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'Supernatural' Producer Ben Edlund On Cliffhangers, Castiel & His Return to Directing

by Laura Prudom, posted May 6th 2011 9:00AM
Ben EdlundFew men epitomize the moniker of "evil genius" quite like Ben Edlund, the multi-talented executive producer, writer and director of the CW's 'Supernatural.'

After conceiving the quirky, cult-favorite character of 'The Tick' while still in high school, Edlund graduated to TV greatness working alongside Joss Whedon as a writer-producer on 'Firefly' and the later seasons of 'Angel,' before joining the 'Supernatural' team in 2006.

Edlund is responsible for many of the most comedic episodes of the spooky CW drama, but he's also credited with a number of the show's most mytharc-heavy, emotionally satisfying entries, and this week's episode looks to be no exception.

'The Man Who Would Be King' (Fri., May 6, 9PM ET on The CW) marks Edlund's first foray into directing since 2004, and AOL TV caught up with him earlier this week to discuss the challenges of directing his own script, as well as what fans can expect from the last three episodes of the season. Tread lightly, there are spoilers ahead.

Congratulations on the pick-up announcement for season seven! Have you started having discussions about what the broad strokes of next year might be in the writer's room, or have you all been taking a break?
I was fortunate enough to take a break, but we are now back to discussing. It's the first kind of broad stroke, very washed out, kind of loose imagery time, which is really a lovely time to play with.

Jared Padalecki and Jensen AcklesWe've had the epic -- if unseen -- civil war in Heaven as the backdrop this season, with a more personal story for Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) at the forefront, will you be attempting to balance the two tones again, or focusing on a specific plot?
I think that every season our ideal is to create a sandwich and put Sam and Dean in the middle. [Laughs] So we'll probably do the same thing that we were trying to do originally -- there will be an overarching storyline. It's inevitable as time for them, from when they were first driving around and a ghost was a huge problem and a demon was an undeniable nightmare that they could barely contend with, and now, here they have to take out 12 angels or something and they're all, "Well, how exactly? Okay, let's go." They don't even hesitate.

I used to a play a role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons, and that was about levels of experience; as you gained experience you were able to deal with much greater and far more kind of global creatures. They are the best hunters in the world, as they'd say, so, they have to hunt the biggest fish, as it were. But the other challenge is to try and make sure that you have a compelling story at the same time -- so we're back in the lab trying to put these atoms together again.

Let's talk about Friday's episode. Did you specifically ask to direct an episode you'd written?
At the beginning of last year I made my desire [to direct] known, that I'd like to jump in at some point and do one. It just came about that it would be ... we plot out the directors first and kind of run with them before we know the story, because it's based on trying to make sure we schedule and already have a director locked in for each episode when we start. So I got slotted to do episode 20. Even before I knew what the story specifically was going to be, it had a 95 percent chance of being pretty dramatic, the last three episodes of the arc of the season are always going to be that way.

The big challenge for me is that my nature is more towards comedy, so I understand when a comedy thing is working; I know when I'm not bored in a comedy. So it was a better challenge for me, I think, to have to do something closer to full-on drama, because that's scarier territory, so, that was neat. But I knew very little about what the episode was going to be when I expressed my interest.

At Paleyfest, the cast praised how hands-on you were as a director, being able to instruct them on their character motivation as well as the beats of the scene. How was the directing experience for you?
It was very frightening. [Laughs] Ultimately, it was really, really good. I think it did a lot of good things for me internally because it was just so right in terms of a challenge. It's a very, very specific show, in that it kind of works a miracle every week as a road movie -- I directed one time before, quite some time ago [the 'Angel' episode 'Smile Time'], and that was primarily on a soundstage. On 'Supernatural,' you go to a location and another location, and every week they do amazing things up there. You have to kind of hit the ground running and really start to look to the core of the story you're trying to tell. I don't view it exactly as compromise because you barely know what you're going up there to do, but you really need to be alive on your feet and thinking how every enhancement, how every challenge is going to impact the story when you get back to the editing room.

I'm glad I did it once. I think I'd like to do it more, I do plan to. But I'm like, wow, that was a golden punch in the face! [Laughs]

How did your writing inform the choices you were making? Writing is such a personal process, and I know that some writer-directors become attached to whatever they put on paper and they don't necessarily want to change the script and have to roll with the punches that come when you're actually on set and behind schedule or over-budget. Did you find that dichotomy challenging?
I think if I had been directing someone else's script, it would have been much more difficult for me to drop lines or change lines or drop notions that I was holding dear, because it would have been me and an invisible other person in the room -- me trying to work with the vision of another [writer]. Here it was a much faster circuit to let go of things that were unnecessary or things that I knew weren't immediately crucial that hadn't been given thought or weren't fully blown out. I think the advantage, oddly, was that I was looser with the material than I would have been if it was someone else's script.

Misha CollinsYou seem to end up writing many of the Castiel-centric episodes: 'The Third Man,' 'On the Head of a Pin,' and now 'The Man Who Would Be King,' is that by accident or design?
I mean, other people handle lots of the Cas (Misha Collins) stuff in the writer's room too, for sure -- it's in many hands. But ... he's a very trippy dude, he's an angel, he's from Heaven. And I tend to, in the room and in my scripts, be a little trippy [laughs]. So it's not anything that codifying or planned. But, for example, when we weren't 100 percent sure what the direction of episode 20 was, but we knew that a lot of it was going to be required in terms of the overall story, I just kept thinking in terms of like, it was time for him to be talking, it was time for him to reveal a lot of stuff. So much so, that I began to make the structure of the episode expand in his direction -- and then the direction was sort of his fractured, eternal viewpoint. [Note: as evidenced in the preview clip, Edlund made the decision to literally film portions of the episode from Castiel's point of view, with the character directly addressing the audience -- something that hasn't been attempted on the series before, but something that keeps with his penchant for breaking the fourth wall.]

