‘All American’: Daniel Ezra On Trusting His Gut To Direct Samantha Logan Through An Intense Episode On Olivia’s Sobriety

SPOILER ALERT! This post contains details from Monday’s episode of The CW’s All American.

All American continues to dig into the impacts of Coach Billy Baker’s (Taye Diggs) death, returning from a two week hiatus on Monday with an emotional episode that focused on his daughter Olivia’s (Samantha Logan) struggle to stay sober as she grieves.

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The episode begins with Olivia seeking help from her brother Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and her friend Layla (Greta Onieogou) in the middle of the night. After a long night, Olivia activates her “village” in order to get through the day. That includes her AA sponsor, as well as her mom and some of her friends.

Notably missing from the group that Olivia calls is Spencer (Daniel Ezra), her ex-boyfriend who has been struggling immensely with his own grief after losing another father figure. The former couple has been unable to find much common ground since they broke up in the Season 5 premiere, following Olivia’s exposé about the Golden Angeles University head football coach, which effectively left Spencer’s football program in shambles.

But when he hears that Olivia is struggling, Spencer puts aside his own grief (and his complicated feelings toward his ex) to help her.

Ezra directs the episode, which marks his second time in the director’s chair after making his debut at the helm in Season 4. He spoke with Deadline about why this episode made “complete sense” for him to direct, how he balanced a heavy episode for his own character with his directing duties, and what’s in store for Spencer and Olivia for the remainder of Season 5.

DEADLINE: Spencer and Olivia’s stories have been so intertwined over the last five seasons, and because of that you’ve been close to the story of Olivia’s sobriety as well. So it feels like a very natural fit for you to direct this episode. Do you feel like playing Spencer and being so close to that narrative helped you navigate the episode as a director?

DANIEL EZRA: Honestly, the biggest thing was it just [improved] my ability to navigate those scenes with Sam. Me and Sam have such a shorthand that we’ve built up over the last five years that directing her was such a breeze. It’s such a difficult episode. There were so many dark places to go. I think, not to be too presumptuous, but I think she feels pretty safe with me just because we’ve had to go to those places together so much. So being able to translate that into her making suggestions and shaping our performances and stuff around the scenes. We didn’t have to bridge that gap as much as you would have to do with a new director, especially with such delicate material.

DEADLINE: As you were approaching the episode, what discussions did you have with Nkechi Okoro Carroll and the rest of the writing team about the goals for this one?

EZRA: It was mostly about the tone. It could easily be such a dark episode. And it is in some ways, but we didn’t want to lose the hope. There’s just an aspirational quality to this episode that we didn’t want to lose. So, she just made sure I found places to keep that hope alive. And by the time we get to the end episode, there should be a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.

DEADLINE: Are there any specific scenes that brought you a lot of joy to direct?

EZRA: I would say the ferris wheel scene. That was one of those scenes that came out exactly how I intended it to, and it’s obviously such an important scene that it was one that I was very anxious to get right. There’s always a sense of compromise in a lot of these things. There’s your vision, there’s the showrunners’ vision, then there’s what the camera sees and there’s the actors…So that was one of those ones where everything just fit. Then the scene with myself and Coach Kenny, Mustafa Speaks. Again, it’s a really big turning point. That was one of those scenes where it was tough because it’s a scene that I had to go to a dark place for, but also direct and make it look good. So that was one of those challenges where I was slipping in and out, going from director to actor. It was tough, but ultimately satisfying. The scene I’m most proud of is the opening montage. That’s not really something we’ve done on All American before. That was me from start to finish. I picked the song, designed it all…It was just executed exactly how I wanted.

DEADLINE: I’m glad you mentioned that first scene. It stood out to me, especially because of the song (‘Last Stand’ by Kwabs). How did you choose it?

