You may not see him on screen, but David Lester has helped shape one of the more stunning series on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale. He discusses his role as an assistant director on the show and how it has helped him on his own projects as a creator and director. Read about his creative journey and of course, he tells us which superpower he would pick!
Hi David, thank you for doing this interview with us! First of all, tell us a little about yourself and the kind of work that you’ve done.
Thank you! I’m a director from Toronto, having previously done shorts and music videos and in the process of writing my first feature. And when I’m not creating my own work, I work on set as an assistant director currently on season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Generally my work explores themes in relationships, the struggles of long-term commitments, family dynamics, and I next want to explore the seemingly impossible task of overcoming a mental block that has taken over your life and passion.
When did you know that you wanted to be a director? What was the creative journey that took you there, or what was the inspiration?
Movies were huge in my life since I was little. We used to do movie night every Friday night at home when growing up and it always felt like a big event. It was in the days of VHS and part of the fun was scouring the shelves at the video store to find the right film, or hoping the one you want was in stock. (Was it in New Releases, or Suspense, or was it now a weekly rental, or was it sitting in the return bucket?) My dad used to build up every movie he wanted to show me, and I still carry that excitement with me whenever I watch a film. So the passion was always there. But it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized I actually wanted to do it for a living. I originally studied economics without really having much foresight into what I’d end up doing for a career, and I spent a few years feeling lost and ambitionless. So discovering, what I consider to be late in the game, that I wanted to start directing brought upon a host of personal challenges. There is at least some sort of structure to life when you have a business-oriented job, but with film I was completely stepping out of my comfort zone.
What drives me are the films that I love to watch– the movies that hold up a mirror to me and challenge me to see the world in a different way.
The Handmaid’s Tale is such a beautiful series. What is it like getting to work on such an amazing show?
Honestly, it has been the best experience I’ve ever had on a set. And the second season has so far been even more exciting than the first! Having the chance to watch this calibre of actors do their work teaches me so much as a director. Watching their process and professionalism has really taught me to up my game. I’m also in awe of our DP Colin Watkinson, who brings a level of leadership and integrity that is motivating and inspiring. We all strive for some level of perfection, but his understanding of story and aesthetic constantly amazes me.
The show does take its physical toll given that the hours are long and we’re on location a lot, but the fact that we’re all creating something of this calibre makes the long days worth it. It’s also really cool to see the Handmaids world (Gilead, the new, horrific America) come to life. And given that a large part of my job is to direct the actions of our background performers, I get to have a creative impact on the final product and I take that very seriously.
What was the most memorable moment for you while working at The Handmaid’s Tale? How do you feel it has inspired you as a creator?
It’s hard to choose just one, but I do remember the first moment I realized we were creating something really special. It was during the second week of filming the first season and we were doing the Particicution scene (essentially, the moment where the Handmaids are free to take out all of their rage on a man who committed a sin). We used a drone, a crane, and steadi-cam to achieve most of the shots, and it was the first time I truly realized the scope of what we were creating.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the minutia of each shot, and it was the first time I took a step back and watched all of the synchronization between the camera, the cast, and the extras, and my jaw just dropped. (If you go back and watch episode 1, it’s the moment the cluster of Handmaid’s file out two-by-two from the trees and fall into order in eight lines). It took us an hour to get that movement as perfect as we could get it. I worked with Reed Morano (who ended up winning an Emmy for her work as the director), and Woody Sidarous (our 1st AD) to achieve this shot. I recall watching Reed take the microphone to discuss the emotional core of the scene and really hammer in how important each individual performance meant to the telling of the story. It can seem very easy for a background performer to feel like they are simply one of many people in a shot, but for The Handmaid’s Tale, the physicality of every character and the way they interact with their environment is critical to the story. That moment inspired me to up my game, and I’ve become a better director and AD as a result.
Do you have any other projects you are currently working on right now that you can tell us about?
I’m in post production for a music video that will be released soon, and I’m currently writing my first feature film. I also have a script for a short film that my wife and I wrote, and am in the process of raising funds to get that one off the ground.
For directing, it seems like the most cliche thing to say, but make something with whatever resources you have. Try to find a community of filmmakers and come up with a 30 second story and just shoot it. Edit it, figure out what you wish you did differently, and then do it all again. I didn’t go to film school and I learned what I know from working on sets and asking questions to everyone in every department. I started off as an office production assistant and just kept declaring my enthusiasm to be on set and befriended the ADs on the show. Eventually they hired me when a set PA position opened up. There’s no one way of getting your foot in the door, but passion, persistence, and working hard really does go a long way. And then once you have a job, make yourself indispensable. Film sets are full of teachers and mentors, so ask questions. There are always those folks who do the job for a pay cheque, but the majority of people are there because they truly love their work and want to meet like-minded people. I’ve always found people eager to help and share advice, no matter where you are in your career.
Last but not least, if you woke up with super powers one day, what would they be and would you be a super hero or a super villain?
My super power (assuming that eating unlimited Indian food without getting full is out of the question) would be to mentally fill all of the hungry bellies in the world with food. Forever.
Check out ‘Alison’— a short David directed, starring actress Jessica Rose.