Warning: Massive spoilers below.
Of all the twists and turns in Mare of Easttown, the last segment of the fifth episode, “Illusions,” is by far the most intense. In the span of about eight minutes, viewers witness the solving of one of the show’s two big mysteries, an incredibly tense and claustrophobia-inducing chase sequence, and the deaths of Evan Peters’s beloved Detective Colin Zabel and Jeb Kreager’s evil kidnapper Wayne Potts. For director Craig Zobel, who helmed the entire season, getting this one right was tough, both technically and emotionally. In advance of the season (or series) finale, we asked him to share why this segment, shot on both a soundstage and on location in the Philadelphia suburbs in fall 2020, was the hardest part of Mare to film.
It took about three days to film all of the portions of this. It was hard, saying good-bye to a character and an actor that we’d all really loved to be around on set. And doing very technical things that we hadn’t done before in terms of having an action sequence, which is a different type of filmmaking. It’s not about doing five takes of a line as much as it’s about whether or not the camera can see the gun and people running away in the right way.
Involved in all that was the element of the kidnapping of these two women. This was part of the DNA of the show from the very first episode, and I don’t know that we were, like, breaking any giant ground in terms of telling a story that has that, but it was particularly hard for me to actually get into shooting any of that stuff with those ladies in that room. They were great actors and very game, and everybody understood what we were trying to tell. I was certainly trying to make sure that it didn’t come off so lurid that it was out of a tone from the rest of the show. It put all of us in a very strange headspace: In the middle of trying to do some of the most complicated technical shots, we were also having this debate about how to present this uncomfortable, bad subject matter in a way that both honored the story but wasn’t too much.
And also being like, “Evan Peters! We love you! Bye! Here’s a cake!” It actually wasn’t his final shot. After that, he did a couple more days. His last scene was actually in the same episode, the date he goes on with Mare. But it just made it a very big challenge.
The planning started with the action. I insisted we find a place that had something unique and strange about it, that wasn’t just a house. It was at the bottom of our location manager and production designer’s list, this place that really was a house attached to a bar. That wasn’t in the script, just what we found, so that got me spinning as far as, “Well, great! This is a unique location that kind of only exists in a place like the outer Philadelphia suburbs.” That led to, “Okay, how do we tell the story this way?” It drove a lot of conversations on how the design of it would happen. I ended up doing a lot of storyboards for it, overhead, kind of stick-figure drawings, and Keith Cunningham, the production designer, decided the safest thing to do for when Mare goes up in the attic was to build part of that on our soundstage. So, that added to the complication of the entire shoot — at some point, I had to stop and be like, “Okay, everything now happens after you’ve run upstairs,” and you’re juggling what was there, which is a different space than where you are.
It became important for us to do a rehearsal of that, which doesn’t always happen in TV. Evan, Kate, and Jeb, who plays Wayne Potts, and I all came in on a Saturday when it was the day off for the rest of the crew. I remember it was the day that the election results came in, which happened in Philadelphia. That was the last place to count the numbers, and we were in the middle of rehearsing that strange scene and found out that happened. We spent an entire afternoon, two days prior to shooting, just doing it.
It becomes a bit like figuring out a dance. I’d propose something that I think will work. Kate has an idea. Jeb has an idea. And then, all of a sudden, it’s like, “We need something here so she can knock it over.” Then, more set dressing happens. In terms of dialogue, all of that was the same. It’s just very hard to write those action beats unless the writer draws exactly how the building is supposed to be shaped. We actually did an outline form in order to construct it: “Then Mare runs into this room and knocks this thing over.”
The actors also did a majority of their own stunts. We had doubles there for everyone, but for the most part, everybody did their own stuff. Kate is very down for that and excited to do it. Her careening down the steps? That’s really her. There are probably like three times where it’s a stunt person, if it was clear they could very much get hurt. Because we had enough rehearsal, we were able to anticipate that they needed knee pads or hip pads here and there. Evan Peters falling to the ground was all him. I was totally impressed by that — he’s done it before, but it’s hard to die on camera.
In our minds, that [death] was part of the story arc of that character. That was the last scene, he was gonna die, so we were all excited to sort of make sure we delivered and that it was as surprising as possible. In the edit, it was a matter of making sure you could see he was shot. That was a very slight worry on my part, that people would assume that he was going to come back. I don’t know that it would have ruined anything if they did, but I felt like we didn’t need to have that as another thing out there that people are debating.
The hardest stuff was really being able to get the speed at which they were running. It’s pretty hard to move these big cameras fast enough to capture a moving body. It was really a lot of planning to figure out how we were going to make the camera feel as invisible as it could. I have to give it to the staff and special-effects team — all of the bullet holes and all of the crashing into things were really smartly planned out. The whole concept of the pipe shaking was a bit of a challenge compared to what we anticipated because the “upstairs” was the set that was not in the same space that we assumed was going to work. We realized we actually needed a bunch of guys to just bang on the pipe in this other room and move it back and forth.
One of the hardest shots was at the very end, after Mare has shot Wayne Potts and the camera goes over Zabel’s dead body up to her face as the police drive in. That required the timing of people that were blocks away so that they could be driving fast enough to brake really crazy [for the sounds]. Making sure that the camera was going to clear Evan’s body without bumping him or hurting him, that was probably the hardest. He laid there probably longer than he should have.
There is, somewhere on a hard drive, a 15-minute-long version of that scene that’s even more crazy and wild that had to get squished down for time. It was a lot more running around, a lot more back and forth, a cat and mouse of Potts realizing where Mare was and her hiding. A lot of things got knocked down, lots of blood. There’s a portion where she actually threw her blood into certain areas to try to throw him off of the scent — things like that that were fun but weren’t necessary.
I’m happy with it. This is a superior cut to that. It’s more tense. But yeah, it was a whole ballet.
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