Jaden Jordan and Maliq Johnson as Brooklyn high schoolers in Grand Army

Courtesy of Netflix

So Yong Kim directing the pilot

Jasper Savage/Netflix

Darnell Martin

Jasper Savage/Netflix

Clement Virgo

Jasper Savage/Netflix
Fill 1
Fill 1
October 20, 2020
In The Mix

Seeing and Freeing

For her high-school-set series, a showrunner sought directors who could truly see teens — and allow young people to see themselves.

Alexander Huls

It wouldn't be wrong to call Netflix's Grand Army a high-school drama, but it's nothing like Gossip Girl, 13 Reasons Why or Riverdale.

Following the interconnected lives of a group of multicultural teenagers at a fictional high school in Brooklyn, the series addresses everything we're talking about as a society — terrorism, racism, class, coming out, sexual politics, inequality and more.

The show began as SLUT, Katie Cappiello's 2013 play about a sexual assault that prompts an exploration of rape culture. When the project landed at Netflix, Cappiello — who cowrote all 10 episodes and is the creator, showrunner and an executive producer — chose to turn it into a series. She wanted to address more issues than she could in her 70-minute play.

"The wild thing about being 15 is that you are grappling with things on a micro level that the world is grappling with on a macro level," she says. "These kids are representative of all the big conversations we're having as a culture and it's just part of their everyday."

Cappiello chose to work with five directors who could take on the unique responsibilities of each stage of the project. Here are three of them who helped realize pivotal elements of Grand Army. In addition, Tina Mabry (Pose, The Politician) and Silas Howard (Transparent, Dickinson) directed two episodes each.


Pilot and episode two

When So Yong Kim (The Good Fight, Transparent, Good Girls) agreed to direct the first two episodes, she knew she had to realize one goal in particular: "Make this show look different than any other high school shows on the air," she recalls.

Visually, the creators used realistic production design and intimate cinematography to "avoid a teen show that looked like a Vogue magazine spread," she says. Casting played a role, as new and non-actors brought rawness to the material. But Kim's work on Grand Army required her to establish a tone that pushed past stereotypes of teenage angst to achieve something closer to the complexities of real life.

She was up for the task. On a personal level, Kim felt a connection to the project, having grown up near Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza after immigrating from South Korea in 1979. On a professional level, her work as a writer-director on such films as In Between Days, Treeless Mountain and Lovesong covered themes — sexuality, the immigrant experience, child-parent relationships — relevant to Grand Army and its characters.

"I knew her passion for capturing all things internal, messy and human would make her the perfect person to introduce Grand Army to the world," Cappiello says.

Kim and her collaborators scrutinized every moment of every scene to ensure it rang true and helped distinguish Grand Army. "If any dialogue felt out of place, it was immediately workshopped by Katie, the cast and myself," Kim says. "We really tried to capture the humanity of the kids in how their struggles are real and of importance."


Episodes three and four

Inexperienced actors can benefit from hands-on directing, and that is how Darnell Martin (Oz, Homicide: Life on the Street, New Amsterdam) likes to work. "Darnell brings the actors into the process like you've never seen," Cappiello says. "She will literally climb under a table or crouch inches away from their faces and coach them through the scene" while staying out of the shot.

Over the course of her career, Martin has developed a philosophy for getting actors closer to their material. "Let's live in this a little. Let's research. Let's investigate. Let's see what this feels like," she tells them, allowing the results to influence how a scene is played.

In her own films (I Like It Like That, Prison Song), she's explored subject matter — partly drawn from her childhood in the South Bronx — like economic inequality, racism and the imprisonment of young Black men.

In Grand Army, she was responsible for one of the show's most difficult moments — a sexual assault in the back of a taxi that required four young actors to go to a very dark place. But she used her hands-on style to help them.

For example: sitting only a foot away while shooting, at one point she started screaming, crying, sobbing. Then she stopped. "I'm safe. I'm sitting here. Nothing bad happened," she said. "Here is a place where we can all do this and be safe."

Some directors might have been intimidated by such a scene, but Martin was driven by its real-world importance. "I thought it could really start a dialogue that we're not having," she says. The scene reflected a complexity that she found true to life, evoking the creative ethos of her inspiration, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network).

"All the ends don't tie together in that perfect package because in humanity, they can't," she says. "You can't understand everything."


Episodes nine and ten

The prospect of directing the final episodes of Grand Army had Clement Virgo (The Wire, Rogue, Empire) feeling apprehensive. He'd be responsible for guiding the characters' stories — and the show's exploration of social issues — to their climaxes. But he recognized the challenge of properly capturing the teens' rare emotional honesty.

"I'm a middle-aged man. I'm not 18 anymore," he says. "So, I was so excited and scared by how to honestly portray these young people." He brought to Cappiello's scripts a keen eye for powerful images that meld character and theme, a quality he's honed in his own film and television projects such as Rude, The Planet of Junior Brown and The Book of Negroes.

"I would offer visual imagery that I think would add to her words to create the maximum impact for the audience," he says.

He does that in a sequence where one character experiences an emotional turning point in a dance class shot almost like a music video (the song is George Michael's "Freedom"). In another moment, a character makes a public political statement, in a location loaded with meaning, without saying a single word.

Virgo also drew on his own experience to bring honesty to the project. "You watch with joy as he approaches the content with true personal connection and sophistication," Cappiello says. Virgo immigrated from Jamaica to Toronto in 1977 and lived in Regent Park, a public housing area in that city.

"I remember Clement prepping Maliq Johnson and Jaden Jordan for the climax of their characters' journeys, and seeing how deeply it impacted these teenage actors to know Clement got them on a whole other level — he knew what it was to walk in their shoes and come of age as a young Black man," Cappiello says.

Inspiring this awareness was key to attaining multiple goals, she adds. While she and the directors sought to portray complex issues with nuance and to evoke empathy among adults who might otherwise dismiss a younger generation, they also wanted to inspire recognition in those the show was depicting.

"I hope [teenagers] feel some relief in seeing themselves, their issues, their everyday struggles and joys, explored with grit, honesty and humor," Cappiello says, "while really honoring all the glory of the messiness of becoming who you are."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2020

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