Mora Stephens: The Devil You Know Q: Tell us why Final Witness appealed to you, as a writer/director.
I've never seen a show like Final Witness
-- I think it satisfies that craving for true crime stories while doing it in a way that you've never seen before. Something cinematic, lyrical, emotional. One of our Producers describes it as being not a who-done-it but a why-done-it and that's one of the things I love about it -- that it's searching for an understanding of these people on a character level. When I'm directing, I want to make things feel as real as possible, to test boundaries, and I am drawn to characters that I can't initially figure out-- the "How Could They Have Done That---??!" question is usually what makes me gravitate toward a certain story and a certain character, and I found those elements here. Q: Other directors have talked about becoming really intimate with their main character. Did you have that experience with Donnah?
I really fell in love with Donnah through the process of making this episode. Being a mother was tremendously important to Donnah and the really heartbreaking thing about this story is that she had just gotten her lifelong wish – to become a mom -- when she was murdered 3 months later. I was 7 months pregnant while directing this episode and there's this whole thing about parenthood in the story. We were working closely with her family, and well, there were moments that became very emotional for everyone. When we were interviewing Donnah’s mother, at one point she started crying, and I was behind the camera crying, and then I look over and the story producer and the executive producer were also in tears! Q: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Hmm hard to describe without giving it away ....but there is a big showdown scene involving cops near the end of the show... Some of the characters in the scene are played by the real cops who were there when the actual event happened, some are actors, and we shot in the real office building where it took place. I had cast two of the lead detectives in the case to play themselves, which was great for the other actors because they could talk to someone right there on set who had lived through the real thing. That was a high adrenaline day.Q: What is your favorite scene in the finished product?
The First Date scene – a little tiny character moment at the end of the hour but it reveals something about Donnah I think. It also has special meaning for me because it was the very last thing we shot.Q: Final Witness puts a real premium on true-to-life details. What are some things in your show that are real that we might not notice right away?
The art department, lead by multi-talented production designer Danny Cistone, worked miracle after miracle in their obsession for getting the authentic true-to-life details just right. Off of crime scene photos, Danny built the crime scene house to such exacting detail that the thing to watch for in the episode are the shots of the actual crime scene Polaroids and compare those to the movie set you're watching. It feels pretty seamless. The note that Donnah wrote and left on the fridge was recreated on the same yellow paper, traced to match her exact handwriting… We had the same model handcuffs as the actual handcuffs for the arrest scene. It got a little obsessive! Q: Music is a big focus in Final Witness, do you have a favorite track in your episode?
I was working with Madalyn Baldanzi, our music supervisor, while I was writing the script so there were a few songs that became part of the fabric of the story for me. One song in particular became the theme for the episode. It’s called “Pigeon” by Tennis. It is the music you hear when Donnah and Mark are walking the dog in their neighborhood. I would play this song for the DPs, for the actors, for the designers just so they could get a feel for the nostalgic, innocence-lost flavor I was going for… My husband, Joel Viertel, edited my episode and music is an important part of his process as well. He cut a number of key sequences to tracks of music that we fell in love with ahead of time.Q: Any good stories from set?
Our lead actress, Aemilia Scott, bears a striking resemblance to the real Donnah and there was a moment when one of the detectives got choked up meeting the actress on set -- he said he had spent all this time on the case wishing he could of met Donnah because she sounded like a really special lady, and something about meeting Aemilia, it felt like he was meeting Donnah. That moment really blew me away.