkyShowtime elsewhere in Europe. The second season will also be available to stream on Paramount+ in South Korea, with premiere dates to be announced at a later date.
Keep up with news about the Star Trek Universe at TrekMovie.com.