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Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist choreographer Mandy Moore talks directing her first episode

Sydney Bucksbaum
·6 min read
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When Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's Emmy-winning choreographer Mandy Moore stepped in to direct her very first episode, she really swung for the fences. With multiple large group dance numbers — including the show's biggest one yet with over 200 performers! — Moore's directorial debut was so big she found herself quoting moments from the script while talking in her sleep.

"There's a scene between Tobin [Kapil Talwalkar] and Mackenzie [Morgan Taylor Campbell] in this episode, and there's a line where she goes, 'I hate him,' and then he says, 'I hate him too.' And right before we shot that scene, like three or four days before, I said that in my sleep," Moore tells EW with a laugh. "I forgot that was in this episode, and I was like, oh my gosh, who do I hate?!" It took a couple of days for Moore to find out she was just quoting the show, and she hasn't stopped laughing about it since.

Below, EW got Moore to discuss directing for the first time and what fans can expect from her episode that airs this Sunday.

Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you wanted to direct an episode?

MANDY MOORE: Because I've been with the show since day one in such an integral part alongside [showrunner] Austin [Winsberg] and whoever's directing, funny enough, I never felt like in my brain like I must direct, or I really want to direct. It just felt like it all fell into that place. So when they asked me, I was first of all completely honored and then second I was like, "Yes, let's do this. This is the right time." It was kind of this weird, synergistic thing. It all happened for a good reason.

How did you approach directing this episode?

Basically, I was just like, "I need to turn it up a notch. I've already worked 14 hours a day creating everything dance-wise for the show!" [Laughs] When moving from choreography to directing, with choreography I'm thinking about a certain scene that maybe is a minute-and-a-half in length and I'm thinking very much along the same lines as a director when I'm creating those. But when you direct, you're obviously thinking of 42 minutes. The workload just expands. And once I realized that so much of my skill set as a choreographer was in line with what I would have to do as a director, it didn't seem as overwhelming. The way you block a dance is very similar to the way that you block the scene. It's all tempo and timing and emotion and narrative and feel. It was nice that it transitioned pretty well.

It does feel like, as the choreographer, you're already directing so much in every episode so it makes sense you would be able to take over as director so smoothly.

Yeah! A lot of people say choreographers make for really great directors. And now being through the process, I can understand the correlation. It is really similar. You're physicalizing something that's on the page. And it's what you do as a director, you try to visually represent what you read on the page. Working so closely with Austin, he and I are two peas in a pod anyway. So it's really nice to feel like he trusts my vision. He and I are really honest with one another, keep each other in check with things, and it was just so nice to feel like I was in the right place, doing the right stuff.

And you have so many big dance numbers in this episode which felt right for an episode that you directed! There's a scene in which Zoey (Jane Levy) sees the Bay to Breakers crowd of runners perform a heart song — is that the biggest dance sequence you've done on the show so far?

Yes! And Austin thought it was so funny when he came up with it. He's like, "Yes, I'm really going to challenge you on this one!" [Laughs] It was a massive challenge but honestly, I feel really at home with lots of bodies in the space. The hardest thing was obviously getting everyone tested and in the correct protocol for all the COVID stuff and organizing the location and figuring out the VFX. But when it came down to actually having that many bodies in a space, I really felt at home because that's what I get to do a lot as a choreographer.

It would have been amazing if you pulled that off under normal circumstances, let alone during COVID.

Yeah, it was great. It really goes to show how well production works together and creates systems. We had wonderful systems in place and people that were able to make that all happen, and everyone was safe. It was 40 to 50 dancers, but then we had 150 extras or background, and then our cast on top of that. It was just so wonderful. We had so many meetings about how to logistically make that happen. Because even without COVID, to move that amount of bodies through space in a television time frame, where you've got three hours or four hours to shoot the entire thing, just moving that many bodies around can be difficult, so my hat's off to everyone for making it happen. We worked really hard on that one.

And tell me about the scene in the episode in which Max (Skylar Astin) performs a heart song. Was that done in one take?

Yes. Whoa. Skylar really nailed it that night. It was late at night. We'd shot many, many hours prior to shooting that and he, along with our steady-cam operator Bradley Crosbie who is just a superhuman, they did it in four takes. It was really, really well done.

With the Bay to Breakers crowd dance and Skylar's one-take number, it feels like you really shot for the sky with your directorial debut. Did you plan on doing all these wildly difficult scenes just to see what you could pull off?

Honestly, for me, it was kind of psycho in that I just felt like I cannot fail. Like I have to come out swinging because I have the ability, I've been here since day one, I know the show inside and out, and I have to step up to the plate and make big choices. I was given a really great script as well, so I'm very thankful of that. I just really tried to push the envelope with some things. I thought, "I have nothing to lose," right? You're given an opportunity to direct for the first time and I'm a big believer in go big or go home. And you can learn so much from taking those big swings. I might fail really big but at least I tried. [Laughs] And luckily, it paid off. And it's not like I'm a first time director coming onto a show I don't know, I had a really big support system in this massive family to help me through all of it.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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