Awards Daily talks to Yellowjackets director and executive producer Karyn Kusama about the task of setting the tone for Season 1 as well as future seasons in one single pilot episode.
When it comes to pilot episodes, there’s a pressure for any director to get it right. But Yellowjackets director and executive producer Karyn Kusama had a lot to consider when filming the first episode of a series with so many secrets, albeit one that opens with the entrapment of a teenage girl in a snow pit of death.
“We knew going into filming that sequence that we’re not going to know the answers to the questions of what we’re looking at for at least two seasons,” says Kusama. “It has to be really, really memorable and incredibly vivid and something you can feel over the course of Season 1, but it also has to be open-ended enough to properly answer it in successive seasons.”
Before filming started, Kusama and the Yellowjackets team had a conversation about the go-for-broke gruesomeness they were going to depict, just seconds into the first episode, and how to be accountable for the kind of tone they were establishing.
“It was interesting to have that kind of conversation right at the very beginning. We have to acknowledge what we’re depicting here, and in depicting it, we have to make it mean something. It can’t even be remotely titillating.”
One would think that a crucial sequence like this, with a girl falling into an intentional tiger trap with a pit of human-made spikes, might have to include many takes from whom fans have dubbed “Pit Girl,” but Kusama says they only made her do it once.
“[She] was running through ice and snow barefoot. That was really happening. Though we could make her landing more comfortable and safe, the actual run-up, she was really running in a nightgown and bare feet. Out of respect for our stunt performer, we decided to go on faith and say we got it.”
And does she know that fans call this doomed young woman “Pit Girl”?
“Oh boy,” she says with a laugh. “I did not know that.”
Mammoth Filming Conditions
When Kusama was sent the Yellowjackets pilot script in the summer of 2019, she could tell that it was a very rich story, with writing that was smart and funny. Once she met with showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson and Showtime, she knew she wanted to be a member of the Yellowjackets team because she liked working with “great people.” However, like the team on the show, Kusama and the Yellowjackets crew also had to collectively endure inclement weather conditions, filming on top of Mammoth Mountain in California, where they took Sno-Cats up the mountain daily to set.
“We knew it was going to be challenging on a logistical level, getting your crew up a mountainside and working in all that snow. It’s crazy to work that way, but it also creates this sense of a built-in engagement with the drama that we were trying to tell. It was unforgiving, it was freezing, and it really reminded everyone of how dire things were going to get in the life of the show. In some respects, that kind of shooting can be really humbling because it can connect you to the larger, grimmer, graver story you were trying to tell. In this case, it absolutely did that.”
Between three timelines (1996, the ritual scenes, and 2021) and establishing the tone, the pilot doesn’t even touch upon the second episode reveal that brings the gang back together: the postcards sent to Tai (Tawny Cypress), Nat (Juliette Lewis), and Misty (Christina Ricci), emblazoned with the witchy symbol representative of their time in the Canadian wilderness.
“Even though I was shooting the pilot, and it was just a pilot, for me, I needed to have some idea of where this season generally was developing toward. [The postcard storyline] was something Ashley and Bart had always known was going to be a component of the story.”
While Kusama didn’t have that plot point to build upon in the first episode, another character cemented the sense of conspiracy in the air.
“In some ways, I had always understood that Jessica [Roberts] (Rekha Sharma) would set the stage for this larger conspiracy mystery.”
Showdown in the Kitchen
And Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) set the stage for another key component of the show: the dark humor.
“Ashley and Bart and eventually Jonathan Lisco (who came on as a co-showrunner in Season 1 and for Season 2)—we all spoke very extensively about the tone and the kind of black humor that emerges from trauma. That humor is a way to survive it, to recontextualize it. It also marks your memories in a way that doesn’t keep wounding you over and over again. Finding that way to find a very grim, dark humor in the wilderness, but also in the lives of our adult characters. It was important that we felt the sense of a kind of humor in middle age for women that comes with the feeling of—this is me speaking from where I place myself in the story—from throwing up your hands and saying ‘Fuck it!’ In a way there’s a humor to seeing these women decide to be their weirdest selves.”
Kusama points to the humor she especially loves in the kitchen scene in the pilot, with Shauna facing off against Jessica.
“We’re watching this incredibly secretive woman, unpacking groceries and putting them in the fridge, while she’s being interrogated by some person she thinks is a journalist, who’s asking what really happened when you were stranded in the wilderness for 19 months in the Canadian Rockies and your friends perished. There’s something about the dysjunctiveness of that. Putting celery in the refrigerator and ground beef in the freezer. This is so many women’s lives; they’re still taking care of so many other people and what’s happening as they’re doing that caretaking and caregiving is their brain is just cycling through the wrongs of the past. I just understood that on a very deep level I guess. For me, there was a humor that was possible there that was quite sophisticated and the kind I hoped not just other women would understand but other people, other viewers, would relate to.”
The scene also speaks to the mysterious nature of the characters and how they are all hiding secrets from the world, as well as themselves. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment involves Shauna’s grocery bag holding a copy of US Weekly with the story about the crash, an interesting reveal coming from the woman who acts like she doesn’t think about the crash or the team anymore.
“Shauna is both this agent of chaos in her own life by leading this double life, but in many respects, the way she presents to the rest of the world is a bystander to her own life. There’s a part of her I think that probably gained some kind of perverse interest in seeing how that tragedy was perceived, how it’s been assimilated into the culture, the assumptions people have made about her and her teammates and those friendships. In some ways, I think we were hoping that that detail would tip the audience off to the fact that Shauna is the definition of still waters run deep. You may not know what exactly is going on in her mind, but it’s a lot more than any of us could probably guess, because there’s so much internal dialogue for her, as a character and as a person.”
Season 1 of Yellowjackets is streaming on Showtime.