Karena Evans Talks Directing Tonight's Explosive 'Snowfall' Episode, HBO's 'Gossip Girl' Reboot

Acclaimed director Karena Evans talks working on Season 4 of FX's 'Snowfall', the hardest part about the episode she directed, and HBO's 'Gossip Girl' reboot.

Karena Evans

Image via Justin Aranha

Karena Evans

Over the last calendar year, Karena Evans has been shaping the future of TV on the low. Sure, her biggest acclaim before she started this trek through the television landscape was her work with Drake, but over the last few years, the Toronto-born 25-year-old director/actor has put her stamp on a number of series. She not only wrote the P-Valley bible, but she also spent part of quarantine directing the first two episodes of HBO’s Gossip Girl reboot. Prior to quarantine shutting down most of Hollywood, Evans finished work on Episode 2 of Snowfall’s fourth season, “Weight,” which was aired as part of tonight’s two-part Snowfall premiere. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, it’s intriguing to see Evans really flex in arenas she hasn’t really worked within before, using any nervous vibes to her advantage.

“I don’t shy away from the nerves,” Evans told Complex during a recent Zoom call about her experience working on Snowfall. “I think when I feel the nerves, and I always feel nerves, it’s an understanding for me that I really care about what I’m doing and I really care about ensuring that I do justice to the story, and I tell the story in the best way that I can.”

For a season that already kicks off with intensity, “Weight” further plunges viewers into the reality of Franklin Saint’s work in South Central. Having someone like Evans on set to add her flair to one of television’s best shows on air solidifies both Snowfall’s position in the game and Evans as one of the future’s most promising directors. Check out our conversation with Evans, who talks how she got the opportunity to direct this episode, Damson Idris’ comments about the energy on the set before she arrived, working in the action lane, her work on the Gossip Girl reboot, and more.

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The last time we spoke, you mentioned being a fan of Snowfall. Did they hit you up to direct? Did you ask? Talk about that process.
It started from a general meeting that I had had with Julie DeJoie, who is a producer at Shoe Money, which is one of the production companies on Snowfall. I met with her, had a really amazing conversation with her, and then met with Dave Andron, the showrunner, and Julie, and then had another meeting with Tommy Schlamme and Julie. From there, that’s where the conversation came about for me to direct an episode on Snowfall. I can remember at the end of my meeting with Dave Andron, the way that he proposed it was, “Do you want to come and play with us?” That’s exactly what it felt like. It’s an amazing playground with incredible storytellers, and as an artist, you’re just given all these tools, and also the support and the guidance and the empowerment to play.

Damson mentioned that before you got to set, there was a buzz about Karena coming to work this week. What was the energy like on the set?
That’s funny. I didn’t know that. Damson and I actually share the same acting manager. I didn’t know about any kind of energetic buzz prior to just that connection. For me, as soon as you step into the Snowfall world, you can feel the energy in that. It’s just an incredible group of storytellers, through and through. Everybody is dialed in. I think the cast are so deep in their characters, mentally, emotionally, physically, that it was playtime. The collaboration was electric. When we came together, it felt like sparks were created, and that challenge inspired me.

The actors challenged me and inspired me, and I felt like I met them with the same energy. That’s the kind of collaboration you yearn for as an artist. But I also think the season almost kicked into second gear right from the jump. My episode, in particular, was a really well-written episode by Leonard Chang. As soon as I got the pages, before even stepping on set, I felt the rumble of this is going to be something big and this is going to be something good and you have to rise to the challenge, everybody involved.

Dave Andron just moves with so much clarity and precision and intention with which he creates the show and how he communicates his vision for the season. My first conversations with him were inspiring. I felt that there was a real sense of trust from him and from the other producers, for me to come in and execute and bring my vision and my sensibilities to it. I think that kind of empowering space yields honest work, and honest work is good work. You just carry that energy through the process and all the way to the finish. Even the post team on Snowfall are strong storytellers. I got to collaborate with this editor, Louise Innes, and she’s just this OG editor. She brought it all together, and I think editorially, she elevated the episode.

Last year you mentioned that you had to do some work on this episode after the quarantine hit. What was that experience like?
I was lucky to have actually finished my episode before quarantine hit. There were just, I think, mumbles of COVID at that point in time while we were shooting, it did not affect production at all. And it was, I believe, on my third day in the edit with Louise that we heard all the studios were shutting down in LA, and being a Canadian working in LA, I wanted to get home because at that point I didn’t know if the borders were going to close, if they wouldn’t welcome Canadians back home. It was just a really big shift of being so into, in the process, in the zone with it, then having to kind of pack up everything, go back home, and edit remotely. But because we had already made really great progress together, it was easy to adjust to the remote editing of it all. I don’t think that other directors had that luxury. I kind of snuck in and snuck out before it really hit the fan.

