As Arkasha Stevenson can now tell you, directing TV horror has its filmmaking perks. The director of all six episodes of “Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block” knows of at least one thing that really helped make this process work.
“I am in love with technocranes now. I want one. I want to ride it to the grocery store every day. I love them,” Stevenson said in a recent IndieWire interview. “Working on smaller projects, you have so many ideas in your head that you just can’t execute, because you don’t have the crew or you don’t have the tools and you don’t have the resources.”
Bringing “Butcher’s Block” to life brought the usual difficult “Channel Zero” balancing act of juggling a grounded horror story with some of the most terrifying visions anywhere on TV. Luckily for Stevenson, her first stint as a TV director came with the tools to make some of those ambitious ideas happen.
“We were talking about some shot in front of our producer and he was like, ‘OK, well we can get your technocrane for that day.’ And I just started giggling like an idiot and it was really embarrassing and I don’t know if anybody took me seriously for the rest of the day. But it was like being a kid in a candy store. You get really giddy wanting to go to set every day and try a new shot that you’ve dreamed up in your head. And that’s part of the fun that kind of keeps you going.”
Despite Stevenson having never tackled something on this scale before, “Channel Zero” showrunner Nick Antosca saw her 2017 Sundance pilot “Pineapple” and knew she’d be the right person for the “Butcher’s Block” job.
“There’s a scene where there’s a pig’s head and the aesthetic of meat, the way she shot it was like, ‘Oh, this director gets it.’ Arkasha has a very, very deft hand with practical effects and stuff like that,” Antosca said.
Stevenson joked that she nearly choked on her chicken sandwich when Antosca told her over a lunch meeting that the “Butcher’s Block” shoot would last 45 days and involve a crew of around a hundred people. But despite the length of the filming schedule and the number of people on the official payroll, shooting “Pineapple” in a small California town prepared her in ways she didn’t quite expect.
“‘Pineapple’ was very chaotic because it was very low budget, it was guerrilla,” Stevenson said. “We shot in this town called Coulterville and there’s like maybe 100 or 200 people in the town. Everybody had a role in the making of ‘Pineapple.’ It was this really nice community experience. So I think that process really helped me with the transition into ‘Butcher’s Block’ a lot more than I realized at the time.”
Transitioning to “Channel Zero” meant finding a delicate balance between bringing her own style and sensibilities and not feeling too detached from Craig William Macneill and Steven Piet’s work on “Candle Cove” and “No-End House.”
“I was nervous about that. I didn’t want the season to stick out too much, like an ugly duckling or anything,” Stevenson said. “‘Channel Zero’ has this very meditative pace, with this dark, simmering surrealist imagery, and that is something that I really am drawn to. So it just felt very comfortable fitting in with the other two directors. It was also such a learning curve for me that I was very much just like trying to keep up. That’s not a very flattering thing to say, but it’s true. I was learning on the fly a lot, so it all felt very natural to me because it had to be. And Nick really encourages that too. If you have an instinct that kind of goes against how you’d normally approach something, he’s totally for it and he supports you in that. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. But either way, it felt like a laboratory most of the time, whatever time would allow.”
Navigating her way through the story of “Butcher’s Block,” which finds two sisters addressing and indulging the latent parts of their past, was a natural fit for Stevenson. With her previous film work and her pre-director career, the push and pull of this world’s unsettling allegories was right in line with ideas she’s been thinking about long before “Channel Zero” became a possibility.
“My ideal arena is mixing social realism with surrealism. I think that’s very much what this season does and it calls into question what kind of reality we are living in. It’s true that we live in our own reality and there are lots of different worlds around us that we’re kind of oblivious to just because we don’t see them,” Stevenson said. “I came out of school as a photojournalist and was originally going to be a photojournalist, for the rest of my life. And, and that’s kind of something that you’re taught very early on is that there are tons of things going on around you that you’re not seeing because you’re not trained to see them. And I think Nick and the writers really tapped into that and this really funky, bizarre way. There are worlds on top of worlds functioning all at the same time.”
Occasionally that metaphorical idea of stacked existences made its way into reality. One memorable sequence from the season’s second episode finds the spectral Robert Peach locked inside a holding cell. When the night guard turns the corner, he finds Robert vigorously devouring on what’s left of his cellmate. It’s a jarring, brutal reveal, but one that took a lot of work to realize.
“When Robert eats the lung in the jail cell, I had that shot idea to come in at a low angle in an extreme wide, and it wasn’t going to be possible in the actual set that we built. So I was just talking to the production designer and said, ‘OK, well, in order to do this, a dream-case scenario would be that we would build a second set that was just this cell. We’d raise it up off the ground like four feet and we’d stick a stunt guy in there and an actor on this side and like meld their bodies together on top, if that makes any sense.’ He came back the next day and had drawn up that second set and he was like, ‘We have the go-ahead to build this second set if you want to do that shot.'”
Like the newfound technocrane freedom, that liberty to have those visual dreams become reality represented a significant, emotional jump. Aside from being a particularly pivotal story from the set, the final product made for one of the season’s most chilling on-screen moments.
“It blew my mind to the point where I got a little teary-eyed that was possible. It’s my favorite shot in the whole season and I dreamed about it, but it’s still just one shot, you know, and we built an entire new set for it and it was specifically designed for that very specific lens, very specific camera movement,” Stevenson said. “We hired a stunt guy who laid underneath the plank of the floor. Half of his body is above ground, the other half of him is below ground. Somebody saying yes to that that made me want to cry. It was incredible.”
For a season filled with harrowing images of violence, another thing Stevenson wanted to keep at the front of her mind was how to make something unsettling while still being respectful to the real-life experiences that people face.
“There’s a lot of violence in this season and different categories of violence. A lot of it is emotional and emotionally driven and a lot of it is supposed to be more in line with what you’d expect from the tropes of the horror genre,” Stevenson said. “It was important to really make sure we knew which one was more rooted in the emotional, psychological element of the story and which ones weren’t and to also treat those with respect and honor those moments. There’s a lot of family violence that’s acted out. A lot of parents attacking their children, which to me doesn’t need a lot of gratuitous violence or a lot of gratuitous imagery. Just the idea of a mother rushing at her daughter with a knife is scary enough. So we had a lot of conversations about how we wanted to portray that.”
Sometimes those conversations centered on how close to keep those sequences in the frame, but other times it came down to how long to stay on a certain image before cutting away.
“A lot of the times what happens with me is I’ll have this idea of what something will look like or feel like, and then when the actual physical image is in front of you and somebody’s stabbing themselves in the stomach and crying, it’s like, ‘Oh God, I thought I could go like for x-number of seconds. But really I can just go for one. This is too much.’ So it was a lot of learning on the day about what you personally found gruesome. There is this very thin line and we’re trying not to cross it and be disrespectful,” Stevenson said.
As much as this season presents a clear vision over the course of its six episodes, Stevenson isn’t ready to take all the credit. For her, the process comes down to a constant sense of cooperation.
“When I was first told about ‘Channel Zero,’ my mind exploded a little bit. I just thought that there was no possible way I’d be able to get through an experience like that. But then you really get to see how it’s because you have all these people supporting you. It just really reinforced the desire to collaborate more,” Stevenson said. “It sounds very Mr. Rogers corny, but I went in to this project having very little television experience, not being on set for more than a week, not knowing how to use a lot of the tools available to me and the reason I survived all of that was because of the crew and the support system that was made available to me.”
“Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Syfy.