By Joey Moser
Lev Spiro didn’t want to mess up his latest directorial effort for the fourth season of Orange is the New Black. He had previously worked with creator Jenji Kohan for Showtime’s Weeds.
“I guess the biggest challenge is to live up to the material. You read it and think, ‘Christ, this is good!’ and you just don’t want to fuck it up.”
Lev Spiro hit the directorial jackpot when he landed a gig with the latest season of Netflix’s prison drama. Now in its fourth season, it had its best season yet this summer, and Spiro was asked to helm “People Persons,” the 50th episode in the series. It’s a dense episode packed with almost every series regular you’ve come to know and love, and Spiro ably brings his expertise to make this great material come alive on screen.
“When I got to the set I thought, ‘Gee, now I have to prove myself.’ You are the guest on set. You have to earn the trust of the actors. That’s one major challenge. One advantage I had was that I had worked with Jenji Kohan before on Weeds. When you’re new on a set, they put pictures up of the cast. You normally have a few principal speaking parts. There were 52 speaking parts on my episode. I took a picture of it, sent it to my wife, and said, ‘Well, here’s my cast.’ ”
Even though Spiro has worked on shows like Ugly Betty, Modern Family, and Arrested Development, he truly gets to flex some dramatic chops with “People Persons.” The employees of Litchfield are spooked by the discovery of a former guard found hacked to pieces in the prison garden. As with all Orange episodes, we are treated to more backstory of one of the prisoners, and this episode focuses on Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Aduba has two Emmys for her portrayal so far.
“Sometimes you don’t know what’s coming when you’re asked to be a part of something. You don’t know if you’re going to get a great episode or if you’re going to get the dog of the bunch. When I found out that I was going to be handling Crazy Eyes’ back story, I knew I had something good. I knew, even before I got onto set, that Uzo Aduba was a great actress, but then I was blown away by how nice of a person she is—that’s not always the case with some actors. I have to say Uzo always makes fascinating choices. The last person I saw make choices like that was Mary Louise Parker when I was involved with Weeds.”
The most dramatic moment comes when the guards select a group of inmates for questioning for the possible involvement of the murdered guard. New Captain of the Guards Desi Piscatella is interviewing Red about her possible involvement, but, in the other room, the new dude bro guards of Litchfield are bored and want to see a fight. A rebuffed Maureen volunteers to fight Suzanne, but Suzanne insists she doesn’t want any part of it. After a few tense moments of pushing, Suzanne unleashes a fury on Maureen and beats her unconscious. While Orange has showcased violence before, it feels even more personal because it’s egged on by men who don’t give a damn about these prisoners.
“I’ve done lots of violence in other pilots and features. With this, I wanted it to be different. With this scene, I wanted there to be real consequences—both physically and emotionally. I stayed close to the editor, and I noticed he used a lot of close-up shots. It’s really graphic, and that really sold the emotional aspect of it. I have to tell you that when Uzo broke down afterwards, that’s not in the script. She was overcome with so much emotion with that feigned violence that she was overwhelmed. I wanted to make sure that was captured, so I pushed the camera over. Uzo lets herself be that vulnerable.”
While “People Persons” brings the drama, there is some levity. In a fun and awkward moment, celebrity prisoner Judy King suggests that she and Luschek try Molly in her cell, and they end up having a threesome with Yoga Jones. While this may seem like a very easy scene to shoot, Spiro explained that it was a lot more complicated.
“Well none of these three actors had done ecstasy before, so to describe believable behavior was actually quite difficult. It was hard to give result-oriented direction and hard to describe how it affects you. Hard to get the right tone. It came out great. It looks a lot better than I thought it would.”
One of the reasons why the writing is so strong on Orange is the New Black (especially this last season) is that it isn’t strictly defined by drama or comedy. Awards bodies never know where to put it, but that’s one of the reasons why it remains one of the best shows on television.
“There’s a great Lasse Hallström quote (that I can’t remember) about the concept of life not being purely tragedy or comedy. My instinct as a director is to ground everything emotionally. Jen’s writing has always been a difficult note to strike, but it’s all worth it. What’s funny is that I submitted this episode to the DGA as a comedy, but then they called me and told me that it’s being considered in the drama categories. When they told me they were considering me for UnReal because they saw my work on Weeds, they gave my two scripts to read. The first one dealt with everyone reacting to a suicide, and I kept thinking, ‘I hope they don’t want comedy…because it’s not a funny script.’”
When we started talking about current television, he revealed that he loved HBO’s Westworld (“it combines a lot of great stuff: western, sci-fi, action and I love the landscapes”), but he would definitely be interested in directing more episodes.
“I think Jen liked what I did. I’d love to return to Litchfield.”
With how great “People Persons” turned out, it’s safe to assume we’d all welcome him back.