Now, this episode starts off insane. De’Aundre Bonds, that man scares the shit out of me.
I know.

You get some really intense moments out of him. Talk about working with him on this particular episode.
Here’s the thing: With De’Aundre, with Damson, with Michael Hyatt, I can name literally every single actor on that show, with every single one of them, they bring such a passion and a focus and a dedication to it, that you’re not wasting three takes to get into the performance. You’re meeting the characters the second that you step on set. You’re really engaging with each other in a real intense, artistic way. It made for performances like De’Aundre’s coming through very, very clear, and very strong. As soon as I read the episode—without giving away any spoilers—it’s an episode that starts at 100% and just keeps going. That’s the same for the entire season, as well as my particular episode, which was, to me, rooted in extreme paranoia, both De’Aundre’s character, as well as Damson’s character, as well as Carter [Hudson], and with that, you see these characters making desperate attempts. This is heightened chaos and heightened emotion. That’s what I was pushing for in their performances, and that manifested in the escalating violence. What I wanted to do is, through working with the actors, and even the crew in the way that I moved the camera or set the frames or composed the picture, I wanted to feel the weight of the world at all times.

Karena Evans

Was that opening scene one of the harder things to shoot for that episode? There’s a lot going on there.
It was definitely the hardest thing to shoot about the episode—again, no spoilers, but it starts off with a bang, and that bang was the first of its kind in the series as a whole. That was a huge responsibility. But again, I worked with incredible people, even down to the stunt coordinator, to be able to cultivate and create the sequence. And I just shot-listed it really heavy and storyboarded it really heavy and we rehearsed it, and it came together, I think, as a result of really great collaboration and a lot of prep.

I was going to say, you’re not known for stepping into that world a lot. I imagine to battle any feelings of being overwhelmed by taking on a task like that, I would assume digging in deep as you could, could be beneficial to you, just to get over any nerves or anything. I’m not saying you were nervous, but stepping into that arena, that’s a tall undertaking.
Yeah. I don’t shy away from the nerves. I think when I feel the nerves, and I always feel nerves, it’s an understanding for me that I really care about what I’m doing and I really care about ensuring that I do justice to the story, and I tell the story in the best way that I can. The moments where I don’t have that kind of nervousness, something ain’t right. I think action, while at face value was a scary thing to get into, was quite similar to dance. It was just about creating that choreography and learning that choreography and teaching that choreography to the crew and the actors. Once you have that plan on how you’re going to shoot that choreography, you go into it loose, and then you see what happens with it.

How are you feeling about your moves on the small screen?
I am loving my experience on the small screen. I think I feel really blessed to be moving at the pace that I’m moving and working with really incredible storytellers and learning with and from those storytellers, and also in those scenarios and in the different worlds. I’m specifically interested in never really doing the same thing twice. That’s why I loved going from P-Valley to Snowfall to Gossip Girl, to what I am going to be privileged to go on to next. I think I just want to always continue to grow and learn and offer my perspective, but never remain locked in a box or defined by that box. What is a box?

Karena Evans is seen at the film set of the 'Gossip Girl'

Has a lot of your quarantine been spent getting those two episodes of Gossip Girl going? What’s your time since Snowfall and everything been like?
Actually, Gossip Girl came about after I had already gone back to working during the pandemic. It was actually a really quick process, in which I received the scripts and spoke to the showrunner, and then pretty much immediately pitched and re-pitched to HBO, HBO Max, Warner Bros., and the production companies involved. In a matter of a couple of weeks, once the deal was closed, I was already in New York shooting.

For me, I utilized that time [before working on Gossip Girl] for stillness, to actually find comfort in the stillness. I think for a lot of people, it was a moment in which we were able to look at our foundations as individuals and as institutions and as communities, and then understand what no longer serves us and be able to take and release and then rebuild. For me, it was very much a moment where I rebuilt my foundation so I can come out of it and approach my new projects with even more clarity and strength.

Were you originally a Gossip Girl fan?
What I was very excited about is what Josh Safran, the showrunner, wanted to do with the new evolution of Gossip Girl, was ensure that it is in fact an evolution. That was taking on the responsibility of maintaining what is beloved, what is precious about the original Gossip Girl, the heart and the essence of the original, but ensuring that now it reflects the world in which we actually live, which is inclusive and is diverse and is queer and is all of the things that is almost indescribable about it, that makes it so incredible. That’s what I was most excited about. Being able to bring my perspective, which is inherently feminist and diverse and younger and fresh and more contemporary, so that I could join together old and new.

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