EZRA: It’s funny, I’ve known that song for years. It’s not a new song. I used to listen to that song before All American even existed. I wish I could tell a really deep story, but honestly, when I read the scene, I immediately thought of that song. It just jumped out at me. It’s one of those songs, those old favorites that I revisit every now and then. When I started visualizing the scene, it just became the first choice so I sent it to Madonna [Wade-Reed, the show’s music supervisor] before I even shot it. I said, ‘Hey, this is the song. Please, please tell me if you’re having trouble clearing it, because I’m basically going to shoot to that song. I’m going to edit it to that song. So if it can’t be that song, then tell me as soon as possible.’ So everything was kind of built around that song because it just leapt out at me literally from when I read the script. For the shots, I wanted it to feel like it didn’t stop moving. We’ve all had those nights that just feel relentless. I wanted it to feel relentless for Olivia, which is why the camera doesn’t stop moving. It’s very unbroken. There’s no real cuts in each individual moment. I just wanted it to feel sort of inescapable. The lyrics just match up perfectly with that.

DEADLINE: This is also a heavy episode for Spencer. He’s dealing with his own grief from Billy dying, and it really comes through in that scene with Coach Kenny. What are some of the challenges of having to juggle directing with also carrying some pivotal scenes as an actor?

EZRA: It’s just honestly just switching your brain. You go from thinking universally as a director because you have to think about everything from the actors’ performances to the shot to the speed of the camera, everything that’s supposed to be in the scene…you have to think about the whole picture. Acting is very specific. You’re thinking about literally moment to moment your reaction to what’s happening in front of you, and you almost are shrinking your focus to just you and the other actors. Going from this universal viewpoint to this very specific viewpoint was tough. It was the main challenge the first time I directed, so I was a little bit more prepared for it this time. What I did specifically for that scene was, once I set everything up, I basically gave everything over to the writer and the DP and focused on the acting. When it was my coverage, I didn’t really watch them. I would just go with what felt right, and then I would check in with them. That was one of those few times where I kind of took off the director’s hat for a second and just focused on performance, because I knew I had to go to a pretty dark place.

DEADLINE: You made your directorial debut last season. What did you learn from directing that episode that made you feel empowered to take this one on?

EZRA: It’s a cliche, but just to trust your gut and trust your instincts. Directing for the first time, you have all these ideas but there’s a nervousness about that. It’s usually very vulnerable trying things, especially when it’s things you haven’t ever done before. There’s a few things in this episode that are a little bit different than things we’ve done before. So I had a lot more trust in my gut, and went with those instincts, because when you’re directing network television, most of your job is serving the showrunner. So it’s their vision and the writers’ vision. It’s like cooking in somebody else’s kitchen. I was still doing that this time around, but I had a little bit more confidence of adding my own little finesse when appropriate.

DEADLINE: I recently rewatched that episode, and it felt like a full circle moment because it’s the episode where Billy realizes he is more needed as principal at South Crenshaw than as a coach at the collegiate or pro level. Right before he dies, he sort of recommits to that. How did it feel to now direct an episode honoring his legacy?

EZRA: It just felt right. When I read the episode, it just felt like this is the one I’m supposed to have. I don’t know how planned that was on the schedule side, but it just felt right. The fact that it’s such a big episode for Sam, and Sam and I have such a close working relationship and have such shorthand I think that helps a lot. And where it falls in the story just makes complete sense.

DEADLINE: I have to ask…Spencer tells Olivia at the end of this episode that they’ll have a conversation about their relationship when the time is right. When will the time be right? Will we see that in Season 5?

EZRA: We can definitely expect some pretty spectacular ‘Spelivia’ moments before this season’s over…there’s definitely some heat coming for Spelivia. That whole aspect [of the show] has taken on a life of its own. Sam and I laugh about it all the time. The writers are definitely cooking up some special stuff for these remaining few episodes.

DEADLINE: Well, they’ve really been toying with us this season.

EZRA: For sure, and there’s more. There’s stuff that’s going to make you fall in love with them more and make you root for them more, and also get you frustrated at them, make you scream at your telly at them…all that’s to come.

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