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Danielle Panabaker on Directing 'The Flash' and Telling Nora's Backstory

The Flash -- "Godspeed" -- Image Number: FLA518b_BTS_0438b.jpg -- Pictured: Behind the Scenes with Director Danielle Panabaker -- Photo: Katie Yu/The CW -- © 2019 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved

Godspeed, Danielle Panabaker! After almost five seasons, The Flash's always graceful and ebullient star has gotten the chance to step behind the camera for the first time to make her directorial debut.

And because this is the Arrowverse, that meant taking on more challenges than most. Not only did Panabaker have stunts, special effects, supersuits and storylines to handle, she also had to basically build a new world, because this week's episode is all about how the now-imprisoned Nora (Jessica Parker Kennedy) received her powers and came to align herself with Thawne (Tom Cavanagh) in 2049. Oh, and the hour reportedly introduces us to DC Comics villain Godspeed, as well.

That's some heavy lifting, but let's face it, the future is female and Panabaker is a perfect choice to take us there!

OK, congratulations. You directed an episode!

Danielle Panabaker: Thank you. Thank you very much! [Laughs]

Now, none of these shows are easy to direct, but you went and got an episode that is primarily set in 2049, a world we're not familiar with!

[Laughs] I did, yes. In a world we've never seen before. That was, I think, one of the biggest challenges but also one of the most exciting things that I got to do, which was create this world. On my first day of prep, the conversations were "What does 2049 look like?"  and after that it's "What does 2049 look like on an episodic TV budget?" Everybody was really creative and did everything they could to bring this very modern futuristic world together.

So what does the world look like?

In my conversations with Todd [Helbing, exec-producer] and the writers, for us it sort of felt like this was a sleek, modern world. One of my writers said it would be like KonMari...everybody went through and KoMari'd everything. Just clean, minimalist. And that was great. I sort of toyed with the idea and asked myself, "Is it that dark, moody world that Tom Cavanagh created in Season 3, Episode 19 when he first directed?" That didn't feel right to us.

Is it maybe a little icier?

[Laughs] A little icier. I would say a little more sleek and modern and white.

Behind the Scenes with Jessica Parker Kennedy as Nora and Director Danielle Panabaker (Katie Yu/The CW)

And you're getting to tell Nora's backstory. What can you tease about this?

OK so, this episode, Team Flash struggles to understand why Nora has chosen to do what she's done in working with the Reverse Flash. They decide to read her journal to try to get some insight into why she's made these choices. The journal sort of provides us a portal to jump forward in time to where Nora originally came from and to see how she got her powers.

Did you shadow directors before all of this, as well?

It's funny. I was actually talking to Jesse Martin [Joe West] about this last night. He laughs because somebody said, "Did you shadow?" and Jesse laughed and said, "It feels like you've been shadowing for years." I really took advantage of being fortunate enough to be on a show that has made 100 episodes. I kept showing up at the production office, sitting through meetings, eavesdropping, trying to learn as much as I could. I formally shadowed both Tom Cavanagh and David McWhirter in Season 4, though.

That must be a gift, getting to see what it's like for one of your fellow actors to direct his costars.

Yeah, absolutely. Tom was really an inspiration in a lot of ways as, yes, an actor who directs his costars but also the way he communicates with everyone and how generous and enthusiastic he is. It was pretty incredible to see.

And how much are you on screen in the episode?

One day's worth. The episode starts and ends in the Cortex where we see most of Team Flash. It's a direct pick-up from the end of 17, where they're still processing the information and trying to figure out what to do.

How long have you wanted to direct?

Now having done it, I think I've always probably had the skillset for it but didn't really believe I could do it until I saw Tom Cavanagh do it in Season 3. I watched him go through it and was like, "Oh, maybe this is really possible and this really is attainable for me."

Behind the Scenes with Director Danielle Panabaker (Dean Buscher/The CW)

Was there any hazing from your costars?

[Laughs ] No. I'm so grateful and so thankful that they did not! One of the previous directors was laughing at me. He kept asking, "Are you ready? Are you ready?" and teasing me and saying, "Well, what will you do if...?" The reality is, my costars were very trusting of me. I think I have [built] a good enough relationship with them over the last five years that I've really established myself as a professional and someone who cares and someone who pays attention. I think they were very trusting of me. The next go round, maybe not. [Laughs] Maybe they'll have a little more fun with me. I'm so grateful that they were so generous.

This is so cool. When you start on a show you, I'm sure most actors don't think this is ever going to be a possibility.

No, not at all. I'm so incredibly lucky that Warner Brothers and The CW and Greg Berlanti have supported me along this because it is a bit of a risk to have a first-timer directing. You're putting them in charge of however many millions of dollars it takes to produce an episode. I'm incredibly grateful that they gave me that opportunity. Someone asked me, they were like, "Oh, are you getting a bottle episode," which is typically one of our smaller episodes. I laughed. I said, "No, I think mine's the opposite," because we went so many places and had to create so many new sets.

What would you consider your biggest challenge and also your biggest victory?

My biggest challenge... [Arrow showrunner] Beth Schwartz gave me really great advice when I was directing. She said, "TV directing is all about problem-solving and being malleable." I think there were a thousand ways that that happened every day in varying capacities, whether it was scheduling issues or someone was really sick or a costume wasn't quite ready in time to shoot. There were all kinds of various challenges, but we sort of had to just adjust and try and make it work.

Nice. And your biggest victory?

Getting to do it. I'm really just proud of the episode. I feel like this is the first moment I've stopped and I've really pinched myself and said, "Oh, you did it. You did it. Now it's going to be on television!"

What can you tell us about Caitlin as we head into these final episodes?

It's a race to the finish starting with episode 18. There's a ton of momentum. We find Nora's origin story. She's going to have a bit of a journey until the season finale. Obviously, Barry (Grant Gustin) and Iris (Candice Patton) have their own relationship and they struggle as parents particularly in dealing with [Nora's lies]. In [Episode] 19, my father returns, which is a wonderful storyline and I'm excited for fans to see the conclusion of that story as well.

How do you feel about where they have taken Killer Frost this season? Because I'm really loving her evolution...

Oh I do, too. I'm so grateful that they really heard me after Season 4. Todd Helbing in particular did an unbelievable job in giving me a really substantial storyline that I could sink my teeth into. That sort of dual character was something that I don't feel like we really played into or utilized in Season 4. And this year, we really explored their relationship with each other, how they're coexisting, how they feel about each other, which I've loved. And that was really important to me, because I didn't want her to just be thrown away as a joke. She's a real character. We saw her in her full glory at the end of Season 3. I was always curious as to how these two people were coexisting.

Was there a cake at the end or was there any kind of wrap party for you?

No, but the caterers did make my favorite chocolate-peanut butter pie on my last day. Again, I've been so supported along the way! [Laughs]

The Flash, Tuesdays, 8/7c, The CW

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