I think that overall, we get along well, myself and the character of Cas. But it's more like it develops between us -- the other writers, myself, and the character of Cas. When it's time for me to pitch a story or for us to start working on the story I'm going to write, I might say the word "Castiel" four times more than other people say it. [Laughs] That just lends itself to where we end up.

It's becoming obvious that Castiel is on the road to hell, and it's paved with all of his good intentions -- how would you describe his arc in the last couple of episodes?
Well, it isn't pleasant for him. I think we're doing well in that he is not a soft villain or a soft hero -- he is another one of our beloved characters pressed into a very, very terrible situation. I think we've been true to his character and I think it works. I don't know how descriptive that was!

Jensen Ackles That works! How is Castiel's bromance with Dean going to suffer after Dean finds out about his dealings with Crowley?
Well, it's not the kind of thing you want to hear in one of those long distance marriages. [laughs] You know, in a way, I feel like Dean is the heart, in a lot of ways ... Well, both Sam and Dean are the heart of the show, but there's something about Dean that feels -- and it might be because Sam spent a lot of time soulless this season, dealing with those kind of hurtful issues of the returning soul and that kind of thing -- but it feels like Dean is more able to feel pain from the outside world right now, rather than from an internal struggle. Betrayal is a little hard for that poor chap. He's going to have to go and cry a little bit, not on the outside, but on the inside.

What can you reveal about the finale? Will the end of the season see Sam and Dean in a hopeful place, or a totally messed up, emotionally destroyed place, as 'Supernatural' is so wont to do?
I would say, get ready for a cliffhanger. And that it's really ... it's a big, big one I think. [Pauses] Well, it really demands a season seven, I'll tell you that!

'The Man Who Would Be King' airs tonight at 9PM ET on The CW, before 'Supernatural' takes a one week break and returns on Friday, May 20 for the two-hour season finale. Share your predictions for the next three episodes in the comments below -- do you think the Winchesters will be able to forgive Castiel for working with Crowley?

Follow Laura on Twitter: @LauinLA

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What a wonderful review! I always look forward with so much anticipation whenever I know you have an interview pending and though I'm late to respond (stuck on an airplane and then blown away by Ben Edlund's amazing episode), I wanted to once again take the opportunity to tell you how much I enjoyed this. Delving deep inside Ben's amazing brain is what I want to do and since I can't, it's the second best option to hear your questions and his responses. Thank you for highlighting the thought process Ben and Sera went throught to produce this episode. Since I'm posting after it aired I can only say it was everything Ben promised and more. It just might be my favorite Supernatural episode ever. I am so thankful Ben understands the character of Castiel and gave us this amazing character study.

Getting back to the interview this quote:

Well, it isn't pleasant for him. I think we're doing well in that he is not a soft villain or a soft hero -- he is another one of our beloved characters pressed into a very, very terrible situation. I think we've been true to his character and I think it works"

This quote really helps clarify his vision. Thanks again for a fantastic portrait of THE MAN WHO SHOULD BE KING - BEN EDLUND.

May 08 2011 at 11:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Are you sure this interview is about Supernatural? Cause I watch since season 1 and I thought it's about Sam and Dean two brothers on a journey. Misha Collins is just a guest star with 5 minutes of air time in 5 episodes a season and you guys make it look like he is the main star. WHy don't we get rid of Jensen and Jared then who work 14 hours a day and let Mr. Collins star alone?
This is getting ridiculous.

May 07 2011 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to natda88's comment

It was an interview to promote this week's episode and Edlund's first time directing a Supernatural episode, hence the emphasis on his process and Castiel's journey. My colleague Mo Ryan posted a lengthy interview with Jared and Jensen a couple of weeks ago, which you can find under the Supernatural tag, but as you said, Castiel has had about five minutes of screen time for many episodes this season, so it's important to note his arc as it ties into the wider story.

May 07 2011 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I actually think the show improved when it became about Sam and Dean, two brothers on a journey with help from Bobby, their curmudgeonly father figure and Castiel, their otherworldly adopted sibling. But hey, that's just me.

May 17 2011 at 4:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nice that Sam is such a ******* afterthought to you, Edlund, you a$$hle gimmicky hack.

May 06 2011 at 4:49 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Fantastic interview! Over the years Ben Edlund has become, by far, my favorite TV writer, so it's fascinating hearing his thoughts on the writing and directing process. To hear that he holds the writer's word with such respect is not a surprise and it increases my admiration for him even more.

And to see that he holds the character of Castiel with such high regard and seems to love him as much as many of us do makes me very happy indeed. I hope we see many more eps written and directed by Ben in the year(s) to come.

Now if we can just get him to make appearances at the conventions......

May 06 2011 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Asia Townsend

I Know this ep is going to be awesome, I love cliff hangers, so I can't wait for tonight!!! I love Castiel and I know he will do what's right, cuzz Dean won't let him other wise!!

May 06 2011 at 12:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A Sam and Dean sandwich, long distance marriage? Lol THIS why I love the Supernatural writers. Great interview and I can't wait to see tonight's episode. I don't understand why there isn't been a Tick reference on Supernatural yet. I loved the cartoon series and with all the awesome pop culture references, it would be fitting to give Edlund's comic a shout-out. I wouldn't mind if the Tick himself shows up one day on Supernatural. I hope Jensen and Ben get to direct again in season 7. That cliffhanger sounds like summer hellatus is gonna be torture.

May 06 2011 at 11:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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